I came away from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford’s book-reading this afternoon at Powell’s with fascinating insight into his writing process, motivation for writing, and day-to-day life as a writer. Not to mention, I also scored an autographed copy of his latest novel, Canada, and a parking ticket – the latter of which did not come from Ford.
I wanted to share one thing Ford said, in particular. During the Q&A portion of Ford’s appearance, an audience member asked him whether he found imperfections in his work, now that it was on shelves. Ford answered the question in a roundabout way, noting he did the best he could in the time provided, and then released the book into the world.
In essence, he said he saw no point in holding the book two more years to see how he felt about it then.
“Do it now,” Ford said about his process. “Do the best you can. Get on with it.”
That’s a pretty good credo to live by, whether you’re writing a book or doing any number of things, I thought. Give what you have at that moment in time and then move on. I like it.
My interest in Ford derived from my recent reading of his first Frank Bascombe book, The Sportswriter. I find Ford’s language first class, his characters’ fascinating, and the book’s tone realistic. I like the fact that Bascombe gets socked in the mouth by life and keeps going, albeit in a dreamy state. I also like how Ford sets up situations and then lets his characters play them out (i.e., Bascombe and his ex-wife’s visit to their son’s grave, Bascombe’s barroom chat with Walter Luckett, etc.).
So, given my recent enjoyment of The Sportswriter, I headed to Powell’s for Ford’s book reading. Regrettably, I have only attended two of them that I can remember. The first was for Raymond Bonner’s non-fiction work Anatomy of Injustice.
Here are a few things I picked up from Ford’s Q&A that followed his reading. Dedicated to Lloyd, my literary reader.
- Ford does not take himself too seriously. He takes his work seriously, sure. But he does not take himself too seriously. For instance, after he finished the reading part of his appearance, Ford made a self-deprecating remark about himself. Often, while reading from his books, he would omit or change words, causing audience members reading along with him to lift their heads in confusion. He did so not because he wanted to change the wording after the fact but because he has dyslexia, he noted. The way Ford told the story came off as humorous. It made me like him before he answered any questions. I also liked how Ford approached each question, even one described as its originator as a “bullshit” one, with respect and provided considerate answers.
- Another example of Ford not taking himself too seriously: He said he did not view himself as a natural writer, per se. He expressed several times he had to work to become the writer he aspired to be. Describing characters’ physical forms, he revealed, was a weakness he devoted much time to improving. I left Ford’s reading/Q&A viewing him as someone who had maximized his talent. Vigor applied to tasks often lended desired results, he explained.
- Before Ford was a writer, he was a reader and drew inspiration from the works of others. This inspiration then propelled him to create his own works. With his nine novels and numerous short stories, he tried to instill a sense of authority over the reader. The reader has come to submit, he noted. Once the author loses authority over the reader, then the reader will put the book down and turn to something else.
- A man in the audience asked Ford when he knew his work on a project was finished. During his response, he referred to a phrase often used when he was in law school – drawing a line in the sand. “Yeah, but where do I draw the line?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, I just draw it. It’s mine to draw.” Drawing the line takes a sort of decisive action, Ford noted. So does closing a book or a chapter in one’s life.
- More on the writing process: Ford said he wrote about places he had lived (New Jersey) or visited (Canada), and that he did not try to nail every little detail. Some things he changed because it read better on the page but he never wrote the South such and such river flowed north, for instance. He also said his life while writing a book did not differ much from his general life. He joked he still drank the same amount during both, although never while writing.
- Don’t call Richard Ford a southern writer. He is from Jackson, Miss., but does not view his work as originating from a southern viewpoint or tradition, he said. One reason he did not set out to be a southern writer was because others had cornered the market (i.e., Faulkner, O’Connor, etc.). Also, the south just wasn’t that great of a place in Ford’s estimation. He now lives in Maine. One other fascinating tidbit: Ford said when he tried to write about the south his sentences and ideas changed to the point he no longer had control over them. Thus, he stopped trying to write stories in southern locales.