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The SRB Interview: Richard Ford – Scottish Review of Books

The Lay of the Land

Richard Ford
Bloomsbury, £7.99 pp736, ISBN 0747585997
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Richard Ford

October 21, 2009 | by SRB

Richard Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on February 16, 1944. He was an only child, the son of a travelling salesman who died from a heart attack when Ford was sixteen.

Despite suffering a mild form of dyslexia, he went on to study at Michigan State University, where he met Kristina Hensley, who would become a city planner and Ford’s wife. They married in 1968 and remain together. Ford’s first novel, A Piece Of My Heart, was published in 1976. When it and his second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, failed to take off, he took a break from fiction to write about sports for the New York magazine, Inside Sports. The magazine folded and Ford returned to fiction, producing in 1986 The Sportswriter, his first novel to feature his most famous creation, Frank Bascombe. His much anthologised short story collection Rock Springs(1987) confirmed his critical success and saw him grouped with his friend Raymond Carver as a ‘Dirty Realist’. In 1995, his second Bascombe novel, Independence Day, won the Pulitzer Prize. Last year, Ford returned with the third part of his Bascombe trilogy, The Lay Of The Land, which is set at Thanksgiving, 2000, against the backdrop of the disputed Presidential election result. This August when he visited the Edin-burgh International Book Festival, Richard Ford spoke to Colin Waters about happiness, 9/11, and Raymond Carver.

Scottish Review Of Books: Earlier today, you began your EIBF session by reading Alastair Reid’s poem ‘Scotland’, which of course famously ends, “We’ll pay for it”. You related your fondness for the poem to your own Celtic roots, but one wonders if the spirit of “We’ll pay for it” isn’t at large in America right now. It certainly seems to be if we view America through the lens of The Lay Of The Land.

Richard Ford: We are paying for it. But something bad was happening before 9/11. 9/11 was punctuative, but it wasn’t the first of those punctuations, though it was certainly the most drastic. We in America had been hiding our head in the sand about many, many things for a generation. Really, ever since the end of the Vietnam war, when our roguish arrogance was pushed back into our face until we couldn’t ignore it. We started right away to ignore things over again. It’s the American way I’m afraid, to ignore the consequences of your behaviour, because we have a belief that we are the model of civilisation. We’re a democracy, we prize affluence, we prize education – we have no self-doubt to express. We have this imbecile George Bush as a sort of Alfred E Neuman ‘What, me worry?’ face of American optimism.

SRB: As you’re the creator of perhaps Ameri-can literature’s most famous real estate agent, it’s apt we should speak at a moment when the global economic system had been thrown into panic because of unsound practices in the American mortgage market.

RF: It’s just rapacious greed by the lenders. They figured out some way of loaning money to people of insubstantial means, who wanted a house desperately, as anyone would want shelter and to have what a house stands for, then used the loans as currency and sold them off to people who sold them off to someone else, until it reticulated what was a minor mortgage market in America. Because they used these mortgages as instruments, it permeated the whole financial system, very much like what happened in the savings and loan industry a generation ago. It plays, as banks do, on the hopes and dreams of people, which is the opposite of what insurance companies do, which is to play on fears.

SRB: Frank’s interesting though in that he’s trying his best not to exploit his customers. He sort of views himself as a potential agent for the realisation of his customers’ hopes and dreams, doesn’t he?

RF: Frank believes as he says, or as I made him say, in The Lay Of The Land, that he believes in commerce. Commerce is a kind of religion for him. But the further I get from him, the more I realise he’s implicated in everything he criticises in American culture, implicated in a modest and gentle way albeit. He believes in commerce, he believes that when money is circulating and people are getting it, not so much the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, but when people are able to pay their bills and own their house, that the polity is reinforced.

SRB: The interesting thing about Frank in context of your earlier novels, A Piece Of My Heart and The Ultimate Good Luck, is how those books’ characters are forever on the move, forever running away. You also once wrote an essay praising transience. Now you have a protagonist anchored in his immediate environment to the extent he makes a living selling property, with the result his ‘journey’ is almost entirely internal. The amount of time he spends in his car driving round and round Haddam, his town, is almost a parody of those ‘journeys of discovery’ best embodied, I suppose, by On The Road. You even have Frank think at one point, “Why do so many things happen in cars? Are they the only interior life left?”

