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.

“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.

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?

I would never say boredom. You can make yourself bored sometimes, but I don’t think life itself is boring. For me, it’s a slightly more complex idea. Life is an onslaught. It’s imagination, or art itself, which makes life interesting. Henry James says “art makes life, art makes importance” and that’s kind of what I think life is: this onslaught that you deal with it through your imagination. 

Q. You quote Emerson in “Canada” and “Independence Day.” How has he influenced you as a writer?

What Emerson tries to do in his essays, is what I try to do in writing novels and stories, which is, to take the most complex things I know, and the most important things I think I understand, give accessible language to them, and attempt to say something important that has not been said before. What I’m talking about are typical Emersonian kind of subjects: character, self-reliance, poetry, and art. I use Emerson as a model, because he works so hard at trying to give a voice that is accessible to things in life that can seem so difficult, important, and inaccessible to us. Particularly things which provoke and confound us by their inconsistency, by the appearance of one thing (this is why “Canada” is about Canada) which might seem to be quite similar, but which in fact – like Canada and America – are very distinct. It’s a telling sign of our genius as human beings that we can see, among things that are alike, significant and insignificant distinctions.

Q. Why do the characters in your novels travel so much?

I’m interested in how people exhibit who they are, and exhibit their success as human beings, by how they affiliate and accommodate new moral and spatial settings. That is where I have been able to detect where drama lies. I’m interested – just talking intellectually here – in borders, between someone who is considered marginal, and someone who is considered mainstream. I am the child of parents who lived through the Depression, and I was made to learn very early in life that you can easily slide out of the picture, and no longer be a successful citizen, by forces acting on you that you cannot control.

Q. Is this why so many marginal characters turn up in your books?

Well I have sympathy and empathy for them, because I know they are just a blink away from a wholly different and successful life. There is a passage in “Canada” in which Dell talks from his adult perspective, about seeing men sitting out in the cold in front of rescue missions, and when he sees men in that situation, he says “they’re my father, they’re my father.”

Q. Could you talk about your relationship with the late Raymond Carver?

We just really took to each other. It started in friendship and affinity, by having parents that both came from the same part of America and from the same social environment. It grew to be more of a relationship among writers. I felt like when Ray got famous, that I wasn’t so much in his shadow, but I was just his pal, and I was along for the ride. It actually was extremely comfortable to be writing at the same time that he was, because I liked his work, and he seemed to like mine. He encouraged me, and if I was in his shadow I was quite comfortable there. One of the profound losses of my life was that he died when he did, and that I couldn’t go on living in his shadow.   

Q. How do you know when the language is working for you when you are writing?

The degree to which I can hear the language, read it out loud, see it on the page, and know that it has a kind of felicity. I estimate my success by how the words sing to me. Then I have a certain confidence that it’s getting me where I should be going.

J.P. O'Malley is a freelance writer based in London.


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