NOTE: This is an occasional series about notable figures from my home region. These are personal reminiscences and opinions; where available, I’ll include links so interested readers can find out more.
Part 1 of this entry can be found here.
Even as a child I wanted to be a writer. Unfortunately, I lived in a town where literacy was viewed with the same cross-eyed suspicion as Communism and homosexuality. When I got beaten up in fifth grade for reading a science fiction novel, the community consensus (including my family’s) was that it was essentially my own fault for being “weird.” Yet writing was something hard-wired into me; I remember turning comic books into prose stories on my dad’s old manual typewriter.
When I got older and my family accepted that this “weirdness” wasn’t going away, they urged me to contact our own local best-selling author Jesse Hill Ford. I had connections: his first father-in-law was the doctor who delivered my older brother and sister, and I’d occasionally crossed partying paths with his youngest daughter. He would, everyone assured me, respond to such an eager young man. So I wrote him.
I don’t recall the exact wording of my letter, but I’m certain it was both polite and hugely deferential. As people I’ve corresponded with will attest, that’s my default setting anyway. I believe I introduced myself, mentioned our mutual acquaintances, explained my interest in being a writer, and said I’d be honored by any recommendations or advice he’d care to give. I’m not sure, but I may have included a self-addressed stamped envelope for his reply.
The response I got back changed the way I thought about writers forever. I’ve only been literally sucker-punched once, in junior high school. This metaphorical one, though, hurt a lot more.
Ford’s reply was so unbelievably snarky that, after I read it, I just sat and stared at the floor for half an hour. Then I threw it away, although now I wish I hadn’t. The gist was that his own writing was too important for him to take time away to help a beginner, especially one who lacked the common decency to pay for one of his writing seminars. But it was the tone, the unbelievable mix of arrogance and condescension, that made the biggest impression.
And the worst part was that at its core, it was a lie.
According to Tennesse Authors: Past & Present (2003, University of Tennessee Libraries): “The sudden success of Lord Byron Jones, and his trip to Hollywood to co-write the screenplay for the movie…destabilized Ford’s relationships with his wife and neighbors. Already a heavy drinker with a mercurial temperament, Ford became dependent upon amphetamines and cheated on his wife during his stay in California.” Following his acquittal for murder, “[h]e finished the novel he had been writing when the trial began, The Raiders, in 1975. He remarried, to Lillian Pelletierre, in the same year. His new wife had money that allowed them freedom from financial worries…Ford wrote little or nothing during this period, and he appears to have been obsessed by the earlier shooting. These ruminations embittered him and hardened his social views. When he returned to print in 1985, writing essays and later a column for USA Today, his columns were rabidly conservative and often paranoid.”
So at the time I contacted him, he wasn’t writing anything.
And none of this would’ve mattered had he simply been polite about it. That’s something every Southerner instinctively knows how to do; we even use the benign phrase “bless your heart” to mean, “you’re so stupid.” All he had to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m incredibly busy, I wish you the best of luck.” But instead he tossed in contempt and mockery. When I encounter stories of how other famous people helped newbies in their fields (for example, I recently read how Pete Seeger responded to folk singer Michael Johnathon’s letter), I’m even more outraged.
(I should reiterate this is strictly my story of Jesse Hill Ford. Others no doubt have different ones. Author Richard North Patterson, for one, credits Ford’s classes with turning him into a real writer; of course, he was already a successful attorney, so he had no trouble affording them.)
So, to conclude: what did I learn from Jesse Hill Ford?
Obviously, I didn’t give up on writing. But I promised myself that, if I was ever lucky enough to be successful at it, I would never treat anyone with the cavalier contempt Jesse Hill Ford showed me. I try to always see myself in anyone who asks me for writing help.
And I’ve collected signed copies of all six of Jesse Hill Ford’s books, video files of his interviews on public television, and an audio tape of one of his vaunted writing seminars (see photo of my collection at the top of this blog post). I’ve corresponded privately with some of his friends. I have a scrapbook of articles about him. I keep looking for the reason that a man like that would be so blithely cruel to a kid looking for encouragement.
I haven’t yet found it.
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