Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Feature: Interview with Jeffrey Ford

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Jeffrey Ford has won several awards for his stories including The World Fantasy Award for The Physiognomy and The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant and Other Stories and The Edgar Allan Poe Award for The Girl in the Glass in addition to being a prolific short story writer. He has two books coming out this year, a novel entitled The Shadow Year on March 11, 2008 and the collection The Drowned Life.

First off, congrats on winning the World Fantasy Award for best novella with Botch Town. What's it like winning all these awards (since this isn't your first)?

The award thing is cool, but it’s a mixed bag. It’s always nice to have your work recognized in a positive way by either your peers or the reading public, and with certain ballots and certain awards it’s a real honor. That part’s fun for a few days and it’s something to slap on your resume, but it doesn’t take long before that leaden Lovecraft head starts following you around the room with its blank gaze, as if inquiring, “What have you written lately, asshole?”

You have a new novel coming out, The Shadow Year. Can you tell us something about it, what the story is about?

It shouldn’t be, but I always have the hardest time summing up my own books. Here’s some flap copy I lifted that I think sums it up pretty well.

In the center of New York’s Long Island, in the unpredictable decade of the 1960s, a young boy laments the approaching close of summer and the advent of sixth grade. Growing up in a household with an overworked father whom he rarely sees, an alcoholic mother who paints wonderful canvases that are never displayed, an older brother who serves as both tormentor and protector, and a younger sister, Mary, who inhabits her own secret world, the boy takes his amusements where he can find them, as all boys do. Some of his free time is spent in the basement of the family’s modest home, where he and brother, Jim, have created “Botch Town,” an extraordinarily detailed cardboard replica of their community, complete with clay and wire figurines representing friends and neighbors. And so the time passes with a not always reassuring sameness--until the night a prowler is reported stalking the neighborhood.

Appointing themselves ad hoc investigators, the brothers set out to aid the police by unmasking the unknown Peeping Tom--while their little sister smokes cigarettes, speaks in other voices, inhabits alternate personas… and, unbeknownst to her older siblings, moves the inanimate residents of Botch Town around. But ensuing events add a shadowy cast to the boys’ night games: unexplainable disappearances, deaths, and spectral sightings, capped off by the arrival of a sinister man in a long, white car trawling the neighborhood after dark. Strangest of all is the inescapable fact that every one of these troubling occurrences seems to correspond directly to the changes little Mary has made to the miniature town in their basement.

What I'm impressed with in your novels is that they're distinctively different from each other: The Well-Built City trilogy is very different from The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque and The Girl in the Glass. Is The Shadow Year such another departure from your previous novels? Was it conscious on your part?

I suppose it’s a departure – the writing style is different and it has more elements of fictionalized autobiography in it than the others, which have none. To an extent the decision is conscious in that I’m aware that I don’t want to write the same book again and again. The minute I decide to write a novel, though, with the exception of some of the research I do, which on this one was not extensive, the “subconscious” takes over in that the style of the book is dictated by the story and its characters. My method of writing is to follow the characters. I plot nothing in advance, but envision the characters in my mind and follow them, see what they do and record it. Eventually, the style becomes evident to me, I’m conscious of it, and I have it in mind when I edit. I think the styles in my various short stories are quite diverse also, and I think this is because I more come to them, discover them, than consciously build them. It’s as if they already exist, and I’m merely accessing them. In other words, I don’t know.

How long did it take you to write the novel? Were there any difficulties?

I think the answer to the next question covers this.

Amazon.com lists William Morrow (under Harper Collins) as the publisher. How did the publication process go about. Did you pitch the book to them or were they already looking to publish a book from you?

