Over the past two decades I have (for reasons, some clear and some mysterious) spent a fair amount of time immersed in recent American literature—diligently reading the books and happily speaking with their creators. In that time, I am pleased to recount, I have spoken to Richard Ford on various occasions—the publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Independence Day (the second of his Frank Bascombe stories), some indeterminate date between his story collections Women with Men and A Multitude of Sins—and also for that collection. And most recently for his last (Ford says) Frank Bascombe novel, The Lay of the Land.
Perhaps it is bravado or some brazen (and unwarranted) self-regard on my part, but the idea that the conversational well might run dry has never occurred to me. In fact, I am of the opinion (and why not?) that my various Richard Ford conversations are small tributaries in joining larger streams that converge somewhere on the horizon to form a mighty, never-ending conversation. Or isn’t it nice to think so?
If I could have written it better than the dependable AO Scott, I, of course, would have—here is Scott’s take on the Frank Bascombe saga:
… you must take Frank as he is, and admit him into your circle of intimates according to affinities that go deeper than literary taste. And accepting him — extending your sympathy, laughing at his jokes, overlooking his crotchets and prejudices — amounts nearly to an ethical imperative, the acknowledgment of his personhood. Elizabeth Hardwick, an infallible if occasionally inscrutable critic, once observed that “Independence Day” “might be judged longer than it should be. But for whom?” The same judgment might apply to the meander and sprawl of “The Lay of the Land,” and certainly to the hypothetical future Modern Library doorstop containing Frank Bascombe in full. But Hardwick’s simple question goes to the heart of Richard Ford’s accomplishment. Certainly, this novel is not too long for Frank. It’s his life, and it would be cruel to begrudge him any of it. The novel’s lovely last sentence evokes “our human scale upon the land,” and that touch of grandiloquence is well earned. By now, we have gotten to know Frank Bascombe well enough to take his measure, and to appreciate that, like almost no one else in our recent literature, he’s life-size.
In the chat that follows, Richard and I talk of his efforts in writing this opus, his ideas for future projects, and some topics in between. This conversation lasted roughly an hour and as was the case in the past, it could have gone on longer. Whether it should have is, of course, for you to decide. Me—I have every intention of picking it up again in a few years.
Or isn’t nice to think so?
Robert Birnbaum: It’s the 16th November 2006, a date of no particular significance. Anything important to you happen on the 16th?
Richard Ford: [long pause] I’m thinking.
RB: I guess we shouldn’t dwell on it. But it does cause me to consider a couple of things in The Lay of the Land which I wondered if you went out of your way to include or you had just collected the facts—like the city in New Jersey that was the first nuclear-free zone?
RF: Hoboken. I think I knew that. I really did a lot of that stuff early on—and I wrote it down. Is it in the book? I can’t remember.
RB: There was another detail [factoid]. Was this actually a product of research? Or did it just accrete? I now can’t remember the examples—
RF: I don’t think I made anything up—like where Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were from and stuff like that. I made up a couple of things because I thought they were funny—The Bud and Lou Hall of Fame—but most of the stuff came right out of my, so to speak, research.
RB: What was that? Wasn’t your research just having lived in New Jersey?
RF: Yeah, but I got a lot of books—a lot of fact books. And I got a lot of books about what happened in what town in New Jersey historically before I ever decided to try to write. I really immersed myself.
RB: You did mention that in Seacliff [NJ] there were Nazi sappers who went on shore and were sent to Leavenworth for the duration of the war and then were repatriated. And then German Americans wanted to memorialize it.
RF: But the Jews objected [both laugh]. I think I may have made that up.
RB: It sounded plausible.
RF: That’s the thing. You can’t really make the world up—make something more zany than the world is. It’s like the famous quote in the book I use from [Aldous] Huxley, who after reading Einstein’s biography said that the world was not only stranger than we know but it is stranger than we can know.
RF: So, I mean I can’t make anything up that isn’t already superseded by something that already is. Which provides a nice license because you can dream up a Tibetan Buddhist who is a real estate agent—
RB: —whose name is Mike Mahoney.
RF: Mike Mahoney, who is a libertarian.
RB: There was something—I hope you don’t think I’m stupid, but I read the book in its entirety—
RF: I’ve never thought that [laughs].
RB: There are multitudinous opportunities to prove one’s stupidity. Anyway, I don’t understand what you call “The Permanent Period.”
RF: Well, “The Permanent Period,” Frank says, is that period in life which after you die you will be remembered for.
RB: How did I miss that? Does he actually explain it that way in the book?
