Interviews

Richard Ford, The Art of Fiction No. 147

Interviewed by Bonnie Lyons

When Richard Ford’s first novel, A Piece of My Heart, was published in 1976, he appeared to be a gifted novelist much indebted to William Faulkner. Since then his novels, including The Ultimate Good Luck and Wildlife, and his much acclaimed collection of short stories, Rock Springs, have proved him a much less predictable writer and one harder to categorize. His single volume of stories has established him as a master of the genre. His most recent novel, Independence Day, which brought back Frank Bascombe from The Sportswriter, now as a harassed real-estate agent, was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and Pen/Faulkner Award for fiction for 1995, the only book ever so awarded. In Frank Bascombe, Ford has created one of the most complex and memorable characters of our time, and the novel itself is a nuanced, often hilarious portrait of contemporary American life. Independence Day has been called “the definitive novel of the postwar generation,” and Ford himself has been hailed as “one of the finest curators of the great American living museum.” In setting, types of characters, plots, point of view and, most importantly, in ever broadening sympathy, Ford has, as he remarks in this interview, consciously kept moving on.

The following interview took place on a warm breezy July day in a large seaside house Ford sometimes rents outside of Jamestown, Rhode Island. Dressed in khakis and loose blue shirt, Ford seemed relaxed as he enjoyed the beautiful weather on the large veranda surrounding the house, where the interview began. We soon moved indoors, where the breeze from the open windows kept us pleasantly cool. He answered questions slowly and thoughtfully but without any evident selfconsciousness about word choices. Although originally reluctant to be interviewed, Ford was genuinely cordial and unhurried (although we spoke for more than three hours), and when I thanked him at the end he said he preferred to see the afternoon as a “literary conversation” rather than as an interview. Ford took obvious pleasure in his rented house, which had a view across high grass to the sea (though he warned of deer ticks and the danger of Lyme disease). Later he said he was thinking of offering to buy the property, and that one of his greatest regrets was selling his house in Mississippi. Frank Bascombe the real estate agent did not seem far away.

 

INTERVIEWER

Is there any one aspect of fiction that is particularly central to you?

RICHARD FORD

These days, when I’m writing every morning and afternoon, the distinctions among such fictive concerns as narrative strategy, story, character, and dramatic structure don’t seem very isolable. I’m always interested in words, and no matter what I’m doing—describing a character or a landscape or writing a line of dialogue—I’m moved, though not utterly commanded by an interest in the sound and rhythm of the words, in addition, I ought to say, to what the words actually denote. Most writers are probably like that, don’t you think? Sometimes I’ll write a sentence that sets up an opportunity for say, a direct object or predicate adjective and I won’t have a clue what the word is except that I know what I don’t want—the conventional word: the night grew dark. I don’t want dark. I might, though, want a word that has four syllables and a long a sound in it. Maybe it’ll mean dark, or maybe it’ll take a new direction. I’ll have some kind of inchoate metrical model in my mind. One of the ways sentences can surprise their maker, please their reader, and uncover something new is that they get to the sense they make by other than ordinary logical means.

INTERVIEWER

You’re unusually sound-oriented for a fiction writer.

FORD

I don’t exactly know why that is, but probably it was just the way I could do it. And even though I may be “sound-oriented,” I’m not sure that shows up in the sentences I write in ways the reader would necessarily notice.

INTERVIEWER

Does your concern for language and especially for sound lead you to poetry?

FORD

I’d love to be able to write poetry, but I think if I ever brought my attention down to that meticulous level of utterance, I’d never be able to ratchet it back up to the wider level of reference that, for me, fiction requires. Quite a few of my teacher and writer friends have been poets over the years: Donald Hall, James McMichael, Michael Ryan, Larry Raab, Dan Halpern, C. K. Williams.

INTERVIEWER

Putting aside the sound of language, how important is the development of character to you?

FORD

Well, we wouldn’t have moral dilemmas and conflicts without them. But when I started trying to write, inventing characters was sort of hard for me. I’d thought about characters first from having read the practical criticism of E. M. Forster and Henry James and Percy Lubbock, who all talked about characters that were, in the first place, already written—and mostly written under the influence of nineteenth-century ideas of what human character was. Character seemed to me, therefore, a rather fixed quotient. Forster did say in Aspects of the Novel that characters ought to have the “incalculability of life.” But I didn’t find his own characters to be that way. Maybe I was naive. Let’s say I was naive. But they seemed, say in A Passage to India, pretty hard-sided, pretty strictly representative of their class or gender or religion. I, on the other hand, already had a personal experience of character—mine and others—which definitely stressed the incalculable, the obscure, the unpredictable. I’m not sure the word character ever came up in my childhood family life—except that so-and-so was “a character.” Plus, my family was given to explain almost nothing about people. People just were the mysterious sum of their actions. So, from a shortage of information, I was already making people up long before I became a writer—actual people—doing it just to make them seem more knowable.

Today I think of characters—actual and literary characters— as being rather unfixed. I think of them as changeable, provisional, unpredictable, decidedly unwhole. Partly this owes to the act of writing characters and of succeeding somewhat in making them seem believable and morally provoking. As I write them they are provisional, changeable, and so forth, right on through and beyond the process of being made. I can change them at will, and do. For instance, I can come upon an adjective that seems to have nothing to do with the person I thought I was inventing—an important adjective—good or bad, for instance, and I can use it and see where it takes me. I can also erase it—maybe I’ve convinced myself that we make ourselves up pretty much the way I make characters up in books. But this is the development of character, in my view; not the setting out of something fixed, which is how I thought of them when I was beginning. Maybe this view deviates from the conventional view of character. Maybe I’m guilty of writing deviant characters. But I don’t think so. Of course not, right?

INTERVIEWER

Well, don’t you think people have characters?

FORD

I certainly think we have histories. And based on them we can purport to have characters—invent or allege character, in a sense. And sometimes histories predict what people will do. Though often not. But character is just one of those human pseudoessences that is often used detrimentally. Certainly a lot of modern fiction derives its drama from the conflict between assumed character and some specific action that deviates from it.

But let me give you another kind of example of what I’m talking about. I was working on a scene in which a man goes over to a woman’s house—a woman he’s sort of in love with. All along I’ve been thinking that one of the things that’ll happen in this scene will be that she’ll cut him loose, because earlier she’s seemed uncertain about him. In my plan, she’s going to say to him that their relationship is heading nowhere and she wants something better, and she’s not married to him so why should she go on with somebody who doesn’t satisfy her. But I get to the part of the scene in which I have her start to tell him the preliminary things that are going to eventuate in her saying that they aren’t going to be lovers anymore. And she says, You know, I was driving back from New York today and I was just thinking about you. I knew you were going to be here, and I knew we would have dinner. And I’m writing along and it suddenly seems right for her to say, And I thought what a sweet man you are—which is what I write. He’s listening, and he says, I try to be a sweet man. But what? And she says (I have her say), But nothing. What happened at that moment was that it occurred to me that she not fall into this track that I’d predicted for her—into the form of her character that I’d devised. Based on how the scene felt I completely switched the dynamics. What happens next is that he—not she—tries his best to get out of their relationship as quickly and smoothly as possible. Which, for a couple of hundred pages, he does. But have you ever had to call somebody on the phone, somebody you wanted to get rid of, only you end up doing nothing but getting yourself in more deeply? Now that’s something about life that interests me. That’s incalculability, if on a small scale—how we cope with contingency in ourselves but try still to accept responsibility for our acts. You can say, of course, that in this situation my “character” or the woman’s character in my book is simply irresolute. That’s my, or her, character. But then we may not do it that way the next time. So, you’re left with a somewhat defective concept.

INTERVIEWER

Do you start off with the end in mind?

FORD

I certainly think about it a lot before I start, and I like to have some clear idea of my destination. But I eventually get to the point in my planning at which I begin to feel I’m sacrificing useful time that I could be using to write by holding off until I can figure out what the ending is going to be. Then I think to myself, Well, start. Start. Start. As I write, I, of course, think about these things more. Don DeLillo said, “Writing is a concentrated form of thinking”—thinking, I assume, about the things that you sense are important and that could or will find their way into your book—including where it’ll end.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have the title for Independence Day when you started writing it?

FORD

That was nearly the first thing I did have. The word independence had some important-seeming appeal for me, a kind of attractive density, and I wanted to know what the constituents of that appeal were, what I could invent based on that sensation. In this case I ended up trying to figure out a lot about human independence, and so the Fourth of July just seemed a good time to set it. I like setting stories on holidays. The reader will be more likely to have a set of personal, vivid memories I can engage—that is, if I’m any good.

INTERVIEWER

During the course of your career, has the way you work changed?

FORD

My first book was about the South and was captivated by certain traditional Southern themes—search for place, freedom of choice, s-e-x—all inherited literary concerns. And it was also probably directly influenced by Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor and God knows who else Southern. But during that time—the seventies—I was also reading a great deal of what are now rather drearily called postmodernist stories and essays. Their formal concern with language—words and phrases and sentences simply as sources of sound or as spatial objects or sometimes as nonsense—made me recognize that my own attraction to and reasonably sensitive ear for language was an even larger virtue than I already thought. As I said, ideas are things I’m interested in, whether I’m any good at negotiating them or not. But the most palpable urge on the level of moment-to-moment writing is following intuition as expressed in language—words. Of course, unlike some of the so-called postmodernists, for me language is finally put to the service of what I judge to be something larger—human concerns such as affection or family ties or independence. William Gass’s rather French idea of interest being in the pane of glass as much as in what you see through the glass is very powerful to me. But I’m also mightily interested in what you see when you look outside.

INTERVIEWER

Aside from length, is there any difference between writing a novel and writing short stories?

FORD

Novels are a lot harder to write. Long ones, anyway.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

FORD

Because they hold so much more stuff, and the stuff all has to be related and make one whole—at least the way I do it. And from my experience with writing both, I do think writing a long novel is just a larger human effort than writing a book of short stories—assuming that both are good. I used to say that a novel was a more important, a grander literary gesture than a story. And when Ray Carver would hear me say that he’d vigorously disagree, and then I’d always cave in. But he’s gone now, and the fun’s gone out of that argument. I don’t care, to tell you the truth. Is a week in bounteous Paris more important than twenty-four hours in somewhat less majestic Chinook, Montana, if in Chinook your life changes forever? If it is for you, it is; if it isn’t, well? Forms of literature don’t compete. They don’t have to compete. We can have it all.

INTERVIEWER

When something comes to you, do you know whether it’s going to be a short story or a novel?

FORD

That’s a decision I make before I start to write. Somewhere in the mulch of my thinking, the material I’m attracted to and the selection of a form it might find come together almost preconsciously; so that by the time I’m thinking to myself, Write this and then this and then this, I’m already supposing I want to write a novel or a novella or a story.

INTERVIEWER

You said that when you began writing stories you weren’t good at it. How did your stories go from bad to good? Practice? Breakthroughs?

FORD

Not practice. I actually gave up writing stories for a time because I couldn’t do it and couldn’t get better and didn’t see any use in just beating my head against them. So, I started writing a novel. I had been trying to write stories under the influence of Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, William Gass—all writers whose work I still greatly admire. But my instincts, I guess, weren’t particularly well served by those narrative practices and conceits. So when I quit trying to write that way I sort of reverted to the more traditional, realistic fiction that suited what I could do. I, of course, had grown up thinking that what Faulkner and Eudora Welty wrote was what literature was. I remember very well that when we got married in 1968, Kristina gave me The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor. It was the first book she’d ever given me. Then when I got to Irvine as a graduate student my teachers—Oakley Hall and E. L. Doctorow—were moving me back in the direction of more realistic stories. I read all of Cheever and Richard Yates and Bellow and Roth. Plus Babel. Plus Chekhov. Later on, when I started reading my contemporaries—Ray Carver, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, Ann Beattie, and others—I thought, Here are story forms that provide the opportunity for me to write the kinds of things that I know and am ready to put in stories. I think I was very encouraged by the good work of my contemporaries, which is what good work should do. It shouldn’t make you feel intimidated. By the time my first decent stories started to get published in Esquire, I had already written two novels. I wrote the first story in Rock Springs in the spring of 1980 in New York. Another thing that encouraged me to write stories was that people were asking me to give readings and I wanted to read new work. I wrote my little story “Sweethearts” because Dan Halpern asked me to read for the benefit of Columbia magazine and I didn’t have a new story, so I wrote that in just one sitting—as usual— at a table in a rented house. In Princeton—a story set in Montana. Basically I just wrote one short story a year so that I had something new to read.

INTERVIEWER

What about editing?

FORD

I’ve always had a lot of editing done on every book except the second one, The Ultimate Good Luck, which Donald Hall read when it was written in the first person. We met in New York, in that little Irish bar next to the Algonquin, and he told me there that it wasn’t any good. That was a horrible moment. We’d come into this little dark gloomy bar and Donald put his hands on the table, looked at me, and said, I don’t like your book. Whooh! You just have to take a deep breath and suck it up. I said, OK, OK, tell me what you can tell me. He told me all the things he didn’t like about it and moreover told me he didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with it because it just wasn’t any good this way.

INTERVIEWER

And what was the fate of that book?

FORD

I took it back, and I changed the point of view from first to third, and it got published, though not many people read it. It’s in paperback now and somebody’s making a movie out of it—so it’s gone on to have a life and a readership.

INTERVIEWER

Did Donald Hall ever get back to you and say, Well, I was wrong?

FORD

He wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t a good book as I’d written it. But I changed the point of view, and in doing so, let the book admit a whole other wealth of material that the first person hadn’t permitted. I didn’t know what woes a change like that was going to impose on me, but it took then another year to reimagine in the third person.

INTERVIEWER

The first-person point of view is easier?

FORD

I don’t think it’s easier, at least not in a generic sense. Each way of narrating has its beauties and its difficulties.

INTERVIEWER

Some critics have said that they consider you a particularly male writer. Do you see yourself that way?

FORD

I think that’s a lot of crap. My narrators have so far been men, but not always the principal characters. I give female characters equally good lines as male characters and, more importantly, equal opportunities within the stories to control their fates, which is what it means in lived life to be powerful.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you could have a female protagonist or narrator?

FORD

I think I could, but who knows? My basic feeling is women and men are more alike than unalike, and the ways they’re different are both obvious and comprehensible and not as interesting as they’re made out to be. The thing that makes a male character interesting is the same thing that makes a female character interesting: access to a variety of humors; a capacity to face moral uncertainty; the ability to surprise, to show compassion. I would never, for instance, say to myself, What would a woman say? Rather, I’d think, Given the circumstances of this person’s life, what would this person say? Or do? Jim Harrison wrote a very good novella, “The Woman Lit By Fireflies,” in which the “point of view” character is a woman. And what he brought to that story, among other talents, was a great sympathetic sensibility. I think that sympathy for the people who are your creations is what’s necessary—not a gender sensitivity.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of your audience as male?

FORD

My audience is women and men. I’ve had enough experiences in my life to know that my readers are a variety of people. Once Tobias Wolff and I gave a reading out in North Dakota, and a man came up to tell us he read our books during his lunch breaks, sitting on his tractor out in the wheat fields. He was followed by two women who said they were lesbians and wanted us to know they didn’t think we were sexists or whatever it was we’d been accused of that week. Maybe this isn’t enough evidence. I could cite more if you’d like.

INTERVIEWER

Are any of your protagonists like you?

FORD

Some of them may be something like me insofar as they’re people for whom I have a sympathy. I think I wrote about sixteen-year-old boys in part because I had sympathy from my own past. But I’m not interested in revealing myself directly in those stories. That would risk solipsism and, truthfully, I’m not that interesting. Plus, I get enough reward from my work not to have to make it be about me. Readers may conclude otherwise, but I feel stories are sold short by insisting on how much they supposedly do or don’t rely on or reveal the writer’s life. That insistence sells short the beauty and pleasing freedom of invention. My novella “Jealous” and many of the stories in Rock Springs are written in the first person, but I didn’t grow up in Montana and none of the things that happened to those characters ever happened to me. When Rock Springs came out, occasionally someone would ask, Were you born in Montana? and I would say, No, I was born in Mississippi. They wouldn’t quite know what to say. Asking the question may have helped them understand something about fiction, though—it’s made up.

INTERVIEWER

How about Sam Newel’s memories in A Piece of My Heart? Were they autobiographical?

FORD

That book has a few oblique references from my life—altered and put to the service of some bit of invention. I didn’t say I didn’t use my own life as raw material. But for instance the vignette about meeting a dwarf in the lobby of a hotel and going upstairs with him. Something like that happened to me. Then, there is another in which two women are lying in bed together drunk in the hotel room and Sam Newel sees them naked. I saw such things. I saw a lot of fairly lurid things when I was a little boy. I don’t mean I was taken care of poorly, but I saw a lot because my grandparents ran a big hotel in Little Rock. Also my father was a traveling salesman and he would sometimes be gone for hours at a time and I’d get left alone in hotels. Not left alone in perilous ways, but when I was ten, eleven, twelve, I saw a lot of stuff. I seem to have some magnetism for lurid things. Also, there must be some vibration that comes off all writers, not just me. People tell me the most remarkably personal stories. They often ask me, If I tell you something, will you not use it? And I tell them that if they tell me, I will use it. And then they usually say, What the hell, I’ll never see you again, (which isn’t always true) and tell me anyway. What I do by way of using the stories people tell me is that I write them down in my notebook; but nothing ever comes back out exactly as it went in. Usually it comes back better.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written about your deep affection for your mother and your friendship with her. Is she a source for any of your characters?

