[Insert Dumb Pun About Richard Ford Getting Frank With Me]: A Q&A with Richard Ford

Article by ben

Ready for part two of my two-part series in which I detail how I’ve embarrassed myself in front of Pulitzer Prize-winners? (No doubt this series will one day have additional parts…)

It was fall of 2006, and Richard Ford had just released THE LAY OF THE LAND, his third novel narrated by the affably tormented Frank Bascombe (after THE SPORTSWRITER and INDEPENDENCE DAY), and I, an amateur writer (still am, p.s.) in his first undergraduate workshop, liked the cut of Ford’s jib.

“You know, he’s coming here, to Portland (Maine), to give a reading,” my creative writing teacher told me.

“Oh my God,” I said. “What should I do?”

“Well,” my teacher said, looking at me blankly, “you should go to his reading, of course.”

Why hadn’t I thought of that? Of course, I should go, I should go hear him read. (I had never been to a reading before. Not a real one, anyway.)

“And afterward,” my teacher said, “you should ask him if he’ll read some of your work.”

Now, when I think back on this piece of advice—as somebody who not only has spent some years teaching undergraduates but has also hosted events with successful and busy writers and heard the kinds of questions they get asked—I can’t quite grasp what possessed my teacher to say this: cheery optimism? momentary confusion? a deep hatred of me and desire to watch me embarrass myself? Hard to say. But at the time, I said, “That’s a great idea! Yes, after Richard Ford finishes reading and is signing books, I, twenty-year-old stranger Benjamin Rybeck, will approach him and ask him to read my work!”

So I went to the reading with my girlfriend, who rolled her eyes at me—“you’re going to do what?” she said—and after Ford had finished (a terrific reading; it’s always so great to hear his work in his voice), I lurked around the back, waiting for the line to dwindle to zero, while the guy in charge eyeballed me strangely, no doubt accustomed to weirdo wannabes wanting to talk to writers when nobody else was around. (Added to this, I didn’t even have anything for Ford to sign; I didn’t own any of his books and had read them during long afternoons hanging out in the bookstore, poor as I was.) But finally, the line dwindled enough that I felt comfortable hopping on board, bringing up the rear, hearing his conversation with the lady in front of me. She was asking him for something—to make an appearance somewhere—and he nodded and said happily, “Sure, sure, just ask Kristina [his wife] about the details.”

This, I knew, was how my conversation with Richard Ford would go:

Mr. Ford, will you read the sum total of two barely-finished stories that I’ve written and, suitably impressed, help me publish them and find an agent?

Sure, sure, just ask Kristina about the details.

When I finally reached Ford, he extended his hand and smiled. Remember, I was the end of this long, serpentine signing line, so I understand now, having spent more time around such lines, the rareness of authors smiling until the very end.

“Mr. Ford, I’m a huge fan of your work,” I said.

“Thanks so much,” he said, looking down at my nonexistent copy of his book.

“So,” I said, unsure of what else I was supposed to say, “I just wanted to tell you that.”

“Thanks,” he said again, voice still, somehow, friendly.

The guy from the bookstore who was managing the signing line stepped a little closer to me.

“And maybe,” I said, “someday you could come visit our creative writing class and talk to us a bit.” (In my defense, this wasn’t an insane thing to ask, since Ford lived in Maine.)

“You know,” he said, “I’d be delighted to do that.”


“Yes. We’ll just have to check on the details.”

“Wow, okay,” I said, the pleasantness of his voice in my ears. “And maybe, I dunno, do you think you’d be willing to read some of my work?”

“Now that I won’t do,” Ford said, his voice still so friendly and smooth that, for a second, I didn’t register what he’d said.

“Oh,” I said. “Okay.”

“But thank you so much for coming today,” he said. A smile.

He was as polite and gentle with me as he could’ve been, under the circumstances, but clearly—as his responses to my questions below also indicate—Ford suffers no fools. Nowadays, this seems to me one of the most admirable qualities a person can have. Even I, amateur that I still am, barely have time for other people’s writing. One of the most valuable skills an author can learn is how to protect his/her time. And, you know, also to not read the work of creepy undergraduates.

What else can I say about Richard Ford? He’s a major writer. LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU is the fourth Frank Bascombe novel, and it’s one of the best (it was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize). Bascombe is a great American character, and LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU gives us four long stories narrated by him. In the first, he visits his old home, destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, while a phrase his wife said earlier that morning rings in his ears: “I’m here.”

