Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 17 Oct 01 17:47
John M. Ford is a polymath, a dramatist, a stand-up comic, a game designer, and the author of some of the most interesting, enigmatic popular fiction of the last twenty years. His work is dense, sometimes challenging, frequently shot through with a dark sense of tragedy, and often extremely funny. He is a grown-up writing genre fiction for other grown-ups. His first novel, WEB OF ANGELS (1980), anticipated the "cyberspace" concepts of William Gibson and the other high-profile cyberpunks by several years. His Renaissance fantasy THE DRAGON WAITING (1983), a very different treatment of the Matter of Richard III, won the World Fantasy Award. His science-fiction novel GROWING UP WEIGHTLESS (1993), a bravura coming-of-age story set on the Moon, won the Philip K. Dick Award. A poem originally written as a Christmas card, "Winter Solstice, Camelot Station," won him another World Fantasy Award in 1989. He is the author of a great deal of short fiction, some of which is collected in FROM THE END OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (1997); and of the only Star Trek novel ever written as a pastiche of movie musicals, Gilbert and Sullivan, and low slapstick: HOW MUCH FOR JUST THE PLANET (1987). His latest novel, THE LAST HOT TIME, is a compact but intense exercise in contemporary fantasy, set in a mythic version of gangland Chicago in which humans and truly formidable elves contend among and between themselves for different sorts of power -- and in which a recently-arrived young man must, in order to save himself and those he loves, prevail over an external evil and then -- much more frighteningly -- come to terms with his own nature. Like much of Ford's work, it is both a love story and a meditation on the exercise of power, two matters which in Ford's work are never far apart. Interviewer Patrick Nielsen Hayden is senior editor and manager of science fiction and fantasy at Tor Books, and the editor of the ongoing original anthology series STARLIGHT. Please join me in welcoming Mike and Patrick to inkwell.vue!
Patrick Nielsen Hayden (pnh) Thu 18 Oct 01 04:23
(Lest the last line of the topic opener above seem like a non-sequitur: John M. Ford is "Mike" to all.) Mike, this conversation is being held for a general audience, so I'll start with one of the basic questions levelled at any serious writer who chooses to work in genre fantasy and SF, which is: why? What do the fantastic elements of, for instance, THE LAST HOT TIME allow you to do over and above what you could have done in a mainstream coming-of-age story about the same issues?
John M. Ford (johnmford) Thu 18 Oct 01 13:50
In terms of story, nothing -- I don't think that any mode of telling makes "new stories" possible. I'll get back to that in a moment, but first I'll finish answering. The fantsstic side of HOT TIME makes the world Danny enters one he really hasn't any experience of; he sees things that have neither familear shapes or logical explanations (and many of them never receive either), finds that the world works by rules he doesn't understand, but had better learn, because the penalties for violating them are severe. Eventually, of course, he sees that all this is true of the mundane parts of the world as well. The same -story- could have (and has) been about a kid with a bindle (though probably different skills) getting off the train at Union Station in the historical Capone era and happening into a position with one of the bosses (probably fictional). That book would have had to work inside the fairly severe constraints of what life was really like, for those people, then -- if it had been set against the cliches of gangster movies, it would have been a fantasy, whatever category the publsher had decided to put it in. And while I can see that being an excellent book it its own way, there would have inevitably been the sense that it was all rather small, ugly, and pointless, because however much "success" Capone and Nitti and Moran achieved, it -was,- in the end, violent criminality with big empty dreams. The best that Danny (and those he cared about) could hope for would be to find a way to get the hell out. It sounds so odd to phrase it this way that I'm a bit nervous about saying it, but here goes anyway: fantasy doesn't make different stories possible, but sometimes it makes different outcomes possible, through the literalization of metaphor that is one of the key things fantasy does. Moral strength can change the real world -- and a good thing, too -- but in a fantastic story it can make dramatic, transformative, immediate changes. The idea that such transformations always have a price is what keeps fantasy from being morally empty -- magic may save time and reduce staff requirements, but it offers no discounts.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden (pnh) Sat 20 Oct 01 06:50
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden interjects:] Interesting. That's a take on fantasy I've never heard before. Is that what you were doing in The Dragon Waiting -- bringing semi-familiar stories to new outcomes? Thinking about it in light of what you've just said, it strikes me that you did that with a half-dozen stories at once.
gone (scraps) Sat 20 Oct 01 07:08
Mike, I started reading your work when you started publishing it: I loved the Alternities Corporation stories in the early issues of Asimov's (especially "Mandalay"), which felt to me like a lot of the classic old stuff I was reading. (Not that the classic old stuff is better, they just felt similar.) Are there enough of those stories to collect into a book (and has that ever been discussed)? If not, is it something you'd consider doing more of? Or revising? Do you consider them apprentice work? ARe you still happy with them? Also, I'm very curious how involved you were editorially with the early years of Asimov's, especially since it's the last really successful classic science fiction magazine (since SF Age has up and died, and Interzone isn't the same kind of thing).
