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April 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more The Booklist Carnegie Medal Interview
Richard Ford was glad to take a break when Booklist reached him at his home on the coast of Maine, where he was outside in the heat refinishing metal patio furniture. We were eager to speak with Ford about his magnificent novel Canada, winner of the 2013 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. This is the second year the Carnegie Medals (fiction and nonfiction), funded by the Carnegie Corporation, have been awarded by Booklist and ALA’s Reference and User Services Association (RUSA).
Ford is the author of four short story collections, including Rock Springs (1987) and A Multitude of Sins (2002), and seven novels. Among Ford’s best-loved books are the Frank Bascombe novels: The Sportswriter (1986); Independence Day (1995), the first book to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction; and The Lay of the Land (2006). Carnegie Medalist Canada has been hailed as a work of emotional precision, incandescent beauty, and gripping drama. Ford spoke of reading, writing, and Canada with warmth, humor, and keen and provocative insight.
BKL: You’ve long been associated with your character Frank Bascombe, who is the subject of three books.
Ford: There will be a fourth. A book of stories.
BKL: That’s big news: Frank Bascombe returns! In the meantime, readers are quite enthralled by Dell Parsons, the narrator in your newest novel, Canada.
Ford: Young Dell has origins in stories, at least as a mode of address, that I wrote in the early 1980s and that appear in Rock Springs. Then in a novella called Jealous and then in a short novel called Wildlife. So I guess the arc of that mode of address for a teenage boy ran to its end with Canada. Particularly by my being able to posit, which I didn’t do in the other books, an adult character who actually is more or less full-blown in this story and whose life is being retold.
I just could never posit the adult who was telling the story before. Maybe I had to get to be old myself. But I understood in Canada that it was going to be necessary and, moreover, that it was actually an opportunity. Because when I got to the end of Canada, which is to say the start of part 3, I felt this immense and uncommon sense of both gravity and freedom at the same time. Now, now, now, I can speak in the voice that I think has brought this story forth.
Canada was a long-brewing novel.
Ford: Twenty years brewing, and brewing is a good word because I wasn’t working on it all of that time. I started it back in 1989 and set it aside when it was about 20 pages, a sort of febrile little attempt at a story. I went through the intervening years tucking away notes into a big folder. That went on all the way to 2008.
BKL: Given its title, Canada foregrounds place and raises the question: What is your sense of the dynamic between characters and place?
Ford: It is a slightly perverse impulse on my part to do as you’ve said, to foreground place, because fundamentally my life is dedicated to the conviction that place means nothing. In Independence Day, Frank Bascombe says exactly that: “Place means nothing.” And what he means by that—and what I do, too—is that place is not the origin of the way we are. That we have to take responsibility for ourselves, for our decisions, for how we behave.
Coming from the South, as I did, a place we were told was the origin of so many good qualities, I just found that all not to be true when I was young. The qualities were not good, and at the same time, the South itself was not responsible. I couldn’t figure out how place actually caused anything. But then I write a novel like Canada. I still believe that place is not the origin of anything, but I do believe, I guess, that place is not—as I formerly would have said—just a background. I think place can be, as it is for Dell, a kind of tolerant refuge. And for me—I’ve always felt that about Canada, in ways that don’t have anything to do with draft dodgers or things like that. It just has to do with a commodious feel or sensation that I experience when I go to Canada. Which is to say that I feel like I’m entering a good place. In writing Canada, I had to face the fact that as a subject, place is a little more complex than I sometimes am willing to give it credit for.
BKL: Your descriptions of landscapes and towns are so saturated with observations and information and feelings; what is the source for all these details?
Ford: Where I get the details from, per se, is probably riding around in Saskatchewan with my tape recorder. Or riding around in New Jersey. Or a very vivid memory I actually do have. But more pertinent, I think, for me, is that landscape description is always approximate. And so it is never rendering onto the page the landscape that you would see were you in Maine or Saskatchewan. For me, most importantly, it’s language. It’s choosing words. It’s finding words I want to see on the page and want to put into sentences. And so for me, my addiction is to the language, not what the language describes.
BKL: The word nuanced is often used to describe your work. Would you use that word, and, if so, what does it mean to you?
Ford: There are a lot of things I could say about that. We all live day-to-day, unless we’re Tea Party members, in nuances. So it’s part of our day-to-day sensation to experience nuances of things, and, to the extent that we do experience the nuances of life, we’re probably living life more fully.
There’s a little fragment poem by Octavio Paz in which he says, “Between what I see and what I say, between what I say and what I keep silent, between what I keep silent and what I dream, and between what I dream and what I forget is poetry.” Among the many things that he means by that is that poetry lies in between polarities. Poetry lies in between absolutes. Between institutions. And so that, to me, is the nature of a nuance. It’s neither this exactly, nor that exactly; it’s in between.
Of course to appreciate this in life could make you a moral relativist. But I think to appreciate that is to appreciate a little more closely what life is actually all about. And that appreciation will probably ultimately aid you in making less destructive decisions.
