Richard Ford: 2019 National Book Festival


[ Applause ]>>Carla Hayden: Good morning. [ Applause ] Good morning and welcome
to the 19th annual Library of Congress National
Book Festival. I am Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, and
I have to say — [ Applause ] — I’m here to kick off
things on our main stage where we showcase some of the
biggest authors of the world. And as a librarian,
and a book lover, and a reader, and
a film watcher. This is heaven. [ Applause ] I want to watch —
everyone watching online, I want to say hello and welcome. And we will be live
streaming authors here on the main stage
coast to coast. So, whether you’re waking up
in California or watching us from your breakfast
table in Atlanta, greetings from Washington DC. [ Applause ] I Also want to take this
opportunity to thank the more than 1,000 volunteers
helping today. Many of them started
at 6:00 a.m. [ Applause ] And for the past year, the Library has been celebrating
America’s changemakers. We currently have an exhibition
devoted to the 100th anniversary of the suffrage movement
and in December — [ Applause ] — in December, we will
recognize the changemaker, civil rights icon, Mrs. Rosa
Parks with a new exhibition. [ Applause ] I think of writers and books
as important drivers of change. Books can change society. They can start a movement
and they can transform lives. I know they certainly
have done that for me. We also want you to
know that the Library of Congress is a
library for everyone. There are more than 170 million
unique items, including items from the changemakers you know. American presidents, Frederick
Douglass, Thomas Edison, Margaret Mead, Rodgers
and Hammerstein, Martha Graham, and Alvin Ailey. Antonio’s Stradivarius, we
have six Stradivarius violins, and Billie Holiday. Now, I could go on and
on because we are talking about more than just books,
but manuscripts, maps, prints, photographs, movies,
recorded sound, films, and even the world’s largest
collection of comic books. So, I invite all of you
to visit your library, the Library of Congress, and use
the collection wherever you are, in person, online, at loc.gov. Now, I’d like to
turn our attention to the changemaker we
are honoring today. But before I do, I want to
acknowledge the recent passing of one of the world’s greatest
writers, Ms. Toni Morrison. [ Applause ] You may know that she was a
past recipient of the Library of Congress Prize for American
Fiction, and a towering figure and voice in the literary world. Her stories were
a source of hope and inspiration for so many. And her words will live
on long after her passing. Our newest recipient of the
Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction
is Mr. Richard Ford. [ Applause ] He is the author ofIndependence
Day
the first novel to win both the Pulitzer Prize
and the PEN/Faulkner Award. He is one of America’s premier
writers whose work is profoundly human, meticulous in the craft. And I had an opportunity
to select him for this year’s prize based
on nominations for more — from more than 60
distinguished literary figures, including former winners of
the prize, acclaimed authors, and literary critics
from around the world. One of the Library of Congress’s
most prestigious awards and now in its 10th year,
the annual Prize for American Fiction honors an
American literary writer whose body of work is distinguished,
not only for its mastery of the art, but also for its
originality and imagination. The award seeks to commend
strong, unique, enduring voices, that throughout long and consistently accomplished
careers have told us something essential about the
American experience. Richard Ford has been called
our Babe Ruth of novelist, and there is good reason why. He is quintessentially
American, daring on the field, and he consistently
hits it out of the park. We are proud to confer the
library’s lifetime award for fiction on this
luminous storyteller. One of the most eloquent
writers of his generation. Please join me in
congratulating Mr. Richard Ford. [ Applause ]>>Richard Ford:
Thank you for coming. Thank you, Dr. Hayden,
and thanks to the people who voted this award to me. It’s really, barely
imaginable to me. And my gratitude
to, to my darling who makes me being a writer
and who makes everything else in our life possible,
as well as exciting and unpredictable for 55 years. [ Applause ] Probably, nobody can
win a prestigious award. I can’t, without thinking a
mistake’s been made somewhere. I mean, you still accept, right? You know, you just
get off the door. I was signing books in
Mississippi last week and the man came up to me
and asked me to sign a book about intergalactic
space monsters. It was written by Richard Ford. It had some lurid
green and yellow cover. I thought about telling
him I was the wrong guy, but hell, I just signed it. [ Laughter ] But when this prize was
announced last spring, a wonderful day in our life, a
lady in New York who reads one of my book — who reads my
books, one of the three of them, wrote me a note expressing
congratulations. And I wrote her back because
I always write people back. And I said to her that I felt that I’d always been
lavishly overpriced for the writing I’d done. She wrote back and said,
“Well, not lavishly.” [ Laughter ] Having this award, holding it
makes me think of my colleagues and their remarkable work. Both those who’ve received
this prize before and those who haven’t, but will. And also, those who maybe
never will, but should. Mistakes get made. Their writing sustains
and heartens me. Writing stories is not
a competitive sport. When someone does something
excellent, we all have reason to feel embolden,
even if, admittedly, we may not at that precise
moment feel the elation we’ll feel later. But it’s an excitement that our
own efforts can occasionally make us feel, and is similar
to the elation we feel when we find our book housed
in some great library, such as the Library of Congress. And it’s also a sensation
reader’s feel, me included, since it signifies that
we’re all in this together. And these days, we all know that
is a feeling worth clinging too. I am clinging — [ Applause ] — I’m clinging to it
right at this moment. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Marie Arana: Wonderful. Good morning.>>Audience: [unison]
Good morning.>>Marie Arana: Can you hear me?>>Audience: [unison] Yes.>>Marie Arana: Good morning. How’s that? So wonderful to see
you all out there. I’m Marie Arana, and I’m
the Literary Director of this festival. It’s always a joy
to see people come out to see the writers
they love, because they are the readers
we love at the Library of Congress and as writers. I am really, really honored to be sitting here
with Richard Ford. Whom I have been reading,
I think, or at least –>>Richard Ford: Since
you were a little girl.>>Marie Arana: Since
I was a little girl. [ Laughter ] Thank you. Not quite, but — [ Laughter ] — but this is one, truly, and
we must know it and lauded it, one of the great eloquent voices of contemporary American
literature. And I loved when Dr. Hayden
said, mastery of the art. We have it here in — I know it
makes you uncomfortable for me to talk about you this way.>>Richard Ford: No,
actually, it’s fine. [ Laughter ]>>Marie Arana: An
enduring art, it needs to be as well to win this prize. And I think there will
be nothing so enduring as the writing of
Richard for the — his wonderful Frank Bascombe
— am I pronouncing it right? Bascombe novels. And you know them. The Lay of the Land, Independence Day,
The Sportswriter. And his — my favorite,
which is Canada — and we’ll talk about
that in a minute. But extraordinary career, so
many prizes, so many novels, so many short stories. He’s a master of the
short story as well. So, I want to start by asking
you, Richard, in the most sort of — I know it’s hard to have
imagined this as a living room with a fire aside and –>>Richard Ford: We’re
all in this together.>>Marie Arana: Yeah, we are. You write very gritty,
down to earth stories. And they are about ordinary
people like Frank Bascombe, who is, basically, an everyman. He is an introspective everyman. And most of the books
about Frank are about loss or about not having or about
not being up to things. How did you come
to Frank Bascombe?>>Richard Ford: Well, I
had quit writing actually about 1981, because I
had written two novels and they’d — nobody
had read them. And so, I thought,
“Well, that’s my shot.” And I took a job. And the job that I took
sort of fell out from under me, that it went away. And so, I went back — we
were living in New Jersey — and I went back home
from my job. And I said to Kristina, I
said, “I think I’m going to try to write a novel,
one more crack.” And she said, “I have an idea.” She said, “Why don’t you write
about someone who’s happy?” [ Laughter ] She said, “You’ve never
really done that before.” [ Laughter ] And so, you know, faithful to
the old told story directive that happy families
are all alike. Which happens, by the way,
not to be true at all. Happy families are no more
alike than unhappy families. I thought, how would I go
about writing a character who was happy and
make it interesting? Because it’s a line
of Wallace Stevens. Steven says, “We gulp
down evil, choke at good.” So, I thought, how can I
write about good in a way that doesn’t cause
people to choke? So, I thought, well,
I’ll write about somebody who has sustained a
loss and who is trying to make himself whole again. So, fundamentally, it
was devising a kind of perfectly human situation in which bad has befallen
someone and good is the goal. And so, that in a sort of intellectual way is
how that came about. And the voice that Frank
uses or that I use for him — he doesn’t have a voice, I
make him do everything — is a kind of an amalgam
of things that I had done. You know, we were talking
last night about reading. We all were talking
about reading. I had read a lot of
books, which made me think that the most important thing
that a book could do was to be both grave and
comic at the same time. And so, I wanted Frank to be
able to be serious and be grave, but also to be human and
humorous at the same time. So, it came from that. And there were books
that I read. I read Walker Percy’s
wonderful novel,The Moviegoer.I read Joe Heller’s wonderful
novel,Something Happened.I read a Fred Exley’s
wonderful novelFan’s Notes.Yeah. So, those books all sort
of funneled in to contribute to me, some apparatus for
how to do those things.>>Marie Arana: What did
you like about those books? I’m really interested in that. Fred Exley, I mean,
these are all authors who are not well known
enough, don’t you think?>>Richard Ford: Well, yes. Particular — well —
particularly Walker who — and Joe, you know, we all
know Joe because of Catch 22. But really, in most
ways, in my view, Something Happened is
a much superior book.>>Marie Arana: Absolutely.>>Richard Ford: But it — when
it was, you know, that was 25 or so years he was writing it. And then it came out and
those of us who knew him and knew his work loved it. But it kind of fizzled. And Exley’s book — Exley’s book
is a total one of a kind book. And so, it deserves — it
deserves great attention.>>Marie Arana: Fred,
this is Fred Exley. And the book is Fan’s Notes.>>Richard Ford: Fan’s Notes.>>Marie Arana: And not
enough people know about it.>>Richard Ford: No, they don’t.>>Marie Arana: [inaudible]
extraordinary American work.>>Richard Ford: And if I
told you what it was about, you wouldn’t want to read it. [ Laughter ] But like all books, you
know, you have to read them.>>Marie Arana: Yeah.>>Richard Ford: So, those books
were first person narrations with present tense verbs. And for a writer,
that means everything, rather than say Updike’s books,
which are past tense narrations with third-person
narrative modes. So, for me, that’s what I
learned from those books. How to make the present,
you know, there’s a line of Wittgenstein which
says, “He who lives in the present lives
in eternity.” I wanted — I wanted
to create the illusion that this is happening
now and it is everlasting.>>Marie Arana: Those authors
are particularly interesting to me, in response to your
saying that they inspired you.>>Richard Ford: Yes.>>Marie Arana: This
is Joe Heller, Walker Percy, and Fred Exley. Because they basically
capture things that are small. The small, ordinary
quotidian things of life. But there’s something
very resonant and large about the overall result,
when you finish the book. I mean, you feel filled
with something large.>>Richard Ford: Right.>>Marie Arana: Is
this your intent?>>Richard Ford: Yes.>>Marie Arana: Because you do
it — you do that every time.>>Richard Ford: Well, if
you think that, you know, there’s a definition of what an
— what a political novel is. And I think all of my
books are political novels in one particular way. It’s — and this is
the largeness I hope that I would aspire to, and that
those books certainly attain. A political novel is one
in which history is working on individuals, in
the sort of privacy and sanctity of their lives. The history is always there. And with Ex or with Joe, history
