The first story that Richard Ford wrote for Granta appeared in the eighth issue of the magazine, ‘Dirty Realism’, in 1983. At that time, Ford, who was born in Jackson, Mississippi, was about to turn forty and had published two novels, A Piece of My Heart, and The Ultimate Good Luck. Neither had sold in any numbers and when Ford’s Granta story ‘Rock Springs’ came out neither was in print.
Alongside Ford in that ‘Dirty Realism’ issue were other writers who seemed, at least for the purposes of selling literary magazines, to share a similar take on the world, in particular Raymond Carver. If magazines could be said to have characters or souls (or even consciences) Ford and Carver did as much to shape those things in Granta as anyone.
A couple of years after ‘Dirty Realism’ appeared, Richard Ford wrote The Sportswriter, the novel that made sure that subsequently all of his writing would be in print. The Sportswriter introduced the character Frank Bascombe, a failed novelist, who, after his son had died and his marriage ended, had moved from the south of America to take jobs covering baseball and football in New Jersey. His was an indelible fictional voice: troubled, eloquent and stubborn in its hope.
Ford has continued to write stories, and many of the best of them have appeared in these pages. He has edited two anthologies, The Granta Book of the American Short Story, and The Granta Book of the American Long Story, which are not only wonderful primers in the art, but also a good guide to the rigour and generosity that inform his writing.
He followed The Sportswriter with a short novel, Wildlife, and then with another Frank Bascombe novel, Independence Day, the only novel to win both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award. After two more collections of stories, Women with Men and A Multitude of Sins, the trilogy of Bascombe novels was completed by The Lay of the Land in 2006.
Richard Ford now lives in Maine, with his wife of thirty-nine years, Kristina Ford. This interview took place in July, 2007.
– Tim Adams
When The Lay of the Land was completed you suggested you would never write another long novel. Are you still feeling that way?
I still feel that way, possibly even more that way. The Lay of the Land was, for me, a big effort and, as efforts go, entirely singular. And it requires a commensurate (if not exactly equal) devotion from its readership. More than I can’t imagine myself writing such a long novel again (and I can’t), I neither can imagine wanting to write anything that would ‘work on a reader’ with anything like the same intense force—length, complexity, general largeness. I’d like to write another novel, yes. I’d like to write plenty of things. But I can’t imagine another such undertaking as The Lay of the Land. Some things just don’t need to be done twice—especially since I feel like I did it right the first time.
You set that book at the time of the disputed first Bush presidential election. Do you feel that election set America’s fate?
It did set America’s fate. No question. Insofar as the election was stolen by the Republicans, and insofar as the American electorate was sufficiently uninspired as to permit such a close race, and insofar as the two-party system (particularly the feckless Democrats) allowed a man of George Bush’s astonishing incompetence and dishonesty to become the leader of our country—insofar as all these things are true and occurred at the heart of the 2000 election, then that set of events can be viewed as a direct cause of the unthinkable circumstances in Iraq today, the cause of so much loss of innocent life, and the cause of America’s near-obliterated role as a potential force for good in world affairs. Is all this America’s final fate? I surely hope not. It’s the fix we’re in today. And I hope we have a better, more wholesome fate than this. But there’s no doubt about what was the initial event in the chain of events that landed us in this mess.
Why do you think so many American novelists—some surprising ones, John Updike, some less so, Don DeLillo—have felt bound to confront 9/11 so directly in fiction?
They were moved by those events. It’s not very complicated. In the case of DeLillo and Updike, they’re both supremely accomplished writers who’re unusually confident of their abilities to make a subject their own. The fact that I wouldn’t do it, didn’t do it, probably just means I’m not their equal on either front. Otherwise I’d have surely done it. Right?
Much of Frank Bascombe’s dislocation and hurt comes from the death of his son. All of your writing seems to have some of this atmosphere of loss. Where do you sense the source of that in your own life?
First of all, I don’t think that a writer who writes about loss (if I do) needs to have suffered loss himself. We can imagine loss. That’s the writer’s job. We empathize, we project, we make much of what might be small experience. Hemingway (as usual, full of wind) said ‘only write about what you know’. But that can’t mean you should only write about what you yourself have done or experienced. A rule like that pointlessly straps the imagination, confines one’s curiosity, one’s capacity to empathize. After all, a novel (if it chooses) can cause a reader to experience sensation, emotion, to recognize behaviour that reader may never have seen before. The writer’ll have to be able to do that, too. Some subjects just cause what Katherine Anne Porter called a ‘commotion in the mind’. That commotion may or may not be a response to what we actually did on earth.
That said, I probably experienced loss no more fully than most people. I was the child of older parents who I always was fearfully expecting to die on me. And the old Arkansas aunties and great uncles did start departing life when I was just a small child. One of my first vivid memories is of my Aunt Lizzie’s funeral—in Arkansas—and of her lying in her casket. Vivid, yes; but also rather normal in life. Then my father died when I was sixteen—died in my arms, at home. That could certainly be seen as imprinting. We were a three-person family, very close and loving. So I experienced loss when he died; and probably, as significantly, I experienced the loss my mother suffered—of her one great love in life. How we experience what we experience is a complex business.
Did you, or do you, look back on the years before your father died, when there were the three of you, as a golden time?
No, not a golden time. I’m suspicious of ‘golden times’. I think that right now this minute had better be the golden time, because it’s what you’ve got. I had a happy childhood because my parents loved me and took good care of me. But my father had a very serious heart attack when I was eight and he was forty-eight. And that coloured a lot of life, because it scared him silly and he never felt entirely well after that—probably wasn’t well. And he was gone a lot. His job as a salesman caused him to travel by car five days a week, and my mother and I were left at home together. And we were both of us pretty volatile personalities. And I never did particularly well in school; was, as time went by, a kid who tended to get into trouble—stealing, getting into fights. I was dyslexic and never read very well. So, no. ‘Golden’ it wasn’t. But it was good.
Did the stealing have consequences—did you get caught?
We’re not talking about holding up Brink’s trucks, here, or Manson Family capers; just, oh, stealing the odd car, some random breaking-and-enterings, and many lesser offences. And I did get caught, got hauled in front of the juvenile judge, put on probation—which was sort of awful but also sort of a badge of honour. It all scared my mother, though, made her miserable, in fact. And as far as consequence was concerned, I suppose I saw what consequence my behaviour had on her—which was bad. I was on probation at the time my father suddenly died; and my mother sat me down and told me that she wasn’t going to be able to look after me the way she had up to then—because she had to go out and get a job—and that I’d better not turn up in jail or juvenile court again because she wouldn’t get me out. That made a big impression on me. I guess that’s consequence of a kind. But I wasn’t a very committed felon. More of a little dickhead.
Do you think the dyslexia has shaped how you have read?
Absolutely. I read slowly, and as a consequence have definitely not read as many books as I should’ve—in order to be considered properly educated. But what I’ve read—because I’ve read slowly and attentively—I seem to have taken in pretty well. And, importantly, when you read slowly you also become available to those qualities of language that’re other than the cognitive qualities. One becomes sensitive to what you might call the poetic qualities—rhythms, repetitions, sonorities, syncopations, the aptness of particular word choices—those qualities. They’re important—at least they are to me. That’s had a consequence not only upon my reading but also upon my aims as a writer of sentences.
Do you always know what a Richard Ford sentence sounds like?
I don’t think there’s any signature to my sentences. I’ve heard some people say there is, but that’s just a gesture meant to flatter me. Because I’m sure there’s not. A sentence’s style or manner, or a book full of sentences with styles or manners, is a response to a variety of forces operating on a writer: the writer’s sensuous, instinctual relation to the material itself; the accumulated amount of material that precedes the writing; the writer’s history with other books that may or may not have entertained some of the same subject matter, or books that the writer simply admires; the daily tidal changes in any person’s mood and energies. And much more. All these things affect how sentences get written—how many words they hold, how syntactically complex they are, their diction and all word-choosings, what they undertake to elucidate. And in the course of any one book these stylistic characteristics can and often do change or modulate. It’s certainly the case that over the course of any writer’s life his or her grasp on sentences will also change—either from book to book, subject to subject, or just as one gets older. I think that The Lay of the Land has longer, complexer sentences because my mind (my older man’s mind) was just fuller of things that interested me, and I didn’t want to lose a lot of them. So, I devised sentences to keep all that stuff and put them in play. You can say that was ambition, or you could say it was poor judgment and an inability to discriminate. I’d say it was ambition, because I like the book a lot—like its thoroughness.
