Before Richard Ford published Independence Day, the first novel to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, he twice read its seven hundred pages aloud to his wife, correcting rhythmical miscues and shades of connotation. Such are the lengths to which an author will go so readers meeting his sentences on the page will "think exactly what I imagine they would think."
The son of a traveling salesman, Ford spent much of his youth living in an Arkansas hotel managed by his grandfather. After publishing two modestly successful novels he turned away from literature and tried sportswriting, instead, working for Inside Sports magazine until it ceased publication in 1982. When Sports Illustrated failed to offer a position he turned back to fiction. The result was The Sportswriter, which introduced readers to Frank Bascombe (who would return in Independence Day, and will again in The Lay of the Land). Soon after came Rock Springs, a stunning collection of stories that established Ford's literary reputation.
In Ford's new collection, A Multitude of Sins, he offers ten pieces "about the way people fail each other. Fail themselves, even." From the simple, arresting vision of the collection's opener, "Privacy," to the consequential short novella at its close, "Abyss," the stories dramatize private lives, couples coming together and apart, infidelities of both body and mind.
Richard Ford: Exactly. I wrote "Privacy," "Crèche," and "Quality Time," more or less separately. When I saw what those stories were about - they were beginning to add up - I thought, I think I know what kind of a seam I'm mining here. When other things came along that I could write (I was in a mood to write stories; I didn't want to write a novel) I'd avoid them if they weren't what I thought the collection was going to be about.
Dave: Do you see a shape when you're heading into a collection like this?
Ford: No, I saw an aggregation of stories. After I'd written three, I thought that I would like to write ten. That was as much of a shaping as I saw.
A lot of people have said to me, "These are stories about adultery, aren't they." I never really thought that, and in a sense I prefer not to think it now. I never imagined it that way. Not that I argue that somebody wouldn't house all these stories under a roof like that, but I thought they were about the way people fail each other. Fail themselves, even.
For instance, a story like "Charity" is not about adultery at all. "Privacy" isn't about adultery in any way. "Crèche" is not about adultery. Those stories may contain a reference to an event like that, but I don't think adultery was the enacting event that made them stories.
Dave: If you're going to label any of these as "stories about adultery," "Abyss" would certainly qualify.
Ford: "Abyss" and "Quality Time," both of those.
Dave: And "Abyss," being a longer piece and closing the collection, has more weight than the other stories.
Ford: And intentionally so. As I was writing "Abyss," I saw where it fitted. I thought, This is the concluding chord. Insofar as all of these stories are about the ways that people delude and fail each other, this is the consequence. It's the story of ultimate consequence for all of the other events in the other stories. It's a falling into a kind of spiritual inanition.
Dave: Your characters tend to present themselves in groups of two or three. That's the constellation that seems to work for you. In "Crèche," a larger collection of characters is together in a car. As I was reading, it occurred to me how unusual that is in your fiction.
Ford: Two little girls, a man, a woman, and her mother.
Dave: Right, and it felt crowded to me. It made me stop and realize, Wait a minute, there are more people here all of a sudden. Is keeping the characters isolated a mechanism of control for you?
Ford: No. It's something that's entirely intuitive for me. You're right - that is how I seem to work - but it's not something I'm doing in any kind of self aware way. It may be that I feel most comfortable with those reduced character loads because then I can concentrate in the way that I'm most inclined, on the interior lives versus the surface lives of people.
When people like Tom Wolfe come along and say that nobody's writing about big social themes and nobody's Balzac anymore, nobody's writing big sprawling novels of societal concerns, ebbs and flows, I always think to myself, Gee, that would be really boring to write, wouldn't it? There's somebody out in the world that thinks it would be great, but I'm just not that kind of guy.
What two people do in a room together seems to me to be the beginning of everything - everything familial, everything societal, everything political. Not that I'm trying to radiate out what I do with two people in a room together to the level of larger macropolitical significance, but I do think that's where things start.
Dave: Independence Day is a giant book. It happens to be grounded in one man's life, and our view is restricted to the point where his life intersects with society, but that novel offers a sharp contrast to these stories. The exhaustive nature of that book versus these self contained short pieces.
Ford: The stories are - in their affect, in their concision, in their conception, in how they get at what they get at - different. But that's no big deal, to be able to write stories and novels. You can read both and appreciate them so why wouldn't you be able to write them?
Dave: One of my favorites in this collection is "Reunion."
Ford: That's what I'm going to read tonight.
Dave: It's a very small picture, but it opens up...
Ford: ...much larger lives.