is always something you’re aware of, without the books
necessarily pointing upward to the larger picture. We’re always pointing rather
inward to the smaller picture. But that’s life affirming,
as we were saying last night. If you can — if you can argue
through the agency of a book that life is worth paying
your closest attention to. Not only will you maybe
screw up fewer times, but you will affirm
life by living it. Yeah.>>Marie Arana: That’s
wonderful. Well, you’re — that’s why your
books will endure, Richard. And this is very big. You’re from Mississippi.>>Richard Ford: Mhm.>>Marie Arana: You’re
from the South.>>Richard Ford: Mhm.>>Marie Arana: You — but your
books cover the whole country and, you know, outside with the
book — your book on Canada. What is it about
Mississippi that produces so many extraordinary writers?>>Richard Ford: Well,
it’s not the water. [ Laughter ] Water is all muddy. Well, you know, I
just have my — I’ve thought about this
for a thousand years. As I said, as we were talking
last night, I — it’s — the South has so
much to account for. Particularly, slavery and racism
and inequality and poverty of the least of the
— the least of us. And that’s insoluble
as a dilemma in a country as rich as ours. So, we are always — we who are
Southerners, Blacks, Whites, all of us — ultimately,
probably, always going to be dealing with that
as part of our background. And trying, in some ways,
to make the insoluble, at least upon the
page, be soluble. Provisionally, only for
the span of the book. We can’t solve it. We can’t erase it,
but we can address it. And if we can address
it, we can live — we can live a little longer. So, I think it’s that. I mean, that may seem like a
facile — a facile explanation, but it is a, — it is a
load bearing explanation because it takes on what
we all have to take on, which is the responsibilities of
history just as [inaudible] did.>>Marie Arana: Indeed. You grew up across the
street from Eudora Welty.>>Richard Ford: I did.>>Marie Arana: Pretty
amazing, right? I mean, did you look
in her window? Did you to knock on the door? [ Laughter ]>>Richard Ford: No. Hers was a big house. Ours was a little one. [ Laughter ] No, the Welty’s were — the
Welty’s were, in Jackson terms, quite — well, they
weren’t rich. Her father was a vice president
of an insurance company. They were well to do,
in a large family. All of them came from Ohio and
West Virginia to Mississippi. And my family was a
tiny little family. And my father was a
traveling salesman. And we weren’t in
the same social set.>>Marie Arana: Well, the
interesting thing for me about Eudora Welty is that
she went to bed at night, got up in the morning,
went across the room, sat down at her writing desk. She did everything
in her bedroom.>>Richard Ford:
Right in her bedroom. You can’t — whenever you
see that famous picture of her looking out the window, she’s in her bedroom,
at her desk.>>Marie Arana: Right.>>Richard Ford: Right.>>Marie Arana: Didn’t get
out in the world too much, but she knew a lot
about human spirit.>>Richard Ford: She
got out a little more than would seem, you know. She went to the University of
Wisconsin, for goodness sakes.>>Marie Arana: Right. [ Laughter ]>>Richard Ford: And she — and she traveled to Europe
as much as she could. She, you know — even though
her family was well to do, she had her mother, many
years, on into her life. And her mother was not
well for many of — for much of that time,
the fifties and sixties. So, she didn’t go abroad
or far away as much as she would’ve liked to,
but she was a great friend of Elizabeth Bowen,
for instance. And so, she went to Ireland,
she went to Bowen’s Court. She went as much as she could, but by and large she had this
coterie of friends in Jackson, which just filled up her life. And they got together
all the time. Eudora was a great wit
and hugely amused by life. Kristina and I used to drive
around with her in Mississippi and she would just —
she would just sit there and point out things. And she would say,
“I wonder what that squirrel is
thinking right now.” [ Laughter ] Then she’d say whatever
the squirrel was thinking. [ Laughter ]>>Marie Arana: That’s
pretty wonderful. Well, you say your father
was a traveling salesman. He sold starch?>>Richard Ford: Laundry starch.>>Marie Arana: Laundry starch.>>Richard Ford: The
one that used to come in little powdery boxes.>>Marie Arana: Right. And the — your life
story is so interesting because your mother –>>Richard Ford: — I
have never thought that.>>Marie Arana: Oh my goodness. Well, you know, it
needs to be said. His most recent book — he has
a book coming out next year in 2020 of short stories. But your most recent book is a
memoir of your parent’s lives, and how your life
fitted into that. And it’s really an
extraordinary book, because it’s an extraordinary
American life. There is this sense of family
looseness, a kind of moving from one place to another,
being given to your grandfather to raise, once your father died. Your mother having been the
child of a woman who had her when she was 14 years old. And it was just an
extraordinary sort of life. And you realize, as you’re
reading this book, “Ah, so that’s what it takes
to make a writer.” [ Laughter ]>>Richard Ford: They’d be very
shocked to hear you say that. [ Laughter ]>>Marie Arana: There is — there is an extraordinary
passage in this book. It’s called Between Them. And it’s written — it was written in two
parts, right, Richard? It was written —
once was long ago. And then the part
about your mother –>>Richard Ford: — Mother
first, father second.>>Marie Arana: —
Father second. Father second. And your father died when
you were a young man. When you were just a boy.>>Richard Ford: Sixteen.>>Marie Arana: You
were 16 years old. Sixteen years old. And the scene that you
described in that — in your memoir is so moving. I want to ask you to read
it to the group here. Please read the scene
of Richard at age 16, and his father’s death.>>Richard Ford: Yeah. Okay. It’s important to
say that this is the scene in which my father dies. “Nothing out of the ordinary. I watched Rawhide on TV. They went into her bedroom
and closed the door. At some point later
he went to bed and then I watched
television until midnight, and then I went to sleep. At six, I was awakened by my
mother saying my father’s name, Carol, which is what
she called him. ‘Wake up, Carol. Wake up. What’s the matter? Wake up.’ Then loudly,
‘Wake up.’ I got out of bed in my pajamas,
