AuThursday – Todd Ford

Tell us a little about yourself and your background?

I’m in my early sixties, married with two grown daughters, you know, a classic empty-nester. We have a menagerie of cats, five as of this moment, although the one that’s pawing at me as I type is aged and on twice-a-day meds to keep her from withering away even more rapidly. We’ve had dogs as well. We’re happy to no longer have dogs. They’re a lot more work.

I grew up in Southern California, Santa Barbara, and thereabouts to be exact. I have a lot of lazy beach bum and listening to “Hotel California” on the radio 27 times a day in my DNA. I’m pretty liberal as well. I studied mechanical engineering and landed my first job in the Seattle area in 1984. I was there for ten years, long enough to learn I don’t much like the reality of engineering work, to discover an affection for cinema, and to meet my wife through a personal ad.

We’ve lived in Mandan since 1994. Why Mandan? Why North Dakota? My wife grew up in Williston and her parents had retired in Mandan. I got laid off from Boeing in Seattle. The dots become pretty easy to connect from there.

How do you make time to write?

Short answer: I don’t, not enough anyway. I always think I should establish a daily routine, but I’m too easily distracted. I read a lot. I watch movies constantly. I daydream.

Long answer: I write constantly when I’m inspired. I’m a writer who first needs something to say, I guess. When inspiration strikes, my wife starts to wonder what’s up because she hardly sees me for days—and our house isn’t large. (Maybe that’s why she’s constantly dreaming about tiny homes and campers. I would have zero opportunity for escape.) Part two of the long answer is I do write almost every day. I always have something burning a hole in me to share on Facebook. You know the sorts of posts. The ones that pop up on your feed X number of years later and make you wonder about your mental health on that day long ago.

Do you believe in writer’s block?

I believe frustration over sitting for hours and not being able to find words is a real thing. Happily, I don’t experience it often—if at all. I seldom sit down to write unless I already have words ready to go. I also tend to rehearse them during water-heater-draining showers, out loud (yes, I’m one of those talking-to-himself types). It usually takes me longer to make a cup of coffee than to move that blinking cursor halfway down my computer screen.

Also, the two types of writing I’ve specialized in are movie reviewing and memoir. I always have something to say about a movie by the time the end credits scroll. (That was a good thing. My first writing “job” was as a movie critic for the Bismarck Tribune. To earn my $8.00 a week (don’t get me started, and, yes, I’m daring to nest parenthesis within parenthesis (I’m also a computer programmer)), I would watch a movie on Sunday and have to have my review finished and emailed to the editor by Tuesday.) And I can always find stuff in my life to write about. For instance, I’ve never written about the time, I was maybe nine or ten, when I took off with a friend carrying only matches and candles into a culvert, you know, to see where it went. Exiting the other end into Narnia was our hope. Long after the light of day had vanished, wind was causing the candles to flicker, like two stupid kids our boxes full of matches were actually nearly empty, and hot wax was burning our hands, we tripped over something. We looked down in the flickering shadows to see the remains of a rattlesnake. (There. Now I have written about it.)

My story for the SEASONS IN THE DARK anthology titled “The Whites of My Eyes” is filled with true stories. My book-length memoir THS DATING THING: A MOVIE BUFF’s MEMOIR is, of course, also littered with remembrances of my sordid past.

Tell us a bit about the genre you write and why you love it.

Yes, I consider myself a memoirist. I fell in love with the genre while reading THIS BOY’S LIFE by Tobias Wolff, CHERRY by Mary Karr, and KING OF THE HILL by A.E. Hotchner. I’m also fond of FARGO ROCK CITY by Chuck Klosterman. I’ve since accumulated three shelves of memoirs and autobiographies. I’m pleased I wrote one of my own because it makes all of these favorite authors feel in a way like kin. What I love about the genre is how it allows you to sort through all the stuff that’s happened, make sense of it, and find meaning. You might say it’s like a form of therapy—for free. I keep starting to turn the corner toward writing fiction. I always just end up on a new sidewalk through my past.