RF: That was my joke [laughing]. My wife and I have travelled around America so much, we have many serious, memorable conversations while we’re driving around. It does encapsulate you, you’re generally in a good humour, the world’s passing you by, you’re a little distracted from most of the things that concern you, so it opens up the channels of communication. Course most young people in America have their first sexual experiences in cars. Where do they have them in Europe?

SRB: Parks?

RF: Alas, alas.

SRB: “You make choices and live with them, even if you don’t feel like you’ve chosen a damn thing”, says Frank. Is he an existentialist?

RF: That’s an act of volition. “Shit happens” is the guide-on bearer, to use a military term, for most people’s lives. But my view and Frank’s view is we might as well say, because there is something to be gained from it, that shit doesn’t just happen. We take responsibility for it. I like that – because it seems within our grasp for the most part to do it. It is a much better thing to go through life saying, “Most of these things, I’ve caused”, than, “I’m just a victim of this or I’m a pawn in the wake of fate”. I’ve never been comfortable with existentialism as it talks of things as a philosophical phrase. It always talks about work and things that have been done already. Whereas it isn’t very predictive of what we’re going to find out about human beings, unless you believe as I don’t that we know all we can know about human beings. Imagination is our guide here.

SRB: I was interested to hear you say at the Book Festival that you’re sceptical about the very notion of such a thing as coherent ‘character’. Yesterday, while I was reading Women With Men, I jotted down with reference to character, ‘you do what you do until you do something different’.

RF: That’s it. That’s it exactly. I think all people are capable of most things. The fact that they didn’t do it doesn’t mean they weren’t capable.

SRB: So character is a mirage and we’re really a set of impulses that rise to the surface depending on what external stimuli we’re presented with?

RF: I’m afraid that’s pretty much the way I think about it, with the caveat that you have a memory. Memory is helpful; the memory of sticking your hand in the fire is what prevents you doing it every day.

SRB: But that’s memory used at an animal level isn’t it?

RF: That’s okay, to see people as having these animal lives. Not that I think that’s what underlines civilisation, I’m not Hobbesian in that way. But memory and expectation of what we’d like to have, see, and do, those are things that keep us on an even keel. It’s not because of some inner essence that expresses itself through our behaviour.

SRB: While we’re on the subject of matters you’re sceptical about, are you also ambivalent about creativity and imagination? There’s that line, “My greatest human flaw and strength, not surprisingly, is that I can always imagine any thing – imagination is a trait and that might make one a top notch trial lawyer, a novelist or realtor, but that also seems to produce a somewhat less than reliable and morally feasible human being”.

RF: I said that, didn’t I?

SRB: No, it was Frank, in The Lay Of The Land.

RF: Oh. That’s one of those moments where Frank and I agree. What I can say is – just because the story told is not a sweet story or progressive story doesn’t mean that we can’t go back to life after reading the novel with a more intense sense of it. We can feel life has been ratified. Whenever you read a novel that says it’s taking life as it’s subject, at some low lever of response the reader feels life is worthy of an imaginative excursion.

SRB: There’s a real sense of the contingency of life running through your novels and stories. “One minute you’re completely in a life, and the next you’re completely out”, as someone puts it in Women With Men.

RF: I do feel that. You can attribute it to my life growing up. I was the child of older parents. My father died when I was young, just sixteen. All of my aunts and grandparents were dying off continuously when I was growing up. My father was gone all the time because he was a travelling salesman. I lived a very intense and precarious life with my mother. One of my most vivid memories was being out in the front yard with my mother and I was exasperating her. I was about seven. Suddenly, she ran out of the front yard, out across the school yard next door, and disappeared behind the school. I remember it all so vividly, because as much as I loved my mother, and as much as I realised on some level that my home life was fairly stable, some part of me thought she would never come back. So I’ve always thought life was fragile. The reality that we make and call life is fairly provisional.

SRB: One way this contingency manifests itself is through violence. And violence has been stalking the Bascombe trilogy from the start. That violence finally bursts out at the close of The Lay Of The Land. Is this a response to 9/11?

