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In A Vision Of The Drama:
An Interview With Jeffrey Ford

An interview with Nick Gevers
June 2002

© John Berlyne
Jeffrey Ford
Jeffrey Ford
Jeffrey Ford's first novel was Vanitas. His second, The Physiognomy, won the World Fantasy Award. He lives in New Jersey.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Memoranda
SF Site Review: The Physiognomy

The Fantasy Writer's Assistant
The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque
The Beyond
The Physiognomy

Over the last five years, Jeffrey Ford has emerged as one of America's master fantasists. Subtle, shrewd, stylish, intensely surprising, he is a leading exponent of what Michael Swanwick has termed Hard Fantasy: fantastic literature that is authentically original rather than safely conventional, that strikes to the surreal heart of human nature with a fresh, courageous novelty and flair. This is amply evident in Ford's highly regarded trilogy of novels concerning the Physiognomist Cley and other denizens of the Well-Built City: The Physiognomy (1997, winner of the World Fantasy Award), Memoranda (1999), and The Beyond (2001). His growing prowess is further demonstrated by two new books, both published in June 2002: a major historical thriller in the magic realist vein, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque (William Morrow), and a striking collection of short stories, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant (Golden Gryphon Press).

I interviewed Jeffrey Ford by e-mail in May/June 2002.

Reading almost any of your works, one is struck by the richness of your prose and your deftness with fantastic surrealism. What literary influences have shaped you as an author, particularly in those two areas?
As far as the prose goes, two writers who come immediately to mind are Robert Louis Stevenson and Bruno Schulz. Stevenson, for me, is one of the greatest prose stylists. I read the stories "The Bottle Imp" and "Jekyll and Hyde" all the time. The New Arabian Nights is great too ("The Suicide Club"), as is Treasure Island. There's a complexity to his sentences that results in clarity of understanding, and at the same time that complexity does not sacrifice economy. They flow with an ease to rival the effects of the best oral storytellers. That's hard to do in writing. I admire his precision and abilities as a wordsmith. I strive for this, but I'm still too much of a slob in my craft. Something to work toward, at least.

A book like Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles or Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass is so metaphorically rich, the imagery so engaging. The use of metaphor, I am afraid, is on the way out in literature. Too bad. It requires readers' minds to operate on multiple levels at the same time. Metaphor used in the right degree, at just the right juncture, is really language magic. Whole books have been written about it, but no one has ever been able to definitively say how or why metaphor works. For me, there is something very mystical about it.

Some of the fantastic surrealism influences are Kafka, Tutuola, Kobo Abe, Hamsun, Poe, Hoffmann, Bernanos, Borges, Gogol, Tanizaki. It is important to me that most of them have a great sense of humor, which really torques the weirdness up a notch or two.

In your recent Infinity Plus interview, conducted by Jeff VanderMeer, Jeff suggested, correctly, that you are most obviously compared as a writer with Kafka and Gene Wolfe. This underlines an uncertainty: are you a mainstream-oriented author (like Kafka) or an (ambitious) genre one, like Wolfe?
In answering this question, I speak merely for myself, and I am truly not intending to be disrespectful of either of the writers mentioned or of "genre" or "mainstream." I understand and acknowledge the importance of these distinctions for certain readers, for reviewers, publishers, critics, etc., but as a writer, or I should say, as the writer I am, I have to tell you, I give so little of a shit about any of these distinctions that it hardly bears mentioning. This said, my first love has always been what could be called "the literature of the fantastic," but I have no clear definition of what it is, and in the vague one I operate under the edges bleed away into what others would perceive to be other genres and/or the mainstream. I see my job as to write the works I have it in me to write. The cataloguing of fiction, not an unimportant job by any means, especially in light of studying it and analyzing it, should be in the hands of an objective party, not the writer of it. As I told Jeff VanderMeer, people are always trying to get you to pledge allegiance to the genre, but what they don't understand is that it is not the writer that constitutes the genre, it's the works of fiction. I just want to write what I want to write when I want to write it. Granted, no one has to buy it or read it if they don't want to, that is wholly their prerogative. I'm certain there will be instances when that will be the case with my fiction. That's not to say I will stop writing what interests me in order to satisfy someone else's expectations. As Popeye says, "I am what I am." That Popeye, he gives Descartes a run for his money.

