Books Au­thor Richard Ford gives a ‘per­plex­ing’ in­ter­view

Richard Ford’s mem­oir of his par­ents draws a hard line be­tween mem­ory and anal­y­sis, as he ex­plains to Stephen Romei

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

Richard Ford, 73, is a great Amer­i­can writer, one com­pared with John Updike and Wil­liam Faulkner. This is the first time I’ve spo­ken to him, and soon af­ter he picks up his phone at home on a Satur­day night in Booth­bay, Maine, to talk about his new book, a mem­oir about his par­ents, I’m on the back foot.

He “vo­cif­er­ously” dis­agrees with my read­ing of the book, Be­tween Them: Re­mem­ber­ing My Par­ents. It’s im­por­tant to use the word he used, “vo­cif­er­ously”, as while all writ­ers care about words, Ford is par­tic­u­larly par­tic­u­lar. A syn­ony­mous sub­sti­tute would be wrong.

For the same rea­son we need to call as he sees it one of my in­ter­pre­ta­tions of how he presents his mother and fa­ther: “psy­cho­log­i­cal bull­shit’’. He doesn’t think I’m be­ing crit­i­cal. He just thinks I’m wrong about the book. I’m be­ing chided by a Pulitzer prize win­ner, and I like it.

“I’m not an­gry ... but stick­ing up for my book, that’s my job,’’ he says. “What you’re do­ing is im­pos­ing on my book some no­tion of your own which is not in the book. I’m not tak­ing it as a crit­i­cism of the book at all. I’m just tak­ing it as a fac­tual mis­read­ing of it.’’

Why can’t I just read the book he wrote, he asks, which is sort of re­fresh­ing in a world where au­thors are para­noid about crit­ics miss­ing the deep in­ner mean­ing of their work.

We speak for an hour. We get on. We laugh. It is one of the most en­gag­ing and stim­u­lat­ing au­thor in­ter­views I’ve done, not least be­cause I don’t think I’m com­pletely wrong about the book. And I don’t think he is com­pletely right.

For th­ese rea­sons I’ve de­cided to do some­thing dif­fer­ent here and run a tran­script of part of our in­ter­view. It’s Richard Ford in his own words, as I said to him it would be.

First, some back­ground. Ford was born in Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi, on Fe­bru­ary 16, 1944. His Arkansas-born fa­ther, Parker Ford, was a Mon­day-Fri­day trav­el­ling sales­man, home on Fri­day nights for the week­end. He worked for a starch dis­trib­u­tor named Fault­less.

In the open­ing pages, Ford re­mem­bers, from “some­where deep in my child­hood”, his fa­ther com­ing home on a Fri­day, car­ry­ing “lumpy white butcher-pa­per pack­ages full of boiled shrimp or tamales or oys­ters-by-the-pint” he has brought from Louisiana. It is 1951 or 1952.

He is “a large man — soft, heavy-seem­ing, smil­ing wildly as if he knew a funny joke. He is ex­cited to be home. His blue eyes sparkle’’. A few pages later he notes his fa­ther’s “large, mal­leable, fleshy face was given to smil­ing. His first face was al­ways the smil­ing one”. Also smil­ing are Ford and his mother, Edna. “She is buoy­ant, happy.” His fa­ther spreads the pack­ages on the kitchen ta­ble. “It is as fes­tive as life can pos­si­bly be. My fa­ther is home again. Our — my and my mother’s — week has an­tic­i­pated this.’’

When Edna Akin, also from Arkansas, met Parker, in “Hot Springs or Lit­tle Rock, some­time be­fore 1928”, she “liked what she saw”: “A man who liked to be happy.’’ She was about 18 then. As a girl she had been sent to a Catholic school by her mother, “to keep her out of the way”. “She had never been ex­actly happy — only in­ex­actly, with the nuns who taught her ...”

Ford was a late ar­rival, 15 years into his par­ents’ mar­riage. He was an only child. The ti­tle of his book has a triple mean­ing. He thinks his mother and fa­ther were there for each other first. “They wanted me; but they did not need me. To­gether — though per­haps only to­gether — they were fully formed.’’ He came be­tween them, as a loved child but also, he says, “in the way chil­dren al­ways come be­tween [par­ents] ... not in a bad way, but just in an in­evitable way”.

