If we’re talking Richard Ford, let’s get one thing out of the way: Richard Ford is a great American writer. He’s been writing for 40 years: novels, starting with A Piece of My Heart (Harper, 1976); story collections; plays; screenplays; translation. He’s racked up awards, including the 1996 Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/ Faulkner, both for Independence Day, the second book in his Frank Bascombe trilogy that began with his “break out” book, The Sportswriter (Knopf, 1986).
His new novel, Canada (Ecco), follows the fortunes of 15-year-old Dell Parsons, who is brought across the border to Canada by Arthur Remlinger, a family friend, after both his parents are imprisoned for bank robbery. Ford says he began writing Canada 20 years ago, in 1989. He worked on it for a month and then stopped. “Something broke off my chain of thought, and I didn’t go back to it for 20 years—but it stayed in my mind.”
Ford had spent time in Saskatchewan as a boy, where Dell is taken. “I was interested in the whole conception of borders, crossing borders, both literally and figuratively, and I was interested in Canada as a word and as a place that I had very positive associations with,” he says. When asked about the 20-year gap between starting and finishing the novel, Ford admits he perhaps “didn’t feel like at that moment I quite had the chops for it.” While writing other things, Ford kept a cardboard envelope of notes about the story he had started, and at the end of 20 years, he had changed publishers (he left Knopf in 2008 for Ecco and editor Dan Halpern) and felt ready; from that point on it took roughly two and a half years to complete.
Born in Jackson, Miss., in 1944, Ford grew up in the segregated South. Although he says he likes to keep his connection with the South, he has given up on the notion of the South being his home. “You don’t have any choice about where you’re from—when I was growing up [in Mississippi] it wasn’t a very nice place to be—so I chose to go away to school.” Ford got his B.A. at Michigan State University and says, “Ever since, I’ve had this kind of fixation with trying to change as much as I can in my life, instead of being an accident of the earth.” Ford now lives in East Boothbay, Maine, with his wife, Kristina, an urban planner he married in 1968. “I like Maine because I chose it,” he explains. And as for Kristina, he’s said in a previous PW interview: “Writing is the only thing I’ve done with persistence, except for being married....”
Ford began writing through “a combination of a great many things.” In 1966, at 23, he was enrolled in law school in St. Louis, and Kristina, his then girlfriend, was in New York. “I was very much in love and I thought if I don’t get out of here and to New York, someone is going to snag Kristina off.” He had written a few short stories, which he now calls “feeble.” Then, after his law books were stolen out of his car—“like most human stories,” he says, “it’s too complicated to be interesting”—he left law school and began another life. He married Kristina, got his M.F.A. at UCal-Irvine, and dedicated himself to writing.
For someone so accomplished and successful, Ford is surprisingly warm, modest, and self-effacing. “Writing isn’t that hard,” he says. “If it was that hard, I wouldn’t be doing it. Probably more people could do it than do, if they didn’t have a lot of other things cluttering up their lives.”
Ford credits his wife with much, if not all, of his success. “In the South,” he says, “we would say you’re blessed—I’m more than lucky.” He explains that her full support of his writing, and the fact that they have no children, has allowed him to write and work to the best of his ability. Ford reads everything he writes aloud to Kristina: “It’s because she’s willing to do it that I can exercise as much care over the book as I do, because there is a diminishing amount of interest that you have on a project after you’ve worked on it for years.”
Ford is also comfortable taking his time. He wrote A Piece of My Heart over five years, and his second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck (Houghton Mifflin, 1981), over two. Both were published and praised, although sales weren’t stellar. It was his third novel, The Sportswriter, that set his reputation, going on to sell more than 60,000 copies. Ford’s popularity soared. (After writing his first two books, Ford “retired” from fiction and worked briefly as a writer for the New York magazine Inside Sports, but returned to fiction writing when the magazine folded.) The Sportswriter introduced Frank Bascombe, a failed novelist turned sportswriter living in suburban New Jersey who suffers a spiritual crisis after the death of his son. Ford went on to write two more Bascombe novels, Independence Day (Knopf, 1995) and The Lay of the Land (Knopf, 2006). He says he didn’t know he was writing a trilogy. “I liked [Frank] because he is a person of humors. I thought he was a character who would allow me, as imagining him, to get myself fully expressed.”
Despite any broad similarities between the author and his famous character, Ford says, “There’s me, and there’s him—he’s not me. I’m really comfortable with the notion of writing people that are not me. That seems to be the more noble thing for me to do.” Ford “plucks things out of the common weal,” as he puts it, and there is nothing unusual about the subjects he writes about: love that fades, relationships between parents and children. The idea of “writing what you know” is “rubbish,” according to Ford. “If you’ve been a writer for 40 years like I have, you run out of things you actually know, and you rely on the agency of curiosity and imagination.” Having empathy for his characters, he says, helps, and Ford believes “much more of humankind feels familiar as a novelist—it doesn’t come easier, but it isn’t foreign.”
Asked what makes a writer successful, Ford answers. “Readers.” He certainly has plenty of those, but says he doesn’t think of himself in those terms and doesn’t know how many people read his books. Like all great writers, Ford has received mixed critical response, but insists he also doesn’t read reviews of his work, “not since 1990. I have lived long enough to get several bad reviews, and I don’t want to take that kind of needless pain upon myself.” And he’s a strong believer in luck. Once more his modesty is displayed. “There is absolutely good luck involved,” he says. “There are writers who are much better than I am who are writing away right now who have not been as lucky as I’ve been.”
What’s next? Ford wants to finish a book of short stories, five of which are written. Though he and his wife have traveled extensively and lived in different places over the years, Ford says Maine is a place he likes, and he’s ready now to not move around as much. “Traveling has provided me with an experience in America that lets me know that the stranglehold a place has on people is fictitious. It freed me.” He could talk himself into writing another novel, he says, “if I thought I had something really good to write, and if I thought I could finish it.” He wants to be the person, he says, who tells himself: enough.
Ruby Cutolo is a freelance writer in New York City.