Your first novel, Vanitas (1988), was published fairly obscurely. What sort of book is it?
It's a book written by a guy in his late twenties on legal pads and typed about twelve different times on an electric typewriter. It really needs to be edited -- lots of errant commas and windbag sentences, grasping for meaning but missing the mark. The windbag sentence part is a glimpse of things to come in my later work. Still, it has its charms, though what they are I can't this moment remember. It was published by Gordon Linzner and Jani Anderson of Space & Time Press, to whom I am eternally grateful for having given it a chance. It meant the world to me when it came out.

The story grew out of my having found in a garage sale and read a copy of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and also from a scene from Carol Reed's The Third Man, where Harry Lime is standing beneath a huge Ferris wheel. I had read somewhere about the notion of Vanitas paintings, how in a plastic medium artists tried to capture that moment that a bubble bursts, a candle goes out, a petal wilts and begins to fall from a stem. It has to do with that fleeting moment between life and death, and of course, Vanity. I forget how the ideas from the school of painting worked in it, but the Vanity is glaringly obvious. One could think of it as a run-through for The Physiognomy. In fact, it is linked to the Cley trilogy in a way, through the character of Scarfinati, who appears in it as one of the main characters. What I remember most about it is how much fun I had writing it. Once every while someone will show up with a copy when I am doing a book signing and it is always great to see it, like an old friend.

"The Delicate", included in your collection, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, is quite striking, a compressed nightmare. How did this early vignette contribute (alongside Vanitas) to your trilogy about the Physiognomist Cley?
I actually had the plots to all the books of the trilogy before I wrote "The Delicate." What I had been trying to do was work out a style or tone that I wanted for the books. I did a whole series of stories for a while where I'd just let go and follow the story wherever and however it took me. It was really an amazing exercise for getting different and new effects. I remember one of the pieces was titled "86 Deathdick Road," and it had a scene in it where an African Bushman mixes perfumes on a stage, creating this concoction called The Tears of Carthage. The Tears of Carthage was something I ended up using in my recent novel The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque. Another one of these crazy little pieces was called "The Mayor of Exo-Skeleton Town," and was the precursor to the story, "Exo-Skeleton Town," which appeared in Black Gate. I'm still using stuff from this period in my fictions. Works that inspired me to do all this were Kerouac's Dr. Sax, Amos Tutuola's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the writings of the students in a class I teach for individuals with learning disabilities. I found that the people with learning disorders had a hard time writing because they felt that there was an official way to approach writing a story. Since they had always failed at it, they had become really uptight about writing. The methods used to teach them writing always approached the task through this same compartmentalized process. They mechanized the process, offered only a part of it up at a time, piecemeal, making a mystery out of telling a story, which should be second nature. What I did was not teach. I just said, "Hey write me a ghost story," or "Today I want you to write a fairy tale." I never told them how to do it. I never broke it down into steps. I assumed they knew how to tell a story, and because I did, they assumed they knew too. Man, some of the stories were remarkable and they definitely circumvented conventions that had been troubling to them as writers. In those circumventions, there was wonderful originality of vision and technique. With these successes, they grew strong as writers and were able to tackle some of the things that had been insurmountable problems in the past. I learned so much about writing from them. My advice to new teachers of writing has become, "Sometimes you have to have the courage to do nothing."

"The Delicate" was one of the stories inspired by these experiences, and it led to the style and tone I used in the Cley books.