“I was al­ways third among the three of them,” he says. “One per­son raised by two very dif­fer­ent peo­ple.” His child­hood was “bliss­ful’’.

Ford and his wife Kristina mar­ried in 1968. They have no chil­dren, by mu­tual choice. He thinks he would have been a poor fa­ther, com­pared with his own. Kristina, who was in the pub­lic ser­vice all her work­ing life, has de­cided to run for lo­cal gov­ern­ment in Booth­bay, goaded by the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump.

“She is tak­ing the reins in her hand,’’ Ford says. “The only way to re­spond to the id­iocy of this colos­sal mo­ron is to, at a grass­roots level, take re­spon­si­bil­ity for your own gov­ern­ment.’’

Ford’s fa­ther had a heart attack in 1948. He lived, but a sec­ond one, on Fe­bru­ary 20, 1960, killed him. He was at home, in bed. Six­teenyear-old Richard was there. He shook him, hard. “I said his name — Daddy — sev­eral times,’’ he writes. “He took a deep breath in and let it out stren­u­ously — in a way that made his lips flut­ter, as if he was try­ing to breathe (though I think he was dead).’’ He tried mouth-to­mouth re­sus­ci­ta­tion “sev­eral times, pos­si­bly ten”. “And the re­sult of my ef­forts to breathe for him, or to bring my breath to him and wake him up and be alive, was noth­ing.”

Ford’s mother lived for an­other 21 years, be­fore dy­ing of breast cancer. She did not re­marry and while she had, and ended, one sig­nif­i­cant ro­mance, Ford does not dwell on this. This touches on our dis­agree­ment. Ford men­tions spots in his child­hood — the sui­cide of his pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, his fa­ther’s “ter­ri­ble tem­per”, the for­mer boxer who was his mother’s stepfather — but does not in­ves­ti­gate them. He re­mem­bers them from the time but re­fuses to an­a­lyse them in the way read­ers may ex­pect a 73-year-old lit­er­ary writer to do.

The sub­ti­tle, Re­mem­ber­ing My Par­ents, is cru­cial. Ford is de­ter­mined only to record what he can re­mem­ber. To me, the mem­o­ries seem mainly those of a child, unau­dited by the adult self. I also think read­ers today will won­der how hav­ing an of­ten-ab­sent fa­ther who “was a pres­ence, if not a fa­ther pre­cisely”, was “bliss­ful”. Of course most read­ers today did not grow up in the Amer­i­can south in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

Ford fin­ished the mem­oir about his mother in 1986. It was pub­lished in Harper’s Magazine and in­cluded in his 2004 book Vin­tage Ford. He wrote the mem­oir about his fa­ther last year, 56 years af­ter his death. The two run back to back in Be­tween Them, fa­ther com­ing first. There is a lit­tle rep­e­ti­tion and some in­con­sis­ten­cies be- tween the two pieces writ­ten 30 years apart, but Ford knows that and wants them to stand.

In an af­ter­word, he says writ­ing the book “has been a source of im­mense ex­hil­a­ra­tion for me — quite dif­fer­ent from what I would’ve ex­pected, given the long­ing I of­ten ex­pe­ri­ence’’.

“I was for­tu­nate to have par­ents who loved each other and, out of the cru­cible of that great, al­most un­fath­omable love, loved me. Love, as al­ways, con­fers beau­ties.’’

SR: What mo­ti­vated you to bring the sto­ries of your mother and fa­ther to­gether as a book, so many years apart?

RF: Well, [it was] chiefly to do with my fa­ther be­ing a fig­ure who was ab­sent much of my young life. And then, of course, he died. He was then ab­sent for­ever. When I wrote the es­say about my mother, if I could have sat down right then and writ­ten the piece about my fa­ther, I would have ... I was a lit­tle bit stymied, well, more than a lit­tle bit, by the fact that so much of my fa­ther was not avail­able to me.

