A cover-story interview with Richard Ford,
discussing his book Women with Men
Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
July 24th, 1997
July 24th, 1997
Author of Independence Day Returns with
New Collection Women with Men
By Richard Ford
Richard Ford’s last novel, Independence Day, was the only book ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner award. A sequel of sorts to his novel The Sportswriter, Independence Day chronicled one long weekend in the life of Frank Bascombe, a real estate salesman. Ford has long been a champion of the quotidian, transforming the common experience of the average Joe into something uncommon—and in the case of Frank Bascombe, into something transcendent. Ford’s newest collection, Women with Men, revisits many of the concerns addressed in the Bascombe books, as well as in his remarkable first collection, Rock Springs. Comprising three long stories, Women with Men is mostly about men lost in their own selfishness. In “The Womanizer,” a man finds himself in a strange affair-like relationship with a Parisian woman, and in “Occidentals,” another man travels to Paris with his girlfriend while his estranged wife and child live it up in California. “Jealous,” the middle story, tells the story of a teenager caught—where else—in the middle of his parents’ recent divorce. The collection is drenched in divorce and middle-aged angst, which is interesting considering Ford’s enormous literary success and famously happy marriage. Ford explained some of the processes of how the collection came together when he spoke with A&E when he was in Minneapolis to promote the book.
When you were writing the three stories in Women and Men, did you plan for them to be all together in one book?
I intended to write a book of three long stories. I wrote the first two in 1991 and 1992, and then I took a five-year hiatus to write Independence Day. I kind of wondered when I came back to it if I could actually finish my plan. Because I knew I wanted to write at least two set in Paris. Actually, at some point I thought about having three in Paris, but then I wrote “Jealous,” and I liked “Jealous” a lot. It kind of dealt with some of the concerns and conceits of the other two, and so I did it that way. Like you do everything—you get an idea that you’re gonna do, and you see what you’re doing, and you see how it complies with the idea.
Your work is set all over the place, and you’re kind of a nomad yourself.
Less than are my stories.
Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?
I consider myself an American writer. For me, the notion of being a Southern writer means some bad things—when I was young I thought that. It means you’re either writing about the South or you’re writing for Southerners. Or it means you’re the only person who can write this story because you’re a Southerner. None of those things do I really want to rope myself off into. I want to be a writer who can write about whatever my imagination finds and write for as wide an audience as I can. But I consider myself a Southerner. Hell, I was born in Mississippi, and I live in Louisiana. No surprise that I’m a Southerner.
The stories in Women with Men all have a similar structure, kind of like verses in a song.
Well, they probably do insofar as they are about people who are in quest of something. And through various kinds of solipsisms, various kinds of inabilities to understand the people around them, they end in calamity of some kind. So in a way, they are structurally similar. I think the moral, the proposal of each story, is that by being captive to our own preoccupations, we are disabled from having affection for others—affection that would save us. It would certainly make our life better. And also by being captive to our own preoccupations, we notice so much less. So many of the details, particularly the details of what is said to us by others, escape our notice. And we live then less expertly.
The stories all feature characters in crisis, but then you bring in outside violence that comes in to culminate things. Why?
Well, probably for both prosaic reasons and also maybe structurally integral reasons. For prosaic reasons, I probably have violence occur in stories because violence occurs all the time—to all of us. We sometimes think it can’t happen to us. But in fact it goes on happening all around us to people we care about and love and like. Irrespective of whether we experience it ourselves, our lives are shaped by a sense of the world affected by whether we do or don’t sympathize with others. In a more integral way, I think violence is probably in stories as a dramatic device, to basically up the ante of the moral consequences of the acts that these people are inexpertly carrying out. It’s a way of reemphasizing what are the moral consequences of solipsism, what are the moral consequences of not paying attention to others who are around us. So in a way I suppose it’s there for at least two reasons. Also, maybe a third way is the old Raymond Chandler axiom about when in doubt, have a man walk through the door holding a gun. He said that was always a device you could avail yourself of when you run out of ideas. And in fact, in “Jealous” a man does walk through the door holding a gun.
You seem interested by ordinary people in crisis. Why do you keep returning to this?
Well, I guess it’s because I don’t think of anybody as ordinary. One of my principal convictions about humanity is that if you look at people more closely, they become more interesting. I don’t mean that they become kings and queens in writ small. But I think we are better if we look at people who we might conventionally consider as ordinary more closely. So that’s probably why I do it. And it’s the way I’ve lived my life. I haven’t been rich. I haven’t been terribly well educated. I’ve had a rather ordinary writerly life. I come from parents who were working people, who never went to college. So where I see drama and important moral action arising is in the lives of people who you might conventionally think are ordinary.
A lot of your characters seem like failed versions of yourself.
Well, that may just be coincidental. They are certainly people that I have sympathy for. Surely it’s the case sometimes that I pluck up something out of my own life that’s a source of drama, no doubt about that. And they probably do, once in a while, share an event, share a perception. But I wouldn’t define them that way, myself. It isn’t necessary to know anything about me to read these books.
One thing that’s interesting about your characters is that they don’t ever seem to see the things you see. They’re blind to the greater picture you build around them.
That may just be the inevitable nature of all characters in relationship to their makers. Characters only exist through the particular details dedicated to them, whereas I—I have a past. I have the capacity to make them. I have necessarily a wider, fuller, more dynamic, richer view than they have. But it’s important that I not condescend to them at all. That I not heap opprobrium on them because of the fact that they know less than I do. If I can posit them as characters who know less than I do—which I think inevitably one does in writing characters—if I make something useful out of the character, something that is not just condemning them or ridiculing them, then I think that’s all right.
One issue that stands out is that you’re very sharp when it comes to racial issues, while your characters aren’t.
Well, they’re at least sensitive to racial issues, but they’re not probably as acute as I am on the subject of race.
I don’t mean to pigeonhole you as a white, middle-class male writer, but for that classification of writers, you seem to be one of the only ones who even knows that minorities exist.
Well, that’s certainly too bad if it’s true. I grew up in the apartheid South, and one of the reasons I left the South was so I could fill out my life, thereby including more people in it than society allowed me to include when I was young. So I think it’s only natural for me to try to include those people who I went forth into the world in order to try to care about. I’m disappointed that it might be that other writers don’t do that. But I am aware of what you say, that there isn’t a lot of writing about blacks by white writers. Some of it on my part is good-willed in one way and slightly skeptical in another. Issues of black America have become largely the province of black writers, and I don’t think that that’s a full enough airing of those issues. In order for American literature to truly mature, all these races have to be there. And I am as qualified as anybody else to write this. Not because I’m white, but because I’m a human being. And I’m not writing racially sensitive books. I’m just racially sensitive myself.