What can be said about a man so calm and charming that it seems perfectly reasonable to store manuscripts in the freezer or plant a 38mm bullet through an unsavory book? The author himself demonstrates the answer when he reads from his upcoming novel, Canada. What can be said is the gentleman can surely write. In a few short minutes Richard Ford takes listeners down a windy path, introduces us to a family and splays open their history, from a happenstance beginning to the worn features of lives habituated by compromise.
Ford’s recognition as a writer came late and was definitive. Richard Ford is known to many as the author bringing life to Frank Bascombe, in his third book, 1986’s The Sportswriter. Bascombe reappears, as a real estate agent, in 1995’s Independence Day, earning Ford both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Other works include The Lay of the Land (2006), short story collections Rock Springs (1987), Women with Men (1997), and A Multitude of Sins (2002). Author Norman McLean considers Ford one of the greatest living writers of his generation. His edited collections include The Granta Book of the American Long Story (1999) and The Complete Stories of Anton Chekov. Of his work for Granta, Ford mentions he enjoyed introducing authors to new a new readership.
Before reading, Ford sat down with Seattle Arts and Lectures Executive Director Linda Bowers for an informal talk “The Things That Help, The Things That Hurt: My Extra-Literary Influences.” Today Ford likes to consider that he is now better at solving problems than he used to be. Accepting being dyslexic and understanding long ago that he would need to work harder than those around him and hope to stay even seems to have framed a self-effacing outlook. He appreciates that his writing allows him to participate in something that others will enjoy.
Ford’s Southern manners soon had everyone at home and a relaxed audience sat a spell with him, conversing about words, writing, inventing reality and artifice while keeping both feet planted steadfastly in the experience of everyday people. Ford described his process, noting that from the beginning of a novel, the spatial terms are always known, less clear and more interesting are the ligatures and connecting tissues that evolve around the story’s core. “Novels give you the opportunity to be smarter than you really are.” Asked if there would be another installation in the Frank Bascombe series, the audience enthusiastically clapped its affirmative desire to hear more tales of this now mythical character. Ford was coy in replying, not promising, but making it clear he had ideas in mind.
On discovering serious reading when he was around 18 in Jackson, Mississippi, Ford notes that it made him aware of his life as special and distinct, “Pay attention, this is your only life. Don’t just piss it away.” He became more respectful of his choices. On choosing to study at University of California Irvine he comments, “Well, they admitted me. I remember getting the application for Iowa, and thinking they’d never have let me in. I’m sure I was right about that, too. But, typical of me, I didn’t know who was teaching at Irvine. I didn’t know it was important to know such things. I wasn’t the most curious of young men, even though I give myself credit for not letting that deter me.” Ford noted his great debt to UC instructors, particularly to writer Oakley Hall.
“Talent is a species of vigor.”
When the discussion turned to New Orleans and his relationship to this fabled city, Ford discusses it as a place “I know well—a place where I understand where each road will take you. I visited in the 50’s and 60’s and returned later to live there.” He described New Orleans as a permissive place, a place where an undercurrent of licentiousness has always been present. Growing up, New Orleans was where people went to ‘get out of Mississippi.’ Asked if he would return to live there, Ford notes with contrarian panache, “Just because I consider it home doesn’t necessarily mean I have to live there.”
Ford dismisses the Southern mythos and makes certain that his writing is not regional. He has lived in many places throughout the United States, including Montana. One might argue that Ford has expanded notions of the Southern writer, but has remained distinctly Southern in the best possible ways. Getting back to that bullet through a book, turns out early in his career, this book’s author had written a bad review of Ford’s early work. In his defense, he said, “My wife did it. She took it out back and shot a 38 right through it.” To his way of thinking, writing a bad review can be likened to seeing a hitchhiker and not just driving by them, but turning around and running them down.— Language and images that are wonderful examples of the bright color that thankfully doesn’t wash out of the fabric of a stellar writer once from Jackson, Mississippi.