22 November 2005

Kafka's Ford

Drop everything. Jeffrey Ford has now posted his magnificent story "Bright Morning" online (it was originally published in The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories). Jeff sometimes puts stories up for only a few days or weeks, so read it now if you haven't. It's about a lost tale by Kafka. It's the story that made me forever and ever a Ford fan, because (among other things) it so perfectly captures the feelings of bibliophilic obsession.

Some of the fun of the story is that it seems like it might be a personal essay. Here's a little excerpt from an interview I did with Jeff for the first issue of Fantasy Magazine:
MATTHEW CHENEY: Many of your stories have autobiographical elements, or at least have narrators who seem to want the audience to believe there are autobiographical elements, moments and characters stolen from the life of Jeffrey Ford. What led you to this technique?

JEFFREY FORD: To some extent all of the stories are autobiographical. And the ones that most readers would think reveal the most about my real life are often the ones that reveal the least. I got hip to this technique of storytelling from reading Isaac Bashevis Singer. He's on my personal short list of the very greatest contemporary short story writers. He has a way of going into a story as if he is sitting across from you at table at a diner sharing a cup of coffee, talking about something that happened to him two days earlier. Check out especially his supernatural, New York stories like "The Cafeteria." His approach is so believable that when the weird stuff hits the fan, the reader can't help but believe that what he is telling is truth. He uses techniques of the autobiographical to gain your confidence, concrete detail from his own life, no doubt, to form a strong foundation for the world of the story. This deepens the fantastic experience of the fiction.

Singer makes this look easy, but to be successful at it is not easy, or it wasn't easy for me to master. The secret is you have to go into the piece with the utmost confidence, never flinching, never blinking, believing yourself that this is what really happened and gathering the attendant physical detail and situation around the tale as if you were merely recalling what you had for breakfast. The reasons I've failed with this technique when I have is because of a lack of confidence. I tried to explain too much -- I blinked and the reader's natural polygraph caught my lie. Kipling also manages this technique really well in some of his better stories.

It's also a way of merging realism and the fantastic, which is a potent hybrid. Fictional hybrids are always more powerful than genre purebreds -- they are more resilient, they have the potential to surprise, the power to escape the gravitational attraction of tradition. Until, of course, they themselves become accredited purebreds, as is now happening with what some call "slipstream". On the other hand, my purely fictional stories hold autobiographical impulses and revelations as well. To me, Art is the physical manifestation -- in words, images, sounds, etc. -- of the artist's ideas and emotions in an attempt to make what is ineffable within evident to another's senses. You can't escape being autobiographical on a very fundamental level.

2 comments:

  1. Hey Matt, "Bright Morning" is the story we took for FEELING VERY STRANGE, the Slipstream Anthology. Kessel and I think it's one of Jeff's undiscovered masterpieces.

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  2. Very good news -- excellent choice! I'm glad to know you guys have a title now, too. You do realize people are going to think it's a supplement to the Lambshead Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases now, though, don't you?

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