Talking to Richard Ford can remind you of reading his iconic character Frank Bascombe at his best: funny, perplexed, sharp, multitudinous. The 73-year-old author of The Sportswriter and Independence Day is a great, generous interviewee. (Talking to him recalls The Washington Post’s description of him as “one of the finest stylists and most humane storytellers in America.”) Following Canada – a novel about the impact of parental foolishness on a boy’s life—Ford returns with Between Them, a memoir about his parents and his “blissful” Mississippi childhood.
Ford writes about his parents’ delight in New Orleans. “They loved the French Quarter—the laughing and dancing and drinking.” About his father’s frustrations and furies: “There was the terrible temper, not so much anger as eruptive and impulsive…” About his maternal grandparents’ big, scrappy personalities: “From the sticks—worse than the country. North Arkansas. Tontitown. Hiwasse. Gravette. Way up there.”
Between Them closes elegiacally. “So, to write about my parents long after they’ve gone inevitably discloses hollow places, failures, frailties, rents and absences in me, insufficiencies that the telling, itself, may have tried to put right or seal off, but may only have re-opened and left behind, absences that no amount of life or truthful telling can completely fill or conceal.”
We discussed escaping the past, guns and trains, Bruce Springsteen’s inspiration, and why Paul Ryan is evil. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Q: Re-writing a fuller autobiography, do you feel you’ve already put your life into Frank Bascombe and your other iconic, enduring characters?
A: I think if I have to choose between writing about my parents and something autobiographical, or writing about Frank Bascombe and drawing on my life and other resources, I’d rather write about Frank Bascombe because he makes me laugh! Frank Bascombe uncovers a lot more pure intelligence than writing about my parents did because when writing a memoir you are a little licensed by fact. Frank is for me a freer way to write, although I certainly feel immensely pleased and satisfied to have written about my parents because it testifies to their existence. I think that’s the thing that memoir can do more than anything it does; it testifies and bears witness to the existence of people whose lives, pleasures and virtues would never have been testified to without my having done it. That makes me really glad.
Q: Frank’s “normal applauseless life of us all” has been described as a New Jersey icon, similar to Tony Soprano or Bruce Springsteen.
A: Oh, great. How wonderful! I couldn’t be happier.
Q: I appreciated your review of Born to Run in The New York Times.
A: It was fun to write. It’s not often that a soft pitch comes right in front of you. There was no man in America readier to write that review than I was.
Q: One of your lines that particularly jumped out at me is connected to your memoir: “It’s the family parts that mean most to me in Born to Run.” I found it fascinating, particularly his discussion of his parents, whom I knew nothing about.
A: His father is a very compelling figure, in a way, and I think probably compels Bruce in the same way—a brooding, basically unhappy, gloomy guy who Springsteen loved. I didn’t write this in my review but it was hearing “Independence Day,” Springsteen’s song about his father, that caused me to write my novel Independence Day. “Just say goodbye, it’s Independence Day.”
Q: There was a great line Springsteen has in Born to Run where he talks about this destructive, 1950s, blue-collar masculinity of his father—the idea of “the world on his terms or not at all.” Blue-collar voters voting for a cruel plutocrat like Donald Trump seems to encapsulate that idea?
A: It’s probably accurate, but unfortunately I think Bruce’s father didn’t get the world on his own terms. We’re all hoping that Trump doesn’t get our world on his terms because there won’t be anything of it left. Trump is a true psychopath, a psychopath in the way that tragedy becomes tragedy. If Trump was just a piddly-ass little hotel owner some place, having the kind of character and manners that he has, he would not be worth our notice. But because he’s now been based to this huge stage, then his dimensions become immense. He’s not a tragic figure because he doesn’t have the capacity to be tragic. But the consequences of his life and his self now are immense; they’re threatening to the world and to the sanctity of human life.
Q: A multiple and lifelong gun owner, you wrote an exceptionally strong piece for the Financial Times about guns. “The National Rifle Association is a domestic terrorist organization that tacitly supports the killing of children more than it supports reasoned gun legislation.” Another quote-worthy line: “Americans don’t have saner gun laws because most Americans, including those citizens who puzzle over better angels, don’t want saner gun laws.”