John M. Ford (johnmford) Sat 20 Oct 01 10:44
Teresa -- looking at it now, I suppose that was what happened, though I certainly didn't think of it that way at the time. The ending was definitely not going to be the historical one (which I think would have looked like irony for irony's sake) but a good number of the collisions with other stories (Louis XI, for instance) just happened en route. That's also a book that bears very little resemblance to its outline. The one new-spin that was quite deliberaate was what happens to the Princes in the Tower, where I wanted a resolution that would make no sense outside the context of the book. There are enough hypochondratheses about how Edward V is still alive and managing the diner where Elvis is fry cook and Ambrose Bierce puts the menu on the blackboard. ("Coffee -- a dime. Good Coffee -- cab fare somewhere else.") Scraps -- there are four Alternities stories, totaling about forty thousand words, so not enough for a book. There were meant to be a book's worth, and I more or less know what the others are about (this would, of course, change if and when they're actually done). It's something that may well happen; I think the existing stories hold up well enough. I started at ASIMOV's in 1977, which as I recall was about a year and a half after the magazine started. I wasn't living on the East Coast then, but went out a couple of times a year to work full-time, and did various things by mail the rest of the time. When I was there, I mostly read slush, but there wasn't a highly formal office setting or procedure, so one at various times found oneself designing form letters, answering general mail, arguing with express services that yes, they had been given the art and no, they had not delivered it to any known location, and dealing with cranks who wanted to Isaac to acknowledge that gravity was an inadvertent consequence of the Treaty of Ghent. I did actually edit, in the sense of suggesting that perhaps these words were not the most apt to their intended purpose. I did enough of that to know that I'm not really suited to it -- while there were happier exceptions, the way it usually comes out is that I rewrite the scene the way I would have done it, which is hardly ever the way the actual writer would have done it. That is not a better/worse judgement, it's a "Gosh, I suppose Max deWinter -would- have had plenty more bullets" judgement.
Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman) Sat 20 Oct 01 11:50
Argh. There's a question I'm trying to frame about THE SCHOLARS OF NIGHT in the context of your #2 answer, as it seems that in that book (which is a spy novel, of the kind Ludlum would have liked to have written) you were trying to take things apart and put them back together using the mechanism of espionage fiction. And I'm not quite sure what the question is... I susppose it's about about fiction (sometimes) as a lock and key mechanism. There's a certain kind of key that fits a certain kind of lock, and if you want to talk about that stuff best, you need to figure out what key to use, what lock it fits. Do you find it harder, being a writer who can move from genre to genre fluidly and successfully, to decide what opens a story best, than you would if you were someone who wrote (say) hardboiled space army fiction, in which case whatever you wanted to say would have to be filtered through the medium of hardboiled space army fiction? (Did that make sense? It would have made more sense over tea.)
Martha Soukup (soukup) Sat 20 Oct 01 12:29
Mike's take on fantasy makes sense to me. I think I may be surprised I've never heard it put that way before.
It would have made more sense over tea (wren) Sat 20 Oct 01 12:33
I'll take that. Neil, thanks for the pseud. (Mike, hi. I'll have questions later.)
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Sat 20 Oct 01 12:52
(Uh, Mike, are you the nice quiet gentleman in the hat with whom I once split a very odd hazelnut-flavored beer in Boston?)
the nearest to a perfectly Zen post I've ever seen (goldennokomis) Sat 20 Oct 01 14:20
Hi, Mike. Is it OK if I come visit over here every once in a while?
