California Literary Review

An Interview With Novelist Richard Ford

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March 30th, 2007 at 5:02 pm

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Richard Ford

Richard Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1944 and received a B.A. from Michigan State University. He has published six novels and three story collections. His 1996 book, Independence Day, was the first novel ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. He currently lives in Maine and New Orleans with his wife, Kristina, with whom he has been married for thirty-eight years. He has dedicated each of his books to Kristina. His new novel, The Lay of the Land is his first novel in ten years, and is the third installment of a trilogy about New Jersey Real Estate agent, Frank Bascombe.

I noticed that in each book within your trilogy [The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land] although there is the same narrator there is a slight difference in terms of his narrative tone. Is it hard, number one, to get back to Frank Bascombe after a number of years away from him and is it hard to get into the mentality of it being ten years later and of incorporating all of the changes he has gone through?
Hard? I wouldn’t say it’s hard. That’s the job. For me to be able to write about a character over three distinct periods of his life, that’s the first principle you have to concede to yourself. So, it wasn’t hard, and if it had been harder than it was I would have still done it. It always seems to me from one book to the next that I was just replicating the voice of the previous book but then midway, or certainly after I wrote Independence Day, fairly early on in writing The Lay of the Land, I realized that the sentences were longer, and the sentences were more complex and were holding more, and Frank’s voice as he actually expresses this book, or all three of these books, that becomes the book’s auditory style. And so I knew that they were each different. And that didn’t really bother me at all. It may be that over the course of anyone’s life a person will speak differently to how they spoke earlier, you know? I’m not even sure, to be entered from a more ontological point of view, that a person who’s fifty-five is even the same person he was when he was thirty-nine. We like to say that character carries forward and we are who we always were but I don’t know. There’s lots of analogues in biology for creatures becoming something entirely different from what they were, but we as humans like to say that we are consistent through our lives even if we’re not. I don’t know if when I was nineteen, what makes me have to be the same person, I may be entirely different. So the fact that a character can change in the mode of his utterance over the course of twenty-plus years isn’t upsetting to me.
You decided to have him get cancer. I think, as a writer, the last thing I would want to do is to sit and try to imagine that for a couple of years.
You mean because you would think it would have a bad effect on you?
Yes.
It did have a bad effect on me.
Did it?
Yeah. I mean, I’m hypochondriacal to start with and I had to read a lot about cancer and I became very sensitized to how many people around me had it and were being treated for it and were suffering from it and having their lives changed miserably because of it. It actually did get me down. I’ve always been hypochondriacal and very sensitive to my health but I became even more sensitive to my health. So much so that a year from last August I came around for my usual physical which I do every year at the Mayo Clinic and I just decided, screw it, I’m not going to do it. Because I was so wired up about illness and being ill, I thought that if I went and did all of my blood work and I had something wrong with me I wouldn’t finish my book, that it would derail me in some way, it would make me feel so upset and twisted that I wouldn’t get it done, so I didn’t do it. Which over the long term even contributed more to my hypochondria.
How long did it take you to write this book?
Four years.
And where did you write it?
I started writing it in Montana in a little house I had out there. And then I wrote it in New Orleans in the house that we had then. The rest I wrote in Maine. Yeah. I just, you know, we have lots of places to live and lots of places we can go to stay for periods of time. I can always write anywhere, though. As long as it’s quiet. As long as I’ve got some relaxed time given to me so I can get set up and work. I don’t have to be at some special Vedic mode.
Your books, as far as I know, make up the first literature in which suburbs have been dealt with in a way that was positive. In the past suburbs have only been used as a backdrop to show what’s wrong with America. Was this something that you set out to do on purpose?
Yes. Originally, my wife said to me, try to write about somebody who’s happy. That was my first suggestion. After she said that, I began to think about, well, where could I set a book about somebody who was happy? We were in New Jersey, I was teaching at Princeton then. I thought, well, nobody writes happy things about New Jersey. Nobody writes good things about New Jersey at all. And I thought, well, maybe that would be the thing to do. Write a novel that is affirming about New Jersey because, certainly it would be unusual. And frankly I liked New Jersey. I didn’t fall victim to the bad rap. But then, particularly when I was writing The Lay of the Land, I realized that, whether you live in the suburbs or don’t, we’re always around where the suburbs are. We’re always taking these trips like Frank takes from Sea Cliff up to Asbury Park and you’re driving through a, you know, ex-urban suburb and there are big wide streets. They’re around us all the time, even if you live in the city. It’s part of our environment. And just to always have, as our attitude, this is crap, this is crap, this is crap, this is horrible, this is an eyesore, I hate this. Have it always be your mantra didn’t seem so healthy. And it would be, at least – as a provisional way, not as a final judgment about the suburbs, but as a provisional way – see if I couldn’t generate a vocabulary of affirmation for what was traditionally and conventionally thought of as not affirmable. And, you know, I could have done the traditional thing, written that there’s just a lot of rubbish here. But actually when I wrote it, I thought this is good. I liked it. It was a literary strategy that became sort of a life strategy. That’s generally how things work with me. I write these things out in a book. I try these things out by writing them. You know, Cheever and Yates and Roth, lots of people have taken the piss out of the suburbs, so I just thought, well, I’m going to do something else.