How are you publishing your recent book and why? 

I self-published my books on KDP. The aforementioned THIS DATING THING as well as a collection of my favorite movie reviews titled SEE YOU IN THE DARK: TWO DECADES OF MY CINEPHILIA IN NORTH DAKOTA. I didn’t make much effort to try to find a traditional publisher for either book. I knew the movie review book had less than zero commercial potential. My main goal was to rescue the reviews from oblivion and have a copy for my own bookshelf. I’m fairly confident that at least three or four copies exist on other bookshelves, somewhere. I know a copy resides in Mumbai because that young reader ecstatically emailed me half a dozen times to tell me how much he enjoyed all three times he read it. I also know that at least one copy has changed hands because a friend cautiously informed me she’d spotted a copy in a box at the Bismarck Public Library used book sale. I did, briefly, have a small publisher lined up for my memoir, but that publisher kinda went out of business, a fate that I imagine awaits many small publishers. At least I can rest easy knowing it wasn’t the publishing of my book that killed them.

Are you an Introvert or an Extrovert?  How does this affect your work?

I’m an Introvert. That probably goes without saying. I read a lot, watch movies, talk to myself in the shower, and experienced 2 ½ years of COVID by seldom leaving my house—and not noticing anything being different. It helps my writing, for sure. It’s easy for me to sit alone at a computer for hours with nothing but Chopin and Liszt to keep me company while I type away. Introverts are also good at looking inward; so, I’m not sure if I found memoir or memoir found me.

What is your favorite motivational phrase?

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”—James Joyce

You know how when you go through a draft and find mistakes scattered everywhere? I enjoy making a game out of it. I trust that Freud was at least onto something when he wrote about slips of tongue revealing unconscious truths. I don’t always fix my mistakes at first. I look for ways to use them. Some of my favorite slips of phrase have started with typos—like typing “slips” when I meant “turns.” (Okay, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I have to fix the damn thing and move on.)

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

If you enjoy it, do it. If you don’t enjoy it, stop doing it. If you have a change of heart, start doing it again. It’s best if it feels like play. And no matter what, try not to fret over past work. In fact, I find it best to not even read my stuff after it’s published.

Where can readers find you on the World Wide Web?

Nowhere, really, other than looking my two books up on Amazon.

Do you have an excerpt you’d like to share with us?

I sure do. I’ll end with this passage from my memoir describing my dad:

During the following two years after arriving back home, Dad became fanatical about new trends. After my lifetime of never seeing him exercise, he lingered in the master bedroom puffing and sweating through morning push-ups, squats, and sit-ups in his underwear—and not just any underwear, but bright red, teeny tiny briefs. I’d see him on the floor sweating before taking his shower, hair on his chest and back, his pot belly, his graying and receding hairline, and how his thing barely stayed out of sight. Cheryl could walk in at any moment! Mom could walk in! It horrified me his wife might see the outline of his… thing. His efforts paid off. The pot belly melted away.

But the effect was short-lived, and he soon found a way to re-pack on the pounds. We were the inaugural family in our cul-de-sac to purchase a microwave oven. After hauling the Amana monstrosity home, attempting to shimmy it from the box before losing patience, cutting it free with a steak knife, and plugging it in, Dad demonstrated how we could bake apples in record time—a mere minute and a half.

He removed a green apple already cored and filled to overflowing with brown sugar from the fridge, ready to go on a paper plate. He lowered the heavy, spring-loaded door and placed the apple in the oven. He released the door and it closed on its own. He pushed a few buttons and the machine whirred.

“HEEERE WE GO!” he said, resembling an infomercial.

(When I recall his words, now, they sound more like “HEEERE’S JOHNNY!”)

We’d never had baked apples before, so I’m not sure if the brown, bubbly messes he created were typical, but over the next few weeks, we—well, mostly he—ate a lot of them. He invited neighbors to experience the miracle of instant baked apples. He entertained the idea of going into the instant baked apple business, but soon the fashion wore off. Until we discovered quick popcorn, the fast cup of tea, and the art of bringing leftovers back from the dead, we simply became the house on the block with the least amount of usable kitchen counter space.

