Books

Richard Ford gets frank about his toughest subject yet

In Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford created one of American literature's most enduring characters. Now he turns his gaze to the subject closest to his heart; his parents

With the 1986 publication of his third novel, The Sportswriter, Mississippi-born writer Richard Ford suddenly became a force the American canon had to reckon with. Time magazine named it as one of the 20th century’s 100 best novels in English, and in the three decades since, Ford’s grip has never loosened. The Pulitzer Prize winner has continued to turn out clear-sighted, character-driven portraits of ‘ordinary’ Americans with an emotional heft and social savvy matched only by a handful of masterful contemporaries such as John Updike, Alice Munro and his old pal Raymond Carver.

Ford’s four books starring Frank Bascombe – first introduced in The Sportswriter and most recently in 2014’s Let Me Be Frank With You – have provided an invaluable chronicle of the last few decades of American family life. Vivid, empathetic and elegiac, they’re as instantly affecting, and as unmistakably American, as an Edward Hopper painting or a Tom Waits ballad.

But now, after 40 years of writing fiction, Ford has finally tried his hand at something new. His latest work, Between Them, is a biography of two wholly unremarkable Americans; his parents, Parker and Edna Ford. So why, when the literary world was waiting to see what Frank Bascombe would make of Donald Trump, did he decide to publish a memoir instead?

I am really my parents’ son. I am volatile, intuitive and dogged. I’m not an intellectual

“I’m old,” he says, in a warm Southern accent so honey sweet you could spread it on toast. He is on the phone to me from his home in Maine. “And it struck me, if I don’t write this down now I’ll die. And I wanted to do it because I missed my parents. And also because they were people who would not normally attract this kind of notice. I wanted to see if I could detect or imagine some kind of virtue in them that only my notice would achieve.”

Did he also, like many family record investigators, fancy that he might learn more about himself through his studies?

“No”, he says firmly. “I’d pretty well worked that out. Just living made it clear to me how I am really my parents’ son. I am volatile, intuitive and dogged. I am not particularly lettered. I maintain a reliance on common sense that I think they maintained. And I don’t think of myself as at all sophisticated. I’m not an intellectual.”

Richard-Ford-young-with-parents-Edna-and-Parker

He may not be an academic or a Philip Roth-style thinker, but neither can you imagine the prolific novelist and short story writer being fulfilled – as he believes his father to have been – working as a travelling laundry starch salesman. Ford peppers his conversation with references to literature and philosophy; his father “did not take pleasure from books”.

Another difference may be the most significant of all. Like most writers, Ford is incessantly curious. There are pages of this book entirely filled with questions – was his mother satisfied with being a housewife? Did his parents imagine more children than their only son? How much did his father’s heart attack at 43 cast a shadow over their hopes for the future? The answer is always ‘I don’t know’ because his parents neither asked questions nor were keen to answer them, preferring to just ‘get along’ with living.

As Ford writes of his father: “A suicide father and a severe Irish mother can close off a lot.” (He discovered during his research that his paternal grandfather poisoned himself by drinking acid: “It must have been an agonising death.”) His own father died when he was just 54 – does Ford think if he’d lived longer he might have been more open to the idea of a profound conversation with his son?

“It would be pretty to think so! [he laughs]. Because I never thought of him as having a profound conversation.”

So, with his questions still unanswered, what has the book achieved?

“I would be happy if, by the end of my book, you could then meet my parents and identify them on the basis of what I’ve written. That was a goal of mine. To make my parents recognisable, not as aliens, not as literary inventions, not as figments of my imagination, but as stand-up, honest-to-God, blood-and-skin people.”

I try to decommission the past so it can’t affect me in my own life, so that I can live in the present as much as possible

This truthful rendering is the crux of Ford’s ambitions for Between Them. It goes beyond personal satisfaction. It is vitally important to him that his memoir ‘enters the world’ because, without being sentimental – which he goes to pains to avoid – the publication of this book is ultimately an act of love.

“Unless you’re only interested in receiving love, you really have to find a vocabulary for your love for someone, work out the constituents of what that love is. I think the decision to go to my parents as a subject, to spend the time I did thinking about my life with them over the years, and then to write it all down, to give it to others, is representative of love. A man in the Washington Post, who did not like this book at all, said anyone who writes about his parents is always writing out of a sense of resentment or vindictiveness. I thought, oh gee! Life doesn’t have much to give us, does it, if we’re all trapped in resentment against our parents?” He chuckles in disbelief.

As overflowing as he is with filial gratitude, Ford talks a lot about committing to the truth, however unflattering or difficult, in this memoir. He does not romanticise, as he does to such effect in his fiction. And he meets his darkest, saddest memories head on.

One of the book’s most memorable scenes is the morning of his father’s second heart attack, when Parker dies in his 16-year-old son’s arms as the panicking young Richard attempts to resuscitate him: “The result of my efforts to… bring breath to him and wake him and be alive, was nothing.” I wonder if that memory regularly plays through his mind or if he had to gather himself to return to it.

He is quite clear about this. “It plays over in my head very often. But mostly in a way that says, I’m a man who’s better when the chips are down than when the chips are up. What I had to encounter on that Saturday morning – its vividness sticks with me. But not its horror. Because I did the best I could. I did the best I could, then life changed and went on. Maybe it’s my age, I guess I’m old now… but I think within every three-day period I think about everything that’s ever happened to me. I try to decommission the past. I feel like I want to launder the past of its potency so it can’t affect me in my own life, so that I can live in the present as much as possible.”

Trump is a big piñata that you’d like to take a huge whack at

Of course the present in America right now is an increasingly complex, unpredictable beast. As a writer who’s been taking the nation’s temperature for decades, Ford is anxious that his compatriots, and journalist colleagues, stay alert to the dangers.

“I think the United States is in jeopardy of taking itself for granted. We are no different from any other polity that can be destroyed. Maybe we feel our short history is longer than it is, that our establishment is more established than it is. These can all be eroded, as they were in Russia in the early 20th century and in Germany in the 1930s.

What do you think Frank Bascombe would make of Trump? Are you tempted to find out?

“Oh yeah,” he says enthusiastically. “I’m tempted. Because Trump is a big piñata that you’d like to take a huge whack at. But featuring his name in a sentence defeats whatever the sentence actually is. It’s hard to imagine referring to him without corrupting one’s novel. And his name is such an ugly sounding thing. He could defeat the whole book.”

As a response to Donald Trump, there might be no better way of distinguishing the novelist from the journalist. At 73 years old, Ford is still one of the best we have.

Between Them by Richard Ford is out now (Bloomsbury Publishing, £12.99)

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