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Richard Ford: Why writing is an act of optimism

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford talks about his new novel "Canada," his memories of the late Raymond Carver, and how art makes life.

By J.P. O’ Malley / June 14, 2012

“Canada,” Richard Ford’s seventh novel to date, is the story of Dell Parsons, a teenage boy whose parents are sent to jail for robbing a bank, leaving him and his twin sister, Berner, to fend for themselves. "Canada" illustrates the way that one foolish decision can destroy a family.


Richard Ford published his debut novel “A Piece of My Heart” in 1976.  But it was “The Sportswriter” (1986) – the book which introduced the world to Frank Bascombe, and other marginalized characters trapped on the edge of the American Dream – that distinguished Ford as a preeminent voice in literary fiction. The two books that followed, “Independence Day” (1995), which won him the Pulitzer prize in fiction, and “Lay of The Land” (2006), completed the Frank Bascombe trilogy.

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Canada,” Ford’s seventh novel to date, begins in Montana in 1960. It’s narrated by Dell Parsons, the son of a retired Air Force pilot, and a schoolteacher. At the beginning of the novel, Dell’s parents are sent to jail for robbing a bank, leaving him and his twin sister, Berner, to fend for themselves. The story illustrates the way that one foolish decision can destroy a whole family, mapping out a future of destitution and loneliness. The book sees Ford return to a simpler style of prose, marking a distinctive shift away from the more elaborate language of the Frank Bascombe novels.

Here Ford talks about his memories of the late Raymond Carver, why writing is an act of optimism, and how art makes life.
Q. Was it hard to leave behind the voice of Frank Bascombe for this novel?

The challenging part for me was to find a diction that wasn’t just a replication of those other books. As far as getting away from Frank, and the kind of extravagances that Frank’s vocabulary imposes, that wasn’t hard at all. I still love to write notes in Frank’s voice. I thought “The Lay of the Land” was the right point to separate myself from Frank Bascombe.

Q. What’s the significance of the title of this book, “Canada”?

I always found as an American, that Canada was a place that attracted me. I felt I could accommodate to Canada extremely well if I had to. I think of Canada as a kind of psychic-moral-spatial refuge, whereas I think America – even though it’s my home – is challenging all the time. I experience America in many ways. It doesn’t make me want to abandon it, but it certainly does make it a very strange place to live sometimes.      

Q. Would you say you are a positive writer who explores existential failures in your books?

I feel that’s exactly what I am – an optimist, who believes with Sartre, that to write about the darker possible things is an act of optimism. But what I’m looking for is drama, which occurs when people are at a loss, and not succeeding. I try to find a vocabulary which makes those things expressible. In the process of making those expressible to a readership, it becomes an act of optimism, because it imagines a future in which these things will be understood, and be mediated in some way. Writing for me is always an act of optimism. I probably wouldn’t do it otherwise, no matter how dark things are.

Q. Do you believe art is an escape from the boredom of life?


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