An Interview with Jeffrey Ford
by Jeff VanderMeer
Jeffrey Ford burst into the awareness of readers as a finalist for, and eventual winner of, the World Fantasy Award for his second novel, The Physiognomy. This unique and original novel was notable for its incisive style, its amoral main character, and the calm lucidity of the fantastical world it described. Subsequent novels Memoranda and The Beyond continued to explore the world of The Physiognomy and garnered Ford additional acclaim (including a New York Times notable book citation). At the same time, Ford began to publish several highly idiosyncratic and entertaining stories for F&SF magazine, among others. In these stories, Ford expanded on his growing reputation as one of the best writers of literate fantasy currently working.
On a personal note, I must add I did not first correspond with Ford under the best of circumstances, but his candor and honesty allowed us to become friends. In a field filled with egos, I think it is safe to say that Ford is not only an amazing writer but a welcome anomaly.
Did Cley, protagonist of your Physiognomy series, come to you before the world he lives in, or did the world come first? (And how did the idea for The Physiognomy come to you?)
Cley, the world, the whole conception of the trilogy came to me one afternoon in the Temple University library where I found a dust covered, two volume facsimile edition of the works of the great Physiognomist, Johann C. Lavater. As I paged through those massive tomes the story opened up in front of me like a waking dream. From the start I intended to write it as a trilogy, each book dealing with how we view the world -- externally, internally, and as a part of it. I carried it around in my mind for some time and the reality of it did not diminish. What got in the way of writing it down was the successive births of my two sons, for whom I was the primary care giver. In the interim, I wrote short stories, which helped me learn about revision and plot and character. Then one day, years later, I sat down and wrote the first book. The whole thing took me little more than a month to write. It was a good thing that my sons came along when they did. They saved the books in a way.
I understand some of the places in The Physiognomy come from stories you told your children?
I used to tell [my children] stories extemporaneously at lunch time and before they went to sleep, using the guise of a Sweet Pea puppet (from the Popeye comic). Much of the stuff from those stories went into The Physiognomy. The town name Anamasobia, Sheer Beauty, Drachton Below, etc. all came from those stories. Making them up was easy once I got started. The tales for the kids were about this space man, Colonel Rasuka, who was a great hero on his home planet. There is a war and his race is pretty much wiped out. He gets wounded in the war and so to keep him alive they put him in this lead suit filled with a gas called Perdidium, that allows him to live forever. Then, a la Superman, they put him in a spaceship and launch it into outer space. He's supposed to find another planet and carry on the tenants of their civilization. The ship travels all the way to the end of the universe, to the last planet right before the brick wall that means there is no more to go. He crash-lands there in his ship, The Empress. It was fun making up all the strange beasts and plants of this last planet and naming them. He meets a beautiful blue woman of the forest with long, flowing hair, who is acrobatic and speaks in a language that is all whispered mumbling. Her intuitive knowledge of the planet, her wisdom saves Rasuka's life on many occasions, but at times he misses the fact that it was she who saved the day and not himself. Rasuka is kind of a putz sometimes, but generally good natured. He calls her Sheer Beauty and he falls in love with her but they can never touch because of the lead suit. If he leaves it he will die. The stories were about their adventures on this planet and they came from different times in their lives in no linear order. The third week into it, I told them about the death of Colonel Rasuka, the next day it was about a time from his impossibly long trip through space to the planet. Anyway, when I started writing The Physiognomy, I used some of the names and things from these stories.
Have your children read the novels or the short stories? If so, what's their reaction been?
They haven't read any of the novels, but I've read them some of the stories. Their reactions have ranged from real interest and understanding to a comment, accompanied by sighs and eye rolling, about one piece: "Hey, why don't we just watch the news." When we take walks, I tell them sometimes about a plot I'm working on and they give me advice. Just talking it over with them gives me new ideas sometimes.
Do your kids ever make up stories for you?
All kids make up stories one way or the other. Kids are natural story engines. My younger son used to tell me about the Sea Glass Man, a guy who would visit him in his room at night made all of sea glass. He never admitted that it was make believe. He told me that a black mushroom cloud would form in the corner of his room and the sea glass man would fly out of it on a moth. Then he would grow to his normal height. The man couldn't talk but he would act things out for my son, things that told about the future. He told me he'd see the sea glass man staring out at him from behind the letters of the words in books. And also that one day the sea glass man would not come at night anymore and that would mean that he would have to grow up and couldn't be a kid anymore. My older son just wrote an essay in school where he said that he and his brother like to mix chemicals together and blow things up. It had nothing to do with reality, but I had to go to the school and sit with the social worker and the principal and prove to them that it wasn't true. Jeez, what do you expect when you ask a kid to write a story?
