A Lot of Ford

In the current edition of Westword, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford (pictured) talks about his new novel, The Lay of the Land; that item, along with information about two booksigning events, can be eyeballed by clicking here. But there was much more to the conversation than could be squeezed onto a single page. Ford, speaking from Alberta, Canada, where he had just spent the day bird-hunting with his wife, Kristina Hensley, and a friend, spoke in detail about Land, the third novel focusing upon sportswriter-turned-real estate salesman Frank Bascombe. Topics included the difficult time he had capturing Mike Mahoney, Frank's Tibetan sales associate, the question of whether any plot point is absurd, and the decision-making process he applied to the question of whether Frank should live on even though Ford's already decided not to write another novel about him. (There's a minor spoiler near the conversation's end.) But Ford also talks about his years in New Orleans, where his wife once worked as a city official, not to mention 9/11, the nature of grief and the reason why Bascombe, who's also at the center of two other Ford books (The Sportswriter and Independence Day), isn't an autobiographical character.

Consider the following the equivalent of a special feature on a deluxe DVD -- added value for Ford fans, or anyone who enjoys peeking into the mind of a thoughtful, self-deprecating and thoroughly engaging scribe.

Westword (Michael Roberts): I was looking at a bunch of old interviews you've done over the past few years, and one had you in New Orleans and one had you in Maine, and now I'm calling you in Alberta. I was going to ask if you had moved again.

Richard Ford: No, we're just up here to hunt birds. My wife and I and our dog and our friend, Carl, who used to be my publisher, but he's no longer in the publishing business. He's an old friend from Chatanooga, so we do upland hunting together pretty much every year. You tend to hunt with the same people you've always hunted with.

WW: So Maine is your home base?

RF: Maine pretty much is. It's where we spend most of our time. But we have a house in New Orleans, still, and after the hurricane, it became very clear to us how much New Orleans was our home. My wife left her job, but she was actually fired by the mayor there...

WW: The current mayor? Ray Nagin?

RF: Uh-huh. He fired her as soon as he got in office, as a matter of fact. Then we left and thought we would not be coming back — that it was the end of that epoch in our life. But we found out after the hurricane how much it meant to us. So we've been going back and forth, and we rented an apartment all of last year, and we just started to rent a house. We'll be returning on some basis. We don't know on what kind of basis so far. I've been doing nothing but writing this book for the past four years, so now that that's over, we can think of something else to do.

WW: Did you own a house down there? And did it sustain any damage?

RF: At one time or another, we owned two houses, and neither of them sustained any serious damage. And the house that we're now renting is the house of a friend of ours. It's in the French Quarter, as was one of our houses, and it didn't sustain serious damage, either. Practically everything had roof tiles blown off at a minimum. But the high ground is where the city was first settled. That's the French Quarter and the Garden District.

WW: What were you impressions of how things have moved forward — or if things have moved forward — the last time you were back there?

RF: I haven't been back there since the spring. My wife was back there, and there are remarkable contrasts as to how things have recovered. The Lower Ninth Ward, where most of the damage was done, has not come back in any way, and probably won't, and maybe shouldn't. You can't get anybody to say it shouldn't come back because it's too hot a political issue. Lakeview, I think people are beginning — because so many of those houses were brick houses — with some success to start to recover their house. Kristina says just beginning. But the real problem is the so-to-speak class of people who worked in restaurants and the service industry. Those people have been moved out of the city. So that causes the concerns they worked for not to be able to get back open properly. So you find all kinds of strange contrasts. You walk into the French Quarter and it looks the same as it did ten years ago, or five years ago. But other parts of town are much more subtly effected.

WW: When you think about these issues, does it tickle your interests as a writer? Or is it too personal at this point to wonder if this might be the basis for some future fiction?

RF: Things like that never occur to me. When things are in the news like that, like 9/11 or like Katrina — big, serious, factual disasters — they don't usually ever present themselves to me as things to write about. In my practice, events have to kind of sink into the ground and come percolating up through my feet. And moreover, the facts of these events have to be sufficiently internalized in our life so that they no longer tell us all we want or need to know, so that acts of imagination become necessary. And that usually in my experience takes time.

WW: That dovetails into something I wanted to ask you about — why the new novel is set during the limbo period in November of 2000 when we didn't quite know who would be president, although we had our suspicions. Did those events seep into you in the ways you just described?

RF: Yes, it did. But I felt it was also the case that in American culture, we are so hasty and ready to get back to normal as fast as we can. So that I think that particular little interregnum period of our national life sank out of our memory almost immediately. The entropy of government, and the Constitutional crisis that entropy caused, and the disaster that the outcome eventuated, which I think we're experiencing today. So that just seemed to be a good example of what we were just talking about — a period of time in which the facts had essentially been vacated, so that an act of imagination could in fact become useful for a readership. And also I wanted to set it in a time when people would immediately recognize that time period — not only Thanksgiving, but that Thanksgiving when the government was at a standstill. I think all of the people who read the book who are Americans will immediately recognize that, and will have experience to bring to bear on it.

