April L. Ford’s prize-winning debut story collection, The Poor Children, is forthcoming worldwide April 1, 2015. Gentle, her debut novel, was a Semi-Finalist for the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and is forthcoming with SFWP early next year. April is managing editor of Digital Americana Magazine. She has spent time at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts as a Robert Johnson Fellow, and at Ucross Foundation as a Writer in Residence. She is completing her second novel, Carousel, a contemporary love story that spans one century, one Canadian province, and a handful of American States.
Andrew Gifford: April L. Ford—teacher, French-Canadian, carousel-lover, editor, theater stage manager, TV producer, mentor for troubled youth, former juvenile delinquent, and, now, author. Let’s talk about your debut book, The Poor Children, and about you. From the Canadian Maritimes to Oneonta, New York, in a nutshell:
The Poor Children won the 2013 SFWP Literary Awards Program grand prize, judged by David Morrell of Rambo fame, was this the first time you entered a writing contest?
April Ford: Earlier that year, The Poor Children was shortlisted for the international Scott Prize. I was thrilled to accept this mention as evidence I had written a good book, and then I put the book in a drawer. Being a writer means having a drawer of unpublished books, right? When I saw my name long-listed for SFWP’s awards program, I once again felt thrilled and validated. When I made it onto the shortlist, I had to take a Zantac. After I received that first email from you, well, I cried.
AG: What inspires your writing, generally? And The Poor Children, specifically?
AF: Let me first say what doesn’t inspire my writing: too much free time. I tend to be most creative and productive when I have a full schedule; I become ferociously protective of those two to four hours I need every day to write, and I’m carried through them by the energy what’s going on around me. It’s difficult, and an exercise in masochism, to force oneself to make something out of nothing. How can I write a new story when I’m bored? When nothing going on around me piques my curiosity? I’ll admit that I’m a slow writer in these post-binge years, and I avoid working on more than one piece at a time. I wrote the stories in The Poor Children at an average rate of one per year. I wrote other stuff during that time, of course, but when I look at each story, I think, “Ah, yes, ‘Layla’ was my year of working with the girls in lockup,” or, “‘Bananas and Limes’ was the year I became obsessed with Warren Jeffs.” “‘runawaybitch13’ was the year I was afraid to travel by Greyhound, because that guy sawed off another guy’s head.”
AG: As a writing mentor for troubled youth, you’re facing some of your own demons, yes? Do some of the dark moments from The Poor Children come from your own background, or your time as a mentor?
AF: “Bleary” is based on the night a teenager smashed open my husband’s skull with a beer bottle, and the other stories are either derived from the news or pulled from my imagination—this latter which is shaped, of course, by my experiences. I have yet to write that piece about, say, the time I brought a girl to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and she shoplifted an entire line of L’Oréal nail polish. Or the time a boy hurled a dresser on me and then climbed on top and jumped around like a trampoline champion.
AG: Is it difficult for you to summon these memories and write about them, or is it something of a healing process?
AF: I’ve always bristled at the idea of writing for catharsis—healing isn’t a recursive act, it’s a messy and stubborn process, and I don’t want it to contaminate my creative process. I’ve never even kept a journal! I was a binge writer until my late-twenties, which I suppose is a symptom of healing; solitude, DuMaurier ultra light cigarettes, and Coffee Crisp candy bars were all I needed. I wrote “A Marmalade Cat for Jenny” and “Isabelle’s Haunting” that way, and both times I crashed afterward. I felt stimulated and engaged when I was in those worlds, and when I “came down” from each three- or four-day binge, I felt out of place and tremendously sad, like I had experienced a loss. Now I ignore the impulse to binge-write, except during holidays.
AG: Are you still a writing mentor for troubled youth? Any success stories?
AF:The successes I was privileged to be part of were delicate: helping a kid choose the right words to express why he wasn’t trash like his parents had told him his whole life he was; brainstorming with girls in lock-up about who would assume what role for their community newsletter. Mostly, I helped kids develop safe alternative ways of voicing their experiences—these kids came from deteriorated family situations, violent environments, etc. and they were slow to trust because instability had been the only constant in their lives. Sometimes, just being able to make eye contact with a kid was a success. I haven’t mentored youth since I moved to the U.S. in 2009, though during my first year here I edited two anthologies for the Florida-based ARISE Foundation, an organization that publishes life skills materials for at-risk youth.