A: Yeah, I had a lot of people who are liberals complain to me about that line. They complained because they want saner gun laws, and they certainly do, but they think that somehow their impulses and wishes are just being stymied by a minority. That’s conventional wisdom as far as I’m concerned. The actual wisdom is: there are more people in this country that love guns and want guns for themselves and everyone else than there are not. It is also true that liberals who don’t want guns are puny by and large. They’re not risking anything, all they’re doing is saying they don’t like something. Liberals are quick to say this should happen and this should not happen, but they don’t do anything about it much.
I do not include President Obama in that cadre because he did try to do something about it. He tried his damnedest to do something about it, and he couldn’t do it. But the reason he couldn’t do it is because the country wasn’t with him! I’m with him, I want saner gun laws. I think all these automatic weapons should be banned, big clips and handguns should be banned. As far as I’m concerned, shotguns and hunting weapons are all that we should allow in this country.
Q: Why did you spend years living in New Orleans’ French Quarter?
A: Having New Orleans be so close by but so culturally different and distinct; it’s a very profligate and lenient place. Growing up in a conservative, hidebound, bigoted, churchy place—Jackson, Mississippi—I was drawn to the other side.
Q: Ryan and the Republicans are proposing gutting the National Endowment for the Arts.
A: They won’t succeed at that. They might take money out of it. I’d be surprised if they didn’t, but I don’t think Trump himself has any stomach for that. It’s hard to know what he means and what he doesn’t mean but I think that there will be a lot of pushback, enough, from both Democrats and Republicans. Nothing, for anybody, is achieved. With this new Supreme Court justice, something will be achieved by his ascension to the court; which is to say, maybe abortion will be inhibited, maybe free religious speech in schools will be re-encouraged. If you do away with the NEA, nothing’s achieved. It’s a net loss for everybody.
Q: This ridiculous notion about the country needing a businessman to run it. Here’s a symbol of philistinism, of barbarians at the gates.
A: Yes, as a businessman, he’s completely inept. If you wanted to have a businessman run the country you should’ve voted in Mitt Romney, he’s at least a nice man. A bit of a boob but not a nitwit. There’s a huge theme of nihilism and anti-intellectualism in this country. As long as you can keep it contained and underground, you can kind of compromise it to some extent and use it. But now that genie is above ground [laughs]. He’s the guy with the orange hair.
Q: During your youth, you worked on the Missouri Pacific line as a locomotive engineer’s assistant. À la Tony Judt, I see trains as a symbol of the collective liberal democratic imagination.
A: Well, you might not think so when you hook it up with notions of Manifest Destiny and James J. Hill and the Northern Pacific and things like that. What you see is an extension of oligarchy wealth across the otherwise innocent continent [laughs].
Q: True. I guess like most things in life, multitudinous. Speaking of oligarchy, nihilist Republicans like Paul Ryan have been doing their best to destroy Amtrak for years.
A: Because he doesn’t need it. There’s probably only one Amtrak line that runs through Wisconsin, and he’s probably never been on it. Paul Ryan, he is the real evil genius of the Republican party. He with his little hateful widow’s peak and his smirky, snarly, simpering non-entity self, that’s who I detest. Trump’s just a moron, but Ryan is ugly and evil.
Q: Trump’s so transparent. But Ryan, who Washington types allege is this great policy mind, describes kicking millions of people off healthcare as an “act of mercy.”
A: He’s looking you right in the face and lying about it! Ryan’s just a really, deeply evil little creature. But he’s not little; he’s actually quite tall, I’m sorry to see. I’m always sorry when really bad guys are tall.
Q: Could you talk about the rhythms of phrases and sentences, what you’ve called language’s “corporeal qualities, its syncopations, moods, sounds, the way things look on the page.”.
A: I feel that way because I’m such a slow reader. Being a slow reader would normally be a deficiency; I found a way to make it an asset. I began to sound words and see all those qualities—in a way it made words more precious to me. Since so much of what happens in the world between human beings has to do with the inconsideration of language, with the imprecision of language, with language leaving our mouths unmediated, one thing which was sensuous and visceral led to, in the use of language, a moral gesture. It was about trying to use language to both exemplify and articulate what good is.
Q: Are you planning a fuller biography or more non-fiction?