WW: It's interesting that you talk about our forgetfulness as a culture. That's something that's struck me about New Orleans and Katrina. It was a catastrophe on a scale that has seldom been seen in American history, and yet people who aren't down there probably hadn't thought about New Orleans until, as silly as it may seem, the first football game at the Superdome a few weeks back.

RF: That's right. It's very much like after 9/11 when people were so thrilled when the stock market opened again, as though the opening of the stock market was a sort of halcyon moment, and as though the opening of the Superdome was a halcyon moment. In fact, they're basically meaningless in terms of the losses that were sustained and the terrible change in our attitude toward the rest of the world and our own government. All of those little signposts are meaningless.

WW: One of the things that struck me about the new book is that Frank still thinks quite a bit about the death of his son, which took place a long time before. For me, that resonated because I read the book just after the shooting at a high school, Platte Canyon High School, which got a lot of attention because it's about an hour from Columbine. Within days afterward, there were stories about how a certain act was helping the people in that community heal, or that healing had begun. And Frank exemplifies the fact that healing can take a really long time, and it's not as if the wound will go away without leaving a mark.

RF: No, you don't get restored to what you are. It's a truism to say that, because something would have happened afterward. If you took your pulse and then lived another two years and then took your pulse again, and it was different, something would have happened to alter your pulse. Grief like that does not leave you as you were. It's a way, fundamentally, I think, in realistic fiction or fiction of any kind, of arguing that experience matters. Things change. Things that happened have consequence. Your life, its meaning is at least assessible in terms of behavior and the things that have happened in your life. You can't just say, as Americans are wont to do, "I'm going back to work. Everything's better. The stock market opened. The Superdome's open." That's not how life works. We want it to work that way. It's as though our Founding Fathers promised us that it would work that way. But in fact, it doesn't. You see it in government all the time, and you see it in big business all the time, when people, for instance, plead no contest, but they don't admit their responsibility for an act — as though by doing that, they could ameliorate something, or erase the consequence. You can't do that. Things that happen matter.

WW: And yet one of the interesting things about the book is that one of the things that was important to Frank in the beginning of your fictional stories about him — his job as a sportswriter — doesn't seem important to him at all anymore. It doesn't even cross his radar. Is that, for Frank, a part of his past that hasn't left much of a mark?

RF: I think that actually might be just outside the purview of these books. It isn't an inappropriate question at all, and I understand why it becomes even more appropriate in terms of what we were just talking about. But I don't know the answer to that, frankly. I was aware when I was writing the book to not return to the conceits of the first book, and quite determined in both of these subsequent books to not try to re-undertake that whole issue of sportswriting and what it was to him when it was his liveliehood. So I don't think I know the answer to that. You are probably as prepared to answer that question as I might be.

WW: Well, here's something speculative. In reading some of your past interviews, you've taken pains to emphasize that this isn't an autobiographical character: "This is not me." And that argument was probably harder to make when you've just written a book called The Sportswriter after having previously worked as a sportswriter. Was it perhaps a relief once Frank moved on professionally that this question was removed from the standard list of questions that journalists ask you?

RF: No, because they ask me that question anyway. [He laughs.] Truthfully, though, it was never a burden. I was happy to tell what I thought about that — that the book wasn't autobiographical. It plucked at a few autobiographical filaments of my life, but by and large, it was not, and it continues to be not. It's amazing that people do ask me that question, but nonetheless, they do, and I treat it with respect.

WW: Do you follow sports anymore? Is it as removed from your life as it is from Frank's?

RF: I think it's not as removed from my life as it is from Frank's. But much less than I ever was in my life am I interested in spectator sports. We never go to the ballgame, for instance, as we used to do just religiously when we lived in Michigan. I go to the Final Four every year, or I can if I choose to. But sports has taken a more proportionate place in my life.

WW: That would probably be a good thing for a lot of us.

RF: Well, living in the Red Sox coverage area, one is well advised to keep things proportionate.

WW: Let's talk about the plot of the new book. It has a lot of humor in it...

RF: I'm glad you think so.

WW: ...and some people might see some of the things that happen as absurd. Although I suppose that some people like Sally's first husband do sometimes reappear after being thought dead for decades. [Sally is Frank's second wife.]

RF: I do think things like that are absurd, but I know this for a fact: If I can say it, it can happen.

WW: The older you get, do you think fewer things are beyond the realm of possibility?

RF: Yes. I think almost nothing is beyond the realm of possibility. You don't have to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center for that to be true. It's like all of us who are not inventors, we think of something that would make a really good widget, but we know that somebody already thought of that a long time ago. When I think of something that can happen from my book, I know it's plausible. It may in fact strain plausibility, and the book then actually dervies some strength and torque from the opportunity I then have to make the somewhat less than plausible seem plausible. But nonetheless, to say a woman's husband can come back like that — well, that's Page Six stuff, isn't it? That's the kind of stuff you see on Entertainment Tonight.