AG: In online interviews and blogs, you’ve often mentioned that 2002 is the year you decided to devote yourself to becoming a professional writer. What happened in 2002?
AF: I discovered I didn’t have the constitution to venture into dark basements where I might stumble into bathtubs filled with rotting flesh—my decade-long fantasy of becoming Agent Starling turned flaccid. The catalyst: a scene in the cult classic The Secret Life of Jeffrey Dahmer, in which Jeffrey drills a hole in his sedated victim’s head, and the victim wakes up and starts screeching and jerking in the same manner over and over, like he’s caught in a loop. I couldn’t sleep for a week, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the victim. The minds of serial killers no longer struck me as exciting and dangerous, or worthy of my pursuit of a career in profiling. I felt empty and aimless, until I decided my career future should involve victims. I began writing stories about them every night after work, and I drew from my experiences between January nineteen ninety-five and July nineteen ninety-six, when I lived in a group home due to deteriorated family circumstances. My time in the system had been brief and helpful compared with the other kids I had seen cycled through, and I felt guilty—in short, I came out okay, while many kids didn’t. This guilt compelled me to use writing as a way to understand my situation versus theirs. After a few months, I wanted to do more than accumulate stories on my hard drive, so I applied to an undergraduate program in creative writing, and I returned to the group home to ask if I could volunteer as a mentor.
AG: So, it’s been 13 years between making that decision and getting one of your books on the shelf. Did you ever feel discouraged or wonder if you’d made a mistake? What kept you on mission?
AF: The best choice I made after switching paths was adding a professional writing minor to my creative writing studies. I became aware of how little I knew about the mechanics of language, and this awareness paralyzed me at first. I began criticizing my writing at every turn. Am I using the appropriate word? Should I use a comma? What the hell is an adverbial phrase? I lost faith in my ability to become a writer, so I focused on becoming an editor—at least this promised a salary. But after a year of dissecting syntax, I grew frustrated by my lack of output; so much was going in, so little was coming out. And then one night as I sulked alone in a restaurant and nursed a glass of house red, Scott Dearth, the narrator of “A Marmalade Cat for Jenny,” started telling me his story (in my head, of course). His voice was so clear and twangy and fascinating there weren’t enough napkins for me to write on. I promptly abandoned my dinner plans and locked myself in my apartment for the next three days. When I emerged with a complete first draft, I knew I was a writer; and the agony I had suffered to learn grammar had simply been a rite of passage—the first of many. Since then, sure, I’ve had dry spells and periods of severe self-doubt, and certainly a person or five (including a former professor) has tried to make me feel badly about my work, but unless you’re planning to lobotomize the writer part of my brain, I’m going to keep on keeping on.
AG: You were a TV producer for a reality series, right? Which one? How’d you land that gig?
AF: In 2004, an acquaintance asked if I wanted to be stage manager for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. He had been cast to play Chasuble, and he thought I had the right temperament to make people do things—otherwise, I had no experience. When I met the executive who was financing the play, we hit it off like gangbusters. He liked my frenetic style and invited me to help his studio produce the pilot episode of a reality cooking show called Spicy Series. Again, I had no experience, but I was game. And it probably didn’t hurt that on opening night of the play, I arrived to the theater wearing fitted black sweatpants with “S.E.X.Y.” stitched across the butt in white block letters (no time for laundry!).
AG: Tell us about how awesome your publisher is. No! Sorry… Tell us about the process—from dream to reality. Having finally achieved your goal, is it what you imagined it would be in 2002?