FORD

I don’t think I ever knowingly wrote about my mother, except in the memoir I wrote directly about her. But I know that there are qualities I attribute to my mother that are qualities some of my characters have. There is the toughing-it-out quality of the mother in Wildlife, which my mother certainly possessed, particularly after my father died; so that if she made a mistake or was less than extremely cautious in my welfare, which occasionally happened, she would look at me and say, Well, I love you, and I tried my best and that’s that. That’s a quality I don’t find in many people. My wife has that quality in even more admirable ways. Also, my mother was humorous without being exactly mirthful; and she was also ironic in a quite obvious and superficial way that concealed (and not very well, either) a vast storage of empathy. And she was nicely inconsistent in most of her views except her view of whom she loved.

INTERVIEWER

What I’ve always enjoyed so much about your writing is the humor, which is missing in most of contemporary literature, it seems to me.

FORD

In me, that comes partly from being a Southerner. When I was growing up, absurd humor was big in my and my friends’ lives. We also mimicked each other and everybody else; we did voices; we were all blessed with a kind of aspiring-to-be-affluent fecklessness. Plus, we lived in an absurd racist society in which we—arrogant, ignorant, suburban kids—were the privileged ones. What could be more ridiculous! I guess I just didn’t lose that sense of ridiculousness—mine and others’—when I came north.

Also, the writers I like are always writers who can be humorous, whether they always are or not—a lot of Jewish writers: Stanley Elkin, Bruce Jay Friedman, Philip Roth. Plus Joan Didion, Walker Percy, Barry Hannah. Those are the writers I cut my teeth on.

INTERVIEWER

Mark Twain must have been a big influence.

FORD

No. I’m not of the school that says that Harriet Beecher Stowe was a better writer than Mark Twain, but the Twain I read when I was growing up, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, curiously enough evoked little river towns I myself knew up and down the Mississippi, and just at the time when I wanted to get as far away from that kind of folksy, homespun, cracker-barrel sophistication as I could get. I wanted to read about England; I wanted to read about New England; I wanted to read about France; I did not want to read about life on the Mississippi, because I knew what life on the Mississippi was like. I’ve gone back and tried to read Life on the Mississippi as recently as twenty years ago but couldn’t crack it. I know that’s a heresy. Sorry.

INTERVIEWER

Did you go across the street and see Eudora Welty?

FORD

Well, she’d moved away by the time I might have done that, and I didn’t meet Miss Welty until 1981 when she came to Princeton where I was teaching to give a reading. I had only published one book. I had a feeling she probably knew about it; that it was full of dirty words and sex and violence. And when I met her it didn’t seem to have registered that I was from Jackson and had written a novel. I remember saying to her, Miss Welty, I’m Richard Ford and I’m from Jackson, Mississippi. She has a wonderful way about her; she said, Oh, you are?—but nothing else. And I thought, Gee, what that means is that she hates my book. I felt horrible about it. And I then published another book full of sex and violence, and I thought, Well, I’m just out of the Eudora Welty sweepstakes here. We’re never going to be friends. Then I wrote The Sportswriter and did a book-signing at Lemuria Books in Jackson. I was sitting there at my little table signing books and I looked up and here was Miss Welty. She said, Well, I had to come pay my respects. I felt beatified. I felt, Finally I’ve written a book you aren’t too embarrassed by to come and meet me. I’ve gone on to be wonderful friends with her. I see her often. In addition to being a great writer she’s also one of the wittiest people I’ve ever been around. She does voices, she mimics, she has a sensitivity to the absurdities of language. She also has a vivid memory for song lyrics. She’s a performer who simply didn’t choose to perform upon a conventional stage. Her work often doesn’t seem funny, but then is funny under the surface—sometimes even quite grave stories. I remember one time I was walking with her into a bookstore. They had prepared a big celebration for her birthday. Somebody was standing beside a helium cylinder and was filling balloon after balloon. Each time, the little machine would give off a kind of ssshoou sound, and Eudora said, Oh, I thought it was someone sighing at my arrival.

INTERVIEWER

You talk about escaping Mississippi, the racism . . .

FORD

My family life was wonderful. I was raised by people I loved and I have great friends there, but the race part was bad. The cynicism of the whites, me included.

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t like yourself.

FORD

I didn’t like what I was headed toward becoming. If I’d gone on, stuck in my niche, I would never have been a conservative, but I wouldn’t have been proud of myself either. Another conflicted Southern boy. I simply didn’t understand some very fundamental things in Mississippi in the early sixties and fifties: why it was we went to separate schools, why all this violence. Oh, I could understand it as long as it was sort of boilerplate, which is to say, That’s how things are down south. But if I had to say, as I began to do when I was a teenager, Well, let’s just piece this out a bit. I couldn’t piece it out, couldn’t make racism make sense. We didn’t talk about that stuff much in my family. My father was dead by the time I was sixteen; my mother was not an analytic person. But neither of them were racists.

INTERVIEWER

How old were you when James Meredith was enrolled at the University of Mississippi?

FORD

I was eighteen. By that time I was at Michigan State. I was not brave enough or committed enough or selfless enough to stay in Mississippi during the civil-rights movement. I wanted to get out of it. I wanted to go as far away from Mississippi as I could. And it wasn’t just about race. It was about wanting to get out of the South because I wanted to see the rest of the country. Television had alerted me to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. I certainly don’t want to paint myself back then in any way to seem what I wasn’t, which is to say, enlightened. I wasn’t enlightened. I was nothing, that’s what I was. But I knew I was a little nothing—which helped. I knew that there were terrible things coming in Mississippi. I just thought, Uh oh, bad times are coming. I’ve got to get out of here to save myself. To reinvent myself.

INTERVIEWER

How much of that anguish has worked its way into your fiction?

FORD

Well, I think it’s worked into my writing in one good way, which is that I want to write about dramatic, important things that engage my sympathies. That’s been the most certifying thing in my life—that I’ve gone toward where my sympathies led me rather than toward where social pressures or convention might’ve led. That’s good luck for a novelist.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have black friends when you were growing up?

FORD

No, not in Mississippi. They lived on the other side of town. But in Arkansas I did.

INTERVIEWER

What are the sympathies that have taken you back to Mississippi?

