This Strange and Mercurial World: Jeffrey Ford’s Crackpot Palace

After talking so abstractly about criticism last week, I felt that delving into a book was necessary for this week’s column. My choice is Jeffrey Ford’s Crackpot Palace, a book about which I am sure I could pen a lengthy thesis. It is his most recent collection of stories and demonstrates his versatility as a writer, ranging from SF and heroic fantasy to unsettling surrealism and earthy realism. To show my bias from the start, I think it is one of the best short story collections of the year, even though a few of the stories fell flat for me. Ford applies his prodigious writing skills to the creation of stories whose fantastical elements seduce and disrupt the reader’s expectations. Ford can read like great American literature or SFnal pulp, but there are always shadows and depths that run through his tales, and they can be treacherous or enlightening as you fall into them.

Regardless of any genre affectations or fantastical content, life is inherently strange in Ford’s stories. One of Ford’s great strengths is that his writing slyly leads you to embrace what is happening, not by normalizing the strange and marvelous but by creating a tone that makes the fantastic inseparable from the seemingly innocuous writing. To be anchored to the illogic of the world presented, the reader must not merely see through a character’s eyes so much as coalesce how they experience and shape the story of the world being told. A sense of place is channeled through the characters’ actions and responses to be felt and assembled by the reader. This is not a unique method of creating a feeling of being elsewhere in a story, but Ford is particularly masterful at its execution.

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Jeffrey Ford’s stunning new collection of short fiction, Crackpot Palace, was published in August 2012, to great critical acclaim. It features twenty excursions into the weird and fantastic, including one never-before published story, The Wish Head. Ford is an American Fantasy, Science Fiction and Mystery writer. His work is characterized by a sweeping imaginative power, humor, literary allusion, and a fascination with tales told within tales. He is a graduate of Binghamton University, where he studied with the novelist John Gardner.  He lives in southern New Jersey and teaches writing and literature at Brookdale Community College in Monmouth County. He has also taught at the summer Clarion Workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers in Michigan. He has contributed stories, essays and interviews to various magazines and e-magazines including MSS, Puerto Del Sol, Northwest Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Argosy, Event Horizon, Infinity Plus, Black Gate and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Photo credit: Eric Rosenfield

As a long-time Jeffrey Ford reader (and probably the only one to make a t-shirt based on one of his short stories, the eponymous entry in the The Drowned Life) Alvaro Zinos-Amaro had nine questions for Jeff upon finishing Crackpot Palace. Admittedly, these are slightly offbeat questions, in some cases only tangentially related to the stories; crackpot questions, one might say.  SF Signal is happy to present these questions, as well as Jeffrey Ford’s answers, for our readers today.


Alvaro Zinos-Amaro: What inspired “The Wish Head” (other than the publication of Crackpot Palace and the opportunity to add a brand new story to it)?

Jeffrey Ford: I read this book a while ago titled A Brief History of the Smile by Angus Trumble, and in that book Trumble tells the story of L’Inconnue de la Seine (the unknown woman of the Seine). In addition to that historical tale, I added my vision of upstate New York in the autumn, and a time when the old factories built along the Susquehanna were caught in the grip of the great Depression.

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