Books In Conversation
Richard Ford with James McCloskey
Mr. Ford asks me to meet him for coffee early on a Saturday morning in late September in the lobby of his midtown hotel. When I arrive, I’m initially surprised by the modernity, the sleekness of the décor: mirrored tables and high straight backed chairs, and Japanese fighting fish in bowls on shelves above the couches. Mr. Ford sits towards the back of the lobby, wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt that reads “SEA GIRT” in white block letters. After a few moments of small talk, we begin discussing his experiences with teaching.
BROOKLYN RAIL: Even though you knew you didn’t want to be a professor, were there any pleasant surprises that you found coming out of workshops and the students there?
RICHARD FORD: Well, I liked being in the classroom with students, it made me feel I was contributing to somebody’s life. Beyond that, teaching workshops is a little bit like when I used to teach the fourth grade and I was having to teach the kids grammar: I learned quite a lot from having to figure things out so I could teach it. It asked for a concentrated effort to talk intelligently about fiction that I might not have expended were I not responsible to go into a classroom. When I sit down with students in a classroom and look at a story—a story of Toby Wolff’s, a story of Annie Proulx’s—a story of anybody’s, a story of Chekov’s, I find my concentration is acute and that my imagination is engaged. And with the instigation of these good stories, I can think of things, notice, even invent things, to say about a piece of literature that even I find interesting. I can’t teach creative writing anymore, however. I can’t read the work with the sensitivity one needs. I really find myself begrudging the time that I put in on students’ work. And it isn’t even so much that I think I should be doing my own work, I just find it painful in a way in a way I didn’t used to. Could I be getting old?
Ford: [Laughs] I can, though, sit in a room with a set of assigned texts and talk about stories with young writers. I think they benefit from learning to read carefully and imaginatively and respond. The close reading you do when you read other people’s work is practice for the close reading you have to do with your own work. That’s why, when I was editing the piece that I read last night at The New Yorker Festival, I really went hammer and tongs on it. [Laughs]
Rail: [Laughs] Preparing for a reading is nerve-wracking.
Ford: Not, but you want to do it well. That’s why I read all my books aloud before they’re finished. I felt that I’d already been pretty acute at looking at those pages before I thought about reading them here. Then I saw them a few days ago and I thought, “What on Earth made me think I could leave this sentence this way?” There were hard questions that I had been incapable of asking of the sentences previously—just out of a sense of fatigue or my brain shutting down. I just have to keep going back and going back and going back. And when we read other people’s work and we’re asking those hard questions, that’s practice for being indefatigable in looking at your own sentences.
Rail: Were there any methods about workshop or ways in which students reacted to workshop that surprised you in a negative way?
Ford: I think of students (figuratively, anyway) as empty vessels, and that I’m there to put good things in their brains, and so if they don’t already have good things in their brains that doesn’t disappoint me. I’m not hard on students in that way. I think if you engage a classroom full of students and you find that they’re lacking in something you wish they weren’t lacking, that’s no reason to dislike them or be mad at them. That just means, “Okay, here’s something that I have to try to expose you to.” I always say to students, “You’re here to learn, not to perform. So if in the course of these weeks we can learn something, that would be good.” I’m just not one of those people who gauges the world in terms of what it doesn’t do well. I’m really much more interested in engaging the world in ways in which it can be made better.
Rail: While at Irvine you studied with E.L. Doctorow and Oakley Hall, and one of the benefits that creative writing programs tout is a mentor-protégé relationship. What were some of the benefits of that relationship for you?