FORD

I’m proud of it because of the huge changes it’s undergone and survived. And like I said, it’s where I was born. I like it there.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write when you were at law school?

FORD

Not much. But I think going to law school was probably very important to me because, when I started to try to write stories, I realized how much writing stories was like writing briefs. It’s writing to persuade someone. I don’t want to drag this similarity much further, but what I understand about the law (case law, anyway) is that it is something made up by lawyers to convince juries and judges, which then goes on to affect lived life in important ways; and the novel is sentences made up by writers to persuade readers etcetera, etcetera. They have very much the same rhetorical address.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if you feel that you have to be more intelligent than your characters in order to understand or control them.

FORD

Is the potter superior to his exquisite vase? No. But when I’m writing characters, the discrepancy between my intelligence and theirs is as narrow as I can make it because I’m trying to make my intelligence act in the service of these creations. Some critics have occasionally suggested that I impose on characters certain possibilities of thought or language or emotional experience, which that particular character, or to put it more gruesomely, those kinds of characters wouldn’t likely be able to think or talk about. But my attitude is that there are no such things as kinds or types of characters in fiction or in life. Eloquence or penetrating understanding can visit anybody. In fact, it’s fiction’s business to try to enlarge our understanding of and sympathy for people. If to do that I have to strain your conventional understanding about humans—well that’s also art’s proper business and my hope is that I’ll repay your indulgence.

INTERVIEWER

Do you make all the decisions for your characters?

FORD

All of them. Unless I make a typo and I like the mistake better than the word I wanted—which I did once. Somewhere, I think it was probably in The Sportswriter, I meant to write that somebody was “cold-eyed,” only I typed “old-eyed,” and Kristina told me how good she thought that was. So, naturally I kept it.

INTERVIEWER

Elsewhere you’ve said you like story endings that “close like supernovas and leave you gasping.” Do you have the same desire for the end of your novels?

FORD

At the end of my novels, I certainly want the reader to say, Boy-o-boy! (That is, in an admiring way.) However, I try to be cautious about creating pyrotechnics at the end of a story or a novel, effects that might cause the end to have a luminous quality the story or novel itself hasn’t quite underwritten or provided the opportunity for. Many wonderful stories by any number of wonderful writers don’t give the opportunity to end in that precisely luminous way. I admit that when I write a story that does provide such an opportunity I feel fortunate. I think it certainly intensifies a reader’s experience at a moment when he’s notably available to the story. I think endings are important for the life of the story and, if I can demark that ending by making it significant to a reader, then I have done the reader a service. I do have, though, a long and good relationship with a certain magazine editor who has particularly liked the endings of some of my stories. This is Rust Hills at Esquire who has been a wonderful editor for me. And sometimes when he’s encouraging me to write a story he can publish he’ll say, And make it have one of those Richard Ford endings. But that isn’t always possible.

INTERVIEWER

In your introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1990, you said you only know one or maybe one and a half ways to express verisimilitude. What do you mean by that?

FORD

I was probably exaggerating by admitting to an extra half. But I was referring, tongue-in-cheek, to Frank O’Connor’s tongue-in-cheek remark in The Lonely Voice where he said there were dozens of ways to express verisimilitude—that quality in a piece of fiction, or the strategy in a story that makes the story seem like real life, true life on the page. A slippery matter in a slippery world. Mine was just a way of saying that I do things my way, though you can do things your way as you please. Fiction always uses language to refer the reader to lived life—life outside the story. This is true irrespective of how hermetic, how self-referring, how abstract, how language-preoccupied, how circular the individual story happens to be. The reader will always take what he finds in the story back to life, somehow, even if that’s not the story’s primary appeal, as in many of Borges’s wonderful stories or in Barthelme’s “The Indian Uprising.” Even if it’s just that you think about the story later, in another context or another room, you’ve taken it to your own real life and you’ve somehow used it. This inevitability is built into the necessity that there be a reader for a story to be fully consummated.

In this way, fiction’s a bit like a notative system in ballet, where there are instructions to tell a dancer where to step, etcetera. You can’t take the analogy terribly far, unfortunately, because in the analogy the dancer has to be reader and author at once. But words are the notations in stories, and the reader covers them by reading. It’s after that, I suppose, that all those diverse ways of bonding to the real commence—based on the words, the reader then entertains the multitudinous truth of life in a multitude of ways.

When I’ve written about Montana, some people—not all, by any means—have said to me, God, you really got it right. And my answer always is, Well thanks, but I never tried to get it right, if by right you mean that I got it the way Montana is on earth. I mostly just wanted to make it interesting on the page and to ignite the reader’s imagination. What I’m sure happens in sealing the bond of persuasiveness or believability, or even verisimilitude, is that when people read sentences (particularly if they like them) they then go on and fill in from their own lives what that piece of fiction seems to refer to (I hope not too divergently from my set of notations, of course, because then the story’s a failure, or a kind of literary idiot savant.) The completion of the illusion happens in the reader’s mind—the way Sartre and Duchamp and hundreds of people who aren’t French have said. I suppose another form of verisimilitude would be for me to call a landscape Montana, but then have the details be from Mississippi. I haven’t tried that yet.

INTERVIEWER

You once talked about “committing a story” instead of writing a story. What do you mean by committing a story?

FORD

It’s just a pretentious way of saying that for me, personally and emotionally, to write a story is to give myself up totally to this otherwise flimsy piece of business. I commit myself. It wasn’t meant as an attempt to ennoble me or the product, but to describe the kind of emotional event in my life that I will eventually ask the reader to share in whatever way he can—to participate in the story as fully as possible. Though I suppose, too, it’s another way of saying that I try to make the whole experience—writing it and reading it—as important as I can.

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk about the fact that The Sportswriter takes place over Easter weekend?

