The Miami Book Fair International (MBFI) DID end yesterday, not with a BANG!, but a whimper. (That sentence is by way of titillation for things yet to come.) Sad but true, the MBFI is over but my series of diaries about sessions I attended is not! This is the sixth issue and the last of the “An Evening with.” You can read Installments I An Evening with Frank McCourt; II An Evening with Thomas Cahill; III An Evening with Edward P. Jones; IV An Evening with Arianna Huffington; and V An Evening with Isabel Allende before continuing here, if chronological order is important to you.
There’s the Easter Bunny, apple pie, hot dogs, the 4th of July, turkey, and Thanksgiving on the list of things definitively American in taste and character. To that list, short story writer and novelist, Richard Ford, must be added.
Ricahrd Ford's most famous novel, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award is , the second in his “holiday weekend” trilogy about Frank Bascombe, one-time sportswriter, New Jersey real estate agent, divorced father, and now prostate cancer sufferer. Ford appeared Friday night at the MBFI to talk about the last book,
If you’re going to have a mentor as an American writer, you couldn’t have had a better one than Richard Ford had: Eudora Welty. The parallels in their lives are uncanny enough for this Southerner to wonder if he may be nothing less than the reincarnated vessel of Weltyan talent. Listen to this – Ford, born in Jackson, MS, lived across the street from her, went to the same elementary school as she had (even had some of the same teachers!), also won a Pulitzer, and when Welty died, he was a pall-bearer at her funeral and has been her literary executor since. Quite the literary "pedigree."
Friday night, the well-bred (as in well-mannered) Ford came to talk about himself, sans Welty, and began by telling a charming story. “I’m staying out on the Beach, and I’m reminded of 1955, the only other time I was ever out there. My grandpa was in the hotel business and he brought me down here on the occasion of the opening of the Fontainebleu.
“I remember ordering room service. The club sandwich cost $7.14, which was the world back then.” He paused. “Now it costs, oh – $800. There’ve been a lot of changes since then."
Richard Ford is a Southern writer who has tried to uproot himself and transplant to states such as New Jersey and Montana, where he lived before returning to the South. He now resides in New Orleans and remarked before getting to the subject of his talk, “I hope some of you can come and do something to help us out after Katrina. Nothing is happening there. Please take a weekend and do Habitat for Humanity.” Can you think of a better way to spend Christmas – enjoy a long weekend of jazz, great food, and good drinks and leave a little present under some grateful someone’s live oak tree?
Ford talked of his other enduring memory of Miami. “I came to MBFI in 1987 with my good friend Stanley Elkins, the controversial historian. Stanley spoke, standing at the podium on a vast stage, much like here, reading wonderful stories on biblical topics. Then he came off the stage and I came on. And everybody was gone.” Ford had just published a short story collection, , that year, and while , the first of the Frank Bascombe trilogy had been published the year before, he was a “relative unknown.” to Miami audiences. No longer.
The third Frank Bascombe book, is set in November, 2000 between election day and Thanksgiving Day, that perilous holiday when families get together. He used the national period of entropy, or inertia, when everyone seemed to be standing around waiting to be told what to do as the screen against which he projects Frank, another American who seems to be standing around, waiting to be told what to do.
Ford reads a passage from the novel, that I’ll summarize. Frank has just been stunned by an article he’s read while at breakfast. A mad gunman entered a classroom, walked up to the teacher, whose back was turned, and addressed her, “Are you ready to meet your maker?” The teacher has been gazing out the window, day-dreaming while her students take an examination, the test the gunman chose not to take as he’s already failing the class beyond redemption. As the teacher turns and replies, ‘Yes, yes, I think I am.’ he shoots her and then turns the gun on himself.
The question disturbs Frank who wonders aloud, ‘Holy shit! How did she know that? Would I ever say that?’ he corrects his thought to “real speak.” Frank is a man who may be facing death, or who may live another 10 years. He has prostate cancer that’s being treated with radio-active implants. He’s upset by the story, but thinks to himself. ‘Stress is bad for the iodine seeds’ half-life.’ At fifty-five, Frank is giving the prospect of death the “full Monty.”
Ford’s humor is sardonic, as in the Pilgrim re-enactment scene where Frank encounters a hastily erected faux Plymouth, inhabited by hastily recruited high-school aged Pilgrims, too young and modern to have survived the circumstances they find themselves acting in, well-rehearsed though they may be, and individually obese, dyslectic, Japanese and African-American, and wheel-chair bound. It is, after all, the Land of Opportunity.
Ford is himself nearly the archetype of opportunity. At least he seems to have had every job a person could have in a lifetime. Since high school he has been a switchman on the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, an organizer for a youth group, a fourth-grade teacher, done a stint in the Marine Corps, been a editor for Hearst Magazines, and yes, even an actual sportswriter for Inside Sports, a magazine that ceased publication soon after he went to work for it. After that last job, he and his wife moved to Princeton, NJ – without prospects – and he stayed home and wrote .
Dyslexic since early childhood, the thought of being a writer never occurred to Ford early in life. “My parents weren’t readers. I graduated high school in the middle of my class. When I got to college (Michigan State, later UC for his MFA), I double-majored in English and French. I discovered I had a hole in my schedule, so I took creative writing. I lived in a frat house and wrote stories at night. Later, I tried law school, but hated it. That’s when I had the glimmer of an idea, ‘Why don’t you be a writer?’ which terrorized my mother.”
Ford revealed his thoughts on being a writer and on practicing the craft. “Any writer’s syle is a function of morality. How you structure a sentence depends on you sense of what’s right. You get older, but you do not get smarter, just more experienced. And if you’re a writer, as you age you find you eventually have a lot of stuff stored up in your notebook.
“So, over the ten-year course of writing these three books, the sentences have gotten longer. But I try to get hold of them and make them svelte, yet say more. You know, writing books, whether in first or third person, feels a little like writing a letter. As you know, when writing letters to different people, we address them in different ways. From one kind of letter to the next, as from one book to the next, the style of address changes.
“I’ve had the same editor at Knopf since 1974. What he does is he comments on about 80% of the sentences in my manuscript. And I say to him, ‘So, you didn’t like the other 20% enough to say anything?’ He writes comments: ‘sent. too long’; ‘wrd chce inelegant’; ‘¶ repetitive.’ Then he sends the edited manuscript back just like Maxwell Perkins did – green ink in the margins.
“I write with a big pen and then transcribe to computer. From there I go back and make changes. My editor is beatific. He never looks at what I’ve written again. I write slowly, he edits slowly, about seven pages an hour. He’s never coercive, but he’s sometimes quite sarcastic. And I pay.”
Ford is a painstaking writer. His incubation period is slow and complex. He views writing as a vocation. “It’s something I choose to do. Moved by a spirit? Not this boy. I take writing books as a very high calling, but I’m not responsive to some ‘inner voice’.
“After I finish a book I take time off. I finished this book in August and don’t intend to move a hand for at least a year. I watch TV, play with the dogs on the ocean, and be alone with my wife.
“I have learned over the years, just a product of being an adult, I have learned to look at being in the center of a book as a pleasurable experience. If you’re not doing something you like, you wouldn’t keep dragging your ass back to it.” Listening to him describe his notebook keeping, his mulling, his digestive 3x5 cards, his copious daily note-taking seems more nightmarish than adventurous work. When he’s done with a book, no wonder he wants time off.
Ford talks about one of his years off between books, spent in Paris. “I speak French, and I was just like a child seeing magical things there. The stories I wrote while living there are, I think, some of the best I’ve ever written. Because a person who does such a thing is essentially dramatic. Like Robert Hughes says in describing Cezanne, ‘He did not have theory, he had sensation. He was nose up to life, as close up to experience as he could get.’”
There will be no more to the tale of Frank Bascombe. Ford said that he’s done as much as he wants to. But don't worry, Richard Ford is still ‘nose up’ and has not reached the end of his own story as a writer.