Interview with Richard Ford

by Barbara Shoup

Appears in Other Voices #31

I have long been a fan of Richard Ford's fiction: and when I learned he'd be a part of the 1997-98 Butler University's Visiting Writers Series, I asked if he would consider being interviewed by my fiction workshop there for Other Voices. He graciously agreed to have breakfast with us the morning after his reading. To prepare for our meeting, all of my students read The Sportswriter. They divided the rest of Ford's books among themselves, so that at least one person would have read each of his books by the time of his visit. The students found Ford's work at the same time accessible and challenging; his books and stories triggered lively class discussions and caused them to contemplate their own lives with new understanding.

Though I love the idea of making literature come alive and make every effort to make that happen for my students, I'm always a little anxious when I set such an experience in motion. I've been dissapointed more than once, when writers whose work I admire turn out to be boring, egocentric or even mean-spirited. But Richard Ford was as engaging and large-hearted as his work. A tall, lanky man, at the same time low-key and passionate, he drew my star-struck students into asking the questions they were at first too shy to ask. The following captures the essence of our conversation with him.

OV: Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?

RF: A Piece of My Heart was set in Mississippi and in Arkansas. When I started writing it, I thought, this is my subject, this is the thing I have to do. I have to write books that are set in the South, and they have to be about the South and things going on in the South because, after all, I'm a Southerner and that's what Southerners do. They write about the South. But when the book was reviewed, a lot of things were said about it that didn't make me happy. One of the things that was said was that it was a Southern book. I had kind of hoped that it would somehow-even though it was about the South-transcend its Southernness; but nobody who talked about the book wanted it to transcend its Southernness at all. They wanted it to be right in their Faulknerian mode and the Flannery O'Connor mode, which in some ways I guess it was. And I thought to myself, I have got to find a way to quit writing about the South because if I don't I'm never going to be taken seriously. So I thought, I am going to write a book in which the South does not figure at all. My little joke to myself was that I went on writing about the South, but it was Mexico now, instead of Arkansas and Mississippi, where I had grown up. So The Ultimate Good Luck was a real conscious attempt to try to break the regional and also the stylistic mold and mode of writing about the South.

I'm looking back on this now, maybe seeing things with more clarity than I did at the time. I thought that a book that was also a kind of genre book might be the thing that would sort of clear my palate, which it did. The Ultimate Good Luck is a sort of little noire book about some people that go down to Mexico to get a woman's brother out of jail. It was rather purposefully influenced by Graham Greene. I've been a big Graham Greene fan for a long time, and I've admired his books very much, and I thought I could safely write a book which I knew he had influenced. It was during a time in my writing life, which happens to all writers, when you know who your influences are and sometimes they take a rather conspicuous stylistic grip on you. I wanted to let that happen to me with The Ultimate Good Luck, because I wanted so to rid myself of Faulkner. I wanted to get away from all things Southern as much as I could, so I just kind of let myself choose a style that I felt I could handle. It was also strongly affected, I think, by Robert Stone's book, Dog Soldiers, which I profoundly admired.

As I say, I'm looking back on it now and maybe seeing things with greater clarity, but I knew all those things. I knew I had to get away from the South or I would never be able to hold my head up as a writer. I didn't think and I don't think now that I had anything new to say about the South. Every-thing that I knew about the South, Faulkner or Miss Welty had already been written.

But the other thing is, The Ultimate Good Luck is a very different kind of book from other sorts of books that I wrote and have gone on to write. I think that those kinds of big changes are essential for writers. But sometimes critics or book reviewers or just casual commentators will talk about writers as though they spoke with one voice. It frustrates those people [when they can't] categorize your books. Sometimes that frustration causes them to dismiss you, to say that you're all over the map or that they can't find anything consistent as you go from one book to the next-as if that were somehow a measure of your worth. Carver's a good example of that. People have said there's your Raymond Carver story. Well, if you actually get down and look at the Raymond Carver stories from 1974 to 1986, what you'll find is a much more diverse range of sentence lengths and attitudes and preconceptions and stylistic gestures in his stories, and that just corroborates for me the fact that writers' work-as they go on and get older and maybe, you hope, smarter and better-will change radically.

