Committing a Story: An Interview with Richard Ford

Richard Ford

Richard Ford

The Art of Fiction No. 147

Interviewed by Bonnie Lyons (Excerpt)

The Paris Review
INTERVIEWER

Aside from length, is there any difference between writing a novel and writing short stories?

FORD

Novels are a lot harder to write. Long ones, anyway.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

FORD

Because they hold so much more stuff, and the stuff all has to be related and make one whole—at least the way I do it. And from my experience with writing both, I do think writing a long novel is just a larger human effort than writing a book of short stories—assuming that both are good. I used to say that a novel was a more important, a grander literary gesture than a story. And when Ray Carver would hear me say that he’d vigorously disagree, and then I’d always cave in. But he’s gone now, and the fun’s gone out of that argument. I don’t care, to tell you the truth. Is a week in bounteous Paris more important than twenty-four hours in somewhat less majestic Chinook, Montana, if in Chinook your life changes forever? If it is for you, it is; if it isn’t, well? Forms of literature don’t compete. They don’t have to compete. We can have it all.

INTERVIEWER

When something comes to you, do you know whether it’s going to be a short story or a novel?

FORD

That’s a decision I make before I start to write. Somewhere in the mulch of my thinking, the material I’m attracted to and the selection of a form it might find come together almost preconsciously; so that by the time I’m thinking to myself, Write this and then this and then this, I’m already supposing I want to write a novel or a novella or a story.

INTERVIEWER

You said that when you began writing stories you weren’t good at it. How did your stories go from bad to good? Practice? Breakthroughs?

FORD

Not practice. I actually gave up writing stories for a time because I couldn’t do it and couldn’t get better and didn’t see any use in just beating my head against them. So, I started writing a novel. I had been trying to write stories under the influence of Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, William Gass—all writers whose work I still greatly admire. But my instincts, I guess, weren’t particularly well served by those narrative practices and conceits. So when I quit trying to write that way I sort of reverted to the more traditional, realistic fiction that suited what I could do. I, of course, had grown up thinking that what Faulkner and Eudora Welty wrote was what literature was. I remember very well that when we got married in 1968, Kristina gave me The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor. It was the first book she’d ever given me. Then when I got to Irvine as a graduate student my teachers—Oakley Hall and E. L. Doctorow—were moving me back in the direction of more realistic stories. I read all of Cheever and Richard Yates and Bellow and Roth. Plus Babel. Plus Chekhov. Later on, when I started reading my contemporaries—Ray Carver, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, Ann Beattie, and others—I thought, Here are story forms that provide the opportunity for me to write the kinds of things that I know and am ready to put in stories. I think I was very encouraged by the good work of my contemporaries, which is what good work should do. It shouldn’t make you feel intimidated. By the time my first decent stories started to get published in Esquire, I had already written two novels. I wrote the first story in Rock Springs in the spring of 1980 in New York. Another thing that encouraged me to write stories was that people were asking me to give readings and I wanted to read new work. I wrote my little story “Sweethearts” because Dan Halpern asked me to read for the benefit of Columbia magazine and I didn’t have a new story, so I wrote that in just one sitting—as usual— at a table in a rented house. In Princeton—a story set in Montana. Basically I just wrote one short story a year so that I had something new to read.

INTERVIEWER

What about editing?

FORD

I’ve always had a lot of editing done on every book except the second one, The Ultimate Good Luck, which Donald Hall read when it was written in the first person. We met in New York, in that little Irish bar next to the Algonquin, and he told me there that it wasn’t any good. That was a horrible moment. We’d come into this little dark gloomy bar and Donald put his hands on the table, looked at me, and said, I don’t like your book. Whooh! You just have to take a deep breath and suck it up. I said, OK, OK, tell me what you can tell me. He told me all the things he didn’t like about it and moreover told me he didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with it because it just wasn’t any good this way.

INTERVIEWER

You once talked about “committing a story” instead of writing a story. What do you mean by committing a story?

FORD

It’s just a pretentious way of saying that for me, personally and emotionally, to write a story is to give myself up totally to this otherwise flimsy piece of business. I commit myself. It wasn’t meant as an attempt to ennoble me or the product, but to describe the kind of emotional event in my life that I will eventually ask the reader to share in whatever way he can—to participate in the story as fully as possible. Though I suppose, too, it’s another way of saying that I try to make the whole experience—writing it and reading it—as important as I can.

INTERVIEWER

Some questions in a totally different line: do you think you’re unusual as a writer in the way you move around?

FORD

I think I’m much more typical of Americans than I am atypical of Americans. I think Americans move around a lot for reasons that are not precisely like my reasons but not completely dissimilar either. They seek new experiences; they get bored; they see an opportunity, stuff like that.

INTERVIEWER

Wouldn’t most Americans say that they move for jobs? That they have to move?

FORD

I think I move for my writing—at least, when I move, I also write.

INTERVIEWER

Some writers say that moving takes energy and time away from their writing.

FORD

Maybe so. But they probably use their not-writing time in some other way. You can’t write all the time. What a drag. Other people I know—Bob Stone, Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie—they all move around, or they have. Of course, you have to be able to do it, you can’t be strapped down to a job. You have to have a certain amount of financial and emotional independence. My life sort of conforms to my bank account. I go where I can go. Maybe another reason I’ve moved around a lot is that I grew up in a sequestered part of the world—right in my middle in Mississippi. And I grew up curious about the rest of the country. Later on, when it came time for me to try to be a writer, I pretty quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be able to write very much about the South because it had already been written about so well by all the greats and was still being written about wonderfully by Barry Hannah and Josephine Humphreys, Ellen Douglas and others; and that I was going to have to learn something else. And when I started learning those things I found I could learn, and that I could function elsewhere rather than being consigned physically, or as a writer to one part of the world where I wasn’t comfortable. For a writing life to flourish, your mind has to go outwards.

INTERVIEWER

What about the workplace?

FORD

I’ve written everywhere. I wrote a novella The Womanizer on a plane coming back from Paris. I’ve written in hotel rooms in Milan and Great Falls. I wrote a screenplay in the Chateau Marmont. I’ve worked in fifty rented houses, in friends’ apartments. I like that, actually. It’s a challenge to go into someplace that’s not yours, and let the fact that you’re doing important work there be the accommodating force. I don’t think I could stay in one house continuously. I’m not contemplative enough, not interior enough, and that’s another way of saying I’m probably not smart enough. I need a lot of external stimulation bulleting into my life. I’m not talking about exhilaration or thrill, I just want new sounds coming into my ears.

INTERVIEWER

In the past you have said, “I was giving all my time away to somebody that I would never see again.” What do you get from the process of teaching itself?”

FORD

I have to say that I got a lot from teaching when I was younger. I learned a huge amount about making stories—not so much from the students’ work, but from using conversations about their work to articulate principles for myself that I could then “teach” to them. Teaching was very useful to me when I was in my mid-thirties. But then I quit so I could write more.

INTERVIEWER

Do you get anything from your students?

FORD

I can’t think of much that a student ever said to me except, Can I get a grade change? or Can I put off having my story discussed Wednesday because I have to go to my father’s marriage in Venezuela? All I remember are the things I don’t want to remember. But has a student ever come up to me and said something so blazingly true about which I thought to myself, God, I wish I’d thought of that, like Wittgenstein used to do to his teachers? No. Not yet.

INTERVIEWER

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

FORD

My first advice to an aspiring writer is to talk yourself out of it if you can possibly do it.

INTERVIEWER

Why that?

FORD

Because you’ll probably fail and make yourself miserable doing it. I feel about myself that I’m anomalous—a rare combination of fear, an affection for language, a reverence for literature, doggedness, and good luck. Plus, I married the right girl. Shit, who’s going to fall heir or victim to all those things?

INTERVIEWER

Was there ever a moment when you felt that it wasn’t going to work?

FORD

All the time. Book to book or project to project it’s always scary. I remember the first time in my life when I ever said I was a writer. Toby Wolff and I were going to London—me for the first time at age forty-two—and you had to make out one of those debarkation cards that asked your profession. Over the years, I’d always put none on any such questionnaire.

INTERVIEWER

None?

FORD

None. I didn’t have one. I don’t think of writing as a profession. I think of it as being a vocation. But I finally said, Oh well, what the hell, you might as well put writer, because you aren’t anything else. That’s all you’ve done with your life and you’re forty-two years old and there isn’t time to do anything else. And yet, even if I finally thought I was a writer, here I was heading into London, and though I had published two books and had a third finished, none were in print—I had nothing to show for being a writer when I was forty-two. So, what was that about things not working? Things can always not work. Eventually, I’m sure, that’ll happen.

INTERVIEWER

What is the exhilaration of writing, if any?

FORD

Primarily, the chance to make something new, which might be good and beautiful, and which somebody else could use. For me, that’s come to be the most important thing. Put most succinctly, to write for readers. I’ve never thought of writing as principally a way of learning about myself, or even as self-expression. Anybody who writes books learns a lot about himself just by seeing what his preoccupations are, what generosities he has or lacks, what his abilities are to invent something out of nothing. I never think about being a writer as being in any interesting way self-psychologizing. That just doesn’t interest me.

INTERVIEWER

So you think of the reader when you are writing.

FORD

I wouldn’t be a writer just for myself. If I were going to do something for myself, I’d do something else, something more practical and pleasurable, and probably easier.

INTERVIEWER

That’s quite rare, I think.

FORD

I want to write, partly at least, for the kind of reader I was when I was nineteen years old. I want to address that person because he or she is young enough that life is just beginning to seem a mystery which literature can address in surprising and pleasurable ways. When I was nineteen I began to read Absalom, Absalom! slowly, slowly, page by patient page, since I was slightly dyslexic. I was working on the railroad, the Missouri-Pacific in Little Rock. I hadn’t been doing well in school, but I started reading. I don’t mean to say that reading altogether changed my life, but it certainly brought something into my life—possibility—that had not been there before.

INTERVIEWER

What was it about Absalom, Absalom!?

FORD

The language—a huge suffusing sea of wonderful words, made into beautiful, long paragraphs and put to the service of some great human conundrum it meant to console me about if not completely resolve. When I was old enough to think about myself as trying to be a writer, I always thought I would like to write a book and have it do that for someone else.

INTERVIEWER

An Absalom, Absalom! for some nineteen-year-old kid in Georgia.

FORD

Or Ohio. Or France. I heard someone say the other day, You have to write for yourself. What shit, I thought. Write for yourself—why? (Though I guess if that produces wonderful work, who am I to argue over conceits?) But I once said that to an audience in France and several people got up and left the room. They said, Hummmph. You’re letting down your vocation if you’re willing to admit that you write for other people. But that’s just not my view. To me, it’s the thought that you can make something out of words, which organizes experience in the way Faulkner is talking about when he says that “literature stops life for the purpose of examining it.” To be able to do that for another person is a good use of your life.

From Wikipedia:

Richard Ford (born February 16, 1944) is an American novelist and short story writer. His best-known works are the novel The Sportswriter and its sequels, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, and the short story collection Rock Springs, which contains several widely anthologized stories.

Richard Ford’s writings demonstrate “a meticulous concern for the nuances of language … [and] the rhythms of phrases and sentences”. Ford has described his sense of language as “a source of pleasure in itself—all of its corporeal qualities, its syncopations, moods, sounds, the way things look on the page.” This “devotion to language” is closely linked to what he calls “the fabric of affection that holds people close enough together to survive.”

Comparisons have been drawn between Ford’s work and the writings of John Updike, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Walker Percy. Ford himself resists such comparisons, commenting, “You can’t write … on the strength of influence. You can only write a good story or a good novel by yourself.”

Ford’s works of fiction “dramatize the breakdown of such cultural institutions as marriage, family, and community”, and his “marginalized protagonists often typify the rootlessness and nameless longing … pervasive in a highly mobile, present-oriented society in which individuals, having lost a sense of the past, relentlessly pursue their own elusive identities in the here and now.” Ford “looks to art, rather than religion, to provide consolation and redemption in a chaotic time”.

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4 thoughts on “Committing a Story: An Interview with Richard Ford

  1. Great interview. I never understand why writers discourage would-be-writers from writing. It’s not like it’s a real choice. I mean, I could not write, sure. Just like I could choose not to use my left hand. Life would still be worth living. I could still be happy and productive – but something would be missing all the same.

      • I understood what he meant. I am always surprised and gratified to learn of successful author’s struggles. Gratified in the sense that it helps me defeat my defeatist notions that the published authors found it easy, somehow, to finish their books and find a market. It’s not easy – talent is no guarantee of success.Hard work is no guarantee either though it does improve one’s odds 🙂

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