FORD

Easter was simply when I started to write the book in 1982. It’s as simple as that. By the time I finished it though, I was aware of the way in which it was about various sorts of redemption—this despite the fact that I didn’t have an elaborate religious background or underground or any religious beliefs at all. But I didn’t want to be one of the writers who doesn’t understand his own books, so I tried to be aware of my books’ unexpected implications. A writer for Time magazine pointed out that there were fourteen chapters, matching the fourteen stations of the cross. That was the first time I’d heard that. But when you start manipulating mythical narratives, whether you blunder into them or you do it by calculation, you’d better—to be in control of your book—reckon with their true potency and wide reference. They haven’t persisted all these years because they represent trivial human matters. You heard it here first.

INTERVIEWER

I want to ask you about names. At one time you said you “contemplate them very hard” and yet you’ve also said that the fact that Brinson is the last name of the main characters of “Optimists” and of Wildlife “was quite an accident.” Do you believe in accidents like that?

FORD

There are always certain things I just don’t notice as much as I try to notice everything. I had the same problem with names in Independence Day. I repeat names thinking they’re brand new. I do care a lot about names and once I find one I like and that seems serviceable it keeps coming back in my head over and over. Good names seem so rare to me. Plus, my wife can testify to my general belief that if one of something is good, ten times is ten times better.

INTERVIEWER

Have you had any other accidents with names?

FORD

I don’t know, but I’m sure there will be in the fullness of time. It’s just one of those things about me that’s unchangeable. I search and search for the right name to hook up with— some inchoate feeling that could develop into a character. I want to have some strong, good feeling about any name I use. When I wrote The Sportswriter, I was writing with a loose understructure that only I knew about and that probably isn’t detectable by the reader. It was Joshua Slocum’s famous book Sailing Alone Around the World. To my brain, there are in my book certain focal points that are closely similar to events in his. Indeed, the whole time I was writing the book, I called Frank, Frank Slocum and not Frank Bascombe. I fully intended that he be Frank Slocum when the book was finished. But when Donald Hall read the manuscript, he pointed out that Slocum was the name of Joseph Heller’s protagonist-narrator in Something Happened, and because that’s a book that I think also had a distant influence on The Sportswriter, I felt I had to change it. But I was thrown for a loop. Maybe Heller’s character was lurking somewhere too, and I blanked it out. And I realized that unless I wrote a garishly inappropriate new name it probably wouldn’t matter to the reader. But to me it mattered hugely, to my feeling of familiarity with my character. (Characters being, at least early on in fiction, their names.) The character’s name, though, had to be two syllables and had to start with a consonant. It also had to end with an m sound. Fortunately, I had months to make a list.

INTERVIEWER

In talking about The Sportswriter you referred to two suburban towns in New Jersey and to Detroit and Florida and you said, “Those are the pylons of the novel.” What does that mean? Is it related to the Joshua Slocum book?

FORD

All I meant was that if you put a string around those places—Detroit and the little towns in New Jersey and Florida—that little rhomboid would basically form the geographical points of reference for the story’s action. This figure is one (rather obscure, possibly meaningless) abstraction the book describes, and for some reason that’s always important to me, to notice things like that—but probably only important to me. Such are the loony compulsions of novelists, compulsions spawned by sitting years alone in tiny rooms, I guess.

INTERVIEWER

Is that the only book you see in geometric terms? Does every novel have a figure in that way?

FORD

In one way or other. It’s like the line a ballerina strikes with her body. That line is dramatic in relation to something—empty space, another dancer, scenery. The context. (I don’t know why I’m so attached to dancing today. Probably it’s a means to escape my own dull vocabulary.) But so far, the human actions in all the stories I’ve written, by which I mean to include novels as stories, have struck some kind of—for me—dramatic relation with a fictive place. There may be an actual place, too, a place on the earth with the same name and similar geographical coordinates. But my places are all made up and used for my convenience, and sometimes my convenience requires alterations in the actual—say, if I like some word better than the word that actually describes the real place. Usually places are backgrounds for me, contexts made of interesting language and maybe even evoking striking mental pictures, in front of which characters perform the important actions of the story. But in each case, there is some kind of dramatic abstract—call it a figure, shape, line—that the up-front goings-on make in relation to the setting. I feel it as a kind of necessary tensiveness, and it’s no less so as stories move from place to place. The reader, of course, may be altogether unaware of it, which is okay.

INTERVIEWER

That’s interesting, because when I think of The Sportswriter it seems a very mental book.

FORD

But if it didn’t have that movement among those places, didn’t have that tensiveness in it, then it would be a static book too. Some kind of movement or physical motion is important to me. Aristotle thought that action was physical action and that mental action is important as it prefigures physical action. You can say thinking is an action, but I’ve always been of the belief that physical action is of higher importance than meditation and cogitation. No matter if that action is outweighed by mental activity in terms of how much time is dedicated to it. For example, I never believed we really sin in thought, only in our deeds. So I want people to move, to act, to have a dramatic relation with space. When I had Vicki smack Frank in the chops and knock him down in The Sportswriter, that’s the purest example of what I find interesting in a book—not simply that she loves him or he loves her, but that it eventuates in her acting.

INTERVIEWER

Another question about names: one critic pointed out that in the middle of Robard Hewes and Sam Newel is the word ewe. Any relevance?

FORD

Accident. I’ll tell you why I think so, though the Dr. Freuds of the world will snicker. Robard Hughes was the name of a boy from my childhood. And I wanted to use that name because I liked it, but I wanted to change it so that it wouldn’t be confused with my chum. Newel is actually the name of several boys from my childhood. Some other astute critic pointed out that the ewe sound must be related to the Lambs, other characters in the novel. What that relation’s importance might’ve been I don’t now remember. But Mr. Lamb is in the story because of a Mr. Ham from my childhood. I changed Ham to Lamb because it sounded the same. In all cases it was a matter of sounds. I hate to be such a disappointing patient.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said, “I want everybody to look at this novel, this story exactly as I do.” Does that desire lead you to want to respond to critics?

