There's something undeniably earnest about Jeff Ford's writing. Even in his most fantastic stories, those that are pure flights of fancy, with characters fishing for bats on the precipice of cliffs, Ford's style underlies the incredible. Inasmuch as the reader might want to deny Ford his fantastic conceits — if his presentation were different they would surely be conceited stories, too pretentious to read — his grounded style is so pervasive that all this fantasy seems down to earth. The arrangement of the collection further solidifies this: If there were only fantastic stories, it would be a much different read; the stories that present Ford the author as Ford the character help to situate all these stories in real life. It might be, as Michael Swanwick writes in the introduction, that these stories are like the dreams of a friend, recounted the day after having been dreamt, but it's that these are the stories of a friend that makes them worth listening to. Ford's earnest approach is so balanced that it's difficult to not identify with him.
Writers like Ford are the exception rather than the rule in science fiction and fantasy. It comes as no surprise to most readers of the genres, upon reading a first sentence, to settle into the spare and balanced prose that is so often the practice of even the most widely read authors. With predecessors like Heinlein and Asimov, this really comes as no shock: It's more often the plot that counts, rather than the prose that carries it. But that's what makes Ford such a prize: Not only are his plots wonderful, but his prose has a practiced magnetism to it. The stories are generally of two sorts: Those that are entirely fantastic, sorts of lucid dreams, and those wherein the uncanny interacts with the author's everyday life. And it's this second school of stories that are the best of the lot.
The Fantasy Writer's Assistant brings together 13 previously published stories from the past 8 years — from some rather out of the way places — and 3 previously unpublished stories. It's rather difficult, though, to say which of the included stories is Ford at his best: The array is so diverse, and so strong, that no one story stands out as being that which all the rest revolve around. It is, conversely, rather easy to pinpoint Ford's weaker pieces, arranged in the middle of the collection. But this he seems aware of, sometimes making excuses and veiled apologies in the notes that he provides for each of the selections. But these weaker selections are in the minority, and are radically overshadowed by the rest of the collection.
"Creation" begins the collection, a coming of age story loosely based upon Ford's own childhood. In the neighborhood woods, a young boy, having learned from the creation story of Genesis, goes about the creation of his own Adam, constructed of the materials of nature — sticks, bark, leaves — just as humanity was built from mud and imbued with the breath of life. Later returning to the creation site, the boy finds that his "man" is gone, having left no scrap behind, leading the creator to think that his "man" has come to life rather than having been dispersed at the hands of other children. The boy finds himself plagued by the scarecrow man (although it could be just the idea of his creation come to life), and it is only through a strange alliance with his powerful and silent father (of typical 1950s fashion) that he is able to rid himself of his guilt. Maybe it's my own young life spent in the woods that made this story seem so perfectly real, such a wonderful approximation of my own youth, and the imaginative splendors that I so often found in nature with my friends and younger brother; or maybe Ford's creation myth is an even truer one than we find in the Bible. Maybe God does feel guilty, or, if he doesn't, we think he should.
Similarly, "The Honeyed Knot" deals with the author's later guilt, his sense of disappointment in himself, when he finds himself unable to stop his students' lives from going awry subtly before his eyes. From another writer, this sort of story might seem an unnecessary indulgence, or, worse, a blatant attempt to curry the favor of the reader, to align him- or herself with the feelings of a reader who too lives in a world rather chaotic. "The Honeyed Knot," like the mystery of the title's meaning, is alms for a social life. Writers, generally, and teachers, specifically, find themselves embroiled in the lives of their readers and students, and for Ford (who is both), this position of being a part and yet apart is problematic. Too often privy to the thoughts and feelings of his students, Ford tries to find a way out of the objectivity his pedagogical stance has forced upon him in order to affect, and to be affected by, his students.
Ford's predilection for incorporating the fantastic into his everyday life aligns him more with Philip K Dick than Franz Kafka (who, in one of the previously unpublished stories, Ford bemoans — one of my favorites in the collection), but where Dick failed in his clunky prose, Ford is able to imbue the stories with the sense of really being fantastic rather than simply fiction. Unlike Kafka, who was too often flirting with his anxieties, and like Dick before him, Ford seems more concerned with the anxieties of the cultural milieu of which he is a part. Ford tells beautiful, convincing stories of the world in which we live, of the fantasy that sometimes elides our attention, and, hopefully, will keep telling them for years to come. These are the sorts of fantasies that we need, earnest and true.
— Matthew Wolf-Meyer, SFRA Review, November-December 2002