It's funny, but when I think about the stories in Rock Springs, I know, because I've watched it happen, that they've gained a place in the literary intelligence of America - quite shockingly to me. Two or three of those stories get anthologized a lot, so they last. At least they've lasted for twenty years, which is a long time.
I read these stories that I've written in the last two or three years, and they seem so provisional. If I were to read "Communist" [from Rock Springs] to this group tonight, I would think, I know I'm reading a pretty good story and a lot of people have read it, but when I read these stories, I still have that feeling of Is this really a story? When I read this to you, I want to say, "Does this make a story?" That's kind of how I feel about everything I write.
Dave: Is it the story's age? Is it public acceptance? What makes it real?
Ford: It's use. It's the use that a readership can find for a story.
Over time, I have had people at readings and in other circumstances come to me and say they read a story from Rock Springs when they were in high school or in college, and what I mean to say is that I know those people have learned what literature was through the agency of my story. That makes me happy.
These stories, being so fresh, still seem provisional - until a readership finds a use for them. They would probably always seem provisional if a readership didn't find a use for them.
I write stories so people will read them. I take pleasure and take a radiated sense of significance from not so much how much people praise me, but when they say, "I read your story when I was sixteen." "I read your story when I was twenty." I know what that's like. When I was sixteen and twenty I read "I Want to Know Why" by Sherwood Anderson. I read "Indian Camp" by Hemingway. "A Rose for Emily" [by Faulkner]. That's a use I had for them. Those stories stick with me.
Dave: You say you write them to be read, and it's true that your books are a good example of fiction of the highest literary quality that isn't necessarily off-putting to a typical, mainstream reader. There's definitely an intersection. I appreciate that a lot, particularly as a bookseller. There's a certain lack of use for a story that's going to appeal almost exclusively to, say, a postgraduate readership. Which doesn't make it use-less, but...
Ford: ...it's beyond us.
Dave: Right, it doesn't make itself available to most readers. Whereas you do an excellent job of speaking to a large audience without oversimplifying. I read another interview in which you said that you want readers to read your stories and your sentences exactly as you mean them to be read.
Ford: And think exactly what I imagine they would think.
Dave: That seems to me a very difficult task if you don't want to speak to a lowest common denominator.
Ford: The truth of it is, I think it's just my nature.
I've been reading Libra [by Don Delillo]. A few weeks ago I read Atonement by Ian McEwan. They're not alike, these two books, but they are wonderful books. Libra is a spectacularly smart book, and Atonement is, too. But I was on the plane with a guy today who was a doctor who loved to read. He was reading a Baldacci book. He said, "What are you reading?" I said, "Libra." He said, "Is it a good book?" I said, "It's a really good book." And I thought to myself, If you read this book, you'll stop on page five. And if you read Atonement, you'll stop on page five. Now, I'm dying to read Libra - I haven't read it before. But I don't want people to do that with my books.
It has to do, in my mind, with the fact that writing for me is me working at the top of my abilities - because normally I think I'm right down in the warp and woof of ordinary life. Whereas I think a guy like Don is a real intellectual, and in order to make a book of his be as accessible as a book might be, he would have to do something he can't do. I don't want him to do it. I want him to write the books that he's writing. But for that doctor from Escanaba, Michigan, to read Libra, something is going to have to happen that simply isn't going to happen. I don't think that devalues Don's book at all.
Dave: He's writing in his natural voice.
Ford: That's right. Me, I'm always reaching up. Delillo, to do the same kind of thing, would have to reach down a little bit. And there's no reason for him to do that.
He's going to want to work at the top of his abilities just like I do. It just so happens that at the top of his abilities he's a little bit out of the reach of that doctor, whereas I think at the top of my abilities I could maybe reach the doctor and also reach some guy who teaches literature at Yale.
I remember one time R.W.B. Lewis told me he was teaching The Sportswriter at the end of his year-long course in the American novel. I thought to myself, Son of a bitch! How did I get in there with Dreiser and all those others?
Dave: But I would argue - and I think on another day you might play devil's advocate and argue, too - that your books, in some ways, are as distinctly as American as anyone's. They cover an incredible range of geography, for one thing. And the people are distinctly American. I remember when Women With Men came out no one seemed to talk about the content at first; it was, Two of the stories aren't set in America!
Ford: But those were American stories. Irrespective of what the mise-en-scène was, they were about taking Americans to a place where their moral qualities showed up in high relief.
Dave: There's a line in "Charity," I don't know exactly why this one in particular stood out for me, but it seemed to be exactly the kind of sentence that teachers would use as an example of building scene and setting without diverting narrative momentum.
