Chameleon of the Fantastic: An Interview with Jeffrey Ford
Over the past twenty-five years, Jeffrey Ford has earned a reputation for being one of the best writers working today. His short stories and novels collect tales from a wild and unique imagination steered by a craftsmen's eye for narrative and prose. His fiction could stand as comfortable next to Jonathan Carroll, Lucius Shepard, or Michael Swanwick, as with Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka or Hunter S. Thompson. No mean feat. His diverse interests and influence allow him to write across the map of literature with equal aplomb. Realism, the fantastic, horror and humor can be found in different measures throughout his body of work, which is substantial, varied, and acclaimed.
He's been awarded the World Fantasy Award, The Nebula, The Edgar Allan Poe Award, The Fountain Award, and Le Grand Prix de l'imaginaire. While a bold experimenter, Ford is perhaps the most effortless and readable practitioners of fantasy fiction working today, able to groove the surreal, weird, and gritty into stories with an almost zen clarity that never loses its intensity.
A long time professor of literature at Brookdale Community College in southern New Jersey, Ford's latest works, the collection The Drowned Life and the novel The Shadow Year, both received the World Fantasy Award. His story "After Moreau" appeared in Clarkesworld in April 2008.
The first Jeffrey Ford story I read was "A Night at the Tropics," in an Ellen Datlow anthology. I was struck at how well you blended a clear narrative style with rather wild story of cursed chess sets, surreal paintings, and neighborhood thugs. What was the genesis of this story, and do you remember the first works you read that attempted blending this style of fantasy and realism?
"A Night In the Tropics" was originally published by Lou Anders in the first issue of Argosy. There was a bar in the town where I grew up that had a mural of "the south seas" like the one described in the bar in the story. My dad would take me in there once in a while on Sunday when he wanted to watch a Giant's game and have a beer. That mural fascinated me. When I grew up, I'd go there occasionally, but it was really an old man's bar. The place just closed down a few years ago. My cousin told me he heard from a reliable source that before the owner sold it, he had a false wall installed over the painting so that it would always be there.
The scene in the story where those guys rob the blind man and he comes after them with a sword is based on a true incident. For the story of the chess set, I did some historical research about a certain time period and about the goldsmith Cellini, but mostly it's just made up. Author Rick Bowes gave me some really good advice on this one, so to commemorate his efforts he appears briefly in the story.
You were a student of the late writer and writing teacher John Gardner, who also wrote realistic, mythic and fantasy fiction and enjoyed genre fiction. What work of yours did he read or help you with and has it seen print? Is there any advice Gardner gave that has stayed with you?
He published a couple of my stories in his magazine, MSS, and there were just a couple of other stories he'd helped me with that saw publication after he passed away, but for the most part, the majority of stuff I went over with him when he was my teacher wasn't anything to write home about. It was basically useful fodder for learning and that's the best you can say of it.
Gardner talked quite a bit about the author's experience of watching the story unfold in the imagination, seeing the characters, etc. That was something that stayed with me.
Gardner once noted the need for fiction to create a "vivid and continuous dream" in the mind of the reader. Do you agree, and was such advice hand-in-glove for your own storytelling instincts, or something you had to work on? How do you cultivate this skill?
To get the full import of that "vivid and continuous dream" business, you have to remember, and this is something Gardner pointed out, that when you're engaged in a dream, no matter what strange stuff happens, you believe it to be reality. You experience terror, joy, arousal as a result of the dream experience. How do you create a fictional world that convinces with the same authority as dream? Thinking about fiction in this way suited me well. How do you actually do this? Who the fuck knows? What you do is write some stories and the ones that come out good, you think, "I did it in that one." Every writer will give you a different recipe for creating a "vivid and continuous dream."
One of the things I enjoy most about your fiction is that no matter where it leads in terms of content or theme or genre, I know I'm reading a Jeffrey Ford story. Your voice contains multitudes, from fables ("The Annals of Eelin-Ok") to eclectic science fiction ("Exo Skeleton Town"), to strange hybrids of realism and the fantastic ("The Fantasy Writer's Assistant,", "Scribble Mind", "Golden Dragon"), and more. As such, what is "voice" to you and do you remember a moment (a story, novel, etc.) where you noticed that your own voice was singing above your influences, able to reach into each one of these kinds of stories?
Voice comes part and parcel with the story. For me the instant when I have achieved the requisite confidence to write a story is the same instant I hear the voice it will be told in. They are the same thing in a way. The medium is the message and the massage. The period where I think I discovered my own "voice" was right around the time I started selling fiction. I remember rethinking and committing more fully to revision had a lot to do with it.
