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Published January 2000Become a subscriber
Richard Ford was born in Mississippi in 1944. He has published five novels, including The Sportswriter (1986), and its sequel, Independence Day (1995). The latter book, which takes up the story of Frank Bascombe, a divorced real-estate agent, as he feels his way into new attachments and resolutions following a time of disengagement that he calls the “existence period”, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Although it charmed nearly everyone who read it, Independence Day seems to have had a special appeal for forty-something men who, like its hero, feel that they are negotiating complicated mid-life transitions. Two such, Imre Salusinszky and Stephen Mills, interviewed Richard Ford for HEAT when he visited Sydney in March.
HEAT: I believe that you never read reviews of your work—I hope you don’t deny yourself the pleasure of reading bad reviews of books by your competitors?
RF: I don’t have any competitors. I have colleagues.
HEAT: Harold Bloom would deny that.
RF: Then he can piss up a rope. Bloom doesn’t do anything but write about literature…
HEAT: Can’t that be done interestingly?
RF: Yeah, sure. Hermione Lee does it interestingly; Samuel Hynes does it interestingly; all kinds of people do it interestingly. But the “anxiety of influence” blotted Bloom’s copybook as far as I’m concerned.
HEAT: He would say that was an evasion of…
RF: I don’t care what he says. He can say anything he wants, and it is of a high irrelevancy to me. Colleagues are happy when good occurs. We don’t have problems shaking off the people who taught us things. It’s just all wrong. You might find small spirits and wizened little souls who look back at the people who taught them something fearfully, or with a stingy spirit, but I’m just not one of those people.
HEAT: Until I read Independence Day, I don’t think I’d ever seen reflected in literature before the fact that many of the exchanges we have with others, which affect us and influence us and help us get our bearings in the world, are not with our lovers or friends or teachers—they are brief, random exchanges with total strangers, whom often we shall never meet again. Frank Bascombe is constantly having these.
RF: Those are literary conversations, in a sense: they’re meant to be load-bearing. If, in life, you went out to the little hot-dog stand you owned and met the guy whom you’d set up in business there, you could expect to have a fairly inane conversation, which wasn’t rippled, which wasn’t amusing, which wasn’t load-bearing at all. My urge is, out of the duff of ordinary life, to manipulate the conversations so that they get onto important stuff.
HEAT: But the conversation with Mr Tanks, say, outside the motel, in the glare of the police lights—it doesn’t feel manipulated, or heavyweight, yet Bascombe takes a new orientation from it.
RF: That’s the literal middle of the book, where things change. But that’s a literary conceit, right there-that anybody ever changes his view about anything. My view is that, if we do it, we do it in quite glacial ways, and there probably wouldn’t be a point (and literature purports that there is a point) at which these changes become visible. It’s literature’s attempt to say, “Pay closer attention to your lives, because these things are going on.” And I’ll make it even more highlighted by putting it in the middle of my book, and having lights flashing, just to let you know that something’s going on here.
HEAT: You might know that Emerson had the word “Whim” engraved over the door of his study. You strike me as the only novelist in history who could have had on his wall a sign reading, “The economy, stupid!” Is the economy, and real estate specifically, some kind of metaphor in Independence Day?
RF: It became one; it didn’t start out as one. It started out as the most ordinary need to give my character a profession different to the one he had in the prior book. Looking around for something a man could do in middle life, without going back to graduate school and getting some sort of special training, I settled on that. “Whim”…that’s interesting. I didn’t know that. I’ve been mulling through titles for the next book, trying to attach myself to something that could pay off in the long run.
HEAT: “Self Reliance”?
RF: Well, I’ve kind of got the most I can get out of that. This is going to be a book set at Thanksgiving.
HEAT: You’re doing all the holidays?
RF: Right. One book was about redemption, rebirth; another was about independence; this one is about reconciliation.
HEAT: What year will it be set in?
RF: I can’t decide. I don’t want to have it be set in the year 2000, because I think that’s just asking for trouble, so I’ll probably have it set in 1999.
HEAT: Did it annoy you that, because of when it came out, when people said to their friends, “Have you read Independence Day yet?”, they all replied, “No, but I saw the movie”?
RF: No. Mostly I don’t let things bother me that I can’t control. The things that drive me crazy are those that I don’t control well enough, or that I don’t exercise enough discretion about.
HEAT: Another recurrent concern in your books is surveillance: the police are everywhere. And there is persistent violence, a little off to the side, much of which never leads anywhere. You don’t even seem concerned to tie up all the loose ends: is this because you are now relaxed in your craft?