RF: I don’t know if he explains it early on, but he explains it. It is that period in time when the past no longer impinges on you. It seems rather indistinct and when there is not enough left to the future to be afraid that you can screw it up. So it is a time that is hemmed in by these two chronological imperatives such that you should feel free to live more or less for the day. Whether or not it is set out in black-letter law like that, I don’t know. But it’s definitely there.
RB: It sounds Buddhistic.
RF: It is.
RB: Even though Frank rejects any formal Buddhistic principles.
RF: It is—I don’t know if there is such a thing as “The Permanent Period.” I just concocted it to try to help—as Sartre says, to “try to elevate something of the duff of not being noticed.” Namely a period of life that you might just skitter through without noticing it so it can then afterwards be noticed. It’s there for a provisional sense. My whole take on life is kind of Buddhistic in that way. But I’m not a Buddhist. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to buy into some of the stuff. I don’t think I have ever read anything, so it just comes naturally to me.
RB: I like the Dalai Lama. Especially after seeing him on Larry King—
RF: That in itself is bizarre.
RB: I liked the way he responded to King—spending most of the time giggling. And who can argue with the precept of practicing kindness? That strikes me as a reasonable way of dealing with the world.
RF: I can completely agree. There is almost nothing in Buddhism that I have read about—which is not very much—that I don’t buy. There is a great little book by the Dalai Lama in which he admits to liking to watch the BBC on television and, for dietary reasons having to do with his health, occasionally eating a beefsteak [both laugh].
RB: That does violate some basic tenet of reincarnation?
RF: Yes, yes, it does.
RB: Is the saga of Frank Bascombe over? Do you see revisiting him?
RF: No. Not in any way that I now understand.
RB: You really feel like you can be this definite about it?
RF: It less having to do with him so to speak “him” and more having to do with me. My age, I’m sixty-two and I had to work and sweat and slave a lot harder on this book than I felt I was going to have to. Particularly in the last year. And I just would not want to do that again. I said to Kristina, the whole year when we were finishing this book, I said, “You know I just don’t ever want to do this again.”
RB: Did I hear that right, “When we were finishing this book”?
RF: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. She really helped me. She stood shoulder to shoulder with me and did things for me that I couldn’t have done for myself. I’m not talking about writing sentences or even editing sentences, but listening to me read sentences out loud and that way editing. But she said, “I‘ll never let you do this again.”
RB: [laughs] Really?
RB: So if the payoff is—it’s hard for me to imagine this book not getting great reviews and also you not believing that it’s a very good piece of work—if enough people say, “Richard, this a wonderful book,” and so on, doesn’t that wash away the memory of the exertion? Maybe it’s all too fresh in your mind?
RF: Could be. It certainly was fresh in my mind, as it was still on my desk the 15th of August. OK, it took me four years and change to write it. And most of the writing was great, I enjoyed it a lot. It’s kind of nice to be in the middle of a novel. You are way past the beginning. You’re a long way from the end. You are just immersed in the middle of it. And that’s great. But still it was four years. I’m being fatalistic about this Robert, [long pause] I can’t imagine [working on something for] four years. I have so much early death in my family that I just wasn’t going get involved in something that made me use up the last four years of my life, sweating and slaving. Or suddenly slump forward on my desk onto my unfinished manuscript and be dead as a mallet—and think to myself, “Jesus Christ, couldn’t I have had some fun?”
RB: So if Frank appears in a story, it has to be in a long piece of work?
RF: Well that’s the only way I have ever conceived it. Somebody asked me the other day—people do say things to you, which are interesting, when they are interviewing you—”Don’t you imagine you could write about Frank pre-Sportswriter? Just write about what his life was like before any of that took place.” That’s the kind of thinking, so to speak “outside the box,” I never do. I just say, “Well, okay this ends in 2000, picking him up again it would have to be at least 2005 or 6 or 7 or 8 or 9 something like that.” By then he’d be as old as I am now and that doesn’t interest me very much.
RB: Has Frank gotten smarter?
RF: I think he’s like me. He hasn’t gotten any smarter.
RF: But he has just accumulated more stuff in his brain. That can make someone seem smarter maybe. But I don’t think he is any smarter. Certain things you do—you know this—when you are a little older and they are mistakes that because you are a little older you just won’t do again. Whereas if you are younger you do something and it’s a mistake and it turns out disastrously and you look around and five minutes after you are doing it again [both laugh]. We don’t even need to go into what those things are. But if that is smarter, then I guess he is a little smarter. Even though I think the book promotes him somewhat as being angry, I think he is fairly patient and tolerant, too.