A number of the stories in your collection are very personal in tone -- in "The Honeyed Knot" and "Bright Morning", "Jeffrey Ford" is explicitly present as narrator or character, and elsewhere you are unusually close to the surface of the text. Why are you fond of this technique? Indeed, how intimately reflective of your personal life is your oeuvre in general?
This technique is something I have worked on for a long time and have yet to perfect. I first came across it when reading Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories, especially the ones set in New York. Singer is my idea of a great short story writer. He has this way of narrating a story that makes you think it is a slice right out of his life even when strange stuff is going on. It makes the fantastic elements of the piece completely believable. Kipling does this to an extent as do Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver. Writing a story, especially where you present yourself as the narrator, is a real tightrope act. What I learned from Singer is that understatement goes a long way. If you are at all self-conscious in the telling, the piece will fail. You mention two of my stories where I think the technique works well, but, believe me, there are ten times that many sitting in a drawer turning to mulch, and that fate is too good for them.

As for how reflective my oeuvre is of my actual day to day personal life, I have to say, not very. I have a great real life, great wife, great kids, great dog. I live in the suburbs in South Jersey in a nice house in a town with a lot of lakes and trees. My neighbors know I'm a writer, but they haven't got a fucking clue what I'm up to. All they know is that I'm home a lot in the middle of the day, and they glimpse me out past midnight from time to time walking the streets. They never read my books or stories, but what the hell, they're nice people with nice kids and dogs too. But I'm afraid if my daily happenings, though thoroughly engaging for me, were recorded for readers, they could stand in for the Goldberg Variations as a cure for insomnia. The stories are, though, a record of my fears and desires and wishes and dreams, and in that sense alone they are exactly me.

Certain of your tales -- "Something By the Sea", "Creation", "The Delicate", your recent story "Summer Afternoon" (in this a cat?) -- are decidedly oneiric; in his Introduction to The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, Michael Swanwick comments on this repeated use of dream imagery, dream logic. How frequently are your stories directly dream-based, and why?
Only once did I ever get a whole story from a dream, and when it happened, I actually saw words scrolling down like on a monitor. The Science Fiction writer, Bill Watkins, has told me that he has had the same experience on a couple of occasions. Mostly what I get from the dreams are snippets of imagery, names, settings. The name of the title character in my book, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, came to me in a dream. I had been up drinking with a friend of mine on the screened-in porch at the back of my house one summer night. I fell asleep in the rocking chair around 3 AM. The next morning, just before I opened my eyes, I heard a voice distinctly say, "Charbuque." It was so clear, I couldn't forget it. A few months later, when I started writing the book and I needed a name for the mysterious woman behind the screen, I realized immediately that she was Mrs. Charbuque. When I write, I can achieve a state that is very dream-like. Time passes unnoticed, and I am consumed in a kind of vision of the drama. A teacher of mine used to say that the job of writing fiction was creating a "vivid and continuous dream." I thought Swanwick's introduction to the collection was really astute. A lot of the stuff he mentions I was not conscious of from being too close to my own stories. His comments on some of the aspects of my writing were really kind of revelations to me. After having read them, I wrote the story, "The Weight of Words," for Leviathan 3, and his insights in the intro had a real influence on that story.

Another recurrent element: your stories often resemble psychiatric case studies, notes towards prognosis and resolution: "The Fantasy Writer's Assistant", "The Woman Who Counts Her Breath", "At Reparata", "Something By the Sea", "The Weight of Words". In being an author, are you also a psychotherapist?
I am, but I'm not quite ready to hang out my shingle yet and take customers. Physician, heal thyself. So much of writing stories has to do with tapping into the subconscious. The subconscious, for lack of a better term, is what gives a story that sense of rightness when it is good. It takes care of the symbolism, the leitmotifs, those elements that resonate throughout a piece of good fiction. Too many readers, from having taken too many lit classes, think that a writer is consciously injecting that stuff into a story like filling cream doughnuts. Getting in touch with that vision in your head is where it's at. Here comes a character, follow that character, tell what happens. If you have worked on your craft, you can then relay to the reader in language exactly what you see. Writing stories is not laying bricks. You don't manipulate the characters like a puppeteer. Or if you do, the story is going to suck the big one, be dead on arrival. The story you want to tell already exists, fully formed in your mind, you just have to tap into it and be ready to type. Granted, once you have gotten this good stuff down, then you need to sit back and do some analysis, shore up parts that are sagging a bit, complete stuff that has not come through clearly in the transmission, balance some of the ill-conceived sentences, polish up an image. Writing fiction, for me, is all about what goes on in the mind below the surface, letting it out, understanding it, tweaking things here and there.