RF: You’re asking me to think about things in a way I almost never think about them. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It doesn’t taint my putative innocence.) I don’t know. This is all finally about the issue of trying to keep the dramatic values up. I’m always thinking about the old Raymond Chandler line, “If in doubt, have a man walk through the door holding a gun”. So, for me, to have the police arrive just slightly heightens the tensive levels within a scene, even if it’s never going to come to anything. Even if it’s the gun you hang on the wall and never shoot, it serves, it serves.
Let me tell you a story. Three or four years ago I was in Austria, having dinner at the Ambassador’s house. I sat across from a very august literary critic, from Vienna. He was asking me questions about books of mine, and I would say, “Gee, I don’t know, I never thought of that”. I wasn’t toeing the dirt like Faulkner—I really hadn’t thought about two-thirds of the things he was saying to me. Finally, at the end, he said, “Oh well, I guess it’s always a disappointment to meet the author of a book you admire!” My assumption is that anybody who ever meets me, if they liked my book, is going to be sorry. The book was my greatest effort. I am not my greatest effort. I am not a work of art.
HEAT: Returning to the three themes you were talking about, Emerson says in “Self Reliance” that all power resides in “darting to an aim”—in transition.
RF: That’s one of my favourite conceits in Emerson.
HEAT: I take it that the point about the “existence period” in Independence Day is that it’s not about someone in the existence period, but about someone leaving it.
RF: Exactly. Trying to.
HEAT: And as a realtor, he helps people through their transitions?
RF: As he says, “What more can a man do for his fellow human beings than shelter them?” And at the same time he’s trying to find some shelter for himself, because he feels himself to be in that condition. Because there’s something that Emerson does not talk about: when you’re in that moment of transition—where Emerson feels that two things abut, and there’s great power in that abutment—you’re also terrifically exposed. When you leave “1” and go to “2”, you’re in the middle there for a while, and it’s extremely hazardous.
I hope that this new take on things, thinking about reconciling, will be useful. You know, when I started out writing about independence, I had no idea. I had no idea what was going to be independent, and how it fitted into anything that would ever turn into narration. I just thought, this is a word that has a kind of a potency for me, I keep finding it in my notebook. I thought I’d use it in sentences, make it be on everybody’s mind in one way or another, and see what happens. It’s slightly alchemical in that way. Likewise with reconciling—as opposed to compromise, as opposed to defeat.
HEAT: There’s now a movement called “philosophical counselling” where somebody with a problem consults, not a psychologist, but a philosopher, who attempts to realign them towards their problem, using the great thinkers. Don’t your books do precisely this? Are they a kind of philosophical counselling, manuals through which people can deal with their problems? Isn’t that what they do with Emerson?
RF: Who I think is the most practical philosopher, certainly of the nineteenth century. Maybe Kierkegaard would be a close second, but then they have a lot in common. Being a kid out of the ’60s, as I was, and being made to read Emerson and made to read Kierkegaard, I was always trying to say: “OK, I can read this stuff, but now what do I do with it?” So I want books to do that, but in a way that’s not oppressive to the reader; that is truly provisional and speculative, rather than just didactic. I want to put those people in play in some way, make them not just musty old names on the shelf, but somehow practical. If that can’t be done, well, it can’t be done. (I don’t know how I’d deal with Heidegger, for instance.) But with those practical guys, who really think a lot about experience, I’m interested in doing this.
HEAT: For one example, Bascombe warns about expecting too much from places that have meant something to us in the past—they never deliver. As someone who expects too much from place, I found that instructive.
RF: But isn’t that what we all take away from books? Aren’t those the passages we underline? Isn’t that the reason why we want to go back and look at them again, because there will be something about them where we think, “Hmm, that’s right, isn’t it?” I keep stacks of three-by-five cards. When I see something that is really interesting I write it down, and I will probably go through those three-by-five cards three times a week. The interesting thing, to me, is that sometimes something will have a little ring when I write it down, and it will never actually yield very much more than its surface, yet over time it will teach me something. It will get into my brain in some way. I’m not particularly well educated, so I have to educate myself, and that’s how I do it: I try to read great books and remember the things I read. It’s a very pedestrian way to learn something. It’s not very abstract.
HEAT: If this is a literature of instruction, is it focussed on middle-aged men, or does it have broad application?