went into the hall to the door of the next room, which was his. My mother was leaning forward
beside his bed over him. My father was gasping
for air in his bed. His eyes were closed. He wasn’t moving
except for the gasps. He looked, his skin did gray. ‘Wake up,’ my mother said
insistently, but different from that, ‘Carol wake up.’ She held his shoulders,
put her face close to his and shook him, but
he did not move. ‘Richard, what’s wrong
with him,’ she said. She looked around at me. She was about to cry and
was becoming panicked. She was on the verge
of something bad. It was February 20, 1960. Four days after my birthday. I don’t know if I said, ‘I
don’t know,’ to her question. But I came forward, got up
onto the bed where he was and took both my father’s
shoulders in my hands and shook him very hard. Not as hard as I
could, but hard. I said his name,
‘Daddy’ several times. He took a deep breath in
and let it out strenuously, in a way that made
his lips flutter, as if he was trying to breathe. Though I think he was dead. With my two hands, I turned his
face upward, using my thumbs to pry loose his
fleshy mouth and teeth. And I put — and I put my
own mouth over his and breath down into him, into
his mouth and throat, as I imagined into his chest. I didn’t know how to do
this or if it made sense. I’d only heard about
people do it. But I did it several
times, possibly 10. And the results of my
efforts to breathe for him or to bring my breath
to him and wake him up and be alive was nothing. He did not breathe again
or utter another word. After some time on my
knees, on his bed with him, when I must’ve begun to conceive
the thought that he was dead. I got down and turned to my
mother who had by then backed into the open doorway
and put her fists to her temples watching all that
was going on in front of her. I don’t know that I
said anything to her. I may have stifled some
sound deep in myself, but as my mother said, ‘Oh no. Oh no. No, no, no, no, no.’ Which is when I went pasture,
as she was saying this, and down the hallway
to call the doctor. His house was not far from ours. Such things, the doctor coming, were more usual than
they are today.” [ Applause ]>>Marie Arana: Extraordinary
passage. It must be very difficult
to read. I’m sorry I made you read it. But it gets into
our souls, I think, to hear that particular story. How –>>Richard Ford: But
I wrote it, okay?>>Marie Arana: Yeah.>>Richard Ford: So, I
wrote it so I could read it.>>Marie Arana: Yes.>>Richard Ford: And I wrote it
so somebody else could read it. The whole — when you
write a passage like that, it is not so much to absolve
yourself or free yourself. But it is to make use of
something that happened to you for the benefit of someone else. So, it’s sometimes hard to
read that, but I wrote it.>>Marie Arana: You’re sure did. So, for the benefit
of something — someone else, the
writing of a life. To what degree would you
say that when you’re writing about Frank Bascombe, or you’re
writing a short story or canon. To what extent do you
actually harvest your lifetime experiences, Richard?>>Richard Ford: As little
as possible on the page. I think if I’m ever writing a
novel and I find myself writing about myself, I think I’m
not doing things as well as I should be doing it. I think that things that are
made up, that are confected out of the accumulation of life,
which is written down, not my — not about my life,
but of my life, then I’m doing the
best I can do. I mean, I think that the
whole, for me anyway — it may not be true for
other — for my colleagues, for other writers, but the
made-up thing is better than the reported-on life thing. I just think, for me,
it’s more freeing. Life’ish reported
is harder to change. Novels need to be, along the
way of writing them, changed and evolving, so that you
can actually say things which you didn’t
know you could say. So, it’s easier for me to
do that, if I’m working on material that I make up. Yeah. But every — but, you
know, underlying it, I mean, there’s still always [inaudible]
there at this — at the desk.>>Marie Arana: Right.>>Richard Ford:
So, some of that — some things of mine filter into
Frank, were both Democrats. [ Applause ] Whatever that used to mean. [ Laughter ] And, you know, we both have some of the same incorrect
attitudes toward things. You know, having
children, for instance. He has children. I don’t. So, it’s a lot
easier for me to write about him having children
without myself, Kristine and me, having had any children. So little bits, underlying
everything, you know. I authorize everything. So, that’s what it
means to be an author. You authorize everything. [ Laughter ] So, whatever I authorize, I
— even if I don’t believe it, I want you to have it, so. [ Laughter ]>>Marie Arana: I want
you to watch your clocks, your watches, your cell phones. At 10:45, I’m going
to ask you to — or take a place at
the microphone, if you want to ask a
question of Richard. Which I’m sure you do. So, sticking with
your life, Richard. Then at 16 — was it
at 16 that you went off to your grandfather’s?>>Richard Ford:
Yes, in Little Rock. We lived in Jackson,
Mississippi. Those of you who are familiar
with that obscure part of the world, you know that
Little Rock and Jackson are four and a half hours apart>>Marie Arana: Right.>>Richard Ford: Yeah.>>Marie Arana: Right. So — and you’re — and
very different life there because your grandfather
owned a big hotel.>>Richard Ford:
Well, he ran it. Somebody else owned it. Rich people owned it,
we worked for them. [ Laughter ]>>Marie Arana: Okay. So — but you were sort of
a young master of the house?>>Richard Ford: Yes, I was. I was the sort of dark Eloise. [ Laughter ] I was — I was turned loose
in a big 600 room hotel on a daily basis
to fend for myself, and find whatever amused me. And, you talk about the gritty
we talked about earlier. That’s where the gritty is, in a big old [inaudible]
drummers hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s a good place
to learn stuff.>>Marie Arana: Famous
people stayed there?>>Richard Ford: Yes, they did. Nelson Rockefeller,
Harry Truman, Joe Lewis came to the hotel. Though it was the
segregation days. He couldn’t stay there. My father — my grandfather — to add a little grainy
bit of this — agreed to let Martin
Luther King come and stay in the hotel even though
it was the segregation days in the sixties. And at some point, the powers
that be in Little Rock, invade against that and he wouldn’t let Martin
Luther King stay in his hotel.>>Marie Arana: Ah.>>Richard Ford: We — it