AF: My publisher is god. (Sorry for the lower-case “g,” but I’m one of those non-theist types.) I didn’t know what to expect before you sent me the publishing contract, but I felt optimistic—your email voice was friendly, you replied swiftly, and you brought a little self-deprecating humor to the exchange. Hey! This could be a Craigslist ad: “Desperate writer seeking communicative, funny publisher with the means to back his contracts.” And then there’s the publishing team—Sheila, Karen, Shimrit, and G.G: you have all made my first time the most pleasurable of first times. Now we’re six months from the release date, planning spring events and discussing other collaborations, and I realize I’ve met my 2002 goal: I set out to be a writer, and I am a writer. We measure successes on different scales, and for me, this experience of winning a literary contest and going on to be published by a phenomenal press is hands-down success.
AG: Do you feel that the publishing industry slights the short form? If so, what advice would you give authors who really want to champion the short form?
AF: I submitted The Poor Children to contests not because I believed it was prize-worthy, but because someone told me this is one of few ways to get a story collection published (if it wins). I was pleased when Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize in Literature—basically I said, “Go, Canada!” And, “Long live the short story!” It’s wonderful that the form can garner such lofty recognition, but it’s discouraging on the ground-level when agents and editors regard story collections as possible gateways to novels—“You’re an extraordinary writer, but do you have a finished novel?”
AG: The Poor Children stood out above several hundred entries. How do you feel about this recognition?
AF: Grateful, proud, giddy, alarmed, so excited I could climb a tree. Grateful, proud…. This best describes the pattern I experience whenever someone asks how I feel about the recognition.
AG: Would you recommend writing contests to authors?
AF: Yes, but be strategic; you’re likelier to drain your bank account than you are to win, since most contests charge submission fees. More importantly, look at who’s holding the contest, who the judge is, past contest winners, and the prize—would you feel proud to win this contest? Would you want your work published by this journal or press? There’s pressure on writers to get our work “out there,” and I’ve certainly succumbed to this pressure at times, and we need to inoculate ourselves against the publishing virus. A contest is not only about winning but also about how winning will shape your career. On the one hand, it’s such a challenge to get recognized; you’re up against hundreds of other talented and ambitious writers, and you’re all chasing the same dream, so any exposure is good exposure, right? On the other hand, I know writers, from emerging to established, who have won contests, received the always-handy prize money, and then been dropped like yesterday’s socks. Either they were promised publication and it never happened, or they were published in some dusty garage and had to purchase their books from the publisher and tromp door to door like snake oil salespeople. You want to submit your work to journals and publishers who, should you win, are more excited about it than you are. You want the opportunity to develop a solid professional relationship, and you want to feel proud when you say, “My book’s coming out next spring with SFWP!”
AG: Overall, the MFA program at Queens seems to have cleaned up at the SFWP Awards — the top three winners were all students and faculty (http://www.queens.edu/News-and-Information/Santa-Fe-Writers-Project-Awards.html), so tell us a bit about the program.
AF: We ruled your contest! The MFA program is a low-residency format, spread over two years, and you can focus on one genre (poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, screenwriting), or add a fifth semester to your degree and study a second genre. The faculty is outstanding, and the students enrolled in the program are serious—but fun! For me, the format fit perfectly with my work schedule, and I chose Queens because I wanted to study with specific writers. The program has flourished even since I graduated, in May 2012; there’s a European and a Latin America option, if you’re looking to load your experience with culture, and there’s a bi-annual alumni weekend every autumn. Queens alum stay in touch; every year at AWP there’s a dinner at an off-site venue, and there are a number of alum Facebook and Twitter sites that tether everyone together.
AG: The second story in The Poor Children, “Yellow Gardenias,” is an almost casual tale of neglect. The plight of the institutionalized children—and their watchers—in “Layla” haunts the reader long after the story ends. The third story opens up with cats being tortured and killed. There are so many shocking moments throughout the book, but the grittiness possesses a lovely human quality. A sense of “this is who we are.” In fact, your writing has been compared to Cormac McCarthy. Do you see The Poor Children as a commentary on our culture, or a deeper exploration of the self?
AF: You nailed it with “this is who we are.” The first time I showed “A Marmalade Cat for Jenny” to someone other than a close friend, it was received with kneejerk criticism; I was mortified, because I had assumed readers would be able to see past the opening scene and root for the characters. It was my first real-world lesson about audience. I’ve kept this in mind ever since, especially when I write about sensitive subjects, but I don’t pander to readers by churning out “inspirational” tabloids or “Titanic” tearjerkers.