People can get preoccupied by such stylistic matters as ‘voice’: having a consistent ‘voice’, a true ‘voice’, a ‘voice’ of one’s own. This conception of voice can have something to do with a writer’s purported signature. But to me this isn’t very important. To me ‘voice’ is probably just the music of the story’s intelligence, how it sounds when it’s being smart, or when it’s working on the reader. And that music, like a story’s style, can change, and does change. So. A Richard Ford sentence will usually be differently made from one piece of writing to the next. Which is fine with me.
How aware were you of Eudora Welty in Jackson while you were growing up?
Well, I knew her name. One did, in Jackson. I went to school with her niece, Elizabeth. But, Eudora’d grown up directly across the street from me on Congress Street, and I didn’t even know that until I was far along into adulthood. I also didn’t read anything of hers (or anything much at all) until I was in college and had it presented to me on a syllabus. Eudora lived—on Pinehurst Street—not so far away from us when I was growing up. Walking distance. But it was in another, somewhat better ‘old Jackson’ neighbourhood than ours. My mother once pointed Eudora out to me at the grocery store—I might’ve been eight. She said ‘Richard, that’s Eudora Welty, over there. She’s a writer.’ I could tell from the tone of my mother’s voice that she thought being a writer was good.
Did she write anything herself, your mother I mean?
Interesting—to me, anyway. When I was going through my mother’s belongings after she’d died, in 1971, I found a notebook that had only one line written in it, on its first page, and in my mother’s quite elegant hand. It said ‘Les, A life’. Now my grandmother, her mother, was called Les—some version of her real name, which was Essie. My mother took care of my grandmother through the last years of my grandmother’s life. And it was not an easy passage. My grandmother was capable of great, aggressive nastiness. And I know my mother got in the way of it a lot. We all did at one time or other. But it may have seemed to my mother that some act of writing—fictive or otherwise—was the best way to record or imagine her own experience. I’d guess, too, it was partly because she had a son who was a novelist that this began to seem possible to her. But. She never did it—which is all right. She didn’t want to enough.
Do you think stories are created or discovered?
That’s easy. Stories are created. It isn’t as if they’re ‘out there’ waiting in some Platonic hyper-space like unread emails. They aren’t. Writers make stories up. It might be that when stories turn out to be good they then achieve a quality of inevitability, of there seeming to have been a previously existing and important space that they perfectly fill. But that isn’t what’s true. I’m sure of it. A story makes its own space and then fills it. Writers don’t ‘find’ stories—although some writers might say so. This to me just means they have a vocabulary that’s inadequate at depicting what they actually do. They’re like Hemingway—always fleeing complexity as if it were a barn fire.
I’ve always thought of you as a Southern writer, but you have insisted in migrating north in your fiction. Why?
It’s a long and not very interesting story. The first novel I wrote, A Piece of My Heart, I set in the South because I thought that’s what writers from the South did. It was our job, so to speak. But I wanted my novel to be both set in the South but also to radiate its concerns out to anybody who could read—Southerner or not. In other words I wanted to use the Southern template to construct a larger than Southern novel. I suppose Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Welty were my models in this. But then when my book was published and reviewed it was only spoken of as a ‘Southern novel’. And that frustrated the life out of me, and made me think I needed to write novels that wouldn’t fall victim to that easy categorization. So, I wrote a novel set in Mexico, and once I’d done that I set about writing The Sportswriter, which is set in New Jersey and Michigan. And beyond that I wrote books set in Montana and France. And by this means the whole Southern issue was put to rest for me. I later came to think—but not when I was actually making this separation—that I must’ve intuited that all those great Southern writers (Welty, O’Connor, Percy, Faulkner, Styron, Reynolds Price, Barry Hannah) had already done the things I would’ve tried to and done them better than I could. So, why not then go off in the direction of things I could do best of all.
What do you think of when you think of home?
Home’s not a natural subject for me. I have to specifically summon it up, first. But when I say the word, all sorts of ‘home’ referents do pop up. I was born in Mississippi, so that’s one ‘meaning’ of home—probably the one most other people would nominate as the genuine one. I was also partly raised in Arkansas, so a part of what’s home for me is that. I’ve also felt ‘at home’ (or at least enough that I can say so) in lots of other places: Montana, New Jersey, Louisiana, Maine. These last are all places I’ve chosen as ‘homes’. So the essence of home for me is quite variable. Sometimes, when Kristina and I are out in the world and find ourselves staying in some hotel, we’ll go to dinner, and sometime toward the end of the evening Kristina’ll say, ‘Let’s go home now.’ And she doesn’t mean, let’s get on a plane to Mississippi or Montana or New Jersey. She just means let’s go back to the hotel. Home’s what you say it is, I guess. Lately Kristina and I have been trying to decide where to be buried. We’re old enough for such thoughts. But neither of us feels very certain about where. I’d think that one’s home might be the place where one would like to ‘eternally reside’. But we’re still on the fence about it.
Do you identify in any way with Frank Bascombe’s unshakeable suburban optimism?
I probably don’t identify with it very much at all—personally. The one note of exception I could sound would be the one that says the suburbs interest me, and I’m always happy when I’m driving around in them. But would I want to live in the suburbs again? No. I was a kid in the suburbs in Mississippi, and I was an adult in the suburbs in New Jersey. In both instances I couldn’t wait to get out. And I did get out. But. When it came to setting a novel or two or three novels in the suburbs, when it came to projecting a made-up character into that made-up environment, I purely liked doing the writing. It was intensely pleasurable. And in so far as it was pleasurable, I became then interested in the suburbs and why it should be pleasurable to set things ‘there’.
This caused me to ‘use’ Frank Bascombe as an agent for my own curiosity, and caused me to have him take on the suburbs as a subject of speculation. Using him, I think I did dream up some interesting (interesting to me, anyway) formulations about the suburbs. One was that by embracing the suburbs and all their metastatic commercialism and inert housing patterns and traffic nightmares—as Frank claims to do—one is, in essence, demonstrating a willingness to take credit for what we’ve created. We’re all responsible, after all. And until we take that credit, we’re just pointlessly pissing and moaning about what we don’t like. Saying, as Frank does, that you like the suburbs is just a step in the direction of making things be better. But at heart Frank and I are not of one mind about the suburbs—in the sense, that is, that he has a mind.
You have written movingly of New Orleans, in memory of your feelings for that city, where you and Kristina have lived and worked; has that disaster altered your perception of loss?
I don’t know that I ever had a previous ‘perception’ of loss. But the disaster in New Orleans surely didn’t sponsor a new one. My sense of permanence has always included the likely demolition of all vestiges of permanence—houses, street corners, trees whereon we carved our names in hearts, persons. It can all go, and will. In America we white people sentimentalize permanence—or at least we once could. But Native Americans certainly don’t. Blacks probably don’t either. Europeans of a certain age don’t. I don’t.
Has faith or church-going ever had any appeal to you?
Not church-going. But faith, well… There’s the famous line in Hebrews 11: ‘Faith is the evidence of things unseen’. I’ve always been attracted to that line. But for specifically ir-religious reasons. I deem that line to be a line about the imagination. I could almost say that, ‘the imagination is the evidence of things unseen’. But again specifically I’d say that my ‘faith’ lies in the imagination and in the imagination’s power to bring into existence essential experience that heretofore wasn’t known to exist.
That reminds me of Frank Bascombe’s line: ‘The unseen exists and has properties.’ Do you have an ongoing sense of that ‘unseen’, or only at certain charged moments?
I don’t much think about the unseen. For lack of great erudition, or a great education, I suppose I’ve stored a fair amount of trust in my instinct. But as soon as I see that written down I start to think that instinct may just be another word for luck and for trusting to luck—which I’ve done. A favourite line I repair to is by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who said: ‘We have a built-in, very potent, hair-triggered tendency to find agency in things that are not agents.’ I’m not sure if Dennett approves of that tendency or not. But certainly that’s one of the things literature does—it ascribes agency where before no agency was noticed: it says this causes that, this is a consequence of that, etc. It may be that writing fiction, imagining agencies, is my most trusted way into the unseen.
There is a kind of unflinching morality in many of your stories. I’m thinking particularly of the tales of adultery in A Multitude of Sins. Trangression has consequences, even if only in pointing up the emptiness of lives. Does this moral sense grow out of characters, or does the moral engine come first?
I don’t know a specific answer to that. In most of those stories I didn’t start with a character. I usually don’t. I usually start either with a situation (a man meets his ex-lover’s husband in Grand Central Station; a married couple are on their way to a party, when the young wife informs her young husband that she’s had an affair with the host of the party they’re attending—those are examples). Or else I just go looking for bits and pieces that I want a story to contain, and organize the story out of those bits. I suppose when I put it that way, and in terms of your question, the ‘moral engine’ may seem to come first, be an unspoken force in the choosings. But I’m entirely unaware of its being so. I hold with the notion that Martin Amis quoted Northrop Frye to say: that literature is a disinterested use of language; a writer must have nothing riding on the outcome. I set up situations and then see what I can have happen as a consequence, using language. And, at least in theory, the consequence could pretty much be anything.
Does that principle of disinterest apply equally in your novels, is it tough not to be rooting for Frank, say?
I’m always rooting for Frank to do something, or have something to say that’s not expected, but interesting, given the conventional sort of man the reader may be imagining him to be—a real estate agent, etc. So, the rule of disinterest still applies. It should also be said, of course, that I’m not bound strictly by that rule. If by following it I write something that I don’t like, or have Frank or any character say or do something that seems dumb or somehow wrong, I can just scratch it out and often do. I never saw Frank as a human being (although I’d like the reader to think he was pretty close to being a human being). Rather I saw him as an agency made of language. So, I wouldn’t be ‘rooting’ for him the way you’d root for the kid with Hodgkin’s Disease to see one last game at Yankee Stadium. It’s different. I may be more rooting for myself to come up with something good.
Do you find your empathy with the weaknesses of your characters has deepened as you have grown older?
My empathy with every kind of weakness has deepened. Is it a matter of age? Maybe. More probably it’s just a matter of experience. Graham Greene wrote—and I’ve always hated the idea—that morality comes with old age, with one’s curiosity growing weak. That’s a sourpuss’s notion of morality. As something that’s moribund. And I don’t buy it. Maybe that’s because my curiosity still seems strong.
In your introduction to the Granta book of the American short story you quote Walter Benjamin suggesting ‘We no longer work at things that can’t be abbreviated’, perhaps a factor of waning curiosity. What is your feeling for America’s attention span?
That was Benjamin expressing his displeasure with modern times. Probably an observer could make, or could’ve made, the same claim about the contemporary attention span at any given time in history. But as for me, and as for now, I see lots of people on airplanes reading really long books; I see the ‘young of my country, as well as their beaverish parents, spending long, long, long periods of time in front of computer screens; I see athletes training and training until they drop. So, I conclude from this admittedly unscientific survey, that plenty of Americans have plenty of attention available—for something. It may not be for literary fiction. But then it’s my job as a purveyor of literary fiction to tap into that otherwise wasted attention span. But it’s there.
You have rarely written of childhood, in the way that, for instance, Tobias Wolff has; has that territory never tempted you?
Well, I’d say I have written about childhood. Several of the stories in Rock Springs are narrated by teenagers, as is all of Wildlife. And in the New Jersey books there are Frank’s kids all around—especially in Independence Day. Maybe in your terms a teenager isn’t a child; and maybe that’s true. But I always think I’ve written about children—because I always brag that it’s a lot easier to write about children than to have them. And I don’t have any.
To what extent do you think your life was shaped by being an only child among big Southern families?
That’s one of those questions that asks me to imagine another life from my own. I suppose I could—a life with brothers and sisters—but it’s a bit like asking whether things have been different, do you suppose, if you’d been a girl. Probably would. Being an only child, however, shaped a great, great deal in my life. A psychologist could probably give a better answer than I could, and probably a truer answer, too. But I’ll just propose one thing: that I was almost always around adults when I was quite young. Adult life was the ‘important’ life, the aspired-to life, and I could eavesdrop on it all the time, hear what adults thought was important, observe discrepancies in their behaviours and their pronouncements. It probably also intensified the faith that I had in parent-child relationships, inasmuch as my parents seemed to have wanted me, loved me, wanted good for me. It might’ve also caused me to fear loss more than would’ve been the case had there been others around. And I think that in myself (and perhaps evident in what I write) fear of loss and the corresponding instinct to protect myself against loss are potent forces.
Do you think that instinct to protect yourself against loss is one of the reasons you chose not to have children?
Doctor Freud might say so. But I just say that it was because Kristina and I didn’t especially like children, didn’t want to be saddled with the responsibility of them. We had our ideas about the future, and there was never room for children in those ideas. It was really the first important thing we ever agreed on when we were in our teens together, in Michigan. I remember the exact moment we first talked about it. It was great.
There are, you’ve said, two fixed points in your life: ‘I always write and I am always married to the same girl’ In what ways does one depend on the other?
I’ve answered that question enough for one lifetime.
All right; you’ve also said that you consciously want your writing to be ‘affirmative’ of the possibility of love, closeness in a life, what makes you hold to that?
Not to keep on quoting famous men, but somewhere in Wallace Stevens there’s a little fragment that says, ‘we gulp down evil, choke at good’. That’s always meant to me that it’s more appetizing to decry, and less appetizing, maybe less simple, to find a vocabulary for affirmation. And also ‘closeness in a life’ and (if you will) ‘love’ seem immensely sustaining to me, and worthy of efforts at articulation. That said, I’ve written mostly stories that would have to be called ‘cautionary tales’, and that a lot of readers would not think of as conventionally affirming. However, I hold with John Gardner [the novelist and early supporter of Raymond Carver] who said that moral literature (by which I understand him to have meant good literature, valuable literature) ‘tests values and arouses trustworthy feelings about the better and worse in human actions’. To me, indeed, great literature is always affirming, even if it’s grim—if only because it’s a gesture by someone for the use of another in a future that’s hoped to come. Sartre said even the grimmest literature is optimistic since it proves those things can be thought about.
So literature makes us want to be better men (and women)?
I don’t know about that. I just know it gives a reader the chance to see life affirmed through literature’s great concern with life. And it gives the reader a chance—in the sheltered environment of a book—to see the important consequences of events. Making one want to be better, well that’s a private matter. I have some evidence that that may not be accurate—although wanting to be better and being better are obviously different things.
What did you make of being described as a ‘Dirty Realist’ by Granta?
I thought—we probably all thought—that ‘Dirty Realism’ was a wonderful marketing ploy. I don’t think Carver or Toby Wolff or Jayne Anne Phillips or any of us ever thought it really described anything especially true or thematically consistent in our stories. Bill Buford just dreamed it up to sell magazines in Britain. And it worked very, very well. We’re still talking about it, aren’t we? At the time—the middle Eighties—I had no books in print, and no readership. This wasn’t true for the other writers in the ‘Dirty Realism’ issue. But it was true for me. And Bill’s scheme helped me find a readership for my stories. I can’t thank him enough.
Did you ever think of giving up at that time?
I certainly did. I thought that I’d had my shot at being a novelist and it hadn’t worked out well enough. I went over to Sports Illustrated and asked for a job. But the guy who was running it told me no. He said I was a novelist (cruel irony), and that I couldn’t be a sportswriter. So I went home and wrote The Sportswriter. But if he’d given me a job I’d almost assuredly have taken it and been very, very happy. I’d be retired now and have a big pension. It would’ve been a great life.
It seemed to me natural to group you with Carver and Tobias Wolff as writers to the extent that you had some kind of shared interest in a sort of lonely or alienated masculinity. Where do you think that came from?
I never think about that. At our best (if I have a best—and certainly they do), our stories weren’t that much alike. And frankly I can’t think about my own characters in those rather cosseted, conventional terms—alienated, lonely, even masculine. I’m not interested in ‘masculinity’. I’d be surprised if Ray or Toby would’ve said much different. But. I do know that I inherited much of my sense of what a story could be and be about from my reading—from Frank O’Connor, from Sherwood Anderson, from Faulkner, from Isaac Babel, from Flannery O’Connor—alas, from Hemingway, who seems influential in only the most superficial ways. So, that’s where my first ideas came from.
You’ve lived longer than your father, do you catch yourself making his gestures, or have a keener impression of his life now you have reached and passed his age?