Patrick Nielsen Hayden (pnh) Sat 20 Oct 01 15:26
I'm going to be unavoidably offline for most of Sunday, so I'm particularly glad that people like Teresa, Scraps, and Neil have weighed in with substantive questions. Others should feel encouraged to do likewise. I'm all ears for Mike's answer to Neil's question. As a parallel thread, I'd like to poke Mike a little bit about alternate history. There's been a low rumble lately in some SF-critical circles about the supposed immorality or dishonesty of alternate-history worldbuilding. Obviously, this is excessive; the existence of bad novels that dwell salaciously on WWIIs won by Axis powers doesn't turn THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE into an immoral work. But, aside from the fact that we know the difference when we see it, what _is_ the difference? And I wonder if that difference doesn't lie in Mike's observation about outcomes and prices: you can lose the nail or kill the Mezozoic butterfly, but the alternate world you build had better have real moral consequentiality or, as Teresa once observed, the hex squares start showing from between the paragraphs on the page. And I'd also like to yank Mike's chain about one of his more notorious storytelling quirks, one illustrated by the (possibly apocryphal) story about a conversational exchange between him and Joel Rosenberg. On hearing that Mike was expanding his novella FUGUE STATE for publication as one half of a Tor "Double", Joel supposedly said "Ah, clearing up some of those ambiguities." To which Mike, it is claimed, replied "No, just adding new ones."
gone (scraps) Sat 20 Oct 01 15:51
I loved that story, but the next day it was like a deep acid trip: I couldn't sort it out in my head, or explain it to anyone else.
John M. Ford (johnmford) Sat 20 Oct 01 16:55
Neil -- not to be evasive, but I can't say if it's easier or harder, since I can only do it this way. But to try and answer anyway: I can see a tendency to use too many ingredients. PLANET (the second Trek book) seems to have confused some people because it doesn't just use Trek tropes, it borrows from Buster Keaton and Gilbert & Sullivan and Allan Quatermain and Doctor Who and Roger Corman movies . . .and so forth and so on. Now, that wasn't accidental -- the point is very much that the reader, like the Enterprise crew, are constantly being run over from various directions by buses and trains and double-axled haywains and Harpo Marx going honk-honk. That's an extreme, comic example, but the same sort of thing happens in "Fugue State," which I'll say more about in a moment. But on the whole -- and, as stated above, this is my view -- I think it's easier to find a suitable mode for the story with more genres (that's not the word I want, but it will do for the nonce, or at the most, two nonces) to choose from, just as it's easier to do something interesting with eggplant if you have a pantry full of interesting things to combine with it. That doesn't mean one sometimes doesn't choose the wrong condiment. The first of the Liavek stories ("Cup of Worrynot Tea") is rather broken-backed, because the people who were supposed to be the main characters turned out not to be, and I let it change direction rather than restarting it from the "right" point. Fawn -- I'm glad I was nice. (Yes.) JaNell -- we aren't even limiting carry-on baggage. Patrick -- re the alternate-history question, I haven't seen much of the "immorality" argument, but I can see a certain dissatisiaction with alternate worlds that are intended mainly so sell somebody's idea of how things Ought To Have Been -- the ones in which the US is saved from Alexander Hamilton and Big Government, and the true freedom of early America (except, in Joanna Russ's phrase, for women and slaves and things) leads us to conquer the galaxy by, oh, 1870 at the latest. It's not that you couldn't write a brilliant book from that starting point, but as soon as the characters in it cease to be people and become camshafts to advance the thesis, then it's bad fiction, whether one wants to call it "moral" or not. And yeah, as I recall, I did say something like that about "Fugue State," though I don't recall if it was to Joel. Could well have been, though. The added section was intended to be there from the beginning, but the story ran into both a length limit and a deadline. Scraps -- maybe we should have distributed it on blotter paper?
Dan Guy (danfowlkes) Sat 20 Oct 01 18:05
I had a question or two (or three) when I finished TLHT, but had some reservations about asking you for clarification as they seemed to be the sorts of things that were either meant to be figured out by the reader or meant to be ambiguous; by the next day I'd settled all of both sorts to my satisfaction. So I don't actually have any (more) questions yet. I just wanted to quickly reiterate that I loved PLANET (the only Trek book I've ever read) and LAST HOT TIME. So there you go. And I'm looking forward to the next book of yours that I manage to get my hands on.
JaNell (goldennokomis) Sat 20 Oct 01 21:42
Mike, I was glad to hear you say, "JaNell -- we aren't even limiting carry-on baggage." But, is it that obvious? Must work harder on the mask, then... Re: using bits from outside the Star Trek universe in HMFJTP? ~ I think it's fine to assume that your readers will have varied points of reference; you're writing, hopefully, for intelligent readers with a wide variety of eclectic interests. I often hand my older son, who's 14, books I think he'd like, or needs to read as part of his education, and having the mixed genre stuff leads to questions that lead to research and an even broader education, even if it's Gilbert & Sullivan or trolley cars or weevils...
