Wide Angle

The Disappearance of John M. Ford

I wanted to learn why a beloved science fiction writer fell into obscurity after his death. I didn’t expect that I would help bring his books back to life.

John M. Ford, imposed on an illustration with a candle, a skull goblet, a hand holding a lightning bolt, a blue sky with clouds, a dragon, and text saying "out of print."
John M. Ford in 1987. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by David Dyer-Bennet.

Three years ago, over breakfast, my friend Helen handed me a novel about a quest that, unknown to both of us, would set me off on a quest of my own. The book was called The Dragon Waiting, and it was written by the late science fiction and fantasy author John M. Ford. Helen placed the mass-market paperback with its garish cover in my hands, her eyes aglow with evangelical fervor, telling me I would love it. I would soon learn that, owing to Ford’s obscurity, his fans do things like this all the time. Soon, I would become one of them.

The Dragon Waiting is an unfolding cabinet of wonders. Over a decade before George R.R. Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, Ford created an alternate-history retelling of the Wars of the Roses, filled with palace intrigue, dark magic, and more Shakespeare references than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The Dragon Waiting provokes that rare thrill that one gets from the work of Gene Wolfe, or John Crowley, or Ursula Le Guin. A dazzling intellect ensorcells the reader, entertaining with one hand, opening new doors with another.

I wanted to buy a copy, but it was out of print. At the time, used copies of this mass-market paperback from 1985 started at $200 on Amazon. (It’s currently much more affordable.) John M. Ford had other books that were not available at all, even as used copies. How had a writer this good fallen into this level of obscurity? The more I looked into Ford’s career, the more frustrating and mystifying his posthumous invisibility came to seem. Ford had won the Philip K. Dick Award and multiple World Fantasy Awards. He was a beloved and influential peer to writers including Neil Gaiman, Jo Walton, Ellen Kushner, James Rigney (better known as Robert Jordan), Jack Womack, and Daniel Abraham. So why had so few people heard of him? Why wasn’t anyone publishing his books?

It would take me 18 months to answer my questions. My quest would bring me to the vast treasure trove of Ford’s uncollected and unpublished writing. It would introduce me to friends and relatives of Ford who hadn’t spoken to each other since his death in 2006. And, in an improbable ending worthy of a John M. Ford novel, my quest would in fact set in motion the long-delayed republication of his work, starting in the fall of 2020. How did this happen? More importantly, why was he forgotten in the first place? More importantly than that: How did he write those amazing books?

John Milo Ford was born the first child of two pharmacists in East Chicago, Indiana, in 1957. Everyone called him Mike. According to his aunt, Jane Starner, “He was brilliant from the start—reading at an adult level when he was in kindergarten and talking to college students.” He played chess and loved model trains. But he was also sickly—after nearly falling into a coma at the age of 9, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. At 16, he went to Indiana University, where instead of attending class he ran role-playing games and amassed a $3,000 library fine, which his father paid. He dropped out after two years, having already sold several stories, and soon after wrote his first novel, Web of Angels, a cyberpunk book before the term was invented. Pocket published it in 1980.*

After that, Ford wrote, and wrote, and wrote. His body of work resembles some beast out of ancient Greek myth, all random appendages and vestigial organs, guarding a treasure. The torso of this body, supporting its many limbs, is made up of his novels. Each is written in a different genre (or, more often than not, multiple genres that overlap) but each is recognizably his. “When you’re reading a Mike Ford novel, you knew it instantly,” said Beth Meacham, one of his editors at Tor. “Every book contained a puzzle of some sort. And the play with language. He would use a word, and if that word had multiple meanings, he meant to use all of them in that sentence.”

All his novels also contain at least one lengthy stretch where the reader will be utterly baffled. Key events will be recounted elliptically, and vital connections will be revealed in a tossed-off detail. Inference, close reading, and faith that the author knows what he’s doing are essential for navigating these moments, which I came to think of as Iceberg Passages, after the novelist Jo Walton explained them to me. “You’re only seeing the tenth of the iceberg that’s out of the water in every novel,” she said. “It makes it dense in a really powerful way, but sometimes it’s too hard for people because he wouldn’t spell things out.” When his editors would ask him to explain himself more, he’d respond, “I have a horror of being obvious.”

