Author Interview – Ulrick Casimir

What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book?
This is a great question, but it has like ten different answers, since each piece compelled me in different ways, and at times those ways overlapped.  Sometimes—like with “Stars of Gold,” “Phantom Power,” “I Love You, Joe,” “Marvin’s Dilemma,” and “Urania’s Mirror”—what compelled me most was the exploration of perspectives that are dramatically different from my own, which is something that I tend to value greatly in my fiction writing.  At other times, like with “Children of the Night” and “Phantom Power,” it was my long-running interest in exploring the potentialities of literary noir that truly compelled me to develop and flesh out those stories the way that I did … and the same goes for the collection’s closing story, “Urania’s Mirror,” which is about as much “sci-fi” as it is “tech noir.”  “Many Happy Returns” was compelling to write mostly because it’s such a large noir-ish sweep of a story, and it’s so much about interior and exterior landscapes, that the thing really opened up like a large flower, letting me dance with some of the well-established conventions of the short-story genre in a single piece. But one major thing that often compels me to tell specific stories (and that certainly girds the stories in this collection) is an overriding concern with a sense of “place,” which often expresses itself in terms of “belonging”:  Some of the pieces in the collection (e.g., “Just Like Me” and “Urania’s Mirror”) are deliberately vague in terms of setting, while others (such as “Many Happy Returns,” “Phantom Power,” and “I Love You, Joe”) are far more specific about setting … but almost all of these pieces show characters struggling, in some way, with community and belonging.  So perhaps it’s the difficulties that come with “being where we are” that most compelled me to write the pieces in this collection.

What obstacles did you encounter while writing the book?
I think for most writers the most significant obstacle to their writing is time and space.  I’m deeply fortunate to have friends and family who are generous enough to allow me the time and space it takes to draft and render, to revise and proofread—and since the collection’s publication, I’ve been busy reconnecting with my friends and family, in a concerted effort to show them just how much I’ve appreciated their patience with me.  I learned, long ago, that writing can feel like a disappearing act to those around you, which can be a major obstacle if you’re a (semi) social person who’s neck-deep in drafting and revising and proofreading.  Work, too, that thing you do to keep bread on the table, can make things difficult … though I thank my lucky stars, every day, that teaching college and university classes offers a tremendous amount of flexibility to my schedule.

How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?
One really rewarding aspect of drafting this book was how it raised my level of confidence and command in storytelling.  MFA’ers are taught in a way that leads us to focus intensely on one story at a time, but with this collection, precisely because I wanted a sort of thematic unity with the stories that it contains, I had to revise and proofread them all simultaneously.  It was a bit like holding several conversations in your head all at the same time, and it was the wildest, most freeing and pleasantly dislocating experience of my creative life.  Honestly, I cannot wait to feel it again.

Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? What was that process like?
Corpus Callosum is the publisher of this collection—so no, I did not self-publish.  I guess the publication of this collection would qualify as “the traditional route” … though to be honest, since this is my first book, I don’t really have another route to compare it to.  One of the most exciting aspects of this process is that Corpus Callosum is a new literary press that launched with my book:  My publisher and editor, Eric Tucker, who is also the editor of Plainsongs literary magazine, is someone I’ve known for quite a while, and he is very familiar with my fiction writing (in fact, he picked “Stars of Gold” to move Plainsongs, which had a long-standing reputation as a poetry magazine, into the inclusion of short fiction pieces).  Trust and a critical eye are two things that I deeply value in an editor … and I lucked out, frankly, with Eric.  Lots of ins and outs of the publication process, and he has been there to patiently help me through it all.

Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing?
I am indeed friends with other writers.  Sometimes their work influences me, while at other times, they help me as critical-yet-encouraging readers of my work, and in those instances, it is their editorial commentary that truly influences me.  Some writers, like the fine young poets Terry Kennedy and Julie Funderburk, I’m influenced by them from afar even though I’ve known them since my MFA days.  There are few things like seeing great writers who you went to school with find success; this can be powerful motivation on those dark days when writing is hardest.  There are some more local writers who influence me as readers—and I’m afraid that they are quite literally my secret weapon, so I won’t be naming them anytime soon.  🙂  I should note, though, that there are many writers who I’m not friends with but whose writing influences me deeply—Donald Pollock, Megan Abbott, and Wells Tower are among them.

Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like?
I do maintain a regular writing practice, but I’ve learned over the years that writing can take on many different forms, which is to say that what’s regular for me might seem quite … irregular to someone else.  For me, it’s all about figuring out ways to “hack” my life in order to include writing most firmly within it, and in as many ways as possible.  A good example would be “Phantom Power”:  That story came to me late at night and very quickly, in a burst that I captured as quickly as possible in a notes app on my phone—and this happened while I was in the middle of revising an earlier draft of “Many Happy Returns.”  Capturing stories like this, jotting them down before I start plotting them out, lets me sift through story ideas later on, when I’m looking for something promising in order to start the next stage:  loose planning, which is especially vital for me later on while drafting and rendering.  Without that loose plotting/planning, drafting and rendering slow down to a painful crawl for me, becoming more mechanical and less artful, like building skin and then trying to slip the bones underneath.  Normally, I try to draft and render one piece at a time.  Depending on what I’m working on, I can revise and proof one piece or many pieces at the same time.  Now, if you atomize that process, you start to get a sense of my writing practice.  For me, life as a fiction writer is all about being productive.  I focus a lot less on a specific number of hours, or pages, per day than on fully integrating my writing practice(s) into my life and lifestyle—this lets me work gradually while staying productive.  I’m not sure if that way of writing work for everyone, but I can tell you that this personalized practice of mine places much less stress on me as a writer.

How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?
So I literally have hundreds of stories jotted down (!!), but if you’re asking about work that’s more realized, I have a couple of stories in progress at the moment, one of which will appear in this summer’s volume of Plainsongs magazine.  As far as the next book … this is a funny story (at least it’s funny to me!!) but one of the most frustrating/pleasant things that happened while I was writing Children of the Night:  Stories was the discovery that two stories that I was frantically revising to include in the collection simply weren’t “fitting” with what I had envisioned thematically for the volume.  It wasn’t until after I cast them aside that I realized both would benefit from elongation … and the two were speaking not only to one another but also speaking to another piece whose story I’d already jotted down (but I had yet to plot out or start drafting).  All of this basically meant that right as I was proofreading my first book, I suddenly discovered I’d started working on the next one.  With any luck, I’ll have that next one drafted by mid- to late 2019.

Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?
This is a great question—I don’t know about “spiritual,” but I do think of writing as an intensely psychological practice, in that it helps the writer make sense of the world, which automatically gives writing a kind of sociological dimension or “thrust” as well.  For me, the purpose of reading is to place yourself in someone else’s perspective, which is one major reason that I see fiction writing as a game of perspectives—if you as an author aren’t inside of your character, if you aren’t sympathizing with them and seeing the world as they do, then you’ve lost the game as well as your reader.  If there is a global spirit, then I figure it must exist not within but between us—and in that way, yes, I do think fiction writing takes on a spiritual dimension.

What would your life look like if you didn’t write?
Honestly, I’m not even sure how to imagine my life without writing.  To me, writing isn’t something that you do—being a writer isn’t a choice, it’s just who you are.  Take away my laptop, stick me on a desert island with nothing but the clothes on my back, and watch how quickly I find a fallen palm frond and start scratching out passages on the beach.  If you’re an artist, then you paint because you must; if you’re a writer, then you write because you have to.  I literally can’t imagine my life without writing.  Hell, I don’t even want to.

Why do you write?
Great question—I write to make sense of the world; I write because I have to.

Ulrick Casimir lives, writes, and teaches in the Pacific Northwest.  He earned a B.A. from North Carolina State University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; he also holds an M.A. and a Ph.D., both in English, from the University of Oregon, where he teaches. Ulrick‘s scholarly writing has appeared in the film journal Jump Cut, and his short stories have frequently appeared in Plainsongs literary magazine.  Published by Corpus Callosum Press, Ulrick‘s debut short-story collection, Children of the Night:  Stories, appeared this spring.