double-axled haywains and Harpo Marx going honk-honk (lioness) Sat 20 Oct 01 21:58
> I loved that story, but the next day it was like > a deep acid trip: I couldn't sort it out in my > head, or explain it to anyone else. Scraps, that is *exactly* what Fugue State was like for me, too! *Thank* you; it's useful to finally have words to hang on it. And blotter paper would have been perfect, Mike. Limited edition rerelease, perhaps? Re: > it's easier to do something interesting with > eggplant if you have a pantry full of interesting > things to combine with it. I've been checking out your reference pantry for some time now, and while I am sure Pamela Dean would be a better cataloguer, I've got a few of the, um, condiments figured out. While your stories and poetry can be read and enjoyed without being acquainted with the work of Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Auden, Harold Lloyd, Keaton, Danny Thomas, Lucius Beebe, Dan deQuille, and the other things with labels I can't quite make out from this remove, it does add something to recognize the resonances. Are you always playing catch with invisible friends when you write? That some are alive and some are dead doesn't seem to matter; I have always got a mental picture of you going down the street to the triple crossroads and going into the Incognito Diner to chew the fat with Gene Wolfe, our own true Neil, and the Christophers Fry and Marlowe for a few hours. Oh and thanks for the pseud, darlin'. (That line probably works better if read in an SKZ Brust/Doc Holliday voice) P.S. And I see JaNell and I are on the same wavelength here.
JaNell (goldennokomis) Sat 20 Oct 01 22:08
Scary, isn't it? The same wavelength bit... Re: the " Are you always playing catch with invisible friends..." I'm sorely tempted, at times, to make up a bumper sticker ot t-shirt (if I wore them) for myself that says, "Runs with imaginary scissors".
Linda Castellani (castle) Sun 21 Oct 01 13:58
I'm just wondering if there's a question for Mike in there somewhere, Ms. Jazilla?
JaNell (goldennokomis) Sun 21 Oct 01 15:10
Nope, sorry. Forgot where I was for a few.
she looks like evening (kellyhills) Sun 21 Oct 01 19:44
*This* is where you've been hiding, Mike! Can't let you away just yet, you've a wonderfully bad effect on my writing,... >>His science-fiction novel GROWING UP WEIGHTLESS (1993)<< >>The first of the Liavek stories ("Cup of Worrynot Tea")<< ?! Apparently I've read a bit more of your work than I thought, Mike - I worked in a comic book store when the proof of Growing Up Weightless was floating around, and decided that no one else would appreciate such a good story, so snuck it home with me one day. I'm not entirely sure why I picked up the Liavek books - probably because of Brust - but I've read the first three, and been despertely hunting for the last two since. "Cup of Worrynot Tea" being one of my favourite stories, too... of course you know I like Planet, since I already raved about it elsewhere. The Last Hot Time is on the short list for our Nov/Dec book club; we had thought there would be a problem convincing people to buy brand new books, but the Oct/Nov book ended up being Lost (Gregory McGuires new book), so new apparently isn't an issue. Anyhow, to play nicely with the format, a question for you - you seem to write such a very diverse amount of material, subjects, and genres. Most authors seem quite pigeonholed into their specific niche, yet you don't. How did you manage that? :-) -Kelly
Patrick Nielsen Hayden (pnh) Mon 22 Oct 01 06:13
Speaking from the industry side of the table, my experience is that when we get word that, while supposedly working on something else, Mike has somewhat absent-mindedly written a magic-realist Regency western, our curiosity overcomes our business sense and we publish it anyway. I'd be happy to hear Mike's own view on this. I also wonder if he'd like to give any hints about ASPECTS, the immense fantasy novel he's been writing for the last decade or so.
Gail Williams (gail) Mon 22 Oct 01 13:04
A "magic-realist Regency western" ! What a description.
