About Richard Ford: A Profile

by Don Lee

Richard Ford was in France this past spring when he got the call. He had rented an apartment in Paris for a few months to escape distractions and do some writing. He had wanted to be difficult to reach. In April, he was eating dinner with a friend at a remote little restaurant, deep in Brittany, when his friend's cellular phone unexpectedly rang. It was Ford's French publisher, who explained that a lot of people across the Atlantic were trying to contact him. They had a bit of news to convey. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Independence Day, his sequel to The Sportswriter. Two weeks later, Ford received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction as well -- the first time the same book had won both prizes.

For Ford, the awards were a culmination to a career that has spanned nearly thirty years, made up of hard, disciplined, and sometimes frustrating work. If anything, Ford is not a lazy man. In his final revisions of Independence Day, he twice read aloud the entire seven-hundred-page manuscript to detect any rough spots. Then he went through two more drafts with his editor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon. Then, as the book was about to go to press, his British editor gently commented, really as an afterthought, that there seemed to be quite a few -ly adverbs in the novel. Ford looked, and agreed. "In weak moments," he says, "a writer will use an -ly adverb when the verb isn't strong enough." He went through the manuscript yet again over the next two weeks, striking out every -ly adverb he could part with, and strengthening the accompanying verbs. "It seemed there were about four thousand of them."

Born in 1944, Ford was raised in Jackson, Mississippi, until he was eight years old, when his father, Parker, a traveling starch salesman, had a heart attack. Thereafter, Ford, an only child, was shuttled between Jackson and Little Rock, Arkansas, where his mother Edna's father, a former prizefighter and dining car conductor, managed a hotel. When Ford was sixteen, his father had a second, fatal heart attack. Up to then, Ford recalls his childhood as a happy, mirthful one, even enjoying all the driving and traveling, establishing the itinerancy for which he has become well-known (he has lived in fourteen states, not to mention France and Mexico). "Nothing ever got stale," he says. "I remember one night in 1961, I had a date with an airline flight attendant -- somewhat older than I was at age seventeen -- and what we did on our date was drive from Little Rock to Jackson and back again, all in a few hours. I have a pleasant memory of that."

As a teenager, Ford's only idea for a career was to be a hotel manager, like his grandfather. He attended Michigan State University, where they had a first-rate hotel science school, and where he also signed up for the Marines, joining a ROTC program called "Platoon Leader Class." Soon after he enlisted, though, he contracted hepatitis and promptly was given a medical discharge. On an impulse, he then decided to study literature, a somewhat unlikely interest, given that he was mildly dyslexic as a boy. Ford, however, doesn't think his dyslexia was a handicap, and believes it actually helped him as a writer: "Being a slow reader admitted me to books at a very basic level -- word by word. That doesn't seem like bad preparation to me, if writers are people who essentially live in sentences."

Upon graduating in 1966, he applied for a variety of jobs, including one with the Arkansas State Police, but, to his chagrin, no one would hire him. Floundering, he taught junior high school and coached the baseball team for a while in Flint, Michigan, then moved to New York and briefly worked for American Druggist as an assistant science editor, and then went to law school at Washington University in St. Louis. Quickly, he realized that he had made a terrible mistake. He quit after just one semester and moved back to Arkansas, where he substitute-taught at Little Rock Central High School while once again testing the job market, applying for an assignment as a sportswriter for The Arkansas Gazette (he was roundly rebuffed: "I wasn't any good at it, I guess"), and a position at the CIA, which, for once, he was offered, but didn't accept. Ford says about some of these vocational choices: "I think it must've been that the world seemed pretty contingent and uncontrollable -- a college graduate with no job, and later having 'discontinued' my legal studies -- and so what could be better than to have a job in which you told everybody what to do? Being a novelist is sort of related to that, don't you think? In a much more benign way?"

At twenty-three, without gainful employment, and married by then to his college sweetheart, Kristina Hensley, the daughter of an Air Force test pilot, Ford tried to determine what he could do reasonably well that might turn into a life. Fancifully, he thought of writing fiction, something he had larked around with at Michigan State, when he was living in a fraternity house. "I'd written a couple of insignificant stories, and my teacher read them and said they were 'good.' But 'good'? Frankly, I think deciding to try to be a writer was something I did purely on instinct and whimsy. It was a gesture against the practical life of going on with law studies. It may have been -- other than loving Kristina -- my first important independent act." His former teacher told him to go to graduate school, and he settled on the University of California in Irvine, simply because, he confesses, "they admitted me. I remember getting the application for Iowa, and thinking they'd never have let me in. I'm sure I was right about that, too. But, typical of me, I didn't know who was teaching at Irvine. I didn't know it was important to know such things. I wasn't the most curious of young men, even though I give myself credit for not letting that deter me."