OV: So do you feel that writing The Ultimate Good Luck established you as a writer in your own right?

RF: Yes. I don't think I ever worried about Faulkner again after that, which was a huge thing. You know, growing up in Jackson and having Faulkner be the eponymous Southern writer felt like a lot to have to get over. I know that a lot of the things that I have learned from reading Faulkner and how influenced I was by him when I was young still do inhabit books of mine. But I don't care anymore. I feel like I have gotten out of his stylistic twitch and I've quit writing about the sorts of things that he wrote about, and that whatever I kept, I can use and make my own.

OV: Did The Ultimate Good Luck liberate you to write The Sportswriter, which was the book you wrote after it?

RF: Yes. It was certainly very different for me, though The Sportswriter has its inheritances, too. There's no doubt about that. I'm perfectly happy to say what they are. It's a first-person novel told in present tense verbs, and so all those books that I had read that are first-person novels with present tense verbs funneled right into it. Walker Percy, and Joe Heller in his wonderful book called Something Happened. Frederick Exley in The Fan's Notes, John Barth in The End of the Road. All kinds of books sort of shoved me along my way, but I felt like I was getting into a kind of way of thinking about stories that was both new to me and something I was vitally interested in.

I started writing The Sportswriter on Easter, 1982. I wrote for about eight months and I got about one hundred fifty pages and I showed it to a-at the time-very influential editor in New York named Gordon Lish. Gordon was a big influence in my life in a kind of bad way. He was a sort of Mephistophilan character in my life for about ten years. But when I finally showed him the first one hundred fifty pages of The Sportswriter, after having been brayed at by him for several years to the point where he would like nothing better than to publish a book of mine, he read about ten pages of it and said, "You can't write this book. This doesn't work, it's no good. Put it in your drawer and never think about it at all." These were the kind of broad strokes he generally painted the world in. That was about Christmas-time, 1982, and I had to stop working on [the book] for about seven months because I was so cast down by such a bad opinion. But when I went back at it in June 1983, I went back at it with a lot of vigor. I got reconvinced that this, in fact, was a way I could write a book. He didn't like it because it deviated from what he thought I was: a Southerner who could write Southern books and a kind of hard-boiled book, like The Ultimate Good Luck. That's all he could see. I was starting off in some totally new direction, and he couldn't figure out how to take it in. But for me, that's the challenge of being a writer after the first ten years of trying. What am I going to do next? How am I going to surprise myself? How am I going to write about things I've never thought about before and make them be logical and whole?

OV: As a writer writing about a writer in The Sportswriter, how much of yourself appears there?

RF: I always try not to include things about myself and in figures who turn out to be characters because I think that when the lines of my own system of beliefs cross with the character's, then that character becomes less malleable. One of the things that you want in writing characters is for them to stay as changeable as they can be till you get right down to the ending and you think everything is how it should be. If you have things that go into this character's past or into what she or he might say, which would coincide or directly reflect your own beliefs, then it's less easy to change them. The process of discovery is somewhat inhibited by my own hold on those things I believe.

The more fully a character is occupied or invested with facts out of the lives of someone I might actually know, the less nimbly can I work with the character. Because, you know you start off writing a character; and maybe, in the most rudimentary way, you write a line of dialogue and then you put "he said" or "she said," and that may be the first little scratch on the empty slate that that character has. You don't know what the character's going to be when you develop him by this sort of cross-hatch of gestures. So if suddenly into that hit and miss process comes a whole bunch of stuff out of an old girlfriend of yours or somebody you knew as a teacher, well, then the process is moored in a way that I don't like it to be moored, because I think of characters as being always little expeditions that the writer makes.

Then there are other problems with putting big dollops of human characters into fictive characters. The character himself, the person in life, almost always is going to be resentful and hate your guts when you do it. No one likes to have another person take dominion over her or his life, even if the person turns out to be sanctified. Nobody ever likes it!

OV: Has that happened to you?

RF: Oh, yeah! Oh, yes.

