AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Jeffrey Ford

As I read “La Madre Del Oro” I felt like I was in the Old West, encountering a delightful mix of authentic dialect, conversation, names, and locations that placed me—the reader—firmly on the scene. How did this story come together as you were writing it? Did you mine from favorite stories, movies, and TV shows? What informed the cowboy within as you crafted “La Madre Del Oro”?

I’m not much of a cowboy, nor do I have an inner cowboy to rely on.  I did a lot of research for this story about the time period and location.  It was interesting work.  I’d known very little about the New Mexico Territory before it became a state, but now I know a little more.  The setting is as accurate as I could make it.  The Trail of Death and the Camino Real are real places, and as forbidding today in summer as they were then—minus air conditioning.  I’ve seen cowboy movies, but they were never a great interest of mine.  I liked some of the Sam Peckinpah flicks and a couple by Sergio Leone.   Memories of some books I’d read came in handy—Welcome to Hard Times by E. L. Doctorow, some of Cormac McCarthy’s books. As for the location, I traveled around Arizona a couple years ago, out to the ancient Hopi dwellings, and the landscape in those places gave me a sense of what the Southwest was like.   JJ Adams had a great copyeditor working on this book, and he/she (?) helped to keep me honest with the historical details about the LeMat pistol, the New Mexico Territory, the nods to the Spanish language, etc.

I love the puzzle gunslinger Fat Bob represents in his checkered suit, spats, and spectacles. Did he pop up fully formed as you wrote or did something or someone inspire his character?

There’s a famous photo of W. C. Fields where he’s holding a hand of cards up close to his face, and I came across, on-line, photos of dandified gunslingers from the old west.  So, Fat Bob was a kind of mash-up of Fields and those well-dressed gunmen.  The scene where Fat Bob is reading his book under the overhang of the rock they take refuge beneath from the sun was that W. C. Fields photo with a book inserted in his hands instead of the cards.  When I refer to Fields, I’m not so much talking about his sense of humor as I am the way he looked.  Why all this came together?  I haven’t the slightest idea.

The monsters from the depths of the mine and the mystery of Bastard George’s origin reminded me of werewolves and other supernatural shifters. Did you have a specific legend in mind when you invented them?

No.  They just popped out of a cave in my subconscious while I was writing.

Your use of detail conjured images instantly before my eyes—from the saloon owner’s “missing left ear and long hair in the back but none on top” to the mustang “brown and white with a white mane.” Do you have a specific method to select poignant details?

How and why one selects the details necessary to build a convincing world in a fiction has long interested me, but as much as I’ve thought about it, I’m still not sure how it works.  It’s got to be intuitive to some degree.  If you’re really seeing your story in your mind’s eyes as you’re writing, which I do (they’re very vivid), it would be impossible, I think, to calculate or intellectualize which of the details to choose to create some kind of verisimilitude of what I’m seeing in the reader’s mind.  That would be burdensome for both of us and impossible in that the possibilities are as vast as they are in real life.  Why my eye goes to certain details, or I choose a certain smell or sound out of the myriad ones that surround in the fictional world in my head, I can’t tell you.  It just happens pretty much automatically.  I think the more you write, the more you hone that focus.  And when it’s off, the story is dead on arrival.

What is the appeal of “weird west” fiction? Why do writers—or you yourself—write about it? What do you think readers like about it?

Usually, I don’t write weird western fiction, and I haven’t read much of it.  I wrote this one because John asked me to do one, and since I never had before, I thought it would be a fun challenge.  For readers who love Weird Westerns and Westerns in general as to what the draw is, you’d have to ask someone like Bob Vardeman, who is a master of this genre.  I suppose the historical aspect of it interests them, and when one views any genre through the filter of the weird it’s a way to see it anew.

Is there a piece of advice you would like to share with new authors writing supernatural historical fiction?

One thing I’ve learned from writing fantastic fiction with a historical underpinning is that research is key but that you need to dole out the historical markers sparingly.  Too many and the piece becomes leaden with one’s desire to show the reader all the work you’ve done reading and digging through the past.  A lot of times new writers working on this type of story have done the research and feel they’ll be damned if they aren’t going to fit every scintilla of it into the story.  The story is the thing.  Don’t slow it down with a lot of ancillary historical baggage just to prove to the reader you’ve collected it.   It’s more important that the voice of the story somehow convey the time and the spirit of the time.  I learned this from reading stories by Andy Duncan, who’s awesome at striking just the right balance with this.