RF: I understood after I wrote it that it was hooked to 9/11, but like I said, it’s hooked to the violence before 9/11 too. I just realised when I was looking around for events for the book, that most of the events I could use were violent events. Violence is everywhere in the culture, and at any given moment of physical or spiritual relaxation, violence is imminent. I just realised that. I always think of the book, although it takes place before 9/11 as a 9/11 book because it talks about the run-up to 9/11.

SRB: Have you read Ian McEwan’s Saturday?

RF: No, because it fell in the year I was writing The Lay Of The Land.

SRB: It’s similar to The Lay Of The Land in that both books concentrate on relatively satisfied middle-class males travelling around and observing the town they live in on an important date. Thanksgiving in your case, the day of the big anti-war marches in Lon-don in 2003 in McEwan’s. Both books end with an invasive act of violence too. Satur-day was frequently criticised for having a protagonist who was just too self-satisfied; in other words, ‘happiness writes white’ there. Does writing a book in which the protagonist is relatively content throw up particular problems – assuming you agree Frank’s content?

RF: I would say Frank believes he’s content. From a mechanical point of view, when I began to write about Frank in 1982, I was scratching my head, trying to think of something to write about. My wife said to me, offhandedly, why don’t you write about someone who is happy, you’ve never done that before. I spent a while thinking about how you would write about someone who is happy, bearing in mind Tolstoy’s warning about how happy families are all alike. I began to think about a character who would be happy if he could, who has these impediments in his life to keep him from being happy, and the course of the book could initialise his access to happiness by overcoming difficulties. But, nonetheless, I get people coming up to me and saying, Well, Frank’s very depressed, and I say, Actually, he’s not. If you met him on any given day, you’d think considering most things, he’s dealing with life pretty well. I think that. But unhappy people appear more dramatic. Wallace Stevens wrote, “We gulp down evil, choke at good”. We don’t want to hear about people having a good life, or if we do, it has to be the Disney version. I think the reason the Bascombe books have been accepted is that they take a positivist view compromised by reality. And in their own way they do something that Walter Benjamin wrote about books; they try to be useful to the reader. They say, Life is not all this way, life is not all that way.

SRB: I want to ask you about the architecture of the Bascombe trilogy. When you began The Sportswriter, did you have in mind succeeding novels?

RF: It was one book. Taking myself back to the moment where I began to write The Sportwriter, I was shit out of luck as a writer, lucky even to even have an idea for a book. I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have a publisher. I didn’t have anything. To concentrate on one book, to think I could even start one was a quite a novelty for me. I had no notion of a larger architecture. Even when I came to writeIndependence Day, I resisted strenuously thinking I had a sequel going for me. I didn’t think my canvas was that big. The Sports writer had a very nice life, Rock Springs had a very nice life. Wildlife did not have a very nice life but I felt that I had been encouraged enough as a writer from readers and from being able to make a living at it, that I could and indeed should widen the field I work in.

SRB: Did you go back to the previous books to shake out ‘seeds’ that could grow into something interesting in The Lay Of The Land? Wally, the AWOL husband who returns to unsettle Frank’s marriage, is only mentioned in Independence Day, but his return is so effective, it made me think you’d always planned it that way.

RF: I certainly went back to the earlier Bascombe books when preparing to write The Lay Of The Land. I didn’t do it as much with Independence Day. I think because of the provenance of Independence Day. I didn’t really start it as a sequel; I felt like it had to be entirely distinct and anyway I had so much of The Sportwriter still in my head. By the time I came round to writing The Lay Of The Land, some of those things had grown a little blurred in my thinking and so I had to shake some stuff out of those books, things I wanted. Wally was the principal thing.

SRB: Planned or not, it works very well.