I look like my father. I sometimes feel my facial features arranging themselves into visages that I know are like his. The long Irish upper lip lapsing over the poor lower one in a state of puzzlement; my tendency to sigh at moments of frustration; the fierce swarm into anger; the tendency to strike out at something (or someone) that threatens me. I saw all this in him when he was in my life. And I accept them in myself—which isn’t to say I glory in them. That said, I have a paler and paler recollection of him as time’s gone on. And I feel the poorer for that. I liked him very much.
Do you think men are born with more ways to fail than women?
I don’t know what that means. But, no. Women and men seem a lot more alike than they’re given credit for. A lot of ‘interests’, of course, are deeply and perniciously invested in keeping them apart and distinct.
You have written about your love of hunting. Does it inform your writing?
It’s certainly informed some stories—the ones that’re expressly about hunting: ‘Communist’, ‘Great Falls’, ‘Calling’. But in general I think it’s just been a thing I like to do that hasn’t much informed my writing. I don’t like to read hunting stories. ‘Communist’ I wrote back in 1984, only because Tom McGuane and I were out hunting partridge in Montana, and he told me he knew a guy who was preparing an anthology of hunting stories and if I ever wrote a hunting story I should send it to this guy. I never had before. But I did. And ‘Communist’ was it. I probably never wrote a better story than that. Go figure.
Tell me about your relationship with your Harley-Davidson; it feels like an escape clause?
When I got back to owning motorcycles, in the mid-Eighties, I used to say (in my boyish way) that a fellow needed to have something around that could kill him. And at heart, once we get past the snapshot visions of oneself astride the rakish machine, and the appeal of the sound of the thing, and the wind-in-your-hair imagery, and the hoped-for effect on women—once that’s all gone by, I guess I still feel the way I did in the mid-Eighties.
You don’t strike me as someone with a self-destructive urge though — not at all?
I don’t think I have a self-destructive urge. But the prospect of one’s eventual end is pretty firmly fixed in my brain. And I’d certainly like to think I held my fate in my own hands should I be struck by some withering disease. I remember when my mother died—of breast cancer—and Kristina and I were sitting on her bed, getting dressed for her funeral, the phone rang. And it was one of my mother’s old Arkie cousins, from up in the sticks. This woman was just calling up to express her condolences, I guess. I had no idea who she was, just a scratchy voice on the phone, there in Little Rock. She said a few consoling things. And then she said—and this woman didn’t know me; she said, ‘Now, Rich-ard. Your mamma died of cancer. So, hon, you’re gonna get it, too. Don’t forget that.’ ‘Okay, I won’t,’ I said. ‘Thanks.’ Just a kind sober thought toward the future to penetrate one’s grief.
What did you learn in writing and in life from Raymond Carver?
I did learn some things from Ray. Sometimes people ask me if he was my teacher; but he wasn’t. He and I were close friends, and were colleagues. But he wasn’t that much older than me—seven years. We were pretty much contemporaries. Though it’s seems strange that he’s been gone now for nearly twenty years. But. One thing that may seem insignificant, but wasn’t, was that his parents and my parents came from pretty much the same place—west Arkansas. His parents had gone out west, and mine had gone down south—for work. And from that coincidence, and from admiring Ray’s early stories very much, and admiring his own instincts for writing them, I think I drew some corroborative strength that my own inherited storage of what was interesting and what a story could be was, in fact, valuable and credible. Ray and I enjoyed a kind of unspoken confidence that we came from the same stock—possibly rough stock.
Beyond that, his early stories and our friendship—which began as he was writing his second book—definitely encouraged me to try writing stories again myself. I’d quit writing stories in the Seventies because I just couldn’t do it very well. But Ray’s stories seemed so natural, almost easy (many people have thought that to their ruin), that I thought I’d try my hand at it again. And I did. At least a couple of the stories in Rock Springs bear signs of his stylistic influence. He always encouraged me to write stories, although I’m sure he felt confident he would always be better at it than I’d be.
He must’ve learned things from you as well, though?