You chose to put this book at the period of 2000, after the election but before we knew who the president was. Why did you choose to do that?
Well, I thought it would be a recognizable time in the life of most Americans. I thought it was a moment that almost begged for a certain type of reflection that no one had done at the time. That it needed to be showcased in essence as a time of a kind of peculiar moral lethargy in the American culture and in the American populace. The consequences of which were at least the Bush Administration and all of the fiascos that have come about because of the Bush Administration, and out of a sense of cultural, institutional and governmental doze comes disaster. Real disaster. I was also wanting to write a book that was political in nature, although not high-dollar political. I wanted it to be about politics in the sense that the things that eventuated after September 2001 were extent in the culture and available to be noticed and witnessed and feared for well before, long before, 2001. But it seemed to me to be a perfectly framing moment in American history. So that’s why I chose it.
Frank calls Clinton “my president.”
Yes. By that he meant, he voted for him both times. And was of his generation and felt a kinship with him and felt, if not his pain, at least he did feel a sense of consonance with Clinton. He’s a flawed man, a man of some aspiration, but having to reconcile himself to who he actually was.
I was thinking when I read that, that there is a lot of comparison between the two.
Yeah.
The general good motives, limitations…
Yeah. And certain flawed character traits. Yeah. Right. I never thought of that myself, but when you say it it sounds right. If I had thought of Frank as being like Clinton, rather than just having Frank claim Clinton, it would have probably spooked me in some way. I wouldn’t have wanted Frank to be suddenly seen as a sort of a Clinton avatar. That wouldn’t have made me very happy.
You’ve said that in general what you most like to write about is not the blow up but what happens after the blow up and how people deal with it. This book I thought also…
Deals with the blow up.
…has the blow up in it. Was that something you wanted to do differently?
I’ve written lots of stories where people get shot or killed. It isn’t that I don’t want to write about the blowup. It’s just that what interests me more is how we as human beings reconcile ourselves to the consequences of our acts. I think that’s where moral life mostly resides. I mean, as human beings, we’re largely capable of anything, it seems to me. Most of us are. But how we perform or don’t perform these acts we’re capable of, how we accommodate the acts into our hearts, how we reconcile the behavior to our sense of ourselves, how in fact those acts play out into the future, that’s what I’m interested in. I think we all spend most of our lives in the “ly” of our acts. On the back side of our larger acts, statements, commitments. We’re living our lives after these things.
Would Frank have been a completely different person if [his son] Ralph hadn’t died?
Well, see, that’s an impossible question for me to answer, because Frank doesn’t have an existence without Ralph dying. All of those things are of one. Frank, whoever he is, is only the man whose son died. There’s no way for me to go behind any of those events. I could have written a book in which Ralph doesn’t die and there is a character named Frank Bascombe, but whether or not he would have been different, I don’t know. I mean, I had to invent something back in 1981 or 82 when I started writing this book, I had to invent something for him to get over. I started writing this book in the aftermath of my mother’s death. I was feeling a lot of the things that anyone would feel. Grief, mourning, loss. And it seemed natural to assign such kinds of feelings to Frank, albeit obviously not about his mother but about his son, and why I made that switch I don’t know, because I felt that I could bring to bear upon his life some of the things that I was feeling. So I thought, you know, you lose a child, you lose a mother, okay, they’re different but, what you feel is the same. Loss.
Could you even, as an exercise, write about Frank before Ralph died, or would he just not be an interesting person?
Sure. Presumably. I mean, yes. I could. I never thought of that. What an interesting thought. It never occurred to me. So I could do that.
I read the books again in preparation to talking to you and, for whatever reason, this time around it really struck me more forcibly the impact Ralph’s death has on each of the events that occurs throughout the three books.
Yeah. Yeah. It’s odd for a man who has no children and has never endured the loss of a child that that loss for Frank so preoccupied me so as to make it preoccupy him. It’s surprising to me that that would be true. That’s interesting though, I’ll have to think about that. People are always asking me in these book signings and readings, are you ever going to write about Frank again, and I always say, no. Because I would have to write about Frank in his sixties and I’m in my sixties and it’s bad enough to be in my sixties but to have to write about Frank in his sixties, I just couldn’t bear that. All the medical situations grown only worse, I don’t think I would want to do that. But to write about Frank in an entirely earlier period in his life…Kind of interesting. But I probably think that my whole sense of Frank, the only real potent sense I have of him is of a man whose son has died.
What are you going to write after this? I heard somewhere that you were thinking about writing a novel that takes place in Canada?
Well, if I write a book at all, it’s only been scarcely two and a half months since I had this book on my desk unfinished, so it’s a little premature to say I will do it, but if I write another book at all, that would be the one I would write. A book about a man who leaves America in the late fifties after being a kind of a terrorist in the right to work movement out in Washington State, and he leaves America because he’s blown up some building, some union hall and killed some people. He goes up to Saskatchewan and he buys a hotel out on the prairie. There are these hotels out there and every so often you’ll come upon a little town that has a hotel in it, and what these hotels have done over the years since the railroads went down, they have become places where people go to rent guides to hunt geese. The book is about this man up in the hotel and two men being dispatched from America to assassinate him.
  • M