What prompted you to civilize the demon that narrates much of The Beyond?
It wasn't me, it was Below who civilized him. I suspect this was out of a need to be loved and to show love. Misrix civilizes Below as much as Below civilizes the demon. The only reason that Below sends the sleeping plague to the town of Wenau is so that he can blackmail the inhabitants with the cure into accepting the demon. He has given birth to a son, so to speak, and wants desperately for his son to be accepted. The only problem is that Below is completely screwed up in the head, knows only the abuse of power as a means of influence and his attempts to show love become acts of horror. One of the issues at work in Memoranda and The Beyond is "what constitutes humanity?" Cley, Misrix and Below are all striving to understand this. One of the answers is how we respond to our own failures. As I said, this is merely one of the issues. There are several I am aware of and perhaps many more I am not. Misrix, by the way, narrates all of The Beyond.
Were you surprised when the first book in the series won the World Fantasy Award? What effect did winning the award have on you?
Given the fact that until I was nominated I had no idea what The World Fantasy Award was, I would say I was surprised. In fact, when I won it, I was in shock. When we were standing there for the photos afterward, I must have looked more confused than usual because Gordon Van Gelder said to me, "You can smile, it's a good thing." It was a good thing in that it let people know about the novel, which was quickly falling into obscurity. It had been published as "literature" and reviewed as Science Fiction, but mostly ignored until after the award. I was most appreciative for it, and I love the statue -- a bust of Lovecraft sculpted by Gahan Wilson (that's a definite keeper). Awards are fun and more times than not they go to deserving work and writers. Some people campaign for awards, which seems kind of pointless to me. I wouldn't want one I had to go out and hustle, but, what the hell, everybody has to do their own thing. With each year that I become more familiar with the writing of others in the genre, that award means more to me. I look around at my colleagues and notice the wonderful work that is being done in all the different areas of speculative fiction. It's a great time to be in this field or even on the fringes of it.
If Kafka or Gene Wolfe are mentioned again in connection with your work will you shoot the reviewer or yourself? Do you feel either writer is a major influence on you?
I don't own a gun, but I might leap my writing desk and garrote him. My recent story, "Bright Morning," is a send up of the fact that my work is always compared to that of Kafka's. There's a scene in it where the ghost of Kafka comes to the end of my bed at night and I tell him, "Look, Franz, it wasn't my idea. I swear." Then he gets a look on his face like he's trying to pass The Great Wall of China and hauls off and kicks me in the nuts. On the one hand, Kafka has become a label that gets ascribed to any fiction that is not easily categorized. On the other hand, I know Kafka's stories very well and really admire them. I would say he has influenced my work to some degree, but perhaps not to the extent noted in reviews. In the sense that Kafka practices fabulation in his stories and creates a sense of unease, yes, there is a likeness, but his style is much less self-conscious than my own at this point. It is clearer, more direct. My characters exhibit more emotion and are more active. Perhaps if I keep writing for another twenty years, I will someday write "The Hunger Artist." As for Wolfe, the comparisons always make me laugh since until very recently I had no idea who he was. It was in between the writing of Memoranda and The Beyond that my friend, Patrick O'Leary, turned me on to The Island of Doctor Death and Castle of Days. Since then, I have read Wolfe's Strange Traveler and recent trilogy (On Blue's Waters, etc.). But I don't think our styles are all that similar. Wolfe is a terrific writer whose work I now really admire, but a very idiosyncratic one. I don't think there is anyone whose work is like his. Let's hope that what they mean is that my writing is idiosyncratic, quality writing. Another reason I think people might make the connection is because, as I was told, he had a character in a book that was very much like my Physiognomist in that he was not the nicest guy. There have been so many books and stories with this character type, though. There's Satan in Paradise Lost and Shakespeare's Richard III to name two famous ones. Of course, this is my own perception of my work and his, which is questionable for its lack of objectivity. Maybe I am toiling in the fields of Wolfe, but if it is so, his influence has come to me through the appropriation of my mind by a Wolfe meme and not through a long-term conscious knowledge of his work.
