The Poor Children by April L. Ford

An Authorlink interview By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

They bit, they kicked, sometimes they pulled out their own hair in such chunks they left hickey-like marks on their scalps that had to be washed and disinfected and covered with gauze.

The Poor Children
by April L. Ford

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From the first line of the first story of April L. Ford’s award winning collection THE POOR CHILDREN, the reader is clear about the world they are entering. It is the clarity with which Ford depicts this world, the unsentimental, and straightforward telling that give the stories their power. Ford talks about her journey as a writer and how she found her way to these dark tales.

“. . . I like to be up by six a.m. so I can write before the day escapes. “

AUTHORLINK: Tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer – degrees, jobs, workshops, writing groups, classes, and mentors that helped you along the way.

FORD: I completed undergraduate and graduate degrees in creative writing, but I didn’t start until I was twenty-three, and it took me until age thirty-five to finish. I wanted to love being in school, workshopping with peers every week, but mostly I didn’t love it, so I rebelled and went at my own pace. Also, I’ve turned down many invites to late-night, uh, career-shaping social functions, because I like to be up by six a.m. so I can write before the day escapes. In spite of the aforementioned, I’ve found some terrific mentors over the years, and I’m grateful for their ongoing friendships. As for jobs, I’ve successfully avoided the food service and retail industries, as well as telephone-answering and data-entry work.

AUTHORLINK: These stories deal with the often unseen world of children, who are often victims, sometimes victimizers, and ultimately survivors, however damaged they are. As a writer you go there and linger there even when it hurts.  What kind of discipline did this take as a writer? What, if any, emotional costs?

FORD: I smoked a lot of cigarettes and ate a lot of chocolate bars during the years I wrote The Poor Children, so if I end up a cancer-ridden diabetic in my fifties, you’ll know why. (I’ve since retired all unhealthy habits.)

AUTHORLINK: Where do stories begin for you? character? plot? image? first line? 

FORD: A first line.

AUTHORLINK: Some of these stories were born from news features that you read. Can you pick one and discuss how you went from story idea to evolution?

FORD: “Bananas and Limes” started in summer twenty-eleven, after I became obsessed with the Warren Jeffs / Zion Ranch atrocity, and HBO’s Big Love television series. It took a while for narrative to emerge, because at first I was hyper-focused on the visual horror of people afflicted with fumarase deficiency. They had to look like monsters, because Warren Jeffs is a monster. At the end of that summer, I sent a fistful of pages though graduate workshop, and my peers pointed out spots where there was potential for story—spots I couldn’t see on my own. (Once again, thank you, friends!) Two years later, I arrived at the title “Bananas and Limes” and concluded The Poor Children. This past May, I received notice that a version of the story published in the summer twenty-fourteen issue of Mew Madrid journal, as “Project Fumarase,” won a Pushcart Prize. Wee!

“I think I was trying to protect the youth I mentored by not transfusing my fiction with their hardships and traumas . . .”

AUTHORLINK: You also worked as a writing mentor with troubled youth. In what way did that inform your writing of these vivid stories?

FORD: I think I was trying to protect the youth I mentored by not transfusing my fiction with their hardships and traumas, by not taking from them as other adults in their lives had. But of course I was inspired and influenced by the strident personalities and compelling life stories, and all helped boost my imagination.

AUTHORLINK: How did the premise of THE POOR CHILDREN develop? When did you know you had a cohesive collection on your hands?

FORD: I wish I had an impressive answer to this question, like, “One morning at breakfast, the cover art from Jean Cocteau’s The Holy Terrors appeared on my toast.” If you had told me when I was twenty-three that my first published book would be a story collection, I would have scolded you. I’m a novelist! Yet over an eight-year period, I kept writing stories that exceeded traditional print journal word limits, and these stories happened to be unified by the theme of troubled youth. When I finished “Bananas and Limes,” I knew I had exhausted my interest in the theme, and a collection seemed like an ideal destination for the sibling stories.

“The awards program gave me author cred—my first book was published because of it! “

AUTHORLINK: This book won the 2013 Santa Fe Writers Project Award. Tell me about that program.

FORD: The awards program gave me author cred—my first book was published because of it! A few weeks before I received the congratulatory email from SFWP Director Andrew Gifford, my father had passed away. After I came to terms with Andrew’s email, I sent him a (rambling) reply of thanks and then went for a walk. It was a gorgeous fall afternoon. I’m an atheist, and a well-rounded anti-believer of concepts like the Universe and “it was meant to be,” but for the rest of that day I said things out loud to my departed father, like, “You had something to do with this, didn’t you?”

