Ford will be reading from The Lay of the Land (Knopf) at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, Tues Oct 24, 7:30 pm
Last week, I had the pleasure of talking to Richard Ford about his new novel, The Lay of the Land. It's the third in a cycle of books narrated by protagonist Frank Bascombe, which began with The Sportswriter in 1986, and the Pulitzer-winning Independence Day in 1995.
The Lay of the Land finds Frank Bascombe at 55, still selling real estate in New Jersey, over Thanksgiving week, 2000. His wife recently left him, he has cancer, his oddball son seems to hate him, and yet Frank tries to keep a philosophical attitude about it all, until everything threatens to come crashing down on his head.
Ford spoke to me from his home in Maine, and we discussed Bascombe at length, the functions of literature, and the "shithole" that the Supreme Court got our country in when they decided to award the presidency to George W. Bush. CHAS BOWIE
MERCURY: Frank really takes his lumps in this one, doesn't he?
RICHARD FORD: I suppose he does, yes. He's even taken some before the book commences.
Is that difficult to do—to submit your characters to catastrophe after catastrophe?
It isn't difficult to do, because I don't really think about my characters as human beings. I think that they are characters and therefore made up of language and largely mutable. The purpose for which they're made is the purpose of the reader. And so even though I don't think of myself as a man who does damage to his characters for no reason—everything that happens to Frank, everything that he experiences and survives, is done with the purpose of the reader in mind.
I've heard a lot of authors who have different takes on their characters.
You're right, a lot of my colleagues will say that their characters are people to them, or their characters are familiars to them. That their characters at some point take over and start writing the books themselves, where they put the character in place and see what he says. None of that is true for me.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but haven't you said that Frank's voice has come back to you and predicated both Independence Day and The Lay of the Land?
In this sense, yes, and that may actually be a conflict, but I'm not sure it is. When I was writing my notes, I realized that I was writing in Frank's voice. So there was a sound in my ear which got translated down onto the page, which I recognized as Frank's voice or similar to Frank's voice. Maybe that is an exception, but I still maintain my authority over it by electing to use it or not electing to use it, and being certain that when I do use it, certain things happen that I agree to.
Frank's voice seems to have changed a bit in The Lay of the Land.
Or at least his sentences seem to have changed a lot. They seem a lot thicker and more deeply woven. Were you aware of this as you were writing?
Very. Very aware of it. Keenly aware of it, I might say. I think that's just the matter of me getting older, frankly. I don't get any smarter, but I do accumulate material as life goes on, and your experience as a human being, which is usable in making a character, gets a little denser. I wasn't trying to make it thicker in a sense. I was trying to make it as readable as I could. I want to write books that are as readable as I can make them. But I think on the other hand, sentences like these can theoretically be pleasurable sentences.
Certainly. I think one of the strengths of the Bascombe books is that they're intensely readable while being intensely intelligent and uncondescending.
Thank you. That's good. That makes me happy, because I want books to be smart. Books are my opportunity to be smarter than I could be in any other way of living. That's what I go to literature for. When I read novels, I want them to tell me something that I couldn't have been told any other way. I always go to novels rather hungrily. I don't know if all readers do that. Maybe they don't. Obviously we know lots of readers who go to books just to be diverted or just to have their attention drawn to something else, but that's not why I go to literature.
Maybe this is the time I should bring this up, then. I didn't want to mention it too early, but I do have to tell you that the first two Bascombe books were unequivocally the central books of my adulthood.
It's almost impossible to overstate the importance they had to me as an even younger man.
Well I feel fortunate for having had something to do with that.
I feel fortunate for having read them. They came into my life at a perfect point, and I looked to them to get smarter and looked for clues as to how to proceed with this adult life.
That's what I do with books, too. That's good. Chas, that makes me very happy. Thanks for telling me.
My pleasure. One line that I liked in the new book was when the mechanic suggests to Frank that probably nobody fucks with him anymore, and Frank wearily agrees with that.
But throughout the book, his son fucks with him, his employee undercuts him, his car is broken into, [his wife's presumed-dead ex-husband] Wally stays at his house... Why does Frank say, "You're probably right"?
I think he's thinking about his wife. He's thinking about the other edge of that sword. Literally, nobody's fucking him. [Laughter] The kid means one thing...
Oh man, I totally missed that.
That's all right. That's good. If you know these books as well as you do and I can still put one by you, that's good. That means the book might bear another look sometime.
Actually, when I finished it this morning, I figured it was time to read it again. See what's really going on here.
[Still laughing] That's funny because I thought... The thing that the writer thinks is obvious turns out to be a thing that's not obvious.
One line that did confound me a bit was when Frank suggests that we each have a central lie that we're living. I never saw Frank this way. And I guess I still don't.
Are you quoting the line directly?
I have it right here... "And of course the answer's plain, unless we're actors or bad check artists or spies, when it's probably still more plain but tolerable—that your life is founded on a lie, and you know what the lie is but won't admit it. Maybe can't."
Right. I just believe that there is something in all of our lives that we can't admit to. Maybe "lie" in this instance would be too strong a word. But Frank's lie is that he has accepted Ralph's death. As he says, to have lived out these years with that misunderstanding, with that failure to accede to that basic truth of his life that he doesn't accept, doesn't make for a bad life, at all. You actually sculpt your life around those things that you can't quite come to grips with.
And maybe this is just a conversation that you want to have with the novel, and the novel wants to have with you. Maybe you finally say to yourself, personally, that that's not true for you. And if that's not true of you, that's okay by me. You can just say, "That's not true. The novel has caused me to ask, very trenchantly, 'Is this true for me? Is there something back in my life?'"