I don’t know what he could’ve learned from me. There might’ve been something. We were friends, we talked about work a lot. We had that confidence that came from our family background. And I’m sure I re-enforced his confidence about his work. I also had opinions about some of the stories in his book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—all of which he showed me in early drafts. But most of what I didn’t like he rejected and later chided me for. Although there was that story, I think it’s ‘A Small Good Thing’, that I and others (the poet Donald Hall and Geoffrey Wolff, probably Toby, too) complained to him about. He’d shown that story to us in an early, much more fully developed form. And then he published it in a rather harshly curtailed form. And we all told Ray he should restore it to its fuller self when he collected it in a subsequent volume. And he did. His work was growing, his sentences getting longer, more complex, his sympathies and intellectual reach expanding. Tess [Gallagher, Carver’s second wife] had a big influence on him—probably the biggest influence. I think that I—and again I was just one of a few people he trusted—I just told him work was wonderful, and that was probably the most of it.
You shared an absolute commitment to the business of writing stories: have you always had that work ethic?
No. I haven’t. I always wished I had it—from an early age. But I didn’t for a long time. It—the work ethic—just arrived during the summer of 1963, when I was nineteen. I’m not sure where it came from. I was working on the Missouri Pacific Railroad as a switchman, and making lots of money and having a pretty happy life. I was supposed to go to college in the autumn, and was giving thought to just staying working on the railroad. But I ended up going to school, instead.
Maybe seeing those working guys I spent my days with made an impression on me; or maybe it was that I wanted to impress Kristina. I don’t really know. But when I got to school, in Michigan, I was just a changed boy. Whatever thresholds I’d not ventured to cross—with regard to my studies, for instance—I just barged across. And it’s been that way ever since. But I should say—about myself and about a work ethic—it’s pretty boring. That’s why we associate the ‘ethic’ with Protestants, who’re also pretty boring. It may lead one on to good, but it doesn’t feel like much of a virtue, frankly.
A work ethic story, though. When I was in college I lived with a guy named Tom Candee, who’s now a veterinarian not far from where I live—down in Massachusetts. And every term our grades came out, and Candee used to laugh at me—rail at me, really. He used to say, ‘Look at Ford, he got all As, but had to work like a pig to get it. Whereas me, I got all As and never turned a hand. I’m smart. He’s not.’ We eventually came to pretty serious blows, Candee and me, because that used to get under my skin real bad. But the truth was he was right. I did work like a pig. He barely lifted a hand. So, to me, a work ethic has always been a kind of blue-collar trait, something I have to embrace to do anything that’s worthwhile—but spectacularly inferior to being able to waltz through life. I am, however, glad not to be a veterinarian.
I remember talking to Kazuo Ishiguro and he said he imagined the rest of his life in terms of how many novels he would be lucky enough to complete, if he spent, as was his habit, five or six years on each. Do you have a powerful sense of finite time?
Well, the return on Ish’s investment is quite wonderful, isn’t it? So his attitude puts a much better burnish on those working virtues than I can hope to put. I suppose I do share a sense of finite time, all right. But I don’t measure it in terms of how many novels I’ll write, or might write. I agree that to get to write a novel at all is very, very lucky—to get to do one’s best, to get to do what Dostoevsky and Faulkner did, to try to contribute good to the life of people you don’t know. All that’s a great privilege. But every time I finish a novel, or a book (and I’ve only finished nine), I ask myself if this isn’t enough now. I’ve given this last effort—whatever it was—my very best. I’ve held back nothing. Have I not perhaps gone along this course as far as I can go? Are my returns not likely to begin to diminish? Could I really have anything as important as this to write again? Someday, I assume, my answer will be, ‘Yes, this is enough.’ I don’t see writing as a profession, something I’m married to forever. I have to reinvent it every time. And I also see that there’s more to life than writing. I see that portrayed in other people’s lives all the time. I’m as curious about that as I ever was.
The greatest short story writers it seems to me are those with the clearest sense of an ending. Do you always know when you are done?
Yes, I always know when a story’s finished. And I hope that makes me one of the greatest short story writers—if that’s what it takes.
There’s a line you once used: ‘Your life is the blueprint you make after the building is built.’ How do you think your own blueprint will look when the time comes?
Sketchy. Whatever there is of good in it is either private—something I shared with Kristina—or else it’s all gone into what I’ve written. That seems just fine.
Photograph © Laura Wilson