Readings for Writers

A Conversation With Richard Ford

Richard Ford is the author of the novels The Sportswriter, Wildlife, Independence Day (which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and Lay of the Land, as well as a number of short-story collections. His most recent novel is Canada, which was published in 2012 and is now available in paperback. He recently spoke with Commonweal contributor Wayne Sheridan and his wife, the writer and artist Sandra Dutton, about writing, reading, and the place of faith and religion in fiction.

Wayne Sheridan: A lot of your work, to me, is a “meditation.”

Richard Ford: Yes, I do think it is meditative. It’s who I grew up reading. William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor. They are all meditative. Even though they might be antic or bizarre or all kinds of things that don’t seem meditative, they are fundamentally meditative writers.

WS: It seems that what you are doing is reflecting on what life is all about—how do we face it, and how do we survive.

RF: Exactly right. That’s what I figured out what literature was. When I was young, life didn’t seem like enough. I just didn’t understand what all the commotion was about. I started reading when I was about nineteen. Reading was about life. And reading innately said that life was worth meditating about. That life was where we were, and literature was about it, and literature was about how it was important, how we could succeed in it, and how we could function in it. And that made both literature and life simultaneously seem more important to me. That life could support literature meant to me, ipso facto, that life was worth more than I thought it was. And that literature and language would be the instruments by which I would figure out and posit how important life was. It’s very Augustinian. A fundamentally Augustinian approach to thinking about life.

WS: Speaking of Augustine, I know you have no professed religious faith.

RF: I am a Buddhist. Which is the same thing as having no faith.

WS: The Sportswriter starts on Good Friday morning and continues through Easter Sunday evening. Was that deliberate on your part?

RF: No, absolutely the opposite. I set it on Easter weekend because I started writing it in on Easter morning, 1982. And I started it then because I had a memory of what Easter felt like, what Easters have always been for me, almost pictorially, growing up in Mississippi. It was always sunny. It was never rainy. It was always cool. It was always inviting. It was always a happy day, Easter. And when I wrote the book a very peculiar thing happened. The more I wrote it the more religious it became. And the more religious it became, the more I fought with it. I would set a scene—for instance, a scene toward the end of the book which takes place in [protagonist] Frank’s girlfriend’s parents’ house—

WS: Yes, and she is a Catholic. And the stepmother is a Catholic.

RF: They’re all Catholic. And she’s a nut. When I was writing that scene I kept putting people in rooms and I wanted to put a crucifix on the wall. So I would be, as the writer of those scenes, snatching those crucifixes off the wall. I thought to myself, no, no, religion is going to shanghai my secular book if I don’t watch out. I could become Graham Greene. So I worked very hard then and I worked very hard when I was rewriting the book to make sure that the Easter myth did not completely shanghai my very secular book, which was basically about not having a faith, and not finding one.

Sandra Dutton: My father said stay away from Catholic boys [see “Behind Enemy Lines,” February 8, 2013].

RF: My mother was raised in a convent. And she married a boy who was from County Tyrone, and his family were virulently anti-Catholic. They weren’t just a little anti-Catholic, they were virulently anti-Catholic. And even though my mother was not Catholic, she had been sort of pushed into this convent school, because her parents were itinerant. She was in the school at the Convent of St. Ann in Fort Smith, Arkansas. And when my father brought her home and they found out that she had been in a convent school, they wouldn’t speak to her. Basically, they wouldn’t speak to her for the rest of his life, and even when he died they wouldn’t have anything to do with her because they thought she might be Catholic.

WS: In Canada, the arrest of the parents, a very tragic event, happens on a Sunday. And the murder, in the second half of the book, which takes place across the border from Montana in Canada, in Saskatchewan, also happens on a Sunday. Was that deliberate, or was that arbitrary?

RF: It’s just how it worked out. Well, now that I say that, possibly I do believe that there was a hand guiding me; I’m just not aware of it. All I can do is aver my own intention, and aver what I understood it to be. You know, I work the days out. I mean I grew up in a religious household, so Sundays were always a special day. I didn’t like them. Probably no child likes Sundays.

WS: To a child, it’s a morning spoiled. Can’t play baseball or read a comic book.

RF: But as a writer you can be mostly assured that for most of your readership, if you set something on a Sunday, your readership will have a certain sensibility about how that day feels. Even though the readers might not experience it exactly the same, they would experience it as special, so that when something takes place it automatically resonates with your readership. And then you’ve got something going.

WS: You’re teaching at Columbia University.

RF: I’m teaching a reading class for writers. We’re going to do a lot of stuff. You know, one of the problems with MFA programs, though this is not true of them all, is that the students are very directed, as they should be, to write a book in two or three years. So, that’s their primary goal. And they nourish that goal as much as they possibly can, by trying to get everybody to read their work, and to help them with their work. But it seems to me that can overshadow what made us want to be writers in the first place. And I am a pretty good reader, and I have a wide taste. So, I thought rather than just be one more person who reads your manuscript, why don’t you let me do something other than that, which is to teach literature.

SD: Teaching books that are your favorites? Or, that you think will be good for them?

RF: I’m teaching books that were good for me that I think should be good for them. I’m teaching Emerson’s essay on character, I’m teaching all Henry James’s prefaces. I’m teaching William Gass’s essay on character, and a whole bunch of stuff about the “sense of place” in literature. I try to teach subjects that will nourish students’ impulse to write in a slightly different way from just concerted addiction to their own work. All of us who are writers, you know, we don’t write all those hours a day. So there are so many hours that we have to make use of to help us when we get around to those hours when we do work.

WS: Toward the end of Canada, Dell [the narrator protagonist], now a teacher, says that he recommends certain books to his students, and that “one of them will say, ‘I don’t see what this has to do with us.’” And Dell will tell that student, “Does everything have to be about you? Can you not project yourself outside yourself? Can you not take on another’s life for your own benefit?”

RF: Yes, that’s my whole tack as a teacher.

WS: In one of your prefaces to one of the many anthologies of short stories you have edited, you talk about the respect the writer has to have for their readers’ time. Is this something that you are conscious of?

RF: Very conscious of it. I think in terms of having to give readers something that merits their attention. Something that rewards my invitation that you stop doing what you’re doing and do what I want you to do. For me that just requires certain kinds of skill to keep you interested.

WS: Many of your works, including Canada and Wildlife, and a lot of the short stories, involve something that happens to an adolescent boy. Is that something that you have focused on?

RF: Probably. It was just something that happened. I mean, consequential things happened to me when I was sixteen. Although I don’t think I write about the stuff that happened to me, I think I was made aware, kind of in a pathetic way, of all kinds of significant things that happen to people at that age, that there is a dramatic transition from childhood to adulthood and the kinds of skills that you have as a child that are put to the test by different kinds of experience. That is just the stuff of drama. You know you are always looking for something that every reader can have experienced and most people see as important, and having gone past fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen is something we’ve all done. I mean that I try to get it fully expressed, which is why I’m happy to have written Canada, because I think Canada allowed me to fully express a subject that I knew was important, that period of life—to get that period of life up and out of my brain.

WS: You also seem to favor the first-person narrative.

RF: In most books, but they’re different. Canada is first-person narrative with past-tense verbs. The Bascombe books [The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and Lay of the Land] are first-person narrative in the present tense. And many of the stories in A Multitude of Sins are third-person, and two of the stories in Women with Men are third-person. You know, I don’t think I have a particular valence for one or the other.

WS: And it depends on?

RF: It depends on how I write the first line. I’ve got a bunch of stuff going on in my head and written down into notes and when I see my notes and I see how one line seems to be persuasive to me, that usually is the kick-off of how the first line of the story will be and the next one after that.

WS: Commonweal bills itself as “A Review of Religion, Politics, and Culture.” And sometimes I think of your work as a meditation on those three. There is a lot of politics, although sometimes in the background.

RF: Always. I wouldn’t be writing at all at this stage of my life if I wasn’t interested in writing about politics. All of the Bascombe books are political. Especially the last two. I don’t know how much of Canada is political in nature, except that it is about the relationship between Canada and America.

WS: Do you use a computer or word processor?

RF: I write with a pen. I type it up on a word processor, but I just like a pen and the feel of the pages. I like making letters. I like the pace at which I can write. I like the way that it makes me think. Whereas if I were typing it the first time through, I could type it fast; like most people, I can type a whole lot faster than I can think.

WS: In the story “Creche” [collected in A Multitude of Sins], the narrator heroine, a very strong woman, is named Faith. The story also takes place over Christmas weekend. And the mother, who in many ways is strong, is Esther, who in the Bible saved the Jewish people. That was not chosen at random, or was it?

RF: Well, you cannot have a character named Faith without it somehow being relevant. Then again, I put Esther in because it’s one of my wife’s least favorite names. I put it in to taunt and tease her.

Published in the 2013-05-03 issue: 

Wayne Sheridan is a freelance journalist, poet, and communications consultant to nonprofits. He lives with his wife, Sandra Dutton, on a farm in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City.

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