    Excellent interview, good thoughtful questions. Thanks.

  • Jim Johnston

    I’m a 60 year old dyslexic writer in my second year of the Unversity of Uvic writing program and seven years ago I had only grade four writing and reading skills.I have to write everyday now. I apprentice great writng skills of Mr. Ford. May all sunrises be bright in front of you and shadows of darkness behind you!

    Sincerely,

    Jim Johnston.

  • Joël Neyt

    Thank you, writers, for this interview! It took some time to find this lively interaction between interviewer-writer, reading the three Frank Bascombe books to prepare himself, great for a writer, and the writer Richard Ford.

    I don’t have much room, just a few bookcases, in my suburban house in the city of Ghent (Europe, Belgium, East-Flanders; still no government in Belgium after more than 150 days following the elections; it does not matter because as a reader my life is now for a while governed by the words of a writer). But these three books about Bascombe are on the shelves forever, after reading them.

    I think Richard Ford is not only a great novelist-story teller about real(ly) sometimes (un)important things but also a great poet (is’nt realtor not implying
    real(i)t(y)or eventually?) that could arrest you to sitting down and thinking.

    As a reader now of The Lay of the Land I have been arrested this saturday evening again by this sentence “This near-silent, for-all-the-world unremarkable moment, I knew, was the fabled moment”.

    But dear Americans I “won’t blubber on” because I still have a lot to read before I should “Meet my Maker”.

    Sincerely yours,

    Joël Neyt

  • paul morgan

    the shooting scene with twin russian boys offing neighbor and wife puzzled me. what caused that to happen?

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