RF: I guess it did but it was improbable. There’s an American poet, Randall Jarrell who said a novel is a long prose narrative with something wrong with it. I’ve known this line for years without ever really attaching importance to it. But in the process of writing The Lay Of The Land I came to think I know what it means, to me. Bringing Wally back is wrong. Which is to say, Wally goes away in book two and suddenly by my authority, turns up again in book three. So, yeah, it’s convenient; in other words, it’s plausible in terms of the other plausibilities in the book. It’s also probably not likely that it would ever happen in real life, that a man would go away and return many years later. So that’s wrong. The reason it is a tenet of the novel is that I, the novelist, work really hard to make the implausible plausible – which is a mini-definition of what a novel is. To the extent I can dedicate all these pages to Wally, and have Wally come in looking the way he looks and saying the things he does, that’s me trying to make him plausible. Trying to make something that is wrong right, or making the implausible plausible, means that I draw a line of dramatic sustenance out of that. It gives me something to do as a novelist; I get set about making Wally’s presence in the book a useful and proper presence. This novel is full of implausibilites. The whole idea of sponsoring, for example, is quite implausible [Within the book, Frank is a ‘sponsor’, part of a group of people who turn up and listen to strangers get things off their chest]. Two things – the artificiality of what I’m suggesting and my success at making it plausible – exist in the reader’s mind at the same time. When those two things do exist, they are like attractive polls, and the nature of the attraction is pleasure. When a reader can see himself being manipulated and then tumbles to the manipulation, that is intensely satisfying in an aesthetic sense.

SRB: Didn’t F Scott Fitzgerald say the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time is an example of a fine mind?

RF: Or many more things. Though the definition of holding many more contradictory thoughts in mind at the same time is marriage [laughing].

SRB: You’ve been to Edinburgh before. Memorably in the mid-Eighties, I think with Ray-mond Carver, as part of a travelling band of writers grouped under Granta’s Dirty Realists banner. What are your memories of that time?

RF: I’ve been to Edinburgh many times. Definitely here once with Ray in 1985. Maybe here twice with Ray. What did I make of the Dirty Realist tag? Oh, I was tickled by it. We all thought it was a hoot. We understood it the way it was – and now we’re talking about twenty years later, it has some currency, it has legs as they say – we always thought it was just Bill [Buford then editor of Granta] figuring out a way to sell these writers he admired. Me and Ray and Jayne Anne Phillips and Toby Wolff.

SRB: It interests me that you don’t mind the Dirty Realist tag. Writers on the whole don’t like having labels applied to them. You yourself have said you don’t like being called a Southern writer.

RF: I don’t like being called a Southern writer because it would be for me restrictive. It would mean either I write only about Southerners or only for Southerners, and neither of those is true. Indeed, the opposite is true. I wanted to write books that anyone who could read would read. And that forced me out of writing about what was my inherited subject, which was the South. I’m here now because I didn’t write about the South. If I had, we’d be doing this interview in The Peach Tree Hyatt in Atlanta and you wouldn’t be writing for the Glasgow Herald, you’d be writing for a pissant daily from South Georgia.

SRB: Carver’s name came up recently in another book I was browsing. VS Naipaul, talking about Indian writers he believes are guided by imitation, wrote “Should they be like the late Raymond Carver and pretend they know nothing about anything”. This criticism was levelled against Carver in his lifetime and against you when writing about blue collar characters. What’s your take?

RF: You can’t pay attention to anything Naipaul says because he’s full of venality. He has as little regard for other writers as anyone I can imagine. Plus he hasn’t read anything. He’s only talking about Raymond Carver from hearsay. I’m sure he’s never read, if he’s read anything, but a modicum of what Ray wrote. So we can set Naipaul aside, where he belongs – but not as a novelist. As a novelist he’s extremely artful. But as a commentator, who gives a fuck what he thinks? Now we’ve settled him – in the dustbin – yes, indeed, people in America complained that we were condescending to write about people who were not of our socio-economic class. My view of that is I’m free to write about whatever I want to. To do what I’ve done, and what Ray did, which was to make these people the subject of intellection, of serious treatment in fiction, is good for life. Because Ray was never writing down to people, he was never pillorying people as fools because of what their jobs were; he was interested in a compassionate way, as I have tried to be, in life. If we projected outside of what our immediate circumstances were, we did not do it in a meretricious way. In my case, I have been complained to about making eloquent people who were of a lower middle income group, for making them have thoughts someone who work on the line on Ford motor company or the railway perhaps wouldn’t have. My view is, under certain human circumstances, who is to say that anyone is incapable of eloquence? Who’s to say anyone is incapable of both wage working and great emotion? My attitude isn’t to say fuck off to those who criticise me, but to say hold on, there are things to be got from this. I would defend Ray and myself because it carries the conversation further and because I think we have something to defend.