As if changing channels still again, Dad switched to color television. He didn’t buy one, not exactly. He mail-ordered one through a company called Heathkit. The ads declared, “Announcing the first solid-state color TV you assemble yourself!” as if it were a prize-worthy idea.

Our “television” arrived in several boxes. To Dad’s excitement and everyone else’s dismay, the boxes contained a jumble of wires, tubes, screws, and twisted scraps of metal and plastic. The objects giving me hope and promising future enjoyment were the picture tube and the cabinet.

“Do you guys have any idea how much a twenty-five-inch color set costs?” he asked, and continued without waiting for an answer, “I’m sure you don’t so I’ll tell you. A lot.”

Every Saturday morning for weeks, I stared at the corner of the living room—a makeshift workshop—and hoped to see something capable of playing cartoons. Each time, I turned away disappointed and returned to watching Bugs and Elmer in black and white. Making matters worse, the television once “finished” never fully worked. It always had strange bands of indistinct colors running through the picture. Dad didn’t—or couldn’t—see them, so captivated was he by his accomplishment. (He never truly completed it. A few parts left over didn’t fit anywhere. He considered them “extra” parts and tossed them into a drawer.)

He talked to us less and less the closer the “television” came to being a semi-television. One day, I walked into the living room to check his progress and saw him mounting the picture tube into the cabinet. From where I stood, I saw his two legs sticking out from beneath the set. He’d been consumed by the TV. It reminded me of the Wicked Witch of the East after Dorothy dropped the house on her. I swear his socked feet curled and disappeared.

I don’t remember the moment the project was “finished,” the black-and-white set was banished, and the intruder assumed its post in the center of the living room wall. I do remember our old set sitting on the floor of my parent’s closet facing the corner. It had been placed in a time-out. A few times, after trying to watch the interloper for a while, I snuck into their room, slid the closet door open a crack, and patted my old pal atop the head.

After Dad’s labors, I don’t recall him ever once sitting and watching his Heathkit. Always “at work,” he spent his days at IBM, but he never talked about what he did there, and I never thought or cared to ask. I knew it had to do with something futuristic and electrical called “computers,” assembling them, fixing them if they broke. My one experience of him working on electronics had been our television set. I pictured his desk at work cluttered with “extra” bits and pieces of computers he’d later stash in drawers. I imagined him as not a particularly competent computer whatever he was and, given his lack of shoptalk and general grumpiness at home in the evening, not in love with his job either.

Mom was terrified when he came home early from work one day and announced he had been “let go.” His income and future retirement prospects had gone poof, but he looked oddly relieved.

He increased the intensity of his bedroom floor, semi-naked workout sessions. He washed his cherished Oldsmobile Cutlass daily. He wore shiny silk shirts unbuttoned to his navel. He dangled a gold chain around his neck and experimented with hair dyes and comb-overs. He eventually bought the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER soundtrack album and wore it out. He embodied a walking, talking, dancing cliché—the dad in the movie DAZED AND CONFUSED who thwarts his son’s attempt to throw a keg party. Richard Linklater set his marvelously researched movie in 1976 and Dad found polyester in 1977. Despite his efforts, Dad always lived a bit behind the times.

One detail did separate him from the father in DAZED AND CONFUSED. Dad never would have prevented a keg party. He would’ve joined in and smiled at all the girls. Cheryl told me, “When Dad helped me move in during my freshman year in college, he went away for a while, returned, and stocked the fridge with four cases of beer, one for me and each of my roommates.”

These behavior swings were all barely noticeable at the time, but they were accumulating in my mind. Eventually, in Dad’s increasing absence, I had to mow the lawn and it grew shaggier by the week. All the excitement about instantly hot food dissipated. The television’s picture worsened until it stopped working entirely and our small black-and-white set returned atop the otherwise useless Heathkit cabinet. We ate at the coffee table—and even in our bedrooms.

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