Richard Ford is still here. And I’m still here, too, asking him dumb questions.

BB: One of the most resonant phrases in LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU is “I’m here.” We understand why it’s important to Bascombe, but why is it important to you? Is each book a way of shouting, “I’m here”? (Would that mean each book is also a form of hanging?)

Richard Ford: Gee, certainly not! A novel as a form of “hanging?” Precisely how would that work? It doesn't. On the other hand, the phrase “I'm here,” which the Sioux warriors sang out just before then were hanged, in 1862, is certainly a resonant phrase throughout LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU’s four long stories. I knew about the execution of the Indians long ago and had wanted to install it into something I wrote. But then when I did—first, in story one—their mournful, victorious cry became a kind of thematic echo for the other succeeding stories, in which Frank Bascombe in one way or other bears witness for someone in dire need of it. For my book it was a stroke of luck for this idea of “witness” to disseminate through the whole book. You have to get lucky for books to hold together in such ways.

BB: These four long stories so often involve characters looking into the past, whether visiting places they once lived, or seeing people they knew years ago. Do you feel the same way whenever you revisit Bascombe? Is this a frustrating thing, or a fulfilling thing? And were he real, would Bascombe appreciate you knocking on his door every ten years or so?

RF: Well, since Frank is not a person, but rather a literary figure—a piece of artifice made of words; an instrument devised to affect readers—it’s unnecessary to wonder what he'd think about anything that I don't, myself, make him think about. That said, it’s in no way frustrating to write a new iteration of Frank. It's bracing and pleasing and gives me a rare satisfaction of being able to address a readership on a subject I consider genuine importance. It’s, in that way, a kind of writerly apogee.

BB: I saw you read years ago, for THE LAY OF THE LAND, at the Portland (Maine) Public Library. There, you mentioned how you had recently been surprised to see a copy of THE SPORTSWRITER and to remember how short the sentences are. You must have had more patience back then, you joked. Now, does anything surprise you when looking back at LAY OF THE LAND’s style? How has the way you tell Bascombe’s story changed/developed over time?

RF: THE LAY OF THE LAND is obviously—let’s say—a long book. I was surprised to total up its words when I finished it—200,000, give ’er take. In retrospect, I can see that the sentences were fuller of words, and syntactically complexer; and that I had so much to put into the book that seemed both necessary and attractive, that it grew. In truth, however, when I’m in the midst of writing a book that Frank Bascombe narrates, I don’t bother myself thinking about its stylistic changes from other Bascombe novels. To me, Frank pretty much seems the same from the 80s to now (even though what you point out about the sentences is accurate). The sentences in LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU seem more like THE SPORTSWRITER to me—since we’re talking about that, and since this subsequent book’s now finished and in the world to be assessed. I didn’t give the matter much thought when I was writing it, however.

BB: Are there any of the Bascombe books that couldn’t have been called LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU? Isn’t frankness one of the guiding principles in Bascombe’s life—if not frankness with others, at least frankness with the reader?

RF: I don't know that answer to that. This title—which wasn't favored by anybody at Ecco and Harper-Collins (but was favored by me and my wife and my French editor)—was, I suppose, a small effort by me to place Frank at a certain candid moment in life—as if (perhaps somewhat unconvincingly) advanced age confers....what?....a need for candor? Something worth being candid about? Truthfully, I just liked the title because I thought it was funny, and liked the play of words. Some people wrote complainingly about it, I’m told. These people just lack a sense of humor—and probably missed a great deal of the book. My fault.

BB: You don’t know whom we’ll talk to for our next interview, but never mind that: What would you like to ask him/her?

RF: Nothing.

BB: Speaking of which, Aspen Matis (author of GIRL IN THE WOODS) wants to know: What was your writing routine as you wrote this book? Was it consistent? How long did it take you to complete this book, in hours?

RF: I tend not think about my writing routine. It’s so ingrained in me that I scarcely notice. I don't have to discipline myself to go sit at my table and write; I want to go, so I go. And I go in the morning and then later in the afternoon....unless, of course, I don’t. I’m naturally dogged about most of the things I like and want to do: I want to write a book, so I find ways of doing it. For LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU, I wrote the first two stories in the winter of 2012-13; then (I think) the next two I wrote the following winter. What I did in-between I can't recall. Maybe nothing. I certainly don’t count my hours. Thoreau said a writer is a man who, having nothing to do, finds something to do. That’s pretty much me. Counting hours would just be...well....a waste of hours.

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