AG: The Poor Children is the first of your books in print, but it’s not the first to be written, correct? You have two novels in the mix? Could you tell us about those?
AF: My first novel, Gentle, is heavily borrowed from the last six years of my father’s life—he suffered from dementia and passed away last autumn. As a regular caregiver to him during that time, I learned how limitless—and limited—compassion could be. I guess this answer speaks to your earlier question about writing to heal; I funneled a lot of unhappiness into the characters. Carousel, my second-born, is almost ready for daycare. I haven’t perfected the logline, but it goes something like this: “After Estelle uncovers a secret Margot has been keeping for years, the women go on a road trip to try to save their marriage.”
AG: Do you see yourself as more of a short story writer or a novel writer? Do you think there’s even a distinction?
AF: Novelist! If you want to torture me, lock me in a room and tell me to write a series of postcard stories. For me, the frontrunner of challenges with shorter forms is distilling narrative to its most important part or parts. When I write a novel, of course I strive to make each scene important and necessary, but I have a book-length outlook. The first short story I write after completing a novel is usually ten or twenty pages of set-up. When I return to the novel after re-tackling the short story form, I tend to write too much into the first chapter. I revere writers who can switch prolifically between different forms.
AG: With Gentle done, and Carousel getting there, what’s next?
AF: Well, you and I have been discussing a book about a pre-9/11 event involving a pair of D&D lovebirds and a murder, and I’ve written the first ten pages of my third novel, The Délinquents, which I first thought of a decade ago—I’ll have to update my plan, of course.
AG: Coffee shops and editing. You’ve talked about the combo in other interviews. So talk coffee, and then talk a bit about the editing process.
AF: I like a shot of stovetop espresso early in the morning. Cream and sugar are for posers! Sometimes I enjoy the background noise of coffee shops. If I’m feeling antisocial, I’ll wear earphones. Editing is the longest part of my process. I become so focused and meticulous I make all substantive changes in the first pass, which could take months, while another writer does three rewrites in that time. I got ridiculous with Carousel this summer. In June, worked on it twenty consecutive days for ten hours a day. I developed sores on my elbows (I was sitting in an armchair the whole time). One afternoon, my left eyeball turned inward…and remained stuck until I slept off the strain.
AG: You’re the managing editor of Digital Americana magazine, and a teacher of creative writing in the SUNY system. How does editing and teaching influence your writing?
AF: If I weren’t disciplined, I wouldn’t write on a schedule during the academic year, which is terrible of me to admit. In my mind, I’m writer first, then editor, then professor, but I have to remind myself constantly. It’s easy to fuss longer than necessary on a story submission to Digital Americana when I should be writing the next chapter of my novel, and it’s easy lose time answering student emails that don’t merit answers—“Hey prof! I can’t come to class today because my nose hair hurts. Is that alright by you?” It’s also easy to lose hours watching videos of cute cats, filing my nails, arranging my wardrobe by color. Editing and teaching give me incentive to stick to a schedule, although I aspire to one day publish my way out of needing either to supplement my income. (I know, I know.)
AG: Your writing is taught in the classroom, correct? By a “Death Scholar”? What story are they using on their syllabus, and, really, what’s a “Death Scholar”?
AF: The “Death Scholar” is my friend and colleague, Bianca Tredennick. She’s a Victorianist. She included “Isabelle’s haunting” in the materials for her Madness in Literature course one semester. I was honored! I visited the class and listened to the students deconstruct my work, and I was blown away by their questions and sophisticated interpretations—I mean, what a privilege to discuss my work with upper-level English majors who regarded it as seriously as they regarded Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Henry James’s Turn of the Screw.
AG: Do you think Bill Clinton lied about wearing boxers?
AF: My advisors have told me not to answer this question.
AG: You’re very active online… Where can we find you?
What’s the single-most important piece of advice you give your students?
For More Information
Read an excerpt from The Poor Children.
See links above to April Ford’s website and social media sites.