I de­cided I would start keep­ing notes on ev­ery­thing I thought about my fa­ther, ev­ery­thing I re­mem­bered ... so that I cre­ated a crit­i­cal mass of ma­te­rial from which I could write the es­say. It took 30 years. It could’ve hap­pened, with bet­ter luck, or more imag­i­na­tion or a bet­ter writer, right away. But it took that long.

SR: What about it took that long? As you say in the book, most of what you write about your fa­ther is al­most what you guess he was like. RF: Yeah. SR: So what ul­ti­mately led you to think you had enough to write the piece?

RF: I ac­cu­mu­lated ran­dom slices and tid­bits of life that would nor­mally run through my mind, and wouldn’t get writ­ten down. Him and me in the car af­ter a base­ball game in which I had not played well, and what he said to me. The fact he once built me a back­board to play bas­ket­ball which fell down. Just things I would ran­domly think with­out any par­tic­u­lar con­text.

SR: It’s a beau­ti­ful book and com­plex for its short length, and sad. I find it sad.

RF: I know peo­ple do think it’s sad. And I’m sorry that it seems sad, be­cause my mem­o­ries of my par­ents are in no way sad and one of the rea­sons I wrote the book was to try to make their deaths what I re­mem­ber most vividly about them. One has par­ents and you love them and they pass away and you re­mem­ber them and miss them. And that doesn’t seem to me to be sad at all, it seems to just be the na­ture of life. SR: Well, that’s what may be sad about it. RF: You know, the truth is you may just be so much younger than I am that some­thing like that might seem sad to you, whereas for me, at 73, it seems al­most com­fort­ing.

SR: I think it’s im­por­tant to know how a book works for any given reader.

RF: That’s ex­actly true, so I credit any­thing that you think.

SR: I don’t mean sad in a de­press­ing way. I mean al­most a melan­cholic way. I am a bit younger than you, but I’ve had par­ents, only one of whom is still alive, and I have a 12-yearold son. To me, this book al­most feels like a mem­oir of two peo­ple you didn’t re­ally know.

RF: That couldn’t be more wrong. I can’t be any more vig­or­ous about that. What on earth would make you think that?

SR: Be­cause you write about a fa­ther who was ab­sent a lot of the time. There’s a beau­ti­ful line where you say what you re­mem­ber of him, from the time you were five un­til his death, “stands away from time like is­lands in the hori­zon-to­hori­zon sea of his ab­sence”. I’m not say­ing you’re say­ing he was bad fa­ther, but that he wasn’t there a lot for you. RF: Far from it. He was a good fa­ther. SR: I got the feel­ing you didn’t know him very well, that’s all. RF: Well, you got the wrong feel­ing. SR: Why do you say that? RF: Be­cause I knew ev­ery­thing about him that he gave me. If you live with your fa­ther 24 hours a day for 40 years of your life, I haz­ard to say you wouldn’t know that fa­ther much bet­ter than I knew mine. I mean, there were plenty of things about my fa­ther I didn’t know, but there were so many things that I did. I don’t even have any idea why you think what you think.

SR: I’m not try­ing to be dif­fi­cult.

RF: No, I’m just vo­cif­er­ously dis­agree­ing with you. I’m sorry, it’s just not on.

I men­tion I feel like I am talk­ing to Frank Bas­combe, the failed nov­el­ist turned sports jour­nal­ist and real-es­tate agent in Ford’s ac­claimed nov­els The Sportswriter (1986), In­de­pen­dence Day (1995, which won a Pulitzer), The

Lay of the Land (2006) and Let Me Be Frank With You (2014). Ford, who was once a sports jour­nal­ist, has a fifth one in the works. Bas­combe is frank by name and by na­ture.

RF: Maybe so, maybe so. I know it comes with old age, which you have now ex­pe­ri­enced!, a cer­tain kind of can­dour. Ni­et­zsche writes about this in a won­der­ful es­say in which he says a cer­tain kind of can­dour, even if it’s rough go­ing for a mo­ment ... is the best kind of con­nec­tive tis­sue. As long as some­one is merely dis­agree­ing with you, then you can kind of be eye­ball to eye­ball. But let’s leave Ni­et­zsche and re­turn to Ford’s non­fic­tional fam­ily.