After reading a lot of your short fiction it seems that what you do exceedingly well in the short form is to mesh a certain every-day humanity with the themes or concerns more typical of writers like Kafka and Ligotti. Do you think this is an accurate assessment?
I don't know. Kafka seems to me to be directly concerned with humanity. Ligotti, whom I have only recently started reading, and who strikes me as a really fine stylist, also appears to be investigating the human condition, but in a very analytical way -- much like Poe without the zany sense of humor...It is the belief of some writers, especially those who consider themselves in the avant garde and those who read Kafka superficially that to be bleak is to be profound. What this stems from is a kind of Sorrows of Young Werther shtick. Those emotions of joy, of love, those born of romance, or transcendence embarrass them, probably because they are more difficult to render honestly than the "life sucks and then you die" approach to fiction. I think Kafka, Borges, Poe, etc, are great humorists, great artists of the entire spectrum of human emotion...Getting back to your question, yes, I want all of it in my fiction or whatever is necessary for a given story. This is not to say that I am always or ever completely effective in achieving my desire. But let's face it, unmitigated existential angst is a bore after a while. Even in a completely random universe some good shit is eventually going to go down every now and then.
To follow up, how do you perceive your characters? Must you love them to write about them? Do you prefer to keep a distance between yourself and your characters? Do you believe the old cliché that characters must "leap off the page" and begin to speak on their own while the writer writes them?
My experience of writing is I fall into a kind of trance and find the story in my head. I see it happening in my mind. The process is not so much like constructing something as it is accessing an alternate universe. It feels to me like the entire story already exists out there somewhere and I am merely tapping into it. So, when I write, I follow the characters and write down what happens to them, what they say, how they might feel. I neither love nor hate my characters. I can't let my emotions interfere with my ability to render what I see them doing. They are all important though, I know that. Follow a character and she will take you to the story. Once I am inside the story, I can't afford to like or dislike any of them since I am aware that they are there for a purpose. Without them, the universe of the story would not exist. I try to apply this idea to real life as well, the fact that everybody is integral. Sometimes I fall short and want to wish some asshole into non-existence but the universe says no. In the long run, I'm better off, seeing as how I'd probably have vanished, myself, quite a while ago.
Your novella "The Weight of Words," for Leviathan 3, seems to me to be a perfect example of the Ford Principle at work: a really wonderful concept - that of words having a physical weight that can be measured - but with the emphasis firmly on the characters and the implications to them. What sparked the idea of words having weight?
The idea for "The Weight of Words" is one I've been carrying around for quite a few years but could not see it clearly enough to get it down. It initially had to do with those ideas in sacred texts like the Kabala that mention the physical manifestations or words or the corporeal effects words can have on the real world. I'm sure one of the things that recently brought it back into the forefront and made me start thinking about it again was Michael Swanwick's Periodic Table stories on SciFiction. The elements rendered metaphorically in stories is along the same lines, only kind of the reverse. I would say that got the idea rolling again. As far as it being my aesthetic, yes and no. There is a certain kind of story I write like this one -- like "Malthusian's Zombie" or "Floating in Lindrethool" -- in which I am doing what you say, getting a concept and then humanizing it through the characters. But there are other styles I use as well, one I am aware of is a more autobiographical one, in which the stories are prompted by things that have happened in my own life, and then some of the ones in which I am more interested in structure like "High Tea With Jules Verne" or "Horrors By Waters" or "Pansolapia." The character is central to most all of them since the character is the nexus where the reader integrates him/herself into the world of the story.
What writers have had the most influence on your writing?