Much of your work, especially your novels (such as The Physiognomy, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass) is infused with your enjoyment for research and interest in a wide range of literature and history. What's the appeal of research versus invention for you, and what's scratching your research and literary interests itch these days?
Research is invention for me. The two are so intertwined. I might find a little tidbit about some historical time period I'm working in and that will take my imagination in some new direction or add something to the story and characters I'm envisioning in my mind. Research is part of pretty much everything I write to a greater or lesser degree. Research can get out of hand when I'm working on a novel — then sometimes I feel like there is always still one more little bit of information out there that I don't know about yet but that I'm sure will make all the difference. When I get to that point, I know it's time to put the books away and start writing. So a little research goes such a long way, especially when doing an historical piece. The stuff I dig up and never actually use all becomes part of the background knowledge in a way. As for what am I looking at now — I was doing a lot of reading about the dust bowl after watching a show on TV about Black Blizzards. That wasn't for a story so far, but just something that caught my interest. As for recent reads, I've recently read Vertigo by W. G. Sebald. There's a part in it that has to do with Kafka's story "The Hunter Gracchus," which is one of my favorites. Also recently read a book about mirror neurons, Mirroring People by Marco Iacoboni. A few short story collections — Waking the Dead by Yvette Tan, Everland and Other Stories by Paul Witcover, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet by Vandana Singh. All of these collections are worth a reader's time.
You've produced three acclaimed short story collections (The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, The Empire of Ice Cream, and The Drowned Life, for which you received the World Fantasy Award) and are largely considered one of the best short story writers working today. For shit and giggles, could you discuss your first published short story and compare it to your most recent one? What are the common and divergent threads between those two poles of your career?
Shit and giggles might be all this is worth, but... I think my earliest story was "The Casket," which appeared in MSS, about an old guy who builds a coffin for himself, decorates it the way Queequeg did in Moby Dick, and then sleeps in it every night in preparation for death. It was pretty heavy handed on the symbolism. I was injecting the big ideas here and there like I was filling cream doughnuts on the graveyard shift. The piece was way overwritten and rather plodding, still it had its charms. What they were, I can't now recall. A recent story that has not yet seen publication but will sometime soon is "Daddy Long Legs of the Evening," which is a horror story. In this respect it's different, but the main difference is in the writing. I've eventually learned how to be able to convey more with less words and to make the whole thing, sentences and images, flow better. I'm not throttling the necks of stories anymore like they owe me money. I ditched the idea of conscious symbolism about 20 years ago. Now I just follow the characters and record what they do. One thing that remains the same is my enjoyment in seeing the stories unfold behind my eyes and the work of capturing them in words. That experience remains profound for me.
This may be a chicken or egg question regarding the relationship between reading and writing. One of the things that I've enjoyed about the broad arc of your career is the freedom of your imagination, especially in short stories, and yet a real clarity to your use of the fantastic. I wonder if that's in part because of your own diverse reading habits. Can you think of specific influences on you regarding this tying of clarity and fantasy/surrealism?
Well, one reading influence on my fiction, and there are a lot, is definitely Isaac Bashevis Singer. His stories, especially the supernatural ones that take place after he has emigrated to New York, so beautifully mix the autobiographical and the fantastic. Singer's first person narrator in these pieces is always or very nearly always the same guy — which the reader can't help but take to be a fictional version of Singer, himself. He grounds the story in detail out of his real life, I'm sure, and then slowly filters in the strangeness. Great effect. I go for it every time. There are certain short story writers whose work I go back to over and over again — the same stories. I've read Singer's "The Cafeteria" about a hundred times and it's never stale. Kipling's "The Return of Imray" is another one of those stories. I don't know what it has, but it keeps me coming back. I never tire of reading it. Kelly Link's story, "Lull," is another. Tanizaki's "Bridge of Dreams," Akutagawa's "The Hell Screen." Anything by Alice Munro or Angela Carter. The story "Elaine Coleman" by Stephen Millhauser. Shepard's "Hands Up Who Wants to Die?" Hawthorne, Poe, .... You get the picture. These are great artists writing at the top of their abilities and you can fall into one of these stories and come up with a different satisfying experience every time. Stevenson's "The Bottle Imp," Bunin's "The Gentleman From San Francisco." "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," "The Figure in the Carpet," Somebody stop me.
You noted in an earlier interview about the value of teaching. One episode I found intriguing was when you were teaching students with learning disabilities how to write stories without giving them a map on how to do it, thus circumventing their fears and experience with failing to follow structured writing. Did their experiments inspire you and if so how?
When I teach fiction writing, whether it be for students with learning disabilities or not, I teach it the same way. My first assignment is always — Hey, write me a story. If you don't make a big deal out of it, make a mystery out of it, everyone pretty much knows how to tell a story. I don't like to start giving them a lot of instruction and examples before I see what they think a story is and what they come up with. I want to see what they're thinking and what they want to write. Then we take whatever they do and work on it — expand it, add detail, mess around with it until they have it where they want it. The interesting thing about the students who have had a lot of difficulty with writing in high school English classes is that a lot of times they've come up with interesting strategies in order to circumvent some of their limitations — sometimes neurological (dyslexia) or physical — and this results in innovative ways of approaching fiction and telling a story. Yeah, I've learned a lot from these pieces. I've also borrowed from their structures and styles for my own fiction. Not too many semesters ago, a student of mine from another country wrote a story about an exorcism he'd witnessed in his village when he was a kid. The story was dynamite, blew me away, but the grammatical problems were legion. It seemed to me that there were ESL problems overlaid with a kind of severe dyslexia. It sucks that it's the 21st century and there isn't some way certain students who have some of these problems can't express their ideas in a different medium than text. For a lot of them, writing is at best a struggle and at worst nearly impossible. They have difficulties that will not be "cured" by taking a thousand English classes. The problem is that so many of these disabilities are unseen — too many people in education and elsewhere are unaware of them or don't believe the student is anything other than stupid or lazy, and so the student is made to continue to work in text. It's pretty fucked up. It doesn't make any sense with the technology available.
During a recent online discussion on the current quality of short fiction in genre fields, you challenged the assumptions that there wasn't loads of good work out there and postulated that the only reasonable thing any writer with such concerns should do is write the next story. Is there any other advice you'd hand out to writers who are also tired of GENRE WARS: PART ZILLION?
You want to write fiction, write fiction. Write the stories you want to write when you want to write them. Sell them for as much as you can. Write more. Try always to be a better writer.
The emphasis now in writing has shifted from writing stories to selling stories. The blogs are full of it. Everybody has advice on how to make it. It's hysterical. The problem is you might be able to come up with six ways to Sunday to sell a story, but if it's a shitty story no one is going to want to read it or buy it. If you spend the time trying to write good stories, editors might very well eventually ask you for them. That said, there are interesting strategies and strategists out there dealing with the marketing of fiction and the business of writing. Jeff VanderMeer's Booklife is, I feel, very reasonable and well thought out in its advice. Well written too. Also, I'd be interested to read a book or sit in on a seminar about small press publishing and marketing by Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press. I think Nick Mamatas has a book like this coming as well, which will probably be quite good. I'm sure there are others. But, come on, write the freakin stories first.
You've noted how much teaching literature and writing, both the content of the course and the work with students, has impacted your own writing life, and certainly led to some stellar stories (the riveting and dark "The Honeyed Knot" comes to mind). Do you foresee a time when you might, as John Gardner did, write a book on the craft and profession of writing? Any interest on that front?
No, no interest. It's just that I'd rather spend my time writing fiction.
What can fans expect to see from you in the near abroad?
Well, I ditched my livejournal 14theditch just the other day. I'd been at it for five years and I'd reached the bottom of that hole. It was a lot of fun in the digging. I had great assistance at times from Rick Bowes and my uncle, Walt, and Lynn's cousin, Dan, and my cousin Dylan, and KJ Bishop, and eroslane and Bart Calendar, and a bunch of other people who sent me stuff and wrote in with comments. You gotta know when to end the story, though. I'll probably be starting another blog of some kind later in the year.
The original stories that are sold and due out this year or close to it are —
- "86 Deathdick Road" in The Book of Dreams, an anthology edited by Nick Gevers for Subterranean
- "Ganesha" in The Beastly Bride, an anthology edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow for Viking Juvenile
- "Down Atsion Road" in Haunted Legends, an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas for Tor
- "Polka-Dots and Moonbeams" in Stories, an anthology edited by Al Sarrantonio and Neil Gaiman for Harper Collins
- "The Hag's Peak Affair" in Portents, an anthology edited by Al Sarrantonio
- "Daddy Long Legs of the Evening" in Naked City, an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow for St. Martins.
As for reprints —
- "The Empire of Ice Cream" in The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by Peter Beagle for Tachyon
- "The Beautiful Gelreesh" in Running With the Pack, edited by Ekaterina Sedia for Prime
- "On the Road to New Egypt" in Sympathy For the Devil, edited by Tim Pratt for Night Shade Books
- "Pansolapia" in Digital Domains, edited by Ellen Datlow for Prime
- And if I'm not mistaken, I believe that Rajan Khanna is producing an audio version of my story "Creation" for Tony Smith at Starship Sofa (I'm very much looking forward to this).
There are a bunch of new projects I'm working on presently, and if I can get them all done and done well this list will be longer. Wish me luck.