Ford also wanted his works to flow from characters who felt like real people, and real people do not go around expounding on the rules of their universes, nor do they always understand what’s going on, particularly if they lack power, as Ford’s characters often do. If there’s one unifying theme to his books, it’s a deep skepticism of power and its costs. In The Dragon Waiting, a woman you think might become a crack assassin instead becomes paralyzed with guilt after committing her first murder. The Last Hot Time, an urban fantasy about bootleggers and elves, stars a character ashamed of his own desire to be a dom in bed. Growing Up Weightless, a story of political intrigue on the moon, is told not by the diplomats and governors, but by their children.

But the novels were only the beginning. The ephemera of John M. Ford could fill volumes, if you could locate all of it. He performed an improvised live show called “Ask Dr. Mike” at sci-fi conventions, where audience members shouted out absurd questions and he replied with even more absurd answers. He wrote handbooks for the GURPS and Paranoia role-playing game systems. He drew the maps for several fantasy and science fiction novels, including The Eye of the World, the first book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. His blog comments are the stuff of legend. (His final one was a villanelle about King Edward IV.) Among his friends, his most prized pieces of writing were his Christmas cards, lovingly made documents containing poems, or stories, or short satirical plays that he would send to a small list of associates every year during the holidays. One of the cards, a poem called “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station,” went on to win the World Fantasy Award. (You can read it here.)

“He would make art in the most surprising places,” Gaiman told me. “Once he wrote a short play based on the invitation and directions to my annual Guy Fawkes party. There was a typo, and he took that as the grounds for a play.” When Ford visited his editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden at her office at Tor, he would scribble short parody poems of the documents on her desk and leave them for her to find. “Life was not long enough,” she recalled, “for Mike to do all the stuff that he would think of to do.”

“He could have had a more successful career,” Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa’s husband and Tor’s editor in chief, said, “if he had been more disciplined about his writing” and stuck to one genre, or written a series. “But Mike wanted to write what he wanted to write.”

No single example illustrates this better than The Dragon Waiting and its aftermath. As Gaiman put it, “Had he taken The Dragon Waiting and written a sequence of five books based in that world, with that power, he would’ve been George R.R. Martin.” Ford opted instead to write two Star Trek novels (The Final Reflection and How Much for Just the Planet?, both unexpected delights) and The Scholars of Night, a riff on midcentury British espionage thrillers with no fantastical elements and a lost Christopher Marlowe play at its center. Gaiman still bemoans that The Scholars of Night “should’ve been marketed like The Name of the Rose. You needed to go, `We have a great writer who is really fucking brilliant and he has written a book that combines high and low culture.’ ” Instead, Tor, which had been recently acquired by St. Martin’s, published Scholars with a blank back cover. It didn’t exactly do Umberto Eco–level business.

Neil Gaiman and John M. Ford in 2002
Neil Gaiman and John M. Ford in 2002. Photo by David Dyer-Bennet

Even if Ford had found a larger audience, though, his health problems and lack of insurance would have kept his finances on the thinnest of ice. “All it took was one bad infection and Mike would wipe out every penny he had,” Teresa Nielsen Hayden explained. “To be an adult about money would mean to be permanently impoverished, give up on books, give up on travel, give up on the things that made his life so much better. And so he didn’t.”

To the extent that Ford’s health was ever stable, it was due to MinnesotaCare, a health benefit for low-income residents of the state, which helped cover a kidney transplant. (Earlier surgery to keep Ford from going blind was made possible by the doctor’s willingness to waive part of his fee.) To the extent that his finances were ever stable, it was due to the largesse of his friends, particularly Harriet McDougal, who co-edited The Scholars of Night, and her husband, the late James Rigney, who wrote as Robert Jordan. The couple hired Ford to work as a “games consultant” for the Wheel of Time series, mostly to help keep him solvent. By then, McDougal and Rigney, who would eulogize Ford as his “blood brother,” had essentially adopted him.

Ford needed a sibling or two, as he had grown estranged from his own family. The causes of the rift are unclear. Ford told some of his friends that his mother disapproved of his work, possibly for religious reasons. Jane Starner says that Ford’s biological family were conservative Christians; Ford’s attitude toward religion was epitomized by the short story he wrote where God cheats at Scrabble. But according to multiple people I spoke to, also at issue was Ford’s partner, the writer and jewelry designer Elise Matthesen.

