Books

Emily Urquhart unpacks the magic in the everyday in her essay collection, Ordinary Wonder Tales

The Ontario author and journalist spoke with Jackie Sharkey on CBC Afternoon Drive about her essay collection, Ordinary Wonder Tales.

Weaving together memoir and folklore, the journalist examines the truths that underlie our imaginings

A woman sits on a staircase smiling. She has medium-length hair and wears a black long-sleeve top.
Emily Urquhart is a journalist and folklorist. She is also the author of Ordinary Wonder Tales. (Andrew Trant)

In Ordinary Wonder Tales, journalist and folklorist Emily Urquhart explores the truths that underlie the stories we imagine – and how they can reveal the magic in the everyday. 

The collection of essays weaves memoir and folklore together, reflecting on topics that range from death and dying, pregnancy and prenatal genetics, to psychics and the plague. Urquhart examines truths such as what we see in our heads when we read, how the entrance to the underworld can be glimpsed in an oil painting and how the sight of a ghost can heal. 

The book cover is an illustration of green and beige forest with a path in the middle leading to a small house in the background. On the grass path are a set of footprints that turn from animal prints into human footsteps.

Urquhart is a writer, teacher and folklorist currently living in Kitchener, Ont. She received her doctorate in folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland. She is also the author of Beyond the Pale and The Age of Creativity

In 2022, Urquhart spoke with CBC Afternoon Drive's Jackie Sharkey on about Ordinary Wonder Tales.

How is a wonder tale different from a fairy tale?

Actually, they are two terms that mean the same thing. Wonder tales just don't have the same kind of currency as fairy tales do. But I think fairy tales have kind of lost their meaning a little bit. If you look at the European folk tales that the Brothers Grimm collected, there aren't very many fairies in them.

I think originally it meant that in the world of fairy it was sort of synonymous with magic. But wonder tale is another term that means the same thing. It's the same kind of folk tale and I feel it suits it better. These are tales of wonder and awe and not necessarily fairies.

Now it's not just folklore in this collection – it's a merging of memoir and folklore. How did you come up with that idea?

I like to say that I'm a journalist on the folklore beat, and there are not a lot of us. I know that journalism is fact-driven and folklore is assumed to be fiction, but I find that there is a lot of truth at the heart of these magic tales. And what I did is I drew parallels between the stories of my own life and the stories that I had studied in graduate school as a folklorist.

I drew parallels between the stories of my own life and the stories that I had studied in graduate school as a folklorist.- Emily Urquhart

Why use folklore to illustrate the lessons or experiences that you've had in life?

I think that because folklore is a part of everyday life, folklore really means the stories that people tell to explain their worlds.

There are elements of magic in fairy tales. Less so in something like legends, where when people tell a legend it's sort of assumed that it's true and legends are based in collective fear. And so another example from my collection is a story called The Plague Legends where I start to look at the legends told about the Black Plague and draw parallels between that and our current plague.

They were grim, but at the same time what they told me is that we're not alone. People have gone through this before. You know these stories have survived, and what that tells me is that the people who told the stories also survived.

This is, in a way, a book of essays. But is there one that was more challenging to write than others?

Because all of the stories are so personal, they were all challenging in their own way. It's not challenging to sit down quietly by yourself and write your personal stories – more so the challenge comes after publication. And one of the stories which is personal but surprised me that it would be difficult to speak about was about a childhood haunting I experienced when I was three.

Now, I wrote about this childhood haunting, but talking about hauntings is really taboo and I found trying to discuss that can be a challenge. But once you tell a haunting story it opens up the floor and people will then in turn tell you stories of where they have felt haunted in some way. I'm finding that since publication I've had a few people tell me their own haunting tales.

So it's universal. 

It's not challenging to sit down quietly by yourself and write your personal stories – more so the challenge comes after publication.- Emily Urquhart

As you were writing the book, what tended to come first for these essays? Were they your personal stories or the folklore tale?

I would say that the personal stories came first in some cases. In the story about seeing my brother in the faces of passing strangers after he had died, the personal came first with that. It occurred to me that there would be folklore related to this particular concept – seeing people after they had died – but in other cases the folklore came first.

So I would maybe remember a particular essay that I had read or studied in graduate school and I would think about how that related to my life, and I would look at the stories first and then bring in my own personal stories later.

Why do you think it's important that we see magic in the everyday?

I think that our days make up our weeks, which make up our months, which make up our years. And so I think it's important to see the magic in the everyday because collectively that's our life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zoie Karagiannis is a journalist based in Toronto.

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