Richard Ford

"It's easy to write about things that fuck up. I'm interested in what happens later."

Published July 7, 1996 11:25AM (EDT)

Richard Ford, whose novel "Independence Day" was the first ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award and had just about every critic in America breathing words like "mastery," "genius" and "tour de force," once told an interviewer that "writing is the only thing I've ever done with persistence, except for being married." Much has been made of his habit of moving around -- his most recent home is on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where his wife of 28 years, Kristina, is executive director of the city planning commission -- and "Independence Day" plays beautifully with the idea of impermanence.
The novel is the sequel to Ford's highly acclaimed "The Sportswriter," which was the story of a man named Frank Bascombe who, devastated by the death of his young son, dropped quietly out of his own life. In "Independence Day," Frank Bascombe more or less returns, moving into his ex-wife's old house, settling permanently -- after a fling in France with a woman some 20 years his junior -- into the suburbs to reconnect with his family and to sell real estate, which becomes for Bascombe a heady metaphor for the nature of attachment. He has moved into what he calls his "Existence Period," a tenuous equilibrium that seems to depend on keeping people and his own feelings at a comfortable remove.
Over lunch in San Francisco at the beginning of a 15-city tour to promote the Vintage paperback edition of "Independence Day," Ford says that he personally prefers the sometimes disastrous habit of feeling to Bascombe's more defensive strategy. Attractive, intensely engaging, very funny, all soft Southern charm -- he was born in 1944 in Mississippi -- Ford asks for a quiet table, thinking of the tape recorder, and though he eloquently and cordially answers every question, no matter how personal or banal, he asks polite and probing questions of his own, including the first question of the interview.

So do you think "Independence Day" is more of a man's book than a woman's?

Hardly. The women in the novel seem to know so much more than the men.

Yes, they have a line on things.

Do you think that women really do know more about what's going on than men do?

Well, I know that by living 32 years with the same woman my view of the world has been remarkably changed, certainly in a way it would not have been if I had lived alone or not been with this wonderfully forceful, smart woman who doesn't miss anything. She makes it appealing to try to widen my view, for instance, to be sure that you're not thinking out of only one part of your brain.

Which part would that be?

Oh, the part you grew up with. Being a Southerner it's very appealing to think that you are who you are, that your character is fixed. It's very much a notion attuned to the conservatism of the South, that old tradition of the South being what it viewed itself as. But the fact is that when you have another person in your life, someone you care for and want to accommodate, your view and sometimes even the rudiments of your character will change.

I loved the line in "Independence Day" about conservatives being people who make the same mistakes over and over again.

Yes, and don't admit it. I've been doing what I've been doing for so long that I can't remember when it finally dawned on me, but I try to give women in my novels as many good lines as I give men, which is a way for me to confer on those characters the control of their lives. Language in a novel is action, it's where values reside, and so what people say in a book, particularly when there are not going to be sword fights or firefights or cavalry charges -- when human interaction is the action -- becomes very important as the determinant of who they are and how other action will take place. So I always want to make sure women have good lines.

So it was a conscious choice?

I'm not sure. It was either a thing I recognized that I wanted to do and then did do or it was a thing I was already doing and finally recognized. My assumption as a person who writes about moral issues is that women and men are alike. And in terms of their consequential acts, they have to be responsible for what they do in pretty much the same way, and the differences that are perhaps inspired by gender are subterior to what is more important to me -- how men and women treat other people, how they act in ways that bring about consequences in others' lives.

So there is something essential about us that is beyond gender?

Yes, I look to the end line. Do they die any differently? I watched my mother die, watched my father die, and I thought to myself, that's where life ends, and it's very much the same. There are some things that are beyond gender. I've discovered it in a long relationship with one person, which isn't to say that it's magic or that you have to have a long relationship with one person -- maybe it's just taken me 32 years to get it in my brain. But there are qualities in human life that perhaps only literature can define, which are more fundamental than those other distinguishing qualities among us, like gender, age and sex. There is something else.

Do you have any idea what it is?

