ActuSF : How did you start writing, and especially writing science fiction ?
Jeffrey Ford : I started writing fiction when I was a kid, maybe 8 or 9. I’d write in pencil in those black and white marbles notebooks. I had some kind of dyslexia when I was young because I wrote backwards sometimes, sometimes upside down, and could never get the spelling right. I enjoyed the act of writing, but it must have been murder for anyone else to try to read it. Being a writer was something I’d wanted to do since as long as I can remember. My father used to read books to me at night – adult novels by Haggard and Stevenson and Kipling, and the experience of listening to those stories was so vivid, I wanted to recreate that magic myself. It took well into college before I could produce a legible page of writing. I got a lot of shit for my writing all throughout school, but it never dissuaded me. The allure of imagining the fiction was too great for me to be put off. As for my interest in the fantastic as a means of expression, I’ve always been interested in it. It comprised a lot of my early reading – Science Fiction and Fantasy. Also, when I really began to become aware of my writing abilities in graduate school – all the popular so-called “literary” writers used the fantastic in their works. This was around the 80’s and you had American writers like Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon, Gardner. Also, Borges, Calvino, and Garcia-Marquez were really gaining a wide readership back then. I never saw the distinction between fantastic fiction and literature with a capital “L”.
ActuSF : Your grandmother told you lots of stories, and you also had a very creative mother, according to various sources. Did they influence you in your choice of career ?
Jeffrey Ford : I grew up in a household where everybody told stories. Most people don’t seem to have time for it anymore. Communication, in a way, was all about stories then. Stories at night, at the dinner table, at the breakfast table on Sunday mornings. My grandmother had some great ones about banshees, death fetches, fortune tellers, etc. My grandfather had been a boxer and a hard hat deep sea diver in the Merchant Marine during the Second World War and had really traveled a lot in South East Asia and the Indian Ocean. He had great stories too. My dad told stories about when he was in the army and when he was a kid, hunting and trapping in the woods of Long Island, or about swimming across the bay to Fire Island and camping out there for a week. My mother was a great reader and had aspirations herself to write mystery novels. She would tell me the plots of them. She was also a painter and a musician and made films in the backyard with family and neighbors as the characters. Even the neighbors told stories. There was a woman who lived across the street who’d been born in Ireland, and she told some ghost stories, supposedly true, that I remember scared the crap out of me. I’m still using bits and pieces of these stories in my work. For a kid with an inclination to be a writer, it was a very fertile scene.
ActuSF : Several of your books have not been translated yet into French, among them Vanitas. What can you tell us about this novel ? How would you summarize it ?
Jeffrey Ford : This wasn’t the first novel I wrote. I’d written a mystery novel before it called The Death of Winter Darling, but this was the first to get published. I wrote it on legal pads and typed it over like 12 times on a typewriter in the basement of this row house my wife and I rented in South Philadelphia. Oh, how the white-out flowed. It was published by Space and Time Press back in 1988, although I think I sold it in 85 or 86. Influenced by an old illustrated copy of Baron Munchhaussen I found in a garage sale and the scene in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, where Orson Wells is seen standing beneath the ferris wheel, it’s a fantasy/adventure novel told in a sort of meta-fictional style – stories within stories. One of the characters, Scarfinati, an inventor, shows up in a couple of the books of the Well-Built City Trilogy. It’s done in a faux 19th century style (very faux) and has some aspects similar to The Physiognomy. The writing isn’t as good. It needs a thorough editing. I can’t really say what I think of it, because I haven’t read it in a long time. I suppose it’s not too bad, or wouldn’t be if I could have a go at editing it again.
ActuSF : French readers discovered your writing through the novel Physiognomy and its sequels. Do you remember what idea started this series of books ?
Jeffrey Ford : The influence for these books was a facsimile edition of the works of Johann C. Lavater, the 18th century physiognomist, that I found on the bottom shelf in the stacks of the Temple University Library. One look at those illustrations of heads and a consideration of what Lavater was getting at, and the story opened up before me. This bogus science was such a classic metaphor for the way contemporary society views the world –rarely moving past the surface.
ActuSF : Do you consider this novel to be a turning point in your career ?
Jeffrey Ford : Yes. It got me an agent and a major publisher. Jennifer Hershey, who was an editor at Avon, bought it. It won the World Fantasy Award for best novel of the year and that gave me an introduction into the genre. It was initially published as mainstream literature, but only Science Fiction and Fantasy reviewers paid any attention to it.
ActuSF : In France, this series has been assigned in a « psychological science fiction » genre. Do you agree with this ?
Jeffrey Ford : I neither agree nor disagree with it. Anybody who takes the trouble to read it can put it in any pigeonhole he/she likes. What novel isn’t, since they usually have characters, to some extent psychological ?
ActuSF : The latest novel to be published in France was The Girl in the Glass. How did this project start ?