OV: With friends?

RF: Well, they're always ex-friends. My wife is the only person who forbears on that. I've never actually written a character that I thought bore any resemblance to her; but she is quick to point out that I snatch lines of hers all the time and put them into some other context. She always says, "Well, no, it's true you never wrote about me. But you've raided my life for its best lines for thirty years." I always say, slightly unconvincingly, "Well, that's my homage to you." I've never actually sought to write a character that I thought was physically modeled on her and the truth of the matter is, I'm not sure I could. If I were to try to write a character who was like Christina, I think I would have to make certain kinds of decisions about that character in limiting the range of her reference, which I don't find I can do when I deal with Christina herself, who has always had the kind of consummate ability to surprise me.

OV: How do you know what the time frame of a story will be?

RF: I don't let the story determine anything. I determine everything. These people who say, I just start writing and the characters kind of run their own life-not in my books they don't! I decide, I choose, I am responsible. I am the author of everything. That's what authorship means. Now it may very well be that you sit down and you don't know what, for instance, the time trajectory for your book is, and you may figure it out by a process of eliminating other possibilities. I didn't know that I wanted The Sportswriter to take place in that four day period; but I did know that I didn't want it to take place over a year, and I knew that I didn't want it to take place in a day, and I knew that I wanted it to start on the Easter weekend sometime. So I may have kind of come at it backwards, but finally I had to decide.

It's always slightly surprising to me that readers are even sensitive at all to the time trajectory that a period of fiction occupies. For me, it's just a choice I make that's almost unfreighted. It's almost neutral. Independence Day takes place over the Fourth of July. It's a hell of a Fourth of July because so much stuff goes on during that time. Probably more stuff goes on in that book and in Frank's mind over four days than most people would have go on in a couple of years. But my understanding is that that's one of the conceits of a piece of fiction: that it is, in fact, a literary and dramatic contrivance. You establish a set of temporal limits for the purpose of intensifying, for the purpose of letting the reader have the opportunity to hold a time period in his grasp at one time.

You see it on TV. "The X-Files." Think about what [it] would be like if [real people] were living the lives of those people on the "The X-Files." Every week, some new horror dawns in their lives. They wouldn't last a month! But we understand that it's a kind of special pleading that the story makes for the purposes of focus and economy.

OV: Do you see Frank Bascombe as a reliable narrator as you were writing from his point of view?

RF: I guess I would have to say yes. But finally, in the larger sense, I think he's like any other character. He has attitudes and he says things that he believes are true and he contrives and orders the world in various ways. I think the reader will make up her or his mind about how reliable Frank is. I mean, I'm never trying to make Frank a liar. I'm never trying to make him seem so insincere as to be dismissible. But I do think that the reader has to bring his own intelligence to bear upon what he sees and what he therefore should believe. So in that way I suppose [Frank] is unreliable, but he's no more unreliable than you or me.

Maybe I've been a novelist so long that I no longer know what the truth is in a received sense. My view as a novelist is that it's my obligation to create the truth, not to receive it. So no received truths have the same profundity to me as the truth that I can create. Every time I affirm something to be true based on prior knowledge, I always kind of wonder to myself, do I really mean that? Do I really think that's so? Do I really want to go to the wall with this? Whereas, when I get to the end of a story and I find myself making those concluding gestures that are typical of the end of a story, I feel no such doubt. Everything floating around in the world that I understand, that is sayable in life seems to me to be highly provisional.

OV: Did it surprise you that you wanted to write another novel about Frank Bascombe?

RF: It didn't surprise me in one way, because I so liked writing in his persona. But it worried me because sequels have a hard path to follow in the literary world. The reason for this is that a sequel is often just a retelling of the first book, or a better working out of a book that was ill worked out originally. So I was afraid I wasn't on firm ground. Even though I was comfortable writing in Frank's persona, that very comfort gave me pause. I spent a year preparing to write it to be sure that I really did have a book that was whole.

OV: How do you prepare to write a book?