RB: That sounds right. The relationship that I thought was most fascinating, the one that caused me to pause, was with his son, who in spite of his generally unattractive and oppositionist personality Frank continues to profess his love for him. I keep wondering why, beyond the obvious—
RF: He is his kid though. Actually, I’ll tell a tale out of school on that. When I wrote those passages toward the end of the book, Part III—when Gary [Fisketjon] read it, he said, and Gary almost never makes comments like this, but he said, “You know I think Frank is being a little hard on Paul. I wish you would kind of have a look at that.” Kristina read what he said and she said, “I think he may be right,” and so I did. I went back through and plucked some lines out. I always had him saying I love you because that is just the kind of person I am. If I love you, I’ll tell you. But people always in my family always told me that they loved me and so even in the worst of passes with Frank and Paul that was always the nature of their relationship. We have mostly these conventional ideas of what love is, but most of love is performed quite unconventionally.
RB: The preface which included an incident about the murder of a nursing instructor—was that an incident you found in a newspaper?
RF: Yeah. You might have read it too.
RB: You made wonderful use of it. It seemed like a three-inch report from a newspaper—
RF: That’s about right. I made it up or elaborated on it. But you know the funny thing about that was—
RB: “Are you prepared to meet your maker?”
RF: “Are you ready to meet your maker?” Exactly. I wrote that and that became the kind of guiding thesis for the book—quite unexpectedly, usually when I start book I know the stuff I want to put in them and I know the places I want them to go. I don’t usually think I have a—I knew a guiding thesis. I thought maybe Thanksgiving would be the guiding thesis of “The Permanent Period” but that little line which I either plucked out of a news story or made it up and I don’t remember which. That became the reason for the book’s being. Trying to ask yourself, “Are you ready your meet your maker?” In so many ways writing novels you have to fall heir to some luck. Just luck. And you kind of know when you are lucky because things along through the novel begin to kind of fit in, in a way that you couldn’t have planned. But there is almost a scrim through which the material passes and only the stuff that you can really use finally really begins to get through to you.
RB: Had you thought that Frank would get into a physical confrontation in some dive?
RF: No, I really didn’t.
RB: Or he would drive by a hospital, which was an unlikely dining spot he favored, and it suffered some kind of bombing?
RF: Going to the hospital to eat lunch was definitely on my agenda, but then what happened there. So many things you just blunder into. Of course if you blunder into something and you don’t like it, you can take it out, but then you have to trust—I am talking about myself and using the second person—this blundering way of getting from signal point to signal point, is going to render something useful to you.
RB: Was the manuscript for The Lay of the Land much larger?
RF: Well, yeah—I forget how many pages, seventy or so, I took out. I did it on my own; nobody told me to. People have complained to me now that—
RB: They wanted it to be longer?
RF: No, they thought it was [too] long. It read long.
RF: I say it was a bit longer and I made it as short as I could. There is only one paragraph in the whole book that I could have still taken out.
RF: That I chose not to, yeah.
RB: Seems to me to be an odd way of looking at it. One paragraph out of hundreds or more paragraphs you think might have been unnecessary?
RF: Yeah, it was slightly repetitious of something about a hundred pages before. But as I looked at them both and hung them on my wall by my desk and stared at them for a couple days trying to decide if I would take them out. The second one, which would have been the one to take out—had an almost rhythmical feel, in the terms of the progress of the story, so I left it in. So I said to Kristina, “That’s not bad. The book is 485 pages. There is one paragraph here I could have tweezed out but I am not going to.” She said, “Give yourself a break.” She said to me about the first of June, she said, “The book is finished”—
RF: “The book is finished. The book is finished.”
RB: You were at the end?
RF: No, no. I worked on it for another two and a half months.
RB: Were you at the end?
RF: By the first of June, I’m talking about this year the book was already in the advance reader’s copy form. I knew there were more things that were needed to be done of a housekeeping nature. And I did those things and then she said, “The book is now finished. I now proclaim it finished.” I said, “Then you put your name on it.”
RB: Her name is on it.
RF: I said, “If my name is going to go on this book, it’s going to go until I can’t go anymore.” And that’s when the real nut crunching came. When I pushed it through two more drafts. After the first of June.
RB: Did you want to do that?
RF: Well—yes. I did. I did. But I can’t say it was needlessly hard—I got really tense. I was really nervous about it in a way that I had never been before. And I can’t even tell you why because it wasn’t as if I meant this one really a lot more. I didn’t feel this way about it. I just thought, “This is a bigger book; it requires more out of me. I’ll never do this again, so I guess I have to work until I can’t anymore.”
RB: Did you reread the first two Frank Bascombe books?