Jeffrey Ford : I was writing a novel called The Shadow Year, which has now been turned in and is due out next year from Morrow/ Harper Collins. There are aspects of the story that are very autobiographical. I got stuck on that book and needed a novel to hand in to my editor, so I switched gears and wrote Girl in the Glass to fill the bill. I had been interested in mysteries around that time and had read a number of them by Thompson, Chandler, Cain, Hammett, etc. All of them were of the hardboiled variety. I liked best Hammett’s The Thin Man, because it was a kind of hybrid – a comic/noir. As I’ve written before, I couldn’t really convincingly write a tough guy noir novel because being a tough guy is not a mode of being that interests me much, but I liked the give and take between the married couple, Nick and Nora, of The Thin Man, the snappy dialogue and the tension between the dark and comic. So I used that novel as a kind of model. I’d always wanted to write about spiritualists and the Great Depression. I put them all together in that book.
ActuSF : This novel also develops largely the description of the 30's in the US. Do you particularly like this period ? Why ? Do you think it has a lot in common with the country today ?
Jeffrey Ford : I didn’t know anything about the 30’s really when I started, but it was fascinating to do the research. The period is interesting because the hard times brought out the best and worst in people. It tested the country’s mettle. I also discovered some very strong connections between the reactionary, bigoted, fundamentalist, war mongering of the present US administration and that of the Depression era power elite who screwed up the country’s economy and laid the blame for it on immigrants from Mexico and Southern Europe. These historical discoveries and connections to today really sweetened the pot, so to speak, as I conceived the story.
ActuSF : You often touch the borders of fantastic and supernatural, but never say clearly what it is about. Do you want to allow the indecision and let the reader decide, or does it represent for you a characteristic of the theme itself, never to be spoken of or decided completely ?
Jeffrey Ford : I’m not interested in moralizing. I’m more interested in telling the story. Fiction for me is about drama. Not all of my stories have ambiguous endings, some do. In the ones that are ambiguous, like “Creation,” it’s because the character himself is not quite sure what happened. Ambiguity is a part of life. Sometimes we never know. These stories are often about so many other important things than whether a character knows definitively what they have just experienced. Sometimes years can pass before we realize what some train of events meant to us at the time. Also, as far as the fiction goes, as a writer I can get a nice tension between the mundane and the supernatural. Perhaps it will allow the reader to think of the story in many different ways, see it from different angles. There are readers who demand to know and are displeased with this, but for me, I live with a given amount of uncertainty every day. To always need to be sure can be a trap in fiction as well as life.
ActuSF : Schell is one of the main driving forces of this novel. How would you present him ? As his creator, how do you see him ?
Jeffrey Ford : Schell is a man with certain talents. He’s slick, he’s a card sharp, he’s a con, but that’s not all he is. He’s pursued these things because his father, whom he worshipped as a child and who was absent much of the time, pursued them. When we meet Schell in the book, he is just coming to the realization late in life that he has been chasing the ghost, so to speak, of his father. Now he sees that his “adopted” son, Diego, is following in his footsteps, and he doesn’t want the boy to make the same mistakes he has, living another person’s life, never attaining self-realization. As Diego discovers himself through the book, so does Schell. Without Diego, this discovery would never have happened. The father sometimes must learn from the son.
ActuSF : Can you tell us if Schell really sees the picture of the child in the mirror (we promise it will be kept a secret between you and the ActuSF readers )?
Jeffrey Ford : You’ll have to ask Schell about that.
ActuSF : You have a website and a blog. Is the direct contact with your readers important to you ? Did it change the way you consider or perform your writing ?
Jeffrey Ford : The website is pretty moribund, but the blog has become a great resource for me in that it allows me to let interested readers know about my upcoming work and if and when I’ll be reading somewhere. I very much enjoy the people who drop by with comments. When I’m really on my game with the blog, it’s usually about 50/50 -- me advertising my work and then topics of literary and general interest. I’ve found it to be a very creative outlet. I’ve met quite a few people through it whom I later have met in real life. It also allows me to communicate with folks in other parts of the world where my books and stories appear in translation. We have a good time discussing movies and books and life. Recently, I’ve been busy, so I haven’t had as much time to spend on it as I like in the past two months, but I’ve just started to get things rolling there again. It has changed my fiction writing somewhat, because when I write essays about my personal life for it, I use a style I’ve developed especially for that. This style, I’ve discovered, works well in certain types of fiction.
ActuSF : What are you currently working on ? Do you have any pet projects ?
Jeffrey Ford : Right now I’m taking a little breather, but I just recently handed in my next novel, as I said above – The Shadow Year (a sort of Fantasy/Mystery/Autobiography). It should be out in 08, I believe, from Harper Collins. I’ve also recently sold a story collection to HC, The Night Whiskey, which will be coming out some time after the novel. As for short stories, I have a lot of reprints and new stories recently out or coming out in the next few months in various anthologies. Fiction Magazine in France will be publishing a story of mine in their next issue, #6. As for pet projects, they’re all pet projects while I’m working on them.