While Tom was talking (he seemed to go on and on and on), she was actually experiencing a peculiar sense of weightlessness and near disembodiment, as though she could see herself listening to Tom from a comfortable but slightly dizzying position high up around the red, scrolly, Chinese-looking crown molding.
The way that detail about the crown molding slips in at the end...it's very efficient, a subtle means of building scene from interior monologue, and it reads as if it's completely natural.
Ford: It means to try to be. That's what I aspire to.
As a reader, I like to go into literatures that seemed stylized, highly contrived, full of artifice. Libra has a wonderfully stylized structure. It has a wonderfully stylized diction. I love that. When I was young and I tried to do that, however, I could do something that was analog, but it didn't in essence allow me to channel all that I really knew. So I had to find a way of writing that actually took full advantage of who I was as a contributor to my own stories.
I haven't read the review yet that's in this coming Sunday's Times, but apparently somebody [Colson Whitehead] took me to task for the very thing I want to do.
Dave: Which is?
Ford: To make all the words count, and to put the words in the right order. I don't want to be e.e. cummings. I don't want to be interesting because all of the words are in the wrong order. I want to be interesting because all the words are in the order that I think make sense to the reader. And at the same time not sacrifice complexity, not sacrifice good sense, not sacrifice felicity, not sacrifice intelligence.
Dave: I had a chance over the holidays to read The Sportswriter and Independence Day back to back. Obviously, Frank Bascombe's career change is integral to the person he has become by the time we meet him in the second book, but elsewhere in your fiction as well, more than in most authors' work, your characters generally grow out of their vocations.
Ford: That's absolutely the truth. Characters to me, the ones I write, aren't persuasive till I can postulate what they do for a living.
I'm sure that comes out of being from a family of working people. Being told all my life about what this guy did for a living and that guy did for a living, how he made his money, what he did before, what his aspirations were. That for me was the thing that made a person have a kind of anchorage into something other than the fluff of life.
Dave: How important was it to understand that Frank Bascombe was a real estate agent while you were contemplating a sequel to The Sportswriter?
Ford: It was only important in this way: I knew that I had to affect a change in his life from the first time I knew him, and I had to find something he could be doing that was plausible and that wouldn't require him to go back to college or become somebody radically different.
To have him be a realtor, at least when I broached the subject, was a convenience. I knew some things about real estate, and very much like any writer sitting in his workroom, I thought, Oh, I know. I can make him be a realtor. And you think, Yeah, that's good. You say it, and you feel it filtering into your brain without any details immediately presenting themselves. The decision says to you, Do that. Only later did it open up the possibilities to all of the speculation about national life, about the spirit of a community relying on its property values, all of those things I hadn't any way to anticipate.
Consequently, when I began this third book called The Lay of the Land, I asked, What could I make Frank be next? And I finally decided that he can be a realtor. It seemed to me to be both plausible and to give rise to new speculative developments of his character. Obviously you can't have him go back and do the same kinds of things - he has to have a whole different orientation to life, which is not difficult to do, really - but it wasn't broke in the last book, so I think I don't have to fix that.
Dave: What's the motivation for going back to his character rather than starting fresh with someone else?
Ford: A Multitude of Sins and Women with Men were extremely demanding books for me to write. They took me into styles of writing, into formal decisions, into subjects that I had never really thought to write about. Settings for books I'd never thought of making mine. They were, in every way, excursions.
To write about Frank again is truly one of the pleasurable things I've gotten out of writing - that is to say, palpably pleasurable - so I'm writing about Frank as a gift to myself. I think it would be fun to write about him again and to see what my imagination can turn up for him. Who knows? Maybe I can't do it. It's always a possibility. Because you can write two doesn't guarantee that you can write three. If I can't, that'll be okay.
Dave: Will Frank be in New Jersey again?
Ford: On the shore this time. Married, I think. Have left Haddam. This is much more involved with his daughter, Clarissa. Taking place on Thanksgiving in the year 2000.
Dave: A holiday again.
Ford: I gotta do holidays. They offer me so much. In particular, for me and the reader, a whole set of associations. If you write about Easter, if you write about the Fourth of July, something as important, almost invisibly important, as the temporal setting of a book...if the reader can say, "Gee, that's a time I know. I have a whole set of memories and associations to bring to bear on whatever's happening then," you've got a lot going for you.
Dave: I was once driving down the Natchez Trace Parkway in the pouring rain...
Ford: From where to where? Nashville to Jackson?
