Monday, February 15, 2010

Giants of West Tennessee: Jesse Hill Ford, part 2

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.

Leave a comment telling about a celebrity or hero who's let you down, and be entered to win a signed copy of BURN ME DEADLY.


Anonymous said...

Oh, Alex!

That is truly an awful experience to have had! It's a wonder it did not put you off of writing altogether.

Having had the privilege of meeting many authors, performers and other various famous people, I can tell you, sometimes you are just never prepared for how the person might act. It can be a bitter experience to have the opportunity to meet someone who's work you adore only to find that they are being a total jerk that day.

I suppose the thing to remember is that people are people and all of us have bad days. Celebrities are not really any different. Unfortunately, when they behave poorly, whether in person, or in a written response like you received, it can certainly diminish the glow they previously had in the viewer's eyes. In some cases, it can make it difficult to enjoy any further works they do.

There are several authors and actors that I just cannot bring myself to be a patron of their work any longer. I feel it is very likely that JHF's response to you was written when he was obviously having a bad day. I would further venture that he did not realize that he was writing to someone young. Even if he became aware of it after the fact, he likely was so consumed with himself that an apology was too much for him. From your profile of him, I would say he was a deeply conflicted and unstable person who did not handle the pressures fame and circumstances brought to bear on him.

I, for one, am glad that his dreadful response did not discourage you from continuing to write. Plus, it serves forever as an example of how not to be.

:) DS*

Isaac Bickerstaff said...

Probably the worst experience of meeting someone who disappointed me was when I met Harlan Ellison in 1995. I had heard he was a bit cantankerous, but it really doesn't compare to how he was in real life. I think the problem was he kept reading all the hype about himself, and started to believe it all.

Unknown said...

When I was still doing Appliance and TV work, I went to a recording artist house to install all the TV's. His wife at the time, wanted one of the new fangled projection TV's, so we brought one out for her to see. She loved it, but a few minutes after we got it set-up, the singer hisself came home. he threw a FIT, said get that big ugle SOB out of here!! We packed it up quick, installed the UGLY tv he picked out (french provicial with doors to hide it when not in use) and in the end he took 10% off the total bill, saying we could use his name for advertising. *sheesh* Not going to name names, but after his death a Christian Broadcasting network bought his entire mini theme park he had built, and now a televagalist lives in his big house. ;)

T. Frohock said...

Please do not enter me in your contest, Alex, I have my copy of Burn Me Deadly and am foot-tapping-waiting for Dark Jenny. ;-)

I'm just commenting here to let you know how much I appreciate your attitude toward other writers (published and unpublished). I have been most fortunate in my contact with other writers so far and have had the privilege to meet some of the nicest people you can imagine. You're one of them.

I'm glad you didn't allow Ford's attitude to turn you away from writing. I've also never used "Bless your heart" to say "You're so stupid," but the more I think about it, the more I like the idea. ;-) I'll try it out this weekend . . .

Esho Woman said...

I am interested in the actual case that inspired the Liberation of Lord Byron Jones. Is there any hint in his work or letters about who the couple actually were?

Alex Bledsoe said...

Esho Woman:

E-mail me and I'll give you some sources for more information on Ford's inspirations for "Liberation."

mcs grannie said...

I met the Ford's while living in Humboldt in 1963. What I remember most about him was that he wore turtle neck sweaters and shoes that looked like slippers and looked every bit what I thought a writer should look like. I don't know if the story is true but I remember hearing that the Ford's had gone out of town and left a goat and St. Bernard locked up in their house. When they returned home, they found a pile of bones in the living room where the dog had eaten the goat. I am really sorry to hear about the terrible things that happened to the family after that. I remember his wife as a very nice southern lady.

Alex Bledsoe said...

MCS Grannie:

Thanks for sharing that story. I hadn't heard that one before. But most everyone agrees with you that Sally Ford was a very sweet lady.