John M. Ford (johnmford) Mon 22 Oct 01 16:03
Elise -- catch with invisible friends? Sure, not that I don't drop a lot of the pitches. C. S. Lewis, writing about Charles Williams's poetry, tried to draw a distinction between references that were reasonable auctorial expectation of outside knowledge on the reader's part, and those that were just in-jokes for the author's circle. He noted that Eliot assumes you have a decent knowledge of Dante and Shakespeare, claimed that this was reasonable, and that if all Eliot did was get you to read Dante and Shakespeare, that was value for money (that's not me spinning, that, paraphrased a bit, is what he said). We may be hovering near a point where this won't work, because the Shakespeare references won't be recognized as such, and only the reader absolutely motivated to Look That Thing Up will get to the source. Or maybe electronic access, and places like this, will hold the line against that, providing a readily available pool of annotators. Then again, I like to think that what I do is less "reference" to phrases and events as to thoughts and syntax -- Lucius Beebe, to pick a pretty darn blatant example, never allowed the absence of a word for what he wanted to get in his way. He often acted the same way about facts, expecially when a photo said what he wanted, but wasn't really of what his caption claimed it was. Kelly, re pigeonholes -- well, Neil writes eloquently about this in END OF THE 20th, but there is an answer and a half, and three-quarters. The answer is that, well, if something looks interesting and there seems to be a way to make it work, or at least to make the words and ideas start rolling with the trust that the proper structural framework will suggest itself in time, then you do that. Sometimes it falls apart, but Tinkertoys are reusable, even if some of the other thngs you stuck in there (pretzel rods, gerbil drive) may not be. The half is that nobody may want to -buy- the result. It is usually a lot easier for me to start a short story if there's a particular theme out there -- not necessarily a "theme anthology," though in Liavek there were certain decisions that didn't have to be made and certain elements that could be reliably incorporated -- though I did try to find something new to say about them. Songs are even more so; it's fairly easy for me to at least draft a lyric if I have something to hang it on. "Write a love song." "Uh?" "Write a love song about a woman who likes chocolate better." "That's plain nuts." "Well, I didn't --" "No, that's the title. 'That's Plain Nuts.' And the three-quarters bit is that being all over the map means that some people never notice any of the work, because they're looking for something that's like something else and you ain't it. Some people who liked REFLECTION (or claimed they did) hated PLANET (or ditto) usually claiming I should have written something just like REFLECTION about the Romulans, or the Horta, or Frank Gorshin in the mime-gone-bad getup. Well, okay, but I'd done that book (and, though the correspondents didn't know it, Paramount had long ago forbidden doing it again, except in the blandest and most canonical fashion). Patrick -- so that's my mutant power? Making publishers abandon their business sense? Dark Greenspan? I'll get to ASPECTS in a post or two. This one's getting long, and I'm likely to get knocked offline again. Yup, there it went. Gail -- "Not what we had expected, I'm afraid." "No doubt." Dr. Maturin said nothing else. He looked through the borrowed spyglass at the zombies advancing in ragged line abreast toward the British squares. He uncased a long-bladed knife, the largest bone saw, and took the saltcellar stolen from the Governor's Mansion from his coat pocket. "A pinch of this in your pistols, Lieutenant," he told the young man, proffering the salt. "It will be interesting, and may be useful. You will report?" "Of course, Doctor, as soon as I --" "Tell Miss Heyer she is a fine woman but a very poor private soldier. If she can use that musket, however, we shall be happy for her presence. Have you set the date?" "Why --" "Just as well, then."
Kathy Li (jonl) Mon 22 Oct 01 18:43
Email from Kathy Li: But Dr. Mike, where's the western part? (she said in a blatant bid for more). And speaking of song lyrics and such, how do you know if an idea is meant to be prose or verse or something else? --Kathy
John M. Ford (johnmford) Mon 22 Oct 01 19:39
Kathy -- I take your point, but during the Regency New Orleans counted as "the West." It's a little odd to think that "the Civil War in the West" means things like the Vicksburg campaign (Mississippi), though there -were- a few battles much farther thataway. California was still Spanish, though what Austen would have done with Don Diego de la Vega/Zorro is, uh, never mind. If something must be prose or verse, it's usually obvious to me -- an issue of "this requires extremely heighteend language," or it's something like "The Lost Dialogue," which would have had to be book-length as conventional prose and dialogue, with the additional content mainly being retelling the background that the poem assumes the reader knows at least in outline. Which may be the answer: many of my poems are extended riffs on stories they don't actually tell in any detail. Not all -- "Windows on an Empty Throne" is a short story told as fourteen sonnets, each from a different viewpoint. It's a stunt, though people seem to think it worked. Alan Jay Lerner insisted (and i agree) that the songs in a musical play should not be interruptions -- they should further the plot and exposition in the same way that dialogue would, but compress what might take twenty minutes of dialogue into three or four. (Lerner claimed to be unable to write just "a song" -- he could -only- do theatrical scenes as lyrics.) So LAST HOT TIME isn't, I think, a musical -- it's a novel with a soundtrack. The songs -reflect- the action, and say something about the mood, but the only song that could be read as the character furthering the action is "The Next Voice You Hear," and its message could be presented in two syllables. I've thought about trying to write a novel-as-musical, but I think the artificiality, not to mention the difference between reading a lyric and hearing a song, would kill it.
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