Between them, de Richard Ford
Em Português: Entre Eles : Recordando os meus pais - Porto Editora, Junho de 2020
NOTA DE LEITURA
Não conhecia este autor. A leitura do livro foi sugerida pelo Pedro Mexia no Governo Sombra, mas em vez da tradução preferi ler o original inglês no Kindle. A escrita é bonita, mas parece-me que o livro não é suficiente para entender o autor.
Tem duas partes distintas: o relato da vida do pai, que só foi escrito em 2015, 55 anos após a morte dele; e o relato da vida da mãe que foi escrito e publicado em 1988, dois anos após a morte dela, e publicado então com o título “My Mother in memory”.
O pai nasceu em 1904, a mãe em 1910, casaram ambos no início de 1928. Como não tinham filhos, a mãe acompanhava quase sempre o pai nas suas viagens de negócios. A situação mudou quando o autor nasceu em 16 de Fevereiro de 1944, a mãe ficou em casa a partir daí.
O pai teve o primeiro ataque do coração em 1952, tinha o Autor 8 anos e o 2.º em 20 de Fevereiro de 1960, tendo falecido nessa mesma data, tinha o Autor 16 anos.
São referidos os ascendentes da mãe, em especial Essie Lucille, a avó materna que pretendia passar por irmã da filha Edna e o 2.º marido desta, Benie Shelley.
O Autor casou com Kristina Hensley, conheceram-se em 1963, casaram em 1968, ele com 24 e a esposa com 22 anos. Não tiveram filhos, tendo sido unânimes nesse propósito.
De certo modo o autor e a esposa trabalham em equipa. Ela lê as críticas mas só refere ao marido as que são favoráveis. Richard Ford era ligeiramente disléxico e é fácil de concluir que a esposa o corrige, quando necessário.
Para os conhecer melhor, sugiro a entrevista no Financial Times de 19-10-2012, de Ariel Leve,
https://www.ft.com/content/906531e2-18bd-11e2-80af-00144feabdc0 , que é excelente.
Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford – review
Two essays on the deaths of the author’s mother and father, written decades apart, are extraordinary studies of how we experience loss – and recall it
Sun 14 May 2017 06.30
· In an interview, I once asked Richard Ford about his experience of loss. Having read Ford’s prose over many years – his wonderful stories of the American south and midwest, where he grew up, his unfolding examination of his country’s slow fall from grace at the century’s end through the wearied, optimistic eyes of his everyman, Frank Bascombe – I was interested in how he always seemed to shadow even the sunniest of exchanges between his characters with poignancy, with a sense that nothing of the future might be as bright as what was passing. Some of it had to do with a cadence in his writing, the easy way that he let his words fall on the page before toying with their unwinding southern syntax, adding edges and depths. Reading Ford, those musical effects – he puts some of them down to childhood dyslexia and being a slow reader – invariably reminded me of Gertrude Stein’s observation that “sentences are not emotional, but paragraphs are”. Anyhow, with all this in mind, I asked him in our interview about loss and he replied in two ways.
· First, he said, “I don’t think a writer who writes about loss (if I do) needs to have suffered loss himself. We can imagine loss. That’s the writer’s job.” And second, he said this: “I was the child of older parents who I always was fearfully expecting to die on me. And the old Arkansas aunties and uncles did start departing when I was a small child… Then my father died when I was 16 – died in my arms at home. We were a three-person family. Very close and loving. So I experienced loss when he died; and probably as significantly, I experienced the loss my mother suffered – of her one great love in life. How we experience what we experience is a complex business.”
· This magical little book expands on all those thoughts, particularly the last of them, the question of “how we experience what we experience”. Ford has chosen his title carefully. His memoir recalls that time of childhood when the luckiest of us live contentedly in the space our parents create for us, a place of greater safety. The title also describes the structure he has found to recall that space. There are two separate memoirs here. The first, about Ford’s father, has been written recently. The second, about his mother, was written in 1986, five years after she died and the same year that Ford published the book that really started his career as a novelist, The Sportswriter. This is partly a book about time, then, the way in which our understanding of the lives of those we love stretches ahead of us and behind us, after they are gone, and locates us somewhere in their midst. And it is a book about memory.
· Ford is now 73. Whatever he is writing he has always been a natural essayist, in that sense of feeling his way through an experience by trying on lines and ideas for size. He begins here with the best of times. His father, Parker Ford, a man who looks at one point uncannily like the author in the black-and-white photographs that provide stepping-stones through the memoir, is a travelling salesman for the Faultless Starch company. We meet him heading home for the weekend, “carrying with him lumpy, white butcher-paper packages full of boiled shrimp or tamales or oysters-by-the-pint he’s brought up from Louisiana”. His blue eyes sparkle to be with his wife and son. He spreads open the packages of hot food on the table and life is “as festive as life can possibly be”. What follows is a test of how long Ford can hold that thought – nearly seven decades – question how true it was, and wonder what becomes of it.