This is a difficult question. It is easy for me to say which writers and which works I enjoy reading, but influence strikes me as more insidious sometimes than the writer even knows. I am an incredibly voracious reader and have been since I was very young. If I can't find a good book, I'll read a lousy one, and if I can't even find that, I'll read the ingredients on a soup can. I am always noting devices that writers use and I lift them and put them in my bag of tricks. These devices can then be taken out and used to enhance and facilitate that overall organic process of telling a story. These I get from everywhere, from the worst book I ever read to the best. As for writers and specific works I am pretty sure had a direct effect on what I have written to this point here are a few: Jules Verne, Poe (especially Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, "Fall of the House of Usher", and "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"), Knut Hamsun (Mysteries, Under the Autumn Star and On Muted Strings, Hunger, Growth of the Soil, Pan), Kerouac (Doctor Sax), Mann (The Black Swan, Doctor Faustus and "Disorder and Early Sorrow"), Kipling (Plain Tales from the Hills and The Jungle Books), Kobo Abe (The Woman in the Dunes), Borges (this old fart cracks me up more than just about any other writer), Isaac Singer (the stories -- this guy is the best), Garcia-Marquez (A Hundred Years of Solitude, Love and Other Demons), Stevenson (Treasure Island, The New Arabian Nights, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and "The Bottle Imp"), Dickens (Bleak House), Henry James (Turn of the Screw, "The Figure in the Carpet," and especially The Aspern Papers (this is where I got Arla's green veil)), Flannery O'Connor, Angela Carter, Junichiro Tanizaki (Diary of a Mad Old Man and Seven Japanese Tales), Henry Miller, Bruno Schulz, John Gardner (The King's Indian, Michelsson's Ghosts, Freddy's Book), Proust, Hoffmann, Dante, Hawthorne ("Wakefiled," "The Minister's Black Veil," the "Custom House" part of The Scarlet Letter), Melville ( all of it and especially The Confidence Man, "Bartelby the Scrivner"), Richard Brautigan (The Hawkline Monster), Phillip K. Dick (especially loved Radio Free Albumuth even though many think it a dog, the Valis trilogy, The Three Stigmata...), Dinesen, Durrell (The Quartet), Bukowski, Ariosto, etc. Sheesh, as you can see this is getting ridiculous. I can tell you that there is a scene in The Beyond I lifted right out of Hamsun. I have borrowed, not directly but in a sense, scenes, metaphors, structures, styles, dialogue from all of them. May they all spin in their graves.
You describe Borges as "an old fart" who "really cracks me up". "Humor" and "Borges" are not necessarily words that readers would think go together. What about Borges do you find humorous?
For me, to miss the humor of Borges is to miss Borges. What cracks me up about him is the mock imperious tone with which he lays out his erudition. He is making fun of himself a lot of times with all that old crap he dredges up from the past. Granted, he is an incredible scavenger of antiquities and oddities, but he uses them precisely because he knows how people will be impressed by them and the tone he delivers them in. He also has a wonderful sense of humor about himself, especially in that story where his younger self visits his older self in the hotel room, just before his older self is to commit suicide. Also his characters, like the guy in "The Aleph" who is writing the epic poem about the complete history of the world. Or his tortuous philosophical musings in "A Refutation of Time." Some of the slashing commentary in his reviews is so amazingly understated and tongue in cheek. This is the intentionally funny stuff, and then there is the old fart aspect to him. His conservatism (not political, personal), his half-baked machismo with all that knife fighting stuff and the fact that his favorite movie was West Side Story. He is very much like Poe in many respects. Like Poe too, he exhibits such fine control in his writing, a perfect blend of plot and purpose, an unfailing precision in word choice, a complexity that elicits wonder instead of confusion. He's really one of my favorites. Up there with my all time favorite short story writer, Isaac Beshevis Singer, who also has a terrific sense of humor about himself and in his stories -- check out "The Yearning Heffer."
You've taken writing classes with John Gardner, who once trashed Harlan Ellison. What did you learn from Gardner? And do you feel there should be any difference in approach between a novelist who works in a fantastical idiom and one who does not?