I’ve published most of my novels with Harper Collins, and, while there, I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked exclusively with Jennifer Brehl. She’s an awesome editor. The process has always been that I write three chapters or so and a synopsis and sell the book to them, and then I write it. Usually the contracts are for delivery in around 9 months. We had started working on The Shadow Year quite a few years ago, and I had a contract on it, but I got stuck with it. I got to a point where I just couldn’t go any further and this was for personal reasons having to do with the content of it. I won’t go into the particulars. In the meantime, I switched gears and wrote The Girl in the Glass to fulfill the contract. It was primarily Jennifer (although my wife and a writer friend also encouraged me to go back to it) who brought me back to this book and suggested a strategy that would allow me to continue. Without this help and guidance, it never would have been finished. A good rule for writing should be: work with great editors. I’ve been lucky enough to, both on my novels and my stories.

You have another collection coming out later this year. You mentioned in your blog that the short story "The Golden Dragon" is a new short story for 2008. Aside from your upcoming collection, will it be published elsewhere?

Yes, a new collection – The Drowned Life. I was going to use the title, The Night Whiskey, referring to a story that will appear in it, but I thought the other title was more indicative of the entire range of stories in the collection. The table of contents is not really set yet, but there will be around 15 or 16 stories. “The Night Whiskey,” “The Drowned Life,” “Present From the Past,” “The Bedroom Light,” “The Dreaming Wind,” etc. A lot of the work I’ve published since The Empire of Ice Cream in 06. It’s being published by Perennial/Harper Collins and should be out in September of 08.

No, “The Golden Dragon” will be exclusive to the collection. A version of it appeared on my blog briefly, but it is so re-envisioned and rewritten that it is legitimately a different story. There will be a couple of other “relatively unpublished” stories in the collection too. One appeared on my blog for a brief time and one appeared there and in a non-paying venue on-line.

Who were the authors you admired as a kid? How about in the present?

As a kid, I always liked Curious George. I can’t remember the guy’s name who wrote those books. The colors of the illustrations appealed to me, especially the blues and yellows. And the stories were like stream of consciousness. Curious could be going to the hospital to have his tonsils out and wind up in a rocket to the moon. Just one crazy thing after another with everybody chasing him. At a little older age, I liked Dr. Doolittle and those Mushroom Planet books (Mr. Bass?) I distinctly remember reading “The Phantom Rickshaw” by Kipling at the age of nine and it really creeped me. I also remember reading in one of those usually lame readers for school, the story, “The Death of Red Peril,” about a guy who had a battling caterpillar he waged money on. I might have the title wrong, but that one struck me.

As for the present, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Here are a few writers and books I always return to:

  • The Four Wise Men by Michel Tournier
  • The Adventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis
  • Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mafous
  • Stories by Alice Munro
  • Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer
  • Stories by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
  • The Diary of a Mad Old Man by Junichiro Tanizaki
  • The Infernal Desire Machine… by Angela Carter
  • Dr. Sax by Jack Kerouac
  • My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola
  • The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
  • Love and Other Demons by Garcia-Marquez

You usually post photos from Rick Bowes (and wrote the introduction to his book) and K.J. Bishop. Are you good friends with them?

That book by Rick, Streetcar Dreams, from PS Publishing in the UK, is a really fine collection. I’ve known him since around the time I first became a professional writer. I’ve learned a lot from him about writing and about the business in general. There are quite a few of my stories that he’s helped me work out problems for. He’s one of the funniest, in a kind of understated way, people I’ve ever met, and is unfailingly generous to new writers. Rick’s just up in New York, so I see him at the KGB readings pretty frequently, but Bishop is over in Bangkok by way of Australia and I’ve only literally met her once – at a World Fantasy convention in D.C. I first came in contact with her work when I read a copy of The Etched City that her publisher Prime sent me for a quote. It’s a wonderful book. She has a most wild and idiosyncratic imagination, and, for someone like me who is at times only about three rungs above agoraphobic, I admire her fearless travels. We keep in touch over the e-mail. For those who are waiting for another book from her, I can tell you she has a couple of dynamite works in the works. This is one of the perks of the writing profession, though, getting to meet other writers and artists and editors, etc. I’ve made a number of really good friends and a boat load of fun and interesting acquaintances. I usually only do two conventions a year, and my main reason for doing them is to see these people and hang out with them for a few days. There are usually a lot of laughs, a few drinks, some bullshit and pinch of gossip. Keep it to a minimum and it’s very therapeutic.