was — it was that way. It was bad. There’s no — it’s not funny. It’s not — not that you
are laughing about it, but that’s how it
was there then. Yeah. I lived in that. I lived in that environment. And so –>>Marie Arana: Well, a good
place to observe people, a hotel, people coming
and going, attitudes, people beating, strangers
talking.>>Richard Ford: That’s —
those are the nice parts.>>Marie Arana: Yeah.>>Richard Ford: My grandfather,
who was a kind of a — who was a kind of a bon viveur
rue [foreign] kind of a guy. Quite wide in a way, quite lewd
in all kinds of other ways. He used — he thought
it was important for me to see the world
at ground level. And so, sometimes, in the
middle of the night — a couple of times this
happened, maybe three — someone committed
suicide in a room. And he woke me up and
took me down there and made me go in
the room with him. It was — I was just
— when I was 16, 17. And I — this is not
parenting advice. [ Laughter ] This is just what
happened to me. [ Laughter ] And it was — there
was a lot of stuff like that and sexier and worse. And it was — it was
not a union shop. But the unions were trying
to take over a representation of the hotel employees. A great majority of whom were
African Americans, low paid. And when they would have union
meetings, they would be held about two o’clock
in the morning. So, everybody would be asleep and it would be the night
shift they were trying to organize first. And when word would come that the union was
having a little meeting down in the basement
of the hotel, my grandfather would
put a pistol in his — would put a pistol in his belt
and go down there and break that meeting up and
take me with him. So, it was like —
it was like that. I mean, it was the,
you know, six, 1960s –>>Marie Arana: Growing up.>>Richard Ford:
Growing up, Yeah.>>Marie Arana: Were
you a good boy, Richard, or were you a little bad?>>Richard Ford: I’m
looking at my wife right now. [ Laughter ] I think I was a bad boy. I think I was a bad boy. I –>>Marie Arana: There’s a
reason I asked that question.>>Richard Ford: I broke
into houses and stole cars and did a lot of
that kind of stuff. And got put in jail
for fighting. And — but I — all these —
all these things happened. We were just little
suburban twerps. But all these things
happened until my father died. And when my father died,
my mother took me aside and she said, “Richard,”
she said, “if you get put in jail now, I can’t
get you out.” She said, “I have
got to take a job. Your father is gone. I have to take care of
us, just the two of us.” And that got through. That got through. And I thought to myself,
okay, that part of your life; stealing cars, breaking
into houses, fighting — not fighting, fighting went
on a bit — that has to stop. And it stopped. And I don’t — I don’t know
if I just internalized all of that stuff that I was going on still being the bad boy I
was, just not acting it out. Or if actually I got better. I wanted to get better. I believed that — I do
believe it’s possible. And as a writer, I’ve lived
this directive for myself. I believe as writers, who over
the course of a 50-year life, such as I’ve had a variety. You have to get better. You start off and you’re
pretty good at something and you get a little
better at something else. But now I’m 75, I’m
writing a novel. I have to get better at it. So that sense of betterment
has always been part of the arc of my understanding of life. It’s not quite a
progressive view of history, but it sort of has an
internal progressive view.>>Marie Arana: Indeed. Well, I think Kristina would
say, you’re a good boy. [ Laughter ]>>Richard Ford: She’s just
said, all girls like bad boys. [ Laughter ]>>Marie Arana: So, I want to
talk about my favorite book, which is Canada, which
was a departure for you.>>Richard Ford: Yes.>>Marie Arana: Now, Canada
is an interesting subject because you think they talk
like you, they look like you, they are practically you. But they’re not.>>Richard Ford:
Profoundly different. Profoundly different.>>Marie Arana: What made
you choose to put your –>>Richard Ford: What made
me choose was, as is the case in the origins of any novel,
a whole bunch of things. Principally it was —
hey, we were living in a little wheat [inaudible]
town called Dutton, Montana. And I was trying to write
a story about a kid, an American kid who cross —
I just got it in my brain — an American kid who for some
reason crosses the border into Canada. Goes from Montana to
Canada, which isn’t very far. And as you say, you
crossed the border there on the 49th parallel. It doesn’t look very different. Most of the people are white
people, like these people. Though, you get a
little farther away, you find Native people
and Natives. They’re not all white people. But — and so that was the sort
of igniting piece of material. And I had to think then,
“Well, why would why a — why would a 15-year-old
boy cross by himself from the United States
into Canada?” And I thought, “Well, what
would have happened to him that would have necessitated
this?” And so, the novel kind of
back-loaded itself in that way. I thought, “Well, what
can I have happen to him?” I thought, “Well, I could
make his parents rob a bank.” And so, I thought, “Well, okay. If,” — being the bad boy
that I was, I thought, “writing about robbing a
bank would be really cool.” [ Laughter ] So, it went like that. And it was — and I — I had
been in Canada a lot, for books and for — Ray Carver and I used
to go goose-shooting in Canada. I’ve been across that
border many times. And you don’t go
across that border into Southern Saskatchewan
— at least I never have — without this feeling of
immensity and this feeling of, as we said before,
of difference. And I wanted to try to — I wanted to try to give
an utterance to what — and I can’t probably
paraphrase it — give utterance to what
that difference is. What is it that makes Canada, well for so many
Americans, a refuge? And for my character he —
it was a refuge for him. Though a very complicated
refuge.>>Marie Arana: And of
course, in your generation, there were people who were
literally fleeing to Canada –>>Richard Ford:
— Absolutely –>>Marie Arana: — to
avoid the Vietnam War.>>Richard Ford:
I mean, many of — many of the early white settlers of Southern Saskatchewan
were Americans coming up from below the border. So, there was a migration
upwards into — I mean, Wallace Stegner’s
family being a good example. They lived in Eastern
Saskatchewan. So, that was quite
usual to me to think about people moving
across that border.>>Marie Arana: Yeah.>>Richard Ford:
There’s also the case that the Southernmost part of Canada is the Northernmost
part of the United States. So, just — almost
in demographic and sociological terms, they
are different in that way. It is a — it is
the Northern-tier of the United States. The Northern Dakota’s, the
Northern Minnesota-ish kind of — is kind of a foreign
and wild frontier place. Whereas, for Canadians,
it’s less so. It’s warmer for one thing.>>Marie Arana: You
said something just now, describing the — deciding to
have the parents Rob the bank, that you backloaded that?>>Richard Ford: Yes.>>Marie Arana: And you
said something last night. I can’t remember if it was to the small group you were
speaking to or it was to me, but you said, “It
takes me three years to write my first sentence.”>>Richard Ford: Yes.>>Marie Arana: Could
you tell us about that?>>Richard Ford: Well, yeah. I’m a guy who is always
writing stuff down. And I’m keeping a
little notebook, which I have here in my hand. And over the course
of, you know, out — over the course of three years,
if I’m thinking to myself, I wanted write a novel about
this kid crossing this border. I just go on writing down
everything I think about it. And I have like sort
of an old fear of not finishing
something that I start. Because when — being
dyslexic when I was a kid, I didn’t finish a lot of
things that I started. And so, when I started trying
to be a novelist in 1968, I thought, “You have to
finish everything you start.” So, I just — I just accumulate
any random piece of material that seems opposite to what
I sort of dimly understand in my project, my book to
be, which is not a book then. And, at a certain
point, I began to think, “Well you’re putting off writing
by accumulating material.” So, then I get all of
this accumulated material and I put it into a big notebook and I divide it up
into sections. A section for one character, a
section for another character, a section for Saskatchewan, a section for Great
Falls, Montana. And then I just study it the way
you’d studied for a bar exam. And from the pro — from
the product of that study, I try to write one
good early sentence. The first sentence in the book. Because, you know, there’s
a moment in writing a story or writing an essay
or writing a novel, in which everything is
completely possible for you. The world is — sometimes
that daunts people and they don’t get very far. But the first time you write
a sentence, what was once — and that’s — and ultimately
— just copiously possible, is not that way anymore. And so, when I write
that sentence, I want to think it’s the right
sentence because I want it to lead me to what I —
where I want the book to. And because my choices
are decidedly more limited than they were an hour before.>>Marie Arana: You
mentioned your dyslexia, among many things, because
you’ve been a railroad worker, you’ve been a teacher,
you’ve been a U.S. Marine.>>Richard Ford: Briefly.>>Marie Arana: Briefly.>>Richard Ford: I didn’t
lie, I didn’t get anywhere.>>Marie Arana: And you’ve
been a sports writer –>>Richard Ford: — Yeah –>>Marie Arana: — briefly. And you were dyslexic. How does the dyslexia fit into,
I mean, you would think — you would have stuck with
the railroad, perhaps?>>Richard Ford: Yes.>>Marie Arana: Or you would
have, you know, perhaps stuck with any other thing,
the U.S. Marines.>>Richard Ford: Yes.>>Marie Arana: But
— So, what — how did that marry
your writing career?>>Richard Ford: Well, it
makes me a very slow reader. But it makes me, in the
ponderous way that I do read, which is about as fast,
aloud, as I can read silently. And I’m not — I’m not so to
say, cripplingly dyslexic. I’m sort of, a little bit
worse than mildly dyslexic. It makes me pour over sentences. And that’s what writers do. We pour over sentences. And it makes all of those
non-cognitive qualities of language, which is to
say, what words look like. How many syllables they have. How many girdle and
fricatives and schwa E’s, and long A’s, very
palpable to me. So, when I’m writing sentences,
I’m very much in touch with sentences non-cognitive
qualities, as well as their
cognitive qualities. And so, I mean, it’s
making the — it’s making a virtue of a vice. There’s no doubt about that. But I wasn’t probably
going to be nearly as good at anything else. And Kristina loved the idea —
the first thing we ever said to each other, it was just
before we were getting married in 1968. She said to me as a young bride
should say to her husband to be, “What do you think you’re
going to do with yourself after we get married?” [ Laughter ] And I said, “Well”, I
said, “Sweetheart”, I said, “I think I’m going to
try to be a writer.” And she said, “Oh good.” She said, “What a good idea.” She said, “I’ll get a
job and have a career and you stay home and write.” [ Laughter ] And I thought, “Well that’s a
— that’s a good deal there.” So that’s sort of what we’ve
done — we’ve done ever since.>>Marie Arana: It worked out.>>Richard Ford:
It’s working out. [ Laughter ]>>Marie Arana: I want to
encourage you to come forward to the mic’s that are
here, right in the front, and to ask your questions
of Richard. I’m going to ask one more
question because you got into it and this really interests me. The language aspect.>>Richard Ford: Yes.>>Marie Arana: It’s so — it seems to me that you write
almost milli metrically, certainly metrically. Because there’s a kind of
poetry to your sentences. How — what is your attitude about putting together a
sentence and putting — and the language
aspect of what you do?>>Richard Ford:
Well, my attitude is that readers read everything. They read one word at a time. And I want to authorize
that word and I want to authorize the experience
that that word conjures. So, there is that. I also read everything aloud. Sometimes I read whole
novels to Kristina aloud, which takes about six weeks. And in the process of doing
that, I get to hear every break. I get to hear how many
syllables every word has. And that’s quite useful
when you’re trying to bring the reader
to do something that the reader may not want to
do, may have some resistance. I mean, I believe, you
know, I guess this is from being a dyslexic. I sort of believe
every reader is looking for some reason to quit reading. So, my goal is to
try to counteract that urge to quit reading. And I do that when I — when
I steward all of the words. And so, it’s probably just
— it’s probably just that. The only problem is that when
you write for your own voice, and we all have many voices. We don’t have just one voice. When you write for your own