SR: When you say “not a fa­ther pre­cisely”, what do you mean?

RF: I mean he and my mother were mar­ried for 15 years, and he was a hus­band. And he was skilled at be­ing her hus­band, the man who loved her, and that I came along at a time in his life when he may have been al­ready con­ced­ing that he wasn’t go­ing to have a child. The pat­terns of their life were set. So the way in which he adapted him­self to father­hood was in­ex­act ... Some fa­thers think of their re­la­tion­ship with their child as be­ing defin­ing: if you are the fa­ther of a child, that’s who you are, you are a par­ent. I don’t think my fa­ther ever fully oc­cu­pied the role of be­ing prin­ci­pally a fa­ther. He was mostly my mother’s hus­band and his iden­tity may have de­rived from other as­pects of life. He may have been a sales­man. And so his role as a fa­ther was in­ex­act. I mean it was par­tial in a sense.

SR: Let’s con­tinue this slightly psy­cho­log­i­cal ap­proach for one more ques­tion.

RF: Go ahead, I’m up to it. I won’t agree to any­thing I don’t agree to.

SR: I couldn’t help but think that the book is you record­ing your par­ents’ be­hav­iour through your child­hood self, in that you don’t elab­o­rate on some of the things you do al­lude to. Like, say, you talk about your fa­ther’s tem­per, you talk about vi­o­lence. There are mo­ments where he pushes your mother against a wall. He hits you a few times. I know that was nor­mal dis­ci­pline where you grew up and in your time. RF: Right. SR: You talk about their bed­springs creak­ing. It’s al­most as though you’re still think­ing of them as a child that wants to keep that stuff un­ex­plained to him­self.

RF: That’s wrong, that’s wrong, too, that’s com­pletely wrong. I was sim­ply telling you what I re­mem­bered. I wasn’t try­ing to oc­cupy the per­sona of a child. I was never try­ing to do that. I sim­ply told what I re­mem­bered, that’s all. I don’t know why you’re com­pli­cat­ing this with a bunch of psy­cho­log­i­cal bull­shit. I’m se­ri­ous. Do you not see your­self do­ing what you’re do­ing?

SR: Hold on a sec. No I don’t, Richard, be­cause what I see my­self do­ing is talk­ing to a writer I ad­mire and re­spect, whose works I value, whose new book I just read and have thoughts about, and I’m just rais­ing them.

RF: Well that’s fine. Just don’t ex­pect me to cor­rob­o­rate your thoughts. [You think] I oc­cu­pied a child’s men­tal­ity. I know what you mean, that I sort of look at things through the ac­quired view of a child. I was just sim­ply record­ing, writ­ing what I re­mem­bered with­out in­trud­ing into what I didn’t know. I mean, I don’t know any more now, than I knew when I ex­pe­ri­enced th­ese things at the time. I was de­ter­mined, in or­der to pre­serve a kind of ac­tu­al­ity, not to spec­u­late or to say what I didn’t know.

I mean, one of the things I was very im­por­tantly try­ing to do was ... not to rep­re­sent my par­ents as more ex­pan­sive as hu­man be­ings than they were, or more con­se­quen­tial than they were. To be cer­tain that be­cause their only son turned out to be a writer, that their im­por­tance in the world was not ex­ag­ger­ated.

I was just try­ing to say, here are two peo­ple who made very lit­tle hap­pen in the world, and to look back on things I knew about th­ese rather

small peo­ple and say: and yet there is a virtue to notic­ing th­ese peo­ple. You know, there’s a line of St Au­gus­tine’s in which he says mem­ory is a fac­ulty of our soul. And what I take that to mean is that mem­ory is pre­cious and sa­cred in a way.

SR: I think I un­der­stand you bet­ter now. It’s al­most as though in this book there’s a sep­a­ra­tion be­tween what you do re­mem­ber and other parts where you write as your cur­rent self. Be­cause you do have thoughts in it that aren’t the thoughts you would’ve had back then. RF: That’s ex­actly right. It is called Re­mem­ber­ing My Par­ents.

