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Novelist Richard Ford Discusses Latest Work, ‘The Lay of the Land’

November 20, 2006 at 12:50 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: In the 1986 novel, “The Sportswriter,” the world of literature was introduced to a fictional character named Frank Bascombe, a 38-year-old writer living in a New Jersey suburb facing the loss of a son, a marriage, and a career.

In 1995, Frank Bascombe returned, in “Independence Day.” He was older, no wiser, now selling real estate, still trying to connect with his children and the rest of the world. That book won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award.

Now, Frank is back again in the new novel, “The Lay of the Land,” about to face an unsettling family Thanksgiving gathering and, at 55, in what he calls “the permanent period.”

The man behind Frank Bascombe is writer Richard Ford, a Mississippi native who’s lived in — among other places — Montana, Maine, New Orleans and, yes, New Jersey, author of three other novels and three short story collections in addition to the Bascombe books. We talked recently in Washington.

Richard Ford, welcome.

RICHARD FORD, Novelist: Glad to be here, Jeff. Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how does this work for you? Does this character, Frank Bascombe, about every 10 years or so call out to you and say, “Hey, look at me now”?

RICHARD FORD: Well, it’s more like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, I think. I kind of go to his box and haul him out more than that. I’m not one of those people who as a writer lets my characters tell me what they want to do or call to me or seek me. I go seeking for things, using them as an agent, really.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you decided to go call Frank back and use him?

RICHARD FORD: I did. I did, because I had a bunch of things that I wanted to put in play in a book. Because the book is narrated by the same character and could be said to be in sequence doesn’t relieve me — probably doesn’t relieve anybody who writes books like that — of the responsibility of writing a new book all the time.

I wanted to write about Frank, too, because I thought the period which is the period that his book takes place in his life — he’s 55, which he calls the “permanent period of life” — was a period of time which you can live through and never notice.

And it’s that period in your life when you’ve sort of broken with the past and there’s not enough of the future left to screw it up, and maybe it’s a time when you should pay attention to your everyday existence, because it’s likely to be the time when, once you are gone, you’ll be remembered for.

Importance of humor

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, here in this book, Frank is being treated for prostate cancer. His second wife has left him. He's about to have Thanksgiving dinner with his first wife and their two children, which is an unsettling event for everybody.

RICHARD FORD: Always. Always. I without children, even I know that that's an unsettling event. Yes, it tries to bring into -- as Henry James says, it tries to bring, the book does, into close connection, bliss and bale, the things that help with the things that hurt, humor and, in a way, unhappiness, and see what sparks can actually be generated from that connection being made.

JEFFREY BROWN: Humor is important to you, as well.

RICHARD FORD: For me, if nothing's funny, nothing's serious. That's the old comics, the old Friars Club axiom. If nothing's funny, nothing's serious. And that's what I believe, basically.

You can't always go to the well and have things be funny. Years ago, a wonderful literary -- he wrote about books -- Walter Clemens from Newsweek, he said to me one time, he said, "Ford," he said, "you know, you've got a sense of humor. You ought to use it." And I have always tried to use it in the books that I write, because I think it's good for readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why don't you read a passage for us?

RICHARD FORD: Will do. Will do. This is a little passage in "The Lay of the Land," in which Frank, Frank Bascombe, who narrates this book, is really talking about trying to find a sense of character for himself, having in the midst of the permanent period, or right at the beginning of the permanent period, realized that maybe, if once he was dead, no one would even remember him for anything.

"But very little about me, I realized, except what I'd already done, said, eaten and so-forth, seemed written in stone, and all of that meant almost nothing about what I might do. I had a history, OK, but not really much of a regular character, at least not an inner essence I or anyone could use as a predictor.

"And something, I felt, needed to be done about that. I needed to go out and find myself a recognizable and persuasive semblance of a character. I mean, isn't that the most cherished pre-posthumous dream of all, the news of our premature demise catching everyone so unprepared that beautiful women have to leave fancy dinner parties to be alone for awhile, their poor husbands looking around, confused, grown men find they can't finish their after-lunch remarks at the Founders' Club because they're so moved, children wake up sobbing, dogs howl, hounds begin to bark, all because something essential and ineffable has been erased, and the world knows it and can't be consoled?

"But given how I was conducting life, I realized I could die and no one would remember me for anything. 'Oh, that guy, Frank. Hmm, yes.' Hmm, that was me."

JEFFREY BROWN: "That guy, Frank, hmm, that was me," huh?

RICHARD FORD: Just some guy, not who you think you are, not somebody who, you know, leaves a little mark on the earthly turf.

The desire to tell the story

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, there is very much the sense of an ordinary guy here. But you, Richard Ford, have written three novels about this guy, and there is a sort of ambition to that, I think.

RICHARD FORD: Yes, there is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, there is.

RICHARD FORD: Yes, there is.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is that? What is that ambition, to tell what story?

RICHARD FORD: Well, that's probably more ambition than I had. You know, Thoreau said that a writer is someone who, having nothing to do, finds something to do. So probably my ambition was to try to find something do -- and literature I've always thought was a high calling -- but something to do that would be useful to the world, that would be useful in the way that novels can be useful to us, to renew our sensuous and emotional life and teach us a new awareness, which is what Levis said literature was for.

JEFFREY BROWN:  You've now lived with this guy, Frank Bascombe, though, off and on for 20 years. Do you still like him?

RICHARD FORD: Oh, I think I wouldn't write about him and probably couldn't have written about him all these many days and all of these many pages if I didn't think he was likable to me.

I mean, there's an old axiom in biography that biographers shouldn't write about characters they don't like. And in my case, it's even more so, because I'm making him up. I'm not finding him. He's not -- even though I used the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy trope, he really ain't there in a box. He's really for me to make up out of language every day.

JEFFREY BROWN: And dare I ask, will we see any more of Frank Bascombe?

RICHARD FORD: Well, I think not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, you've said that before.

RICHARD FORD: I have said that before. I lied. I don't think I'll do it. I think I'm going to write a little book that's set in Canada. But, if I live long enough, who knows? Anything is possible, I guess.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We'll check in 10 years.

RICHARD FORD: Well, I hope we're both here, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Richard Ford, nice to talk to you.

RICHARD FORD: You bet.