· Parker Ford grew up in Arkansas and met the author’s mother, Edna Akin, in Hot Springs or Little Rock, before 1928, when she was 17. He was a “man who liked to be happy”, trying to make his way in the years following the Great Depression. Relations – those Arkansas aunts, the mother who never approved of his wife, believing her to be Catholic, despite all evidence to the contrary – strained, as relations always do. And then they broke when the worst of things happened, and the three-person family became two.
· Ford’s account of his father’s death is an extraordinary piece of writing. The more so, here, because it leads him in to the story of his mother, told 30 years ago, when that memory was more proximate but maybe less raw. The disjunction creates questions for the reader. Does experience change the ways we remember? The parents recalled by the 42-year-old writer are not exactly those of now. There is more jaggedness in their recalled lives, the writer seems to cast himself more centre stage, his frustration sometimes shows. He tries to make sense of his father’s long absences, working away from home, the few fights between his parents that he witnessed. And of course, recollections of an ageing mother in adulthood are likely to be more complex than memories of a father who never grew old.
· The fact of this book unites some of those contradictions. For Ford and his mother, the shock of their only being the two of them never went away. One absence melded into another. They lived far apart after he moved to Maine. He recalls how once his mother told him that in an elevator an acquaintance had asked her if she had children, and without thinking she answered “no”. “And then she’d thought to herself, ‘Oh, for God’s sake. Of course I do. There’s Richard.’”
· In his afterword to these memoirs, Ford notes how a friend said to him recently that from his account of them, Parker and Edna sounded sad. But that is not, Ford says, how his parents’ lives ever felt to him, nor how they would have felt to them. “There was sadness,” he writes. “But when they were together, including when I was with them (and often because of it), their life –I believe– seemed to them better than any life they could have expected, given how and where they’d begun.” The act of writing those lives, has been if anything, Ford suggests, less poignant for him than a “source of immense exhilaration”. His readers, those with parents, and those without them, will feel that too.
· • Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99).
The novelist makes no grand claims for this memoir, and it is his unembarrassed love for his mother and father that comes through
Wed 24 May 2017 14.00
What ultimately came between Richard Ford’s parents occurred on 20 February 1960, when his father suffered a heart attack. He’d had one 12 years previously but recovered, eased up, seemed (though overweight) relatively well – until Richard heard his mother call out early that morning and came through in pyjamas to find his father gasping for air. He shook him by the shoulders then tried artificial respiration, something he’d heard about but never practised. It didn’t work.
His father (Parker) was only 55, his mother (Edna) 50, Richard himself (an only child) 16. A lesser writer would milk the trauma. But Ford studiously avoids the word. Unjust though it was, his father’s early death “surrendered back to me nearly as much as it took away”, freeing him to live by his own decisions and designs. Even for Edna, who never married again, there was consolation of a kind in the jobs she was forced into, the last of which, at a hospital, she greatly enjoyed. Ford takes his cue from her stoicism. “The chore for the memoir writer is to compose a shape and economy that give faithful, reliable, if sometimes drastic coherence to the many unequal things any life contains,” he says. What his parents had between them, rather than what came between them, is the thing he wants to understand.
His parents were very young when they met, Edna just 17. Parker, a shy, slow-moving country boy, had worked as a grocer before being let go after the store was robbed. He took a job selling laundry starch for a Kansas-based outfit called the Faultless Company. The work meant travelling Monday to Friday through seven southern states. It didn’t pay well – less than $200 a month, even with expenses. But he was good at it, and popular, and did it till he died.
For most of that time, Edna travelled with him, relieved to escape her mother, who after divorcing her first husband took up with a younger one, shaving years off her age and sending Edna away to be schooled by nuns. Life on the road in the depression years suited her fine. She and Parker stayed in cheap hotels, ate in roadside joints, drank a lot, made friends. They owned nothing, not even the car Parker drove at an economical 60mph. It didn’t matter. They were having fun. It was, for 15 years, a seemingly idyllic existence.
Then Richard was born, at a point (so he guesses) when they’d stopped believing in the possibility of children. His arrival put an end to their “loose, pick-up-and-go” itinerant lifestyle: they rented a duplex in Jackson, Mississippi, a convenient midpoint for Parker’s territory, and he became an absent father and husband, home only at weekends. To fill the gap, Edna and Richard sometimes went with him. Once the car had a puncture on the bridge at Greenville, and while Parker changed the tyre Edna hugged Richard tight to her, as if from fear he might fall or be blown into the river below. It’s one of his earliest memories.