SR: So there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween the words re­mem­ber­ing and un­der­stand­ing.

RF: Oh, be­lieve me! I have very strict def­i­ni­tions about what un­der­stand­ing is. I think a reader — and in this re­gard you are on solid ground think­ing what­ever you think, even if it doesn’t agree with what I think — will inevitably make sense of some­thing or un­der­stand some­thing dif­fer­ently from how I un­der­stand it. I just want the facts to be in­dis­putable.

SR: I was think­ing specif­i­cally of un­der­stand­ing other peo­ple, and par­tic­u­larly one’s par­ents. A line that res­onates with me in the book is where you talk about how in­com­plete un­der­stand­ing of your par­ents’ lives is not a con­di­tion of their lives, it’s a con­di­tion of yours. RF: That’s right. SR: You write, “I should step back from events as much as I can.” I agree with that 1000 per cent but I’ve only come to that con­clu­sion as I’ve got­ten older. RF: How has that come to you? SR: Sim­ply by think­ing more about peo­ple and the world, and learn­ing more about peo­ple and the world. But with my par­ents, for ex­am­ple, my fa­ther died when I was 30, so two decades ago. And I did not step back from him ever, as a child, so I feel that I didn’t un­der­stand him what­so­ever, ex­cept that he ir­ri­tated me.

RF [af­ter laugh­ing a lot]: Just to par­en­thet­i­cally push it here, by un­der­stand­ing him, would it have been that you were more sym­pa­thetic to him, or more em­pa­thetic to him? SR: Both. RF: Grant him cer­tain con­ces­sions that you didn’t grant him?

SR: All three. Yes. I would have un­der­stood that he was a very anx­ious man, which I didn’t un­der­stand when I was even 30. Or I didn’t care enough to un­der­stand. It’s a bit like you write about your mother: you have your own life when you’re in your 20s and 30s. You’re sep­a­rate, you live else­where, you have a job. You don’t have the time or the in­cli­na­tion to take that step back when you should.

RF: That’s right. ... [with] my fa­ther, I was so young when I knew him. But [with] my mother, and this may seem com­pletely naive ... I knew what my mother was about. I had enough ev­i­dence, and time spent and words crossed ... I mean, I didn’t know what she thought or felt when her head hit the pil­low every night. But I would’ve felt that I got her. But it’s also the case that I con­cede that even my mother, and cer­tainly my fa­ther, had a whole world of in­te­rior life and a whole world of per­sonal and hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence that I could never know.

SR: I agree with you. The break­through comes with un­der­stand­ing they ex­ist.

RF: You know, there’s noth­ing a mem­oir does more im­por­tantly than tes­tify to the ac­tu­al­ity of th­ese peo­ple. Once you do that, you ba­si­cally sur­ren­der them into the cav­al­cade of hu­man­ity which you ac­cept.

SR: A mem­oir is also about the writer of the mem­oir. What do you think of your­self here?

RF: I didn’t think I was writ­ing about my­self ex­cept for the most im­plicit way. I mean ... I am the only one who knew them. I’m just an in­ter­locu­tor be­tween their lives and the peo­ple who read about their lives. But I also know that when you choose to tell this and not to tell that, or when you shade this and em­pha­sise that, that my own pref­er­ences and self are work­ing there. But I don’t think of my­self as a ... ma­jor player.

SR: So what about the “hol­low places, fail­ures, frail­ties, rents and ab­sences’’ in your­self that opened in writ­ing about your par­ents, as you men­tion in the af­ter­word?

RF: Well, not tak­ing a more psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ter­est in it and fill­ing in some of their mo­tives as one might do. An un­will­ing­ness to spec­u­late about whether or not my mother had a more than dif­fi­cult sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with her stepfather. An un­will­ing­ness to talk, or even think about, what kind of ef­fect my grand­fa­ther’s sui­cide had on my fa­ther’s life. A will­ing­ness to sub­or­di­nate my par­ents’ kind of volatil­ity to my own in­sis­tence on life be­ing nor­mal. I know that there are other ways th­ese things could be por­trayed. But my frail­ties, my predilec­tions, they all play into the choices I make.