Ford: In the case of Oakley and Edgar, I saw what a writing vocation is—as distinct from what a profession is, or what a career is. A vocation is your calling so to say. It means (to me, anyway) that your life and your work run on the same track. I saw that congruence of life and work at close range with Oakley and Edgar, and I was very impressed by it. I’d never been able to set my working interests apart from myself very well. I’d had jobs that asked me to do that, but at some point that other track I was being asked to follow outside myself kind of petered out. But with writing, and seeing it exemplified in the lives of Oakley and Edgar and Galway Kinnell and Peter Matthiessen and Donald Hall and these other writers I was exposed to in my early twenties, I thought, “Well okay, here’s how you conduct yourself, here’s how you marry life and work.” It was important to know that writers had lives, not careers, and in the case of all those men that was exemplified. I found them also to be extremely gentle in the way that they went about trying to teach me what they thought I didn’t know, and they were generous and patient, and they weren’t trying to make my life harder: they were trying to expose me to a writing life’s difficulties in ways I could tolerate. I was not at all the brightest star in that tiny little firmament at Irvine in 1968–69. And it’s so important that a teacher find a way to be truthful with a student, a student whom you think may have some little grain of ability, and not discourage that person. You can’t project from the time a young writer is twenty years old what he’ll be doing when he is thirty because much can happen, and conversely much can not. Also, I admired these writers’ work very much. When I knew Edgar he was writing the Book of Daniel and he would come into class and read little bits of it or he would talk about it. Oakley had recently written The Downhill Racer, which is a wonderful novel, Galway was writing The Book of Nightmares, and so everything those writers radiated to you as human beings came through the scrim of this estimable work they were doing.
Rail: It’s a different time, and a lot of people will say a more difficult time, for a young writer to be breaking into the “industry” than say, twenty or thirty years ago. Do you see any obstacles that exist now that didn’t exist while you were at Irvine, or while you were finishing your first novel?
Ford: I see one obstacle that didn’t exist when I was young. I never thought a second about breaking into an “industry.” I never thought at all about making it. I never thought at all about anything but, “What am I going to do next?” That’s all I ever thought of. So in the writer’s vocabulary now there may be new institutional obstacles. I was never very aware of the business side; I’m pretty ignorant of it even now. I don’t think I was smart and young writers are dumb because they think about those things. Maybe it was because we were in California, a long way from the publishing world. Those words—industry, etc.—must be in the air floating around young writers these days, and it must be very off-putting. I never thought, for instance, that I had to compete with anybody, that anybody else’s great work was anything but encouraging. I thought there was an audience out there waiting to read the best work any writer could write. But if that’s not the case now, and because I’m not 25 years old I don’t really know what is the case, but if there is an industry that’s perceived and there are these obstacles and there is competitiveness and there is only so much room in the boat, then that’s a much worse situation than I started out in. But again, I’m not very aware of it. I just wrote a long essay for the Granta Book of the American Short Story, Volume 2 and one of the things I wanted at least to try to touch on was something Ben Marcus wrote in the introduction to an anthology last year. He was talking about writing that caught the tenor of something that was going on now, a sense of moment in the life of American writing. When I was a young writer in the early ‘70s there was a good deal of blowback from the work of Barthelme and the sort of anti-story writers—William Gass and Jack Hawkes and Albert Guerard who were writing critically about literature in ways that were directed towards writers and setting out certain positions on how things oughta be. I don’t know that that’s going on as much now. Ben’s introduction kind of made me think that it might be going on again, that sort of ferment and foment about stylistic issues and how literature should look and some prescriptive attitudes about what should be and should not be and what’s right for the moment. Of course I wouldn’t put any stock in it if it is going on. Any work done at a given moment is right for that moment, in my view. Always was, always will be.
Rail: I feel really out of touch too, because I tend to focus on just reading the fiction.
Ford: Well that’s what I do, too. When I was a kid, though, I read the Gass essays, and my friends and I thought about the anti-story versus the traditional story and tried to draw as much as we could out of the anti-story and bring it into our work, which was more traditional. My friend from Irvine, Dave Walton, and later Carver and I and Toby Wolff and Anne Beattie and others. For writing (as opposed to writing about writing) the present does seems like a tolerant time—stylistically, intellectually. The New Yorker publishes stories that are really from every quadrant. The present seems rather free and undisciplined by pedagogy, undisciplined by abstract notions of how stories should be, which I think is great.
Rail: You’ve said before that one of the reasons we’re seeing more short story collections on shelves is that there are more creative writing programs and that workshops are more conducive to short stories.
Ford: It seems to me that there are more collections being published, and that there are for that reason. But in general if young writers are writing in whatever form they can write, I don’t think there are any bad aspects to that. If all these writing programs are putting out a huge wealth of mediocre stories that’s okay with me. It doesn’t hurt anybody. Good writing will still, in whatever environment it finds, come to its readership. So I don’t wring my hands about writing programs making American literature mediocre. I don’t think it does. As I’ve said before, it’s a victimless crime. It might change the life of the person who’s going along writing mediocre stories—change it in some unpredictable way. It might provide a new kind of frustration, or it might be just the thing for a happy life.