"Out of the Canyon" and "The Honeyed Knot" are intricate puzzle stories, spirals of implication requiring a kind of forensic decoding. In such tales, is there ever any perfect resolution to the mystery?
I think "The Honeyed Knot" has more of a real resolution to the mystery than "Out of the Canyon." The failure of "Out of the Canyon" is not that the puzzle doesn't have a resolution, but that there is a gap in the scheme of clues to deciphering it. That gap is not very wide but it is there. Some readers will vault it easily, some will wonder why they have to. Still, I like the spiral effect of "Canyon" and it is meant to be somewhat humorous. "The Honeyed Knot" is, for me, a better story, because it is complete. This said, there are aspects of every story that are and need to be ambiguous.

Your extraordinary facility with fantastic imagery contrasts with the imaginative poverty of, shall we say, certain Tolkienian blockbuster fantasists. Is "The Fantasy Writer's Assistant" an analysis of how genre fantasy goes astray, and "At Reparata" a master class in how to do it right?
One of the things that "Fantasy Writer" is about is the importance of attempting to understand the pleasure others find in literature that you yourself are not in tune with. Blockbuster fantasies are not my particular cup of tea, but a lot of readers like them, and my personal feeling is, "God bless them." I feel the same way about tie-in novels. If you dig it, go for it. My personal problem with a lot of Tolkienesque fantasies is that the writing is often pretty thin gruel, not to mention the soap opera story lines. I do think that too often these works you speak of get confused with those by other writers who are working in a "classical fantasy" mode and are really fine writers -- like Patricia McKillip or Sean Russell. These guys can really write, and they know how to weave a story around you and capture your imagination. Many of the plots in these books are archetypal and in that sense they follow the conventions, but it is in the description and the flow of the language that a book like these lives or dies. What the narrator, Mary, ends up doing at the end of "The Fantasy Writer's Assistant" is writing a story that is an amalgamation of her own vision of literature and what she has taken from the "hack" fantasist, Ashmolean. I have to add that even though I don't read a lot of "blockbuster fantasy," I don't disrespect the writers who write it. Cranking those doorstopper tomes out, at least one a year, has got to be hard work. Just because they make it look easy, doesn't mean it necessarily is.

I consider "At Reparata" to be more of a fairy tale, and the fairy tale has been from time to time a vehicle of subversion. In that story I sort of turn the conventions of the expected fairy tale plot on their heads. Plus, I think one of the things that makes it stand out is that the problems and the characters of the story are rendered with an eye toward the contemporary and the complex. John Gardner was doing this kind of thing years ago in his Queen Louisa stories. Check out the book, The King's Indian. Other writers in the 70s followed Gardner's lead -- Barth, Barthelme, Coover. For a real master class in contemporary fairy tale writing see Angela Carter.