RF: One of the things you do is you tell yourself that you're writing a book, but you're not going to write it right now. What that means is that you think about the book all the time and you collect information. As I realize that I'm going to have to write a book which wants to go to the baseball hall of fame, where I've never been, then I get on the airplane and go up and rent a car in Albany, New York, and drive the route that I think Frank's going to drive. I have my tape recorder and I just kind of talk into it while I'm driving and look at the things on the side of the road-sort of, you know, brainstorming in a sense. Then I come back, get a typist to transcribe all those notes. I did it for the Baseball Hall of Fame and I did it all over Connecticut. I went down to the Jersey shore. I went back to Princeton and looked around Princeton and Hopewell and Lawrence Field and all that central New Jersey area, just accumulating impressions.

I get one of those big ring-bound notebooks-the kind you get at the book store, and I put the little dividers in. One will say "Frank," and one will say "New Jersey," and one will say "Baseball Hall of Fame," or "Independence Day," or all of the names of the secondary characters. As I go through that year, accumulating material, I put that material where I think it belongs. Sometimes I'll particularly seize on a line of dialogue that I like, and I'll think to myself, gee, someplace in this book I would like Frank to be a character who could say this line. I don't know how or where, but I like the line so much I want to put it in my stock of available quotes, But sometimes it seems so good that I think, well, I'd like to have several people say it. So I'll put it in all their folders. Now, they won't all say it, obviously. Only one person will say it. But sometimes one person will say it and then I'll contrive a way to have another person throw that line in his face; so she gets to say it, too.

OV: As you do the research for a book, do scenes come to you?

RF: Absolutely. When you're driving along, you're basically living in a kind of virtual reality, which is the book that you hope you'll write. In that virtual reality, certain things begin to seem sort of pre-possessive. Ah, that would be a nice place to set a scene. So you do a lot of the doping out-I do anyway- and accumulate what you think would be good scenes long before ever getting around to trying to write them. I find this to be one of the most highly vertiginous parts of planning a book. It's the part when you ain't got a book and yet you're having to go along as though you did. Somehow those two realities, the virtual reality and the real one, clash so profoundly. Sometimes it can be very disheartening.

OV: What about voice? For instance, the voice in Wild Life was so strong. Was it like that from the start, or did you develop it?

RF: I just nailed that voice from the beginning. It was a voice that I had written other stories in; and, in fact, I was slightly embarrassed by the fact that I was willing to write a whole other book using certain kinds of tonal conceits that I had felt I'd pretty well perfected. I thought, how do I think I'm going to get away with this? But then I thought I'm just going to get away with it because this is a book I have to write and can write and want to write. It was never hard, though I think I just about squeezed all of the words I can out of that particular attitude. I'm not going to write any more stories that use that ploy. Once Wild Life was written I thought, well, O.K., that's the full fruition of that preoccupation of mine. I do believe that's one of the reasons I'm principally a novelist and not a story-writer. I believe that the obligation is to use it all up. Don't leave any behind when you're finished with a book.

OV: We talked about the use of time within your novels. Time often jumps within a chapter. Things are taking place in the present, then you bump into another time, ten years before, and then go back to the present.

RF: I think that that kind of narrative strategy is a sort of standard operating procedure for writing books, and it probably adheres to a conviction that I have about what novels or stories are about for me. Stories are for me principally about the way in which the past impends upon the present and prefigures the future. That's the sort of moral architecture of my books. It's highly Faulknerian in its preoccupations. That's what Absalom, Absalom! is about. That's what The Sound and the Fury is about. It's my sense of how morality is finally corralled. If morality is about how we are able to choose to do good or choose to do bad in our lives, the way in which that choice can be explained and understood and cast in a plausible way is in terms of how the past has impended upon the moment of deciding, and then having the future be its consequence. So I'm always putting in little dollops of the past as a way of creating that sense of moral linearness in a story.

It also is true that that's really the only way I understand fiction that I can write myself. It's just so fundamental to how I understand the world that it would necessarily be the way my books were structured and conceived. I do think, on a more technical and superficial level, perhaps, that it is good for the rhythms of the book to have the long girth of a narrative trajectory be interrupted and resumed and interrupted and resumed. It creates a sense of consequence, it creates a sense of rhythm, it creates a sense of suspense.

