Richard Ford

Richard Ford

Past Event: Monday, October 26, 1998

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Literary Arts

When Richard Ford was a child, his mother pointed Eudora Welty out to him: “I could tell from the tone of my mother’s voice that being a writer was something estimable,” Ford said. The son of a salesman, Ford was raised in Jackson, Mississippi. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and two short-story collections, and is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and a PEN/Faulkner Award. Yet reading and writing did not come easily to Ford. Dyslexia made him struggle as a child: “My mother stood over me and made me learn to read,” explained Ford. “[Being dyslexic] makes me pore over words, sound words out in my mind.” This intense process of word recognition taught him to create stories word by word. Observing poets he has admired over the years—James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Gregory Orr, Charles Wright, Donald Hall—has also helped him. “I saw how useful it could be to exercise such care over phrases and utterances and lines.”

Ford was categorized as a Southern writer with the publication of his first novel, A Piece of My Heart (1976)—an elaborate, stylistically ambitious, and complex novel about the rural South on the cusp of modern life. Yet Ford’s talent lies in his acute observations of how life is lived, regardless of the location. Whether set in the hot, flat, merciless desert of Mexico (The Ultimate Good Luck, 1981) or the romantic City of Lights (Women with Men, 1997), Ford’s stories address the quiet lives, the little regrets, the aches and pains of existence. With the creation of character Frank Bascombe in The Sportswriter (1986), Ford elevates the mediocre. Praised by critics as a “great mythic American character,” Frank is a perfectly ordinary man with an extraordinary gift for social observation. A short-story writer turned sportswriter, Frank becomes a real estate agent in Independence Day (1996). This novel takes place over the Fourth of July weekend, spurring Frank to explore the nature of independence in people’s lives, including his own.

Although Ford’s career as a writer has stayed constant, his residence has always been in flux, living in over a dozen places in 22 years. After earning his M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine, where he studied under mentors Oakley Hall and E. L. Doctorow, he taught at Princeton, Williams College, and the University of Michigan. Since he quit teaching in 1981, he has lived in Montana, Louisiana, and France. Ford described, “I need to be certain I have new stimulus. New places give me something I can use.”

Excerpt from Women with Men (1997), from the story “Jealous”
Seventeen-year-old Larry is being escorted by his aunt Doris, from his father’s home in Dutton, Montana, to visit his mother in Seattle. Larry describes their lay over in the town of Shelby as they wait for their train to depart.

The station waiting room was warmer than the drugstore, and there were only a couple of people sitting in the rows of wood benches, though several suitcases were against the wall, and two people were waiting to buy tickets. Doris wasn’t in sight. I thought she might be in the bathroom, at the back by the telephone, and I stood by the bags and waited, though I didn’t see my suitcase or hers. So that after the other people had finished buying tickets, I decided she wasn’t there and walked to the ticket window and asked the lady about her.

“Doris is looking for you, hon,” the lady said, and smiled from behind the metal window. “She bought your tickets and told me to tell you she was in the Oil City. That’s across the street back that way.” She pointed toward the rear of the building. She was an older woman with short, blond hair. She had on a red jacket and a gold name tag that said Betty. “Is Doris your mom?” she asked, and began counting out dollar bills in a pile.

“No,” I said. “She’s my aunt. I live in Dutton.” And then I said, “Is the train going to be on time?”

“Yes, indeed,” she said, still counting out bills. “The train’s always on time. Your aunt’ll get you on it, don’t worry.” She smiled at me again. “Dutton rhymes with Nuttin’. I been there before.”

Outside on the concrete platform, I saw Doris’s Cadillac in the little gravel lot and, across the street, a dark row of small older buildings that looked like they’d been stores once but were empty now except for three that were bars. They were bars my mother and father had gone into the time I’d been here. At the end of the block a street began, with regular-looking houses on it, and I could see where lights were on in homes and cars were in the driveways, the snow accumulating in the yards. Beyond the corner, a fenced tennis court was barely visible in the dark.

The bars looked closed, though all three had small glass windows with lighted red bar signs and a couple of cars parked outside. When I came across the street I saw that the Oil City was the last one before the empty stores. A cab was stopped in front with its motor running, its driver sitting in the dim light reading a newspaper.

I hadn’t been in too many bars, mostly just in Great Falls, when my father was drinking. But I didn’t mind going in this one, because I thought I’d been in it once before. My father said a bar wasn’t a place anybody ever wanted to go but was just a place you ended up. Though there was something about them I liked, a sense of something expected that stayed alive inside them even if nothing ever happened there at all.

Selected WorkWomen with Men (1997)Independence Day (1995)Rock Springs: Stories (1987)The Sportswriter (1986)A Piece of My Heart (1976)

LinksInterview with FordFord discusses Independence Day on PBSPloughshares article about Richard Ford’s writing