O Canada, Pulitzer winner stands on guard for thee
THE possibility of the next great American novel being titled Canada was a potentially embarrassing scenario the publishers of Richard Ford’s new book were anxious to avoid.
That Ford, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, will be in at Thin Air 2012 Tuesday to read from his seventh novel still called Canada is evidence that he was able to withstand the determined pushback from his editors.
“They wanted me to call it anything but Canada,” says Ford recently over the telephone from his Harlem home in New York City. “I said ‘OK, but you have to come up with a better title.’”
The 68-year-old Mississippian was just humouring his editors, secure in the knowledge that no one would come up with anything better, he says. They did manage one lame suggestion. Saskatchewan. “I said it’s an easy (province) to draw but hard to pronounce,” Ford recalls, with a chuckle. “I said you think that’s going to sell more books than Canada?”
He stayed with Canada the country, to which he has an abiding fondness, and the word, which he loves to hear spoken and see written on the page.
Canada is Ford’s first book since he completed the Bascombe trilogy with The Lay of the Land in 2006. His new narrator, retired high school teacher Dell Parsons, looks back on life as a 15-year-old, when his parents’ decision to rob a bank effectively leaves him orphaned when they get caught. The second part of the book is about Dell’s escape from Montana across the border to Saskatchewan.
Worries that his novel’s name would doom sales in the United States turned out to be unfounded. It was on the bestsellers list for nine weeks, the best run of any of Ford’s novels, including Independence Day, for which he won both a Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner Award — the only author to ever win both for the same book.
“I just never believed the conventional wisdom that it would have a deleterious effect on the success of the book,” says Ford, whose only pre- Thin Air’s Oh Canada, Oh Prairie presentation Shaw Performing Arts Centre Tuesday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $12 vious city visit was in 2001 to promote his short story collection A Multitude of Sins. “I don’t think that Americans are uninterested in Canada. My heart told me that Americans would be interested in Canada if I wrote a good book.”
He started it in 1989 and wrote 20 pages before stowing it away in a perfect place for the beginning of a novella named after the land of ice and cold to the north. “I put it in the freezer,” he says. It was an old habit he picked up from his Arkansas-born mother who grew up in wooden houses always at risk of burning down so she kept all the important family papers in the fireproof freezer.
“I still do it,” he says. “In the last two or three years I’ve had partially finished short stories on ice.
Canada came in out of the cold four years ago when Ford, who fancies himself “a great returner,” took up the story again. Some critics have viewed Canada as a metaphor, which the author claims was never his intention.
“I feel that Canada literally turns out to be a place of refuge, a place for renewal and a place for restoration. They are quite literal. The sense of restoration that Dell experiences is quite literal.”
Like Dell’s, Ford’s life took an abrupt turn at the age of 16 when his father died and his mother told him she could no longer care for him. He was sent to live with his grandfather in Arkansas. A literary career could hardly have been predicted. His dyslexia made reading difficult and by the age of 19 he had never finished reading a book.
“When I did come to books I came with a vigour I wouldn’t have had when I was younger,” he says. “I saw books as a kind of a life raft that would get me away from failure.”
Ford had an early interest in journalism but dismissed the offer of a job writing obituaries for the Chicago Tribune. He thought foolishly, he now concedes, that the work was beneath his dignity. Recently the newspaper named Canada the 2012 winner of the Heartland Prize for Fiction which he will receive in November.
“I’m going to tell them (in his acceptance speech) that I think I made the right decision.”
Ford delivered on his literary promise with the publication of The Sportswriter, both a critical and commercial success. He returned to failed sportswriter Frank Bascombe in 1995 and secured his place in the top rank of American writers of his generation with Independence Day.
“I don’t know how a boy who was dyslexic and never excelled in school would have his life attached to books. You know there have to be extant mysteries in our lives.”
Ford’s 1995 novel Independence Day is the first novel to have won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in the same year.