Interview with Ursula Vernon10 min read
Ursula Vernon is an illustrator, author, graphic novelist, gardener, and animal wrangler. She’s won the Hugo Award, the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and was nominated for an Eisner award. Her novels for children include Nurk and the Dragonbreath Series, and her webcomics and graphic novels include Digger (winner of aforementioned awards), Irrational Fears, and Little Creature. Writing for adults and children, Ursula combines intelligent storytelling and empowered characters into the kinds of stories that grow and change alongside the reader. Her newest books, written under the pen name T. Kingfisher, include The Seventh Bride and Toad Words and Other Stories.
This month at Apex Magazine, we are thrilled to present Vernon’s short story “Pocosin,” which features a dying god, a no–nonsense protector, and those who believe they deserve the dying god’s soul.
What struck me most about “Pocosin” was its sense of place. I experienced a, for lack of a better term, “atmospheric pressure” that pressed down on the characters and narrowed their available actions. It gave the story an additional weight of experience, not dissimilar to the feeling you get when you close your eyes and smell a fine wine or scotch. Now, I know people don’t usually smell their fiction (or realize when something like that is happening), but if you can, when you can, that’s a sign the author has transformed words on a page into something magical and transportive. “Pocosin” has such a scent, one that residents of the Carolinas might recognize, and that the rest of us can only dream about.
Questions about the Story
APEX MAGAZINE: The story opens with an author’s note about what a pocosin is. Why did you decide to place the story in a “swamp on a hill?” Is there a connection between what happens in the story and this particular environment?
URSULA VERNON: Well, I’m a gardener, and my great love is native plants. I live in North Carolina, which has a great many ecosystems, and pocosins are one of them. Pocosins are rare and strange places, full of carnivorous plants, and I had a sort of character in my head—Maggie’s great–grandmother, actually—who I knew lived “by the sundew pool.” (Sundews are small predatory plants that put out long, sticky leaves to trap insects.)
So many stories are set in pseudo–Europe. (Don’t get me wrong, I love pseudo–Europe, I’ve set books there myself!) But I started thinking about this weird, uniquely Southern setting, the sort of place that literally doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, and the sort of setting where God and the Devil could show up to bargain for a soul. And where you’d have possum gods, of course.
AM: The pocosin is nearly a character unto itself, creating a kind of “atmospheric pressure” that the characters endure. Why is it important for writers to be paying attention to the environment in which their story takes place?
UV: Well, it depends on the story, of course—there are undoubtedly some that can take place in white rooms and no one will notice! But I think when you’re calling up spirits, the place you’re standing is going to influence what shows up.
AM: If someone asked me to describe Maggie, I’d say “she’s stubborn and has balls of steel.” How did you go about developing her character?
UV: Heh! I don’t think I so much developed her as found her. There’s a lot of tough old women in the world. I suspect if you reach a certain age in some places, you’re either beat down or as tough as nails, and I didn’t think she’d been beat down.
AM: The dying possum god is *ancient*. Why are modern gods even interested in his soul?
UV: I think his age is why they’re interested. He’s a scrap of magic from before the modern gods showed up, and they want that scrap—either because it competes with them or because it’s worth having or they just don’t want each other to have it. Probably the last one. Not too many people would want a possum god just for itself.
AM: What were some of the inspirations for this story?
UV: Honestly, I was thinking about what the least impressive god in the world would be, and I immediately thought of possums. I have a bit of a soft spot for them, because they’re not as dumb as people think they are, but they’re very slow and very… oh, primitive, I guess. (As an aside, their body temperature is so low that they’re far less likely to carry rabies than other mammals—apparently it has a hard time incubating in them!)
Once I had the god and the setting, I figured God and the Devil would show up, and then it was just a matter of figuring out who would sit there and be unimpressed with their shenanigans.
Questions about your writing career in general
AM: I took the Digger route to discover your comics, and one of the things I most appreciate about your work is that you’re very interested in creating comics, graphic novels, and webcomics for readers ages eight to teenager (Nurk, Irrational Fears, Dragonbreath, and Little Creature who I adore). How do you know what age group a story should be marketed towards? Why is it important for younger readers to have age appropriate graphic novels?
UV: *laugh* This is a great question, and I wish I knew the answer! The fact is, I never know what age range a book is for. I write them and my editor tells me. My voice tends to fall toward middle grade a lot of the time—that tends to be 8–12ish—but I’ve written books that I thought were kids books and had my agent go “Ahahahah… NO.”
It’s definitely important to have comics for kids though. For the Dragonbreath books, a lot of our readers are what are called “reluctant readers”—they’re often not into reading for fun, or they’re intimidated by the sight of a wall of text, or occasionally they have a problem just visually processing that many words piled on top of each other. Comics and graphic novels are so important for kids like this. The art director on Dragonbreath does a heroic job of shuffling things to make sure that every two–page spread has an illustration on it somewhere, so you’re never confronted by a solid wall of text.
At the same time, the books can’t be dumbed down because that’s boring—nobody wants to read stuff that they feel is talking down to them! A lot of times, the response to kids not reading at a high level is to give them simpler books to read, and then of course they’re bored and rather insulted, so that doesn’t make reading any more fun for them. “Here, you hate books, let’s read one that talks to you like you’re dumb!” Not gonna fly. So graphic novels are awesome because you can read something at the level you find interesting, without the grind of plowing through that much text.
