ArtsATL > Books > Q&A: Novelist Richard Ford on telling his American tales of loss and place

Q&A: Novelist Richard Ford on telling his American tales of loss and place

New York is Richard Ford’s latest home. At 68, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer has a new job as a professor of creative writing at Columbia University. A year before, he was teaching at Ole Miss, in the relative vicinity of his birthplace, Jackson, Mississippi.

A string of places across the country, from California to New Orleans to Maine, have been home to Ford and his wife over the decades, and a number of them have made it into novels and stories that tell a singularly American story of people trying to keep their lives together in a rootless society.

Richard Ford

Ford’s most prominent works arise from two fictional territories he has settled on opposite sides of the country: rugged Montana and leafy, suburban New Jersey. For him, each appears to embody a distinct stage in the life of a man. The vast Great Plains ground his stellar collection of short stories Rock Springs (1987), the subsequent short novel Wildlife (1990) and his latest book, Canada (2012). It’s a place for unhappy families, for people with little to get by on in a harsh climate except a hopeful spirit and some inner wisdom. The novels and some of the stories circulate specifically around the oil and Air Force town of Great Falls, Montana, circa 1960, which gains a totemic power in Ford’s Western fiction, as does the character of the adolescent boy who loses one or both parents to divorce, imprisonment or death and scrambles to find his footing in the world.

Ford lost his own father when he was 16, “a crucial time,” he has said, after which he was left to his own devices. A similar fate befalls 15-year-old Dell Parsons in Canada, required to fend for himself after his parents are imprisoned for a bank robbery his foolhardy father initiates. (Reckless behavior and grandiose gestures, in Ford’s world, are the fast track to ruin.) Like Ford’s other youthful heroes, Dell succumbs only briefly to grief, then determines to save himself by keeping a level head and constructing a life of simple routines that brings him some comfort.

New Jersey’s more congested, domesticated civilization is the terrain of Ford’s Bascombe Trilogy, written over two decades: the highly celebrated The Sportswriter (1986), the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Independence Day (1995) and the less well-received Lay of the Land (2006). Frank Bascombe, a failed novelist turned sportswriter turned real estate agent, is introduced in the first book as a divorced sports journalist in his late 30s, mourning the death of a son and the demise of his marriage due to his infidelity. In the final installment, he is a senior citizen battling prostate cancer and coming to grips with what his mistakes and efforts have yielded.

The specter of loss keeps Frank company, as it does Ford’s lonesome teenagers on the prairie. It is the one phenomenon that connects his writing across space. What’s pleasurable in Ford is the density of place and character details — towns, routes, settlements, landscapes, physical appearance — counterbalanced by the musings of his protagonists, their ideas about life, their reflections, their estimation of things, their thoughts about the right thing or necessary thing to do that sometimes stops you in your tracks.

Ford, who recently visited Ivy Hall, the writing center for the Savannah College of Art and Design, spoke with us from his office at Columbia University.

ArtsATL: Whenever you have a book out, I’m always interested in it. I think what really appeals to me about your writing is the tone. It’s suffused with a sense of loss and loneliness. It’s reflective. Not just the tone of Canada, but of almost all your work, going back to the stories in Rock Springs, which I read about 25 years ago and still stands out in my mind for the way it sounded. When you’re beginning a book, what kind of mood are you in? Is there a particular feeling you experience that conveys this nostalgic quality?

Richard Ford: I take about a year planning a book. I accumulate a lot of information and put it into a big, slightly organized notebook. My attitude toward the information as it’s beginning to coalesce is probably the one instinctual grasp I have on the material. Another writer could come along and look at the same accumulation of material and have a very different take on it.

My attitude toward all the material that went into Canada was somewhat melancholy. The material seemed to bring it out of me. And it’s not just tonal, it’s not just how the novel sounds; it also bespeaks some of the strategies for winkling intelligence out of the material, for finding ways for Dell to analyze, to record thoughts, to react to events. Tone is kind of a medium for all of the intellectual aspects of the book. 

ArtsATL: What does your year of preparation entail? You’ve said you don’t do much historical research.

Ford: I’m not doing much historical preparation. My novel [“Canada”] is set in 1960. A great deal of what went on in 1960 I can remember. But I did do a little search around for the signal events — I think it was an election year, and a couple of years before the Seattle Space Needle was finished. I was sort of aware of those things.

But by and large what I’m putting together is not historical research, it’s just raw material I would like to see go in some book. Descriptions of landscapes, or the rudiments of a character who turns out to be in the book — Charley Quarters [a nefarious character]. The fact that I’m going to want to describe a bank robbery, that I’m going to want to describe a murder.

I’m thinking in both large and small terms and just accumulating material ahead of time. Where in Great Falls does this take place? Where is the jail in Great Falls? How do you get from that place to the jail? All that kind of stuff, as well as more intellectual issues like borders and boundaries. I’m talking about what difference the conception of Canada itself makes to the book. I’m just putting it all down.

Canada HCArtsATL: Does this require your going to the place, or is it purely imaginative description?

Ford: Definitely going there. Certainly the road, Highway 32, along which Dell travels from Partreau to Fort Royal and then from Partreau to the west, is a road that I had to go on many, many times. I never went to Creekmore, North Dakota, because there is no Creekmore, North Dakota. But I have been across the border from Weebo, Montana, into that part of North Dakota, so I know what that looks like. There is a good bit of taking my tape recorder and getting in a rental car and driving all around the places where my book takes place.

The connective tissues are purely imaginative: how one thing that I know is going to go into the book can be connected to something else that is going to go into the book. Normally, connective tissues follow one kind or another of traditional logic — either these things follow each other in time or they occupy the same general locality in space. Or there’s a kind of intellectual connective tissue in which an idea or a word recurs.

ArtsATL: Is there a particular word you were thinking of in Canada?

Ford: Oh, the word “borders.” The word “Canada” itself. The word “abandonment.” I’m so practiced at it by the time I get around to actually writing the book that these kinds of recurrences come up seemingly naturally. It’s all a matter of getting yourself completely immersed.

ArtsATL: As an older man, Parsons revisits the remote little towns he took refuge in as a boy and says there’s nothing left of them. So were towns like Partreau, Saskatchewan, purely your invention?

Ford: Partreau has a prototype in a town called Port Rieve that’s out on Highway 32. I once had to stay in a little shack like Dell lived in when I was going goose hunting. I’ve got some snapshots from the ’80s. I thought, I have to put this in a book. This is just too romantic. It’s gothic. It’s too weird, it’s too good.

ArtsATL: You’ve lived a very different life than a writer who knows one territory intimately, the classic examples being Faulkner in Mississippi or John Cheever in the New York suburbs. I admire the way you’ve been transplanted into so many different communities and been able to make them your own imaginatively. How do you manage to assume that authorial role in a new place rather than just feel like an outsider looking in?

Ford: There are different accommodative strategies. One is to write about people who are doing something like you’ve described, who need to place themselves in a location where they would otherwise not seem to fit. That’s one thing I’ve done a lot. The other thing is to realize that I’m actually not writing about those places. I’m only appropriating some of the qualities of those places to use as a background for what the principals in my book, the characters, are doing in the foreground.

What that causes me to do as a consequence is to champion the work rather than worrying about trying to accurately champion the places themselves. Places in America, OK: same government, same language, same currency. Many places in America, with the exception of New Orleans, are basically similar. With the American diaspora, people come from all locations. So you can be fairly free in relying on your own instincts and experience, and believe that it’ll apply.

ArtsATL: Conversely, a lot of your writing does seem to be about the place. In Independence Day, there’s a good deal of sociological description about the town of Haddam, New Jersey — which side of town black people live in, which part is wealthy and so forth. There’s also a lot of attention to the landscape and settlements in Canada, so again place becomes a strong character in the book.

Ford: In a way, I violate my own rules. My rule is — and it’s stated quite explicitly in Independence Day — “place means nothing.” But in the pursuit of trying to make these books interesting, I end up getting interested in the places themselves.

ArtsATL: I found it interesting that real estate as a business is central to the second two Bascombe books. Frank Bascombe has gone from being a sportswriter to a New Jersey realtor. I can’t think of any other fiction where real estate figures so prominently, though it’s central to our economy and central to the American dream: the house with the white picket fence.

Ford: I just got lucky there. I was trying to figure out a new profession for Frank — this was back in the early ’90s. I didn’t choose real estate because I thought it was going to be sort of a petri dish for American society; it just turned out that way. I thought it was a plausible vocation that I knew a lot about, since I’d lived all over the country. But I found that talking about real estate invited me to talk about wider societal [issues].

ArtsATL: Is it a subject you might want to mine again?