Rail: Do you have any advice for writers coming out of those programs on making the jump from writing short stories to writing novels?
Ford: Advice, no. Those decisions have to get made by individuals in the teeming privacy of their minds. Writing novels is a lot harder than writing short stories, and so the requirements are different from story writing. A novel is long and complex and baggy and full of words and a short story is short and sleek, so one is going to be a larger intellectual and clerical morass than the other. I don’t have any advice except the one advice I always give young writers, which is to try your best to talk yourself out of doing this.
Rail: As Frank Bascombe said in Independence Day, a lot of writers would be happier and more productive if they didn’t write quite so much.
Ford: That’s exactly right. It just stands to reason in my view anyway, that you can probably do better if you work longer and hard at what you do and perhaps do a little less of it in the long run. My view, however, is that I don’t have to write, I entirely choose to. So I could always do less. I’m 61 now and I never bounce from one project to the next without thinking, “Well maybe this is the moment I should quit. Maybe this is time when I’ve really run out from under whatever I have to contribute to the world.” I know someday I’ll answer that question in the affirmative and won’t do it anymore. I think it’s very hard to know when you should quit, when you should not do something. Ego drives you, your own prior successes drive you, maybe money drives you, your style of life drives you, your private aspiration drives you. You ought to make the decision to stop as responsibly as you made the first decision to start. Even though when you started it felt like a free and larky thing to do so why not do it; still it was a very grave decision to set all aside and decide to be a writer. It should be an equally important decision and taken on seriously to not do something.
Rail: Another benefit provided by professors and administrators in MFA programs is this community of peers, and every time I hear about that it reminds me of an essay that Raymond Carver published in Granta. The essay was accompanied by a terrific photo of you and him and Tobias Wolff, and Carver says that the three of you are friends and writers together, having a good time and counting your blessings. It makes me wonder how necessary you feel it is to maintain a community of writers, of what import it is to maintain a community.
Ford: It’s pretty individualized. It was important for me when I was younger that I had some mates, you know? When I was in school and immediately after. Life has since then somewhat surprisingly caused me to isolate myself from people. I can’t really say it’s for any particular reason, it’s just some instinct that I have to just go off to some isolated place and live my life. My wife of course lives with me, so that’s a big deal—the biggest deal. I mean, my relationship with Ray was one of the signal relationships of my life—very positive and encouraging. I’m sure the same is true for Toby. Ray was older than I was by about seven years and he got very famous while we were close friends, and seeing how he maintained his equanimity, seeing how his work got better through the agency of good fortune and perseverance was really important to me. I didn’t have any preconceptions that it wouldn’t happen or that it shouldn’t happen, but when I was around Ray I thought, “Wow, you really can just be yourself,” you really can maintain whatever sense of yourself and your place in the world, and at the same time get very lucky and do your work. Once he died of course my life changed in a way forever. He wasn’t my teacher, he was a friend, but he was a friend who made it in his own terms as a writer. He didn’t make it, the it that people are supposed to make, he just made his work and did it in his friends’ presence.
Rail: We should all be so lucky to have friends we admire so much.
Ford: We certainly should, it would be nice if we did. Ray had very good instincts about friendships and wanted to be your great friend. He has his human frailties, but it was nice to see those frailties in the great juggernaut of wonderful work he was doing. I remember about 1980, he had read my little novel called The Ultimate Good Luck and we were very close friends, as I said, and he told me something like, “By God, I want to give you a quote for that book.” And I said, “Oh, Ray, that’s great, but you know you don’t have to do that,” and he said, “Oh yes, I want to do that.” Then as time got around for the quote to show up he said, “Oh, I don’t know,” and I said, “Godammit Carver, you’re either going to or you’re not going to!” And he said, “I don’t know,” he said, “I think I’ve been giving out too many quotes and I don’t want this to seem like logrolling in our times.” [Laughs] And I said, “You son of a bitch,” [Laughs] I said, “I don’t care if you do it, I didn’t ask you to do it, you just volunteered. So do it, or don’t do it,” so he stutters, “Oh, okay, okay, I will.” [Laughs] So he could be that way—if you could call that a frailty. He was the most generous man in the world, really. There was also nothing Ray loved better than calling you up and telling you good news. Now that can be a very galling experience with some friends, but with Ray it never was: he was so delighted that on the strength of this great God-given talent and great effort he’d become wildly successful. You just had to participate with him, the marvel of it, you just couldn’t stand away from him and hold back your approval or your delight, and that’s very generous. Generally if you have good luck, you ought not gloat, not tell people things they don’t want to know that’ll bring them down at a time when they need to be encouraged. Ray was very good about telling you about things that happened to him in a way, in ways that made you—me, anyway—feel encouraged. He was also a good example of somebody who’s life and who’s work were the same. His life was his calling, his work was his life. When I met Ray I saw him doing that and I thought, “Yeah, that’s right isn’t it? That is how you do it.”