FORD

Not unless the interpretation is totally off. When a critic says Wildlife is about incest between the mother and son, what I want to say is, No, it’s not. You’re wrong. Though in that particular case I didn’t say anything to the critic—poor man. I didn’t write a letter. Actually, I’ve only written one letter and never made a phone call or confronted someone to defend a book of mine against an unfriendly criticism. It doesn’t seem appropriate or fruitful, though I’ve thought about doing it. But, in my books I try to authorize everything. I do everything I can to narrow the range of divergence between what I understand and what the reader understands, though complete harmony is, of course, improbable. But I think books are successful in terms of how successful I am, at least as a first principle, in narrowing that range of response. You can get all kinds of critics to line up and say that my book states exactly the opposite of what I think it states, but that’s rubbish. Unless I’m just nuts, and as yet I’m not.

INTERVIEWER

Have any critical judgments or reading about your work been useful to you?

FORD

One, that I can remember. Walter Clemons wrote in Newsweek that he didn’t think that The Ultimate Good Luck took sufficient advantage of my wider sympathies and humor as much as he felt was true of A Piece of My Heart. It was one of the most significant things I’d ever read about something I’d written. I realized that I shouldn’t be writing books that short circuit what I know or what I’m capable of, that I should be writing books that try to exploit as much as possible what of value I am as a human being, without having to be about me.

INTERVIEWER

Any unexpected responses?

FORD

Some that were hurtful. Wildlife got the most effusive praise of any book I’ve written before Independence Day, but it also got the widest variety of responses—some very negative, which I found perplexing. I didn’t consider it an unduly complicated book. But I concluded that it was about such a sensitive subject that some readers simply couldn’t deal with it—and therefore rejected it—though it’s also possible I just didn’t write it convincingly enough to persuade everybody, which is what I always want to do. My favorite scene in Wildlife is the one in which young Joe’s mother confronts him in the hall late at night, when both of them are only partly dressed—Joe, because he’d been innocently in bed, his mother because she’d been with a man. But that scene really made some people unhappy. I’ve tried to figure it out if it is because Joe has his underwear on or because his mother was partly unclothed. One young male interviewer asked me, Why do you always write about women who are sluts? I said, Well, I wasn’t aware that I do. But tell me what you mean by that. He said, Well, here’s that kid’s mother and she’s having an affair with another man. I said, Is that what makes you think she’s a slut? He said, Well, yeah. I said, By that do you mean that you think she’s a bad person? He said, She is a bad person. I went on to have a long talk with him about it, trying to tell him that the book was attempting to confront him on a serious subject, not just advocate some kind of conduct—though I had sympathy for the mother and didn’t think she was a slut, if there are such things as sluts. But he just wouldn’t have it. He wrote something nasty about me and disparaging about the book. I wrote him a letter—the only such letter I’ve written—and said, Shame on you. Of all the people in the world, the one who would be the most disappointed in you is not me, it’s your mother. I thought maybe that would find a soft place in him. But in another way, if I wanted the book to confront him on that subject and he rejected it then the book failed. Pure and simple.

INTERVIEWER

Some questions in a totally different line: do you think you’re unusual as a writer in the way you move around?

FORD

I think I’m much more typical of Americans than I am atypical of Americans. I think Americans move around a lot for reasons that are not precisely like my reasons but not completely dissimilar either. They seek new experiences; they get bored; they see an opportunity, stuff like that.

INTERVIEWER

Wouldn’t most Americans say that they move for jobs? That they have to move?

FORD

I think I move for my writing—at least, when I move, I also write.

INTERVIEWER

Some writers say that moving takes energy and time away from their writing.

FORD

Maybe so. But they probably use their not-writing time in some other way. You can’t write all the time. What a drag. Other people I know—Bob Stone, Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie—they all move around, or they have. Of course, you have to be able to do it, you can’t be strapped down to a job. You have to have a certain amount of financial and emotional independence. My life sort of conforms to my bank account. I go where I can go. Maybe another reason I’ve moved around a lot is that I grew up in a sequestered part of the world—right in my middle in Mississippi. And I grew up curious about the rest of the country. Later on, when it came time for me to try to be a writer, I pretty quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be able to write very much about the South because it had already been written about so well by all the greats and was still being written about wonderfully by Barry Hannah and Josephine Humphreys, Ellen Douglas and others; and that I was going to have to learn something else. And when I started learning those things I found I could learn, and that I could function elsewhere rather than being consigned physically, or as a writer to one part of the world where I wasn’t comfortable. For a writing life to flourish, your mind has to go outwards.

INTERVIEWER

What about the workplace?

FORD

I’ve written everywhere. I wrote a novella The Womanizer on a plane coming back from Paris. I’ve written in hotel rooms in Milan and Great Falls. I wrote a screenplay in the Chateau Marmont. I’ve worked in fifty rented houses, in friends’ apartments. I like that, actually. It’s a challenge to go into someplace that’s not yours, and let the fact that you’re doing important work there be the accommodating force. I don’t think I could stay in one house continuously. I’m not contemplative enough, not interior enough, and that’s another way of saying I’m probably not smart enough. I need a lot of external stimulation bulleting into my life. I’m not talking about exhilaration or thrill, I just want new sounds coming into my ears.

INTERVIEWER

Is there any place that you think of as home?

FORD

Mississippi. Unqualifiedly. Though I can’t think why it would matter to anybody but me.

INTERVIEWER

Because your family lives there?

FORD

Because I was born there. And because I like it there. My mother, who died in 1981, was my last living close blood relative. And she’d moved from Mississippi back to Arkansas, her home, a few years before she died. So, after she died I felt that I no longer had a home that she determined and that I had questions to ask myself: Where are you from? Where do you live? Where are you going to claim to be your home? Arkansas was a possibility because I had spent years there and liked it. But Mississippi was the obvious place because that’s where I was born and had gone to school. I love the landscape. I could deal with the people. Of course, then I got back there and I liked it so much it scared me to death. So, I sold the house and left after four years. It is one of the silliest mistakes of my life. Though, if we’d stayed I probably wouldn’t have written Wildlife and probably not Independence Day, which I’d personally regret, though of course I wouldn’t know it.

INTERVIEWER

Have you got a house now?

