In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Elaine Ford
In a break from our normal protocol, we present this special In The Field featuring Elaine Ford. WSR published Ford’s piece “Briggate” posthumously, as submitted for consideration by her husband Arthur Boatin. In the following Q&A, Arthur has crafted answers on Elaine’s behalf, often gleaning from her previously published interviews and essays.
1. Tell us about Elaine’s fiction piece, “The Briggait,” in Volume 21. How did it come to be?
The fiction of Elaine’s final decade is mainly historical, based on the lives of real people. After her retirement from teaching in 2005, she threw herself into researching her Ford ancestors who, in the 19th century, lived in Alabama and Mississippi. Later she worked on my maternal line, the Mendelsons, who emigrated from Eastern Europe in the 1890s to Scotland, moving on later to America. In this research Elaine was not seeking material for fiction, but in time her fiction-writer instincts were activated by immersion in these bare-bones life histories. The eventual result was two book-length manuscripts: God’s Red Clay, a Ford family novel covering the years 1831 to 1880; and Bread and Freedom: Stories of an Immigrant Family’s Journey, whose scope in years is 1882 to 1933.
“The Briggait” is a Bread and Freedom story. Tillie Morgan, the protagonist, was my maternal great-grandmother. The real Tillie died in the 1930s, and Elaine could get little information from living sources about this woman’s character or demeanor. An existing studio photograph from the period may or may not show Tillie, but in her story, Elaine uses the dress worn by the portrait subject. From city and census records, ships’ manifests, and other historical documents, the writer knew Tillie’s place of birth and date and place of marriage, her occupation and addresses and cohabitants while living in Scotland, and the date and means of her travel to the United States.
Elaine’s self-imposed rule in writing historical fiction was never to depart from known fact. Why the characters do what they do, however, and how they feel about it: these she thought fair for imagining. In later Mendelson stories set in New York, Tillie plays a supporting role. For the character’s turn at center stage in “The Briggait,” Elaine zeros in on Tillie’s moment of decision: whether to abandon the life she has made in Glasgow and change countries yet again. Did the real Tillie struggle with this decision, as the character does? Vos iz deyn meynung? What do you think?
2. What excited her as a writer? What turned her off, made her turn away, or stop reading a piece of writing?
Elaine was attracted to fiction that vividly portrayed individual communities and cultures, especially small, tight communities (four of her five published novels fit this bill). She liked it when place and environment had significant presence in a story, shaping—for good or ill—the people of that place. She appreciated work that granted complex inner lives to outwardly unexceptional people. She valued precise writing that employed telling, rather than voluminous detail. Herself a careful observer and extensive researcher, she had little patience for anachronism in fiction and similar writerly sloppiness.
3. What are some themes/topics that were important to her writing?
Seemingly small decisions and events can produce profoundly significant results. Things rarely turn out as planned. We have less freedom than we imagine. Still, trying to choose and grow and overcome is the right course. “For me the whole point of writing is to tell it like it is, not like I wish it were.”
4. What books, writers, art, or artists inspired her and her work? Did she have any mentors in her writing life?
Elaine published her first novel at age forty-one, by which time she likely had digested any literary influences. In 1990, after the release of her fourth novel, she told an interviewer that “my style [of writing] has always been the same… I’m interested in doing the same things and have more or less the same way of telling the story as I did [in high school].” Nonetheless, Elaine readily acknowledged a youthful fascination with the novels of Thomas Hardy. Their underlying determinism may have helped shape her own worldview, or at least reinforced her independent conclusions about life and fate. Other favorite writers included Alice Munro, whose character-centered storytelling, and finding drama in the everyday, has much in common with Elaine’s own fiction. Elaine admired as well the short stories of Bernard Malamud and his novel The Assistant. Elizabeth Bream, a high school English teacher, encouraged her writing aspirations and remained a lifelong friend. In an autobiographical sketch on her website, Elaine credits an undergraduate creative writing course with the avant-garde novelist John Hawkes for having “taught me the values of significant detail and economy of language,” methods that she encouraged in her own students.
5. Are there other forthcoming pieces of Elaine’s work that we can look forward to reading?
At her death in 2017, Elaine left behind five book-length fiction manuscripts. One of these, This Time Might Be Different: Stories of Maine, was published posthumously in 2018 by Islandport Press. The story “Scare” from the Bread and Freedom manuscript was published in No. 94 of Crazyhorse in 2018. The story “Providence” from the Bread and Freedom manuscript appears in Volume 10 of the Westchester Review. Two new works by Elaine will be published in 2019. The story “Bearing Witness,” which is from the Bread and Freedom manuscript, will be published online at JewishFiction.net. A Civil Wartime chapter called “Under Cover” from the novel God’s Red Clay will come out in Arkansas Review.
For more information on Elaine’s writing legacy, please visit her website at https://www.elainefordauthor.com/.