Interviewed by Gavin J. Grant
Jeffrey Ford's latest novel, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, is a fascinating tale of a painter and his mysterious subject. Ford's previous novels include, The Physiognomy, winner of the 1997 World Fantasy Award and a New York Times Notable Book, Vanitas, Memoranda, and The Beyond (excerpt). His first collection of short stories, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant, will be published this summer. Ford is a Professor of Writing and Early American Literature at a college in New Jersey.
BookSense.com: How did you prepare yourself to write from the point of view of an artist for The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque? Are you a painter as well as a writer?
Jeffrey Ford: I paint and draw and make collages, but I don't approach these pursuits in the same manner I do writing. I do them for enjoyment and to see what will come of it and to have fun. I read a lot of biographies of artists and look at picture books a good deal, but I do not practice the techniques of the old masters as I try to do sometimes when I write. When I write I still have fun, but I am also extremely interested in craft. I am writing for others as well as myself, and that makes a huge difference. I do have a friend, Kevin Quigley, who is a serious painter, and he gave me a lot of good information mostly about the experience of painting. A great book I read in preparation for writing the novel was What Painting Is by James Elkins. That guy has great insights about painting and a beautiful way of making them understandable to the layman.
Also, as a fiction writer, you just have to get into the character and what that character is about and let your imagination take over. I think as far as most readers go, the painting stuff in the novel will be believable. I'm sure really serious painters will quibble with it here and there (for instance, I realize that the paintings in the story dry awfully rapidly sometimes -- for the purposes of the plot), as they have a right to do.
The central conceit of The Portrait (where the Piambo must paint a portrait of Mrs. Charbuque without seeing her) is wonderful. Is this idea based on your experience as a novelist where, as you are writing you see the story, yet the reader cannot until long after you are done, when the book is published?
The concept for the novel came from my teaching of Early American Literature. There are a lot of stories about Emily Dickinson (some I'm sure apocryphal, some probably not) about the fact that when people would come to her parents' house to visit her, she would hide behind a screen or sit just out of sight on the stairway. One of these stories is about how a doctor came to treat her. When he insisted upon examining her, she opened her bedroom door a sliver and walked quickly back and forth behind it fully clothed. In the text book I use for the course, The Norton Anthology of Early American Literature, the biographical piece on Dickinson stated that her friend Mabel Loomis Todd had known Emily all her life, but only saw her when she was laid out in her coffin. Or at least, for years, that's what I thought it stated. This was really where the idea for the book came from, this statement. This year, after writing The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, I read the new biography of Dickinson by Alfred Habegger, My Wars Are Laid Always in Books, a really terrific examination of the poet's life. From reading that bio, though, I realized that Mabel was a frequent visitor to the Dickinson house and definitely had seen Emily on many occasions. After reading this, I went back to the Norton Anthology to look for that line about the coffin, etc., and it wasn't there. I must have just made the entire thing up in my head. My wife can tell you that isn't surprising. The fact that it was the impetus for the novel is a little bizarre, though.
One of the things that interests me about the concept is the idea that as a reader (I think many people have the same experience), as I imagine the characters, they take on features, hair color, expressions, bulk, and height. Sometimes their profiles are based on people we know, but other times they are completely idiosyncratic personalities we have never met before. So, while the reader is reading The Portrait, he/she is seeing the characters of Piambo (the painter), his friend, Shenz, Samantha, clearly. Their features have all been created through words. I am greatly interested, as a writer and a reader, in how we form these mind pictures when reading. It's really kind of a miracle the way it works -- an entire world, populated with vibrant personalities springs to life when we open the cover of a good book and move our eyes across pages covered with wiggles of ink. So one facet of the book is an investigation of this phenomenon. I hadn't thought about the suggestion you put forth in the question, but I very much like that idea and will claim I am doing that also in any further interviews.
Is it an idea you've been playing around with for a long time?
Yes. I've been teaching Emily Dickinson for about eight years. The idea has been with me for five of those eight, going back to the first time I read that passage that didn't exist.
When you're teaching, are there writers you have to teach, or do you have carte blanche? Either way, who are some of the writers you teach? What is it about them that brings you back to them?