SRB: You’ve written about many different parts of US. What is it about a place, a location, that arouses your imagination?

RF: Maybe a sense that no one had done it before. Maybe a sense I can become the greatest authority on that area. Maybe something about the vocabulary of the landscape itself. New Jersey has got a lot of words associated with its vocabulary that I would like to see in sentences that I wrote. Maybe something dramatic about the landscape, the way in which the Great Plains butts up against the Rocky Mountain front. A setting for a book comes to me for unpredictable reasons. There’s a story in A Multitude Of Sins, ‘Quality Time’, about a man who sees a woman killed on the street while driving down to a hotel to see his girlfriend. I simply wanted to write a story set in the Drake Hotel.

SRB: And that was the seed?

RF: Ah, well, the seed was that I saw a woman get killed in the street, run over right in front of me. I was sitting at a stop light in the winter of 1997 in uptown Chicago. A homeless woman was walking across the street. There were four lanes of traffic and she was okay until she got until the last lane. She thought she was golden and she walked into the other lane and SMACK, she went up in the air, came down dead as a hammer. I was just sitting there. And I thought, Oh shit – I’m going to have to write about this.

SRB: In that very second?

RF: Oh yeah. Right there.

SRB:Your wife is a city planner. Has her work had any influence on yours?

RF: Lots. Mostly what I pick up is terminologies and a kind of presumption that to write about housing, about how cities are planned, about how cities conduct their business is the rudimentary stuff of moral life. We share views about most everything.

SRB: I’d like to ask you about your dyslexia. I’ve worked up a list of dyslexic writers – F Scott Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Yeats, Agatha Christie – but I can’t see any pattern. Except maybe with Flaubert and his famous striving to find the right word. Could that striving be borne out of a certain hesitancy that comes from dyslexia?

RF: You might be able to build one theory on it, that the tendency to go to painful lengths to find the right word is a result of not being able to find the right words. It’s not very often that I ever think I’ve found the right word. First of all I find the wrong word, then I pain over it and try to find the right word, and finally compromise when I find a word. Which is different from, perhaps better than, but not the final word in the key that locks the whole thing. I’ve convinced myself over the years what, if you excuse the expression, creativity is. The willingness to do that, the willingness to engage in the process.

SRB: Do you do many drafts?

RF: Drafts are a relic of the typewriter age. What I do is write with a pen, ending up with a considerable manuscript in ink, which I type up on the computer. Then I print out my hardcopy pages and work over them just as you would in the old days and then I type in my corrections into the computer and then play around with that and then work it over again. I won’t print out the whole thing every time. There will be parts I know I’m satisfied with and parts I know are far from satisfactory. Those are my modern day versions of drafts.

SRB: Does dyslexia account for your more relaxed attitude to writing? I’ve read you don’t feel you have to write everyday, and I’ve interviewed other authors who get itchy when they can’t scribble something down.

RF: Probably right. If I don’t do anything for a long time, I get a little itchy myself. But it isn’t certainly a couple of days. Henry James has a phrase, “the well of unconscious cerebration”, meaning the things going on in your brain with the general input of life that you are not calculating on the surface of your intelligence. When I’m not writing, I trust in a hopeful way that something is going on down there and I’m not aware of it. And as long as I need to do that, I’m okay with it. I’m not overly nervous about not writing everyday. I haven’t written anything for a year. I don’t care. I probably would have worried about it more when I was younger, but the worry was, Can I do it again? Well, I want to do it a high level, and the way I can do it, or to the highest of my abilities, is to give myself as much latitude as I want.

SRB: So there’s always the potential The Lay Of The Land could be your last book, certainly for a long time anyway?

RF: If I understand things now, it will be. It was uncommonly rigorous to finish this book. By which I mean once I wrote it to the end and after I’d typed it up and got into the process of really finishing it so that the reader could read it, and went through my editor’s edits and I read it aloud to my wife, and because the book is so long, I became obsessed with getting all the words in the right place – the consequence was that I got ill, and I didn’t like being ill at all. There were various symptoms of illness which I really don’t have to happen to me anymore. I don’t want to put myself into a situation like that again.

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