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Richard Ford’s Latest Novel ‘Canada’ Is Actually an American Morality Tale

August 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
When writing his new book 'Canada' about a boy whose parents rob a bank, Richard Ford blended the persuasive voice of a teenager with his own, that of a 65-year-old man with a lifetime of experiences. Jeffrey Brown talks to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author about his novel about morality, murder and coming of age.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: a break from real-world worries, as an award-winning author takes us on a fictional journey north.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: “First, I will tell but the robbery our parents committed, then about the murders which happened later.”

The events that will reshape the life of 15-year-old Dell Parsons are offered up in the opening lines of Canada the new novel by Richard Ford, Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose works include the “Bascombe” trilogy, “The Sportswriter,” “Independence Day,” and “The Lay of the Land,” and the short story collections “Rock Springs” and “A Multitude of Sins.”

Richard Ford joins me now.

Welcome.

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RICHARD FORD, author of “Canada”: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Maybe we should start with those first lines. You tell us what’s going to happen.

RICHARD FORD: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then what?

RICHARD FORD: I was interested in what happens after such things as robberies and such things as murders.

I was interested in the consequences of these events, because the teller of this event is in part — I say in part because it’s an adult and child at once — a 15-year-old boy whose parents become bank robbers.

And I thought, gee, what happens to 15-year-old kids when their parents become bank robbers? So I thought the consequences of these events are for me more interested in the — than the events themselves. I also think that that’s where morality resides for most of us.

If we’re Christians, I guess we believe that morality resides in our hearts because we know what we should do. For most people, we have to make mistakes to find out.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s what happens after we make the mistakes.

RICHARD FORD: Yes, what happens after, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: So here you have Dell. He’s living in Great Falls, Montana…

RICHARD FORD: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … 1960.

RICHARD FORD: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he’s living with his twin sister and the parents who you say commit a bank robbery, but, as you also write, were the least likely people in the whole world to rob a bank.

RICHARD FORD: The closeness to which normal life bears upon felonious life in this instance is very interesting to me.

I mean, you can drive by these people’s houses in Great Falls, Montana, if you were to, and look through their window, and there would be a woman and a man and their two children, and they would be having dinner. And the next day, they would go rob a bank. There’s something about that, that dichotomous drama between those two completely disparate kinds of carrying on life that’s interesting to me.

And when you feel that kind of a commotion about something as a writer, then you want to give language to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about these two voices, as you say? Because there’s a 15-year-old telling the tale in a very immediate — at the moment it’s happening. And then there’s this 60-something self, same person, looking back in a more contemplative, nostalgic, “How did I become the person I am?” way.

RICHARD FORD: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you get those two voices right?

RICHARD FORD: It puts a strain on the person who is making the diction, the sentences.

JEFFREY BROWN: That would be you.

RICHARD FORD: Yes, that would be.

For the most part, you want to have the persuasive voice of a 15-year-old, but occasionally — and readers will let you do this if you have got something to tell them — occasionally, I want to be able to soar, in essence. I want to be able to talk in the lingo of a 65-year-old man who has lived a full life and who is educated and smart, who has been a teacher and who can articulate things that that 15-year-old boy couldn’t articulate.

You might think that those two ways of expressing a character’s life are antipodal almost, or at least they’re in — they’re a clash of some kind.

In fact, as I say, they don’t clash in truth. In our heads every day, we carry around all kinds of voices which ourselves make an integrated whole out of.

So it’s not hard, I don’t think, for readers to — to let a writer do that if you are going to deliver the goods.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean readers will let you do that if you — yes?

RICHARD FORD: Close the book. That’s…

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean literally.

RICHARD FORD: Yes. When readers don’t let you do something, what they do is they close the book.

I kind of have a feeling that when readers open a book, mine or somebody else’s, one of the things that they’re doing is looking for a reason to stop reading, because I’m constantly having to say, no, no, no…

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean go do something else.

RICHARD FORD: … don’t stop reading now, keep on reading.

It’s kind of like the old notion of all boats are looking for a place to sink. I think readers are looking for a place to get out of the book. And so it’s my job to get them to the end. Somebody wrote me a letter not long ago and said that she didn’t like my book at all. She thought it was bad, it was terrible.

JEFFREY BROWN: She thought she’d tell you about it.

RICHARD FORD: Yes. She thought she would bring that piece of news to me.

And I said, lady, I said, that’s fine, I said, but you seem to have read it all, so for me it’s win-win.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m also interested in the writing itself, because I noticed, as did a number of viewers, that there’s a different sentence structure, different kind of language in this book set in Montana and Canada, as compared to, for example, the “Bascombe” books set largely in New Jersey.

And I saw where you told an interviewer, “When I write sentences set in Montana, I write different kinds of sentences.”

RICHARD FORD: Yes. Yes, it’s probably true.

I don’t like the formulation that has — that allows anything to determine how I write sentences. But it is nonetheless true that when I was living in Mississippi and Arkansas, where I grew up, when I would start to write things that were set there, the sentences would change just automatically.

Likewise, when I write things that are set in Montana, the sentences don’t always change the same way from, say, the sentences about Frank Bascombe in New Jersey, but they change in some way. As I say…

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re not aware of it. It is just happening.

RICHARD FORD: I am aware of it. I just don’t like to concede it very much.

I don’t want anything that is a force without a name and without a character to be determining how I write sentences. But, nonetheless, it’s my relationship, I suppose, with the place which makes a certain kinds of strain and makes a certain kind of demand on the stylistics of the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, speaking of place, I find — I found myself smiling at times and at the title of the book.

RICHARD FORD: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I would tell people that I’m reading this wonderfully American novel titled “Canada.”

RICHARD FORD: I was interested in Canada for a number of reasons.

I thought it was a good title for the book. Once, years ago, an editor talked me out of a title that I really liked. I have never forgiven myself for it. I won’t tell you which book it was.

But I wanted to write a book whose destination was Canada for a child like Dell Parsons, who has had a calamitous young life.

And — because I’m very fond of Canada. I mean, I think of myself as a patriotic American. I vote. I volunteered for the Marine Corps. I did all of these patriotic things, but I like Canada. And I felt like in some ways Canada was a place that would be restorative for him over the course of his life.

I mean, it seemed to pose itself for me as a kind of image within which I could house all kinds of good things that would eventually happen to him and be plausible.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it worked out?

RICHARD FORD: It worked out. It did.

You get to the end of the book, where that lady apparently didn’t like it.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD FORD: And she should have liked it.

You get to the end of the book, and he is restored, I think, in fact. It has a good ending, this book.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book, the novel is “Canada.”

RICHARD FORD: Yes.

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

RICHARD FORD: Thank you, Jeff.