It turned out that Oakley Hall and E. L. Doctorow were at Irvine, and Ford remains, to this day, grateful for their tutelage. Yet, after finishing the M.F.A. program in 1970, he could not, for the life of him, get anything into print. "Once I got reconciled to not being a good enough short story writer even to get published," he says, "I quit thinking about publishing and got to work on a novel." An excerpt from that novel, A Piece of My Heart, was eventually taken by The Paris Review, and the book itself, through the assistance of his friend and mentor, Donald Hall, was published by Harper & Row in 1976.

Nominated for the Ernest Hemingway Award for Best First Novel, A Piece of My Heart tells the story of Robard Hewes, an Arkansas drifter who leaves his wife to chase after a married cousin, along the way crossing paths with Sam Newel, a law student from Chicago, on a desolate island in the Mississippi River. Though the book generally received good reviews, Ford was irritated by some, particularly those that tried to tag him as a Southern writer who was attempting a "neo-Faulknerism." "I'm a Southerner, God knows," Ford says, "but I always wanted my books to exist outside the limits of so-called Southern writing. A Piece of My Heart was set in Arkansas and Mississippi, and I, of course, thought that though the setting was Southern, the book somehow wasn't Southern. But then the people who wrote about it all said it was another Southern novel, and I just said, Okay, that's it. No more Southern writing for me."

Ford set his next novel, The Ultimate Good Luck (which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1981), not only in another region, but in another country. In the book, Harry Quinn, a Vietnam veteran, journeys to Oaxaca, Mexico. In an effort to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend, Rae, he tries to free her brother from jail, where he has been imprisoned for dealing drugs. Again, the novel was fairly well-received, but Ford wasn't satisfied. His two books had sold less than twelve thousand copies, combined. "I realized there was probably a wide gulf between what I could do and what would succeed with readers. I felt that I'd had a chance to write two novels, and neither of them had really created much stir, so maybe I should find real employment, and earn my keep. Kristina was, as always, diligently employed."

With a Ph.D. in city planning, his wife was then teaching at NYU (and she would, over the years, be hired for more and more prestigious urban planning posts -- she is now the executive director of the New Orleans City Planning Commission). At the time, they were living in Princeton, New Jersey, and although Ford had put in brief stints teaching creative writing at the University of Michigan and Williams College, and had just finished a year at Princeton University, he didn't want to teach full time himself. In 1981, he quit writing fiction and became a sportswriter, covering baseball and college football for a glossy New York magazine called Inside Sports. Ford was as content as he could expect to be. If Inside Sports had not folded in 1982, and if Sports Illustrated had given him a job afterwards, as he had hoped, he would have gladly abandoned fiction writing forever.

As fate would have it, Ford, with nothing else to do, began another novel -- about a thirty-eight-year-old man, living in the fictional New Jersey suburb of Haddam, who had left a promising career as a short story writer and novelist to become a sportswriter. The narrator, Frank Bascombe, proclaims, "I had written all I was going to write, if the truth had been known, and there is nothing wrong with that. If more writers knew that, the world would be saved a lot of bad books, and more people -- men and women alike -- could go on to happier, more productive lives." Kristina had much to do with Bascombe's creation, encouraging Ford to write about a character who strives, albeit fitfully in Bascombe's case, for happiness. "She's a quite happy person by nature, and it might've been that she thought I'd find a wider audience if I stopped writing about dark souls and dark fates. In retrospect, I'd say she was right. I know it's much more of a challenge -- for me in particular -- to find language for people essaying to be better and happier, than for people wrestling with murder and mayhem."

In The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe suffers a spiritual crisis of sorts during Easter weekend of 1983. Four years before, his son Ralph had died suddenly of Reye's syndrome, and ever since, Bascombe has retreated into a dreamy solipsism, collecting mail-order catalogues, visiting a fortune-teller, having affairs with a variety of women. Eventually his wife divorces him, and the novel opens when they meet at the cemetery to commemorate what would have been Ralph's thirteenth birthday on Good Friday. Bascombe still loves his ex-wife (left nameless in the book, referred to only as "X") and misses "the sweet specificity of marriage, its firm ballast and sail," but for the moment he is preoccupied with his girlfriend, Vicki Arcenault, a nurse originally from Texas. Bascombe takes Vicki on a trip to Detroit to interview a crippled pro football player for, ostensibly, an inspirational story, but, as Bascombe sadly admits, sportswriting is a job that teaches you "there are no transcendent themes in life." Things get worse. Returning to Haddam after midnight, Bascombe is cornered by Walter Luckett, the newest member of a social/support group called The Divorced Men's Club. Still crushed by his own wife's desertion, Luckett has just slept with a man, and is desperate for counsel. Bascombe, patient and solicitous as he is, cannot be of much help. He is tired, and he is facing a long drive tomorrow to Vicki's parents' house for Easter dinner (one that will turn out disastrously), and he knows that "for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined."

The Sportswriter was released as a paperback original by Vintage Contemporaries in 1986 and was named one of the five best books of the year by Time magazine. A PEN/Faulkner finalist, it sold over sixty thousand copies (total sales have tripled since then, and Knopf has recently reissued the novel in hardcover for the first time). Indeed, it was the breakthrough book Ford needed, but early on, he almost didn't finish it. A well-known, flamboyant editor at Knopf had seen the first one hundred fifty manuscript pages and said Ford should forget about the novel. "He told me I should put those pages in the drawer and go back to writing what I knew best. I guess he meant the South, or maybe he meant stories set in Montana. Anyway, he was wrong. I spent six months after our conversation fretting and brooding about his 'advice,' and not writing. But finally I just said, Well, this is the book I've chosen to write. I don't actually harbor any bad feelings about that. He had the right to be wrong, and he thought he was giving me good advice. You just can never tell, though, how a young writer will develop."

Gary Fisketjon eventually acquired The Sportswriter for Vintage, and he has been Ford's editor ever since. Rock Springs, a collection of stories set mostly in Montana, quickly followed in 1987 and galvanized Ford's growing reputation as one of the best writers of his generation. His fourth novel, Wildlife, about a Montana teenager whose parents' marriage is crumbling as a nearby forest fire rages out of control, was published in 1990.

Then Ford fished around for his next project. As early as 1989, he quipped to an interviewer that he might write a sequel to The Sportswriter centered around Independence Day, but he didn't consider it seriously until 1991, when, unbidden, Frank Bascombe's voice reappeared in Ford's notebooks. That is his essential process, never beginning with a grand scheme, just jotting miscellany in a notebook -- "some words, ideas, character possibilities, possible settings, rough ideas of interactions." Once he knew that Frank Bascombe would still be in Haddam, New Jersey, Ford camped out in a bed-and-breakfast in Princeton for a month and drove around New England, recording his impressions on a micro-cassette. He spent a year planning Independence Day, doing research, making notes, meticulous as ever. The smallest details -- names, for instance -- are given great deliberation. In The Sportswriter, Bascombe's last name was originally Slocum, after Joshua Slocum, the famous mariner who circumnavigated the world alone. "That was a subtextual conceit for me in writing The Sportswriter -- sailing alone," Ford says. "That's why there are so many nautical references in the book. I thought I was pretty clever, actually. But then Donald Hall pointed out to me that Slocum was the name of the narrator in Joseph Heller's wonderful novel Something Happened." On the other hand, Bascombe's ex-wife was called "X" out of default. Ford couldn't think of the right name for her, and simply marked "X" where he would insert a name later. Finally, "X" became who she was -- it seemed appropriate, Bascombe not being able to bear the intimacy of saying her name (which is revealed as Ann Dykstra in the sequel).

Ford worked on Independence Day steadily for three additional years. "I always write with a pencil or pen," he says, "and afterwards I type it out on a word-processor for the sake of legibility. I do all my own typing, since that's a way of staying close to the book. My biggest challenge is to stay in the book as long as I can, since I believe that I can make things better if I just concentrate and stay close. Young writers -- and I was one -- are often bothered by the worry of being able to finish a book. It's a big question mark until you do it. I'm challenged nowadays, though, by a wish to stay in without finishing. Eventually I'll finish, or else there's no book there."

