Five Questions with Brian R. Ulacher

Last week, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota published its first novel, The Library of Chester Fritz, from debut novelist Brian R. Urlacher. 

This week, we corresponded a bit with Brian to talk about how the novel benefited from his career as a political scientist, the contemporary literary (and political) landscape, and his past and future work on the mysterious legacy of the eccentric millionaire Chester Fritz. Check out more of Brian’s world of Chester Fritz here!

Grab a copy of The Library of Chester Fritz here (and buy one for $7!) and check out Five Questions with Brian Urlacher below.   

1. You are a political scientist by training, and I wondered whether or how this book drew upon your professional expertise as you adapted the world of Chester Fritz’s diaries to your more complicated and mysterious narrative?

I’m not sure that it contributed to the mysteriousness of the narrative, but my research area is on modern civil wars and Fritz’s firsthand account of what life looked like after the collapse of the Chinese state was fascinating to me. I also had the opportunity to spend a couple months in Shanghai as part of a collaboration UND has with a university there. Shanghai has changed a lot since Fritz’s time, but the legacies of the French and International concessions are visible in the architecture of the city.

2. It seems like there’s a growing interest in the kinds of stories that you tell in the Library of Chester Fritz. From the TV series Stranger Things to the resurgent interest in of Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, and H.P. Lovecraft, we appear to be living in an era where “paranoid fiction” resonates. Why do you think this is?

I wouldn’t have thought of this trend as “paranoid fiction” but maybe that framing helps to explain the appeal. At the heart of cosmic horror–sometimes called Lovecraftian fiction–is the idea that something is rotten at the core of the universe, and we as humans are very much unwelcome and easily swept aside by powerful forces. Maybe stories about people stubbornly persisting has resonance in this moment when nature itself seems to be turning against us. Or maybe the internet has made truth harder to pin down and so stories that exist in dark-quasi-real space feel more authentic.

3. Along similar lines, you’ve mention in other conversations that Fritz is representative of the first generation of modern global capitalists. He was born in North Dakota, educated both at UND and on the West coast, made various fortunes in Asia, South America, and eventually lived and died in Europe. His life in some ways seems ready made for the kind of story that you tell in this novel. On the other hand, you make him seem pretty unique. How much did Fritz’s life allow you to interweave the familiar with the unfamiliar and mysterious. Is there something about modern global capitalists that makes them susceptible to a kind of magical realism?

Fritz had an objectively interesting life and wealth and international capitalism fueled some of that, but Fritz built his fortune in the eye of a hurricane. It was only a matter of time before the storm arrived and the only real question was what would survive. So the setting came with pre-packaged tension, but Fritz’s own literary style created a blank canvas for storytelling. Fritz’s journal offered detailed observations of life in China, but he rarely if ever asked why things were the way they were. Maybe he didn’t really want to know. China in Fritz’s time was in chaos and western powers contributed to and exploited that chaos. Fritz’s just the facts approach opened the door for me as a writer to have Fritz systematically chronicle what his fictious traveling companions were doing and saying. He operates as a dutiful but indifferent narrator and spends nearly the entire story on the sidelines not wanting to engage.

4. I’m teaching an editing and publishing class this semester and my students often opine on whether they find a character likable or not. You had the opportunity not only to get to know Chester Fritz, but also transform him subtly when writing this story. When you were done, do you feel like you did more to make him likable or not?

I think the character I crafted is likeable but more importantly the character is vivid. Obviously, the actual Chester Fritz was a likeable guy—that was his defining characteristic. But he doesn’t talk about himself in his travel diary and his interviews are tightly controlled positivity. As I learned more about his childhood, I saw parallels to my own. As I learned about his friends and acquaintances in Shanghai, I saw tragedies that he kept buried deep. I tried to slide some of that into the narrative in the rare moments where self-reflection seemed to make sense.

I hope that my fictitious character retains Fritz’s charm but also sands off some of the rough edges of the early 20th century, and gives the character of Chester Fritz depth and complexity.

5. Finally, the Library of Chester Fritz is just one installment in a larger “project” centered on Chester Fritz, the University of North Dakota, and a band of intrepid campus explorers (for lack of a better word). Can you talk about this larger project some?

The collection of documents that make up this story were all generated for a Lovecraftian murder mystery in which Jake Verlorin, a department chairperson, investigates the murder of one of his colleagues. In working with a local detective, Jake peels back the history of the Chester Fritz Library and finds a dedicated core of faculty—the Chester Fritz Professors—who have been protecting the library against occult forces for decades. That project led to a series of short stories about the Chester Fritz professors. I think I’m at 15 short stories at this point and building toward two book length collections. 

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