RF: At the beginning of working on this book I leafed through the first two, looking for things—I didn’t meticulously read it. But I went through every page of the first two looking for things. Things I wanted to pick up again, characters I wanted to haul out again or things I wanted to be sure to repeat. So I did that and then Kristina did it sometime in the spring—she reread both books again just to see if there were needless repetitions.
RB: Checking for continuity and so forth?
RF: Yes. To make sure of Paul is twenty-six in this book that we know when he was born and the kids were of a certain ages, that they all add up in the books. Yeah. I mean that kind of stuff is the stuff that drives you crazy.
RB: And inevitably you will get someone at a reading or in a review pointing out some anomaly.
RF: Somebody will. For all of my efforts and her efforts and Gary’s efforts—and God, Knopf’s efforts—did they ever go to the wall. Unbelievable. You are supposed to get a look at the first galley pass and then the second galley pass you are not supposed to see. And the third galley pass they let you see, really with the expectation that it would be just a cursory look. Well at that end of the continuum I don’t have any cursory looks. So— they let me go through and revise all three galley passes between the first of May and the middle of August. And if you can believe this, the woman who was in charge of the book’s copyediting, she decided at the end of July she would read The Sportswriter. And the day the book was turned it she called me up and she said, “You may not care about this, but in this book you say Vicki [Arsenault, Wade’s daughter] is blonde but in The Sportswriter you say she has dark hair.” [both laugh]. Now this is not me. She said, “I just noticed that.” I said “My God, you people.” All the stuff you hear about publishing, throw it away. They’re just stellar.
RB: You are most certainly not the first author I have noticed this about–but I see more and more writers lauding their publicists in increasingly lengthier acknowledgments. In this case, Gabrielle Brooks [Knopf publicity director]—
RF: Yeah, she is way up on the list, too. Way up there.
RB: In some cases I don’t even see an editor mentioned.
RF: Is that true? Wow, that would be a remarkable thing.
RB: That does strike me as a sea change in publishing.
RF: Well Gabrielle and I have worked together for more than ten years and through four books and maybe even more. I can’t remember if she was working on Wildlife or not? She’s just—
RB: —wasn’t Wildlife at Atlantic Monthly Press?
RF: That’s right it wouldn’t be her. That’s exactly right. Thank you. But all of the books that I have published since then have been with her and she’s just—she is one of the major reasons a book gets published well. When she goes and talks to [Paul] Bogardz, she goes as an advocate and that advocacy shows up in all kinds of things that happen to the book in extra efforts by her and she knows that I am worth it, in this regard, that I will do all the things she wants me to do.
RB: Speaking of which you have conscientiously and diligently gone out on tour for every book you have published—at least since Independence Day.
RF: I am the anti-Cormac McCarthy [both laugh].
RB: So, you referred earlier to what journalists say to you. Is there anything striking about the way people talk to you and the attention you receive now as opposed to ten years ago or anytime in between? Does it reflect anything about the state of literary journalism in the US?
RF: No, it’s pretty much the same. It’s notable as it would be notable by a guy who wrote the book that there are certain kinds of subjects—we haven’t talked about any of them so I don’t expect any of these things to come out of your mouth—but it’s notable how many times the same subjects come up. But what that means to me is that those are things of note in the book that really everyone who reads it freshly feels required to talk about. I can’t say it’s monotonous because it’s not. But is quite conspicuous really. But, no—I can’t see that my experience with literary journalists has changed markedly. I mean maybe it is because I don’t feel any different from how I used to feel fifteen or eighteen years ago. And I don’t feel like anyone’s attitude toward me has changed. It’s not as though anybody gives me more respect than they ever did. Or particular deference that I don’t require—they just take me on fairly politely and seem to have done for the most part what they need to do to do their job. But I don’t notice much difference.
RB: Do you talk to TV people?
RF: I did talk with Jeff Brown of the Lehrer News Hour. But getting onto Live at Five has been kind of—you have to be Carl Hiaasen to do that. Or somebody like John Grisham.
RB: Have you talked to Charlie Rose?
RF: I have always been picked up by Charlie. But this time not. I think they were hoping the book would get on the [best seller’s] list. It’s gotten pretty close. That might—
RB: Is that how they choose?
RF: No, the first time I was on his show it may have been after I won the Pulitzer Prize —so that was the hook there. Then we got to be friendly, both of us Southerners. But don’t know—
RB: You consider some one from North Carolina a Southerner?
RF: I give him that. I afford them that, plus he went to Duke. I like Charlie.
RB: He’s an odd duck from my view of him.