At Brookdale Community College, the professors have complete control over the texts that are used in a class. In the Early American Lit. course, I try to use texts that both represent their own time and resonate with issues and events in contemporary American society. These texts are not hard to find. So much of what we are today as a nation and a society found its roots in the time period covered by that course. When you study the Puritans, it quickly becomes evident how much of their philosophy and theology informs today's political and moral thought -- for better or worse. "Self-Reliance" by Emerson, "Resistance to Civil Government" by Thoreau, Frederick Douglass's "July Fourth" speech, are as fresh in their insights into the present political and social situation as something written just yesterday. Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," Dickinson's "I could not stop for Death...," or Hawthorne's "Wakefield," have not diminished in their power to depict aspects of the human condition. Poe is a writer the students are forever fascinated by. Part of that stems from his troubled, romanticized life, part from his works that, although viewed by many as horror stories for children, are groundbreaking literary masterpieces composed of a classical sense of irony, complex structures, a wicked sense of humor, and a deep insight into the American psyche.
In other courses I have used works by Kafka, Borges, Kipling, Flannery O'Connor, Kobo Abe, Amos Tutuola.... The list is a long one since I have been teaching there for 14 years. I usually use the texts that have had a profound effect on me personally, hoping the students will share the experience.
How did you go about researching New York in 1893?
I have a pretty good working knowledge of New York -- its history and its layout, but that only got me so far. This was the first novel I've written that has historical research in it. I started by reading a few novels by Edith Wharton and then moved on to some nonfiction works like the wonderful Gramercy Park: An American Bloomsbury by Carol Klein. I looked at maps of the city and books of old photographs. After I was done with this, I still felt I needed something else and was getting a little desperate as to where to find it or even what exactly I was looking for. Then one day I was in the local bookstore, and I happened past the travel section, a spot I rarely go to, and sitting on the shelf was this facsimile edition of Moses King's Guide to New York, circa 1892. I almost fell over. Man, this book had pictures, listed all the hotels, where the museums were, where the bars were, told what was served in certain restaurants, where you could get a good or mediocre cup of coffee, just about everything. I think that book listed the whereabouts of every public statue in the city. It was a godsend. Thank you Moses.
I also found, in a beach house I was renting for a week while in the process of working on the book, a four-video set of a special on the history of New York that had aired on PBS directed by a fellow by the name of Burns. I believe he is the brother of Ken Burns, who did the well known "Civil War" and "Baseball" documentaries.
One thing I learned was that a little historical research goes a long way when writing a novel. In the first draft, I got a little carried away with my historical research, and my editor, Jennifer Brehl, told me some of it was getting in the way of the story, which it was. Handling information like this in a novel is a tricky proposition, or at least it was for me. I wanted to be convincing but I didn't want the weight of the research to be a drag. You've got to use it convincingly and subtly. Figuring that balance was an interesting process.
Are you a native of the New York area?
Yes. I grew up on Long Island. From the time I was very young, the city was an exotic place to me. My parents took us in very often to the museums and to the planetarium, etc. When I got a little older, my brother and I would go to Madison Square Garden to see the Knicks play. A little older than that, and I'd go in with my friends and we'd drink in the old Irish bars, the ones with the steamed meats. That was really living. Then I worked in the city for a while and saw it from another angle. It has remained for me through my life a place of wonder and excitement. Now I live in South Jersey, and I'm a cranky hermit who doesn't like to travel much, but given a chance to go to New York, I'm always ready. I still go up there as often as I can to hear a reading or to see the shows at the museums. New Yorkers are wonderful people.
What was the oddest fact you discovered about New York? Are any of the places listed in Moses King's Guide still around? Did you visit any of them? Was the coffee good? Mediocre?
The most amazing thing in general I discovered was what a cosmopolitan city New York was in the 1890s. I was struck by its modernity. From the end of the Civil War to the period I write about, New York went through a mind boggling transformation.
One odd thing I read about had to do with a time in New York somewhat earlier than what I depict in the book. At that time there was no sanitation system. This was prior to the 1840s when the population began to become estimable. People basically threw their garbage in the streets. In an attempt to clean things up, it was suggested that pigs be allowed to roam freely and eat the garbage. Not a bad plan until you consider the sanitation problem caused by what is left behind by the pigs.
With a ready supply of food and freedom, it didn't take long before the pigs were everywhere. Those put off by the nuisance of pigeons should count their blessings. It was actually James Harper, one of a pair of brothers who founded the company that publishes The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, who, when he became mayor, banished the pigs from New York and set up a nascent sanitation system. For a great description of the pig situation in early New York, readers should check out Alex Irvine's fantasy novel, A Scattering Of Jades.