The awards program runs every two years. It’s running right now. Run: The priority is to encourage excellence in writing. As stated on the webpage, “All work will be eligible despite genre, form, subject, or length.” Winners are offered a contract, and then SFWP becomes significant in your life while the team transforms your manuscript into a book. It’s an electrifying process, and an important survey of the publishing industry if it’s your first time. This year’s judge is Emily St. John Mandel, author of the acclaimed Station Eleven. The judge who changed my life is New York Times bestselling author David Morrell.

AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the title.

FORD: In a moment of goofiness (and maybe despair), I declared to my spouse, “The title of the collection shall be The Poor Children.” I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling proud of myself for that moment.

AUTHORLINK: Though the subject matter is tough and gritty your prose has a wonderful rhythm and lilt. What sort of choices did you make to develop this style or did it emerge naturally?

FORD: “A wonderful rhythm and lilt” – thank you! The Poor Children was my solo apprenticeship, private time wherein I took all power away from the reader and turned it over to narrative possibilities and literary devices. “A Marmalade Cat for Jenny” was born from my passing obsession with the Texas drawl, so the earliest drafts are laden with dialect. “Isabelle’s Haunting” reflects my interest in elevated tone, while “Bananas and Limes” was my timid dip into genre writing. I didn’t plan out any of the stories; each one emerged in the moment, on its own time.

“My editor ended up spending hours on the phone with me, talking me down from a high state of distress—“I’m a terrible writer! I’m so sick of these stories!””

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing THE POOR CHILDREN and how did you overcome them?

FORD: Actually, my biggest challenge was proofreading the galley. After eight years, I was finally seeing my stories bound as a collection! Right? My editor ended up spending hours on the phone with me, talking me down from a high state of distress—“I’m a terrible writer! I’m so sick of these stories!” She even helped me proofread the galley. Via email, a colleague assured me the galley is a downright muggy, soggy part of the process, because by then, the thrill of being published has been all but muted by the tedium of the publishing process. (One’s enthusiasm does return, though. The tedium is absolutely worth it.)

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book.

FORD: Sometimes, like when I’m panicking because I haven’t written anything solid in a while, I worry that The Poor Children was all I had in me. In reality, I’ve finished one novel and started another since, but it’s scary to still feel so gutted. I mean, other than sporadic Internet searches when I became obsessed with specifics, everything inThe Poor Children came from me, “The Darkly Lit Library of April L. Ford.” I learned how to be a writer by writing that collection, and now I’m onto different things and have to learn to be a writer all over again.

AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this collection. Who was your editor and what was it like working with him/her? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes? Advice on revision for apprentice writers?

FORD: My guess is I returned to each story at least five times over the eight years it took me to complete the collection. Karen Kovacs was the editor who worked on The Poor Children, and she was wonderful—totally in love with the stories, full of questions about the characters, and more excited about the forthcoming publication than I was. Your editor should be enthusiastic about your work; your editor is your audience’s eyes and your work’s advocate. She/he is ultimately responsible for satisfying the publisher’s vision, which means you’ll certainly have to make changes to your work; and a good editor will guide you through this process, and know when to defer to your protests. As for advice on revision: Don’t do it when you’re feeling pissed. Don’t do it when you’re feeling elated. Do it when you’re feeling sensible.

“You need savvy, grit, and good spirits to succeed as a writer. “

AUTHORLINK: Are there particular habits that you would encourage writers to cultivate – habits of the mind or attitude or work habits?

FORD: That whole chain-smoking, whiskey-quaffing, freewheeling, lecherous lifestyle? It’s aggrandized and unhealthy. And boring. You need savvy, grit, and good spirits to succeed as a writer.

AUTHORLINK: Advice to new writers on staying encouraged and focused on the right things?

FORD: Spend more money on books than on writing workshops/seminars/conferences/retreats/etc.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

FORD: I’m building one novel and renovating another.

About the Author

April L. Ford grew up in Quebec. She is managing editor of Digital Americana Magazine and teaches creative writing at SUNY College at Oneonta. She’s the recipient of a Pushcart Prize (2016 edition), and her debut story collection won Grand Prize for the Santa Fe Writers Project 2013 Literary Awards Program for Fiction. April has spent time at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts as a Robert Johnson Fellow, and at Ucross Foundation as a Writer in Residence.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.