OV: Do you write a novel all at once?

RF: I write it all at once, in order. The only thing I have ever done differently is to decide, at the end of a time of writing a book, that something will be sort of outsized. There'll be a passage, say like Chapter Four in Independence Day. It was the hardest chapter for me to write because it's the chapter that has to do with the past. It's the chapter that has to do with what Frank did since The Sportswriter was over. I can't actually remember precisely how I wrote it, but I remember writing it in such a way that bits of that past were sort of scattered through the book. What I did as a last gesture was to decide to consolidate them and to put them in one chapter, which I thought when I did it and still think was a little ham-handed of me. But I didn't like it scattered through the book because it made the past slightly more ephemeral than I wanted it to be. I wanted that little passage between the end of the last book and the commencement of the action of this book to be well-articulated and well-expressed in the book. I ran the risk of diminishing it and and subordinating it by scattering it through the book, so I put it back together so it would be clearer and inarguable. That caused me to really have to work on the passage hard. I thought it was a little blunt the way I did it. I still think it is something that is rather inelegant in the book.

OV: When you're making decisions like that, do you have friends that you send the manuscripts to?

RF: No. Most of my friends are my age. They don't have time to read my books. They're writing their own books. I just couldn't imagine asking a colleague or friend to read a book just for general reasons. I might show something to somebody and say, would you please tell me if this that I have done here is successful. Or would you tell me what I should do better than I have done. I haven't done that, but I think I would if I had such a friend.

OV: What about editors?

RF: Now, that's another matter. I have a wonderful editor; he's been editing my books since 1984. He's such a good guy. He edits stuff of mine so ravenously: seventy percent of the sentences he'll make some comment on. I like to have my work submitted to somebody else's opinion that I trust. One of the things that happens is that you get sick of a story. You finish it in the sense that it has a certain little veneer on it. To make it better, even if you know you've made it pretty good, you have to break that veneer. You have to sort of crack it and get back into the things that are integral to the story, but it's very hard to break that veneer when you worked so hard to create it in the first place. Sending it to an editor is the best way to do it because the book always seems a draft to him; it seems provisional and unfinished.

But [my editor] has his little quirks and foibles and flaws. He is never going to question the structure of the story. He's a great line editor and will just beat lines till they sing. But he's never going to be interested in what follows what. For instance, I wrote the ending of Independence Day and I thought, probably there's something about this ending that's not quite right; but I couldn't at that moment figure out what it was. But when I showed it to [my editor] he loved it. He said, "Don't change this ending," and he showed it to Sonny Mehta and to lots of people, and they all said it was the right ending. What I understood was that they wanted it to be the right ending, but I felt that it was not the right ending. They said, "I think you're going to make a mistake if you put a new ending on this." So I just said, "Well, if I do, at least it won't be because you've decided something. If it's the wrong ending, then it'll be Richard Ford's wrong ending." It means everything to me that I make all the decisions. I'm the one who's going to take the rap for the book, so I have to be satisfied and pleased with everything.

OV: What are you working on now?

RF: I've got three or four stories that are finished, and I've got a couple more I want to write this summer. By the end of the summer I would like to have about a half of a book of short stories finished. Next winter, I'm going to go into another period of trying to plan out another book. I'd like to write one more book that Frank narrates, and I think I know a lot of things that it might contain. I've got a big fat envelope full of stuff I've been collecting, but I really need to go into that virtual reality and start thinking about going to the places where I think the settings might be. I want to write a book that takes place at Thanksgiving. I like holidays. Writing stories that you set on holidays has a wonderful, built-in advantage within your culture. All Americans have very special and sometimes very vivid memories of Thanksgiving, Easter, the Fourth of July. If you can set your book then, you automatically engage that whole pantheon of good and bad, high and low memories that people have. Then if you can figure out in a kind of aggressive way what those memories might be and really direct your book right at them, you can do that thing that novels have the hardest time doing, which is to make themselves plausible.