WW: And yet within the last month or two, there was a story of a young girl who'd gone missing, and it turns out that she'd been kept hostage for ten years and then suddenly materialized.

RF: Yeah — she just walked out of the house one day. It's like somebody finding their wedding ring in a striped bass that they catch off Manasquan [a community on the New Jersey shore]. I'm surprised I didn't put that in the book. That's the kind of thing I like to put in books.

WW: Is it fun for you to try to make something implausible seem plausible? Or are there times when you think, why on earth did I set this challenge before me?

RF: It is very pleasurable. The long passage in this book about Sally and Wally [her first husband] was really one of the most pleasurable pieces of writing I ever did in my life. And it's completely made up. There's not one thing in it that I nicked out of a newspaper or anything. But when I wrote it, I wrote it straight through, more or less unchanged in the book, and I loved doing it. The only thing that was strange was I asked myself, why was this so natural for you to write? It never happened. It never probably would happen. But it was completely pleasurable. And many things that go into a book are not pleasurable to write. They're a strain or you don't know enough about them when you start, or they're challenges. And maybe you do come back to yourself later and say, why did I set this up for myself? That just wasn't one of them.

Was there a part of the new book that was the opposite of that pleasurable experience you just described?

RF: Yes, but I want to preface this. The things that you write that are pleasurable and just flow off the end of your pen are not promised to be better than the things that you really have to struggle with. Sometimes when I really have to struggle with something, it turns out to be quite creditable as a piece of writing. But with that said, aging [Frank's] kids and trying to imagine personalities for them in their middle twenties when I had imagined personalities for them in their middle teens prior to that, that was a challenge. It was a challenge for me to make Mike Mahoney plausible. Mike Mahoney was one of those stretches where you say, if I can think of this, if I can dream this up, I know it can happen. But then you still have to make it plausible. I was always obsessing about that Mike Mahoney business, and I would tell Kristina, "I don't think I've got this yet. I don't think I've made him visible yet." And she'd say, "Yes, you have." But somehow in my mind, it was always hard to do.

WW: Was there an epiphany moment for you where you thought, "I've got it"?

RF: No, but there was a moment where I thought, I can't make this any better [laughs].

WW: That's one of those statements that few people will speak out loud but that's crossed every writer's mind.

RF: Yeah, and then you also think, well, I've written this book, and it's taken me four years. It's absolutely taken me to the mat, which is what I think books properly should do. This book is meant to be written in a frame of time, and I think I've done this as well as I can do it. If it doesn't leave me with a warm, cozy feeling about everything I've written, that's something I've learned to live with in the whole process of writing rather complex novels. Some things leave you feeling that way and you know, therefore, you've done your best. And some things don't leave you feeling that way, and you just frankly need to get used to that. You think to yourself, maybe if I kept at it for another year... But I don't want to keep at it another year. By the time another year went by, then maybe I wouldn't like any of it. There is a way that all books are meant to be written in their own frame of time, and I did everything I could in the frame of time I gave myself.

WW: You've made it very plain that this is the last Frank Bascombe novel you're going to write, and yet you didn't kill him off. You came close to killing him off. But what was it that stopped you from making that shot fatal?

RF: First person narration [laughs].

WW: You didn't want to do the Sunset Boulevard thing?

RF: No, I didn't want to do William Holden in the swimming pool. I frankly didn't want to do that. And apart from that, it never really was feasble to me. I'm just not a garish enough novelist to have posthumous narration. Maybe I would be better if I was garish in that way. But the other thing was, I really wanted to bring Frank to a point at age 55 of peaceableness. I wanted him to reach a point in his life where he accepted himself and his life and all of his circumstances and his kids and his wife and everything and not be going on yearning. I'm sure if I were to pick him up again, pick the whole issue of his life up again, I'd have to invent some kind of new yearning for him. But I think that the way I resolved that in this book resolved it in myself, really. I brought himself to a point of leaving where I felt good about leaving, and I don't feel any reluctances about that anymore.

WW: So the one thing that may prevent you from picking it up again is the fear that to do so, you'd have to invent something that felt contrived?

RF: Yeah, but believe me, I've done plenty of that over the years [laughs]. The truth of the matter is, the thing that prevents me from wanting to take him up again is the fact that I'm 62, and I just don't want to do that kind of work again. I really did it all I want to do it. So it has nothing to do with him. It has everything to do with me. I just don't want to do it. I don't want to be the guy who strokes out and falls face down on his desk while he's writing Frank Bascombe's next line of dialogue.

WW: You want to be the guy who wants to enjoy hunting in Alberta?

RF: Yeah! You said it. If you ever want to know if Frank Bascombe's autobiographical, there's proof positive that he isn't.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts