Interview with Jeffrey Ford (THE WELL-BUILT CITY TRILOGY)
Jeffrey Ford is a seven-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, and his stories have been nominated multiple times for the Hugo, Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon Award and many others. He is one of the most distinctive voices in modern Fantasy. His pioneering Well-Built City trilogy, comprising The Physiognomy (1998), Memoranda (1999) and The Beyond (2001), was hugely influential in the development of the New Weird. The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque (2002) is about a portrait painter in the 1890s who many never see his subject, The Girl in the Glass (2005) deals with hucksters and seances in Depression-era New York, Ahab’s Return (2018) imagines Ahab and Ishmael after the end of Moby Dick, and The Shadow Year (2008) is about a kid growing up in the 1960s whose model town in the basement starts uncomfortably echoing reality. As well as his varied and fascinating novels, he is well known for his equally diverse and impressive short stories. The Best of Jeffrey Ford, a career-spanning collection with illustrations by Derek Ford, is out now with PS Publishing, and the novella Out of Body will be released by Tor later this year.
Jeffrey Ford was kind enough to talk about his writing with the Fantasy Hive via email.
Your latest short story collection, The Best of Jeffrey Ford, is out now with PS Publishing. Would you be able to tell us a bit about it?
I looked back through my five story collections and through stories that were published but never collected, and I picked out those, I think it came to 27, that I thought were the best. I also wrote a new one for the collection. Then Nicky at PS asked about getting Derek to do the art work for it. So he painted a cover based on my story, “Daddy Long Legs of the Evening.” He also did an illustration for every story in the book. He was between places when he did them. He was staying with me and Lynn. He painted on the kitchen table, and at night I’d sit with him and we’d listen to music, drink a beer and bs, all the time he stood across the counter from where I sat and was constantly drawing. At the end of every night, he had finished one of the illustrations. Once he was finished with the work on the project, he moved out and got his own place.
It was a great time spending those nights with him. In addition, I wrote notes for each of the stories – how I came upon them, who published them, anecdotes, etc. I haven’t held one of the books yet, but they look great. 562 pages of stories. The editor on the project is Nick Gevers, who is great to work with. I also have to tip my hat to Peter Crowther, who was willing to take on a project like this.
One of the things the collection demonstrates is how widely your writing crosses genre boundaries. Do you feel crossing genre boundaries is integral to how you work as a writer?
It seems more fun to mix it all up. The possibilities are endless. I’m pro-hybrid for their resiliency and viable mutations. When I was in college back in the late 70’s, early 80’s, main stream literature was all fantasy and science fiction. Pynchon, Barth, Angela Carter, Joyce Carol Oates, John Gardner, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Borges. Mixing genres seems second nature to me as I was brought up on it. Writers have been doing it for a very long time. A good more recent example is in New Wave S F – Moorcock, M. John Harrison, etc. The storytellers who mix genre are always around, it’s just that they are rarely the most popular. But it does happen from time to time.
Your work frequently draws on mythology from a wide range of sources, from Charon the ferryman to jinmenkin from Japanese urban legends. What draws you to these ideas?
Reading mythology from all cultures is a good way to learn different methods of storytelling. The monsters, the gods, the people bearing the scars of having consorted with divinity, it’s all fascinating. Each one of those old myths – you split it open like a pomegranate and each of the thousand seeds is the germ of another story. The main stories of a mythology have been told and told down through the years, worked on by so many they’re like a jagged shard of blue glass tumbled by the ocean for centuries – smooth as butter. Shit happens on a dime in the old stories. You can’t count on anything. Worlds are devoured, all love is eternal, an ocean of blood and sketchy deeds. Warriors, hermits, saints, dancers and death. Its hard to ignore that stuff.
Your stories frequently feature literary allusions to other works of fiction, again across a wide range of genres, and nested tales. To what extent are your stories about stories?
I guess, to an extent, all stories are about stories. I’m sure that’s definitely part of them. But on a more conscious level, I’m such an avid reader and always have been that sometimes the characters or situations I discover in other writers’ work sparks my imagination and I see where I can extend their story or create a story tangential to theirs or resurrect their character to explore further his/her possibilities. Just one of the many paths toward the birth of a story.
You seem drawn to characters who are con artists or tricksters, many of them quite bizarre or grotesque. What is it about this kind of character that makes them more fun to write?
I think I’m attracted to them because it struck me early in life that so much of the world was a con. Fiction itself is a kind of benevolent con, and con artists abound in education, politics, religions, etc. Realizing this as a kid has helped me to understand that the world is split between benevolent cons and self-serving, greedy, evil cons. Everybody, to one extent or another, is running a game. Is it a good, welcoming game? Or an exclusionary, demeaning game?
You also seem to have a fascination with automata and models, from the reanimated people in the Well-Built City to the model town in The Shadow Year. What is it about this that interests you?
I think it’s the idea of bringing the imagination to life. Some of the automata that have survived history, are incredible. The clockwork ingenuity of them is mind boggling. They also have a sense of melancholy in that they are designed to pretend to life, but no complexity of gears is ever going to make them legitimately alive. We see it but they don’t. There’s a good old automata story by ETA Hoffmann, but I can’t remember if it’s “The Sandman” or “The Golden Pot.” [Editor’s note: it’s The Sandman and yes it is very good] There’s an automata in John Gardner’s novella, “The King’s Indian.” Think of about a million robot stories. All of them are The Ghost in the Machine tales or give a nod to that. And to me there seems to be a misty connection between automata stories and doppelganger stories. As for Botch Town in The Shadow Year, the idea for that grew out of a train set-up my brother and I had in the basement for a while as kids. It wasn’t a town, like in the book, but I let the memory of it grow into a story where it was.
Your writing can range from drily humorous to dark horror, often within the same story. Do you feel these two elements of your writing complement each other?
I hope so, but one of those things I can never gauge. I do like seeing them in combination in other writers’ fiction. They play off each other, and by releasing the stress slightly along the way with humour, you can increase the tension beyond what it would normally be able to achieve throughout the book. The world of a horror story without some humour doesn’t work. Because there is usually humour in even the bleakest situations in life. Without it, the world of the story lacks verisimilitude. If that’s the case, the reader’s not going to care about the fate of the protagonist or the triumph of the monstrous.
Ahab’s Return is in dialogue with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and features Ahab confronting Ishmael about the narrative in that story. What drew you to explore these characters in a new way?
Initially the idea came, after reading Moby Dick, you never actually see Ahab die in Melville’s novel. It is heavily implied, almost to the point where you might not be able to draw a different conclusion, but I did. I wondered what it took for him to return to the realm of the living. His journey back, and then in my mind’s eye I saw him trudging along the streets of 19th century Manhattan. My reading about the period added a lot to the story. But it’s a slippery story in that it’s really a dark fantasy. He returns to America and goes to New York city to find his wife and son he’d left behind when venturing out in revenge of Moby Dick. In his search for them, he meets a new Leviathan.
Your work ranges from totally fantastical and surreal settings to recognisable historical settings like the 1960s in The Shadow Year or Depression-era New York in The Girl in the Glass. How does writing in imaginary worlds differ from writing in real historical settings?
Hard to say. They’re both fun. One uses a kind of extemporaneous invention, spinning palaces in the air, and the other is a kind of errant investigation, requiring facts and the dubious rectitude of history. There are discoveries to be made in both directions. I did a lot of book reading and research when I wrote The Physiognomy and the other books in that trilogy, but it was more for ideas, theories, esoteric bs, and arcane mythologies. That trio of stories was not set in any semblance of the real world. But the novels of mine that are mysteries – The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuqe, The Girl in the Glass, The Shadow Year, they all have straight up historical research in them. In Ahab, I kind of blended the two styles.
You are well known for the Well-Built City trilogy, starting with The Physiognomy and continuing with Memoranda and The Beyond. Where did the idea for a fantasy world exploring the ridiculousness of phrenology come from?
One afternoon, in the middle of the summer, circa 1994 (?), I was in the library at Temple University in Philadelphia. I was working on something, researching, trying to get a feel for a story, when I discovered, on the bottom shelf all by itself, dusty as hell, a giant copy of Joann C. Lavater’s book on Physiognomy. It was a big old facsimile edition based on the original publication from the 1800s. It had galleries of heads, faces, and each was interpreted as to what its moral worth was. It struck me that the way contemporary society relies on surface that the Physiognomy was a fit metaphor. It just blossomed from that afternoon over a period of years.
The Well-Built City can be seen as an early example of the New Weird. How do you feel about that genre label today, given how its expanded and changed over the last twenty or so years?
The New Weird, as people know it now, was invented by Mike Harrison on the Nightshade Board back in the day. But by the time he came up with it, as a kind of brilliant marketing ploy to promote works by China Mieville, a lot of the books supposedly under its banner had been out for a number of years — works by Kelly Link, Mieville, Jeff VanderMeer. I think China had even published Perdido by then. Harrison made a good case for it as a marketing tool. From there it took off, and I seem to remember some kind of manifesto bullshit somewhere along the line by various people. I lost interest in it. It’s indefinable. And with the writers I mentioned before, and others prevalent at the time, they are all so uniquely different in style and form, and it would be a disservice to lump them all together under a label – New Weird. Like most of this stuff, the entire enterprise is limiting. Somewhere along the line I read an article that had it that my work, especially The Physiognomy, was influenced by Perdido and VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, and yet, The Physiognomy was published years before either. Let’s not let the facts get in the way of history.
Your novella Out of Body will be released by Tor this May. Would you be able to tell us a bit about that?
It’s a dark fantasy that plays off the phenomenon of OBE’s (Out of Body Experiences), where one’s spiritual self leaves one’s body during sleep and travels through the actual world. This is not about dreams. The book is fantasy as well as horror and mystery. There are aspects of it that remind me of Peter Pan, that kind of effortless flying through the night, and other aspects are like Nosferatu – what secret things does the night hold? An unlikely hero, kind of a drip librarian, gets caught up in the murder of a girl at the local deli. He gets hit on the head during the robbery and that night experiences his first OBE. It is said there are a number of ways that these OBE’s can be initiated, one is by taking a hit to the head. He enters the night world and discovers a guide and other worldly dangers and something darker and realer than any nightmare.
As well as writing, you also teach courses on writing. Do you feel your teaching feeds back into your writing and vice versa?
I’ve been teaching writing of all kinds and Early American Literature for 40 years. My favourite courses are the basic composition classes. All the issues the students deal with in a semester are the same that I’m dealing with in my own work. I also learn things about writing – more from their mistakes than from their successes. Teaching has allowed me to be around young writers. I’ve taught many courses over the years in fiction writing. It’s very rewarding to chart the progress of new fiction writers through their careers. Quite a few of my students have become well-known writers. I still see them and get a kick out of talking to them about writing. Teaching has also allowed me to write what I want to and to ignore what I don’t want to write. I’ve made a considerable amount of money through writing, but I never had to because teaching paid the bills. I have no qualms about having pursued a career in teaching and writing. I find being in the classroom energizing.
What’s next for Jeffrey Ford?
I’ve got a few stories coming out in 2020, and I’m signed up to do a new story collection with small Beer Press. Other than that, I’m pretty free. So, I’m going to work on a full-length novel now. I can see myself retiring from writing in a few years. I’m getting old. Not yet, though. Still a couple of books I want to write.
Thank you Jeffrey Ford for speaking with us!