There is a lot he doesn’t remember, which is both a blessing, leaving him free to imagine, and a curse, making his relationship with his parents seem more remote than it really was. What he does remember tends to be fragmentary, pieces standing for the whole. He remembers his father pinning his mother against the wall and yelling at her. He remembers rowing with his father about a Christmas tree. He remembers a Sunday drive where they came upon police cars at a murder scene. He remembers hearing someone describe Edna as a “little black-haired woman” and his sudden perception of her as something other than his mother. He remembers a conversation withher in his teens when he feared his girlfriend might be pregnant. Perhaps these memories have stuck because they are troubled, whereas his childhood, he says, was mostly happy. As François Sagan once put it (in a variation on Henry de Montherlant’s “Happiness writes in white ink”), “Happiness is a flat plain without landmarks.”
What he recalls more confidently than episodes are gestures and habits: his father’s hesitant smile, bodily softness, forward-leaning gait and sudden tempers, for instance. Photos help to carry him back in time, and some are reproduced in the book. But neither words nor images can dissolve the mystery of his parents’ otherness: “I approach that otherness and they elude me, as parents do.”
Coleridge described the elegy as a form “natural to the reflective mind”, with “sorrow and love” as its principal themes, and Between Them is as much a reflective essay as a narrative. It’s not that there’s a lack of drama to recount. Ford’s paternal grandfather killed himself; his maternal grandmother liked to pretend that Edna was her sister, not her daughter; the teenage Ford had his brushes with the law. But these episodes are merely noted in passing; he gives more weight to the quieter moments.
The most heartfelt comes when Edna, suffering from cancer, admits she’s not sure if she’s capable of looking after herself any more. She can always move east and live with him, her son suggests. If he’s sure, she says, her eyes bright with reprieve, she’ll start to make plans. But wait, he says – “And this is a sentence I wish, above all sentences in my life, I had never said” – she shouldn’t make her plans just yet. He watches her eyes go dark again. Six weeks later she was dead.
“The memoirist is never just the teller of other people’s stories, but is a character in those stories,” Ford writes. But by the standards of most memoirists, he is self-effacing: this isn’t the place to recount the growth of the author’s mind, the journey from childhood to first book. Readers familiar with his fiction may find some suggestive connections: between the endless travelling his father did and the evocation of American landscapes in the Frank Bascombe sequence that began with The Sportswriter; between the hotel his grandparents ran, and where Ford often stayed as a child, and the hotel where the narrator of his marvellous novel Canada ends up. Ford himself doesn’t get into this. The last thing he’d want is to treat his parents as “literary instruments employable to conjure something larger”. All he’ll say is: “had my father lived beyond his appointed time, I would likely have never written anything.”
The two tributes in this short book were composed 30 years apart, the one to Edna shortly after her death, that to Parker over half a century after his. But there is the same tone of voice throughout: serious, contemplative, reluctant to make grand claims, determined to be as accurate as possible, and desperate to preserve two lives that might otherwise pass unnoticed. “Most everything but love goes away,” Ford writes, and it’s his unembarrassed love for his parents that comes through. Here he is, in his 70s, long after their deaths, still living between them.
• Between Them is published by Bloomsbury.
The New York Times
By Cheryl Strayed
May 1, 2017
Remembering My Parents
By Richard Ford
Illustrated. 179 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $25.99.
There are two sentences in William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” that I’ve returned to often in the 20-some years since I first read them: “It takes two people to make you and one people to die. That’s how the world is going to end.” I’ve often puzzled over why those sentences have repeatedly reeled me back to them. They aren’t all that profound. They don’t say anything surprising or new. Usually, when I take my aged copy of the book from my shelves and turn to Page 39 to find those lines once more, I’m disappointed. In my memory of them they’re more piercing than they turn out to be on the page, where they state only what’s plainly true: We are born of two and we die alone.
And yet, of course — and this I’ve always known, even in my puzzlement and disappointment — what draws me back to them is a truth that sits beneath the surface of the twin, universal facts of our beginnings and endings: the unequivocal triad of mother-father-self. Whether that triad is sturdy or broken, bonded by biology, affection or both, it’s one that most of us must reckon with, in some shifting fashion, all of our lives.
