Gerry Ford 

An Interview with G.M. "Gerry" Ford
by Anitra Freeman and Alice Quaintance

G.M. "Gerry" Ford is a local mystery writer with a highly popular series set in Seattle, beginning with Who In Hell Is Wanda Fuca? His private eye Leo Waterman has a group of homeless friends who do surveillance work for him, portrayed with wit and realism and very little stereotyping. When we decided to focus on homeless people in mysteries for this issue, Gerry Ford was our natural choice for an interview. We met for lunch and more than three hours of lively conversation, a small part of which we managed to fit into this issue of Real Change.

RC: My friends and I really appreciate how you use homeless characters in your novels. What is your own experience with homeless people and homelessness?

Ford: Just the ones I see in the street. I know all of the neighborhood types up here. I don't have any personal experience with it. It's one of the things that keeps me working--the image of it, you know? (laughter)

In some sense, they {my homeless characters} are just Sherlock Holmes's Baker Street Irregulars, 65 years old and drunk. I thought, when I started to write, to get published I would need some sort of a gimmick. And it just struck me one day that nobody sees homeless people. They'd make great surveillance operatives.

And it gives me a chance to rant. I'm this terrible bleeding heart liberal, you know. So it gives me a chance to rant on any number of sociological problems that I like to rant about But I have no personal experience and I'm going to keep it that way for the rest of my life, God willing.

RC: But you obviously know where people hang out.

Ford: Well, yeah. I walk a lot. It gets you in touch with what's going on. And I'm one of those people who can't just turn my head. Some people touch my heart and some people don't. Nobody would tell you that I'm the nicest person in the world either, but some people I can't help responding to. I have a penchant for the neighborhood bums.

I must buy 5 to 15 Real Changes a week from the people I know. But don't be comin' up here cuttin' in on their territory; I wouldn't piss on you if you were on fire. That sort of mimics the small town attitude, people taking responsibility for each other.

RC: Rant for me. You said you have all sorts of sociological opinions. Give me some.

Ford: I'm not particularly fond of a society where ten percent of the people have 90% of the money. Where a nice little two-bedroom house in the city costs around $350,000 dollars. I think people need to live considerably simpler lives. I'm trying in my own life to own less and less stuff. (mischievous grin) Maybe in the end that will mean that I'm out on the street with what I'm wearing.

Greed is kind of the bottom line, especially when we no longer have a sense of individual responsibility. There was a time 100 years ago in America when everybody in the same town you lived in would take care of you if you fell on hard times. Nowadays you're at the mercy of the government, and the government has very little mercy.

RC: One of the appeals of mysteries, it seems to me, is the sense of solving a puzzle: there are good guys and bad guys and you can find out which is which, reveal the truth.

Ford: It's neat. Everything is resolved. Closure comes every time. The good guys always win, and the bad guys always--almost always--lose. There's a sense of comeuppance. The nice thing about a mystery is the sense of closure. And if you ever suggested to an editor, "Let's let the bad guy get away," oh, they'd lose their minds, they'd throw themselves on the floor and roll around in agony.

But I'm very ambivalent about the bad guys in my books. I don't like these people who want to take over the world, who want to eat your liver with fava beans. I have people, yes, who are doing things out of greed, but who maybe got themselves in too deep...and it's the same with people you see living on the street, they're not some Martian, it's your Uncle Ned who made a couple of very bad decisions and got himself somewhere very difficult. They've all got stories and lives, and what I try to do when I write is to put faces on them. Because I don't think that the people who step over them see them as having faces.

RC: We commented earlier that mysteries are basically moralistic novels. One of the easy ways to get rid of any responsibility you feel for helping someone is to see them as bad.

Ford: Yes, you have to see them as criminals. In our society, it is at least morally reprehensible not to be self-supporting. That's a major ingredient of the Puritan Ethic, as I understand it. You're supposed to be out there making a million dollars. And there aren't that many paths. You can go out there and get a job and keep it for forty years and retire, which was my parent's world, people who came out of high school during the Depression. If you had a job, you stayed there until you died, you were so lucky just to have a job. I was thirty-five years old, the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at a college, and my mom would still call me up and say, "You haven't quit or anything, have you?" She was totally ready to kick my ass.