RF: I catch him sometimes in restaurants and have a chat with him. And one or twice I have seen him down at Duke.
RB: What are you doing down there?
RF: Going down and giving a talk—running my mouth. Running my mouth expensively.
RB: Expensively for Duke?
RB: Do you have any contact with Reynolds Price?
RF: I know Reynolds pretty well. In fact have known him a long time. Since 1981. I see him at the American Academy, but I always see him when I go down to Duke, for any reason. He’s a dear man, really, a generous soul. I think in some ways his infirmity has even brought out more of his generosity. He was a great friend of Eudora’s [Welty]. I’ll tell you Eudora wasn’t going to befriend anybody who wasn’t up to it.
RF: And they had the time of their life. There are some great stories Reynolds tells about Eudora. Her and she traveling all over the South in a car—pulling in to little towns and having to sleep in the same room, one of them on the couch and one of them in the bed. Yeah.
RB: Has there ever been an extended period when you didn’t write?
RF: There have been periods when I didn’t write when I didn’t want to. But there never has been a period when I didn’t write because I couldn’t or because I didn’t have anything to do. Whenever I have felt like I wanted to then I dreamed up something to do. In this instance I have a little novel that I could write that I—I didn’t really start it, but I started working on compiling it back in 1989.
RB: What does that mean?
RF: Compiling it? I just collect stuff for it. I got the idea whole in my brain, which almost never happens to me, and then on the basis of having the idea for it, I started fitting things in—I’m making notes for it. So I have gone on, making notes for it for this twenty-year period. It’s just a short novel in Canada.
RB: Why not call it a novella?
RF: Well I wanted it to be 200 pages. I think there is enough in it to be a novel. It’s about a man, an American man who commits a fatal crime in Washington state as a member of the right-to-work movement because he is an anti-union guy and then he escapes up to Saskatchewan and stays up in Saskatchewan for two decades, running a hotel out on the prairie of which there are these hotels. And he uses this hotel as a place for people to come and shoot geese, so he runs a little guiding service out of his hotel. He marries a woman up there and the story is told by his nephew. Whose parents have been put in prison and comes up to live with him because of his parents situation. And then while the boy is up there the old debt is sought to be settled by two guys who are dispatched up there to murder the guy. It’s kind of a neat little story.
RB: It sounds like a lot of story for the compact space you are envisioning.
RF: Yeah there’s a lot. There are several characters. And Indian kid, and there is the narrator and the uncle and there is his wife and the hunters and—the thing that is most attractive to me is the chance to write sentences that seek to describe that landscape up there. Southern Saskatchewan along the Saskatchewan River. Also I am such a Canadian at heart, in some ways. There is a part of me that just loves Canada. I would like to set a book up in Canada. Just out of homage to what a wonderful place it is.
RB: At the time we talked for Multitude of Sins you spoke of wanting to get better at describing people.
RF: I was working at—
RB: Lay of the Land seems to show those efforts came to fruition.
RF: It shows I did hard work anyway.
RB: Is it the case that you feel like you haven’t spent much effort describing land and place?
RF: Oh, I have. I have done it as lot. That’s something I have done with some pleasure. And not badly at all. There is some thing about the landscape up there that attracts me.
RB: What does Saskatchewan look like? Like Iowa. Waves of wheat and corn.
RF: It’s flatter than Montana and the agriculture on that land is configured differently. And the towns are not as spry as the towns in Montana. If you drive along route 2 for instance in Northern Montana you’ll come, to a town every six or seven miles. And what you find when you drive along the old CP [Canadian Pacific] line in southern Saskatchewan, you’ll will find a town every six or seven miles that’s absolute intact but empty. And Canadians are more tolerant people than Americans are. I remember the day after the election the last time Bush was returned to office, I was so crestfallen, I felt so horrible the next morning after the election—
RB: One does get a clear sense of where you stand in The Lay of the Land—
RF: —but I had to go up to Canada, up to East End Saskatchewan which is where Wallace Stegner was born. I had to go up there to get a flue shot—that was the year that they weren’t giving them out. They were hoarding them somewhere. And so went over the border and got a flu shot—
RB: You were still living in Montana at the time?
RF: I drove across the border into Climax Saskatchewan. I just felt this immense sense of weight lifting off of me. This sense of freedom, this sense of there being no rancor. Of there being a better life there. I’d like in some ways to write a book which portrayed that.
RB: That does give credence to the tangibility of bad vibes.
RF: It does. If I hadn’t felt it lifting off of me, I don’t think I would have been very aware that it was weighing on me. But that’s the way it felt.
RB: Why did you give up on Montana?
