Writer Richard Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1944 and received a B.A. from Michigan State University. He attended law school at Washington University in St Louis for one semester but quit, ultimately, to pursue a career in writing. He received a M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine (studying under E.L. Doctorow and Oakley Hall).
Ford has published five novels: A Piece of My Heart, The Ultimate Good Luck, The Sportswriter, Wildlife and Independence Day (which in 1996 was the first novel to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award). He has also published three story collections: Rock Springs, Women with Men and in February 2002, A Multitude of Sins. In addition to his own writing, Richard Ford has edited anthologies such as The Granta Book of the American Long Story, The Granta Book of The American Short Story and The Complete Stories of Anton Chekov, among others.
Ford has received numerous awards, been published in a wide array of American magazines and has taught at various universities around the USA. He nominally lives in New Orleans with his wife, Kristina, to whom he has dedicated all his books. Richard Ford also keeps residences in Mississippi, Montana and Maine. He is at work on the third Frank Bascombe novel (The Sportswriter, Independence Day…)
Robert Birnbaum: All these stories have been previously published but for one, “Abyss.”
Richard Ford: That’s right.
Birnbaum: At what point did you see these stories pointing to something more or decide that you wanted to do a collection?
Ford: When I had written the first three. I wrote “Privacy” first, “Creche” second and “Quality Time” third. Then I thought, “Oh, I see where this taking me.” So I’m going to exclude stories that didn’t go into what I thought this was going to be about. I wrote “Charity” last and I called it “Charity” because I thought it was the most, in a way, healing story. I thought that’s it. And then I tried to write one more, but all I had left for the book was meanness.
Ford: I just had the dregs of things to make a story out of. And it was just a terrible piece of…well, it was a terrible little story. Whether it was a terrible piece of writing I don’t know.
Birnbaum: That wasn’t the title of the story?
Birnbaum: Meanness? What do you mean that it was the dregs?
Ford: It was called “They Argued.” It was a little trick story about a series of declarations by an unknown speaker. All of which started with the phrase, “They argued.” It’s about all of the things that two people that are having an affair argue about. I sent it to my agent and she said to me, “Oh you don’t want to publish this.” Of course, then I immediately did want to publish it.
Birnbaum: Has the story “Abyss” appeared anywhere before?
Ford: No, it has not. I sent it to The New Yorker. The New Yorker took it, and Bill Buford did an edit on it, and he figured it had to come down some few pages. I thought it was a really good edit for what he wanted but that it didn’t leave the story intact. It took out things that I just couldn’t have taken out. So I chose not to publish it elsewhere.
Birnbaum: Is it of typographical consequence that the “Abyss” is set off in the table of contents?
Ford: There is. It’s because it’s a novella. That’s the reason.
Birnbaum: That would be a whole other subject. You have devoted some effort to defining literary categories. You defined it [in the introduction] in the Granta Book of the American Short Story that you edited. Or tried to…
Birnbaum: Then you edited the Granta Book of the American Long Story in which [in the introduction] you tried to define that genre…
Ford: A novella.
Birnbaum: …or distinguish a long story from a novella. And you also wrote that essay for Granta, “Where Do Stories Come From?” When you write about these issues, do feel like you are offering solid, definitive answers?
Ford: No. I know I am pulled toward the subject in the very same way that I am pulled toward whatever I write about and make a story out of. That there is something about a subject which just — in a quite palpable way — rather than a cognitive way — leads me to want to put some language to it. So that’s what I did with novellas. I also wanted to do all of the reading about novellas that there was to do. I wanted to read all the criticism. And I came away from reading all the criticism, to the extent that I wasn’t completely confused, I was frustrated in trying to use the word ‘novella’ in a meaningful way, in common parlance, but as you can see I have gone back to it. To use the word “long story” seems a little pretentious. Since nobody is really going to argue with you if you say, “I wrote a novella.” They all kind of think, “Oh yeah, that something that’s shorter than a novel but longer than a short story.”
Birnbaum: What do those categories mean for people other than writers?
Ford: Well, that’s not a question you want me to address historically? You don’t want to talk about Boccacio, thank god. It’s very interesting.
Birnbaum: (both laugh) I was told we only have a few minutes…
Ford: I think that they, probably, in America, don’t mean anything. I think they mean something in Europe. Europeans have typically written at that length much more frequently in the 20th century than Americans have. Though Americans have done it some, too. Because of magazines in America and the rise of magazines at the end of the 19th century, the short story came into vogue and they stayed in vogue. If that hadn’t happened — if the magazine hadn’t been the vehicle for which the short story had fitted itself so nicely, those longer forms might be just as popular as they are in Europe. I know when I sell books of short stories into Europe, they always say the same things, “We can’t pay you very much because the short story is not very popular over here.”
Birnbaum: Well, didn’t that used to be true here?
Ford: It is still true here.
Birnbaum: It seems to me that I have been seeing many more short-story collections in the past few years.
Ford: I can say some of the reasons why. Writing programs.
Birnbaum: That means more people are writing them. What explains why publishers are publishing them?
Ford: This is just one of those “go figures.” In American writing right now, there is a class of young writers who are between thirty and forty who are really good. Really good. They turned themselves to writing short stories because Bill [Buford] will publish them. I think it’s nothing more than that. Bill does this contest every year, the Debut Fiction issue for The New Yorker, and everyone of those people get snapped up. Nell Freudenberger, for instance, got a lot of money. She was offered on the strength of one short story which she published in The New Yorker a half a million dollars for a two-book contract.
Birnbaum: Things have changed…
Ford: Things have changed. She turned it down, bless her heart.
Birnbaum: Wow! There’s a story.
Ford: It’s a good story. A half a million for a two-book contract…[Rosie, RB’s obnoxious labrador, sits next to RF] Dogs like me.
Birnbaum: Interesting title, A Multitude of Sins. The most prominent sin here is adultery. Do want to talk about the other sins?
Ford: Under the house of adultery is all of the little failures that actually comprise it…
Birnbaum: Failure equals sin?
Ford: Yes. I’m conscious about doing that. I wanted to try to elevate the way we fail each other to that level to make it morally consequent and to make it more noticeable. And also so as not to avoid it. I don’t want to write a story in which I swept the consequences of acts under the carpet. I didn’t want to write a half-assed book. I wanted to write a book that was in your face about what this book wanted to be in your face about and live with the consequences myself. See what I could actually generate. So I wanted to say, “We writing about some sins here. These are how they get performed and these are what they are specifically at ground level. It’s not about the ether of sex. It’s about what happens the next day.”
Birnbaum: Are any of these stories, stories that you wanted in some way to take further?
Birnbaum: They are all complete for you?
Ford: Absolutely. There was never a thing that I could have done to any of those stories to make them any longer and make them any better.
Birnbaum: Perhaps that was a poorly phrased question. There was one story in particular made me want to know more.
Ford: “Under the Radar”?
Birnbaum: No, “Calling.” Everything about it was compelling, and I wanted to know more about the character’s life than the slice that we get in the story.
Ford: You may have put your finger on something that I tried to pave over and thereafter became unaware of. That’s what you do. You come to some little glitch in the story’s form and you try to find — in the way that stories can remedy themselves — you find a way to pave over the glitch. I wanted that to be a story. I did not want it to grow long. It may very well have been that the point in the story I tucked it in and made it come to its end was too arbitrary a point. I’m never a hundred percent sure about things like that. You go on instinct and you say, “Okay this the point in the story where I am going take it away from the here and send it in this direction. You might do it better in another way. I didn’t have any further interest in that situation. What I do to compensate — and you probably noticed it other stories of mine — I kind of load up the end. I make the end be really full. I give the character a chance to say a bunch of things that only a story would permit you to say, that in life you would never think or say. It’s probably the story [“Calling”] in the book that people seem to like the most.
Ford: Yes, at least now that the book is in the world. I know why for myself. I don’t know why really. I think it’s like some of the stories in Rock Springs in how it’s told. People sentimentalize Rock Springs in way that they wouldn’t if they read it again.
Birnbaum: Perhaps I missed this in reading your previous work, but I found this collection ripe with reverberating bon mots.
Ford: Oh really.
Birnbaum: In the “Calling”: “Few things in the world are actually mysterious. Most things have disappointing reasons behind them no matter how strange they seem at first.” It didn’t really matter to me whether that was true…I thought, “Well, yeah I suppose we do invest things with a certain mystery, and if we really thought it through they wouldn’t be.”
Ford: Well, that’s a little bit what adultery is about. If you find yourself actually thinking about — not just the next 25 minutes — but the next 24 hours you might look at it differently.
Birnbaum: That’s a tough call. In one of the early stories you say that people don’t remember the past, they imagine it.
Ford: That’s in “Quality Time.” I still think it’s true. But that may be the story writer and novelist talking, trying to say something that is true about me — in a provisional way — to be true about everybody else. Like you said before, it’s probably more true than we think, but for some people it may not be true at all. I was just on the radio with someone calling up from North Carolina wanting to talk about adultery because he wanted to figure out how to talk to his Sunday school class about it. He said, “You know, I don’t know where to start. ‘Cuz I have no experience in this.” I said, “Present your students with a hypothetical and ask them to write down all the things that they think. And if they don’t come up with anything then I have a book to sell you.” He didn’t think that was very funny, although he was polite. My only way to get at what people aren’t thinking about is to imagine things for them to think. And so maybe people never think memory is memory. Maybe they think it’s the thing running at the bottom of the screen that is always factual.
Birnbaum: You aren’t making epistemological claims here?
Ford: I’m talking about accountability. The way in which we try to take responsibility for the things that we do and somehow leaven the things that we do through the casting capacities of memory. Sure we can say we walked out of that building with that woman. Or we can say we didn’t. But we can also say a whole lot of things about why. John Gardner in his not-very-good book on moral fiction says, “Life is all about, and this and this and this. Literature is about subordination. It’s about this because of this. This although that. This in spite of that. And that’s the difference.”
Birnbaum: (long pause) The characters in A Multitude of Sins seemed to be very specific. Was this something you paid special attention to?
Ford: Hmm. I was very engaged to write them. I was very engaged to write about this subject.
Birnbaum: The characters are so finely tuned. Little Francis the real estate agent from Connecticut who refers to her lover Howard as a pogo stick.
Ford: I was trying to do better.
Ford: I was. I reached a point two or three years ago where I realized I wasn’t doing enough of what I needed to be doing when it came to describing people. When it came to finding a way for the reader to actually physically envision people. Some of that comes with writing in the third person. Writing in the first person, a character describing herself or himself is a little unpersuasive. In the third person it becomes absolutely essential. I wanted to write in the third person because it’s one of the things I feel that I don’t do very well. One of the things I did was to set a task to try to make myself do it better. To try to describe people more. How they looked, what they wore, what their faces were like. I’m always reading my colleagues…Ian McEwan, for instance, he’ll spend a whole paragraph doing something that I would have thought heretofore I would have got away with not doing at all. Or maybe half or a third as much. I decided I would do it more because maybe I could do it better. It might make the characters more vivid. Maybe it was just an opportunity to write, that I could seize.
Birnbaum: When all is said and done, are you happy with this, shall we call it a collection?
Ford: Yes, it’s a collection. I am happy with it for all kinds of personal reasons. Principally, because I have finished writing about this. I found it to be emotionally and spiritually enervating. I kept putting my head down after I would write about something and think to myself, “Why is this happening?” What I hope is that what I had contacted was the subject matter itself. But beyond that, I had made the stories felicitous enough that the reader won’t run away from the stories. But yes, I feel like I am finished with this now.
Birnbaum: Do you re-read your work?
Ford: Oh yeah. In finishing this book, the last thing that I did, I read every story aloud and made some changes in every one of them.
Birnbaum: You recorded the audio book version of A Multitude of Sins? How did that happen?
Ford: They asked me to do it. Somebody at Harper Collins had heard me read a story. It made me happy because it gave me a chance to read them all again.
Birnbaum: This was after you had completed the stories. Did it in any way cause you to look back?
Ford: It was terrifying. It was horrifying. I went to each one of those sessions with a great deal of trepidation. However, completely by fortuity, the last day I finished reading these stories was the day before the book went into its final run. So anything I found I could change. Which was such a relief to me because I did find a bunch of things — typos.
Birnbaum: Is it too early to know what the world thinks of this book?
Ford: I’ve heard some things. A terrible review in The Sunday New York Times.
Birnbaum: Are you going to go out and shoot it? Is that a true story that your wife took a pistol and shot a bad review Alice Hoffman gave you?
Ford: Yes, it is a true story. Shot her book. Seemed so good to do. We had another copy so I went out and shot it. I don’t read my reviews anymore.
Birnbaum: Well, that might save you on ammunition.
Ford: Since I found out yesterday that this book is getting a terrible review in the Sunday Times, for lack of something better to worry about, I lay in bed and thought of all the Sunday Times reviews I’ve gotten for 8 books — 4 bad, 4 good. It’s not much consolation to me now people tend not to remember your bad reviews and they tend to think that you only ever have gotten good reviews. That’s okay with me. I try to find ways to insulate myself from the feelings of bad reviews. The feelings of bad reviews are not so much that somebody doesn’t like your book but that it keeps other people from reading your book. I hate that.
Birnbaum: Why do reviews matter?
Ford: They create the all-important buzz. It becomes one of the little strings that are plucked in the hum of what’s going on about a book.
Birnbaum: Isn’t it sufficient to be reviewed by the New York Times Book Review?
Ford: Seemingly. We all know that people say, “Gee, I saw a great review of your book in the Times.” And it was one where they called you everything but a writer. I hear about these things second hand because my wife tells me about them. Randall Jarrell said, “You have to be sure to offend the right people.” I don’t know if I’m being sure, but I am about my business.
Birnbaum: Do you have a sense of a shifting role of the writer as a public intellectual in the past decade?
Ford: Yes, more. Writers seem to be on TV more. We seem to be being asked all sorts of basically political but more particularly sociological questions. I don’t know why that is. I don’t think it’s because the public has more of an interest. Probably more writers are telegenic and radiogenic and that we use language better than sociologists and politicians do. And we ought to. It could be that. I grew up in the ’60s with Mailer and Gore Vidal and Truman Capote on TV. They were wonderful. You still don’t hear writers talking very much about politics. You see them talking about affairs of the heart, gray areas between behavior and intention. I was on radio today — as if I was giving advice to the lovelorn. I’m not qualified, and I’m not very good at it.
Birnbaum: Who is? I’m thinking about the way pop culture has “celebrified” designers, models, musicians and wrestlers as “stars”…
Ford: It would happen when I was 58…[Jonathan] Franzen tried to put a block under that wheel. Sort of gave it a bad name. I’m not sorry he did it. I wouldn’t have done it…done what he did. But since he did do what he did, I’m not sorry he did it. I don’t think novelists benefit from becoming glib public respondents to each big issue. It’s so much easier to do that have to write. Novelists are better off writing.
Birnbaum: They are also better off selling lots of their books…there is that practical imperative.
Ford: There sure is. I also think that as a writer your best chance is with your work. Not transmogrifying yourself into something…
Birnbaum: That’s so hopeful…maybe naive…
Ford: It may be naive.
Birnbaum: Best chance in what sense?
Ford: To make a living. Using myself as an example. I’ve been really lucky as a writer, and I have worked really hard as a writer and stuck to it for 30 plus years now. So I have to feel like it’s a way to proceed. The alternatives — writing for the movies or something celebrity conscious — have never seemed to me to be real. All the writers who I have seen who have gone to Hollywood who are real writers either came back and went back to their work or became gobbled up and became something else.
Birnbaum: What about you stories and movies?
Ford: There is one story that I wrote called “Bright Angel” which Sam Shepard was in. Valerie Perrine and Lily Taylor. It was terrible. I thought it was terrible. I thought my screen play wasn’t very good. It was a really honest to God project that we all worked like dogs to do…it just didn’t work out very well and I was one of the principle reasons.
Birnbaum: What moves you to take on certain editing projects, The American Short Story, The Long Story…
Ford: I want to advance the work of my colleagues. Nothing more than that.
Birnbaum: And The Collected Stories of Anton Chekov?
Ford: I did that so I could read all the stories. I had never read all the stories. I wanted to read all 235 of those stories. And I did. That was, if not a noble intention, it was a good intention. But the doing The Granta Book of the American Short Story or doing Best American Short Stories or Best American Sports Writing or the Granta Book of the Long Story, that’s just to try to get American writing pushed forward a little bit. I don’t find it persuasive to have an abstract love for a form. It isn’t that I love the short story form. I don’t. I don’t love things like that.
Birnbaum: Who comes to mind when you are asked about overlooked writers?
Ford: Ford Maddox Ford, probably. Charlie Portis. And I did my little bit for Dick Yates because I thought he was very badly overlooked. The way things work with new publishers and new imprints trying to get an angle on the market like Ecco and with the New York Review of Books doing their own publishing effort to really uncover overlooked books, there probably aren’t very many. I have a friend whose job it is — whose only job it is — is to ask that question of everybody she meets and then run and read the book. And if she likes the book she puts it forward to the people at the New York Review and they publish it.
Birnbaum: You’ve been writing for 30 years. When you start a work, do you think about all that has come before in your writing? What’s it like to be at this point in your career?
Ford: I have to make myself work harder. Probably my habits, because of good luck and using up things that I had easier access to — like my own past, for instance — have probably depleted what might have earlier in my life been a little easier access to material. Now I feel like I have to make myself work harder, and I somehow feel like I don’t want to do it as much but as though I have to do it. So I just go project by project by project. I don’t think ahead at all. So I do that so I can concentrate on what I am doing. If I don’t give a project my every bit it really won’t be very good. My half measures are really not good measures. Updike’s half measures are probably as good as my full measures. My half measures you don’t want to see. At least that’s what I’ve got myself convinced. I want to be able to do what I have always done which is to say, “I could do this no better. I could not make this better.”
Birnbaum: You leave it all on the playing field…
Ford: Yes. That’s kind of how I go about doing it. I get to that frame of mind perhaps a with little more difficulty. But I’m working on the 3rd Frank Bascombe [The Sportswriter, Independence Day] book…Once I finish that…
Birnbaum: I thought you said you weren’t going to do that?
Ford: No I said…
Birnbaum: I’m kidding, I’m kidding..
Ford: I hope I didn’t say that. I might have said it. I do a lot of things to remind myself of how serious projects need to be to do them.
Birnbaum: So you are working on the next Frank Bascombe novel?
Ford: Yes and I will be working on it. There are moments when I feel like I can really do it. There are moments when I feel like…yesterday was a bad day. You find out things, people don’t like your book, you think to yourself, “I don’t know how I can spend the next three years writing a book when I feel so shitty about this now?” But being a novelist, it is important to average your days. It’s like Olympic diving. You throw out the high score and the low score. I threw out the low score yesterday…
Birnbaum: After all this time you still have — what to call it — a lapse in confidence? An inability to see the meaning of what you do?
Ford: I sometimes I have the inability to see how I can do what I need to do at a high enough level for me to do it. I don’t think that is unusual, and I don’t think it’s bad. Sometimes I’ll have young writers say to me, “I’ve just had my confidence shaken.” I say, “It just matters how you respond to that having your confidence shaken, that makes you what you are.” When you have your confidence shaken, you don’t have that perspective when it happens. You think, “I’m done.”
Birnbaum: Well yeah, you’re in that terrible moment.
Ford: You don’t have anything. You just think that this really feels horrible. The only habit you can rely in the Scarlet O’Hara rule: Tomorrow is another day. And you hope you are there for it.
Birnbaum: I am going to assume that you think storytelling and writing is important.
Birnbaum: If you didn’t think it was important, would you still do it?
Ford: No. I would quit in an instant. I’d quit yesterday. That’s the only reason I do it. I been as lucky as I’m ever going to get, in all the ways you can calculate success. I’ve made a living. I won a couple of fancy prizes. I’ll never win the Nobel Prize. I might back into some other fancy prize because Philip Roth wouldn’t have written a good book that year. But I do it because it’s important… that old line of Leavis’ that he wrote in his essay on DH Lawrence, “Literature is the supreme means by which we learn a new awareness and renew our sensuous and emotional life.” I believe that. I believe…
Photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing