Opening April L. Ford’s debut collection of short stories is like suddenly finding yourself staring into the eyes of a very, very angry child and then realizing that the door behind you is locked. Edgy, angry, and dark – these stories practically explode off the page. Victims of an incestuous cult, children who mutilate themselves for attention, a brother and sister slowly being overtaken by a ghost, juvenile delinquents who don’t understand their own violence, and a little girl who is learning just how callous the grown ups can be are all among the throng of young people vying for your attention.
Grand Prize Winner of the 2013 SFWP Literary Awards Program in fiction, The Poor Children explores great sadness and small victories. It carefully places the stories in a variety of very real, very concrete circumstances and then unleashes the inchoate and sometimes supernatural longings of its overwhelmed protagonists. It is an unsettling work in the best sense of the word, but don’t take my word for it. Listen to the author read from the first story of her collection and read what she has to say about her work in the interview below.
Interview with April L. Ford
The Poor Children opens with the words, “They bit, they kicked, sometimes they pulled out their own hair in such chunks they left hickey-like marks on their scalps,” and goes on in similar fashion. The energy level in this book is just amazing. How much of The Poor Children is a celebration of that energy, and how much is anger at the abuse?
First, Vickie, thank you so much for reading the collection and inviting me to chat with you. Your questions have made me think about some of the stories in new ways. I love that!
Yes, I suppose the book does celebrate a form of energy—the energy to push forward in spite of unrelenting adversity. No major character in the collection ever gives up; to give up would be to stop existing after the last page of the story, and these characters are still very much alive in me. Maybe there are whispers of resignation, say, when a character is stuck in a particular moment, but everyone finds a way out—but then we all have different ideas about what that means. If you were to ask me what word I think aptly describes the major characters in The Poor Children, I would say, “durable.”
“Bleary” came from a place of personal pain, (which you’ll read about in my next answer); “Layla,” “Yellow Gardenias,” and “A Marmalade Cat for Jenny” came from good ole bursts o’ creativity; and “runawaybitch13,” “Isabelle’s Haunting,” and “Bananas and Limes” were fueled by news features that caught my attention. Anger is present in every story, and I felt variations of it as I wrote—anger toward characters for their actions, anger toward the circumstances that caused characters to behave badly. I can’t say (except in the case of “Bleary”) I felt angry in real life, though; I mostly felt excited about the stories as they came to life, and grateful for the chance to write them honestly.
On of the few male narrators says, “Social workers didn’t go into the field because they loved youth or even wanted to help them. Well, maybe they loved the kids they worked with, but that love came from a place of hate. Pure, unmitigated anger for the years of abuse and neglect they had suffered as children.” Is he speaking for the author?
I was in two very different places when I wrote “Bleary.” I began the story in summer 2005, when the narrator, Trigger, roamed into my imaginary life one sunny morning and won me over with his lackadaisical charm (and the undercurrent of danger in his voice). But a few pages into the story, I didn’t have a clear, or even vague, sense of where it was going—or where Trigger was going with it, so I set the story aside. Actually, I wanted to scrap it completely, but a wee, wise voice in the pragmatic corner of my mind said, “Don’t.”
In mid-spring 2008, my husband (then boyfriend) and I were visiting a friend in western Massachusetts. One night, the three of us went for a stroll in the cemetery-cum-pedestrian thruway across from our friend’s house; it was about ten o’clock, calm and balmy, and we were chatting about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the television series. On our way out of the cemetery, a trio of teenagers approached us. The leader asked my husband if his name was “X,” and then clubbed him on the head with a forty-ounce beer bottle. The bottle didn’t break; my husband’s skull did.
The whole incident lasted maybe two and a half minutes, according to police later that night. I remember the sound of my husband’s skull cracking open, our friend yelling, and the trio, high and laughing. I’m sure I made sound, too, but mostly I remember the smell and taste of iron—blood. It was everywhere. My husband needed a long time to heal, and I needed a year before I would stop crossing the street, even in broad daylight, every time I saw a group of teenagers walking toward me. The assault had been so random and cruel, so pointless. Just days after the attack, I became obsessed with knowing everything about the assailant and his two accomplices, and I was able to learn a lot about all three through word of mouth (the assailant, especially, had a tarred history in the community).
A month or two afterward, Trigger crept back into my thoughts. He picked up where he had left off in 2005, except now he had a story to tell about not being a bad guy but about being friends with a bad guy. In the wrong place at the wrong time. He became my way into making sense of what had happened to my husband—he became my interpreter, and even though his story didn’t make what had happened to my husband any less devastating and permanent, writing it helped me regain a sense of control. For each new paragraph, I felt a little more capable of leaving my apartment for milk. For every new page, I panicked a little less about my husband dropping dead from some brain injury the hospital had accidentally overlooked.
So to finally answer your question, when Trigger speaks about hate, he is speaking from two places, and they are both mine: The first is informed by my experience, pre-“Bleary,” working with troubled youth. During that time, I met childcare workers and social workers who loved every kid, including the most difficult and terrifying ones, and some of those workers burned out on love. I worked as a writing mentor, and I loved a handful of kids fiercely, but a handful only. Simply put, I didn’t want to wake up one morning so angry at the world, so afraid of the dark possibilities inside us all, that I felt driven to treat people badly.
The second place Trigger is speaking from is the place I went to after I watched my best friend’s skull get bashed in by a psychotic teenager raring to harm unsuspecting people. After that night, I couldn’t work with troubled youth as assuredly as I had before. Even though the assailant had nothing to do with my life back in Montreal, he was like many of the kids I mentored there, and so I had to make a choice: Continue mentoring at a time when my fear was stronger than my compassion, or say, “I need a break. I need some tulips.”
To what extent is your writing informed by your own childhood experiences?
There’s nothing intentionally autobiographical about my childhood in these stories, except for that fact that two of the narrators (Sammy and Trigger) are only children. As a child, I sometimes felt bored and lonely (compared to my friends who had siblings), so I’m sure I instinctively wrote some of that boredom and loneliness into Sammy and Trigger. Also, as an only child you’re the constant subject of your parents’ focus—you can’t shuck the blame for your actions onto a sibling. Maybe this explains why parents and parental figures are prominent in The Poor Children. (For the record, my parents are good people!)
There’s a great sense of place in these stories, from a big haunted house to impoverished small apartments (that are often cherished by the children who live there) to an upscale reform school that is “small and polite like a basket of handpicked berries.” Do you feel hopeful about the characters growing up and finding a welcoming place where they really belong?
Before “Bleary” was shaped by the assault on my husband, I had hoped the story would develop into a novel. I wanted Trigger to serve his time at Bleary Center, go off to university and study child welfare, and then return to Bleary as a staff member. I decided the “full circle” narrative was cliché, so I considered having Trigger father a child who would later end up at Bleary, but then I concluded the “like father, like son” plot was also cliché. My third idea involved Trigger fathering a child who would end up at the Center, while Trigger ended up in prison, and the whole novel would consist of letters Trigger wrote from solitary confinement. His son would never respond, and the reader would never be sure if Trigger even had a son. (What stopped me from pursuing that avenue was laziness: I didn’t care to study the epistolary novel at the time.)
So, yes, I wanted to prolong Trigger’s story because I wanted him to grow into himself and belong somewhere. I wanted all of my characters to grow into themselves, and I felt guilty for not enabling them. But over time, between stepping away from the stories, coming back to them, and starting new ones, I felt more confortable with the fact that they weren’t meant to be feel-good tales. At the risk of repeating myself (I’ve iterated this in other interviews): I hope readers can step into the worlds of The Poor Children and consider, from a protected distance, lives and experiences that are difficult to fathom (as they should be). I feel we shouldn’t condemn people before we investigate their situations, especially if we have safe access to the opportunity.
For a period after my husband’s assault, I wished Massachusetts would make an exception and execute the assailant—everything I had learned about the seventeen-year-old indicated he was a violent sociopath with no family or community structures in place to truly help him or motivate him to change. That period has passed, and I’ve returned to my root belief that the death penalty is a crime itself, but now I can say I seriously considered every angle. Prior to my brief pro-death penalty period, I was against it philosophically, in abstract, whereas now I’m informed, and engaged with my choice to be against it.
I was impressed by the way the kids fought to hang on to their integrity, but I didn’t have a lot of hope for them. Should we see them as triumphant because they keep sticking up for themselves even if they never have much outward success?
Thank you for doing such a close reading of the book, Vickie!
As foster mom of The Poor Children, I feel a mix of pride and sadness. Some of the characters, like Sammy, Jenny, and Royle, are objectively likable, I think, while my favorites, Mark and Trigger, are cases of personal taste—maybe I feel more strongly for them because I had to work harder to get close to their hearts. Just as I hope readers will give them a chance, I had to set aside biases in order to write Mark and Trigger. The most triumphant characters, I would say, are Jenny, Fancy, and Karaleen. Girl power! Sadly, this isn’t true in any feel-good sense, but these girls absolutely deserve the paltry freedoms they end up claiming, and why can’t we feel happy for them, for what little they finally achieve? These characters are so removed from my personal measures of success, and it’s not my place to judge or diminish theirs. Back when I was nearing the end of “A Marmalade Cat for Jenny,” I couldn’t wait to write the last few lines; those were Jenny’s lines, and she had earned every right to inhabit them.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my second novel, which I desperately hope to finish by summer’s end. I’m having so much fun with Carousel! My biggest challenge has been working on it for only a couple of hours a day—often only a few days per week—during the teaching semester. Last summer, I spent every day in June and the first fifteen of July with Carousel, and most of those days were six to ten hours long. I was in writer nirvana. I’ve had to learn about so many new things along the way (carousels, antique firearms, paintings and artistic photography, art galleries and pawnshops, etc.), so there are days when it takes me two hours to craft a single paragraph.
A few agents have expressed interest in Carousel, though I have my head firmly on my shoulders: First, I must finish the manuscript! In the meantime, my debut novel, Gentle, is scheduled for publication with Santa Fe Writers Project in April 2016. The editor says he’ll have some notes to give me at the upcoming AWP conference, and I’m looking forward to his comments. Between adjunct teaching at SUNY Oneonta, serving as managing editor of Digital Americana Magazine, moving onward with Carousel, and getting ready for The Poor Children release, I haven’t read one word of Gentle since last fall, when I signed SFWP’s offer of publication. This is probably a good thing; I’ll return to Gentle with fresh (though terribly tired!) eyes, and some experience with the book publishing process.