Dave: Driving toward Jackson, heading south. A gorgeous road. An old blue Toyota had been left in the mud at the edge of a field bordering the road. When I passed, it was pouring rain, and a goat was standing on the Toyota's roof, just watching highway traffic speed by.
Ford: It had probably been there a long time. For that goat to get on top of that roof signifies a certain indifference to the Toyota.
Dave: It's a colorful place.
Ford: Most of Mississippi isn't as park-like as that part of the state. The Trace goes from Jackson up to the Alabama border. It goes through the eastern part of Mississippi, which is quite pretty, but the heart of Mississippi for me is the Delta, where it's all flat, looks like Egypt. It's quite spectacular and dramatic. Verdant. Dramatic in the sense of seeming to hold something within. Full of conflict.
Dave: Do you find that drama in places you've lived more recently?
Ford: I don't know. The drama that I, in a sensate way, feel to be in the Delta comes from history and comes from my particular position on that landscape. I wouldn't try to write about it. It wouldn't even occur to me to write that. But as regards other kinds of landscapes, I generally don't feel that landscapes contain consequential drama. I think they can be made to hold it if what characters do in the foreground of them is dramatic. But for me, landscape is like looking at a postcard. It isn't romantic. It isn't imminent to me. It's inert.
Dave: Would you say that a story like "Communist" could be set anywhere? I can't think of anything that makes it distinctly a Montana story.
Ford: It could have been in Nebraska
Dave: Those characters are representative of how many people think of your work, certainly your older work. Richard Ford characters, Richard Ford settings.
Ford: Those are everyman characters. I was always kind of sorry that I got billed for a while as a Western writer, but it was a mixed blessing, obviously. I was just a guy doing what came naturally in the place and the moment I had to do it. I knew I was going to move on. I wasn't going to leave that work behind, but at the same time I didn't want that to be the signature of what I was doing. I knew I'd try to do something else. But if instead of moving to Montana Kristina and I had moved to North Dakota, or anyplace, I would have written stories that would have drawn on the landscape as much as those stories did, without trying to sum it up.
Dave: You went to the same elementary school as Eudora Welty, years and years apart.
Ford: Thirty-five years apart.
Dave: How did you meet her?
Ford: I met her at Princeton when I was teaching there in 1979. She came to read at Princeton. I had published at that time one book, and kind of thought she probably had known about it - and, because it was kind of a dirty book set in the South, hadn't liked it. I met her when she came to visit, and I said, "Hi, Miss Welty. I'm Richard Ford. I'm from Jackson." And she said, "Oh, really." That was all she really ever said to me then. Kind of shook my timbers a little bit. Oh yeah, geez, I wish I could write a book that Eudora Welty would like.
I guess maybe we had very small contact after that. I published another book and she never wrote me a letter. I kind of always thought she would, in a way. But when The Sportswriter was published I did a signing at Lemuria, in Jackson. I was sitting there behind my little table, and all of my old neighbors were coming by, being nice to me. Nobody else was coming by. Suddenly I looked up and there was Eudora. She'd driven over to the bookstore. She had a deep voice - and I'm making her sound more imperious than she was; she was very sweet - but she said, "Well, I just had to come pay my respects." And it was, I don't know, just a wonderful moment to think that she had any respect to pay!
After that, in the years after - that was '86, I guess - we got to be quite good friends, and I became her literary executor.
Dave: Do you enjoy the editing projects for Granta and the rest?
Ford: I really do. They're away from my own work. They allow me to do a lot of reading, which I might not have done. And they allow me to do something for other people. A life like mine, in which I don't teach and spend most of my time doing my own work or nothing at all, I don't do very much for people. I don't have a sense that I'm a big contributor to the lives of others, and since I care almost exclusively, in a vocational sense, about literature, it gives me a chance to do something for my colleagues' work.
Dave: Right now you're working on The Lay of the Land?
Ford: I am this day working on the book.
Dave: You work while you're on tour?
Ford: Yeah, it's really fun. It's nice to be on an airplane and write. Somehow you get in those public conveyances and all other stimulus goes away. Unless somebody's sitting in front of me talking too loud, I can just work and work and work. I did today, and I'm sure I will tomorrow.
I first encountered Richard Ford's fiction during my senior year of college when my Lit professor played a recording of William Hurt reading "Communist." For years afterward, I read Ford's stories and novels with the actor's voice in my head. In fact (no surprise, really), Ford speaks with a soft, Southern lilt, nothing at all like the star of Body Heat and The Accidental Tourist.
Mr. Ford visited Powell's City of Books on February 28, 2002. He read two stories: John Cheever's "Reunion," then the story of the same title from his new collection.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State