A Chat with Jeffrey Ford, the Emperor of Ice Cream
That’s kind of like the best empire ever?
This week I have one of my favorite authors. He is a writer whose name is mentioned quite often when I ask other authors what current writers they themselves admire.
After simply marveling at the quality of the collection, I took it upon myself to get my hands on every other work by Jeffrey Ford I could find.
Starting with his Cley series encompassing 3 novels, the first of which, his debut work, The Physiognomy won the World Fantasy Award for best novel in 1998 after which I picked up The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, which was also on the short list for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2003.
Needless to say, I contacted Jeff, who has a new novel forthcoming in August, The Girl in the Glass, and graciously accepted my invitation for an interview.
Jay — You have a new novel coming out entitled The Girl in the Glass in August, which you described to me as a crime novel with a touch of fantasy. Can you please elaborate further on what your fans can expect from your latest effort?
Jeffrey Ford — The Girl in the Glass is a sort of departure for me from my usual novel style. From The Physiognomy to The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque the writing was very lush, very elaborate, and derivative of the 19th century.
I was getting itchy to try something different, more pared down, more dialogue, less embellishment. A lot of the great mystery writers like James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, wrote in this manner. So I read a bunch of mysteries, even some that weren’t in this more minimal style, like The Last Good Kiss by Crumley (a great one). My favorite of all of these was The Thin Man by Hammett, and the reason was that, although it was noir, it had a certain lightness to it and a sense of comedy.
I was inspired in that sensibility in writing The Girl in the Glass. I enjoyed reading some of the other hardboiled stuff as well, but I’m not that much of a hard ass, to tell you the truth, and for me to pretend I was wouldn’t really cut it.
Besides, I thought there was greater nuance in the characters in the book that interweaved the dark, noir and the more comedic. There were a lot of movies from the 40’s with this combination also that I started watching. These ideas and works inspired The Girl in the Glass.
It’s the story of a group of con artists who put on sham séances for the grieving rich on Long Island’s Gold Coast during the Great Depression. The story is told from the point of view of Diego, an orphan, now a teenager, who was unofficially adopted, when he was a small child, by Thomas Schell, the head con man of the group. Because of the Mexican Repatriation laws of the time, and Schell’s fear that Diego will be deported, the teen poses as a hindu swami, useful during séances, named Ondoo.
There other partner is Henry Brhul, an ex- carnival strong man, whose stage name had been Antony Cleopatra. A lot of the characters in the book have multiple names and identities. During one of the séances, Schell thinks he sees the real ghost of a young girl in the glass pane of a door.
This shakes him up and offends his cynical world view. He has to get to the bottom of it. A few days later, he sees the girl’s photograph in the newspaper, along with a story that tells that she has been kidnapped. So the trio tries to find the girl. In their search, they uncover a really dark and dangerous aspect of American history.
I don’t want to reveal too much. Beyond being a noir thriller with fast talking, flying lead, and bizarre characters, it is also a coming of age story, a historical novel, and a contemplation of the American obsession with the purity of race and the evil that has fostered in the world.
Jay — Where are you at with your next collection, Empire of Ice Cream, can we still look forward to an early 2006 release?
Jeffrey Ford — Where am I at with the collection? I’m sitting here right now, staring at a blank computer screen, trying to come up with an original story for it. I’ve got about three weeks left and it’s looking none too fruitful, but, you know, the shit will hit the fan sooner or later. Otherwise, things are great with it. I think when all is said and done it will have 16 stories in it.
It will include most of the major stories I’ve written from “The Weight of Words” up to “A Man of Light,” and it will appear at the end of March 06. I think the writing in this one is much stronger than in the last collection, and there is a very wide variety of different styles and structures. The artist, John Picacio, has done an outstanding cover for it, and Jonathan Carroll has written a wonderful introduction.
Jay — PS Publishing is releasing a novella by you later this year called the The Cosmology of the Wider World (which has an amazing cover). This novella is just a part of a personal project for you that you have been writing for some years now. Can you tell us about the novella, and what makes this particular project one that you say you go back to often, and not necessarily for future publishing reasons?
Jeffrey Ford — The Cosmology of the Wider World is my fun project I’ve been working on since the late 80’s. I write it on and off when I’m in between things. It’s grown fairly large. PS will publish the first part, a long novella length work that is self-contained.
The impetus for the book was me looking around at the different kinds of subject matter that was prevalent in Fantasy literature at the time and saying, “What’s the one kind of story you would least like to write? What’s the corniest, most groan inducing crapola on the market?” And whether this was true for anyone else but me at the time, I don’t know, but I came up with “the talking animal story.”
So I decided to write a beast epic and see if I could make it work. How successful I’ve been will be determined by readers, of course. Of course, other writers had been successful with the idea — Kipling and Adams come first to mind. It’s the story of Belius, a minotaur born as a genetic anomaly into a farming community. He eventually has to flee the world of men for the Wider World where animals talk.
He realizes, though, that he is at home in neither world due to his halfling nature. At one moment he might be working on his Cosmology — a written attempt to describe the workings of the universe (from a minotaur’s point of view) — and the other, he might be goring a tree trunk.
This animal story is somewhat different than a lot of others as it contains murder, bestiality, drug taking, crackpot philosophical musings, and a weird sort of Frankenstein motif. Fun for the whole family. I agree with you about the cover. It was done by alternative comics artist and graphic novelist, Kim Deitch (Boulevard of Broken Dreams). There will also be an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer. This should be out some time in September.
Jay — You are both an accomplished writer of short fiction and novels. Is there a particular form you enjoy indulging in more?
Jeffrey Ford — I like writing both novels and stories, but they’re different beasts. I used to have a better handle on exactly what the differences were, but I don’t seem to recall them in detail anymore.