If Gardner trashed Ellison, Harlan was in good company, because Gardner trashed just about everyone who was anyone, including himself, at some point. If Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole, it wasn't Gardner's fault. Gardner brought a bad rap on himself with all that Moral Fiction crapola. I never paid much attention to it and it never really came up in any discussions we had. I think he liked to stir the shit sometimes for fun, sometimes for notoriety, sometimes out of a sense of perverseness. He was, at once, a very good person and a very troubled person. His mind was spinning 24/7. If you go back and look at the writing of that period in the seventies, he was probably one of the most innovative of fiction writers. He was also writing essays, poetry, opera librettos, plays, radio dramas, you name it. I was never much for some of his more lauded works like The Sunlight Dialogues, a real brick of a novel, but I really love The King's Indian, Freddy's Book, Michelsson's Ghosts. The last mentioned is one of the wildest fucking books in American Literature. I found its structure and story mind altering. Its style is deceptively at home, but it is really a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Above all else, Gardner was a great teacher of writing (not just my estimation but also attested to by scores of his students, including Raymond Carver). I'd take him these thirty page stories written in pencil on torn out sheets of notebook paper and slip them under his office door. Then, who knew when, sometimes late at night, once in the middle of a blizzard, he'd call me and say, "I'm reading your story." I lived in a motel across the highway from the college and I'd just drop what I was doing and go. Then he'd sit there with a pen in his hand and go through the lines of the piece one by one. He was brutal, but not without a sense of humor. By the time he'd be done, there would be about five lines left. "These are good," he'd tell me. "Write another one." Eventually he told me he wouldn't read them anymore unless I typed them up. It's got to be rare to find a writer of his caliber who would spend the amount of time he did with students. He'd spend hours going over a single story with you. So many of the things he told me about writing I didn't understand at the time but they come back to me now and I just shake my head at how true they were. He'd say weird stuff too, like "I believe that consciousness exists outside the body and it plays the physical being like an instrument." It made me wonder if everything he told me was total lunacy, but, luckily, I was dumber than a sac of shit and knew it, which allowed me to just push forward and trust him.
As to whether there should be any difference between writers of fantastical literature and any other kind -- For me it's a moot point. I judge all fiction by the same standards. I want a book that, through its style, structure, characters and plot, engages me intellectually and emotionally. Why read fiction lacking in any of these when there are so many great books and stories out there to be read? Sometimes one runs into a belief in the speculative genre that, as a writer, one must pledge allegiance to some preconceived notion of the genre. Fuck that. That's a roadblock for a writer. Or sometimes you get, "This is what a 'real' fantasy story is" or a "'real' science fiction story." As if there was an approved list of ingredients. That kind of statement remains wholly that individual's problem. As a writer, I want to have access to all the avenues of fiction. I want to mix them and go in different directions if I want to. I love writing what I call Fantasy and my tastes in reading usually lean in that direction, but I always reserve the right to go elsewhere if that's where the vision leads. Some people in the genre really get uptight about the genre versus mainstream issue and want to round up the wagons and break out the Winchesters. Nothing could be more boring. The approach to writing fantasy should be the approach to writing any fiction -- tell a great story by being as true to your vision as possible. If when you are done it's of a fantastical nature then it's a fantasy, if not, it might be a western, a romance, a horror story, a work of realism or a beautiful new hybrid of some kind.
Was John Gardner your only influential teacher in college? If not, who else was helpful to you?
I went to school at State University of New York at Binghamton. At the time I was there, there were a lot of great teachers. Each of them had some impact on me. Two I took classes with and really got something out of were William Spanos, the deconstructionist critic and editor of Boundary 2, and Ken Jacobs, a well known underground film maker, who turned us on to his own films "Blonde Cobra" and "Little Stabs of Happiness" and then the films of Stan Brakage, Kenneth Anger, Maya Derren, etc., RAW magazine and a really cool book about the history of shit in philosophy, art and politics, called End Product. Another guy who had a lot of influence on my career as a writer is William Jon Watkins, a science fiction writer I teach a class with in Early American Literature at the college I work at now. He taught me to trust my own writing.
What do you teach, and where?
I teach Early American Literature, Composition, Research, and a writing course for students with learning disabilities. The last of these has taught me more about writing than any teacher or book I have ever encountered. Brookdale Community College is the community college of Monmouth County in New Jersey. I've taught there for 14 years full time. People can say what they want about teaching and teaching writing, this is an awesome job. What I like about the community college level is that the work is hands on. I'm not required to grind any theoretical axes or publish scholarship. My work is teaching writing at its most basic level. In this seemingly mundane pursuit, one can help others directly and discover important truths about writing that are obscured once the theoretical dog shit starts piling up. Brookdale is an unusual situation in that its faculty is really given carte blanche in the classroom. Approaches, texts, methodologies, are at the sole discretion of the instructor. The student demographics vary widely. In one class, I had a 90 year old retired pediatrician and an 18 year old ex-car thief. Two years ago, I taught a course on The Literature of Hallucinogens and one on Underground Comics. If you have to work, what could be better?
What constitutes a typical writing day for you?