He is hardly finicky about where he writes, however. He and Kristina, who have no children, alternately live in a townhouse on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a house in Chinook, Montana, and a leased plantation house in Mississippi. "I do like a quiet life when I'm trying to write," Ford concedes. "I wouldn't like to try writing in New York, for instance. I'm not crazy about New Orleans, either, though over the years I've written -- actually written -- on transoceanic airplanes, in hotels in Milan and Paris, on overnight Greyhounds . . . quite a variety of places. But I never imagined that was ideal, only necessary." Kristina, to whom Ford has dedicated all of his books, is always his first reader, even though he doesn't feel she is the perfect reader for him: "She's much too smart; she's much too sympathetic to me and my various efforts; and she has a great sense of humor and loves jokes. My ideal reader is somebody I have to work hard to win over . . . somebody like me, for instance."

Independence Day, which is now out in paperback, was published by Knopf in 1995. Taking place in the election year of 1988, five years after The Sportswriter's events, the novel finds Frank Bascombe now selling, of all things, real estate -- a subject Ford already knew quite a bit about, considering how many times he and Kristina have moved. Real estate gives Bascombe ample opportunity to meditate on the American character -- for instance, why the Markhams, an irksome couple from Vermont to whom Bascombe has shown forty-five houses, cannot make a decision, their hesitation originating from "the cold, unwelcome, built-in-America realization that we're just like the other schmo, wishing his wishes, lusting his stunted lusts, quaking over his idiot frights and fantasies, all of us popped out from the same unchinkable mold. And as we come nearer the moment of closing -- when the deal's sealed and written down in a book in the courthouse -- what we sense is that we're being tucked even deeper, more anonymously, into the weave of culture, and it's even less likely we'll make it to Kitzbühel. What we all want, of course, is all our best options left open as long as possible; we want not to have taken any obvious turns, but also not to have misread the correct turn the way some other boy-o would. As a unique strain of anxiety, it makes for a vicious three-way split that drives us all crazy as lab rats."

What Bascombe wants is to subsist without too much pain, too many expectations, and to do so, he clutches to a philosophical construct, a state of mind, that he calls "the Existence Period, the high-wire act of normalcy, the part that comes after the big struggle which led to the big blow-up," wherein he is able to "ignore much of what I don't like or that seems worrisome and embroiling, and then usually see it go away." Of course, things do not go away for Bascombe in the next three days, as he tries to collect rent from a sullen interracial couple, shows the Markhams yet another house, checks up on a hot dog stand he co-owns, visits his girlfriend, sees his ex-wife, and ferries his troubled fifteen-year-old son, Paul, to the basketball and baseball halls of fame for "the ur-father-son experience," hoping to redirect him onto "the hopeful, life-affirming, anti-nullity" tack.

The reviews for Independence Day were ecstatic, but Ford didn't read them. "Over the years," he says, "I always read the reviews of my work, and when they were bad -- as they were sometimes -- I was mad, resentful, disappointed. All the usual things. When Wildlife was published, there were a couple of very scornful reviews, and I seemed to let that bother me overmuch. I'm like everybody else: I want the world to like everything I do and like me for doing it. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. So, when Independence Day was published, Kristina suggested I not read reviews, just for my peace of mind. And lo and behold, I liked not reading them. I came away from the publication of that book in much better spirits and with a greater sense of equanimity."

Getting to this point in his career has not, obviously, been easy for Ford, but, he says, "I can't really complain about writing's difficulty. No one makes me do it. If it was too hard, I'd quit. But the fact is, that whatever's hard about it is quite nicely balanced by the realization that I'm doing what Chekhov did, and that I might make a contribution to the life of another, that I often find it pleasurable, funny, personally refreshing, intellectually stimulating."

Nonetheless, if he were starting all over again, maybe Ford himself would heed the advice he would give to any young writer: "Try to talk yourself out of it. As a life, it's much too solitary, it makes you obsessive, the rewards seem to be much too inward for most people, and too much rides on luck. Other than that, it's great."


Copyright © Don Lee


Fall 1996 Cover
Cover art by Jane Kent
Fiction
$10.50


Guest-edited by:
Richard Ford
Photo by Jane Kent
Richard Ford