AM: Much of your work features animal or anthropomorphized animal characters. What’s the allure of featuring animal characters as opposed to an all human cast?
UV: …humans are hard to draw.
I mean, I like animals! Don’t get me wrong! I paint animals a lot, I love animals, my house is full of them, I garden for them, I am a repository of useless animal facts. But if I have to illustrate it, I prefer drawing animals. Humans fall into the uncanny valley too easily.
There’s a lot of other reasons, of course. Animals can be more purely the character, without some of the cultural expectations. People don’t push baggage onto them the same way. Digger the wombat is female, enormously physically powerful, grumpy, assertive, and at no point does she ever worry about what she looks like. That’s not a common run of traits in female characters, even today. We’ve moved to a point where you’re allowed to kick ass, but you damn well better look good doing it.
Anyway, if I’d tried to write Digger with a human title character, I would have faced this enormous pressure to justify her behavior at every step of the way. But because I had wombats—and hyenas!—instead of humans, I wasn’t pushing back against all these expectations and the characters could be what they were, and people would just accept it.
Which may be a cop–out. But it also means the comic existed at all, because again, humans are REALLY hard to draw! *grin*
AM: You also publish under the pen name T. Kingfisher. Why did you choose to publish certain titles under a different name?
UV: It’s because I’m a children’s book author as Ursula Vernon, actually! So when I set out to write a lot of stuff for adults—as opposed to “adult” stuff, which sounds like something else entirely!—I wanted to do it under a different name. (If I had been smart, I’d have written the kid’s stuff under a pen name to begin with, but you never think of that at the time…)
There’s a tendency for parents, when they find their kids will read something—particularly the reluctant readers!—they will buy everything that author ever wrote in hopes that their kids will read that, too. And this is wonderful on the part of the parents and I am totally delighted to get kids reading, but… well… they don’t always look too closely at the descriptions. At best, that means the kid may wind up with a book that bores them to pieces, at worst…
Well, I had a library event once where they raffled off books and had gotten ahold of my first novel, which they would have had to order direct from the small press, and a nine–year–old boy won the raffle and I had to do that slow motion “Nooooooo…!” across the room. My first novel had torture and lesbian elf sex and straight human sex and… well… yeah. I traded him for a book I had on me, and everyone was happy, but it was a near thing.
Since then, pen–name. I picked T. Kingfisher for a couple of reasons, not least of which was an homage to a far more famous Ursula, who joked once about being named Ulysses Kingfisher.
AM: A few months ago you were the toastmaster at WindyCon! How fun! Other than mastering toast (which means making it fall buttered side up, right?), what does a toastmaster do exactly? Do you have a favorite moment from the Con? What’s your 2015 convention schedule look like so far?
UV: Being a Toastmaster, near as I can tell, basically means you introduce far more important people, keep up a running line of patter, and read any notes that people hand to you with super vital announcements that you need to read to the assembly. With a friendly crowd, I am fine at this, and WindyCon was very friendly, so it was a lot of fun!
The moment that sticks with me—heh—was when I was the master of ceremonies at the masquerade. The last entry was dressed as the Goddess of Plague, and the script was that she was going to come for me, I would scream, and once the sound guy heard the scream, he’d kill the lights. Very dramatic, lotta fun.
The problem is that I am… not a screamer. I make a noise like an injured muppet. So the Plague Goddess, who is in a fantastic costume with bones and dead rats and everything, comes for me, and I have read off the little script and I’m backing away and I scream… or at least, I make a horrible muppet noise… and the sound guy doesn’t recognize it’s a scream.
So I back away farther and make another awful muppet noise and the Plague Goddess and I are making frantic eye contact, and I make a third muppet noise and I am about to fall off the stage into the speakers because I have to keep backing away, she can’t just grab me and have us grappling on stage under the lights—it’s gonna kill the effect—but the sound guy does not realize that this is literally the best scream I can make.
(My husband, who is in the audience, does know that this is my best scream and is having quiet hysterics in the front row, but that’s another matter.)
Fortunately at that point, the woman running the masquerade realizes that I have just done the best scream I can do and it is… err… sad… and furthermore I am about to fall off the stage, so she screams. And she used to work haunted houses, so this is a really spectacular, finest–tradition–of–horror scream, absolutely top quality. They kill the lights, disaster is averted, the Plague Goddess hurries off in the dark and I make some wisecrack about Purell as the lights come up.
It was a thing.
My 2015 schedule is already full, I’m afraid—I have Foolscap [Jan 30—Feb 1, Redmond VA], Tuscon Book Festival [Mar 14–15, Tuscon AZ], Anthrocon [July 9–12, Pittsburgh PA], MileHighCon [Oct 23–25 Denver CO], Chessiecon [Nov 27–29 Baltimore MD], and I may add Worldcon [Aug 19–23, Spokane WA] or another as time permits! And I’m trying to cut back on cons anyway, because I’m getting travel crazed. (I enjoy the cons enormously, but I’m fundamentally an introvert, and it takes me a long time to recuperate afterward…) Plus my publisher likes sending me on book tours, and they’re starting to see through my 24–hour–leprosy excuse.
Oh well, maybe in 2016…
AM: Thanks so much Ursula!