O Canada, Pulitzer win­ner stands on guard for thee

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Kevin Prokosh

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.”

SUP­PLIED PHOTO

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.

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