The two became romantically involved in 1993. Matthesen, a polyamorist, had been married for two years when she and Mike began dating. “My partner to whom I am married is John with middle initial M, and Mike was John with middle initial M,” Matthesen recalled in an email. “I used to refer to them collectively as my John M. Ponytails, as they both wore their hair that way.”

“The thing with Elise bothered” Ford’s family, Starner said. “I don’t know whether they were completely estranged before that or not.” But either way, at some point, Ford’s now-deceased father told Starner that “the only way I know he’s alive is because he cashes the checks I send for his birthday.”

In his final years, Ford toiled away at a colossal work, over 140,000 words long, titled Aspects. Beth Meacham described it as “a magical-parliamentary-nobility-romance-spy-adventure. And that only touches it.” When he’d finish chunks of it, he’d fire them off to close friends, including Gaiman, Walton, and Meacham. They were all amazed by it.

Although Ford had outlined the book in a sonnet cycle (seriously), he struggled to get it right. On July 27, 2006, he emailed Gaiman about how hard it was to weave action into some parts of the story. “It’s not exactly like I can have someone charge into the room with a gun every few minutes,” he wrote. Then, in signing off, he launched into one of the spontaneous riffs that so delighted his friends:

If a guy comes into the room holding a symbol of true kingship, the book is a high fantasy.

If he is holding a sword with pizza sauce on the blade and is accompanied by a talking penguin, it is low fantasy.

If he is holding a poorly described article that is clearly of great emotional significance to himself, but none whatever to us, and then he leaves the room without having done anything, it is a New Yorker story.

Two months later, he died of natural causes, most likely a heart attack. He was heavily in debt, and almost all of his work was out of print. Elise Matthesen found him. “He looked a little surprised,” she wrote in an email. “Sort of mildly quizzical. Not pained. Which was some comfort at least.” Although he had written a will, it was neither witnessed nor executed, and was therefore legally invalid, as was his relationship with Elise. The two had “married,” but in a self-scripted Klingon ceremony during a convention. (“The Klingon Empire has decided that we should formalize our relationship,” was how Ford described it to friends.) Elise found contact information for Ford’s family, whom she had never met, and told them of Ford’s passing. She would have one phone conversation with Ford’s mother. After that, everything would be done through lawyers.

According to a document Matthesen prepared for her lawyers in October of 2006, Ford’s unexecuted will specified that he did not want his family to get his estate. But the document had been left in Ford’s apartment, which she could no longer legally access. Matthesen and Ford’s friends wanted some say in the disposition of his effects, but their efforts to secure this through counsel were unsuccessful. The family claimed Ford’s body, cleaned out his apartment, and, shortly after, left town. His friends and loved ones held their own memorial service, which Jane Starner attended. All contact between Ford’s immediate family and his family of choice dissolved, leaving behind little but bitterness, particularly when, a couple of months later, someone tried to edit Ford’s Wikipedia page to remove all mention of Elise Matthesen.

By 2018, when I started digging into this story, only The Last Hot Time, the story collection Heat of Fusion, and the two Star Trek novels remained in print. The rights to almost everything else, including all of his major works, his uncollected writings, and the unpublished Aspects, had reverted to his legal heirs. No one knew what had become of Ford’s family. No one had had contact with them since the summer of 2007, when Gaiman, McDougal, and Rigney unsuccessfully tried to purchase Ford’s literary estate and set up a foundation to administer it. No one even remembered their names. The story, repeated to me again and again (and, occasionally, online) was that Ford’s family did not approve of his work and were deliberately keeping it out of print. And then, after several months of looking, I found them, and asked them for comment on this article.

An agreeable, funny woman in her 80s, Jane Starner lives in a retirement community in North Manchester, Indiana. She spoke with pride of her late nephew, and sadness that things soured so thoroughly between him and the family. But she was very surprised when I asked her if her sister and niece were suppressing his work. She gave me an email address for Ford’s sister, Martha Fry. “I cannot believe Martha would not want his books back in print,” she said.