A few of your stories -- "The Far Oasis", "Exo-Skeleton Town", "Floating in Lindrethool" -- are identifiable as Science Fiction. How do you regard the SF genre? Are you comfortable writing SF?
I have to claim ignorance when it comes to SF, although I don't deny I use the term to describe certain fictions. Of the stories you mention above, I'd say the only SF one is really "The Far Oasis." The others to me are more fantasy. One you didn't mention that I might consider a real SF story is "Malthusian's Zombie." I have a hard time getting a grasp on what SF really is. I'm not saying this because I expect anyone to agree with me, but to me a lot of it seems like fantasy in outer space, or fantasy with gadgets, or fantasy with computers. The argument that technology and magic are incompatible systems, belonging to separate genres, doesn't register for me, because in SF science becomes magic and in Fantasy magic becomes science and vice versa. A lot of the fiction of the writers who are considered the greats of SF, like Asimov or Heinlein, just bores the crap out of me, although I understand why they are considered important figures in their genre. I really like the work of writers today like Michael Swanwick, China Miéville, Paul McAuley, Gene Wolfe, Paul Di Filippo, Charles Stross, but it isn't necessarily the science part of their fiction that thrills me. Are they Science Fiction writers? You tell me.

I am interested in science, though, and read a great deal about it. The first convention panel I ever participated in was at Philcon and it also had Bruce Sterling on it. I didn't know who he was at the time, but I found him to be really entertaining. I like reading his work now -- neat ideas, great wit, and an amazing facility with language. The title of the panel was something like The Difference Between Real and Fake SF. Sterling said, something like, "Look, a really real SF story would be about something like a guy inventing a new kind of catalytic converter that eliminates pollution entirely. The story would have schematics in it, and the science would be feasible and verifiable all the way through. And nobody would want to read it because it would be a horrendous bore." So I guess the most important thing in successful SF stories is not necessarily the Science. Let's face it, in the best of SF stories, the "Hardest" of SF stories, there's a point where if you follow the science, it turns into bullshit. I have no problem with it turning into bullshit. I expect it to. But aspects of actuality mixed with bullshit is what fantasy also is. Come to think of it, that's what all fiction is. Obviously, I'm a confused, reductivist lunkhead on this subject and so everything I just wrote is so much bullshit, itself. Long live SF!

"Creation" and "On the Road to New Egypt" are contrasting religious fantasies. Would it be accurate to describe your spiritual theme here as faith modulated by secular experience?
I think that is well put. I'm very interested in the philosophies of religions and religious texts as literature. As far as belonging to any bureaucratic religious group, with a classic, male-dominated, hierarchical top down structure of holiness, like worshipping at the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles, forget it. I can't hack the dogma. I'm a big fan of Emerson's, and I think his Transcendental take on existence is one I am most aligned with, as described in the essays "Self-Reliance" and "Nature." I have a sense that there is some kind of consciousness in nature, some spiritual essence to it. I am also in agreement with him on the idea that "reality" is largely a product of subjective consciousness. In these two stories, I am investigating the religion I was born into, Catholicism -- heavy on the mumbo-jumbo, heavy on the judgment, gourmets of guilt. Many fundamentalist Christian religions today and to a large part the official Catholic church seem to have forgotten the New Testament, where the idea is to be accepting of others' humanity, others' foibles, others' weaknesses and to forgive and love, love, love, but they use Jesus too often now as a way of being exclusive and drawing distinctions between themselves and the rest of us poor bastards who don't get it. Some of the smallest-hearted people I know are the most righteous in their expression of their religion. And then there is one guy I know who is a bona fide, Bible thumping, Baptist, but this guy really practices what he preaches, is kind to everyone and is non-judgmental. Go figure.

"Creation" is partially an investigation of the paganistic spirit that is alive for us in childhood and is often eventually appropriated and enslaved by the official religion one is inculcated into. "On the Road to New Egypt" is my own conception of the major players in the game of good and evil. Surprisingly enough, they're a lot like a couple of guys I know.

Your major new novel, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, is an extraordinary historical thriller with a definite fantastic bent. Why 1890s New York as your setting? And why an artist as protagonist?
Why New York? That's easy, because I'm a New Yorker. I was born on Long Island and grew up there, and the city was always just a brief train ride away. I wanted to place the story this time in a real locale as opposed to the books of the trilogy. The fact that I now live in New Jersey, and have lived in other places, doesn't matter. I have New York in my blood. I carry the accent and the point of view. Learning more about the city was great fun.

Why the 1890s? Because that is a time when photography was really starting to take hold, had become a medium for the masses. Any peon could have a portrait of himself through this technological development. That worried portrait painters for a time, for they thought the camera would put them out of business. Then the rich and society's elite realized that in order to distinguish themselves, they needed a means of distinguishing their status. The art of portraiture exploded, fueled by this elitist notion and the money that backed it up. A painting lasts longer without deteriorating than a photo. It costs more to have done. There is the fact that a subject can be rendered not so much as they appear but how they ought to. Since the book was about a portrait painter, this was a very fertile time period in which to set it. Working for the first time with historical material was daunting. I did the research, but in some of my early drafts, I was unaware that a little research goes a long, long way. The historical detail was bogging down the story. My editor, Jennifer Brehl, gave tremendous assistance here in helping me work out the right balance.

Why a painter? I had had the idea of doing a story about a reclusive woman who hides behind a screen all the time. I got this idea from having taught Emily Dickinson in my Early American Literature course. Dickinson intrigues me. There are a lot of stories told about Emily's shyness, her efforts to hide herself. It's a compelling idea, but a woman sitting behind a screen isn't much of a story. I thought about the people who would call on her, and converse with her while she was hiding up the staircase, just out of view. They registered her words, but they must always have been wondering what expressions she was making, what she was wearing, how she looked. To bring this out, I hit upon the idea of someone hired to render this reclusive woman's portrait based solely on her own words, and then the story was born.

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque is a real puzzle box: tales within tales, unreliable narrators, people who aren't there, crackpot philosophies that sound strangely true. It all hangs together magnificently; as author, how difficult is it thus to juggle so many illusions masking a central truth?
To tell you the truth, I really am not sure how difficult it is, because when I am in the midst of it, I'm only aware of the story. Like I said earlier, many of the directions and subplots rise of their own accord while I am writing, directly out of my subconscious. I am not even aware at first what the connections are. I like that weaving effect, though, where incidents and images recur and develop and merge with each other. My hope is that it enmeshes the reader in the story. I never take notes or make outlines. I always keep my novels in my head while I am working on them. That way the different pieces can intermingle in my subconscious and work on each other. I am fairly unaware of the process of writing a novel when I am doing it. And when I am done, all I can remember is the story. I wish I had a better answer for you here.

Is The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque a feminist novel?
I think it could be construed as one. Although I am an ardent supporter of feminism in my life, none of my books is written with an overt political message in mind. Telling the story is always my first and foremost desire, otherwise I would write essays. Besides, for a male to claim outright he has written a feminist novel, especially one in which the protagonist is a male, it's like putting a sign on the back of your pants that says, KICK ME!!! I'm counting on you, Nick, to make this case, if you believe it is so. Short of that, we'll leave it to the Feminists to decide.

Finally: what's next? Is your sixth novel mapped out as yet? Are more stories coming?
The sixth novel will be something completely different. More than that I cannot say.

As for stories, there are some new ones on the way. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet will be running a story in their 10th issue called "What's Sure to Come." The Leviathan 3 anthology is just out with the story of mine, "The Weight of Words." Just this week I finished a story, "The Trentino Kid," that will appear in Ellen Datlow's Ghost Story Anthology. I also will have a story, "Present From the Past," in the Silver Gryphon Anthology, celebrating the 25th book by Golden Gryphon Press. There is a story in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's The Green Man and other stories of the mythic forest, a YA anthology, which has just come out. F&SF will run a previously unpublished story, "Something By the Sea," which is also in my Golden Gryphon collection, in an upcoming issue, and I did these entries for a medical dictionary of extraordinary diseases that Jeff VanderMeer is editing. I think that will be out some time this summer or in the early fall.

Copyright © 2002 Nick Gevers

Nick Gevers, an editor at Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus, and his reviews and interviews have also recently appeared in The Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue of which he co-edited), Locus Online, Foundation, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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