And I think just as a sort of tool for thinking about your life, even if you come to disagree with the novel—if the novel asks you to think about that, and you come to whatever conclusion you come to, it has served you well.
It does occur to me that when Frank was my age, 30, he never would have seen that. And that's one of the reasons why I return to these books, is almost as a forecast of adulthood.
[Laughs] I bet you, I nearly bet the farm here, that somebody who's my age, would come up with a different answer to that. For me, it could be as simple as something like I have gotten where I've gotten as a person who writes thinking books—and that basically, I'm unqualified. And that because I know I'm unqualified, it rubs on me in a way that makes me try harder. It's at that level of sensation that book is really getting to there.
I'm going to chew on that one for a bit and get back to you.
Okay. Having been around academics for so much of my life and having been around novelists and poets who are all self-constructed people—I mean they don't have a profession that gives them a way to proceed. We figure out our ways to proceed. It's almost always the case among people who do what I do that we're overcoming something—even John Updike probably does it—we probably think we're not quite good enough to do.
Like the lottery winners in The Lay of the Land—
It's not untethered to a sense of worth, is it?
No, it's not untethered to a sense of worth at all, and that's a smart way of saying it. And what Frank does is propose a different sort of life for [the lottery winners] down there. That would be the type of life in which they didn't do things quite so brazenly and ostentatiously. It would be a way that would give them more of a sense of affiliation, which would lead to a sense of self-worth.
I'm glad to be talking about these things. Nobody ever talks to me about these things, except my wife, and we've just about used each other up. [Laughs]
These are the only kinds of questions that I could think to ask you.
Those are the very questions I want to engage readers with, so that's wonderful. Not whether or not "am I Frank?" or "is this really the last of this cycle of books?"
Okay, I'm crossing off my last two questions now.
Okay, cross those off. [Laughs]
One persistent question that I had in reading this book is that 9/11 is just around the corner. And I think my question might contain the answer, but that is: "Why did you set this book during these twilight years of perceived normalcy?" That question does seem to...
Answer itself, yeah. But that is the reason.
Also, more specifically, because when I started thinking about 9/11 and its immediate aftermath, it seems to me that all the things that we thought had changed our lives forever were really going on before that. And we, because of this fierce grasp upon normalcy, were not available to it. And one of the things that realistic fiction can do—and its moral address—is to say to the reader, "Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention. Things are going on that you have to notice."
It was also the case that I thought, for me, as a man who would write a novel, the facts of 9/11 would have to have been vitiated by time so that only acts of imagination could be able to teach us anymore, having learned all we could from the facts. And that hadn't happened when I started writing this book, and it hasn't happened in my lifetime yet. It might never happen.
A lot of writers pick up on the holiday settings of the Bascombe books, but I was interested in the fact that The Lay of the Land was set in that small window where the country didn't have a leader in the most direct sense. (The book takes place while the Bush/Gore election is being disputed in Florida.)
It was that poised moment in our country's history where we were really without a government, and was set upon, afterwards, a constitutional crisis which we are still suffering from today. If you asked anybody in America today, "Do you think that period in November/December of 2000 had anything to do with the shithole we're in today?" I don't know how many of them would say yes. But it was the moment the Republicans stole the government and the Supreme Court acted not like a Supreme Court but a Republican court, and the aftermath is the war in Iraq.
Our collective reaction, or our collective apathy to that event was one of the most astonishing...
I know, and it's why I wrote this book.
It also occurs to me that government and leadership is easily divisible into these delineated segments of our life, and that's also how these books have been structured, with Frank's "existence period" and "permanent period."
Or actually, the time between these periods, which is when the books occur.
That's absolutely right.
But I also wonder if that's a healthy outlook. It seems that when we define things like periods in our life, we're really limiting them—that instead of really experiencing things, we're forcing them into a constructed worldview.
I think you can't be wrong, if that's what you think. But I don't know exactly if you would think that, if you had not had the conversation with the books that you have. And that may be just my sense of self-importance. This is an interesting question, because this is one of those ways in which books are books, and life is life. Books present a certain kind of modality for understanding life, which you probably couldn't exercise in life itself. It gives you a keyhole to look into life and a way of organizing life, which you may want to say, "I dispense with this. I don't think it's healthy for me to look at life this way."
Except, everything in Frank's life is on the way toward acceptance; it's on the way to living in the moment—not letting the past hold you back. And so even if the constructions themselves, these periods that I dreamed up, are not finally serviceable, they are serviceable as Phillips to your own imagination. In other words, I don't know if anybody could think they live in the Permanent Period. But once they see that Frank does, then they think of their lives a little differently, and it might be to say themselves, "and furthermore, I don't want to."
Maybe in another way they do what [Frank's Buddhist business partner] Mike Mahoney does with his own faith. Frank's "periods" are just a parallel belief system.
I think that's exactly what Frank says about it. "My belief system is not superior to your belief system."
Many times, it didn't feel like Frank's Permanent Period was mutually exclusive from Mike's Buddhist beliefs, but Frank probably would have a fit if I suggested that.
No, I think that they're meant to be. At the end, where Frank says that he might in fact be meditating and not know it—
That's his next period, isn't it? Frank seems really averse to that.
He's just averse to the lingo of it. He's averse to the sort of corporate structure of religion in general. But in actual moment-to-moment practice, you're exactly right. Frank is becoming a kind of zen-like character.
With an unusual fire in the belly this time, it seems, for stirring the shit. I don't remember him being so cantankerous.
Maybe that's a reflection of his author, but I also think it comes along with [Frank] having cancer. It may come along with being abandoned by his wife. And me, having put these two things in place, and having to enter the dreary Thanksgiving season—having to find a language for addressing these things, that may just be the natural consequence of having all these things combined—in me, who writes it. Then out of my belly comes that fire.