ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In fact, the winner of this year's Pulitzer for fiction has pulled off a double coup. Just yesterday, he learned that his novel Independence Day also won the Penn Faulkner award. The author is Richard Ford, who also wrote the Sports Writer and Rock Springs, among other books. He joins us now in New Orleans. Welcome and congratulations.
RICHARD FORD, Author: (New Orleans) Thank you, Ms. Farnsworth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What's it like to win a Pulitzer Prize and a Penn Faulkner award?
RICHARD FORD: Well, you mean, after I got over the presumption that they'd called the wrong guy?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Right.
RICHARD FORD: Well, it was a thrill actually. I, I was surprised. The Pulitzer Committee had never called me before, so I was sort of caught unexpectedly.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The novel, your novel, Independence Day, is set during the Fourth of July weekend.
RICHARD FORD: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But it's about independence in a far deeper and broader meaning, isn't it?
RICHARD FORD: Um, it certainly means to be about independence. In my notebooks, I'm one of those writers who keeps a notebook as sort of a replacement for my memory, which doesn't work as well as it ought to. I kept finding the word "independence," and for me, when a word like that keeps coming up and coming up and coming up, what it means to me, that it has the sort of density, which is to say it may be behind its surface conventional meetings or associations. It's, it seems to promise more to me and the way I either find or invent what that more is, is to put into dramatic use, I put it into the mouths of characters, then I have people think about it, and I just see what kind of a language it generates for me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I was struck by how clearly the first couple of pages in the first couple of pages how clearly you set the tone for your book. There's a kind of languorous summer feeling shadowed by menace but with some humor too. Could you read something?
RICHARD FORD: Sure, gladly. Umm, this was a little passage which refers to Hatam, New Jersey, which is where this book is set. It's not actually on the map of New Jersey, except in this book. "And so it is in Hatam where all around our summers swoon, not withstanding, there's a new sense of a wild world being just beyond our perimeter, an untallied apprehension among our residents, one I believe they'll never get used to, one they'll die before accommodating. A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you'll never adapt to coming towards you on the horizon. You see them as the problems they are. You worry like hell about them and make provisions, take precautions, fashion adjustments, and you tell yourself you'll have to change your way of doing things, only you don't, you can't. Somehow it's already too late. And maybe it's even worse than that. Maybe the things you see coming from far away is not the real thing, the thing that scares you, but its aftermath."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the person dealing with all this is Frank Bascom--
RICHARD FORD: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --who was your character in the Sports Writer too.
RICHARD FORD: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What made you go back to him?
RICHARD FORD: Well, I never intended to write a sequel, that's for sure. It seemed to me to be a hazardous thing to do. You fool yourself into remembering how easy that first book was to write or maybe you just have one book to write and you're going to try to write it over again better, but I spent a year, in essence, thinking about the things that would go into this book and finally at the end, I kept finding that all of my notes and all the things I was thinking about were in Frank's voice, and I liked that voice because I thought he was a good sort of negotiator of, of ethical issues, and I thought he was humorous. I thought, you know, I guess I thought he was a good man. I wouldn't want to write a book about a guy I didn't have some admiration for, and I thought he was funny too. Again, as you said just now, I wouldn't want to write a book that didn't have some basis in mirth, as this book does.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He's coping with, with regret over the past, the divorce, his son's death, one son's death, and his other son is, I don't know what to call it, he's having mental instability, you might say. He's very sad too, and yet, the two of them are also humorous in a way
RICHARD FORD: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: They go on a trip. Tell us about it.
RICHARD FORD: Well, they go on a trip at which Frank tells Paul, his son, he's gotten in trouble with the police, that he wants to take him to all of the major sports halls of fame that they can drive to in one to two days. It turns out to be two, the Basketball and the Baseball Hall of Fame, and it turns out to be a trip in which Frank tries to teach his son something, tries to teach, in essence, his son independence, tries also to find a vocabulary saying that he loves his son, you know, a typical sort of fatherly/son sorts of things, I think.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We won't give away the rest.
RICHARD FORD: Good. It'd take me too long to--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: People have to read it get the rest. Tell us something about how you work. You moved to Princeton for a while to get the New Jersey town, but I know you've lived there before too.
RICHARD FORD: I did. I think, though, that Hatam is not Princeton but maybe Princeton has something--some inspiration for Hatam. How I work, gee whiz, I, umm, it seems like I worked all the time for about four years when I was writing this book. I'm a guy, as I said before, who makes notes, and I just try to make out of those rather random and chaotic notes some sense. I'm, as you suggested before, umm, I'm provoked by language, certain words have interest to me, and so I try to make use of it and try to put the new sentences that appeal to me that I think will appeal to a reader. I guess the principal thing I would say about how I work is that I write books for readers, I don't write books for myself. They aren't particularly matters of self-expression to me. If I were going to just write to express myself, I think actually I'd find something easier to do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You grew up in Mississippi, and you're living there part of the year now. I gather you live in Mississippi and Montana.
RICHARD FORD: I do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You--people have said that you're part of the Southern tradition in writing. Do you think there is such a thing?
RICHARD FORD: Well, umm, there certainly is a lot of writing about the South by Southerners, and I am a Southerner and I suppose in that way I fit into it. I'm in Mississippi and happy and proud to be.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You lived across from Eudora Welty, the short story writer and novelist, didn't you?
RICHARD FORD: I did. I grew up in the house across the street from where she grew up, and she and I actually went to the same grammar school and had the same teachers. As regards the Southern tradition, some of that probably could easily be debunked. I've never seen statistics that said there are better writers from the South than there are better writers from Illinois, for instance. Also, a lot of times when you hear the sort of conventional wisdom about the South, which is that people are always sitting around on porches admiring their family members and drinking mint juleps and telling stories, that, umm, turns out to be a conventional wisdom that just concerns white people and finds a way to exclude blacks from the notion of what Southern tradition is, and when you begin to include African-Americans into that formula, it becomes somewhat less easier to hold.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Very briefly, what next for you? What are you working on now?
RICHARD FORD: Well, I'm going to try to write a little novella set in Paris, if I'm lucky.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much and congratulations, again.
RICHARD FORD: Thanks. Thank you, Ms. Farnsworth.