Ford Aims to Move on From Bascombe Books

By JERRY HARKAVY
The Associated Press
Sunday, March 11, 2007; 10:36 PM

EAST BOOTHBAY, Maine -- It's easy to pinpoint the spot where a road map of New Jersey hung on the wall of Richard Ford's boathouse during the four years he spent writing his latest Frank Bascombe novel.

As Bascombe meandered along the highways of the Garden State, and Ford spun out the sportswriter-turned-real estate broker's interior monologues, the author referred to the map to be sure that his geographic references were accurate.

The critically acclaimed novel "The Lay of the Land" came out in September. After his recent return home from a four-month promotional tour, Ford took the map down, leaving a lighter colored rectangle as evidence of where it shielded the wall from wood-stove smoke.

The map won't be going back up. Ford has made it plain that a fourth book that would take his protagonist beyond his "Permanent Period" and into his sunset years isn't in the cards.

"I've ruled it out as much as I've ruled anything else out. I won't ever get married again. I'll always be married to the same girl. And I don't think I'll ever write another Frank Bascombe book," Ford said in an interview at his home overlooking Linekin Bay.

He wrote "The Lay of the Land" at his desk in the boathouse, using a Bic pen. Another Pulitzer Prize winner, the late essayist E.B. White, also wrote from a Maine boathouse, up the coast in Brooklin, where he used a manual typewriter.

The novel, like the two previous ones, takes place during a holiday weekend, in this case Thanksgiving, when Bascombe's two children plan to visit. The first of the books, "The Sportswriter," was set around Easter, while "Independence Day," the first novel to win both the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner Award, put Bascombe on the road with his troubled son as America celebrated July 4th.

In the latest book, Bascombe, now 55, has remarried and moved to the Jersey shore, where his real estate business has prospered but his personal life is unraveling. Diagnosed with prostate cancer and undergoing treatment with radioactive implants, he finds himself living alone after his second wife left him for her former husband who she believed had died decades ago.

Bascombe would be hitting retirement age if he were to re-emerge in print 10 years down the road, another reason for Ford to let him be. Writing about older people holds little interest for him, he said, perhaps because the sense of possibility is diminished.

"To me, writing about Frank in his 60s has no allure at all. It's bad enough that I have to be in my 60s," said the 63-year-old Ford.

Readers care about Bascombe. He is intelligent, has a sense of humor and tries to maintain a balance in life, Ford said. But he has always made it plain that his signature character is not to be mistaken for his alter ego.

Both are Democrats _ the latest novel takes place amid the uncertainty that followed the 2000 election and neither Bascombe nor Ford has much regard for President George W. Bush _ but Ford has never been divorced and has no children.

"When people ask me how am I different from Frank, my answer is always that he's a lot nicer than I am," he said.

Tall and lean, with pale blue eyes and long graying hair, Ford's gracious manner is underscored by traces of the soft accent that serves as a reminder of his roots in his native Mississippi.

The Bascombe trilogy is set in New Jersey because Ford was living in Princeton when he started writing "The Sportswriter" in 1982 and was familiar with the local landscape. He has since lived in Montana, Paris and New Orleans, where his wife of 38 years, Kristina, was the longtime director of city planning.

In 1999, he moved to coastal Maine, where he had no friends and no ties, with the goal of persuading his wife to give up her high-powered job and join him.

"I tried to find a place that I thought particularly attractive, that was by the ocean and that I could also afford," he said. In the warmer months, the Fords enjoy diving off the dock for a swim in the chilly waters or exploring the coast in their sea kayaks.

Ford lived alone for 3 1/2 years until Kristina was replaced by the incoming mayor, Ray Nagin, and she was able to leave New Orleans, ahead of the devastating hurricane.

With long-standing ties to the ravaged city, the Fords remain concerned about its future and worry about the lack of housing for those who were forced to evacuate after Katrina hit and are now unable to return.

"It's a pretty dispirited place right now," said Ford, who has traveled to New Orleans to help build homes with Habitat for Humanity. He would like to see a massive housing program but questions whether local, state and federal leaders have the political will to carry it out.

Ford is held in high regard among critics and students of American literature, both for the Bascombe novels and for his collections of short stories. His work is included in college courses, and his fans on campus say it will likely be studied for decades to come.

Devotees point to the broad scope of the trilogy and how it captures 20 years of American life at the turn of the century.

Bascombe considers himself "a citizen scientist," said Tom Grimes, director of a creative writing program at Texas State University. "He doesn't move through the American landscape so much as he analyzes it, excavates it, and constantly looks at what it means to be, at least in his case, American."

With his latest novel completed, Ford is in no rush to jump into another writing project.

"It's always been my practice when I finish a long book to kind of let everything settle back down to zero," he said. He plans to relax for a while and let life come first and writing second.

Another practice that Ford follows during his writing is to read his work aloud to his wife before it goes to his editor, a full-time ritual that for "The Lay of the Land" took five weeks.

Richard and Kristina each follow along with manuscript in hand. "I'll say, 'Is that the right word?' or 'Is that too long?' or 'Is that clear enough?'" he said.

"She's very smart, and she's got a very profound grip on what my aspirations are," he said. "She understands regular life, in a way, better than I do."

The exercise seems to be a labor of love.

"It brings us so close together," Ford said. "It's a wonderful thing for us to get to do together, and I say this because she told me so."


© 2007 The Associated Press