Q & A: Richard Ford

Could the esteemed author's new book, 'Canada', be the great American novel?

Richard Ford, 68, is one of the most eminent American writers of our time. His latest novel, Canada, is about a 15-year-old Montana boy who flees to Saskatchewan in 1960 after his parents are arrested for bank robbery. He spoke with Senior Writer Brian Bethune.

Q: It’s half-way through the book when you get there, and a lot of other borders—physical and moral—have already been crossed before you arrive in Saskatchewan, so why choose the title, Canada?

A: Well, for a lot of reasons. One was that I’ve been coming to Canada since I was 18, and every time I came, particularly when I went across the border driving, my experience was always extremely good, I felt affiliated—even though I wasn’t—and I felt affirmed about something that seemed valuable to me. But that sense of affirmation and affiliation didn’t really have a vocabulary except the most standard ones, and when I have an experience like that then that makes me want to put that experience into language, and so to put it into play and see then what I can make myself say and make characters say and so forth. And the Saskatchewan landscape up there was quite, for me, a powerful landscape, and I wanted to see if I could actually write something that summoned it.

Q: You’ve been coming here since 1961?

A: I think ’62. My grandparents took me to college at Michigan State for orientation, and then when we left we drove over to Niagara Falls and we crossed the border there, and that was my first experience being in Canada.

Q: Much easier done back then than it is now.

A: Yeah, not the hysteria there is now.

Q: So the title has positive connotations for you. What do you think Canada means to other Americans, just as a concept?

A: You know, I would hesitate to generalize about that. I really don’t know. You know, as a novelist I’m kind of an Aristotelian, I deal really in specifics, and to try to generalize about what Americans think, I would always get it wrong. I mean, you could find Americans who didn’t even know Canada existed, and you can could find Americans who felt very, very, very positively about Canada. I just wouldn’t want to generalize.

Q: I’ve already seen two jokes in American media on the novel: “Despite the title, a great American novel,” and—my favourite— “Despite the title it’s really good.” I guess that’s a play on the famous dull headline, “Worthy initiative from Canada.”

A: Both of those instances are probably Canadian. They’re the only ones who perpetrate those jokes. Americans don’t.

Q: Yes, we notice ourselves very well. You capture that quite well, our self-consciousness.

A: Well, it is a self-consciousness, and when it comes to Americans there is some self-deprecating. I kind of wonder if—I don’t know, so I mean I literally wonder—if that is as pervasive among Canadians as it would seem to be to Americans who hear it.

Q: I think it is, in terms of the self-awareness, if not the self-deprecating. We tend to have a certain sense of ourselves and then we worry about whether it’s correct or not.

A: That’s definitely in my book.

Q: Right, Dell, the main character, captures that very well. You’re friends, I believe, David Carpenter, author of Courting Saskatchewan and The Hunting Memoir.

A: Yeah, yeah, and a lot of other wonderful books, too. Verty good friends. He was the first guy who really ever took me in hand and led me from Saskatoon down in the valley of the South Saskatchewan River. He took me and Raymond Carver and put us in the field to shoot geese.

Q: Was Guy Vanderhaeghe there too?

A: No, not with me. I know Guy, but to my knowledge he’s not a hunter. I’m mostly of a reader of his. You know, The Englishman’s Boy is a great book. In some ways it was rather seminal to me in thinking about this book, long before I ever really hatched it, about the border between America and Canada, because in his novel he writes about how there is a border but it’s not much observed, how people crossed it pretty-much with alacrity.

Q: Do you read much Canadian fiction?

A: Yes, but whenever I read novels I never really think that I’m reading a Canadian novel or reading a U.S. novel, I just think I’m reading a novel. I mean, it doesn’t make a dent on me in that way. You know, with Wayne Johnson’s book about Newfoundland I certainly know I’m reading a Canadian novel, but half of Alice Munro’s stories, even though I’m sure Canadians think of them as being purely Canadian, to me could exist anywhere.

Q: CanLit is as regional, maybe more so, than American fiction. It’s easy to think of Munro as small-town southern Ontario, you know, something really close to my own childhood.

A: But I’ve been to one of her small towns. She has that story called “Miles City, Montana”. I read it one time, I wrote her a letter and I said, “Hands off!” —meaning my fictional territory—and then she very sweetly sent me a picture of a bar that I had written about in north-central Montana, as if to say, “I’m here, I’m here where you write about. Don’t think it’s yours.”