As a result, I don't think we get as much out of ourselves as we would otherwise. I think we'd have more artists, writers, sculptors, great thinkers. But you know what your parents always told us: "Do this or this or this, so you'll have something to fall back on." I don't think you're encouraged to find out who you are, what you can do--I think you're encouraged to get a job. "Don't go coming to me for money!" And I feel the same way about my kids!

You get a lot of that when you write. "What are you doing?" "I'm writing a novel." Hmmm...women immediately begin picturing life in a mobile home when you tell them you're a writer. I am occasionally haunted by the idea: what if one day my editor said, "That's it, we don't like your work anymore, nobody's buying your novels anymore, goodbye." What would I do? I'm not going back to teaching high school.

RC: There are quite a lot of writers using homeless characters in their mystery novels these days. Who, besides you, do you think does it best?

Ford: The only other one I've read was by Michael Lewin, a book called The Underdog. And there's a great novel by George Dawes Green called The Caveman's Valentine. The lead character is homeless, but he's also a screaming schizophrenic. And that's a real good book.

But I'll tell you, I wasn't aware that so many people had done it. I was rather put out the question on DorothyL? (a mystery discussion email list) I was amazed at the response on this question, the number of books mentioned. But I don't think anyone's written as many of them as I have. Everybody's written at least one. It's a fad. But I've written all of my novels with homeless characters in 'em. (grins)

RC: Well, that's why we're interviewing you! How about the rest of the media? What do you think about how homeless people are portrayed in television, the movies, etc.?

Ford: They're treated like a pestilence, more or less; this unpleasant circumstance that surrounds us. Every now and then there's a twinge--maybe that guy's riding buses 24 hours a day, but also, he's not under the same pressures I'm under, maybe he gets to do things I don't get to do, maybe he knows something I don't. And then there's the cautionary tale effect--oh my God, I'd better get back to the office before I end up out here on the sidewalk with him. But it's been going on for so long that I think we're absolutely oblivious to it. We're too busy getting more restaurants in Belltown. We absolutely have to have more restaurants in Belltown!

I remember back in the old Esquire magazines years and years ago, the guys on park benches were always some old stockbroker down on his luck. Those were the kind of homeless people you saw portrayed in the media--people who had been something substantial and through some set of circumstances found themselves at the end of their tether. That was the beginning of it for me, not some poor guy with such a freaking jones that all he can do is spend all day at the end of a pier.

I was raised to think there was a difference between people who can't support themselves and people who won't support themselves, and we should help those who can't support themselves but not do anything for people who won't. Do we want to be like New Delhi, with people starving themselves and maiming themselves colorfully to get money?

There's definitely a self-righteous element there, the Puritan Ethic: prosperity is a reward from God; if you are poor you must not be virtuous. If we're going to help you, you have to prove your virtue. It even comes up in me sometimes. Don't be taking my money and buying cigarettes!

I think the attitudes toward the homeless are very deep, they're a part of the system. The righteous shall prevail. If you have prevailed, you are righteous. If you have not prevailed, you aren't righteous. Simple.

And speaking of self-righteousness, I hear a self-righteousness from Real Change sometimes, that we have to take care of the poor, that it's our responsibility. Sometimes I read the paper and I get this sense of entitlement. That occasionally annoys me. There's this idea that people are entitled to a living, not necessarily of their own device, and I'm not sure I agree with that. And I don't think that people like being told that they have to help other people. I think they like to feel that they're doing it because they want to, out of the goodness of their hearts.

RC: I do think a lot of them want to. Surveys have shown that most people in the United States would be willing to pay to help more people, to build more homeless shelters.

Ford: But a lot of people don't care; they want to be left alone to live their own lives. And they get that self-righteous thing; "If they worked as hard as I do, they'd be fine." Self-righteousness is a hell of an engine. "I'm righteous and I've made it," or "I haven't made it, but I'm still right."

But I realize that if you're on the streets it's hard to keep up your self-righteousness. You don't have the accoutrements of it. It's easier to keep your self-righteousness if you're staring out the windows of a Mercedes.

There's something about homelessness that taps into our very deepest fears. In some sense it brings out the best and the worst of us. We're not reasonable about it. It's deeper than reason.

Where do you want to go?

Homeless Mystery Reviews 4/1/2000
Homeless Mystery Bibliography
Real Change
Mystery Readers Ring & Book Discussion List
Active Books - Activist Book Reviews
Anitra's Meta-Page
More on G.M. Ford