It's probably not a thing for which there is a diction; it's probably something literature can only allude to. I was riding up here with this kid who was interviewing me earlier today, and he was talking about Frank, saying he was shaving the truth to get women into bed with him, and I said, wait, wait, wait  a minute. Maybe there are moments when Frank would like to go to bed with somebody, but it really has less to do with seduction than with wanting to be close to somebody, with wanting to do whatever you can to narrow that space Emerson calls the infinite remoteness that separates people. And maybe that's as close to describing the thing as I can get. The need to be able to touch somebody. And not even physically. Because I know in long relationships between people, when they get old and physicality begins to seem less crucial, there is still some closeness that physicality does not describe. I've seen it with my parents particularly. And even closeness is just a metaphor for something else. Language would always be dealing in its metaphorical representations. It is something for which there is no language. You might even see it best in one-celled animals, in amoebas. Or in Pleistocene creatures who don't have the confusion of thought to complicate things.

Do you feel as if writing novels is a sort of alternate existence, that you get to play, for instance, with having kids?

I wouldn't have said that about it. It sounds almost illicit when you say it like that. But there is that aspect to being a novelist. You get to participate in other lives through the agency of language. There's a line from Randall Jarrell, who said that poets are not people who have the experience they write about but people who need to have it. Through your work you do get to meet certain needs.
The other thing is that it allows you to live life over and over again. That's one of the reasons I wanted to write this novel in the first person, and in the present tense. The novel gets to say we're present tense here, and yet we can read the present over and over again. Which is quite a nice thing to do, we'd all be better off if we could not stop time but slow it down a little bit, and live the pleasant things more pleasantly and live the incautious things more cautiously. And being a novelist does let you do that with the work you invent, you get to go over it and over it and think about it: Do I want this to happen? Is this a good thing? Do I want to be responsible for having a character think this? It really helps you pay attention.

Do you think novelists are responsible for what their characters think?

Well, they're responsible -- they're not necessarily answerable.

I was thinking, reading this novel, how there's both pleasure in doing what you're not supposed to do and pleasure in doing what you're supposed to do. Frank gets pleasure out of both, so how do you balance it?

Your life is how you balance it. There's that moment when Frank is kind of looking for somebody to give him dinner and lets himself be momentarily bewitched by this scullery maid, during which time he thinks, maybe I can just abandon my kid for the night after toting him all that distance. There's a lot to be said for doing what you're not supposed to do, and the rewards of doing what you're supposed to do are more subtle and take longer to become apparent, which maybe makes it less attractive. But your life is the blueprint you make after the building is built.

So everything is hindsight?

When you're talking about how you balance it, yes, it certainly is.

Do you think things just happen to us?

Yes, they do, but it's one of the real schisms of emotional life that you have to take responsibility for them. I mean, if your mother dies, that is obviously not your responsibility, but with most things you have to look inside yourself and think -- and this is really kind of novelistic thinking -- that this happened to me because I did this and I did this and I did this and I was in the way of this. It's a worthwhile kind of ethical route to follow.

Do you think too much has been made of how much you've moved around?

Yes, I do. My wife was just asked to apply for the job of planning director out here, by the way.

Would you want to live here?

No. I love to come to San Francisco, but it just doesn't appeal to me as a place to live. New Orleans was a really good example of that, a place I really loved and so we moved there and now I don't want to live there. It's a little like the old adage of being careful about what you want. I don't like living in New Orleans. In fact, I've just basically kind of quit living there.
Kristina's declared herself out of the loop, she's made the decision by fiat that she's staying in New Orleans, and I have yet to come around to that decision, so I have other houses and other venues and I can still sort of strike off and go to Montana as I am now. I'm going to stay there until the end of the year.

Where do you think you might want to live?

I have discovered where I like it for now. I like the northern tier of Montana. I like it in the Delta of Mississippi and I like it in Paris. So I can live in those places at this time in my life. And one of these days I'll run out of bucks or I won't want to do it anymore or I'll get sick and die or a hundred things will happen, but at this particular moment that's what I'd like to do. But the really central thing is that, no matter where I move, I always write and I'm married to the same girl. All that other stuff is just filigree.

What were you thinking about when you decided to write about Independence Day?

