Interview: Jeffrey Ford on “A Natural History of Autumn”
– Tell us a bit about “A Natural History of Autumn.”
“A Natural History of Autumn” is a supernatural horror story set in Japan, specifically on the Izu Peninsula. It’s also a noir story in that it’s about love and betrayal, double crossing with a pulpy twist. It’s a story about autumn and a monster story, featuring a mythic Japanese creature known as Jinmenkin.
– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
This story is an homage to those aspects of Japanese literature and film that have inspired my writing over the past 30 years. I wanted to try to emulate some of the effects of these works in the story — those aspects of them that ignited my imagination when I first came upon them. For one instance, the character of Riku is loosely based on the protagonist of Kurosawa’s film, “Stray Dog.” The structure of the story is reminiscent of the film Matango, a flick my brother and I, back in the day, would comb the TV guide for possible showings of in a savagely butchered form on 2 AM Saturday night fare from channel 11 or 9 out of New York City. This film was then known to us as — “Attack of the Mushroom People.” I did my best in the scenes that try to capture the autumn to emulate the subtlety of Tanizaki’s description in his short novel, The Reed Cutter. It’s difficult, though, to boil particular aspects of the story down to specific instances of influence. There are too many and they are too pervasive — from Mothra to Morio Kita’s Ghosts to Miyazaki’s amazing animations to Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo — The Iron Man. My process is a kind of mash-up of American noir and Japanese influences and obviously has inherent limitations in that I’ve only ever been able to access those aspects of Japanese culture that have been translated into English — a meager scratching of the tip of the iceberg — but since Tanizaki was greatly influenced by Western writers (Murakami by Kafka, etc.) as were a host of other great Japanese writers, I see it as a dialogue of literature that has been ongoing for a very long time. Just for fun, here’s a list of my top ten favorite works of fiction (at this moment) from Japan. No doubt the list will change next week. F&SF readers have more than likely read a lot of these. Hopefully they will find something here that might interest them, and if they are kind enough perhaps they will post a few I haven’t mentioned so that I can check them out.
The Woman in the Dunes — Kobo Abe (there are at least a half dozen great ones by Abe, but this is a near perfect novel).
Strangers — Taichi Yamada (the creepiness of this book is so idiosyncratically quiet it’s startling)
Shipwrecks — Akira Yoshimura
Diary of a Mad Old Man — Junichiro Tanizaki (as with Abe, so many great ones)
The Stories of Edogawa Rampo
Inspector Imanishi Investigates — Seicho Matsumoto
After Dark — Haruki Murakami (as with Abe and Tanizaki, the hits keep coming. Not to mention remarkable short stories).
Kusamakura — Netsume Soseki (off the hook)
“The Hell Screen” — Ryunosuke Akutagawa (the only short story on the list, not that the literature doesn’t hold armfulls of other great ones, but this has to be one of the best horror stories ever written. For a new translation of it, check Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s anthology, The Weird. )
The Ring — Koji Suzuki
The Reed Cutter — Junichiro Tanizaki (this short novel’s evocation of autumn was key to my story).
– Would you say that “A Natural History of Autumn” is typical of your work, or is it out of the ordinary from what you usually write?
It’s hard to say what’s typical of my work these days. When I just look back over the last five or six stories I’ve written for publication, I can’t find any two that are similar. In that sense, it’s not typical, or it is typical in that it’s not typical. It’s definitely not typical in that I have never written a story set in Japan before and probably never will again. It is typical in that I have written supernatural stories containing weird creatures with undercurrents of noir and/or pulp.
– What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
Any time you decide to set a story in a different country, especially one you’ve never been to, with characters from a different culture, it’s a real dicey affair. The potential for screw-ups grows exponentially as you push further into the story. The research was extensive on this one — internet and books and checking things with a Japanese friend who’s a translator. Still there are gaffs and they are all my own. I caught some before publication, and the F&SF copy editor caught two (one of which I corrected and the other couldn’t as I felt it was too much of an intrusion on the plot for such a very minor detail). I read this story aloud before it was published at the ICFA conference in Orlando, and a Japanese woman in the audience came up to me after the reading and pointed out another issue with a piece of furniture I mentioned. I have no doubt an adept eye might turn up more. Ultimately, the research on the story was very gratifying to have done. I learned a lot. The song that is mentioned as coming on the car radio in the story is “Just You, Just Me,” an old standard I listened to every night while writing it. The version I listened to was by Pianica Maeda, a Japanese musician. It used to be on youtube, but as soon as I finished the story, they took the video down for some reason. Too bad.
– Some authors say that their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, then in what way was “A Natural History of Autumn” personal?
I agree that all stories are personal to some degree and this one is obviously no exception, but beyond the fact that it is an homage to my Japanese influences I can’t think of another. The feature that both Riku and Michi have on their phones that turns the screen into a flashlight is an app my son put on my phone, so there is that. This story, though, has fast driving and running — two things I’m allergic to.
– What are you working on now?
There are a number of projects I’m into at the moment, but only one I care to talk about openly. I am writing a pulp serial in installments on my livejournal, Crackpot Palace — http://jeffford2010.livejournal.com/ The story begins in a Noir vein but will eventually evolve into a science fiction/horror/dark fantasy whim wham about transdimensional invasion. It’s called The Companions of Fear. By the end of this week, there should be close to 20,000 words. It’s broken down into nice bite size installments. Check it out.
Also, I have some stuff coming out or out right now.
My new short story collection, Crackpot Palace, 20 stories with story notes for all but one story, from Morrow Harper Collins, is out now in either trade paperback or e-book format.
I have a story, “The Drowned Life,” in the Oxford Book of American Short Stories new 2nd edition, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, which just came out.
There are new stories coming soon in a number of anthologies — Dark Faith Invocations, edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon for Apex, After, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling for TOR, Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling for TOR, and The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, edited by John Joseph Adams for TOR.
“A Natural History of Autumn” appears in the July/August 2012 issue of F&SF.
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