I read in another interview that as a kid, you had a form of dyslexia. Could you talk more about it?

The term “slow learner” doesn’t really capture it. I had all manner of problems in writing and reading when I was a kid. The simplest things were mysteries to me. I was always the last one finished with any writing assignment in school, which, I remember the teacher never failed to point out to the rest of the class. And the mistakes were the classic missing letters and words and spellings reversed and words I’d not intended finding their way to the page. My father read to us a lot, though, and I loved that magic of stories, the things I saw in my mind and how they effected me. I was determined to become a writer, and I think just constantly working at it helped me to overcome many of the problems I had. It took a long long time, though. Even today when I read to myself, I move my lips with every single word. Ironically, I’ve spent the last 18 years or so teaching a college writing class for people with learning disabilities.

Do you still write with pen and paper or has it been the computer all the way?

I know some writers like to work initially in long hand, write only in special Moleskine notebooks, have special pens they use. More power to them. Whatever helps you get the job done. I used to write everything long hand, back in the day, but once I got on a computer with word processing capabilities, I never went back. I don’t keep any notebooks or notes. I like to walk around with everything in my head. If I forget something, my feeling is “fuck it,” it probably wasn’t that important anyway. With the whole story always in my head, and not relying on notes, it mixes together and parts of it interact while I’m doing the mundane business of life like grocery shopping or driving. I don’t have to have anything with me to work on a story or novel.

What are you more comfortable with (or which do you prefer more): writing short stories or novels?

The issue isn’t one of comfort but more what am I into at the moment. I think for the next year or so I’ll be concentrating less on stories and more on a novel I’ve been thinking about. Also, to be honest, with one son at college age and another almost there, I’m more comfortable with the money that can be made from novels as opposed to stories.

What advice would you give to new writers?

Read a lot – short stories, novels, poetry, non-fiction. Read the works of ancestors from all cultures. Write even more -- everyday if you can manage. Find a good teacher, preferably a published writer and learn about revision, but always remember that the most important things to learn about writing you will discover yourself in the act of writing. Forget about the concept of “success” but work hard and have fun and Time will take care of itself. If you run with the pack, the point will always come when you’re left behind, so, instead, cut your own path. Try to be kind to other travelers you might meet along the way. To quote Miles Davis – “Forget about the mistakes, there aren’t any.”

Any upcoming projects you'd like to plug?

Here’s some of the things that will be coming out in the next year:

In addition to The Shadow Year novel and the collection, The Drowned Life, I have a new story, “The Dismantled Invention of Fate,” that will be in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology, Starry Rift from Viking, another new story, “Daltharee,” in Ellen Datlow’s upcoming Del Rey anthology, reprints of “At Reparata” and “The Weight of Words” in two anthologies from Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, The New Weird and The Best of Leviathan.


banzai cat said...

I wonder... does Jeff's stories use a lot of autobiographical elements? Especially for his new book? He does those first person stories so seamlessly and I think some stories do use true accounts. (Am thinking of two stories, one is the Kafka story and the other is the one with the bar...)

banzai cat said...

Heh I guess I better ask him directly.

Btw, I await your Tim Pratt interview with some anticipation. ;-) (Though are you going to do one with Jay Lake also?)

Charles said...

What author doesn't incorporate some sense of autobiography into their writings? =)

Tim Pratt will come out at the end of the month. Haven't asked Jay Lake yet. My not-readily-apparent criteria in the interviews is that you have a book/work coming out soon so that you get to plug it in my blog. =)

banzai cat said...

Oh... does that mean you're reviewing Pratt's urban fantasy books? (Or it's the short story collection?) And doesn't have Lake have a lot of books in the pipeline?