BKL: You’ve used the phrase “morally provoking” to describe what you hope to achieve in creating your characters. Is fiction a moral laboratory?
Ford: Yes. That’s one thing it can be. In the hands of someone else, it needn’t be. Fiction can be almost anything we make of it. For me, part of what interests me in writing stories is that it can be about people making decisions that are either good or bad; either right or wrong; or, in a nuanced way, a little of both. I think that fiction at its best is an experiment in all ways, irrespective of whatever kind of verisimilitude it chooses.
BKL: Do you read a lot of poetry?
Ford: Oh, yes. I’m a longtime subscriber to Poetry magazine. And many of my teachers were poets: Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, James McMichael. I cut my teeth as a young novelist on poetry.
BKL: Have you written poetry?
Ford: Never. I don’t even know what one would do. Every once in a while I’ll get a good line, and I’ll go write it down and think to myself, well that’s a really good line. It would be a good line in a poem, and then I try to put another good line beside it, and I’m done.
BKL: In your introduction to The Essential Tales of Chekhov, a collection you put together, you write about Chekhov’s “meticulous anatomies of complicated human impulse and response.” This describes your own work as well. Is this still a guiding principle for you?
Ford: Yes, it is. You can boil it all down to say the devil or God—I’m never too sure which it is—is in the details. You can read a Chekhov story and think nothing happened. You can read “The Lady with a Dog” and think, oh well, great, did I miss something here? And when you go back through the sentences and there’s a little dip and you say, oh, that’s a chosen word. He didn’t mean it conventionally; he meant it unconventionally.
And then the closer you get, the more you see of these issues between women and men, particularly, sorted out in remarkable ways. Mavis Gallant said one time that if we knew what went on between women and men we wouldn’t need literature. And that’s kind of true. So it’s that kind of anatomizing that draws us closer to the actual details that we experience. Whether we know we experience them or not.
BKL: Speaking of women and men, Neeva, Dell’s mother, so unsuitably married, is a fascinating character. Where did she come from?
Ford: I don’t know. I had a kind of a picture of a woman who looks like Neeva in my mind. It may have come from 15 Jewish girls I’ve known all my life. So I had her as a picture, and I didn’t need to make her Jewish, but I thought, geez, it would be kind of a nice undertaking for a little white Irish Protestant boy to try to write a Jewish woman in a way that was complex and not comedic and not advertising all the things I don’t know. And I thought also about these sprung marriages and these sprung love affairs in which two such unlikely people fall together out of passion and then to try, on the strength of that, to make up the result.
BKL: Neeva is so poignant because she’s so alienated and because she refuses to conform and blend in.
Ford: I’ve always thought this, but I’ve never thought to say it: there’s a little bit of a picture of Ethel Rosenberg in my brain. A little bit. I don’t know much about Ethel Rosenberg beyond what E. L. Doctorow wrote about her in The Book of Daniel, a marvelous novel he wrote when he was my teacher. So there’s this little picture nestled back in my mind of the look Ethel Rosenberg had when she was under arrest. All the cameras were focused on her. And I have no idea how she felt about her husband. Was she protective of him? Whether she hated him or whether she put up with him, I don’t know. And it’s not martyrdom. If you use the word martyrdom, that’s the reason why you need a novel to talk about these things because underneath that word is a whole world.
BKL: Back to the initial feeling that nothing much happens in a Chekhov story, in Canada you perform the same sort of anatomizing you spoke of, yet there is also action in an almost noir mode, involving a bank robbery and murder.
Ford: I wanted that. That was my goal. I wanted the guns to go off. That was always my model for great literary writing. You see it in Conrad and you see it in Robert Stone. And in DeLillo. That these things can be taken on in literary ways that are exciting and thrilling. As in Stone’s wonderful novel, Dog Soldiers. It takes the backseat to no literary novel I know, yet at the same time there’s violence. That’s my ideal for a literary book.
There’s that line of Raymond Chandler’s, when in doubt have a man walk through a door holding a gun. Novelists, particularly literary novelists, are in doubt all the time. That’s about all we are. We try to make a virtue out of it.
BKL: When you were growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Eudora Welty was your neighbor.
Ford: Yes, my neighbor and mentor, and at the end of her long life, a friend. A close friend. Dear to me. And then there’s her work. I could have been a great friend of hers and she could have been the precise woman that she was, which is to say thrilling and wonderful and a beautiful soul, and never have written those stories. But she did write those stories.
BKL: Do you remember your first library?
Ford: Absolutely! I remember my first library and I happen to have a picture of it on my wall here in my study. It’s the Carnegie Public Library in Jackson, Mississippi, then on High Street. And at the bottom of the photograph is a line from Eudora’s One Writer’s Beginnings, and it says, “Jackson’s Carnegie Library was on the same street where our house was.” And underneath that, Eudora has written to me, “And your house was.” That was my first library. I am a boy from the Carnegie Public Library. It’s gone now. It was replaced when I was still under 10. It is now the Eudora Welty Public Library.
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