Richard Ford - The Sportswriter was his breakthrough book.
Author: Richard Ford, a traveling salesman’s son, born in 1944 in Jackson, Mississippi, and reared in Jackson and Little Rock, Arkansas. Mr.
Ford graduated from Michigan State University, where he studied literature and met the woman — Kristina Hensley — to whom he’s been married for almost 30 years. Mr. Ford attended law school for one semester and then dropped out, deciding, in January 1968, that he’d make himself a writer. He worked, briefly, in New York as assistant editor for American Druggist, then came to the University of California at Irvine, where he earned an M.F.A. in 1970. His first novel, A Piece of My Heart, was published in 1976; his second, The Ultimate Good Luck, in 1981. In 1980, Mr. Ford worked briefly as a writer for Inside Sports magazine. His third novel, The Sportswriter (1986), with its narrator Frank Bascombe, who throws up his career as a novelist to be a sportswriter, was Mr. Ford’s breakthrough book. Raymond Carver said, “Sentence for sentence, Richard is the best writer at work in this country today.” Mr. Ford’s fourth book was the short story collection Rock Springs (1987); his fifth, the novel Wildfire (1990). The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, often abstemious with praise, recently noted about Ford’s newest novel, Independence Day, a sequel to The Sportswriter. “Mr. Ford has galvanized his reputation as one of his generation’s most eloquent voices.” Certainly, I would say that if you read only one new novel this summer, read Independence Day.
Independence Day, A.A. Knopf; 451 pages; $24
Setting: New Jersey, New York, Connecticut
Time: July 1988
When we talked last week by telephone, Richard Ford was in St. Paul, Minnesota, beginning his book tour. He speaks slowly, even languidly, the fall and rise of his speech sopped in Mississippi. He said he’d finished Independence Day only six weeks earlier. He hadn’t begun anything new. He didn’t even think he’d think about anything new until, maybe, Christmas.
When Mr. Ford earned his M.F.A. at UC-Irvine, he studied with Oakley Hall. Born and raised in San Diego, Hall is author of some 20 novels, including several set in San Diego (his Corpus of Joe Bailey shows pre-World War II Mission Hills). 1 asked about Hall’s influence in Ford’s life.
“I’ve known Oakley for going on 30 years. One thing he taught me was how to conduct myself as a writer, which is to say, ’Never to be jealous, never to be envious, never to be spiteful, never to think that anybody else’s success is in any way transmutable into your failure, or that your success means anything having to do with dominion over someone else.’ He has lived that ethic, scrupulously.
“The nature of Oakley’s inquiry into what any of us wrote was exhaustive. If you could see the pages of manuscript after he had gone over them, you could see how a kind of lesson was being taught in how much inquiry a manuscript must withstand. Basically, what he taught is that everything counts, that there ought not be and there must not be any gesture in the story, any word in the story, any structural feature in the story that you did not authorize, that nothing could be left to chance in the husbanding of a reader’s attention.”
How did Mr. Ford come upon The Sportswriter s hero/narrator Frank Bascombe this second time?
“I found him again, chiefly by writing notes in my notebooks, which I felt were notes in his voice. It was a very familiar voice to me. I had by that time written another book — Wildlife — in another voice, a voice which was not Frank’s at all. I found that by some force of nature I was making notes and observations of what Frank observes in the book. When I reached the end of all that had to do with Wildlife, I started thinking to myself, ‘Well, do you want to write another book? What would it be about?’ I looked in my notebook and there was all this stuff. So, I spent a year, really, accumulating things to see if I could say them in Frank’s voice and see if things elsewhere in my notebooks that were of interest could be made to be narrated by Frank.
“I didn’t want to write a sequel. I thought there were too many potential liabilities, chiefly you were writing the prior book over again because you didn’t get it right, or, that you thought that based on the happy consequences of the first book that it was easier to write than it was, or, that I didn’t have enough stuff, that it was just an attempt to launch off into a project which I didn’t have the wherewithal to finish. All of those seemed to me to be thorny possibilities. It took me a year, maybe longer, a real kind of boning up, a muscling up, to get ready to write this book and at the last minute deciding, ‘Well, okay, do you want to do it?’ None of those other pitfalls went away, but it seemed, yes, it was worth a try.”
How did he decide to set Independence Day on the Fourth of July?
“I like to set books on holidays. I was interested in independence as an almost abstract concept. I was looking for ways to flesh out independence and make it have something other than an abstract nature. So, it seemed inevitable to at least consider the Fourth of July, in terms of history.
“Too, I like to set books on holidays because everybody who is a reader will have a very vivid human memory of some Fourth of July in his or her life. If I could get people to start picturing their own memories, pictures of the morning of the Fourth of July, for instance, then 1 would have a lot going for me before I even started. It’s the same reason that I set The Sportswriter on Easter, because I have memories of my own, and I knew there was no way other people would not have these memories.”