FORD

I have a rented house in Greenwood, Mississippi, which I like a lot. Not as much as I liked the house I had before. But you know, I’ve been reading a lot of Auden recently. I’m not even a great fan of Auden’s poems, but he’s always trying to find good uses for his neuroses. He said that neurosis represented not necessarily a debility but an opportunity; that neurosis is a gift, something whose effects we can make use of in some inventive way. So when I think about not keeping that house, and God knows I’ve tried on several occasions to buy it back, I begin to think that, well, maybe I get more use out of not getting that house back than I ever would had I gotten it back and lived in it today. Maybe that longing for and avoidance of a place of my own has made me write stories. Who knows? That’s also the Presbyterian in me—to look at things that happen as part of your fate. Kristina and I often go window-shopping. She’ll see something that she wants and I say, Well, why do you want to buy it? There it is, you can see it. Take pleasure from not buying it.

INTERVIEWER

How did she like that?

FORD

She doesn’t always see it my way.

INTERVIEWER

I wouldn’t think she would.

FORD

But I can take a certain amount of consolation in not having something or in some forms of low-grade duress. I’ve had migraines for years and long ago it began to be quite clear to me that having migraines was actually kind of benevolent, in one sense, anyway. Migraines are the ultimate neurotic Protestant’s malady, because you get migraines often just at the point when terrible pressures are relieved, and you have every right to feel wonderful. It’s as though some stern angel is hovering around you. And eventually if you don’t kill yourself or go nuts, you begin to develop a rapport with your tormenter, and begin to consider what it’s saving you from. Undue optimism, possibly.

INTERVIEWER

In the past you have said, “I was giving all my time away to somebody that I would never see again.” What do you get from the process of teaching itself?”

FORD

I have to say that I got a lot from teaching when I was younger. I learned a huge amount about making stories—not so much from the students’ work, but from using conversations about their work to articulate principles for myself that I could then “teach” to them. Teaching was very useful to me when I was in my mid-thirties. But then I quit so I could write more.

INTERVIEWER

Do you get anything from your students?

FORD

I can’t think of much that a student ever said to me except, Can I get a grade change? or Can I put off having my story discussed Wednesday because I have to go to my father’s marriage in Venezuela? All I remember are the things I don’t want to remember. But has a student ever come up to me and said something so blazingly true about which I thought to myself, God, I wish I’d thought of that, like Wittgenstein used to do to his teachers? No. Not yet.

INTERVIEWER

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

FORD

My first advice to an aspiring writer is to talk yourself out of it if you can possibly do it.

INTERVIEWER

Why that?

FORD

Because you’ll probably fail and make yourself miserable doing it. I feel about myself that I’m anomalous—a rare combination of fear, an affection for language, a reverence for literature, doggedness, and good luck. Plus, I married the right girl. Shit, who’s going to fall heir or victim to all those things?

INTERVIEWER

Was there ever a moment when you felt that it wasn’t going to work?

FORD

All the time. Book to book or project to project it’s always scary. I remember the first time in my life when I ever said I was a writer. Toby Wolff and I were going to London—me for the first time at age forty-two—and you had to make out one of those debarkation cards that asked your profession. Over the years, I’d always put none on any such questionnaire.

INTERVIEWER

None?

FORD

None. I didn’t have one. I don’t think of writing as a profession. I think of it as being a vocation. But I finally said, Oh well, what the hell, you might as well put writer, because you aren’t anything else. That’s all you’ve done with your life and you’re forty-two years old and there isn’t time to do anything else. And yet, even if I finally thought I was a writer, here I was heading into London, and though I had published two books and had a third finished, none were in print—I had nothing to show for being a writer when I was forty-two. So, what was that about things not working? Things can always not work. Eventually, I’m sure, that’ll happen.

INTERVIEWER

What is the exhilaration of writing, if any?

FORD

Primarily, the chance to make something new, which might be good and beautiful, and which somebody else could use. For me, that’s come to be the most important thing. Put most succinctly, to write for readers. I’ve never thought of writing as principally a way of learning about myself, or even as self-expression. Anybody who writes books learns a lot about himself just by seeing what his preoccupations are, what generosities he has or lacks, what his abilities are to invent something out of nothing. I never think about being a writer as being in any interesting way self-psychologizing. That just doesn’t interest me.

INTERVIEWER

So you think of the reader when you are writing.

FORD

I wouldn’t be a writer just for myself. If I were going to do something for myself, I’d do something else, something more practical and pleasurable, and probably easier.

INTERVIEWER

That’s quite rare, I think.

FORD

I want to write, partly at least, for the kind of reader I was when I was nineteen years old. I want to address that person because he or she is young enough that life is just beginning to seem a mystery which literature can address in surprising and pleasurable ways. When I was nineteen I began to read Absalom, Absalom! slowly, slowly, page by patient page, since I was slightly dyslexic. I was working on the railroad, the Missouri-Pacific in Little Rock. I hadn’t been doing well in school, but I started reading. I don’t mean to say that reading altogether changed my life, but it certainly brought something into my life—possibility—that had not been there before.

INTERVIEWER

What was it about Absalom, Absalom!?

FORD

The language—a huge suffusing sea of wonderful words, made into beautiful, long paragraphs and put to the service of some great human conundrum it meant to console me about if not completely resolve. When I was old enough to think about myself as trying to be a writer, I always thought I would like to write a book and have it do that for someone else.

INTERVIEWER

An Absalom, Absalom! for some nineteen-year-old kid in Georgia.

FORD

Or Ohio. Or France. I heard someone say the other day, You have to write for yourself. What shit, I thought. Write for yourself—why? (Though I guess if that produces wonderful work, who am I to argue over conceits?) But I once said that to an audience in France and several people got up and left the room. They said, Hummmph. You’re letting down your vocation if you’re willing to admit that you write for other people. But that’s just not my view. To me, it’s the thought that you can make something out of words, which organizes experience in the way Faulkner is talking about when he says that “literature stops life for the purpose of examining it.” To be able to do that for another person is a good use of your life.

 

Author photograph by Marion Ettlinger.