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
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).
ST AUGUSTINE SAYS MEMORY IS A FACULTY OF OUR SOUL. I TAKE THAT TO MEAN MEMORY IS PRECIOUS AND SACRED
Richard Ford with his parents and, right, at home in Maine