voice, sometimes, certain kinds of complexities in a sentence,
which would not be bothersome to a reader reading silently. Think about reading Henry
James, for instance. Sometimes, some of
the complexities in a sentence can be
hazarded, a little bit, in reading for your own voice. Because you’re trying to
make things maybe simpler than they need to be. So, I have to work
hard against — when I come up upon a
sentence, which is a little — which is a little grisly,
which is a little dense. I try to let turn loose
of the voice, my voice, my reading voice,
my speaking voice, and let the sentences
be what they are, so that I can make it
be as complex as I can. I mean, I want to make, in
writing novels, the complexity of human experience accessible. Not easy, not simple, but
accessible to a reader.>>Marie Arana: Well
you succeed.>>Richard Ford: Well,
I’m doing my best. [ Laughter ] Thank you>>Marie Arana: Let’s have
the first question please.>>Richard Ford: Yes ma’am. Hi.>>Audience: Hello. I love hearing those stories
of your — of your life.>>Richard Ford: Yes.>>Audience: And wondered
if you could tell the story about when Alice Hoffman
critiqued your book?>>Richard Ford: No, I don’t
want to tell that story. [ Laughter ] This is — this is — this
is the wrong presidency for that story. [ Laughter ] I don’t — I don’t mean to be
preemptive about that story. That’s a long time ago now. Best left in the dirt.>>Marie Arana: Was that the
bad boy or the good boy in you?>>Richard Ford: Well, it was
actually the bad boy in my wife. [ Laughter ]>>Marie Arana: Thank
you for the question. Next one.>>Richard Ford: Yes, ma’am.>>Marie Arana: Oh, I’m sorry. Let me go over here
first, please.>>Richard Ford: Good morning.>>Audience: Good morning. As an aspiring writer
myself, I just wanted to know, you mentioned something
about writing happy stories? Do you think since
happiness and sadness tend to be different sides of the
same coin, do you think –>>Richard Ford: Thank you
very much for saying that, because you’re exactly right.>>Audience: — story
about that?>>Richard Ford:
Just say that again. I was talking over you and I didn’t hear what
you importantly said.>>Audience: Do you
think it’s possible to write an interesting
story about that?>>Richard Ford: Well, I
mean, I think I have done it. You know, there’s a great
line of Henry James, which is in his preface
to What Maisie Knew. At the end of Henry James’s
life, about 1903, he went back through all of his novels
and revised all of them. He didn’t like them very much. And he wrote prefaces
to all of them. And one of the prefaces
is to one of his little short novellas
called What Maisie Knew. And in that preface, he says,
“There are no theme so human as those that reflect out
of the confusion of life, the relationship
between bliss and bale. Between the things that help
and the things that hurt.” So, I’m always trying to get the
things that help and the things that hurt into the same book. But always — but always
in a way that I think will, for the readers experience,
be redemptive. I mean, it may not be —
it may not be, you know, eat an ice cream
cone, kind of happy. It may not be Christmas
morning kind of happy. But one of the things that a
novel can do, for the reader, is to reimagine what happy is. Not just receive it out
of history or receive it out of convention,
but make it up a new. And if you can say to yourself,
as a young novelist, “I’m — what I’m doing here is, I’m
making up what happy is”, then I think you’re
probably doing something that the reader has use for.>>Audience: Thank
you very much. You’re brilliant man.>>Richard Ford: Well thank
you for your question.>>Marie Arana: Wonderful
question. Ah, over here please. Yes. Yes. Let’s give
them a hand. Wonderful question. Thank you.>>Audience: Hi, and thank
you for taking my question.>>Richard Ford: Yes ma’am.>>Audience: I was reading
a book written by one of our former presidents,
the United States presidents. And inside the book,
he indicated that writing was
a form of therapy. So, I didn’t want to ask
you the same question. Do you look at writing as a
form of therapy when you write?>>Richard Ford: I do not. It may actually release
— well, first of all, I don’t think I need therapy. [ Laughter ] But — and it may — and
I may be wrong about that. And it may in fact serve a kind
of therapeutic purpose for me. But, if it does, it does it
in such a ham-handed way. It would only be
therapeutic for me if it is that therapy is giving
me something to do. It isn’t therapy
because it’s cathartic. It isn’t therapy because
it’s solving some problem, some neurotic problem
that I have and can’t solve any other way. And I — and I think in
a way, for me at least, and no disparagement
to the people who — for whom it is therapy. I think that’s not a good
enough reason to write a novel. For it to be therapy
for me, I don’t want it to be therapy for you. I wanted to expose
you to something that you couldn’t
ever be exposed to, but through the pages
of my book, safely. And, you know, with the —
we’re always with the option of closing the book
if you want to. So, no, it’s not —
it’s not therapy for me. Once in my life, I thought
maybe I should go to a therapist and I only lasted a couple of
visits, and I learned something when I went to the therapist. And if there are any therapists
in the audience, listen up. [ Laughter ] The woman said to me, she said, “I can’t deal with
you, Mr. Ford.” She said, “You have
too many words.” [ Laughter ] And so, I thought, “Well,
there we — there we go,” okay. I don’t need therapy. I have words.>>Audience: Thank
you very much.>>Richard Ford: Yes, ma’am.>>Marie Arana: Thank
you for that question. [ Applause ] Now, I think that was
a really good question.>>Richard Ford: Yes indeed. I’m glad that — yes –>>Marie Arana: —
Sometimes you figure out what you’re thinking
as you’re writing.>>Richard Ford: Right. It’s just, I’m never trying
much to write about myself. I’m not — you learn
when you write a novel, really only one important
thing, for me, anyway. I’m not speaking
for my colleagues. I learned what I’m capable
of, both good and bad. I don’t think that’s
therapeutic.>>Marie Arana: Pretty wonderful
that the president was thinking of writing to sort
of get therapy. Don’t you think?>>Richard Ford: I think
it’s going to happen again.>>Marie Arana: Over here. [ Laughter ] [ Applause ] Over here, please.>>Audience: I was
wondering how you knew when you were going
to become a writer. I mean, an artist shows
