Decommissioned Words: An Interview with Richard Ford




RICHARD FORD is the author of The Sportswriter and its sequels, Independence Day — the first novel to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award — and The Lay of the Land, as well as the awesome and bestselling 2012 novel Canada. His new book is Let Me Be Frank With You — it’s a series of linked novellas about his character, the retired New Jersey real estate agent Frank Bascombe.

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JON WIENER: In your new book our man Frank Bascombe says he wants to “decommission” certain words and phrases. What’s the idea here? What is on Frank’s list of decommissioned words?

RICHARD FORD: The idea is that we take this wonderful living entity in our lives, and we manage to reduce it to clichés and noun-verb constructions — to reduce it almost to babble, as fast as we can. What Frank wants to do is take out as many of these unlikable words, these corrupting and polluting words, as he can. For example: “I am here for you” — when you really mean just the opposite. And “what’s the takeaway?” And “hydrate,” when you just mean “drink.” And “interface,” and “bonding,” and “no problem” — when you just mean “thank you.”

Frank Bascombe sold houses. A lot of this new book is about houses — houses that Frank lived in in the past, houses wrecked by Hurricane Sandy, the “home” where his ex-wife, diagnosed with Parkinson’s, now lives. Somehow I think the house is not just a metaphor for you — you are interested in houses as real places.

I’m suspicious of metaphors anyway, by and large, just like Frank is. He and I occasionally agree. I think most metaphors divert you from what it is you ought to be looking at. Houses to me are not metaphorical. Houses to me are shelter. They are where you look out the window and see your children play. They are where you make love, and where you may die. And they are where all your money lives. So yes, houses are important.

You however didn’t live in a house for an important part of your life — you lived in a hotel.

I grew up in a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, after my father died, in my mid-teens. There was a life, I’ll tell you: being 17 years old, and my grandfather ran this big 600-room hotel. My God, everything in the world that you can imagine happening in a hotel happened right in front of me. My grandfather used to get me up out of bed when somebody would commit suicide. He would take me down there. He thought I needed to see these things. That was just the tip of that little iceberg.

It’s important in your books that we know what kind of work your characters do. Frank was a real estate agent — that matters. You edited a fiction collection called Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work. It included Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff, and Eudora Welty. Let’s talk about work and its place in your writing.

Let’s start with its place in my life. I come from not particularly educated people who just went to work every day. Which most Americans do, whether they’re educated or not. But I remember when my father would start talking about one of his friends — he was a traveling salesman who had friends on the road — I never felt these people were real to me until I knew what they did for a living.

Likewise with fictional characters. When I’m trying to make a character seem plausible to the reader, I’ve got to anchor him or her some way, by making it clear how they earn their keep and what they do every day. It all gets bound up in their vocation or their occupation.

Some people say writing is not working.

Writing is not very hard. I’ll have to say that. If it was, I wouldn’t still be doing it at age 70. It’s a thing you choose to do, and if you choose to do something, you shouldn’t be complaining about it. It would be different if somebody was making me do it. It’s indoor work. It’s work you do sitting down. And you get to write about the most important things you know. What could be better?

You’ve said you spent a lot of time in New Orleans after Katrina; and, for this new book, you went to the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy. What is it with you and hurricanes?

Growing up in the mid-South as I did, hurricanes were really a part of life, even though I lived inland enough in Mississippi so that I didn’t get the full brunt. But my wife was in politics in New Orleans. For a long time she was the head of city planning. She got fired by the terrible mayor Ray Nagin just the year before the hurricane. We were banished up to Maine, where we had a house. As soon as Katrina happened, our hearts were sort of broken — along with everyone else’s lives down there. We just quit what we were doing, we went back down to New Orleans, and I started working, helping people build houses. She worked for ACORN. We did what we could, because the place was virtually blown away.

Then, when we were living in New York — we live in Harlem — Hurricane Sandy came along. We went down to Seaside Heights to see what happened. It was on the way back from there that I started thinking about writing these stories. I had a store of hurricane emotion, a store of hurricane stories, a store of hurricane experience.

Is it okay to call Let Me Be Frank With You “a hurricane book”?

It’s about the consequences of the hurricane. What happens in big natural disasters is that CNN and NBC and Fox News carpet bomb the whole thing and give you the same story over and over. I thought there probably are all kinds of human consequences that the news media miss. What I should do is try to imagine some consequences of this hurricane in the lives of people that nobody would ever forecast.

In Let Me Be Frank With You, a lot of grim and sad and, frankly, terrible stuff happens to your characters; but there is also a lot of comedy in the book. I found myself rereading it, just because it’s fun to read. Was it fun to write?

It was great to write. Partly because the novella is such a sweet form to write in. You really get some of the avoirdupois of the novel in a shorter form. I guess I feel like the old comic injunction that, if nothing’s funny, nothing’s serious. I thought that there should be a way of dealing with this grave material that should make you laugh. Not laugh a little, but laugh a lot.

You are from Mississippi. You are old enough to remember the world of segregation — although I think you had moved to Arkansas before Medgar Evers was killed, and before Ross Barnett was governor, during Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964.

I was in Mississippi that summer. I got out of high school in 1962. After my first year of college in 1963, I went back to Mississippi because my mother had moved back. That was the year Medgar Evers was killed. I was around when Ross Barnett was standing in Memorial Stadium in Jackson inveighing against integration and making sure the University of Mississippi was closed to African Americans. That’s why I didn’t go to Ole Miss.

Did you ever write about this?

I’ve written a lot about race in my life, because racial strife was a big part of my life. But I don’t know that I wrote specifically about that summer.

You are definitely not a “Southern Writer.”

No, I’m not.

But I know you went back to Mississippi to teach at Ole Miss in Oxford recently: what was that like for you?

It was wonderful. I felt like I owed a lot to the state of Mississippi just by being born there and having gotten whatever education I got there. I had something I could contribute: I could go back there and teach literature. So I did that. It was great. I’m glad I did it. But it wasn’t meant to last. My wife and I had long lived in Maine. So when that year in Mississippi was over, we went back to Maine.

In Mississippi today it seems like all the white people are Republicans.

You can’t say that they all are. We don’t have all afternoon, do we? My pals, who I went to high school with, are really brave people. They are white people who stayed and tried to make things better in Mississippi. Most of them are not Republicans.

Long ago you were a student in the MFA writing program at UC Irvine. You were a student of E. L. Doctorow.

And Oakley Hall — a Californian from San Diego.

Doctorow ends The Book of Daniel in Irvine, in the trailers where the writing program was housed.

Because he was writing that in the spring of 1970, when he was doing his best to teach me and a couple of other guys. He was just writing what was right in front of him. A great book, too.

You could have followed Doctorow’s example and set one of your books in Irvine. If you’d made Frank Bascombe a real estate agent in Irvine, instead of New Jersey, you might have won some prizes and written a couple of sequels. Seems to me a novel about suburban real estate really should be set in Irvine. Just a suggestion.

[Laughs] But Frank would be so rich it wouldn’t be interesting.

You said in another interview that you went back to your character Frank Bascombe because a lot of readers wanted you to.

I don’t think that, because 50 people came along and said, “we wish that you would write another one of these books” — I don’t think that’s a reason to write a book. It may be a reason to think about writing a book, but you’ve got to have something new to say. It was very heartening to me for people to come to me in lines where I was signing books — people would say the most amazing things: “we don’t know how we’re supposed to get along for the next 10 years if you don’t tell us.” I hadn’t really thought that that was my role. But I thought, “okay, there’s a readership for the book I could write.” And here it is.

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Jon Wiener is a contributing editor and on the board of directors at the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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