Mary Akers: To set the stage a bit for our readers, I had the pleasure of hearing you read an excerpt from your short story at an open mike event earlier this year. I loved it, and so your piece “Sometimes It’s That Simple” was work that we solicited. I’m pretty certain I wasn’t the only one handing you a business card that evening after your reading. What did it feel like being solicited in that way?
April Ford: The whole experience was dreamlike. And wobbly. I had purchased a pair of flashy heels earlier that day just for the occasion, but I hadn’t figured out how to walk in them with perfect grace. My plan had been to glide to the lectern and wow the audience with my flair; this seemed a good insurance policy in the event my reading drove everyone to Zinfandel refills. I can’t stress how brand-new my story was at the time—I hadn’t even practiced reading it out loud! I do not recommend this strategy, but then it did make for a fresh reading for all, yes?
Nobody has ever solicited me with as much certitude as you did, Mary, and it was exactly what I needed to motivate me to finish “Sometimes It’s That Simple.” I had started writing the story a week before the open mike, with the intention of reading from it, but doubt got the better of me about a thousand words in. Your enthusiasm and absolutely catching energy renewed my sense of duty to find a cure for Olivia’s plight.
The truth about me and solicitations: Back in my home city of Montréal, I occasionally get solicited by some stammering middle-aged man if I stand too long on the wrong street corner, but I have been solicited only twice for my fiction—and each led to publication!
MA: The r.kv.r.y. editors solicit work often, always being on the lookout for good work, but a solicitation from us is never a guarantee of acceptance, since we still send work through the editorial channels. We also ended up editing your excellent piece down a bit to fit our word-count requirements. You took the suggestions with great aplomb and then mentioned that you have a background in editing. Could you tell us a little bit about what sort of work you’ve done in the past and how it felt to be on the other side of the editing equation?
AF: I felt relieved, pleased, and entirely comfortable with r.kv.r.y.’s editorial suggestions; it was clear the team had read my story closely and was treating it as a polished work despite some requests for change. And when I responded with a request for change (which the journal had encouraged me to do), my request was honored. From one phase to the next, I felt like an esteemed contributor, not an irritant in the way of the October 2011 fiction quota. Thank you, Mary and r.kv.r.y. team!
I’ve worked in a number of editorial capacities since 2002, the year I decided to give myself wholly to the reality of being a writer. I wanted work that would keep me as engaged with language as possible, which, now that I can look back a decade, was pretty smart of me to figure out so early on. I started by enrolling in a Creative Writing major and Professional Writing minor at Concordia University, in Montréal. I was a little older than most students beginning their college degrees (I was 23 and had completed another college degree a few years earlier), and I was focused on one thing only: Learning everything I could about language. I did unspeakably poorly in my first Professional Writing course, “Grammar, Usage and Style.” I had never worked so hard for a grade! So what did I do? I audited the course the following semester and wrestled every part of speech to the ground. The teacher was impressed and pointed me toward my first writing job: Proofreader for a children’s book series. That was when I discovered my love for editing. I took Concordia’s English department by storm and worked on every literary publication there—Soliloquies, Headlight, and Matrix. All of that experience helped me advance to editor-in-chief and managing editor positions—roles in which I function best, I discovered. I love being part of a team as much as I love being squirreled away in my home office every morning to write—I need both to feel balanced emotionally and professionally.
Revisiting the topic of solicitation, I picked up a bunch of interesting non-writer jobs during that period—the best thing a person can do for herself professionally, it turns out, is love the work and excel at it. Word of mouth is a fabulous agent. In 2004, I was hired as stage manager for a production of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, all because one of the actors had worked on a magazine with me and told the director I was great at organizing people. A job well done as stage manager led to an offer (I accepted) to produce a pilot for a Canadian television series called Spicy Secrets, a reality cooking show with a little prime time heat to it. Since I moved with my husband to central New York State in 2009, I’ve worked as a faculty lecturer at SUNY College at Oneonta. I love it; it’s not that different from steering the masthead of a literary publication, since it involves people, deadlines, and cooperation.
MA: You read wonderfully by the way. Your excellent, deadpan delivery made the piece even funnier. In fact, I worried a bit that reading it on the page, I might not have the same reaction to it, but was pleased to find that it was just as funny in print. I’m curious: do you have any sort of background in funny? Stand-up comedy? The youngest child? Class clown?
AF: Would you mind I made up stuff for this interview? Like: Why, yes, Mary, I have an extensive background in comedy. You didn’t know Alec Baldwin is my father? We have the same muscular thighs.
Thank you for your generous compliment on my reading that night—as I’ve mentioned, I hadn’t practiced! Even though I tend toward jobs that require me to regularly address groups of people, I otherwise shy away from public speaking. The night of the open mike, and any other time I’ve read to a public, I’ve done so because my writing deserves it—that’s what I have to tell myself, anyway. I suppose my father was a funny guy, and I know he was a demon child, lighting people’s decks on fire, sticking lit cigarettes in the handlebars of his father’s bike, and so on, but I don’t know that my friends would identify me as funny if asked to highlight any of my outstanding traits. They’d probably say I’m deadpan.
MA: I’d consider “deadpan” a compliment. I’m curious, though, do you find writing humorous work difficult? I’m asking mostly because I’m always really cranky after spending hours trying to be funny on the page. Timing, setup, follow-through, every stage of a comic line is important, and it has to be integral to the story at large as well–random funny lines often feel forced. Is it a trial for you to be funny?
AF: “Sometimes It’s that Simple” is my first intentionally humorous piece; it has even inspired a nascent collection of other possible funnies, though I’m aware of my colossal potential for failure. My husband is one of my best readers (he’s got that Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature thing going on) and claims many of my stories have humor in them, even the dark and depressing ones. I see his point: even sad, ugly things can make us laugh. Context, more than intention, I think, is what makes a story, or a scene within a story, humorous. As I have yet to sit down and say, “I am going to write a funny story on purpose,” I can’t relate to this particular crankiness you speak of, Mary, though I once tried to write erotica, and failed, which left me feeling hugely inadequate and frustrated. Perhaps that’s where the problem lies, forcing oneself to write humor, or erotica, or any kind of “mood” piece, for I believe humor is a mood rather than a style or a technique.
MA: What did you think of the illustration that Matthew Chase-Daniel chose for your piece? Representational was probably out, given your subject matter and first line, but what meaning did you find in the image?
AF: Love it! My thoughts upon first seeing it went immediately to Olivia in her tree frog green hatchback, listening to the relaxation CD. If I were to read the story to an audience again, I would want the illustration projected on a screen behind me. Subtlety is a beautiful thing.
MA: Do you have any other projects in the works that you’d like to tell us about?
AF: Yes, please! I recently finished a collection of fiction I’ve been working on since spring 2005, called The Poor Children. “Isabelle’s Haunting” and “Layla,” both in the collection, have appeared in The Battered Suitcase journal and Short Story magazine respectively. I’m of course hoping to find a publisher interested in the entire manuscript.
I have two novels in early stages of development, but I want to finish editing The Poor Children before turning my full attention to them. There’s pressure on writers to say, “I’m working on a novel,” whether they are or are not; it’s like some arbitrary means of singling out the real writers from the wannabes. I prefer not to discuss my writing until I have at least a finished first draft. That time, for me, is private and vital to my relationship with the story, like when a mother bonds to her baby by nursing him for the first time. It’s when I make decisions and discoveries that are too fragile for external influence. Often when I feel the impulse to announce a new project, on some level I already know the project is a false start, and what I’m looking for isn’t approval but someone other than myself to blame.
MA: And finally, what does “recovery” mean to you?
AF: Recovery is the constant state of writing, even before the writer has formed it into words on a post-it note, a legal pad, a typewriter page, a computer screen. For me, it’s the voice that speaks to me on a morning walk about what it’s like living with a father who won’t get the toilet fixed; it’s the story with a first line I’ve rewritten ten times because something’s off, and I can’t tell whether it’s the rhythm, the diction, or the punctuation; it’s typing “END” and closing the Word file; it’s not writing anything greater than a grocery list for a week, maybe a month, maybe longer; it’s crying when I don’t know what else to do.
We’re always looking to take care of our work—to protect it from negative, destructive readers, to showcase it where it will be loved, to learn everything we must in order to make it as sophisticated as it should be. In that sense, our writing is always in a state of recovery; if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be so driven to care for it like a newborn baby, even when all authorities claim, “It’s ready! It’s fantastic! It’s won a prize!”
And we, too, are in a constant state of recovery; we’re not separate from our work, and sometimes we need somebody to protect us from criticism, to show us off and remind us we’re pretty awesome. I’m lucky: my family and closest friends all do that, even the ones who don’t understand why, exactly, I turned down a cushy five-figure job offer in favor of a ball-busting career that sometimes pays and sometimes doesn’t.