A couple of things came to mind at once. Sometimes I get interested in words, and I found myself writing in my notebook about independence. The word kept coming up in one context or another, and there's this great line of Henry Miller's, one of the most interesting things I've ever heard anyone say: "Never think of a surface except as a volume." So when I see a word that I'm interested in, what that means to me is that the word has a kind of density to it, and if I can dedicate some language to it I can invent something. So I decided to write a novel in which I would use this word a lot, and maybe even write a novel in which it would be a primary concern. And then it seemed natural to set it on the Fourth of July. I was very attracted to Bruce Springsteen's song "Independence Day," in which a son sings a kind of lament to his father, especially the line, "Just say goodbye, it's Independence Day." I hadn't ever realized that independence in the most conventional sense means leavetaking, putting distance between yourself and other people, getting out of their orbit. So then I wondered if that's what it has to mean, so I thought I'd write about it and see if I couldn't make it mean something else, if independence could in fact mean a freedom to make contact with others, rather than just the freedom to sever oneself from others. Anyone can sever ties, and it's part of my general scheme to try to write things that are affirming. It's always easy to write about things that fuck up, things that go kaflooey, and people leave and the door slams and that's the dramatic end. But I'm always interested in what happens after somebody walks out the door. I'm interested in what they do later. The most constructive impulse in my life is that I don't ever walk out the door; I don't do exits.

What do you mean?

I mean I don't say "fuck you, goodbye." If I love you, you're going to have me forever.

Why do you think that is?

Because people left me when I was little. I never thought it was better to be alone than to be with someone you loved.

Because your father died when you were a child?

Yes, I knew what that was like, and that wasn't so good. The other thing is that I like setting books on holidays because I think all Americans have very patented memories for Easter, very patented memories for the Fourth of July, so if I set my book on that day, I would tap into those memories and engage people at some very primary level. And holidays are often when people want to be most themselves, when they want to be the best they can be -- school's out, it's a holiday, let's be happy -- and often circumstances intervene to make you miserable or frustrated, so it's a very good little proscenium for a human drama in which the reader can recognize the terms and be engaged.

As you were writing, did independence come to mean something different than how you had originally conceived it?

It's really kind of interesting to me; I don't know how interesting it is to anyone else. But when I started writing about Frank at the beginning of the book, I kept thinking to myself, what the hell is at issue here? You lope off into what you think is going to be a long novel and there's always a period at the beginning when you're facing a lot of things you don't know the nature of. Because he was past those crucial points in his life when there was crisis, so I thought to myself, well, he has an equilibrium in his life which he has paid the price of isolation to maintain, and that's when I invented the Existence Period, which was that period after the crises have subsided. You've survived, and you're nominally happy, so the issue has become -- and this is the kind of novelistic thinking one does -- what price have you paid to attain equilibrium? And what I figured out was that the price Frank had paid -- and it was a high price -- was that he was isolated and had achieved independence only in a conditional sense. And what was at issue in his life was how in the process of maintaining that equilibrium he could ever touch somebody. How could he run the risk of complicating his life by engaging people he cared about? So that is what the book is about. How does he engage his son, how does he engage his ex-wife, how does he engage the woman he might be in love with, how does he engage his profession? And that's a fairly fundamental human challenge.

I was just thinking about people who've found equilibrium by going to India or Thailand to meditate, having enlightenment experiences but being unable to share them, unable to maintain that equilibrium when they engage again with other people.

You lose the sensuous part. You have to have things coming in and the only way you can have things coming in is for there to be other people around. We need the unpredictable.

But why can't we have the equilibrium and the relationships?

Because we want things.

What do we want?

More. All of the things that get me into trouble are instances of me wanting more than I can deal with. It drives me crazy, it makes me neurotic and compulsive and wild and keeps me up at night dealing with those things I have wanted and have gotten. But I would rather go down to blazes that way than go to blazes in some abstinent state. I'd rather live than exist.

So you want to feel everything.

I do. This is a silly corollary, such a male thing it's probably almost perplexingly stupid, but I have a big Harley-Davidson motorcycle which I bought in 1989 and kept for about a year. Then I put it in storage because life changed, and it stayed in storage for seven years and I would sometimes think about it in that storage bin in Missoula and think to myself, "This is the nature of my whole life. I did this thing and then I built a box around it and shoved it back in there and it just keeps every once in a while looming up at me shouting, 'Mistake, mistake, mistake.'" But then last week I got it out of storage, and I took it up to Great Falls and I took it to the Harley shop and they got it started up, they got it cranking and I went back to see it two days ago and I thought, "Here you are you sucker, I'm ready for you now." And it made me the happiest man in the world.

By Sophie Majeski

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