A: Well, since it was only my mother, my father and me as a little nucleus, I don’t know who I’d write about. My agent, as you have indicated yourself, was drawn to the character of my grandfather. But I don’t know enough about him. If I knew more about him I would essay to write something about him because I was crazy about him. I loved him, he was a great figure in my life, but I just don’t have that. In the case of writing about my father, since I called it what I did, “Gone,” he was mostly absent and so to write about him took me 35 years. But I don’t have 35 years to make up for absences now. So no, I reckon not. I’ll go on writing personal essays and maybe some of those will have some autobiographical components.
Q: I talked to Paul Auster recently, and he said, “You have to really have a taste for being alone to be a writer.”
A: I was rereading today Paul’s book The Invention of Solitude apropos of that. I guess, on one level, it seems almost redundant to say so. Unless you can sit in a room with a lot of other people and type [laughs]. But because it does seem so self-evident, like all self-evident things, I tend to disbelieve it. Some people think that writers are innately solitary and that there’s a kind of romance to that solitariness. I tend to think that what writers really want to do is get accepted into things. They want to get accepted into society, into culture, into intelligentsia, into the fun. Writing is their mechanism, their instrument, for doing that. Paul’s right that you have to have a tolerance for solitude. But when that solitude bears fruit, you can abandon it. You can be in the company of others.
I think of myself as gregarious. But then Larkin said that he thought that life was “an affair of company diversified by solitude” and what he found out was it was the opposite. Even though I get a lot done with my solitude, and I make the best use of it possible, I always think solitude is an interlude in a period of time, which is populated by others.
Q: In your Paris Review interview, you had some good advice for writers. One of the things you highlighted was that you “married the right girl,” Kristina.
A: Yes, and it’s even more imperative today than it was when I was 23 years old because it’s so much harder to get on as an imaginative writer like me now. You need to have somebody who believes in what you’re doing and who never is skeptical about what you’re doing. My wife thought it was a great thing for me to be a writer because in practical terms it freed her to do what she wanted to do, which was work.
Q: There’s a line in the new book where you say, “Once when I fell into trouble with the police for stealing car parts.” And then you mention juvenile court later. Have you written about this previously?
A: I’m sure I’ve discussed it. It’s nothing I’m embarrassed about—far from it, in fact. Like most little punk kids, having some juvenile court experience was a rite of passage, a badge of honour. But my life as a petty criminal was strong on the petty part.
Q: You loved your time as a sports writer. Does that interest you anymore?
A: ESPN just asked me if I would write some things for them, but we’re having a hard time coming up with anything that interests me. The way in which sports focuses more on the peccadilloes, lives and putative personalities of athletes and less on the finer points of playing games, I’ve become less interested in it. I don’t want to write sports profiles. Someone wanted me to write a profile for ESPN about the commissioner of baseball, and I said, “He’s just some suit! Some Republican. No!” I mean if you want me to write about baseball, boxing or football, I’ll write about those things because I watch them, I think about them a lot and I like them. But I don’t want to write about Barry Bonds.
Q: William Faulkner, whom you’re quite often compared to, wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
A: There’s a better line from Saint Augustine than Faulkner’s line, and it is that memory is a part of my soul, which is to say that memory is a sacred thing. For Faulkner to say “The past is never dead,” it sounds profound, but you kinda want to say, “Ah, hello, you’re living in this city and making a whole life’s work out of the fact that ‘The past is never dead.’ ” If the past had a chance to be dead, he was certainly going to keep it alive as long as he could. The past is the prism through which we see a great, great, great deal of ourselves; it’s a useful prism. It doesn’t mean that we’re fascinated by the dead or that we’re fascinated by things that are settled. It is just one place where we can go to understand ourselves in the present.
Q: You’ve said, “To live vitally one has to escape the vitiating grasp of the past.”
A: Yes, I do think so, which is not to say you have to forget it. I think you have to escape it. I grew up in an environment where the past explained everything. The past explained why the South was the way the South was and is, why people were the way they locally were, why people believed and had faith in what they believed and had faith in. Until you can become accountable to yourself and only yourself, you’re probably not going to live a fully vital life. So much of literature is about accountability. The moral issues in most novels are about people becoming responsible for their own behaviour. One of the forces against being responsible for your own behaviour is the force of the past, in the way that the past tries to form you.