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Interview: Sean McMullen on “The Washer from the Ford”

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

The story has its origins in an abandoned novel from around twenty years ago. Neil Gaiman and I were exchanging emails about what we were currently working on. I was writing Australian Gods, and he was writing American Gods. As soon as I realised that I might be competing with Neil with an almost identical theme, I dropped the idea like a hot rock. However, I already had two chapters from Australian Gods published as standalone stories, and had several more planned.

At the time I lived on a street with a ford in it, and visited the local laundromat every Sunday night. Years later my daughter gave me an encyclopaedia of fantastic creatures and spirits, and for some reason I decided to read the entire thing. Bean Nighe, the Washer at the Ford, was featured in that book. Would a mythical Scottish spirit prefer to do her washing in a laundromat rather than a ford in the Twenty-First Century, I wondered? Probably, I decided. One night, while I was doing the laundry, I mapped out the story.


Was “The Washer from the Ford” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I did identify rather strongly with Peter, the narrator. I have always tended to look way younger than my actual age, and even when I was in my late Forties and a passably senior computer manager I was still referred to as “that kid” and not taken very seriously. Thus I constructed Peter, who is very good at his job but is socially invisible – although I did make him look older than his age instead of younger.


Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for this story?

Apart from doing a lot more background reading about Bean Nighe and various other interesting immortals who might have migrated to Australia, I actually jogged in all the areas where the story is set – I do a lot of jogging, especially at night. My one departure from geographical reality was the ford itself, which is about a mile south of the story’s setting.

Much of the research on mythology was done when I was a professional folk singer while an undergraduate. I used to sing a lot of ballads featuring mythological creatures, and because singers were expected to tell the audience a bit about the ballad, I read a lot of folklore books. Similarly, the material about computer systems and security courses all came from my background in computer engineering. The only danger with this approach is that if you use it too often, your fiction and characters become too familiar from story to story.


What was the most difficult aspect of writing “The Washer from the Ford,” and what was the most fun?

The ending was very difficult. Having exposed the serial killer, what does Peter do next? Go back to a slightly improved version of his former life? Boring. He has had a taste of a kind of superpower, and he likes it. He is like the little mermaid in Han Christian Anderson’s story of the same name. She gives up her voice in return for legs, and Peter must remain celibate if he wants to retain second sight. Most of us would probably consider that to be a pretty bad deal, so why do it? I eventually decided that his gift of second sight had shown him that he can have an important role in life, spotting the deadly enchantments that the rest of us mortals cannot see, and saving us from them. I like the idea of him deciding that, it’s a comforting thought that people like him might exist.

What was fun? I am a pretty senior karate instructor, so the idea of constructing a character with zero martial arts experience and writing from his point of view was a lot of fun. I had to teach myself to be timid and helpless, and think like a person who was clueless about fighting. One approach I used was talking to the white belt students in my karate classes about how they would react or feel in similar situations. Thus Peter had to use a combination of second sight, internet searches and a prepaid phone to save his friend Jilly from Knight, the serial killer. It’s so easy to just punch out the bad guy, but a storyteller has to do better than that.


Anything else you’d like to add?

The central theme of the story is the question of whether gods and/or magical creatures should always continue doing what they are known for doing. Bean Nighe washes the blood from the clothes of people who are about to die violently and they see her doing it. Do they understand her warning, run home and lock the door? Never. It is a task which allows her to exist, but it does no good for anyone else. Does Echo provide a worthwhile service by helping adulterers? Their husbands and wives would not agree. At least Peter tries to do more than just perform magical task which make him immortal.

Quite a few elements of the story were lifted straight out of real life, even though they seem to me less likely than much of the magical fiction. Peter stepping in a puddle and splashing water up Jilly’s legs was something that I once did – quite by accident – and the exchange that followed was pretty well word for word what was in the story. The lady with the urban fox was another, and the billionth scale model of the solar system is absolutely real. Why does life often seem less likely than fiction? I wish I knew. It would make writing fiction a lot easier.


“The Washer from the Ford” appears in the January/February 2019 issue of F&SF.

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