Interview with Richard Ford
American writer Richard Ford often quotes the F.R. Leavis line, "Literature is the supreme means by which you renew your sensuous and emotional life and learn a new awareness." Books help us figure out how to live. Ford did just that by revealing the interior monologue of American everyman Frank Bascombe in his trilogy: The Sportswriter (1986), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day (1996), and The Lay of the Land (2006). He continues to puzzle out how we make ourselves into who we are with his latest novel, Canada, about Dell, a 15-year-old boy on the modern frontier of Montana and Saskatchewan, whose life is thrown in an unexpected direction when his parents decide to rob a bank.
Mississippi native Ford spoke to reader and interviewer Jade Chang about goose hunting, bank robbing, and his bromance with Raymond Carver.
Richard Ford: This was my decision, though I had some pushback from powers that be when I wanted to call this book Canada, and some not good things were said about the American experience of Canada.
Canada for Dell, and for several people in this book, is a kind of refuge. I like Canada a lot—it's a place from shore to shore where I always have been very happy. I went there first in 1962, and when I go, I always feel something lift off of me, like a burden of some kind. I'm sure it's the burden of my citizenship, but I think it's something endemic to life in Canada...a sense of safe haven, renewed possibility.
Canada is so crucial to the U.S., if only because we share this immense border, we share a life! I got interested in the distinctions that are crucial but not visible. You can cross the border anywhere and not notice anything about the physiognomy or the language that's changed, but it's all very different. And it's almost philosophically, if not spiritually, interesting, those things that seem alike but are different. And it's a measure of ourselves as successful human beings that we can see those differences.
GR: That feels like one of the big themes in Canada—how fine the line is between who you are and who you could be. It just took one day, one action, to change Dell's parents into criminals.
RF: I think that's just simply true of life. Those little calibrations are really little, and their consequences are really big. The difference between the normal and the aberrance—I've always had an interest in that. I haven't ever thought about it overtly before, at least not in a novel. I've probably thought about it some in short stories, in Rock Springs (1988), without ever fully looking at the subject head-on.
GR: So you find it to be as true in life as it is in fiction?
RF: [Even] when I was a little boy, I just knew it. That you make one little mistake...you take one star out of the constellation, and it suddenly no longer is Orion. One little step over the line is going to change life forever.
I had problems with the police when I was young, not for morbid reasons—some fighting, some stealing. When I was 16, my father died, and I saw that on one side was having a future, and on one side was not having a future. I remember my mother saying to me, "I'm not going to be able to take care of you as much as I was able to in the past, and you're going to have to take care of yourself." She saw something as being possibly threatening to me, and that something was myself. I remember that moment, I remember that my father was dead and there was that sense of freedom and that sense that freedom has consequences. It didn't make me a better person, just a more thinking person.
There's a line in one of Henry James's prefaces, the one for What Maisie Knew, that says, "There are no themes so human as those that reflect the closeness of bliss to bale." The closeness of the things that help to the things that hurt. I came upon [the quote] in full adulthood, but it resonated.
GR: That freedom, it seems both exhilarating and terrifying. There's a point in Canada where Dell and his twin sister, Berner, are left alone in the house after their parents have been arrested, and you really feel it there.
RF: It's certainly a vivid experience about being set free. I never really had it until it was forced on me by my father's death. I'm an only child of parents who really loved me, so running away and being away from my family wasn't something I thought about. I wanted to do many things they didn't want me to do, but running away, no.
I was a conformist. I don't think other people would describe me that way, but it's how I thought of myself. I would have been a starch salesman like my father was, if he'd had a firm grip on the tiller of my life. He would have directed me in the paths he followed himself—he never went to college, my mother never went to college—and unless something really blossomed in my brain, I would have been malleable that way. [Once he died], a lightbulb went off in my head—the thought that there's something else available—which never would have gone off otherwise.
GR: Do you ever think that would have been the better life?
RF: No, because I wouldn't have met my wife, and because I met my wife, everything was different, everything was good.
GR: How did you two meet?
RF: I was a busboy in her dorm [at Michigan State University]. I was working my way through school. I just saw this pretty girl across the room and asked her name.
GR: And that was it? You just started dating?
RF: We did. We still are. We always say on Fridays, "It's date night!" That's one secret [to a long relationship]. No kids is another secret, too.
GR: Goodreads member Ivan Molloy wants to ask about Frank Bascombe. He says, "Although throughout the Sportswriter trilogy Frank has some form of relationship on the go or on the back burner, he nevertheless strikes me as a man who is fundamentally a loner, someone who is better off and happier on his own. I find it interesting that Richard has written this character so convincingly and with such depth, considering that Richard himself married young and has remained married to the same woman throughout his adult life."
RF: I don't have an answer, exactly, but I can speak to its implications. I've never been able to classify people as loners or not loners. People's lives are not over until they're over. It's hard to say in medias res just exactly what you are just because of what's happened to you so far.