Another thing that I found interesting was that at one point you could buy a ticket to an all-naked review -- a couple of dozen women and men cavorting on stage naked. This was instituted in the name of high art, but that Puritanical thread that has woven its way through the course of American history rose up to quickly put the kibosh on this entertainment. Obviously shows like this did not vanish, but they moved to more dimly lit venues and public nudity lost its aesthetic status.
Many of the buildings listed in Moses King's guide have long since vanished, but there are still quite a few left standing. A building that went up a little bit later than the time of my story (1902), but close enough to be of significant interest, is The Flatiron Building (22nd and 23rd streets). It's an unusual building for its time, but still worth a look if one is interested in that period of architecture. I didn't visit, per se, so many addresses, but I did walk the city a lot, from the village to the park and down by Fulton Street. The history of the city is like a palimpsest. If you read about it and wander the streets, you can feel the presence of the past like some kind of ghost coexisting with the present.
Anybody who spends any time in New York knows that any place that sells coffee has a sign that claims it is the best coffee in the city. In the 1890s there was probably great coffee to be had at Delmonicos, but apparently there were also little kiosks and carts that sold sort of half-assed coffee. The best King can say about it is that it is hot and cheap. If I remember correctly the price was something like a half a cent. A pleasant thought to consider that 75 cents would have covered my coffee consumption for a morning.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I was mightily impressed with Montana when I was out there not too long ago, hiking in the mountains around Big Sky. I thought Monterey was beautiful. The Green Mountains in Vermont were great. But Emerson put it very well when he said something along the lines of, "Wherever I go my giant goes with me." If your head is right, it doesn't matter where you are. If things are dark, the most beautiful landscape will not make a favorable impression. I can be happy anywhere as long as I have my wife and kids there and my books and an idea for a story or a novel. For now, South Jersey is fine.
Do you think portraiture will ever catch on again? Would you ever get a portrait done of yourself or your family?
Well, even though the demand may have diminished somewhat from the time of the novel, it has not gone away. There is an older gentleman in the town I live in who is a nationally recognized portrait artist. He told me that it has been and remains a very lucrative career. He travels all over the country for his work. Portraits are still commissioned by the wealthy and the not so wealthy. There are some great painters working in this field today.
I would definitely have a portrait done if I found an artist I liked enough and had the money to afford it. "Shave off about 20 pounds and extenuate those handsome qualities that have been obscured by the vagaries of time," I would tell him while flashing the cash. A challenging assignment, no doubt. Perhaps if I win the lottery.
Portraiture could catch on again. It might be an interesting phenomenon if it did. There is a time element to the process for both the sitter and the painter that makes it more contemplative than a photo. A good painter can capture aspects of a subject's personality that a photograph (although photography has its own unique abilities) might miss or be unable to render.
The Portrait... has more aspects of a thriller or mystery than your previous novels. Was it difficult to keep the suspense going?
Every novel and story has to contain some degree of suspense. I take the term to mean the sense on the reader's part that they want to know what happens next. If a reader stops caring what happens next, unless they are masochistic, they close the book and pick up another. So the suspense part I was used to working with from having written my other novels and some forty plus stories, but the mystery part was new to me. Or I should say, the investigation of a mystery. My primary goal in writing the book was to render the concept of a painter trying to paint the portrait of a woman he can not see. In getting into the main character's persona, I wondered to what lengths he would go to be successful and what means of inquiry would be at his disposal at that time in history. Once that was established, I could hardly keep up with Piambo and Shenz as they made their rounds, trying to uncover a glimpse of Mrs. Charbuque.
Without giving away too much about the ending, when you began this novel, did you know where it was going?
I had a vague sense of direction, but usually that is all that is necessary. I like to discover the story as I write it, the way the reader will discover it as they read it. Every fiction writer approaches the task in a different way, idiosyncratic to his/her own needs. I am not one for plot outlines and notebooks and journals. I like to keep everything in my head, so that when I am driving to work or doing the grocery shopping, I can take out my story, so to speak, and work on it. I leave it up there between my ears, because I find that the ideas and pieces of plot I do have mix together, swirl and bubble and render my next move. Much of my plotting goes on subconsciously. When I am writing, it is like being in a trance. I simply follow the characters and they show me the way to the story.
Why is the Edwardian period (as we Brits would call it!) so fascinating?