evidence of being an artist when they’re young,
as you’re growing up. Did you have thoughts of
writing as a young person, or did you just evolve
into a writer? How did that happen?>>Richard Ford: You know,
the trajectory of my course to being a novelist
is so pedestrian. It’s so — it’s so
backing into everything. It’s so much looking at a
wall that was basically blank and seeing a little
window open up in it. I mean, I went to —
Kristina and I both went to Michigan State,
which is where we met. And — [ Applause ] And I was a pretty good student. We were both pretty
good students. And I took a creative writing
course because the rest of my studies were so rigorous. And so, I thought that the
creative writing course that I would take, would just
be a kind of a ‘lan-yap’, as we say in New Orleans. It was just — it would just be
a sort of a little free episode, you know, of the week. It’d be easy. I could sit — could sit
in my dorm room and sort of scribble away stuff. And I did that. And that’s — and one of my
teachers said to me one time, he said, “You know,
Ford,” he said, “you could probably do this.” He said, “You’re never going
to make a living at it.” [ Laughter ] He said it, “But you
could probably do it.” And so, I thought — well, I
sort of tucked that away back in the back of my mind
and went on to law school. And went on to the other
things that I failed at doing. And then when I finally failed
at doing them, I looked around and it was just this left. There’s — it was one
thing — I like to read. There was just this one thing
that I hadn’t failed at yet. And Kristina thought
it was a good idea. So, I sort of thought,
you know, give it a whack. I mean, I wish I
could say, you know, that my father secretly read
Tolstoy or that I’d gone to Harvard, I — none of
those things was true. But in a way, I don’t
think that’s so bad because I have a — I have a
sensibility which is attuned to people’s lives
at ground level. Because I felt like my life was
being lived at ground level. I wasn’t aspirant, particularly. I was — I was just
doing what I could do. And because I liked to read — as many of my young
colleague said last night — because I liked to read,
whatever there was about life that bothered me, that made
me feel inadequate to life. Reading was always providing
an extra beat to life that made me think
there’s something more. There’s something more. There’s something more. It was that, really.>>Marie Arana: Good thing you
were good at that last thing.>>Richard Ford: yeah. [ Applause ]>>Marie Arana: Wonderful
question. Thank you. One last question, I’m afraid. Over here.>>Richard Ford: Yes ma’am.>>Audience: I found
it interesting that you read novels out loud.>>Richard Ford: Yes.>>Audience: And I know
that there’s writings that are actually written to
be heard, rather than read.>>Richard Ford: Yes.>>Audience: And I was wondering
if you saw your work that way, that it’s better when
it’s heard than read.>>Richard Ford:
Oh God, I hope not. [ Laughter ] You know? No. I sometimes think that I have to
read every book to every reader to get them all the
way through it. But I — no, I really want
those books to be read silently, in the sanctity and quiet and
serenity of someone’s home. Who’d never will know me
and whom I will never know. I — just the most standard way
about going about writing books. I write them — I
read them aloud to try to exercise authority over
every gesture that they contain. But then, I want to hand
them off to the reader and have the reader read them
just the way I read books by people whom I don’t know.>>Audience: Can I
ask one more please?>>Richard Ford: Please. Go ahead.>>Audience: I’m very
encouraged, you being dyslexic. And I raised a dyslexic child, and very hard to
get them to read. And how can we encourage
more dyslexics to read?>>Richard Ford: Read to them. Read to them. Read to them. Do that. [ Applause ]>>Audience: And can we — and can we emphasize auditory
books more than reading that — you read a book and it should
be the same as listening to it?>>Richard Ford: You may be
asking the wrong boy about that. I’ve never listened
to a book on tape. I’ve never — I want
to read it in my hands. Or — I don’t read Kindles,
because I’m not handy with things like that. But, I mean, that’s okay. It’s the same words. But I — but I think
auditory books might work. It just wouldn’t work for me. I don’t have the patience
to sit someplace in the car or in the living room or in the
bedroom or some place and listen to something happening
to me like that. There’s something about reading
books that’s interactive, that you get to exercise
authority. So, whether you stop,
whether you go on, no matter what you do.>>Audience: Thank you.>>Audience: For
middle school teachers.>>Audience: And for
middle school teachers>>Audience: Or teachers
in general.>>Audience: Or teachers
in general.>>Audience: Do you have advice>>Audience: Do you have advice.>>Audience: For students.>>Audience: For students.>>Richard Ford: No, no, no, no. Just say — no, no, I
can’t — no, you say it.>>Audience: Okay. Alright. Thank you. I’m a middle school teacher.>>Richard Ford: Yes ma’am, and
congratulations, and thank you.>>Audience: If you were to
give one sentence of advice to students who have
dyslexia or reading struggles, what would you say to children
right now in an age of Instagram and Snapchat when it’s
easier to not read?>>Richard Ford: You know,
I’m very much involved with this wonderful institution in Washington called
the Lab School. The Lab Schools is
a great institution. [ Applause ] And they think, at
the lab school, that children have
learning differences. They don’t have learning
disabilities. They don’t have learning
problems. They have learning differences. [ Applause ] And if I could say one
thing that you would say to your children who
are dyslexic, it is, there’s nothing wrong with them. There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re just learning
differently from how others are learning. And they will learn
just as much.>>Audience: Thank you.>>Marie Arana: Wonderful. Thank you. [ Applause ] Well, I think we know why
one critic, many critics, but one critic I’m
quoting who said that Richard Ford is
a master storyteller of The American Canon. And another critic said,
“We should be very — we should be deeply
grateful for Richard Ford.” And I think you will join me
in saying thank you, Richard, for all your wonderful work.>>Richard Ford:
Thank you, sweetheart. Thank you. [ Applause ]

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