That’s the thing for me the longer I write. I used to be dead certain that I knew how all this stuff worked and why I was doing what I was doing, but as the years roll on I realize a lot of my assumptions sounded good to me but were just dead wrong. The only thing that has remained is — I see the character, I follow the character, the character takes me to the story, I record what happens.
The main difference that I can still pinpoint about stories and novels for me is that a story usually grows organically. I never know exactly what the structure will be until I’m done. With novels, I usually have to have a clear idea, not of plot, but of structure before I begin.
The way I do this is I just impose a general chapter length. This page number will be dictated in some mysterious way by the nature of the story I want to tell. Like in writing The Physiognomy, I said to myself, “OK, no matter what happens, each chapter is going to be ten pages long.” So I’d just start writing, and when ten pages was up that chapter was done.
Sometimes you go over or under a page, but this had a marvelous effect of organizing a pretty crazy plot and helping me work through the book.
Although this worked well, I thought it was kind of a crack-pot method until I was talking on the e-mail with Michael Moorcock, a writer whose books I greatly admire (Dancers At The End of Time, Mother London), one time, and he told me he usually did the same thing.
It’s not like I would have done anything differently, but that at least in some way validated my crack-pottery. Stories, on the other hand, just seem to crawl out onto the page and then I whip, cajole, bargain, them into some kind of presentable shape.
Jay — I have read some of your past interviews, where you speak with great appreciation of your experiences in teaching. Do you still teach or are you now a full-time writer, or do you consider yourself both?
Jeffrey Ford — I’ve been teaching for 25 years, and unless someone wants to pay me a hell of a lot more money for my writing, I’ll probably be teaching for at least another 10. What writing has allowed me to do is take the summers off and not teach extra classes then, and believe me, that’s a blessing I don’t look askance at.
I still enjoy the classroom, though. During the school year it’s a full time job with lots of student papers to read (5 classes a semester). I like the students. The kids out of high school these days are bright and, for the most part, very good people.
The shame of it is that they are all working full time or more in addition to going to school and not really getting a decent chance to explore things and have a good time. The act of sitting on one’s ass and wasting time daydreaming seems to be a lost art these days, being kept alive by a meager few of us crusty practitioners.
A lot of these kids have been duped by their parents’ grim obeisance to the corporate fast track, but more and more of them in recent years, I notice, have cut that dead shit loose and are blazing their own trails through undiscovered country.
Since I teach at a community college, the students could be anywhere from 17 to 99. I have the older students usually in my night classes — guys who have been laid off and are trying to forge new careers for themselves in their late forties and early fifties, single moms who are working full time, raising their kids and studying toward a career, senior citizens still curious about life. I love these people — their guts, their determination, their desire to escape the rut. The mix is great.
Primarily I teach Composition in one form or another. In doing so, I’m always learning about writing from my students. I do also teach Early American Literature and occasionally an Advanced Creative Writing class. If I wasn’t teaching, I don’t know if I’d do any more writing. Sometimes the more you have to do, the more you do. I would be a lot less tired, though.
The day will probably come when I’ll have had enough. Then I just hope I realize that the train has pulled into the station. I’m not into playing out the dark side of Mr. Holland’s Opus, if you know what I mean — cardigan sweaters, drooling on final exams, farting at the blackboard. But let’s not dwell on it. My kids still have to go to college, etc. I’m in for the duration, so put on the coffee and pass the ammunition.
Jay — After The Girl in the Glass, do you have plans for another full–length work between then and your Empire of Ice Cream collection early next year? Any secret projects we should be looking out for in the works?
Jeffrey Ford — I’m working on a fantasy novel now, but I’m reluctant to discuss it. I hope you’ll understand. In the meantime, though, if readers are looking for something else of mine to read, I have stories out now: Giant Land in The Journal of Pulse Pounding Narratives #2, Holt in Flytrap #4, The Scribble Mind at SciFiction, Boatman’s Holiday, in The Book of Voices (this one will be reprinted in F&SF in the Oct/Nov. edition.) In coming months The Dreaming Wind will appear in The Coyote Road, an anthology of Trickster stories for young adult readers, The Mr. stories, will appear in Electric Velocipede #10, and a reprint of A Night in the Tropics in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #18.
There’ll be an issue of Weird Tales dedicated to my work that will appear in late October that I’ll be writing a new weird tale for. Other than this, there’s a collaboration I’ve done with another author that’s making the rounds, which might also be rearing its shaggy head somewhere — we’ll see. That’s it for now.
Jay — What writers current, or otherwise, would you recommend as sources of exceptional reads?
Jeffrey Ford — This question is impossible. Every time I start making a list, I get bogged down by the incredible number of books I’ve read in my life that I’ve enjoyed. Instead, here’s a list of books in the speculative fiction field that have either just been published or will be in the next year. Some of these I’ve read in proof form and admired, and some I am looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of.
Ingledove by Marly Youmans, Alanya to Alanya by L. Timmel Duchamp, Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, From the Files of the Time Rangers by Richard Bowes, Vellum by Hal Duncan, Last Week’s Apocalypse by Doug Lain, Shriek : and afterword by Jeff VanderMeer, The Traitor by Michael Cisco, Looking for Jake by China Mieville, Map of Dreams by M. Rickert, Dr. Black and The Guerillis by Brendan Connell, Twelve Collections and The Tea Shop by Zoran Zivkovic, Attack of the Jazz Giants by Gregory Frost, Eternity and Other Stories by Lucius Shepard, Butlers and Banishings by Ysabeau Wilce, Alabama Curiosities by Andy Duncan, and Ranger Girl by Tim Pratt.