Rail: You grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, Eudora Welty’s hometown and very near Oxford, where William Faulkner lived. With these very palpable influences, I’m wondering if you felt overwhelmed by these literary presences.
Ford: I was never smart enough to feel under too much pressure. I of course used to wonder if I would ever write a sentence that was my own, and by being my own I didn’t mean untainted by the sentences of others I’d read; I just wondered if I would ever write a sentence even with all of those influences that made something of those influences that couldn’t be made by anybody but myself. Faulkner being such a stylist, Cheever being such a stylist. I had to learn after I had read those people, not to go back to them. I had to think, “Well I’d love to read this again, but I better charge on.” Eudora was a great influence in the way that Updike was probably an influence for you, up in Massachusetts. I didn’t read her until much further along in my writing life, but she had been in town when I was growing up and I would see her, and it was very useful without even my realizing it to have the sanction that the presence of a great writer in your community gave you. In a little place like Jackson, hers was very generous spirit, because you could say, maybe preconsciously, “Well, I know I should go work in a bank, or I should be a lawyer, I know I should sell real estate. But there’s this woman over here on Pinehurst Street who’s writing these great stories. So, a person could do that, too.” The possibility, that was this thing that would have never have been opened otherwise. Very much what I’m sure it was like to be living around John, that, “Oh yeah, you could do that, too.”
Rail: In the introduction to the Granta book of the American short story you stated that, “Except for periods when half the population is preoccupied with fighting a war or suffering a natural disaster, much good work of all sorts and styles has occurred all the time.” And with the recent events in the States, it seems like we’re in a period like that now, where half the population is preoccupied.
Ford: Those people will come back from Iraq—the ones that can come back—and they’ll come back from disaster with things buried in their spirits which only a literary gesture will satisfy. And it will come, and from all quadrants and through the agency of all stylistic conceits. That will be the good part, I think. Already you’re seeing 9/11 novels being written. Seems a little early to me, but then some people are quick on the trigger. Kundera says that in the time of totalitarianism people only want answers and not questions and that that is a bad environment. I’m not sure I believe that—since this is a time when totalitarian spirit is on the rise in America. I think Kundera was typical of a European, particularly a Czech, much more politically thoughtful than most Americans are, even most American writers. I think it’s one of the ways that American literature benefits, that we’re not such an overtly politicized country. We’re much more isolated on the continent, we feel the reverberance of large historical events far out from their centers—even 9/11—so that the literary impulse tends to come up through our feet, almost impalpably, almost to form itself into our work almost imperceptibly. I don’t think much is bad for the arts except censorship—which is genuine totalitarianism. The arts are always going to flourish in the cracks.
Rail: Mr. Ford, thank you so much.
Ford: You’re welcome. One of the reasons I like being around young writers is because I think my experience is a very sane experience, and that I have dealt with being a writer in a kind of sane way. Which is to say that I haven’t let myself get discouraged, always been willing to say that what’s happened to me is luck, I always try to think of myself as a regular human being (with good reason), and that might be useful to young writers, to know that out of a regular life can come something that someone wants to read. I’m happy to put myself on display as sort of an exhibit. [Laughs] Maybe not the best exhibit, but not the worst exhibit. Sort of a specimen. [Laughs]
JAMES MCCLOSKEY is an author and co-founder of the Street to Home Initiative.
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