If it's that I write about something different from what I am, that's my job. I don't think I should be by nature limited to my own experiences. They say write about what you know, but I write about what I'm curious about. Also, I don't consider Frank to be a loner, only that he hasn't succeeded in the way he'd like with a partner or a spouse or a lover, but I don't consider that to be a defining factor.
GR: In a Paris Review interview you said that people often tell you very personal stories without a whole lot of prompting. What do you think it is about you that makes them do that?
RF: I know exactly: I listen. I'm just natively a listener. I think that there wasn't a lot of katzenjammer when I was little, there was just me and my mother, so I'm used to listening. I'm also blessed by being somewhat dyslexic. When you're dyslexic, you have to work at getting the things out of the atmosphere, getting them to make an impression on your brain. There's a disconnect where you encounter experience and how that experience imprints on your brain. So when people talk, I have to listen carefully.
And I think in general people are not listened to very much in their lives. One of the reasons that Kristina and I didn't have children was that we wanted to listen to each other.
GR: That's very true. People want to be seen.
RF: Yes. People want to know that...that they matter. We're aware of ourselves in lots of different ways, there are things that we like about ourselves, and it's gratifying to have someone outside yourself become aware of you.
GR: Goodreads member Joe Redding says, "I saw a wonderful photo of Ford and Raymond Carver set for duck hunting. I would like to hear more about that friendship."
RF: Yes, goose hunting. We were goose hunting in that photo. Carver and I were best friends, and one of the things that we discovered about each other upon initially liking each other—falling in love, essentially—was that our families came from the same place: western Arkansas. His went out to the Pacific Northwest, while my parents really didn't go so far away, but one of the things he grew up doing and I grew up doing was fishing and hunting.
That photo was taken in southern Saskatoon. He asked me if I wanted to go up to southern Saskatoon with him to give a reading. I wasn't invited; he was. He said that he would give me a portion of his fee to come up with him and also read. The real linchpin was that they wanted to take us hunting. In the photo I'm over on the left wearing a rakish hat, but we'd been lying face up covered in wheat straw in a wheat field, which was being rained on. We'd dug trenches and laid down in them side by side. This was in 1985, I think.
GR: When you go hunting, do you pluck and dress everything yourself?
RF: I only kill what I can eat. I do clean it myself, unless I can hire someone to do it for me! It's a cottage industry up in Saskatchewan—there are goose pluckers. There's this famous story about Carver and me taking our geese over to the goose plucker way out on the prairie—it may have even been on this trip—and the goose plucker's daughter came outside, and we were both taken aback because she was an astonishingly beautiful woman all the way out there alone. We made a bet as to which one of us would get the goose plucker's daughter into a story first.
GR: Who won?
RF: I did! It's in one of the two stories from which I wrote a film, Bright Angel. It's in "Children." Though it has more humorous value than anything else, and I don't think I really got much humor in there.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
RF: When I'm at home in Maine, I write in a remodeled boathouse down by the water. The previous owner of my house, who was a lobsterman, used to work on his traps and do repairs to his dinghy there. It was very rough, it didn't have insulation, or a toilet, running water. I just moved a desk there.
Most every day from about 8:30 to 12:30 or 1 I write, and then I go away for a while, then again from about 3:15 till 5, though mostly that's spent planning what I'm doing the next day. It's very orderly without being onerous. People think I'm slow. My friends who are novelists, [like] Joyce Carol Oates, make fun of me for being slow. But novels for me are long processes, and I'm slow about doing them. I have to live a very temperate life, I can't be waking up with hangovers or regretting a terrible decision.
GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?
RF: Oh, I wouldn't know how to answer that. I read all the time, I'm a pretty omnivorous reader. That Henry James book had a huge effect on me, I wasn't expecting that. I just read a book of Vasily Grossman's that had a profound effect on me [Life and Fate]; it was entirely about the Second World War and the German assault on Leningrad. I don't have a program for reading, I just read. It's always the case that things come out of nowhere.
GR: What are you reading now?
RF: I just read Empire of the Summer Moon, about a Comanche war chief who happened to be half Comanche and half white. He went from being in the middle of the 19th century, living what the book called a "Stone Age existence," till, when he died, in 1962, owning property and a house and having children and dependents and living a really westernized life—he had President Roosevelt coming to his house, things like that. From what you might expect his life to become, to what he did become, there were such vast changes... You can see how that might hearken to Canada.
I'm just about to read a book by Seán Ó'Faoláin called Bird Alone. My wife read it and loved it—she's a fast reader, and I'm a slow one—it'll take me a month to read it, and it's taken her a week.
GR: Last question: In Canada you say that there are two kinds of people—those who want to rob a bank, and those who want to be president of a bank. Which are you?
RF: I want to rob the bank, for sure. For sure. I have no hesitancy about that!
Interview by Jade Chang for Goodreads. Jade is a journalist and writer living in Los Angeles. She wants to rob banks with Richard Ford.
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