I get up at 7 to take my kids and the kid around the corner to school. I come home, have coffee and go into my office and work for a couple of hours. I take little breaks every now and then and fart around with the e-mail or read stuff on the computer. At around 12, I eat lunch. Then I take a narcoleptic power nap for about 45 minutes. I get up and do some reading. At 3, I pick the kids up from school. Then it's a steady barrage of trips to basketball, soccer, friends' houses, you know, the chauffeur thing. Usually there's stuff I have to do -- the bills, grocery shopping, post office, everyday bullshit. I make dinner at around 6. After we eat, I sit on the couch in the living room, play CD's, drink coffee and talk to my wife for an hour or so. At 9:30 I read to my younger son. Then I play a game of chess with my older son. Then I lay in bed with my wife with the lights off and we watch the news or John Edwards, Crossing Over, and I bust her chops because she believes the guy is really psychic and channeling dead people. Then, when she and the kids are asleep, I go into my office, turn on a Harold Budd CD and write until about 3 in the morning. The next day, if I don't have to go teach, I do it again.
Before writing and teaching became your full-time job, what did you do?
Jeez, I did just about everything -- clammer, machine shop worker, loaded trucks, various jobs in bars, erased music manuscripts, called people up and asked them what kind of chicken they ate, security guard at a central station that had been built on an old garbage dump where the floors were buckling and methane gas was leaking up. About a hundred shitty jobs. Some were really fun, some were drudgery, some were dangerous. The people I met were great, all kinds of characters. Back before I had kids or was married, I'd take a job for a while and then when I'd get bored, I'd just quit, live off the money I'd saved (usually about fifty bucks) and then get another. There was a certain sense of power about being able to go to your boss on any given day and just tell him or her to fuck off. I haven't been there in a long, long time. Once you have kids and there are other people counting on you, you'll eat big steeping bowls of shit to hold on to a job you despise. Luckily, I love teaching at the school I work at, so it hasn't been that major an issue for me.
Can you describe your childhood? Did you grow up in an environment conducive to becoming a writer?
Conducive to becoming a writer? Yeah, I suppose -- plenty of alcoholism, madness and horse racing. I grew up on Long Island in a development that had once been a potato farm. My father was and still is a precision gear cutter. My mother was a very outlandish personality, but very creative. She taught herself how to play the piano and the guitar, she wrote poems and stories, painted and made movies in super 8 that she wrote and that she'd get the people in the neighborhood to be in. I never had to go to school if I didn't want to. I'd just stay home and read. One year, I stayed home something like 45 days. When the school complained and was going to leave me back, my mother went over and bitched them out. My father read a lot to us when we were young, Haggard, Stevenson, Wilde, Tennyson, Kipling. Everybody in the house read a lot. My brother and I read books and also comic books, especially The Fantastic Four, Daredevil and Nick Fury, Agent of Shield. The first adult book I ever read was a Doc Savage. Loved those covers. We were encouraged to read, anything that we wanted. There was no censorship. In addition to my older brother, I had two younger sisters -- the horrible dumplings. My mother's parents lived with us also in the garage that was renovated into an apartment. My grandfather had been a professional boxer, and in the merchant marine where he was a hard hat diver. He worked at the Big A, Aqueduct Race Track, hence everyone's involvement in handicapping. My grandmother had seen more ghosts than Hans Holtzer and used to read the future in an ordinary pack of playing cards. I started writing stories when I was about eight or nine years old in those marble composition books. At times it wasn't as much fun as it sounds, at other times it was way more.
My father being an entomologist, I took a rather personal interest in your story "Exo-Skeleton Town," which begins with the wonderful lines, "An hour ago I came out of Spid's Smoke House and saw Clark Gable scoring a couple of balls of dung off an Aphid twice his size. It was broad moonlight, and Gable should have known better, but I could see by the state of his getup and the deflation of his hair wave that he was strung out on loneliness." What provided the catalyst to write this story?
