Sunday, September 24, 2006

Richard Ford interview

Phil Hogan of the Observer (London) visited with Richard Ford and interviewed him about The Lay of the Land, the closing novel of the trilogy that opened with The Sportswriter and includes the Pulitizer Prize-winning Independence Day.

This passage about the protagonist Frank Bascombe was one of the more interesting parts of the interview for me:
The three novels are structural siblings, in that each covers a day or two in the company of an ordinary man with things to do - a professional errand to run, a girlfriend to meet, a road trip to embark on. But he's not that ordinary and it's via Frank's ultra-attuned musings - on passing minutiae, on the road ahead, on the struggle of every man to transcend his own anxious circumstances - that the deluge of America itself pours in and expands the book's purpose to bursting point. When we first meet Frank, he has given up writing fiction for a less complicated life, first as a hack on a sports magazine and later as an [real] estate agent. I ask Ford whether he gave Frank a literary background to make him a more plausible thinker.

'I was determined not to write a book about a writer. But yes, I needed something to make him persuasive as the sort of transactive character I wanted him to be. With Frank's speaking voice - the intelligence that that voice implies - he is able to transact the culture for the reader. If Frank were a person, and you met him, and he sold you a house, he wouldn't seem like this guy on the page. He would seem like a totally embedded, insignificant character. But because he is a character in a novel, doing what characters in novels do - having a much more intense intellectual, emotional life than even human beings have - then he becomes exceptional.'

Having said that, Ford doesn't see anything incongruous about the idea of a contemplative estate agent. 'My view, and it's kind of a hopeful, progressive, humanist's view, is that anybody embedded in his or her life - a railroad worker, a ditch digger, whatever the hell - has more to offer us than we think they do. People have rich interior lives. People have possibilities that we don't, on the basis of convention, ever accord to them. Who are we to say someone who works on the railroad isn't going to have a rich interior life? That seems to me to be cynical about human beings.'

And this passage made me think of Alan Bennett's observation about all modesty being false:
[Ford] says if a 'numb nuts' like him can write a novel, anyone can; he thinks he wouldn't have won the Pulitzer if John Updike or Philip Roth had published a book that year (in fact, I discover later, Roth's Sabbath's Theater was shortlisted); he loves the Hallmark greetings cards company (which Frank is sniffy about) for its services to the millions of people who can't express their sentiments very well. 'I think it's wonderful,' he says.
Finally, there's the story about the novel with the bullet hole through it:

I ask him about a story I heard - that a publisher once sent him a novel to read in the hope of an endorsement and that he'd sent it back with a bullet hole through it. He laughs. 'They sent me a book by a writer who had reviewed The Sportswriter rather negatively. It was my wife who took the book out to the backyard and shot it with a pistol. Then by some coincidence, someone else sent a copy. It was so satisfying to watch her that I went out and shot the other one. The book is now on an editor's shelf at Knopf in New York, big hole blown in one side and blown out the other.'

Smiling, he says he can't remember the name of the book. 'But a .38 slug makes quite an impression.'

It would be a better story if we knew the title of the book.

Click here to read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue