Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Widening Empathy: Richard Ford

A Conversation with Richard Ford
Picture of Richard Ford

This interview is the fifth in the Crooked Letter Interview Series hosted by Prairie Schooner’s Southern Correspondent, James Madison Redd.

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Richard Ford has published seven novels and four collections of stories, including his most recent novel, Canada. Independence Day was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the first time the same book had won both prizes. A new collection of stories is forthcoming. The following is a brief excerpt from Ford's recent email conversation with Redd.

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Redd: You returned to Mississippi to complete Canada. As an author, does it affect you to be close to the place where you first began writing?

Ford: I don't think of "returning" to Mississippi. I come and go, pretty much all the time, and as I please. So, there's no epochal "return." And I didn't "return" to finish Canada. I was simply teaching at Ole Miss, and the two things merely coincided. You don't want to romanticize this stuff. And....I didn't "first begin writing" in Mississippi. I "first began writing" at Michigan State, as an undergraduate, and things limped along from there.

Redd: In an interview with National Public Radio, you said that “felicitously chose[n] language…is a place to reside as well.” Is language your home more than any other place?

Ford: No. I like language--like choosing words, hearing them, seeing them--they often lead, as Delmore Schwartz said, to ideas. But I'm at "home" in pretty much all of fiction's formal properties: character, narrative structure, narrative mode concerns, dramatic structure. Language is just one of those.

Redd: Are there any labels other than "Southern writer" that you have sought to avoid over the years? I wonder, have you been called a New Jersey writer?

Ford: I've actually sought (without trying very hard) to avoid all the labels that have been attempted to plaster over my mouth. "Montana writer," "New Jersey writer," "southern writer," "Dirty Realist." And probably more I don't know about. My goal has been always to widen what I can write about, and widen my audience. Those labels restrict such efforts.

Redd: You said in an interview with the Denver Post that you “have an urge as a writer to meld the Southern experience into the larger American one.” Do you feel that the international migration in Canada shows a development of that urge?

Ford: No. What I meant was simpler than that. I grew up being told (and somewhat believing--albeit unwillingly and without a shred of proof) that the south was special; that it spoke differently; that is smelled different; that it had different ideas in its "mind," etc. When I lived elsewhere--Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, France, Ireland--what I found out was that, like so much that's said about the south's special-ness, it wasn't at all true. Even "the south" wasn't the same elsewhere within its boundaries. Specifically, in terms of writing stories and novels, I found that if I put into the mouth of a character said to reside in Montana, a word or a sentiment or a belief putatively southern in nature, it was completely portable, and plausible as being what a Montanan would think or believe. This led me to the not exactly revolutionary conclusion that the south was really pretty much like everywhere else, and southerners not all that special. The lie persists, of course, but it's because money and small-mindedness have an investment in its persistence: always a winning combination.

Redd: Your readership has reached an international scope with Canada (as if it hadn’t already), and you tour internationally as well. How does an author appeal to such a diverse audience?

Ford: By understanding something of the nature of what I just said in the last question: that in terms of the largest human concerns (love, death, compassion, betterment, intimacy, fear, etc.) people are quite similar country to country; and that it's literature's golden opportunity to make that simple fact evident and worth knowing and attractive.

Redd: You say you spend a year preparing to write a book. What is involved in this preparation process?

Ford: Mostly it involves collecting raw material--notes I've squirreled away, getting it organized in advance of writing, trying to think my way through different ways of doing things to find errors or pitfalls or opportunities and openings, letting the whole provisional conception mature, so I that don't get stymied half-way through.

Redd: You take such pains in a prefatory note to Canada to outline the few irregularities between your novel and real-life places. Additionally, you read through novel drafts aloud before publication. Do you feel a moral obligation to authorial integrity?

Ford: I don't feel a moral obligation to much of anything--certainly as little as possible. I really have no idea what "authorial integrity" might be--unless it means something like the Cub Scout oath: to do my best, to not stint or be lazy. Other people are going to read what I write, after all. Therefore, I want to make sure what's there is what I want to be there. Is that "authorial integrity"?

Redd: The novel draft of Canada was in your freezer for decades. It is a literal time capsule that can demonstrate how you have changed as a writer. How do you think your writing has changed over the past two decades?

Ford: The "draft" wasn't there. Just twenty or so pages that I never looked at again. How my writing has changed isn't of much interest to me. I'm sure it must've. But I'd have to go back through things and appraise them; and I certainly wouldn't like doing that. I suppose I want to make sure, as I get older, that I manage to get into the books I write all I'm capable of doing well--all my abilities (such as they are).

Redd: In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal you say, “What literature wants to do for readers is, basically, grab you by the lapels and say, ‘Hey, pay attention. You are doing things; this is your only life.’” Do you think literature has a similar purpose as the religious conscience?

Ford: Maybe. If the writer chooses. In each instance--religion and imaginative literature--the person who's writing posits a provisional and made-up narrative that's laid over or onto the side of life and purports to be "about" life, or to comment on it, and seeks to be plausible enough to be taken seriously (at least for the time it takes to read it).

Redd: You often write about criminals, those who have committed moral transgressions, and outcasts from society. Why?

Ford: I guess they interest me. I like literature that contravenes conventional wisdom. The designation "criminal" acts as such a conventional wisdom--restricting how we can think about people, how we can understand and empathize with them. Widening empathy and understanding of those who might not seem qualified to be understood or empathized with is always my goal.

Redd: You say Kristina Ford’s “sensibility inspires a lot of what I write.” Would you characterize her sensibility in comparison to your own?

Ford: At pains...she has a much solider grasp on regular life than I do; although she delights in the highly irregular in human affairs. She's less skeptical than I am, more trusting, smarter. Generally a better human being. I write really "against" her reliances and trust--in the sense that I want to widen them without destroying them.

Redd: In the “Acknowledgments” to Canada, you note that in addition to personal experience, literary experiences aided in the completion of the novel. How is one’s literary experience integral to writing a realistic story?

Ford: One's literary experience (i.e. what one reads) fortifies what's possible, without restricting what's possible.

Redd: In an interview with Goodreads you say, “They say write about what you know, but I write about what I'm curious about.” Do you think this is one of your keys to maintaining a productive literary output?

Ford: Maybe. You sure do run through a lot of material in 40+ years--much more than what a person can come to the task already equipped with. Your curiosity can replenish that storage of what becomes possible to write about.

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A winner of the Mari Sandoz / Prairie Schooner Prize for the short story, James Madison Redd’s fiction was nominated for Best New American Voices. His fiction, poetry, and reviews have or will appear in Fifth Wednesday, Penwood Review, Steel Toe Review and Prairie Schooner's Briefly Noted.