About The Author
Richard Ford is one of the great American post-war writers, considered the equal of such literary legends as John Updike and Raymond Carver. He is the only author to have won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for the same book, Independence Day.
Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi, but the early death of his father resulted his being sent to live with his grandfather, a hotel owner in Arkansas, which led him to study hotel management. Mild dyslexia meant that he found reading a painstaking process and he has since acknowledged this as a significant influence on his writing style.
In pursuit of a Masters of Fine Arts degree, he took a creative writing course at the University of California, Irvine. His tutors included novelists E L Doctorow and Oakley Hall, both of whom offered great encouragement to the young Ford. He then took on an three-year appointment to the University of Michigan Society of Fellows.
He published his first novel, A Piece of My Heart, in 1976; reviews made favourable comparisons with the work of William Faulkner, but Ford disliked being pigeonholed as a 'southern' writer and decided in future to locate his fiction elsewhere to avoid a perpetuation of this stereotype. Despite similarly positive reviews for 1981's The Ultimate Good Luck, sales were disappointing and he switched to sports journalism.
In 1983, the then editor of Granta magazine, Bill Buford, named Ford as a leading practitioner of what he called 'dirty realism', alongside writers such as Frederick Barthelme and Jayne Anne Phillips. Ford has since described the 'movement' as a marketing concept, but also credits his inclusion in Granta, issue 8 with launching his literary career.
In 1986 he published The Sportswriter, about a failed novelist turned sports journalist called Frank Bascombe struggling to come to terms with the death of his son. Nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the book was both a critical and commercial success. A short story collection, Rock Springs, set largely in Montana, cemented his reputation in the following year; the title story had been featured in Granta.
His fourth novel, Wildlife, was published in 1990 and he was asked to edit The Granta Book of the American Short Story, released in 1992. He was later to edit The Granta Book of the American Long Story, so titled because of his preference for the term over 'novella', and a second volume of short stories.
In 1995, Independence Day again featured Frank Bascombe and his contemplation of suburban life. Its unique double of awards confirmed Ford's position as one of the great American post-war writers. His subsequent short story collections, Women with Men (1997) and A Multitude of Sins (2002), were also widely praised. In 2006, he returned for what he has stated will be the final time to Frank Bascombe, now suffering from prostate cancer, in The Lay of the Land.
His new novel, Canada, opens with the words, "First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later." After World War II, the Parsons family has lived a peripatetic existence, but seem to have found a place to settle in Great Falls, Montana. Fifteen year-old Dell Parsons and his twin sister are shocked to realise that their parents, in an attempt to pay off debts, have resorted to robbing a bank. Following their arrest, Dell is taken to Saskatchewan, housed and employed by the enigmatic Arthur Remlinger.
Characterised by Ford's distinctively precise and elegant prose, Canada explores what it means to call a place home, how the past gives us all roots and whether fate only becomes apparent in retrospect.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Richard Ford reveals that the first 20 pages were written in 1989, how the book allowed him to explore his own feelings about a country for which he holds much affection and why, sometimes, obvious is good.
Questions & Answers
According to your interview with Tim Adams in Granta 99 [October 2007], you couldn't imagine yourself writing another long novel after The Lay of the Land. When did the idea for Canada first germinate and is the finished novel very different from what you first conceived?
I started thinking about this novel in 1989. I wrote 20 pages of it - thinking it'd be a novella-length story - then got interrupted by life and didn't return to writing it until about four years ago. Over the intervening time, I kept adding to a storage of notes (that I kept in my freezer); but I never really looked at the pages during all those years, or set about any effort to write any more sentences. When The Lay of the Land was published and the dust of it had settled, I opened that, by then, fat envelope of notes and decided maybe I could think now of the core of the story as a novel, rather than as a novella. I'd have to (and I did) invent a great deal more premise for the story (why the kids would be abandoned by their parents; where would they go once their abandonment was irrevocable; and also what would happen in Saskatchewan and where and how the entire book would end). That figuring out took about a year. Then the writing took another two years.
Did the experience of writing the screenplay for the 1990 Michael Field film Bright Angel - which also featured a Montana teenager with a less than ideal upbringing and was based on your stories 'Children' and 'Great Falls' - offer any starting points for the writing of Canada?
No, it didn't. It showed me ground I'd already been over. Indeed, it gave me some hesitation about what I was proposing to write: would I be just re-treading familar ground?; did I have anything new to write? Those stories also exacted serious stylistic demands on the kind(s) of sentences I'd have to imagine in Canada -- sentences that would need to be different from the sentences in previous books set in the west. The principal demand of writing Canada was a demand on the book's diction.
Does Canada represent a kind of terra incognita, a blank canvas on which Dell can create a new life that consigns the events of his childhood to the past?
You could say that; it's at least partly true. It's certainly true for Dell. For me, it's a complexer matter. I've long experienced sensations about Canada -- where I've spent quite a lot of time -- that were fundamentally positive -- even consoling -- but were largely unexplored and unexplained. I wanted to try to imagine a vocabulary for those otherwise inchoate and language-less sensations. I think the novel does that.
Why did you choose to introduce the two most dramatic plot points, the bank robbery and the murders, in the book's opening lines and have Dell consider them retrospectively before they are described?
I thought that to spring that particular trap right away was not only a good suspense device -- an old-school 'hook' of a sort -- but it also then let me place emphasis on what I'm generally more interested, as a writer -- in the consequence of significant events,and how consequence can defy and recalibrate conventional assumptions; and beyond that how imagning consequence can investigate moral questions. That's how imaginative literature can be instructive. But truthfully, I didn't think telling that crucial information right away was anything especially tricky or risky or new. Remember "As he was standing before the firing squad, Colonel Buendia..."* I always liked that opening, though I also thought it was kinda obvious. Maybe obvious is good.
In the Granta interview, you said that, although your own experiences of suburban life were unsatisfying, "when it came to projecting a made-up character into that made-up environment, you "became interested in the suburbs", which "caused [you] to use Frank Bascombe as an agent from [your] own curiosity". Was a desire to explore what made ordinary people commit extraordinary that most intrigued you about the Parsons family or was there some other motivation?
That may have been at the heart of it. James in his preface to What Maisie Knew, writes that (and I'll try not to botch it completely)... that there are no themes so human as those that reveal the connexion (James's spelling) between bliss and bale, between the things that help and the things that hurt. I'm ever fascinated, I guess, by the closeness of normal life to very, very not normal life. Inherently, that closeness is dramatic; it's generally humane, it's often quite surprising. And for these reasons it's also morally useful to be reminded.
Dell observes that "because very few people do rob banks, it makes sense that the few who do it are destined for it, no matter what they believe about themselves or how they were raised", but also confesses that "I find it impossible not to think that way, because the sense of tragedy would otherwise be overpowering to me". Dell is rarely self-pitying; is he naïve or necessarily fatalistic?
Dell's interior is complexer than a fifteen-year-old's might typically be (unless that fifteen-year-old was a very "old" fifteen). His interior is made up of a sixty-five-year-old's awareness as well. This comes to light chiefly in Part Three. though there are signals of if all the way through Parts One and Two. So, Dell's not fatalistic (although at fifteen he is necessarily somewhat naive; or just ignorant); rather, the novel supposes that the future has already come to pass in the book's temporal structure. So the nexus of the book's intelligence relies on this conjoined persona, which seems occasionally one way and occasionally another. And no, he's not self-pitying; he's too interested in telling the whole story all the way out to the present.
Although Dell's twin sister Berner is a typically solipsistic teenager, she is the only family member to establish a significant friendship with an outsider, her boyfriend Rudy. Is it this which gives her the impetus to leave behind the life that would follow the arrest of her parents or perhaps the model of Rudy's own rejection of his Mormon upbringing?
This is a simple-minded answer; but she's just a different person from her brother. She's, all through Part One, instinctually looking elsewhere -- outside the family. I was also interested in twins being so different, since conventional wisdom has it that they're often matched in many ways; trapped by being twins.
Does Dell look to Arthur Remlinger, with whom he is sent to stay after his parents' arrest, as a potential father figure because he seems to be a man who seems to have found a destination in life that his own father never achieved?
I wouldn't say so. He's more conscripted into seeing Arthur as a substitute father -- rather against his own instincts. He's not made a partition with his own father while the book's in progress -- although it obviously behoves him to do that,
In interviews you've talked about the way that you and your wife, Kristina, read your completed manuscript aloud to each other to help you identify words and phrases that don't quite express what you want to say. Is this mirrored in the way that Dell repeatedly reanalyses his parents' motives to make sense of what they chose to do?
No; at least not in any way I understand. Of course, trying to get an entire, complex experience into one's head and bring it under control is a rather universal experience of adulthood.
There are elements of Dell's story that mirror your life: the teenage loss of a father, living with hotel owners (your grandfather) subsequently, the itinerant existence, the decision not to have children and later life as a teacher of creative writing, your mother's unfulfilled desire to write a biography of her mother where Dell's mother catalogues aspects of her own. Should we see Canada in any way autobiographical?
Not unless you want to. I don't. I'm not aware of writing autobiographically, or intending that. I usually think that forcibly "tracing" illusion and artifice and fabrication "back" to the author's life doesn't lead anyplace very interesting, and almost always denigrates the imagination.
In an interview with the Kelly Writers House in 2006, you described novels as an "antidote" to "a mindless, feckless, irresponsible use of language". Will this be your principal message when you take on your new position as Emmanuel Roman and Barrie Sardoff Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Writing at the Columbia School of the Arts later in the year?
I hope to imagine more things to teach than just that. But at bottom (which is where I like to start when I talk to young writers about why they want to do what they want to do) -- at bottom, that's what art is. Art makes importance, James says; by which he means that experience tends to be raw and chaotic and an onslaught; whereas art is a matter of selection and subordination and emphasis, all of which is about focusing our view, imaging life as life, and doing it in a felicitous way so that we can like what we notice. That's my story, in any case, and I'm sticking to it.