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Ford, Jeffrey

Jeffrey Ford

Personal

Born 1955; married Lynn Gallagher; children: Jackson, Derek. Education: Attended Suffolk Community College; State University of New York, Binghamton, B.A., 1979, M.A., 1981; Temple University, postgraduate studies.

Addresses

Home— Medford Lakes, NJ. Office— Brookdale Community College, English Department, 765 Newman Springs Road, Lincroft, NJ 07738. Agent— Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, 841 Broadway, Suite 604, New York, NY 10003. E-mail—[email protected].

Career

Author. Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, NJ, professor of writing and early American literature.

Awards, Honors

New York Times notable book designation; World Fantasy Award, 1998, for The Physiognomy; New York Times notable book designation, 1999, for Memoranda; Nebula and Homer Award finalist, 2001, for "The Fantasy Writer's Assistant"; Hugo Award nomination for best short story, World Science Fiction Society, 2003, for "Creation"; World Fantasy Awards, best short story award, for "Creation", and nomination, for "The Weight of Words", best collection award, for The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, and Other Stories, and best novel nomination, for The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, all 2003.

Writings

Vanitas, Space and Time (New York, NY), 1988.

The Physiognomy (first novel in trilogy), Avon Eos (New York, NY), 1997.

Memoranda (second novel in trilogy), Avon Eos (New York, NY), 1999.

The Beyond (third novel in trilogy), Avon Eos (New York, NY), 2001.

The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, and Other Stories, Golden Gryphon Press (Urbana, IL), 2002.

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.

Author of short stories, including "Creation." Contributor to periodicals, including Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Green Man.

Work in Progress

A sixth novel and short stories for various publications.

Sidelights

"Though celebrated and welcomed in SF's 'new weird' ghetto" author Jeffrey Ford is "poorly served by genre labelling; his imagination flourishes best on its own alienated turf," wrote Michael Moorcock in the London Guardian. Ford is, to use several labels, a fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, and suspense/horror-fiction author whose work includes a fiction trilogy composed of The Physiognomy, Memoranda, and The Beyond. Other works by Ford include the stand-alone novels Vanitas and The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, as well as the award-winning story collection The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, and Other Stories. James Sallis, writing in Fantasy & Science Fiction, further alluded to the many fiction hats Ford effortlessly wears, describing Ford as "one of that growing body of writers who seem to be stateless, nonetheless moving about at ease on travel papers issued by fantasy, the mystery/thriller, and capital-L Literature." Ford is, according to Sallis, "a world-eater, a world-maker."

A Rocky Road to Academia and Publishing

Born in 1955, Ford grew up in West Islip, a community on Long Island, New York, in an extended family that included a brother, two sisters, parents, and his maternal grandparents. It was a family full of tales and books; his grandfather had been a professional boxer as well as a diver, and his grandmother, in addition to reading cards and seeing ghosts, told stories of "Banshees, clairvoyance, death fetches, and prophetic dreams," as Ford remarked on his author Web site. His mother was an avid reader as well as expressing her creativity by playing the guitar, making super-8 movies, painting, and writing in her spare time. His gear-cutter father was also a reader and shared stories gleaned from the fiction of Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson with his four children.

"I didn't do very well in school," Ford admitted on his Web site. From kindergarten to his sophomore year in high school, he was "either on the verge of failing or failing." Poor attendance was part of his problem; one year he missed fifty-four days of school. More interested in reading and creating his own stories than in studying, Ford had his head squarely "in the clouds." During his final two years of high school, however, he began passing classes and scored high enough on the Regents scholarship exam to receive tuition and free books at a local community college. Unfortunately, the beginning of Ford's college career was no more successful that his previous schooling had been. He dropped out after one semester, failing every subject. "I had majored in beer and smoking dope," Ford commented. Following this, he took various odd jobs and saved up enough money to buy a boat, working for several years as a clammer on Long Island's Great South Bay, "one of the best jobs in the world when you're eighteen," he wrote on his Web site.

Meanwhile, he continued his independent course of reading and writing, saving up money to go back to college. This time, returning to the community college, he made a success of things, receiving excellent grades and transferring to the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton, where he was fortunate enough to work with author John Gardner, who had been recently hired by the university. "I admire a lot of his later fiction," Ford wrote of Gardner on his Web site, "but as good a writer as he was, he was even a better teacher. He published some of my first short stories in his magazine, MSS. "

Married in 1979 and graduating with his master's degree in 1981, Ford moved to Philadelphia where he taught as an adjunct professor in various colleges while he worked in his doctorate at Temple University. Upon the birth of his first son in 1988, he was offered a full-time teaching position at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. Ford consciously made the decision to pursue a fiction and teaching career rather than a scholarly one; he gave up his doctoral studies and accepted the job offer, and has taught at Brookdale ever since. This decision was made the same year Ford published his first novel, Vanitas, this publication confirming his decision.

Stories Lead to Trilogy

Ford's first novel, Vanitas is the story of the inventions of the brilliant Scarfinati, who is ultimately killed by a young woman named Caroline. The inventor's dormant contraptions are called up to respond, and the Carnival of the Dead's mission is to bring back all who have died, including the inventor Scarfinati. A Science Fiction Chronicle reviewer called Vanitas a "very strange first novel, full of bizarre images and situations." Partly inspired by The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, this novel is the kind of novel, Ford told Nick Gevers in an interview for SFSite.com, that is "written by a guy in his late twenties on legal pads and typed about twelve different times on an electric typewriter. It really needs to be edited.…Still it has its charms." After publication of this debut novel, and with the birth of a second son, Ford concentrated on short fiction, placing his stories in small magazines, and finding time to write late at night when everyone else in his family was asleep. Finally, after about five years of short-story publications, a New York agent who had read one of Ford's tales contacted him and queried him about longer work. "I happened to have a piece of a novel," Ford mentioned on his Web site. "I sent it, he sold it, and I was on my way."

This "piece of a novel" grew into The Physiognomy, winner of the 1998 World Fantasy Award, and the first book in a trilogy. The protagonist, Physiognomist First Class Cley, is trained in the science that reveals everything about a person, including his or her thoughts, through body and facial shapes. Cley's job is to alter aspects of a person by cutting and reshaping their face in accordance with physiognomic principles. Cley himself is addicted to a drug called "sheer beauty," which produces dreams that cannot be distinguished from reality.

Cley works under orders from Drachton Below, Master of the borderless "Well-Built City." Below sends him to Anamasobia, a remote mining town where the miners turn into blue statues as they mine the mineral blue spire. The miners have discovered the mummy of the Traveler, who held a white fruit believed to bring immortality to its owner and is now missing. In interrogating the miners, Cley meets Arla, who changes his life. Below sends in troops to kill the people and capture Arla, the Traveler, the fruit, and Cley, whom the master condemns to work in the sulfur mines, guarded by the diabolical Corporal Matters. Cley is later pardoned, reintroduced to drugs, and returns to the "Well-Built City" where Below has found and eaten the fruit. Cley, having confronted the truth about his profession, now seeks to overthrow Below and save Arla and the Traveler.

A Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that, "despite Ford's evident, childlike delight in his alter-world, the accoutrements of the story aren't enough to sustain its larger concerns." Booklist reviewer Ray Olson called The Physiognomy "a pedestrianly written yet colorful and fast-paced quest fantasy." More praiseworthy was the evaluation of Gerald Jonas, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Ford "writes equally well about the scientific cult of precision and the acceptance of ambiguity." Some reviewers were of the opinion that although The Physiognomy can be read as either science fiction or fantasy, it does not fit into either genre. A Kirkus Reviews writer called the novel "seriously, logically, stunningly surreal: a compact, richly textured, enthralling fantasy debut."

In the second book of the trilogy, titled Memoranda, Cley lives in an agrarian society in the primitive village of Wenau and dedicates his life to herbal healing. When a sleeping sickness released by Below spreads through the village via an exploding mechanical bird, Cley returns to the fallen Well-Built City to seek the cure, fights off werewolves and birds, and discovers that Below has succumbed to his own plague. Misrix, a demon sired by Below, suggests that Cley enter Below's mind where a symbol for the cure can be found. In Below's "memory palace," memories and thoughts are seen as living things, and Cley's test becomes whether or not he can survive the dangers of Below's memory and the dying man's disintegrating mind. Cley enters Below's memory palace to find the beautiful temptress Anotine floating on an island in a sea of mercury.

The second series installment, Memoranda gained critical acclaim as well as a New York Times Notable Book designation. A Publishers Weekly reviewer, for example, wrote that "reading Ford's descriptions of Below's bizarre subconscious is like stepping into a Dali painting. Ford's symbolic view of memory and desire is as intriguing as it is haunting." The reviewer further called Memoranda "a worthy sequel" to The Physiognomy. In reviewing Memoranda, Jonas wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "I once again found myself under the spell of an alternate world marked, like ours, by a maddening tangle of beauty, pity, and terror." Jonas called the book "a novel of virtual reality like no other."

In the final novel of Ford's trilogy, The Beyond, Cley wanders in a strange land in the company of Wood, his dog. Here the two have adventures galore, meeting trees that eat meat and monsters that cannot be seen, pursued by Misrix, who narrates the tale. Misrix in turn is aided in his retelling with a mind-altering drug. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly felt that Ford's "graphic imagination is as powerful as ever" in this final volume, "but the quest itself is vague and undefined, while the story ultimately fails to grip." Jackie Cassada, writing in Library Journal, had more unqualified praise for Ford's "elegant style and Kafkaesque prose." And Davidson Taylor, writing in the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service felt that novel was "strong from beginning to end and remind[s] fantasy readers how good storytelling is an art that we, too, should prize."

Master of Short Stories and Novel-Length Tales

Ford collected sixteen of his many well-received short stories in the 2002 collection The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, and Other Stories, an "innovative" book, according to Fiona Kelleghan writing in the Washington Post Book World, and one "full of haunting surprises and anamorphic perspectives." These tales give a broad cross-sampling of Ford's diverse styles, from Kafka-like stories such as "Pansolapia" and "Something by the Sea" he moves to the science fiction-based "Exo-Skeleton Town" and fantasy fiction such as "The Delicate," and thence to memoir-ish stories such as "The Honeyed Knot." For Sallis it is not Ford's "facility that impresses," but his "sureness of voice—and his reach." Writing in the Magill Book Reviews, Jean C. Fulton warned that "Readers who are simply seeking to escape their own reality for a moment or two may get more than they bargained for" in this collection, because "the line between reality and fantasy is not clearly marked." Booklist contributor Roland Green wrote that these tales are "credits to Ford, far too good to be left languishing in moldering obscurity in magazines, chapbooks, and on fugitive Web sites." And a contributor for Publishers Weekly concluded, "Sure to be one of the keynote collections of the year, this book will be welcomed by fans of literate, witty modern fantasy."

If you enjoy the works of Jeffrey Ford

you might want to check out the following books:

Alexander C. Irvine, A Scattering of Jades, 2002.

Jeff Vandermeer, Veniss Underground, 2003.

John C. Wright, The Golden Age, 2002.

Ford also published a novel in 2002, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, a literary thriller set in 1890s New York. Dubbed a "masterpiece of suspense," by Gavin J. Grant in Book Page, the novel tells the story of artist Piero Piambo who, as a fledgling artist showed real promise, but who has left high art behind for the security of society portraiture. A bizarre commission comes Piambo's way: he is to paint one Mrs. Charbuque, but without visual clues. She will remain hidden behind a screen and the only contact he will have is via their conversation. From their talks, Piambo is to create a truthful picture of the lady, and only then will he be paid the full commission—enough money to give up portraiture and return to fine art. "Around this set piece, Ford weaves a strange and affecting tale of obsession, inspiration and the supernatural, with a dash of murder thrown in," wrote Erik Burns in the New York Times Book Review. A critic for Kirkus Reviews called the novel "chillingly surreal," while a Publishers Weekly contributor dubbed the book a "standout literary thriller." Writing in School Library Journal, Emily Lloyd added more praise, describing The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque "smart" and "spellbinding," and further noting that Ford "devilishly spins his story in prose … controlled,—yet … dark with underlying fever and inevitability." Moorcock maintained that "this deeply engaging book defies all labels: Ford is courageously, categorically and consistently himself."

Speaking with Gevers, Ford addressed his eclectic approach to writing fiction, noting that he does not care about traditional genre distinctions. "That said, my first love has always been what could be called 'the literature of the fantastic,' but I have no clear definition of what it is, and in the vague one I operate under the edges bleed away into what others would perceive to be other genres and/or the mainstream. I see my job as to write the works I have it in me to write.…As Popeye says, 'I am what I am.' That Popeye, he gives Descartes a run for his money."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 1, 1997, Ray Olson, review of The Physiognomy, p. 67; June 1, 2002, Roland Green, review of The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, and Other Stories, p. 1696.

BookWatch, April, 1988, p. 5.

Fantasy and Science Fiction, September, 2002, James Sallis, review of The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque and The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, and Other Stories, pp. 30-35.

Guardian (London, England), August 16, 2003, Michael Moorcock, review of The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, p. 23.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1997, p. 1073; April 1, 2002, review of The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, p. 440.

Library Journal, January 1, 2001, Jackie Cassada, review of The Beyond, p. 163.

Magill Book Review, May 1, 2003, Jean Fulton, review of The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, and Other Stories.

New York Times Book Review, November 2, 1997, p. 36; December 7, 1997, p. 81; August 2, 1998, p. 28; January 16, 2000, Gerald Jonas, review of Memoranda, p. 28; August 25, 2002, Erik Burns, review of The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly, July 28, 1997, review of The Physiognomy, p. 53; September 13, 1999, review of Memoranda, p. 65; December 18, 2000, review of The Beyond, p. 60; April 15, 2002, review of The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, p. 40; April 15, 2002, review of The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, and Other Stories, p. 46.

School Library Journal, January, 2003, Emily Lloyd, review of The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, p. 174.

Science Fiction Chronicle, June, 1988, p. 49; October, 1998, p. 51.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel, June 6, 2001, Davidson Taylor review of The Beyond.

SPBR, July, 1988, p. 18.

Washington Post Book World Review, August 25, 2002, Fiona Kelleghan, review of The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, and Other Stories, p. 5.

ONLINE

Book Page,http://www.bookpage.com/ (July, 2002), Gavin J. Grant, "Picture Perfect Suspense: Jeffrey Ford Captures the Gritty Landscape of 1890s New York."

Book Sense,http://booksense.com/ (December 20, 2003), Gavin J. Grant, interview with Ford.

Official Jeffrey Ford Web site,http://users.rcn.com/delicate/ (December 20, 2003).

SFSite.com,http://www.sfsite.com/ (June, 2002), Nick Gevers, "In A Vision of the Drama: An Interview with Jeffrey Ford."*

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