RF: We weren’t going out there enough and our house which is a very nice little house in a little town needed to be lived in. And we weren’t living in it but a month a year. The town was losing population. When you were reading about Senator Treastor’s life, this new guy who was running, he lives in the part of Montana very close to where we lived, near Great Falls and his little town is losing population—all those little towns are losing population. So I thought why should my house be sitting empty all the time whereas if I make it available to some family may be the life they would lead would keep people in town and that’s what happened. A young couple with two kids, freshly minted two children—a Mormon family bought it and now they are living there. Which is great.
RB: Speaking of Mormons, Sally’s [Frank’ second wife] kids are “crazy Mormons.” You really packed it in this book.
RF: Yeah, I took a whack at those.
RB: Do you know a writer named Alston Chase who I believe lives in the Great Falls area? He wrote a remarkable book about Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. He dug out some compelling information about Harvard’s psychological testing in the ‘50s and suggests that they screwed Kaczynski up.
RF: Alston Chase, that’s not a name — it sounds like a name I heard, but it sounds like a name we all heard. But I can’t think I have. There is one guy out there named Pete Fromm who is a pretty good short story writer who lives in Great Falls; that’s the only writer I know in Great Falls.
RB: Apropos of nothing, why doesn’t Frank have a dog?
RF: [long pause] Good question.
RB: There is even a remark he makes where he says, “Dogs make better companions than a most men.” “Men make bad companions, dogs are better.” [both laugh] And you have dogs.
RF: I’ve had dogs forever, since I was a little boy.
RB: The only story I can remember that deals with dogs is “Puppy” in Multitude of Sins—do you very think about writing about dogs as characters? Or people having meaningful relationships with their dogs?
RF: No I never have. I don’t know why. I never thought about that.
RB: I think of it because that line for Lay of the Land is quite suggestive, and two, I just met a dog who evoked all these ideas for me of a personality out of a Thomas Mann story or a hanger on in a Viennese cafe—
RF: The dog has this personality? Have you taken this dog in?
RB: He’s now like my godson. He hangs out with my Rosie and my son’s dog, Rex.
RB: He’s the sweetest dog.
RF: So you still have your Lab, good. It’s funny that’s just outside the box for me. I just never have really though about it. There must be something. I remember trying to write a story—noting out a story—I had a dog named Scooter who got cancer and he had a kind of progressive cancer which started in the nerves of his leg and it went up into his spine and so toward and at the end of his life he was going hunting, with his front leg just flapping, [Ford flaps his hand] and it didn’t really work anymore. And many times I would have to go into the field and carry and him out of the field because he would just completely exhaust himself hunting on three legs. And I was going to write a story about a man and a woman who met in Montana to go hunting as they were breaking up and I think I thought I had written enough stories about women and men—
RF: —having bad relationships so I quit doing that. I think that’s exactly why I don’t use that little episode from Scooter’s life—I couldn’t figure out whey those thing seemed to be matched to go together. One wasn’t emblematic of the other. It just seemed right.
RB: Frederick Busch wrote a sequel to his novel Girls called North and his protagonist has a very compelling relationship with his aging and unnamed Lab—the dog dies. There is a fullness and vividness in the way he accounts for the man/canine interaction. I thought I would like to read more about that—
RF: You may have a different relationship with your dog, say, from the ones I have with mine. You are probably a little more emotionally attached to your dogs.
RB: They are like children—though I don’t confuse them with my son—but Rosie is a good companion and steadfast.
RF: Yeah. I certainly feel that. We have three dogs, three Brittany Spaniels.
RB: Working dogs?
RB: That would make a difference.
RF: Maybe, but I—they are just pets around the house 90% of the time. They are out hunting 10% of the time and the only in the fall. So I don’t know why I don’t write about dogs. That’s a good question. Maybe—here’s what I’ll do, I’ll put a dog in this book—
RB: The Saskatchewan book?
RF: And I’ll name it Robert [both laugh].
RB: I hope the dog is smart. Or not dumb.
RF: [laughs] So when you see that—I’ll do that I promise you.
RF: Ok. [both laugh] I tried to get the UPS guy’s name in my book. He was always bringing me stuff—manuscripts back and forth. He was aware that it was my book. I told him I had a UPS guy in the book, and he said, “God, if you used my name in my book it would be the greatest thing that could ever happen to me. I would be the most famous UPS guy in all of New England.” And I tried really hard to get it in there. His name was Kyle, but I couldn’t make it work. I just couldn’t make it work.
RB: UPS men are unacknowledged legislators, aren’t they?
RF: They really are.
RB: I invariably have a friendship with my UPS guys—they’re a lifeline.