Q: In Paris Review, you’re quoted as responding to people who tell you that you’ve captured Montana perfectly with, “Well, thank you, but my aim was not to capture it as it exists on Earth.” Is it the same with Saskatchewan?

A: Absolutely. And I know there will be things that citizens of Saskatchewan will find fault with, it’s inevitable. I tried to put as wide-reaching a disclaimer as I could at the beginning of the book, even so far as specifying a highway that I’ve paved which was not paved when the book was set.

Q: If you don’t add a disclaimer, you expect to hear about it?

A: Oh yes, but even so…There is mention in the book of the Space Needle being under construction in 1960, and several people from Seattle wrote me and said, “The Space Needle wasn’t built in 1960,” and I said, “I know that. I said it was being built,” but they’re just going to stab away at you. It’s all right. I mean, If they find fault with my book, it means they have to have read it.

Q: Dell hits the same-but-different note between our two countries often; does that make it a very good border for your purposes?

A: Very much. That’s probably one of its greater lures for me, because to me Canada is a profoundly different place from America, in almost every subtle way that it can be, and yet to the cursory onlooker it could look the same. Only it isn’t, even if it’s hard to put in words. And it seems to me to require a great kind of discretion on people’s part to be able to tell the distinctions between things that look sort of the same.

Q: That’s because you don’t get a lot of obvious markers—another language, say, to tell you.

A: Once you start to notice the markers then they’re everywhere, then they’re literally everywhere. If you go into Canada, I suppose, not looking for those markers, you won’t see them, but once you notice one then the place becomes terrifically foreign, to me. It never seems like America to me, ever.

Q: Why does Dell end up in Windsor? To keep an eye on the U.S.?

A: I just wanted him to be just a river away from where he was born. Actually, in that case, a lake away from where he was born. I wanted to insist on the sort of mystical nature of that border, I wanted him to be close enough to America to go there if he wanted to, and not to want to go there. That’s why.  I sort of wrote the book, in a way, so that the border between America and Canada could become thought of more clearly and less overlooked, I suppose, especially with Americans.

Q: The important thing in the book is crossing a border, crossing a line, but it could have been any border?

A: That’s exactly right.

Q: Dell, as narrator, now is about your age now, and he’s looking back to when he was 15. You often write about 15- and 16-year-olds. What’s the attraction of that age? The choices opening before them?

A: I think so. It’s that border between childhood and boring adulthood, in which you have a kind of mental foot in both domains. It’s a moment in which you can see two sides of that aspect of humanity quite vividly, I think, and also sympathetically. I think it’s important for me to write about characters whom I can actually write about sympathetically. And I was a 15-year-old boy once myself.

Q: And, unlike a lot of us, you remember it well.

A: I do. My father died that year, and so – when I was 16, actually – and so it was a very memorable time in my life.

Q: You and Dell are both very attuned to the varieties of English, the intonation and accents, across the whole continent. You’re a southerner who now lives in Maine, and you don’t sound very southerner now.

A: When I went to Michigan College from Mississippi I really went sort of running away from the racial strife down there, and I was perceived as a moderate in Mississippi, but when I got to Michigan what they perceived me as was a redneck and a cracker and a klansman, and pretty quickly, I wanted to get the whole range of southern notes out of my voice. I just didn’t want to be that at all. I’m perfectly at ease about being a Mississippian now because I really am one, but at the time a lot of bad baggage went with that.

Q: Your characters famously don’t have characters, so to speak. You don’t think that people have hard and fast characters, just past histories and tendencies.

A: And they have ambitions and they have fears, and they have all kinds of things that actually affect their behaviour, but I don’t see a central, solid core in people so as to make their behaviour very predictable, or even for that very assessable. I mean, we all have the capacity to forgive, and if somebody does something really terrible you can consign them to hell forever, or you can say, “Well, maybe you’ll do better.” And that’s, for me, a much more humane position to take.

Q: That means there’s always the chance of doing something unexpected. Do you actually write yourself into surprises sometimes?

A: I do it all the time. I think that’s my MO, for a fact. I mean, there’s the scene, for instance, in Canada when Dell goes to the girls’ school. I had really no earthly idea what I was going to do with him when I got him to the girls’ school, none whatsoever. I didn’t know what I was going do when I had Dell and Charlie sitting out there on the campus in those lawn chairs, That’s, for me, some of the brio of getting to write. And it seems to comport with how life actually is. You know, we all think we’re going to get in a car and drive down the road and know what’s going to happen, but in fact we don’t.