Monday, March 7, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #14: Richard Ford (1989)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

One of my favourite books of criticism is D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1924) in which he addresses the varied works of American writers James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. In this panoramic and illuminating study, Lawrence examines how a number of gifted authors came to terms with the experience of a young country still in the process of finding its identity. "The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything," Lawrence wrote in the opening chapter. "It can't pigeon-hole a real new experience. It can only dodge. The world is a great dodger, and the Americans the greatest. Because they dodge their very own selves." What he was describing was the elusive spirit of place invoked in the American literary experience. Some sixty years later, another American writer, Richard Ford, was also trying to invoke some idea of the American identity in the bleak landscape of Montana. It was there that he explored the sensation of being rootless and what that revealed of the American character in the eighties.

author Richard Ford
This particular chapter of Talking Out of Turn, curiously enough, was the only one to feature only writers (it also included Timothy Findley and poet Daphne Marlatt). As for Richard Ford, in one of my last radio interviews at CJRT-FM, we discussed that spirit of place in a series of short stories titled Rock Springs.

kc: One of the ironic things about the stories in Rock Springs is that these places you write about are rooted while the people aren't -- Why is that?   

rf: I suppose that's because America has always seemed to me to be a place where people are constantly going somewhere else. It's been true of my life and some of the lives I've seen around me. This idea of place -- either geographical or some place in your heart -- seems to be the one thing that fixes you. That is one of the dramatic edges that my stories have. People are in search of some kind of place. If it turns out to be on the landscape, or if it turns out to be in your affections for other people, that's what causes these stories to be.

kc: Were you prone to moving around when you were a kid? 

rf: I did in a circular kind of way. My father was a traveling salesman in the South who covered seven states and I always went with him. Then my grandparents ran a big hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. So even when I was fixed in their hotel, everything and everybody around me was in motion. Basically, I lived through the fifties and the early sixties by going and coming, and coming and going. 

kc: This is probably why the stories in Rock Springs read like a writer who picks up hitchhikers along the way.

rf: In literal truth, I have! There have been many times when I've picked up a hitchhiker and as soon as he got out of the car, I've pulled over into the turn-out and wrote down something that he said. It's always been the way I've saved stuff to write about. I collect and write things in notebooks. Most of the conversations we have as human beings don't come off as dissertations; they don't come off like little essays. We're trying to make sense out of things we only understand half of.

kc: That desire to make sense out of things is very clear in stories like "Sweethearts," where a woman tries to deal with her feelings about her ex-husband going to prison; or in "Children," where a father is on the run with his daughter in a stolen car. Are these characters far removed from your own life?

rf:  No, I don't think they're far removed from my own life. In fact, growing up in that sprawling hotel, I was always seeing something that I shouldn't have seen. In the middle of the night, the phone would ring and my grandfather would get me up. We'd then go and discover a suicide. This actually happened when I was twelve years old. Sometimes I'd go into the basement of the hotel where my grandfather would be breaking up a secret union meeting because he was a union-buster. That was the stuff of my childhood. I'll always remember it.

kc: How important is the reconciliation of those observations that sometimes become secret and the more public parts of our lives?

rf: Everybody's life is caught up with reconciling the things that are secret with the things that are public. Most people would credit trying to live a good life -- or being a good person -- with trying to have their unannounced life add up to their announced life. This is the stuff of drama and part of America's Puritan tradition. Why am I interested in those things? I'm always, like most writers, looking for something dramatic to write about.

kc: Does giving yourself over to drama also sometimes mean that you identify with characters who aren't like yourself?

rf: I try to bring a generosity of spirit to my stories. I believe that someone, who we conventionally know as a criminal, might have a life more like ours than we'd believe. When I was a young man and started reading literature, I was reading Dostoevsky....

kc: (laughing) A good place to start for writing these stories in Rock Springs.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
rf: It was a good place to start. There are all kinds of people in Dostoevsky that you wouldn't want to be. But their lives in some ways imbue your own with some greater affection.

kc: It's interesting that the human conflict you write about in Rock Springs comes out of a country that in the eighties likes to see itself as an idyllic place. It seems to me that the utopias of America always eventually become nightmares. Does this landscape influence the way people act out their dramas in your work?

rf: I can't write a story until I can say where it takes place. And I don't know if that's because of the actual landscape that exists, or whether it's the names of places that interest me. If Mississippi was called Canada for some reason, I would think very differently about it. If Montana were called Florida, those names would have a distinct relationship and call up associations. Also, as most writers do, I came to literature out of a love of language. So I want to start a story with the knowledge of what words make it up. There's no sky, or real dirt, in these stories. But the words make it so.

kc: Are the words sometimes enough to call up the landscape you're trying to evoke?

rf: There's a story in Rock Springs called "Fireworks" which I really wanted to set in Montana when I wrote it. I couldn't make any Montana words go into the story though. So I went up to my room and started looking on the map for places that had words which gave pertinence to what went on in that story. I ended up setting it in the Sacremento Valley in California just because the Sacremento Valley had the right words in it. Landscape for me is an illusion metaphor for words.

kc: Speaking of words, all of the stories in Rock Springs are told in the first person. Is this a deliberate attempt to make the stories your own?

rf: I don't know if that's true because none of these character essays claim to be me. People have asked me in a way that I've found oddly appealing whether I grew up in Montana -- when I actually grew up in the South. I think these stories are told by personified characters because that seems to be the way we make our lives up. We make our lives up through saying it. We say something about ourselves and then we try to make that convincing to ourselves and others.

kc: With all the disruption caused by not being rooted in any one place, does your writing then take the form of an anchor looking for a place to dig in?

rf: Well, I don't know. I mean I really don't know. I can create a logic that says to me that a literal place on the landscape is very changeable in my life so I wasn't rooted in a place. When I grew older, I put up with not being set in one place. What then took its place, in an emotional way, was affection. That is to say, the fact that I've been married to the same girl for the last 23 years, and my relationship to people like my mother and my grandparents took the place of a geographical location. And what I think I write about is the way I think affectionate relationships hold life together when geographical roots fail to.

 -- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto.

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