Am American Gentleman
Near the end of Conversations with Richard Ford, a collection of interviews edited by Huey Guagliardo, Ford says, “You have to be careful about what writers say. Sometimes they say things to protect themselves. Sometimes they say things to make what they do seem easier, or sometimes they say things to you to make it seem that you could never do what they do.” Normally, I’d say this is a questionable way to end a book documenting what a writer has said. But by this point Ford has built up so much credibility I immediately understood that he was talking about the deceptions of other writers.
He continues the thought, “It’s been my goal, though, as a writer to try always to tell the truth about these things because I don’t want to say anything that would discourage a young writer from feeling that she or he could do what I do.”
What Ford does is publish award-winning and well-read novels, short stories and essays. He is best known for his two novels about Frank Bascombe, The Sportswriter and Independence Day. The latter is the first novel to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner awards. Yet his early reputation rested on short stories, such as in 1987’s terrific collection Rock Springs. Young writers should feel that they can do what he does, of course, but few will actually do it.
In 28 interviews spanning over 20 years, Ford comes across as a decent person, devoted to his wife of 34 years Kristina, unfailingly polite in conversation and remarkably consistent in and generous with his views on writing. Although Ford often refers to writing as hard work, it is also something he appears compelled, almost fated, to do. He says, “I have only two things in my life that matter. Kristina first, and then there’s my work.” These are not separate spheres, Ford emphasizes. Kristina serves as his first reader and played a crucial role at a turning point of his career. As Ford tells it, he was on the verge of giving up writing after his second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, fell through the cracks. Kristina encouraged him to continue writing and suggested he try to write about “someone who is happy.” That someone became Frank Bascombe.
This happy union may surprise readers familiar with Ford’s characters, who are often sad, divorced, adulterous and otherwise troubled. Similarly, I have been a fan of Ford’s since Rock Springs and somewhere along the line I forgot that Ford himself does not have children. He simply has a great ability to write completely believable characters. Ford, who does not have a flashy personality or media-ready quips, benefits from a book like Conversations, which shines the spotlight on someone who would not go out and grab it.
Ford just may be the least catty writer in history. “Other people’s successes do not diminish you, your failures don’t help others.” When asked about the difference between short stories and novels, Ford draws some distinctions between the two, and then concludes, “But, you know—we don’t have to choose. We’re free to read them all.” His interviews can not be recommended on the basis of an outlandish personality or any can-you-believe-he-said-that verve. When he reveals the greeting he wants to give to a certain bad reviewer—“Hello, shithead” with a raised fist—the moment is laugh out loud funny, not so much for what he says but for how different it is from the level and pleasant dialogue that dominates the book.
I suspect only reviewers will read the book in order, but Conversations does benefit from the trajectory of Ford’s career. Small pieces in local newspapers give way to longer articles as Ford becomes a “writer to watch,” and lead at the end to 20-page interviews as Ford becomes “one of America’s finest writers.” There is some inevitable repetition in a book like this. Many of the interviewers go over Ford’s biography, his work habits and writers he respects.
Nearly all of the interviewers focus on the issue of regional writing. Although his two most famous novels are set mostly in suburban New Jersey and his best known short stories are set in the American West, Ford, who was born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas, expends a lot of energy dodging the ‘Southern Writer’ tag.
Ford still spends much of his time in the South and has nice things to say about the region. He doesn’t, however, see the point of regional writing. “And the subject of the South bores me, really. To me, the South as a regional entity or identity represents one of a number of unpalatable things. It’s either the chamber of commerce boosterism, the sort of chest-thumping ‘how great we all are,’ which I of course know isn’t true . . . Or it’s a notion representing some kind of encoded white self-regard, which I don’t like either. It would seem to me that if the South could find a vocabulary adequate for all of its equal component parts, it would quit being the South and just become part of America. . . . So Centers for the study of Southern Culture make me tired.”
Ford states that his region is America and beyond that anyone who will read him, which is not to say he dismisses the differences between regions. His frequent moves—the Fords have lived in about fourteen different states—give him the opportunity to learn new idioms and see things that are fresh and different. He often talks about capturing a sense of place in his work. His writing, however, lacks those “critical impulses that section people off from a larger readership or create a language system that only a certain kind of people can really truly appreciate.”
The interviewers don’t press the issue of gender as frequently as regionalism, but Ford takes the same approach when unfairly pegged as a man’s writer. His second novel, 1981’s drug deal gone bad tale The Ultimate Good Luck, is often called Hemingway-esque. The author himself is a fan of hunting, boxing and motorcycles, although his characters rarely are. When questioned about the “man’s writer” tag, Ford says that if he thought he were only writing for half the population, he would hang it up.
Ford’s writing habits seem to have remained remarkably consistent over the years, from his use of notebooks at the beginning of a piece to reading the finished work out loud to his wife. He regards writing as a craft, but exhibits little use for literary theory. “I had to find out my writing was Realist by other people telling me.” He doesn’t spoil his own writing with too much revelation, but there are insights. His elliptical, non-climatic endings are not surprising coming from someone who says, “Things seldom end in one event.”
For writers, Conversations offers some good advice and encouragement. For those interested in the issue of regional writing, it reveals an interesting contrarian perspective. On the whole, Richard Ford’s interviews will never be as fascinating as his fiction but if you’ve enjoyed the later, I can recommend the former.