I think it is an interesting time for me, because much of the literature I read when growing up came from that time period. My first books, and the ones my father read to me, were primarily from the late 19th century and early 20th -- Stevenson, Haggard, Kipling, etc. For people born in the fifties, as I was, the authorial voice of these writers is very familiar. I have noticed that my students have more problems with this voice, which makes sense, seeing as they were born nearer the end of the 20th century.
Perhaps also it was a time when many of the philosophies and concepts of morality and law, the schedule of everyday life, that we live by today began to take root. We go back to the fin-de-siecle and we find a time and place where life seems somewhat exotic, but not so exotic that we feel totally alien. It was a rich artistic period and one wherein Science had not yet yielded many of the answers we now take for granted. The record is fairly good, and we can reinvestigate the path of false beliefs, the works of genius and discovery. Besides, my grandmother, who passed away not too long ago, actually lived through that time period, and I would listen with wonder at her description of something like the first time she saw an airplane flying overhead at night. She said, "I thought it was an angel."
After finishing a novel, do you take a break, or are you the kind of writer who constantly has something on the go?
I like to think of myself as the kind of writer who constantly has something going on, but in reality my writing abilities come and go mysteriously in well defined cycles. When I'm on, I'm really on, meaning I can produce an abundant amount of work that I am pleased with, but when I'm not, there is a lot of smoking cigarettes, staring at the computer screen and drooling. During the fallow times I have tried all kinds of tricks to jump start the creativity but none of them has worked. They merely heighten the sense of frustration. It's like some kind of biological process. Some say you just have to wait for the well to refill, and that might be all there is to it. After all of these years, all of these runs through that cycle, I have still not fully come to terms with it. When the inspiration has fled it is like a part of me is gone away.
What are you reading?
Presently, I am reading Peter F. Ostwald's biography of pianist and composer, Glenn Gould, John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies, and Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead. It's like a horse race as far as which one I will finish first. The Gould biography was strong out of the gate, but, as usual, it's a sloppy track and Ostwald's not a mudder. As they round the back turn and head for the finish line, Keel is applying the whip and The Mothman is gaining ground on the front runner with a frantic, paranoid projection of speed. But Dostoyevsky has me so wrapped up in that Siberian Labor camp I feel like I'm there. House of the Dead deals with the passage of time on a par with Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. I think old Fyodor is going to have the stamina to bring his mount across the finish line first. But who knows, it could be a photo finish with me reading the last lines of all three books simultaneously.
If you worked in a bookshop, what would be on your staff picks shelf?
When I arranged my own library at home, I didn't shelve books by alphabetical order or by category, but I kept in mind the different writers and put those together I thought would engage in interesting conversations. It's like seating arrangements for guests at a formal dinner. The Celine/Flannery O'Connor placement is a doozy, but the Bukowski/Henry James thing is a bona-fide bust.
For my shelf picks this month I will include:
- The Adventures of Maquroll by Alvaro Mutis
- The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
- The Aspern Papers by Henry James
- The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carrol
- Witch Herbalist of the Remote Town by Amos Tutuola
- Girls by Frederick Busch
Do you have a favorite bookshop?
Every bookshop is my favorite bookshop when I am in it, and I have some cash in the old wallet. My favorite bookstore ever was a place in Johnson City, New York. Lescrons took up one of the huge old abandoned warehouses of the once-thriving Endicott/Johnson Shoe Company, built circa late 1880s. The guy who owned it had been in the scrap-paper business and had, through this enterprise, gathered so many books that he started a bookstore. Then he began to amass discarded and used books by the boxful, by the pallet-full, until this three-story, old brownstone building with wooden-beam floors -- each of its levels at least half a football-field long and wide -- was chocked with books.
I had a job there one summer when in college where I was to delve into the wilderness of books on the upper floor and pick out works of literature for the store downstairs. The hell with Stanley, Byrd, Magellan, this was discovery in the real sense of the word. You just wouldn't believe the stuff I found up there. First editions of Jack London, Hemingway, Kerouac's The Town and the City, rare books, illuminated manuscripts (no lie). I found a very early edition of Longfellow's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, a third edition, still mid-1800s of The Scarlet Letter, a first edition of Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The place was a booklover's paradise. I have a very sizable collection of those wonderful Grove Press trade paperbacks from that place that really enhanced my reading at the time -- Genet, Beckett, Durell, Miller, etc. All kinds of Classics Comics, children's books, picture books.
Man, with what I know now, I'd love to have a day's worth of poking around in that place the way it was back then. I don't know if it is still open. I think it has long since closed, but I will never forget it and intend to someday write a story about it.