Richard Ford, the author of such modern classics as The Sportswriter and Independence Day (the first novel ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner award), has a new book coming out next week. Canada (Ecco, $27) is about a boy whose parents rob a bank in Montana, prompting him to find shelter with a mysterious fugitive north of the border. Ford spoke to us about the importance of getting facts right, how committing petty crimes helped him unlock the story, his youthful ambition to serve in the FBI, and the trouble with Pulitzers.
—Timothy Hodler, research director at Details
DETAILS: One of your characters in your last novel, Lay of the Land, was a greeting card writer, and I read that you
actually went to Hallmark to do research. Did you talk to any
bank robbers while preparing this one?
Richard Ford: No! I thought I probably could make bank robbers up about as well as they could make themselves up. Because that's really what bank robbers do, they make themselves up. When I was young, I engaged in a lot of larcenous behavior, and so it wasn't a great stretch to think about the difference between stealing a car and robbing a bank. They're all part of a continuum. And that's kind of my job: to make these things up plausibly.
DETAILS: How much time did you spend figuring out your
characters' heist plan?
Richard Ford: Not very long! But you know, there is quite a bit of cogitation in the book about what a sensible person should do when he or she decides if they're going to rob a bank. There should come a point just before you do it, in which better sense overcomes you. Because if you really thought it through, as we've all thought through one crime or another—certainly I have—you'd come to an impasse. You know you'll get caught. Most people get caught.
DETAILS: You've called this book your most ambitious novel yet. Why?
Richard Ford: To undertake a novel that tries to articulate what goes on between two countries was ambitious. And to articulate that through the interior life of a 15-year-old boy was, for me, quite ambitious. I wanted the book to account for feelings that I had about Canada, but which I didn't really have a vocabulary for.
DETAILS: Did you know people who fled to Canada in the
Richard Ford: I know a lot of people who moved from America to Canada. I've observed how they have adapted to life there. America and Canada are alike in a great number of ways, but also unalike in profound ways, so I could see that duality in their behavior and their sense of history and their sense of their comfort.
DETAILS: You once said that you weren't going to write
another novel "damn near 500 pages" ever again. This new novel's page
count comes pretty close. What changed your mind?
Richard Ford: I hatched an ambition for myself that was greater than I knew when I finished The Lay of the Land. I had this novel in my notebook in a very rudimentary form for 20 years. But I never really looked at the notes. I just kept adding to them.
DETAILS: Is it normal for you to spend that long on a
Richard Ford: It's normal for me to spend three or four years writing a book. It is not customary for me to spend 20 years with a book sort of steeping and getting its body built up piece by piece by piece. Usually I spend a year getting ready to write a book, in which I accumulate all of the material that it will contain. And I can't really tell you why I didn't start writing this book many, many years ago. Maybe I didn't feel like I had enough of a game at that point.
DETAILS: It's interesting to hear you say such
self-deprecating things, considering how much you have accomplished.
Richard Ford: Well, I guess I find that trying to write better, more ambitious books each time, which brings with it a certain dollop of humility. Also, I've read a lot of writers who are better than I am. Trying to do what Chekhov also carries with it a fair bit of humility. Very little of what I do comes easy for me, and that's fine because in a good Puritan way, I think doing the things that come hard for you is probably a path to some kind of excellence.
DETAILS: Is it true you once wanted to work for the FBI?
Richard Ford: Yeah, I had that as a sort of a career goal when I got out of law school. When I was a kid in the sixties, it always seemed to me that the FBI, because they were doing a lot of civil-rights enforcement and investigating the cruel deaths of innocent men and women, were a force for good in the South. I've always considered myself a patriot, as somebody who's lucky to be living in America. I was young at the time. We've all learned a lot about the FBI in the intervening years, and Mr. Hoover was hardly a paragon. There were things I didn't understand.
DETAILS: You mentioned some larcenous behavior in
your youth. Is there anything that the statute of limitations would
allow you to reveal about that?
Richard Ford: Oh, we were just little feckless suburban kids. It wasn't as if we stole because we came up the hard way. We just stole because it was adventurous on a minor scale. We broke into houses and stole cars and stole hubcaps, and most of us ended up one way or another in the criminal-justice system. I did, but my career ended when my father died, when I was 16, because my mother said, "Look, you can't go on being this." I'd been put on probation with the juvenile court at the time, and she said, "Your father's dead now. I can't take care of you the way I could before, because I have to go off and get a job. So if you get in trouble like this again, I'm not going to be able to get you out." That made an impression on me. So by the time I was 17, I'd gotten my act together. I was no longer sneaking into houses and stealing things.
DETAILS: How did you get caught?
Richard Ford: Repeatedly. I got caught because my friend and I stole a set of hubcaps off of a car in a medical-arts-building parking lot when we were supposed to be in church. And some guy noticed us sitting in the car, looking very conspicuous, and he called the police.
DETAILS: Do you have an opinion on the Pulitzer Prize bypassing the fiction award this year?
Richard Ford: It's a travesty. They have an opportunity to encourage writers, and they chose not to do it. I have my own opinions about the slate of books that were nominated, but that's always the case, you know? There were some awfully good books that didn't even make the short list—Jeff Eugenides' book, Russell Banks' book, Ann Patchett's book.
DETAILS: Yes, and Steven Millhauser's book . . .
Richard Ford: Yeah, Steven Millhauser is a perfectly good example. But I mean, in Millhauser's case, and in Jeff's case, they had both won before. When I was on the jury, there was no one in the final running who had ever won it before, so I didn't have to face that. But you look at the history of the Pulitzer Prize—it's pretty rare that a person can win it twice. Even though there might be really good reasons.
DETAILS: Well, thank you so much for your time. And good
luck with the new book!
Richard Ford: I'll need it. You write books in this country, in this particular intellectual climate, and you need a lot of luck. But probably anybody who's ever written books has felt the same way. I mean, read Dr. Johnson talking about how he feels when he gets bad reviews, back in the 18th century. "Frigid tranquility." That's what he feels.