RF: I would hope it has broad application; if it doesn’t, then it’s not been very successful. It’s about men in the way that Jane Austen’s about women. Nobody comes to Jane Austen and thinks they’re women’s books. I mean, I’m trying to write great literature. I’m not trying to write Robert Bly-type books to a bunch of guys who need sensitivity training! Here’s what I find. I find that men often think that I am writing for them. Women come along and, even though they thought I was writing for men, find that I seem to have written a book that interests them.
HEAT: Another thing I’d never quite seen registered in fiction before The Sportswriter and Independence Day was the way that the decisions we make about how to live our lives must, to some extent, reflect a philosophy of life, a world view. Frank Bascombe is always trying to read how a person has made their choices back into whatever overall understandings they’ve arrived at.
RF: I think that’s true of those two books, but it seems also to be true of Absalom! Absalom!, by Faulkner, or of A Worn Path, by Eudora Welty. It seems to be true of all of the characters in Flannery O’Connor.
HEAT: But in you it’s not so much a world view: it’s a national view.
RF: There’s no doubt that I was trying to write a book about America. I was trying to write a book that would reach out into the populace and say, “We share something. We share a national experience. We share a point of view.”
HEAT: In this day and age of atomisation, that’s quite a political statement.
RF: Look, I live all over the country. I’m very well aware of how the regional atomisations don’t really mean much in America. I saw at a certain point in my encroaching adulthood an opportunity for somebody to say, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to just step up to the line and I’m going to talk about as many wide things as I can talk about in the county. If I fail, I fail, but at least it’s better if someone tried.” Because I thought it was a useful thing to do. I don’t think that all novelists should do it, but I thought it was worth a pop. And, in particular, I wanted Independence Day to be about race. I really wanted it to be about race.
HEAT: And it is, to a large extent.
RF: Yes, but it never gets talked about in those terms. It was reviewed, on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, by Charles Johnson, who never talked about race. It’s just a function of how absolutely impossible in American culture it is for whites to talk about race. I even wrote a long essay in the New York Times Magazine about race, which nobody would pay attention to much either. I come equipped, by virtue of being a Southerner, with all of this vast racial experience, a lot of it just negative and bad, and I want to have a public conversation about it, because I can. Nobody wants to. You ask Jesse Jackson about it, he’ll have a conversation with you; you ask Stanley Crouch about it, he’ll have a conversation with you. They understand that too many people have too much invested, in America, in races not being reconciled. There’s too much of society built on this rickety structure that separates the races. Too many people have careers; too many people have institutions. Too much money is involved. Too much ego is involved for things to be reconcilable, or for conversations to go on except in highly stratified and formalised ways. This all leads to the truism that race is only going to be reconciled in America by human beings getting beyond it in a personal way. Then you face the more societal problems of why individuals don’t get together with other individuals, the reasons for which are probably economic. Race just leaves so much of the argument behind.
HEAT: Last, you were a very close friend of Carver’s. How did his work influence yours?
RF: I had to quit reading Ray’s stories, because they were having too profound an effect on me. I quit reading him twenty years ago, my great friend. He and I came from the same part of the world: I was really susceptible to his view of things, so I had to stay away from it.
HEAT: The two of you have such a totally different world view, I’m surprised to hear that. His people are always being dragged back, dragged down—there’s no openness, no progress. Your people are the direct opposite.
RF: They are, but he would have got to something like that, if he’d lived. It was in him. His work was clipped when his life was curtailed by circumstance and bad luck. As he got older, his sentences were a bit longer, his vision was above the horizon line. But I’m younger than he, and I didn’t want to write like him, so I was always trying to open stories up. My sentences are always “seeking sentences”: they’re not trying to put the bridle onto something. Ray was not my teacher in any way, except I did see how he dealt with his celebrity. It was kind of wonderful to go around with him for a period of years when he was very famous, and see how much he took it in his stride, and see how much a nicer man it made him, than even he had been.
HEAT: That’s funny, because we think of celebrity…
RF: …as the other thing.
HEAT: So how can it make you better?
RF: If you’re a good man, you’re a good man; if you’re an arsehole, you’re an arsehole. If you’ve been waiting all your life to be the arsehole you were meant to be, celebrity will give you the opportunity.
HEAT: So how did he deal with it?
RF: He was lovely, gracious, generous, patient. He was a gentleman. He liked people. He was thrilled that they liked his work. He said to me one time, “The wheel of fortune has stopped on my number.” There was no downside to it. That was very instructive. I don’t know if it taught me how to deal with good luck, but it certainly didn’t hurt to see it happening. You’d like to be a person for whom good luck is a spur to your better side.
Imre Salusinszky and Stephen Mills interviewed Richard Ford in HEAT Series 1 Number 15.Read more