Off the Page: Richard Ford

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Richard Ford
Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist
Thursday, December 14, 2006; 1:00 PM

In his latest novel, The Lay of the Land, writer Richard Ford returns to the suburban world of Frank Bascombe, whose ramblings on divorce, kids, women and men won Ford a Pulitzer for his book, Independence Day. Ford will join Off the Page on Thursday, Dec. 14 at 1 p.m. ET to talk about his new novel, Frank and all things writing.

The transcript follows.

Bascombe is often compared to John Updike's Harry Angstrom, but where Rabbit Runs, Frank Ruminates. It is this interior landscape that makes Frank Bascombe so exasperating, and so intriguing.

In The Lay of the Land, Bascombe's second wife has left him, he's recovering from prostate cancer, and his kids are troubling him, all in the Thanksgiving of 2000, as the Supreme Court weighs whether George W. is the new president. Through this modern semi-hell, The Washington Postreview says, Bascombe acts as "our unlikely Virgil, guiding us through the modern American purgatory of big-box stores along frontage roads, slowly decaying town squares and leafy, secret-harboring suburbs."

Please join Off the Page to ask Richard Ford about his latest novel and other literary topics.

--Carole Burns

A book based on Off the Page interviews, edited by host and writer Carole Burns, will be published in January 2008 by W.W. Norton. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, Burns is at work on a novel.

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Carole Burns: Who is Frank Bascombe, and why does he keep coming back? Do you remember when he first walked onto the page for you?

Richard Ford: He's not anybody. He's a piece of language, really, which has a sound that the reader can hear when the reader silently reads that language aloud. He isn't a person at all. As a piece of artifice, he's an instrument whereby I can as a writer get as much as I know and can make up and imagine and that seems as pertinent to what I think my book is about as possible. I think that for me, Frank Bascombe stays, as I'm writing him, and up to the last, entirely mutable and perhaps even impressionistic, whereas for a reader, I think he seems not mutable and quite specific. At least that's my understanding of what characters do. They exist differently in the minds of the people who write them from how they exist in the minds of the people who read them. I should say that this is not in any way to denigrate "his" aesthetic usefulness.

No, I don't remember when he first walked on the page. Absolutely I know where he came from. He came from a kind of collusion between my own imagination and several books that I cared and do care very deeply about. In that way he's a sort of received voice, which got altered by my use amidst various origins.

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Northfield, MN: Is it fair to say Frank's voice is the compelling element of the Bascombe trilogy? Can you talk a little about the evolution of his voice?

Richard Ford: Voice to me is at a best poorly understood term. What voice means to me is the music of a story's intelligence, and that music is composed of the rhythms of the sentences, the length of the sentences, how much the sentences stress the reader's intelligence, the rhythms of the whole book, the length of the whole book, how many ly adverbs there are, how many adjectives, how many active verbs, and certainly over the course of 20 years of writing Frank Bascombe, that music has changed.

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Boise, ID: Hi Richard,

I've been trying to write some stories, but I get hung up on who the narrator is talking to and why. When I read a story like Carver's "Cathedrals" or your "Rock Springs," it seems like the conceit is kind of like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, that the narrator has to tell his story and if he has to waylay a wedding guest to do it, then so be it. Or maybe the narrator is somebody that your stuck next to on a long airplane ride.

Is that anything that you think about at all? I guess I feel better writing some kind of frame story like Conrad's narrator in Heart of Darkness sitting aboard a ship in the Thames talking.

That said, I really like the effect at the end of "Rock Springs" when Earl kind of breaks the 4th wall and addresses the reader/listener directly.

Richard Ford: I understand this question, but I do not think it's a question whose answer should hang you up. If you feel most comfortable writing first person narrators in which there is a specific audience, then do that. If however you feel uncertain about who the audence is, the specific address-ee to the first person narrator, but the story still comes out well, then do that. The reader will understand that most fundamentally the reader is the addressee, even if there is a putative or a virtual addressee as an intermediary. Try to invent these structures so as to feel free-est in getting the most interesting and intelligent things you can say onto the page.