Martha Fry and her brother Dale Ford agreed to an interview, but only if they could do it together, and only if it were done over email. Over the course of that interview, Dale and Martha disputed that Mike was estranged from them or his parents, saying instead he was “introverted by nature.” “I once visited Mike with our parents in Minneapolis at his apartment,” Dale wrote. “We went to an old school downtown steakhouse, where our father treated us to dinner. … Our parents sent him letters every year with updates about his family. We found some of the opened letters among his belongings.” Martha added that shortly before their father’s death, he and Mike had corresponded, and the letter Mike wrote was “kind and loving.”

They also disputed that anyone had a problem with Mike’s relationship with Elise. “Mike’s personal life was his own business and did not affect our feelings for him as a family,” Dale wrote. “I am appreciative to [Elise] for finding Mike’s body and calling the police. … Martha read a copy of the police report, and Elise listed her relationship to Mike as ‘friend,’ not a legal spouse or domestic partner, which we presume to be accurate. I am glad Mike found caring friends during his adult life.”

They refused to discuss anything having to do with his estate. But multiple friends of Mike Ford had told me that they were suppressing his work. I wrote back, saying that I needed comment from them if they wanted to dispute that. Ford and Fry replied that I was threatening them with “the unsubstantiated beliefs of uncited individuals … if we do not respond to your satisfaction on Mike’s commercial affairs.” However, they volunteered that on three separate occasions they had written to Mike’s agent, trying to see if there was any interest in reprinting his work. When they didn’t hear back, they assumed there wasn’t.

This seemed improbable. Every one of his colleagues in the industry loved Ford and wanted his work back in print. His agent stood to make money off the deal. Was it really possible, I asked Ford’s friends, that his agent could have ignored his family’s requests?

The answer, it turned out, was yes, because Ford’s agent had dropped out of the industry and, seemingly, off the face of the earth. According to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, shortly before Ford’s death, his agent Valerie Smith “was beginning the process of essentially vanishing” from the industry. She “became more and more intermittent” with phone calls and correspondence, and many of her clients fired her. Neither he nor anyone he knew had had contact with her in a decade.

After a few tries, I eventually reached Valerie Smith by phone.  Smith still found it difficult to talk about Mike Ford’s death and the events surrounding it. She had represented him since 1978. Web of Angels was the first novel she ever sold. But in the 1990s, family caregiving obligations and a legal battle unrelated to her literary work left her “pretty overwhelmed,” she said. Her heartbreak over Mike Ford’s death, an event that still leaves her angry today, helped push her further out of the industry. “When I started, I really felt like this was where I was meant to be,” she said. “I just can’t bring myself to go out there with the same enthusiasm that I had before.” Smith said she never received any correspondence from the family about republishing Mike Ford’s work.

And so, after months of investigation, I found myself in an Iceberg Passage, seeing only some of the story while, lurking beneath the surface, other truths remained obscure. I do not share Ford’s horror at obviousness, but there are simply things that we will never know. We will never know why Mike and his family grew apart, or, from the family’s perspective, how far apart they were. We will never know who anonymously tried to edit the Wikipedia page to cut out Elise Matthesen. (The family denies any involvement.)

But I reconnected Ford’s family and editors at Tor, and after a year of delicate back-and-forth spearheaded by Beth Meacham, Tor and the family have reached an agreement that will gradually bring all of his books back into print, plus a new volume of stories, poems, Christmas cards, and other uncollected material. First up, in fall 2020, is the book that introduced me to Ford, The Dragon Waiting. Then, in 2021, Tor will publish—at long last—the unfinished Aspects, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman.

As in one of John M. Ford’s novels, a kind of happy ending has been reached. It’s not the ending the characters necessarily wanted. It’s not one that ties up every plot thread. No one in the story has enough power to make that happen. But the ending they’ve carved out reaches some kind of resolution and leaves their world a bit better off than when they started.

When I got word that a deal had finally been struck, I immediately thought of Elise Matthesen. Lacking the legal rights to Mike Ford’s work, still smarting from the events surrounding his death, how would she feel about all of this?

“I don’t even have words, it’s such good news,” she replied in an email. “Except maybe Mike’s words.”

In 1997, Elise wrote, she interviewed Mike for a convention. She put to him a prompt that had long been bouncing around in her head: I’m going to die. Tell me a story.

“No,” he said. “No. You tell me one, and when you’re gone, I’ll tell it to somebody else.”

Correction, Nov. 15, 2019: This article originally misidentified the first publisher of John M. Ford’s novel Web of Angels. It was Pocket, not Tor.