Richard Ford On The Work Of Writing

Novelist Richard Ford
Novelist Richard Ford

For most of us, a national holiday is a break from work. But a novelist's work is never done. They're always thinking … plotting … writing … dreaming up stories and weaving them into fiction. And that IS work, as novelist Richard Ford can tell you. Martha Teichner has paid him a visit.

His most recent novel, "The Lay of the Land," begins there, on a cold morning just before Thanksgiving, with its main character, Frank Bascombe, about to go for a life-affirming swim.

"Feeling the ocean climb and lick my chest, and my breath go short and shallow, my two arms beginning to resist, to float way to nowhere, I knew that death was different. And that I needed to say 'No' to it now."

Ford won the Pulitzer Prize dealing with the intricacies of Frank Bascombe's existence. His three Bascombe books, all of them set over holiday weekends, follow Frank's career, first as a sportswriter, then a New Jersey real estate salesman.

"The language of real estate is all about the language of people's hopes for where they live, how much they feel their house is worth and therefore, how much they feel themselves to be worth," Ford said.

Frank Bascombe loses a child. so the first Bascombe book opens in a cemetery, inspired by one not far from where Richard Ford once lived, in Princeton, N.J.

"It's really just a sort of almost inert background in front of which the principals, the characters do what they do," he said.

They live, they do dumb things, they get divorced, they worry about dying - ordinary people are Richard Ford's subject:

"I made Frank have prostate cancer because it was probably just one of those scary things, one of those devils that get drawn on the wall for you, when you're a man over 50."

Richard Ford's high forehead is what you notice first. It looks as if it's meant to house all the complexity he observes about human nature and American life, all the eccentricity, all the humor, until he can run what's collected there through his imagination.

"I'm really lucky to get to write books," he said. "Great literature, whether I could ever write it or not, meant so much to me when I was 19 years old. It changed my whole way of going into the world."

Richard Ford was about the last kid anybody expected to become a writer. He is dyslexic. An only child, he grew up in Jackson, Miss., flirting with delinquency when his traveling salesman father was away.

At a reading, Ford told a story about going to church and stealing cars left unlocked in the parking lot.

"It was a trick that we would steal the cars at exactly eleven o'clock, and we would go out and race those cars, and we would race those cars for exactly 48 minutes, and then we would get them back into the same slots in the church parking lot and go back into the sanctuary and come out with everybody else."
At 16, his father died, and Ford began to get serious.

At Michigan State University, he discovered literature and met his wife, Kristina, his chief booster and critic for more than forty years.

Before Ford submits a manuscript to his publisher, he and Kristina sit across from one another, each with a copy, and he reads it to her.

"And he won't like a word or I won't like a word, and then he'll say, 'I don't like this, you know, "The sky is robin's egg blue," what's another word for blue?' " said Kristina. "And I'll say, 'The sky is azure.' And he says - and we always have one of these little fights - 'Azure???' Is that the best you can do? Why do I have you over here?'"

Kristina Ford prefers candor to flattery.

"If I saw something that was wrong and didn't point it out to him, and a reviewer did, then I've set him up in a way, because he's asked me to help and I didn't help, and then I would feel awful," she said.

Ford's studio is an old boathouse, just down the hill from his home on the Maine coast. Ford and Teichner toured where he wrote "Lay of the Land."

He first writes in longhand, before typing. "My handwriting's terrible," he laughed, "and I have a hard time, sometimes. I have to have a magnifying glass to look at it."

He alluded to the burn spot, "the famous scar."

Here, days before it was finished, a lamp fell on his only copy of the final draft of "The Lay of the Land," setting it on fire.

"I ran out the door and there was dew on the grass, and I just threw the whole thing out on the grass, onto the dewy grass, and I was down on my hands and knees, burning my hands, incidently."

But for Richard Ford, a storybook setting like this doesn't necessarily suggest stories.

"I could set a story any place," he said. "All the stories that I set in Montana, that are in Rock Springs, I could just as easily have set them in Nebraska or Kansas or any place. People don't like it when you say that, because they think somehow you've not been faithful to the place that you're reputed to be writing about."

The Fords have lived lots of places - Montana, because Kristina, an urban planner, got a job there.

Her work also took them to New Orleans, the city Richard Ford realized he loved: "I had never felt about a place the way I felt about New Orleans.:

Days after Hurricane Katrina, with an exile's ache for a place, he wrote about it in a New York Times op-ed piece, "A City Beyond the Reach of Empathy":

"New Orleans, the place where the firm ground ceases and the unsound footing begins. A certain kind of person likes such a place. …

"I write in place of others today, for the ones who can't be found."

"And that was a sort of an instantaneous recognition of what home meant to me in a way that I had never been able to come close to defining it before."

"When he was reading that out loud to me, he could never read it without starting to cry toward the end," Kristina said. "It's so moving, and Richard's not a man who cries often."

He considers New Orleans his home, but moved away well before the hurricane.
He dismisses the importance of place in his writing, but can cry for this place.

Like the characters he creates, at 64 Ford is unapologetically full of contradictions. Take his attitude toward hunting. Hunting is something he and Kristina have always done together, fully aware that they're considered politically incorrect.

"Kristina and I both hunted as kids. The truth is, I think we both just like it."

Hunting figures in his first novel, and the one he's working on now, set in Canada. You can see why Richard Ford likes hunting in the books he's written. It takes a sharp eye and accuracy. Like nailing the right word, it also takes luck.

"To be a novelist, you really got to be lucky," he said. "You can work like the dickens, you can go to your study every day, you can have high aspirations, but you have to get lucky in some way."