One day one of my kids bought a book at the bookstore, Monsters Attack Tokyo. It's a history of all of those Japanese monster flicks in text and photos. I didn't know that the amazing Joseph Cotten had done a good number of these creature features near the end of his career. The book had photos from those flicks and I saw them and they started to work on my imagination. Some of those movies were really great and some were dogs, but they all worked with a high level of absurdity. That definitely informed the story. Also, I thought of an actor like Cotten, who had been in some really great movies, Citizen Kane, Shadow of a Doubt, The Third Man, playing out the string in Japan, running around being chased by a guy in a plastic monster suit. There is an element of that that resonates with real life. This life is always our last flick, usually filled with absurdity, and we are the stars, no matter how much we borrow from the silver screen or how much we try to disguise who we really are. At our core, there exists something mythic, something really important enough to tell a story about, if we can only strip away the outer skin to find it. Something like that. In reality, I just wrote that first line about Gable and it cracked me up, so I continued.
"Exo-town" uses a humorous surface to great effect, despite the sometimes unsettling nature of the story. What is the role of humor in your work? Do your readers usually "get" the humor?
I find that in real life, often when I am trying in my lame-ass style, to be humorous, people take me seriously and are put off. Perhaps the same thing happens in the fiction to some extent, perhaps the humor is clearer in the fiction. This is a hard thing to know about your own writing. Too bad I asked you this question when I interviewed you. Now I have to answer it myself. All I can say is that all fiction needs at least a bit of humor to give it that verisimilitude, whether it's supposed to represent "reality" or the reality of a fantasy world. God may not play dice with the universe, but he often dances around in his underwear with the lampshade on his head. Irony is the engine that drives the world, and humanity's reaction to irony is either laughter or sorrow. More often than not it is an intermingling of the two. I guess fiction should have the same.
"At Reparata", reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, is both fun and wise--a very difficult combination. What inspired you to write the story? And, just out of personal curiosity, was it as fun to write as it is to read?
I met Ellen Datlow about ten minutes after The Physiognomy won The World Fantasy Award in Monterey. She told me she was publishing stories on the web at a site called Event Horizon. She gave me the impression that she wanted me to write something I really wanted to write. I came up with "At Reparata" from the single image of the guy fly fishing for bats. I ripped that off from Washington Irving. He has a scene in The Alhambra where a guy fly fishes for sparrows. It really simply grew out of that idea and writing it was definitely flying by the seat of the pants. There was a sense of trying to write a real fantasy, but one where instead of the characters being types, the characters were just people trying to get through life, and, as happens with people in everyday life sometimes, rallying to the support of a neighbor or friend who was in trouble. So many times, it's the people we least expect help from that come through for us in a big way when the chips are down. I worked with Ellen on the revision for it, and that was so valuable for me. I learned a great deal from working on that story and quite a few others with her. She's a fabulous editor, very insistent on getting it right but at the same time very courageous in what she is willing to publish. She'll definitely take a chance on a new writer or a new idea or style. All one has to do is go to SciFiction or the old Event Horizon sites to see this. As far as whether this story was fun to write -- yeah, they're all fun to write. I'm not just being flip when I say, if they weren't I wouldn't write them.
What is your forthcoming novel "about"? Was it difficult to tear yourself away from the world of The Beyond?
The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque is about a painter, Piambo, living in New York City in 1893. It was a time when photography had come into its own and every peon and their brother could own a portrait of themselves. To distinguish their societal difference, the wealthy insisted on having their portraits painted. The trade of portrait painting verily exploded at this time. Most famous painters of the time got caught up in this work, though many of them, like John Singer Sargent, hated it because, even though it meant very good money, it detracted from what they considered to be their real art. Piambo has basically given himself up fully to portraiture, but would love to escape it and explore his own ideas in painting. Then he gets a commision from a woman, Mrs. Charbuque, to paint her portrait. There is only one stipulation, he is not allowed to view her. She sits behind a screen and tells him of her life and ideas and from this he is to render her portrait. If he succeeds in capturing her true figure, she will make him wealthy beyond his imagination. He takes the commission, hoping to succeed so that he can use the money to escape portraiture. He soon becomes wrapped up in the stories the Mrs. tells him, some seeming too fantastic to be real, some tragic, some comic, and then the story takes a dark turn when one day he gets a scribbled note on the street from a young boy. It is signed Charbuque and it says -- Why are you seeing my wife? Charbuque is a murderous nut job, who hangs in the shadows, who does not show himself, but begins to pursue Piambo. Piambo ends up pursued by the ineffable while pursuing the ineffable and...
I had no problem breaking with the trilogy since when The Beyond was finished I had achieved what I had set out to do with that particular story line.