RF: When I was turning in The Sportswriter, we were living in the Delta. The Fed Ex guy came to pick up the manuscript. We weren’t quite ready for it to leave the house when he needed to pick it up. So Kristina took him out in the backyard and they shot skeet [both laugh]. He was out there in his shorts shooting clay birds and I was in there pounding away on my book.
RB: So you are splitting your time between Maine and—
RF: Most of the time in Maine. When Kristina moved up with me—which she did since the last time I saw you. We pretty much felt we had said goodbye to New Orleans. She’d been pretty unhappy with how things worked out there. But then after the hurricane we both just suddenly realized how big a part of our lives New Orleans is and so immediately we set about trying to find a way to live there more. We don’t quite know how we are going to live there. But I rented a house—I had an apartment rented most of this year and we went back and forth. Now we are going to try broaden the whole thing a little bit and have a house and see how that works. We don’t own anything there anymore. We don’t have enough money to own it. But if it should turn out we felt we could live there—we have an apartment down in New York—I would sell that and buy a house in New Orleans.
RB: How is New York to you? Still fun?
RF: No, not really.
RF: Yeah. Just a chance, a place to have your stuff there rather than staying in a hotel and also since real estate is so pricey in New York, we’re in Riverdale actually, it’s a good place to dump some money.
RB: I guess you learned something writing the Bascombe books.
RF: Really did. But we have a preposterous mortgage on this place.
RB: Meaning large or small?
RF: Large. And we are not using it very much and I think we both feel like if we don’t start using it more by next August, which will be three years we have owned it, then we are going to get rid of it. If we can—I don’t know what the housing market is now. How’s life in New Hampshire?
RB: I lived up Exeter, the South Seacoast. I found it quite congenial and easy.
RF: I go by there all the time. Ever bump into Ted Wesner up there? He used to teach at UNH and he’s a novelist—quite a good novelist.
RB: I did interview Donald Hall up at Eagle Pond Farm.
RF: He was my teacher. He’s a great friend of mine. People have told me he’s not getting around too well.
RB: I didn’t notice. He seemed to be okay. In his 80’s, smoking cigarettes and his two cats Thelma and Louise hoping around. He’s had cancer, right?
RF: He’s had everything. He’s a miracle. He’s actually 78–he was born the year Thomas Hardy died. He wants to be older. Always has. So he probably was happy with you thinking he was 80, even though he is only 78. [both laugh]
RB: He taught you at Michigan?
RF: He doesn’t like to think that he was my teacher. He’s the guy who got me to come there. He was still teaching there at the time. So I went to classes he gave even though I went as a non-matriculated student. I was a Ford Foundation fellow there. I just went to classes when I wanted. I went to his Yeats class and his Ulysses class. But when I say to people that he was my teacher, he says, “I wasn’t really your teacher.” “Well, yeah, you were.” He’s a lovely man. I’m glad you saw him. He is not like anybody else really.
RB: It felt like that.
RF: He’s a unique man and genuinely good man.
RB: I enjoyed him.
RF: Did you read his book about Jane [Kenyon]?
RF: That’s a very sad book. And the detail in the book is pretty overpowering. Kristina and I knew Don and Jane from the day they got together. I don’t quite see how he wrote that book.
RB: There weren’t too many sentences that went by that he didn’t make reference to her. She is very much on his mind. It says something that he is not rolled up in a ball, or fetal position.
RF: Especially with all the stuff he has had—liver cancer. He’s got diabetes. He’s got—I don’t know what the hell else.
RB: Read anything good lately? Anything new?
RF: I’m reading a book by Christopher Hope called my Mother’s Lovers. Which is okay. I am starting to read a new novel by a guy named James D. Houston called Bird of Another Heaven set in Hawaii. That’s a pretty interesting book. Hope is a South African and Jim Houston lives in California. This was just a year in which pretty much if I didn’t write it I didn’t read it—a complete addictive immersion to my own sentence problems. So I didn’t read very much.
RB: Is there any place in the world you would like to spend more time?
RF: New Zealand. And more time in Ireland. I get to spend as much time in Ireland as I want to since I am not shackled to this book anymore. I would like to spend more time there.
RF: I just—my family is all from there. But those are the only two places. Really no place else.
RB: [interrupted by RB’s mobile phone] I like the observation you made about the reason people are so restless and irritated listening to other folks’ cell phone conversations is they realize how banal their own are. They all sound the same [both laugh].
