In an earlier version of the Writer’s Group With No Name we had a member who was working hard on a romance novel. We’d read excerpts and thought it promising, but the story wasn’t coming quickly or easily for her. In the meantime, most of the other members of the group were working on short fiction, getting stuff finished, and a few of us were selling. At times the meetings would turn into gripe sessions about slow markets, slower payments, incomprehensible editorial decisions, the usual. All true and the bane of working writers for practically ever, but our romance writer, working but still with nothing in shape to show an editor, was not impressed with the bitching. Continue reading
I’ve been dropping annoyingly vague hints here and there, but now it’s all out in the open—I’ve apparently started a new fantasy series. I didn’t really plan to do it and I certainly didn’t think I was ready, but then I’m not always in charge. I know writers who strongly disagree with that perspective. “I’m in charge and my characters do what I say.” And that’s often true even with me, as in sometimes I am and sometimes they do. But for me it usually works out better when the characters do what they want and I just follow closely and mark it all down, then cut out the bit where they stared at the horizon for an hour just for the hell of it and add the bit where one of them tripped and fell into the icy stream. Just for the hell of it. Or maybe because they deserved it…ahem. Where was I?
Right, the new series. The first one, “In Memory of Jianhong, Snake-Devil” is now up in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #226. I’ve already written and sold the second one and started blocking scenes for the third. As I said, after Yamada I wanted to do some stand-alone stories, since some of my favorites of my own work have been books or stories with no befores or afters, except what was implied in the story itself. I once attempted a few befores and afters in the case of Jin from All the Gates of Hell, because I liked the character so much, but none of them worked out. She was done, and thus so was I.
Pan Bao and Jing were different. I’ve had them in my head for a while, wondering what they were about. I first had him pictured as a bumbling Taoist priest kept successful (and alive) by his far more competent daughter, and there are still echoes of that, but the man himself turned out to be quite different. Then Mei Li showed up, and well, that was that. So it’s a series. I hope you like it. If you don’t I’ll write it anyway.
It’s not like I’m in charge.
In the olden days—maybe no further back than the sixties and seventies—writers used to brag about never having to revise. “First drafts are final” was the saying. Which made sense only a little further back in time during the pulp era when you were trying to make a living writing for 50+ different pulp magazines at a penny a word. Spend too much time revising and you’d spend the rest starving. I imagine a lot of that attitude was a holdover from those halcyon days but, as a more recent wisdom has it “Writing is revising.” Also not completely true on the face of it. Without a first draft, there is no revising. It’s more accurate to say writing begins with the first draft, it just doesn’t end there. It’s called “first draft” for a reason. Continue reading
A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey Ford, Small Beer Press, 2016
It’s more than a bit awkward at this point, wanting to get on with the review and wondering if I should first introduce the author, Jeffrey Ford, knowing all the while I shouldn’t have to do anything of the sort. Ford is, no exaggeration, one of the finest writers working in the field he’s chosen to be associated with. Or the field that chose him, since in our culture the kind of thing he tends to do has no real framework outside that of the fabulist. If he’d been born in South America he’d probably be considered a magical realist instead. No matter. It’s all pigeonholes and ways of talking about a thing, rather than the thing itself.
Did I just say all that? My apologies. But that’s what Ford’s work tends to do—send the reader off on tangents of thought and realms hitherto unexplored. After the story ends, of course. Until that moment, the story pretty much has you where it wants you.
There are thirteen stories in this collection, and all of recent vintage. Here you will find modern fairy tales, metafictions where a character named Jeff Ford is part of the story, biting commentaries on modern politics and insanity—lately almost one and the same thing–, observations on wealth and class, and none of the above. What you will really find, excusing the short-hand descriptive phrases attempting to categorize them, are stories. That’s what they are, first and foremost. The words attempting to categorize them above are cheerful failures. The stories are not. Nor are they cheerful.
Seriously. With a title like “A Natural History of Hell,” you were expecting sweetness and light? Oh, you’ll get that, too, but sparingly. There’s a dark, unflinching heart at the center of these stories. It looks in humanity’s mirror and describes what it sees, with neither fear nor pity to hinder it. There’s “The Thyme Fiend,” where only a cup of tea brewed from the herb of the title keeps the horrors at bay, until the time comes when they simply must be let in. Or “Blood Drive,” when an insane premise is logically followed to its insane conclusion and the world turns merrily on. One of my personal favorites, “The Angel Seems,” where common sense humanity shows that it has learned the proper way to treat a god.
Quibbles? Okay, fine. One or two of the endings did not quite come together for me. I only mention this at all because those cases were one of the few times I was forced out of the story into a consideration of plot, which normally you don’t even notice in a Ford story, even though it’s always there. Whatever strangeness is going on, you just go with it. If, for an instant, you can’t, it is noticeable. Fortunately, it is also very rare.
As much as I enjoyed this book, I do confess to being slightly put out by one story. We tend to get that way when we read a story someone else has written and sigh, “Damn. Why didn’t I think of that?” This happened in the centerpiece story, “A Terror,” where Emily Dickinson takes that famed carriage ride with Death. That line from HS English –“Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me” is all it takes to set it off. Not that my complaint matters. If I had written a story on this premise, it would not have been like this. Ford did it his own way, which now seems to me the only way, and he owns it.
He owns all of it. Thirteen stories only Jeffrey Ford could have written. Fortunately for us, he was around to do it. May he write many more.
Which is the title of my retelling of the Perseus and Medusa myth. It would have been the last story I published in Realms of Fantasy, only they folded before that happened. I decided to put it out there myself, since we don’t have a magazine that fills that niche any more. So try to imagine what it would have been like to read it there, with something like the illustration I chose for it. Good times.