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A Celebration of Jeffrey Ford's Well-Built City Trilogy: Memoranda

Today, I continue my interview with Jeffrey Ford, multiple award-winner, this time on the subject of the second of his Well-Built City novels, Memoranda (1999). The trilogy has just been re-released this month by Golden Gryphon Press, with stunning new covers by award-winning artist John Picacio. Compared to the work of Kafka, among others, these highly original works launched Ford's career.

Memoranda is a much more surreal novel than the first in the series, The Physiognomy. In the book, his protagonist, Cley, takes a trip through the dark mind of the Well-Built City's creator. Ford addressed the subject of dreams in our interview...

Memorandalarge You cite books on mnemonics in the acknowledgments to Memoranda. What ideas from those books were you most interested in exploring?
Jeffrey Ford: I read two books by Frances Yates: The Art of Memory and Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. These are fascinating works about techniques employed throughout history to store and retrieve information in the human mind as well as a mode of creativity (the intersection of memory and imagination). In Memoranda, I focused on the concept of The Memory Palace. The individual creates a palace in his/her imagination and fills it with items that stand for certain concepts and information. When one wants to remember something, he/she travels through the imaginary palace, finds the item and recalls the information sought. It’s obviously more complex than this, but that’s the basic idea. With this method, ancients were able to display great feats of memory. I was also very interested in how closely these human based memory devices were analogous to the way computers worked. And I was interested in the reality of the memory palace itself, who were its inhabitants? Were they aware that their lives were symbolic analogies for some key concept? Was it difficult to get the layering of dream and reality right in this novel? Did you decide on any anchors to ground the novel?
Jeffrey Ford: It wasn’t difficult.  In fact, it was a lot of fun. By this point in the game, I was so deeply immersed in the writing of these books that I couldn’t tell you what my process was. I’d get home from work at night, sit down at the computer, and I was deep inside the story the moment the music started playing on my CD player. I decided on very little when writing these books. It was more like I’d tapped into some alternate reality and was merely mining the stuff of fiction. Do you remember when you finished the novel and where you were? What was going on in your life at the time?
Jeffrey Ford: I don’t remember too much about the particulars of what I was involved in at the time, except I do remember that while I was writing the book I was deeply immersed in playing computer video games, something I hadn’t done before and don’t do much now, but I felt there was some connection between computing and the mnemonics of the ancients. Gerald Jonas, writing a review for the New York Times said of the book that it was a “novel of virtual reality like none other,” so I think the computing connection came through to some readers as well.

The final segment of my three-part interview with Jeffrey Ford will run Thursday...


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My biography, the first, of Frances Yates was published in June by Ibis Press: Frances Yates & the Hermetic Tradition.

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