Follow Cathy Ulrich on Twitter, and you’ll find before long that she’s a relentless advocate for indie writers and magazines. She shares dozens of stories and poems and flash pieces in a given month, with the kind of lovely compliments a writer dreams about. Her own work tends to get lost in the shuffle, but she, too, is a writer. Her first collection, Ghosts of You, drops in October from Okay Donkey, which is debuting its book publishing arm with Ulrich’s work. I wanted to ask her about books she can’t advocate for, of which, it turns out, there are a few.
Tell me about your hatred of books. Do you hate certain kinds of books, certain authors, or just particular books when they come along?
I definitely hate certain authors — I’m not one of those people who can look at the art and not the artist, I guess. So if someone has been proven to be abusive or otherwise awful, I won’t read them. That said, a lot of people that have turned out to be awful were writing things that didn’t interest me anyway, so no great loss!
But I also hate things like cookbooks without pictures. Cookbooks should have pictures! How am I supposed to know how the thing I made was meant to look?
Very good point. Give me some examples of books you hate.
Norman Mailer’s Marilyn Monroe biography, for numerous reasons (his obvious lack of research, his clear attempt to cash in on Monroe’s name). What made me slam that wretched thing shut and promptly march it to the outside garbage can, saying “see you in hell, Mailer,” was when he described the 9-year-old Norma Jean as “seducing” an adult male. That’s not how it works! That’s never how it works!
I read that when I was researching for a Marilyn novel I never ended up writing. My memory of it is of a conceptual novel about a famous woman and a novelist’s desire for her, rather than a proper biography. What makes famous men think they can pronounce on anything they want?
Oh, he did it for money, completely. I’ve seen him quoted saying so. It might be a novel, but it’s called Marilyn: A Biography, so I think he (or the publisher) tried to play it off as fact. I mean, it’s the first time the Kennedy conspiracy theory is ever mentioned and now that’s everywhere.
Gloria Steinem wrote a book about Marilyn, too.
Steinem’s book, if I understand correctly, is something like a take on Marilyn as a woman and what she means for women. I haven’t read that one — I’m more interested in Marilyn Monroe as a person than as a symbol.
What other books do you object to?
Anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. People call him a genius — though I guess he was, in a way. A genius at manipulating and plagiarizing the far-more-talented Zelda, his own wife. I despise any book purporting to be by F. Scott Fitzgerald that doesn’t give appropriate credit to Zelda.
Mailer and Fitzgerald are examples of the kind of writers I hate the most: Mediocre white men passing themselves off as geniuses by abusing and manipulating more talented women. I read a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald (I read a lot of biographies) that, even though the biographer knew about the plagiarism and his mistreatment of her, still sympathized with Fitzgerald because Zelda hadn’t been willing to settle down when he proposed to her. She was 19! Of course she wasn’t ready to settle down! She was a teenage girl.
So I hate that men like this have places in the upper echelons of literature simply by virtue of having been a white man who could string a few words together or, barring that, copy a few words from his wife’s diary.
All comic books by Mark Millar. This one is much pettier and simpler: He ruined The Authority, which, prior to him taking over the reins, had been marvelously written by Warren Ellis. I hold a grudge. And, seriously, he threw so many tired tropes into his Authority run. I’m so relieved Ellis stayed on to finish Planetary. I shudder to think what would have happened to it in a lesser writer’s hands.
I asked my husband about this and he heaved a big sigh and said “Yeah…yeah.” So it seems like you’re on to something there. Do you think this hatred has changed your reading practices?
Oh, absolutely. I definitely avoid books by “the greats” and seek out newer voices. It’s so awful that we missed out on the voices from so many past generations, like Zelda Fitzgerald’s, because they were silenced by the gatekeeping of these so-called “greats.”
Has it changed anything about your writing?
Well, obviously I would never plagiarize or excuse pedophilia! (I mean, seriously, what the hell, Mailer!) But I see in my earlier writing some tendencies to imitate the writing of “the greats,” before I knew what kind of people they were, and I am so relieved I have outgrown that.
We all do that. Imitation is how you figure out what you like and what you hate. I wrote a passel of Fitzgerald stories in high school.
I just wish we’d had a better variety of writers to be exposed to in school. My daughter is still having to read a bunch of white men as the only examples of great literature, and that just makes me so tired.
What was the last book you read that you recommended to someone?
Julie Zuckerman’s The Book of Jeremiah. I actually lent it to my mother! The last time I did that was with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which she looked at in disgust and said, “but this is a comic book?” I said, “Just read it,” and after she did, she was like, “…oh.”
Zuckerman paints an amazing portrait of a man and a family in this novel-in-stories. I felt like I really knew the characters as I went along, like they were living, breathing people. The last story, especially — oh, it’s so good! It left me in tears.
Do you keep books or give them away?
Both! I hold onto books as long as possible, but eventually I have to donate them to make room for new ones. I have four comic boxes in heavy rotation between the underneath of my bed and my closet floor, bookshelves stacked to the brim with biographies and fairy tales, manga piled in shelves in my closet, shelf stands of anthologies and novels. It gets a little crowded…
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
I have, yes. It was a biography of Peter Sellers, one of my favorite actors. The “biographer” went to a séance to interview him about Sophia Loren. That is to say, this writer actually put on a séance to contact the ghost of Peter Sellers and then quoted him in this ridiculous biography! The first time it happened, I said “huh?” The second time, I flang that book right across the room.
That’s…hilarious. I think I would’ve been more interested in reading on, though of course I wouldn’t have taken it seriously.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? If it hadn’t been marketed as an actual biography, it would have been a fun little piece of fluff read. But if you’re claiming to write a biography, do it right! I went through the beginning of the book thinking I was learning actual facts about Peter Sellers, but it was all made up! Something like Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde never claimed to be anything other than fiction, so you don’t go in thinking you’re getting the truth.
On a side note, I think I get angrier when a biography is sloppy than when a piece of fiction is. That’s someone’s real life you’re telling, and if you’re not willing to do the legwork to make it accurate, why are you even bothering?
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I just finished rereading Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie — I’ve always loved Miss Marple. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll reread all the Miss Marple novels (except that boring one about the hotel), or whether I’ll reread Room 1219 (it’s about Fatty Arbuckle and the Virginia Rappe death/scandal), but I know I’ll like them. I just gave up on a book I’d been reading — I couldn’t get into it, even though I like the author. And I love having that freedom to just quit reading a book, you know? I used to force myself to read things, even if I didn’t like them, but I don’t do that anymore. It is such a relief.