Ford: I’m writing a story right now that Frank Bascombe narrates. I thought I would never, ever do that again. It might be slightly longer than a short story — it might be, I don’t know, 30,000 words. It’s really more about Hurricane Sandy than it is about anything I’ve written before. It’s about Frank going down to the shore and seeing the devastation. Someone he sold a house to has invited him to come down to give him some advice about what he should do with this house that’s no longer a house. It’s just been blown off of its pins.

ArtsATL: When you move to new place, do you immediately start thinking of its fictional possibilities and looking at what you can do with it? Or does it take awhile for a place to percolate into your imagination?

Ford: Both of those are true. And I started writing about Great Falls long before I’d ever been to Great Falls. The reason I started writing about New Jersey was I didn’t know where to set a book. I’d lived in New Jersey at that point for several years, so I thought, “Well, you know a lot about New Jersey. Put your book where you know something.”

But I wouldn’t feel too constrained about it. If for some reason I wanted to set a novel in London or I wanted to set a novel in Prague, I would probably give it a whack.

ArtsATL: I think of you as being involved in the old-fashioned enterprise of writing a novel to impart some wisdom or life lesson to the reader through the story of your characters. At the end of your books, your protagonists are often ruminating over their experiences. In Canada, Parsons says we need to see the things in front of us, because that’s really what life is, don’t look for hidden meanings. I found that helpful, it was something I needed to hear, because often I get so caught up in things I’m busy with, I don’t see the important things that are square in front of me.

Ford: I think that’s what I’ve drawn from books myself. When I’ve read again and again the books I have loved, that’s what I’ve liked. I’ve always gone to books for wisdom. If I can engage that in myself, if I can make my books speak to the reader in those ways, then I’m willing to do it. If I don’t, who will? If I know something, I should tell what I know.

ArtsATL: Is it too much to say that for you, then, writing is a philosophical enterprise?

Ford: You hate to say your books are philosophical, because it will probably drive readers away. But the books that I have liked in my life have always been books that seemed to engage the reader in practical philosophical issues: matters of life and death, how people love each other, how they fail to love each other. They try their best to say something useful.

ArtsATL: Is there a particular book you have in mind?

Ford: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. It’s a great book. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Something Happened by Joseph Heller. A couple of books by Joan Didion.

ArtsATL: You now teach at Columbia University, where I studied fiction writing many years ago and the dictum was “show, don’t tell.” This principle has been running through American writing for many decades, the idea that concrete action is what pulls the reader along. But in your novels —

Ford: There’s plenty of telling. I don’t even make the distinction between showing and telling. I think it’s all telling. Henry James would agree with me. Sometimes you tell it in scenes; sometimes you tell it in narrative; sometimes you tell it in interior writing. You tell it in all kinds of ways.

I try to get away from that binary way of thinking about fiction so that it will free the writer to write whatever way she or he wants to, including myself. I’m not thinking, “Gee, am I showing enough here? Maybe I should be telling less.” But I do think, at the same time, I hang pretty close to the concrete. Most of my books are about things that point from the page to the world in a fairly faithful way.

ArtsATL: I was reading E.M. Forster’s book about the novel, in which he says if you only describe what Queen Victoria did, you have written history. But if you enter her mind, you are writing a novel. You’re imagining the inner life.

Ford: Which we don’t even know if people have. It seems metaphorical to me. I don’t know if I have an interior life. I know a lot of things I don’t say. Does that mean I have an interior life? I don’t know.

ArtsATL: In The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe says that the reason he failed as a novelist was because he couldn’t imagine what another person thought or felt. He says not knowing what another thinks is the point at which great novelists like Tolstoy and Eliot let their imaginations soar. Is this your view of great writing?

Ford: It’s not my view about writing. I think what makes George Eliot and Tolstoy wonderful writers might include things like that, but it’s a great deal more complicated than that and in a way more lenient than that. It allows for strengths and weaknesses in other writers and in themselves. Frank brings it down to a failure of his imagination, which I was trying to imply was a failure of interest.

ArtsATL: When I think of “How would this person feel?,” I think of what I would do in that situation.

Ford: I do something different than that. I don’t think about what I would do. I think about what’s humanly possible, whether I would do it or not. And I often violate things that I would do, particularly with Frank Bascombe.

ArtsATL: So he’s not a projection of you?

Ford: No, he’s quite the opposite. He’s a much nicer man than I am.

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