SR: I think that turns us back to our dis­agree­ment, be­cause those is­sues you’ve just men­tioned, the sui­cide of your fa­ther’s fa­ther, your mother’s re­la­tion­ship with the stepfather ... RF: Which I don’t re­ally know about. SR: No, but they are men­tioned in the book, and you de­cide to leave them more or less alone.

RF: That’s right. I de­cided to leave them more or less alone ... be­cause I don’t feel qual­i­fied to spec­u­late in a way that’s faith­ful to the fac­tu­al­ity of the book. And maybe ... I never think of my­self as go­ing into th­ese en­ter­prises, ir­re­spec­tive of what the book is, with­out ma­jor fail­ures and flaws and holes in my judg­ment.

I just want to say, any­thing that seems faulty, or that seems eva­sive or that seems in­au­then­tic, owes to me, not to them. I’m will­ing — ob­vi­ously I’m not to­tally will­ing — but I’m will­ing to hear I may have failed at some­thing.

SR: I don’t think that at all.

Ford writes mov­ingly that his fa­ther would not have thought that “70 years later I can not re­mem­ber the sound of his voice, but long to”.

RF: Yeah ... in my mind’s au­di­tory ca­pac­ity, I can hear my mother’s voice. She had a deep voice, I can hear it very well. I can’t hear my ... I can’t sum­mon up my fa­ther’s at all. SR: “Long to.” What do you mean by that? RF: I would feel a closer, com­fort­ing, af­firm­ing touch with his mem­ory if I had that lit­tle au­di­tory ad­van­tage, to be able to hear his voice. It just seems to be to me pe­cu­liar that a man who I spent so much time with, and I can’t hear his voice. I think it’s cruel and slightly un­fair.

SR: Is there a con­ver­sa­tion you would have liked to have had? Or would like to have now?

RF: That’s a hard ques­tion. [A long pause] ... the only thing I would love to be able to say to my fa­ther is “I love you”. That’s it, ab­so­lutely, the only thing of con­se­quence. And I would hear him say the same to me. Noth­ing else would mat­ter.

SR: That mo­ment when you were 16 and you held your fa­ther as he was dy­ing and tried the kiss of life. I know some peo­ple will sug­gest this is the clos­est you ever were.

RF: Well, the only thing I will say about whether or not that was the clos­est we ever were is that that was one time we were very close. But I think that there were other times, when we were close in ways that are reg­is­tra­ble as close be­cause I re­mem­ber them so vividly.’’ SR: May I ask one fi­nal per­sonal ques­tion? RF: Please, ask me. You’ve earned it. SR: I’m sure you’ve ex­plained this a mil­lion times, but why de­cide not to have chil­dren?

RF: Well, for a lot of rea­sons. First of all, my wife was not in­ter­ested in hav­ing chil­dren. I found we agreed about that, since I didn’t re­ally want to ei­ther. In ret­ro­spect, I think I wouldn’t have been a very good par­ent. SR: Why? RF: Be­cause I’m self­ish and self-pre­oc­cu­pied. I want only what I want, and the devil with what any­one else wants. I think it’s un­fair to bring chil­dren into the world with a par­ent like that. And I had such good par­ents to rely on. I don’t think I could have been as good a par­ent to a child as my par­ents were to me. And I also don’t re­ally en­joy chil­dren. I don’t like to be around chil­dren. They an­noy me.

SR: They an­noy ev­ery­body. Ford laughs. We move from chil­dren to Trump, be­fore sign­ing off. RF: Thank you for speak­ing with me through this. SR: It’s a plea­sure for me, it hon­estly is. RF: I wish we could meet each other one day, it would be a plea­sure to meet. Good day, bye bye.

Be­tween Them: Re­mem­ber­ing My Par­ents, by Richard Ford, is pub­lished by Blooms­bury (179pp, $18.99 hard­back).


Richard Ford with his par­ents and, right, at home in Maine

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