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Carole Burns: I'm always interested in your observations on men with women, women with men... though sometimes it seems you end up with men without women. Can you talk about how you go about writing about this?

Richard Ford: What I know most about those subjects is what the stories themselves contain. To try to provide a post-facto gloss on those subjects is probably to imply that I know more than the story did, which after writing the story I'm sure is not true. I will say this about women and men: To me, women and men are much more interestingly alike or similar than they are dissimilar and un-alike. Relations between them, the sexual aspects notwithstanding, are to me just relations between two humans.

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Northfield, MN: In an Off The Page discussion earlier this year Joyce Carol Oates praised your ability to write authentic women characters. Are you as comfortable writing Sally Caldwell as you are writing, say, Paul Bascombe, or does every character have his/her own particular difficulties regardless of sex?

Richard Ford: I'm grateful that Joyce thinks that. Insofar as I tend to think of characters not as human beings, I then don't really have to do much more than give a nod to gender, per se. So what I'm doing is inventing lines of dialogue and inventing interior lives for putative women and putative men, so that the act of doing each is very similar.

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Carole Burns:

As a novelist, how do you know when you're done? What do you want an ending to accomplish, and then, how do you make it happen? And given you're on novel No. 3 for Frank Bascombe, can we, in this instance, trust your answer?

Richard Ford: You can trust my answer every time!

I think a novel is finished when I go through it and I don't want to change anything. Novels achieve different effects with different sorts of ending gestures. Maybe the sense of how an ending feels is quite visceral to me. I plan for where I want a book to end spacially, but as with Independence Day, I got to the end of that plan and then it wasn't right. So I had to knock that end off, much to my publisher's chagrin, and write a new one. In a very traditional way, I want an end to be dramatic in a localized sense, and I want it to be in some ways conclusive of the major concerns of the book that I just wrote. Knowing whether or not I've done that is also very intuitive. There is a sense to an ending in my practice that feels very full. I feel like all of the things that have been in the book up to now have sort of, in a sense, been fully terminated.

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Somerville, MA: What kind of notebook do you keep? What writers most inspire you? What writers do you most disdain? Who, if anyone, do you think you're "writing back" to?

Richard Ford: I don't disdain writers at all. Most books that I've read in my life, even if I didn't like them, were probably books that were trying very hard to be good.

What writers do I like is a question I can't answer--I'd name a bunch of people that wouldn't surprise, and then I'd leave off the most important one.

I just bought a new notebook at the book store the other day, and I made my first entry on it on the plane the other day. And what it is is a daybook, a kind of grabbag, without order, without rules, that I don't feel the least bit indebted to, unless there's something I want to put in it. It's kind of a substitute for a memory, something I used to have, and it also is a reminder of what I'm on the earth to do. Notice and make things out of it.

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Carole Burns: In the intro to the Grant book of American Short Stories that you edited, you wrote that writers loved and were shocked by the post-modern fiction coming out in the '60s, even if they "couldn't write in the new way"--and seemed to put yourself into that latter category. Why do you suppose you are the kind of writer you are?

Richard Ford: Because of what I read and liked when I was young. That probably made me want to do for readers what those stories did for me. Frank O'Connor, Sherwood Anderson, Chekhov. And because I tried to do what I thought was probably de rigeur at the time. I'm not comfortable with the word post-modern because I don't know what it means... we called them anti-stories at the time. I tried to write stories that were inspired by Barthelme and Borges, and I coudn't write anything that was any good.

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Los Angeles, CA: I recently saw you speak in Los Angeles with a young writer named Tod Goldberg (it was a really fabulous event!) and the two of you talked a bit about dyslexia. As an aspiring writer myself with dyslexia as well, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how your struggle with dyslexia has changed your approach to writing and to reading.