RF: They are all the same. I used live in New York on the East Side, in the late ’60s. We almost never went to the West Side. I don’t know why. We didn’t have car of course. We had to walk across the park, but when we did go up to the West Side it always seemed like it was Sunday morning. And there you saw all of these people tripping up and down Broadway with their newspapers heading off to Zabar’s. I had this horrible feeling that they are all doing the same things. And it’s just my nature that if I see people all doing the same thing that I don’t like, what I immediately know is, I’m doing it too. They are just like me; I’m not different from them or superior to them. I am just who they are. It’s just my general habit of mind to identify people—if I see them doing terrible things, first thing I think is, “Am I doing that too? I am probably doing it too.”
RB: Frank manages to be one of the only real estate people in the Universe not to have a cell phone.
RF: Yeah, I thought about it as the book went on—I thought about how unlikely that was, but I finally just decided that’s how I want him to be. So if it defies good sense, it’s just going to be one more thing in the book that defies good sense, that I am going to try to make possible.
RB: Did you always intend the novel’s violent interlude?
RF: It was always aimed at. I haven’t read the reviews of this book, but Kristina talks to me about them sometimes and she said a couple people have thought that it was kind of—someone called it a deus ex machina. But my point was, and I don’t think this is necessarily a persuasive point from the standpoint of the internal dramatics of the book, but it’s a very persuasive point from the outside—which is why I did it. Maybe I could have done it better, but violence, when it suddenly vectors into your life, sunders everything. It is a kind of mean evil machine that just comes into your life and rejiggers it. You can’t plan for it. You can’t expect it. It just suddenly happens. I didn’t want it to be dovetailed into the book any differently from how I did it. I wanted it to be from almost out of nowhere.
RB: What would qualify that as a deux ex machina? It doesn’t conveniently solve any story line.
RF: It doesn’t. It doesn’t eliminate him. And doesn’t resolve anything.
RB: It seems to be [just] another thing that happens.
RF: That’s right. There are 60 pages of the book to go when that happens. It isn’t as if suddenly I just said, “Oh, oh the book’s over.” With the cleaver coming down. I can get reconciled to these things two months after the book is published—which is one of the reasons I don’t read reviews, but when I know that people are bitching about something in the book—
RF: Then I bitch at myself about it. I think it back through and I ask myself, “Well, did I really screw that up?” You are always going to get blindsided by something in your book that somebody is going to not like. And I always rather then just say, “Well they are wrong.” I think about it really hard. But when I think about it I come to the conclusion that the person who read that passage may not like it but it was what I wanted. So that’s cold comfort, to some extent, but it is comforting nonetheless.
RB: Did you work very hard on the last paragraph? Where the plane is landing, and—
RF: I-I, no.
RB: That was the natural end for you.
RF: Yeah, that’s where I wanted it to end. That was the image that I had for the book’s ending from the very beginning of the book. Of a plane coming down and watching things come into proportion. I didn’t know where that plane was going to come down. I didn’t know who was going to be in it, I didn’t really know anything but it was just the image that I wanted to end the book. So yeah, I worked on it, but once I wrote I just niggled around with sentences. I didn’t do any serious rethinking or restructuring on it, no. And I think it’s okay.
RB: I think so also.
RF: I don’t think I would let a book end in a way that I didn’t feel pretty good about because that is the last gesture. I have always put a lot of stock in those last movements in a book.
RB: There was a taste of lyricism that was not evident in the preceding passages.
RF: Yeah, it got prettied up. If it did, it was because I overworked it and if that’s the case it was because I was I was hearing the angels sing [both laugh].
RB: Speaking of hearing the angels sing, how do you feel about growing old?
RF: Well, somebody asked what did I think I would be doing in ten years, I said, “I assume I’ll be dead.”
RB: Because of your family history?
RF: Yeah, and I guess the way which the old people popped off when I was young has kind of mentally predisposed me to think and thereafter to be kind of prepared to not be surprised if I get something bad and get sick. But, that’s a different matter from the question that you asked. As long as I am not sick I feel great about getting old—I think it’s wonderful—I’m healthy and vigorous I play squash three times a week. I take pretty good care of myself and so that’s all fine. The most important thing is Kristina. We spent a lot of the last ten years not living together and she doing what she was wanting to do and me doing, god forbid, what I wanted to do, and I don’t want to miss a day of her life. I just don’t want to not be present. We both lurched back together in Maine about three years ago with this kind of wide-eyed feeling about each other, which was, “Jesus Christ, we almost completely screwed this up!”
RF: With a kind of explicit pledge to each other, “Well, we won’t do that again.” So when I think about getting older, what I think about is doing things with her, which is entirely halcyon to me.
RB: Well, good. Thanks.
© 2007 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing