One of the most decorated authors of contemporary fantasy fiction, Jeffrey Ford – whose latest anthology, Crackpot Palace, collects some his most memorable short stories – tells Schlock how it all started “around 125 stories ago”, the one theme that drives his writing and the one reason why anyone should write in the first place.
How did you feel when your first ever story saw print?
I believe the first story I published was ‘Eclipse’ in The Nantucket Review. I was in my early twenties. I was happy as hell. I’d been writing and sending stuff out for a few years before that. I’m not sure how I feel about the story today. That’s about a 125 stories ago. I haven’t read it in years and don’t have a copy of it. I remember it was about a neighbour of ours when I was a kid. I could see the swimming pool in their yard from my upstairs bedroom window. It was a little bigger than a kiddie pool. The father in that house would come out every evening just as the sun was going down and get in the pool and do the dead man’s float, holding his breath for exceedingly long periods, to the point where sometimes I thought he’d actually drowned himself. The story was about him trying to connect with his crazy kids.
Would you say that there is some theme – or, at least some underlying ‘obsession’ – to your work as a whole?
The calamity caused by the belief that one is reading depth when focusing only on the surface of things.
You’ve got a ‘trilogy’ of novels under your belt [‘The Well-Built City’ triad of novels consisting of The Physiognomy, Memoranda and The Beyond] as well as standalone books and countless short stories, of course. What is the main difference between writing something within a series and a standalone narrative?
I can’t say, really, because I wrote the books for the trilogy so that they could possibly stand alone. There are arcs and leitmotifs and characters that connect them for sure, though. I think of it as one long book in three parts. I guess the pleasure of it was taking the time to extend the world and stories of the characters. Live in it for a long while. Patience is a virtue when writing something like that, but it’s very encompassing. You can work with the passage of time as a way to introduce plausible coincidences and jolt the reader’s memory by having some incident of seemingly little importance come back into the story and turn the plot. There are cool effects you can get with that.
One of our contributors has said that you have the ability to ‘bring freshness to even the most tired of tropes’. Do you set out to deconstruct traditional genre mechanics in your fiction, from the outset? Does the prospect of reinvention invigorate you to create in the first place?
As to my “freshness” it’s hard for me to judge. From reviews I’ve read it seems that one person’s freshness is another’s consternation. I saw a review of The Physiognomy recently where the reader said it was the first book she ever threw across the room. Another satisfied customer. I wouldn’t say that I set out to controvert tradition, but a lot of times the story just calls for it. I will say that in following the story I’ll make choices that will take me on the road less travelled but that’s necessary as I’d think people don’t want to read a story they’ve already read before and I have no interest in writing it. I do like to challenge myself sometimes to see if I can write an interesting story about an abused genre theme. That can be both exciting and frustrating, though.
Do you have ‘orphan’ characters that you just can’t place in a story? If so, what has held you back from slotting them in?
Characters dreamed up and never used hang out in my imagination in a bar on a windy night street on a corner in my cerebellum. They’re waiting for a ticket to the show. The place is crowded and the chatter always revolves around how they almost made it into this story or that one but were bumped due to politics and nepotism. There are some characters who show up in more than one story, moving from world to world, beleaguered jobbers addicted to the next epiphany. Yeah, there’s hundreds of them. And worlds. And monsters. And there’s always room at the bar for one more.
Does winning awards change the way you look at your writing process? And can we take it as a given that it makes you more secure (or at least, less anxious) about the arc of your literary career, or not?
“Secure” is a word that has nothing to do with fiction writing. Awards are nice and enjoyable in their moment, but they’re almost instantly in the rear view mirror. What’s next is the order of the day. There are high times and low times as you move along the path. The only direction is forward.
What are some of the most important lessons about creative writing that you ache to impart to your students?
I don’t really ache to tell them anything, but here’s two things I tell them all the time.
You’ll never learn more about writing from a teacher or workshop than you will from the act of writing.
Writing fiction is counter intuitive at first in that the new writer believes that to create a good story he/she must exert optimum control. This exertion is deadly to stories. The trick is to exert less control, to take your hands off the wheel and let the car take you, let the characters lead you and discover the story as it happens. Later, when revising, you can exert all the control or lack of it you want.
Why should anyone write fiction?
The only reason someone should write fiction is if they want to.
Jeffrey Ford is the author of four short story collections and eight novels, including the Edgar Award-winning The Girl in the Glass and the Shirley Jackson Award-winning The Shadow Year. A former professor of writing and early American literature, Ford now writes full-time in Ohio, where he lives with his wife.