What, generally, will cause you to toss a work of fiction across the room?
I did a lot more tossing of fiction when I was younger. Then I was more energetic and felt the need to express myself in grandiose ways. Once I threw a book off an overpass. What usually caused these outbursts was ignorance born of fear. Very often I would come across a work by a writer I did not understand or whose work went in a wildly different direction from mine. It caused in me the fear of the 'other.' I only wanted to look into books that were like mirrors. Then I finally outgrew that novel tossing stuff by setting myself a task. Once a month, I look over my bookshelves, where I have thousands of volumes, and I try to find the one I would be least likely to read. "Which one of these looks like a terrific bore?" I ask myself. Usually these are books that have a great reputation but they are by writers or about themes that would not readily interest me. When I hit upon the book that elicits in me a feeling of nausea or weariness or derision, I take it off the shelf and force myself to read a hundred pages of it. If at the end of a hundred pages it still sucks then, I don't toss it, I put it back on the shelf, thinking it might be better at a later date. Another method is going to a bookstore, walking down the aisle with your eyes closed and picking a book. Whatever it is, I buy it and read it. I can't tell you how many great books I have discovered this way and how many of them have shown me new countries of fiction. I know you will think to yourself, "Ah, Ford is full of shit. He's getting over on himself and picking one he secretly wants to read." Perhaps I am. The things that turn me off a book all have to do with the writer's style, which is so idiosyncratic to each writer, I can't be more definitive.
If you weren't a writer and teacher, what would you be?
I'd probably still be working at Century Metals, getting bombed at The Palace A on my lunch break with Paco and Johnny Big Head (a guy from Virginia who carried on an audible conversation with God all day long), and after work getting high and watching reruns of Barnaby Jones on the tube with the sound turned down and Neil Young playing on the stereo. I have always liked to draw and paint and make collages, maybe I'd be an artist. I once had a job erasing musical scores. Perhaps by now I would have graduated to head eraser or eraser head.
Are you currently working on a new novel?
I've begun working on it, but I'm only in the thinking stage. Mrs. Charbuque had a historical element to it and required research, which was interesting. I might like to do another one like that, wholly unrelated to the first in plot and characters, in order to explore that technique a little more. Something set in another time.
Where will your short fiction appear in the next few months?
There will be that story "Creation" published in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction either in the May or June issue. I also have a story called "The Green Word," which will be in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's YA anthology The Green Man and other Tales of the Mythic Wood. That was a difficult but interesting project for me, trying to figure out what is appropriate for a young adult audience -- and I even have two boys that age. You definitely don't want to write down to them or they'll sense that right off and close the book, but there are certain limitations as far as content or at least the way it is presented. My story deals with the mandrake legend to some extent, and from my reading of the folklore I learned that the mandrake grew at the base of the gallows from the ejaculations of hanged men. It is a fact that when a man is hung the snapping of the neck automatically causes him to ejaculate. Well, that was an item I had to change around for the age of the audience, but the story still has some very tough imagery and Terri and Ellen are hip to the fact that that age group requires a certain sense of maturity and honesty of vision. It was an interesting project and a type of writing I would very much like to do more of. Then there is a story coming out from Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet entitled "What's Sure to Come," I think in May. It's a kind of autobiographical/fantasy story about my grandmother reading the future in a deck of playing cards and my family's involvement with betting on horse races. There is another short, kind of unusual piece, which will appear in a one shot magazine from Chris Rowe called Is It a Cat? I don't know when this one will be out, soon I think, but I know Gavin Grant and Ted Chiang also have stories in it. My collection due out in June from Golden Gryphon, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories, has one new story I like a lot, "Bright Morning," and might have another, depending on how fast I can write it, "Something By the Sea."
The publication of the anthology, Leviathan #3 will have a story I'm really looking forward to seeing what people think of, "The Weight of Words." Lev. looks like it's going to be a really interesting collection of work. In July, The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror Vol. 15 is going to reprint my story "The Honeyed Knot," from Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
What is your favorite word?
My favorite word is "Scaaz." It's the name my sons call me. They've never called me Dad. Early on, for a brief time, they called me Jeff, but then I soon became Zoz, then The Big Bellied Rajash, then... It keeps changing, evolving. Whatever that word is, that's the word I like, because I hear it in their voices.
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© Jeff VanderMeer 9 March 2002