Carole Burns: Tod was on "Off the Page" with Pam Houston last year. Read the transcript.

Richard Ford: I probably can't say much more than you heard me say. It probably helped that I didn't know that I was dyslexic when I was young, and simply thought I was slow as a reader. But being slow made me pore over sentences and to be receptive to those qualities in sentences that were not just the cognitive aspect of sentences but were in fact the "poetical" aspects of language--how many syllables a word had, whether it had a long e sound or short i sound, all of those sensuous qualities of language, how it looked on the page. And it seems to me that those qualities in language are as likely to carry weight and hold meaning and give pleasure as the purely cognitive, though of course we can't fundamentally separate those things, although the information age does its best. Richard Hugo, the poet, wrote once in an essay that when language is thought of just as a mode of communication, it is dying.

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Derwood, Md.: I really enjoyed this book, and it's exciting to have a chance to ask you a question. I just wanted to know how you go about determining the setting, character details, etc., of a novel--do you use research to flesh out creative ideas, is it drawn from experience, both, neither? And what would you recommend, if anything, for others? Thanks.

Richard Ford: I try to do as little research as possible, but sometimes I just have a plan for a book which bumps me up against things I don't know. And then I have to resort to my very suspect reportorial skills. By the time I'm writing a book, I'm so keen to be writing it that I hate to stop and take two weeks and go learn something that I didn't know but that I have to know. But I do it. But for me, subjects really have to engage my imagination, not just be backed up by reporting.

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Queens, NY: At a Barnes and Noble reading in NYC, you said, almost inaudibly because someone was mad to ask another question of you, that one of your personal favorite pieces of your own was 'Communist', the last story in Rock Springs. Can you talk just a little about that story, what it means to you? Do you ever feel that Bascombe-mania overpowers your other work, like the dog that is most aggressive in pursuing the owner's attentions?

Richard Ford: I don't feel like these Bascombe books overpower my other work, because they are so different from other work that I have done, and I actually value them all pretty much equally. I probably couldn't write a book or a story without thinking at the time, This is the best thing I could possibly do.

"Communist" I feel a lot of affection for, for several different reasons. One is its origin: that my friend Tom McGuane once asked me while we were hunting if I had ever written a hunting story. I told him I had never written a hunting story because I didn't like to read them. And he said, If I would write a hunting story, he knew some guy that was doing an anthology that would probably publish it. And so I wrote a hunting story. And from that innocent little inception came a story that was much more than a hunting story. I sort of like the humbleness of the origin. And I liked the story because it let me describe something, which is something I never do, it let me dscribe something I specifically experienced rather than just made up, which is an enormous number of geese taking flight, which I found was a very stirring experience both to have and to write. Two other things: I was moved by the opportunity to write the final conversation at the end of the story between the narrator and his mother, which I thought was quite an intimate relationship but that maintains the proprieties of parent and child. Finally, when I wrote the story, which was in 1983 in Mississippi, far from Montana, where the story is set, I wrote the story to an end which didn't feel like the right end although it felt like an end. And I showed the story to my friend Joyce Carol Oates, and she gave me the best advice any other writer has ever given me. She said, Richard, you need to write more on this story. Write more words. And I had to figure out what more words to write.

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Carole Burns: Why do you write?

Richard Ford: Because I read. I write because I read. And because I read sotries when I was at an impressionable age, when I was in my late teens, that made an impact on me which was so thorough and so complex and it seemed in a way to complete something that was incomplete about life, that I think I figured out that I would like to write stories that had effects like that for other people. Other than that, I have no idea.

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Carole Burns: OK! That's all we have time for today. Thanks, Richard, for visiting Off the Page today. And thanks for all the fantastic questions. Off the Page will be taking a hiatus for a while, but I plan to be back next year as an Off the Page book comes closer to publication. To be kept informed about new interviews and the book, e-mail me at mailto:offthepagebook@yahoo.com? &subject=OffthePageList.

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