I pondered Faulkner’s lines again recently, as I lay awake at 1 a.m. thinking about Richard Ford’s new memoir “Between Them: Remembering My Parents,” which I had finished the hour before. The book is composed of two discrete, novella-length memoirs that were written more than 30 years apart. Ford wrote the first, about his father, Parker, a traveling salesman who died in 1960 when Ford was 16, recently; he wrote the second, about his independent, no-nonsense mother, Edna, shortly after her death in 1981. Together they form an illuminating portrait of a slightly unconventional white couple born in the early years of the 20th century. With a depth of perception that’s both affectionate and insightful, Ford tells the stories of his parents’ lives and deaths by turn, as they move from Arkansas to Mississippi, from near-poverty to the middle class, from 15 years of child-free marriage to the surprise of parenthood at an age that was then considered late in life, and from his father’s sudden, early death of a heart attack, to his mother’s widowhood and eventual death by cancer.
This book is about them, but it’s also about the boy they made and what he has come, 70-plus years on, to make of them. In showing his mother and father to us, Ford — an ordinary child, who grew up to become one of our most distinguished fiction writers — has, inevitably, shown a fair portion of himself.
A lot of that is done by way of Ford looking outward rather than inward. “Between Them” is driven by the author’s curiosity about who his parents were — both who they seemed to him to be in their lives and who, in retrospect, he imagines they might have been beyond his view. It’s through this innate desire to know, paired with Ford’s exceptional abilities as a prose craftsman, that these two ordinary people are made vital and vivid to us on the page. His depictions and examinations of his parents before and after he was born — their mannerisms and bearings, their wounds and silences, their squabbles and pleasures — offer a master class in character development and narrative economy, as in this passage, in which Ford describes his parents around the time of their first meeting:
“His large malleable, fleshy face was given to smiling. His first face was always the smiling one. The long Irish lip. The transparent blue eyes — my eyes. My mother must’ve noticed this when she met him — wherever she did. In Hot Springs or Little Rock, sometime before 1928. Noticed this and liked what she saw. A man who liked to be happy. She had never been exactly happy — only inexactly, with the nuns who taught her at St. Anne’s in Fort Smith, where her mother had put her to keep her out of the way.”
This is not a book that runs on the steam of what-happens-next, but rather on the contemplative, inquisitive force of Ford’s longing to finally see his parents, which inevitably has him looking back. “Mine has been a life of noticing and being a witness,” he writes in the final pages of the book, a claim that will come as no surprise to those who have admired the penetrating understanding of the nuances of human character evident in his fiction. But this noticing takes on a different shade in “Between Them.” There’s a vulnerability that I’ve not observed in Ford’s work before, a tender surrender to the search. What makes this book so moving is, in part, Ford’s glorious engagement with the unknowable that we, paradoxically, come to memoir for — it’s only in fiction, after all, that a writer has the luxury of omniscience, of being the god of the who, how, when, where, what and why.
There is no god in memoir. We all have a dazzling lack of authority about the inner lives of even the people with whom we are most intimate. In “Between Them,” Ford uses this to his advantage. His deep interrogation of the things he didn’t and couldn’t know about his parents runs alongside the fact that no one knew them better or remembers them as accurately as he did or does. Precisely in the passages that give way to this convergence of conjecture and knowledge, memory and supposition, Ford comes the closest to grasping most fully who his parents were. His deep, attentive, almost methodical wondering about them — in other words, the things that may or may not be actually true — bring the private realities of their existence most palpably to life. Of his father, out on the road selling laundry starch, a job that kept him away from home each week Monday morning through Friday evening, Ford writes:
“And how was it for him? Driving, driving alone? Sitting in those hotel rooms, in lobbies, reading a strange newspaper in the poor lamplight; taking a walk down a street in the evening, smoking? Eating supper with some man he knew off the road? Listening to the radio in the sweep and hum of an oscillating fan. Then turning in early to the noise of katydids and switch-yards, car doors closing and voices in the street laughing into another night. How was it being a father this way — having a wife, renting a house in a town where they knew almost no one and had no friends, coming home only on weekends, as if this were home?”
It has often been said that to pay attention is the greatest act of love, and Ford has paid masterly attention in “Between Them.” But he has also done more. In this slim beauty of a memoir, he has given us — the same way he has given us many times in his fiction — a remarkable story about two unremarkable people we would have never known, but for him. Which he couldn’t have written, but for them.
Cheryl Strayed’s books include the memoir “Wild” and the nonfiction collection “Tiny Beautiful Things.”
In John Updike’s “Rabbit at Rest,” there’s an agitated scene between Janice Angstrom and her bumbling adult son in which she tells him: “You shouldn’t sit in judgment of your parents. We did the best we could while being people too.” That’s weak reprieve for any loving parent: Our best is hardly good enough. We damage our children one way or we damage them another. Many return to indict us for it. Some write memoirs, and every memoir of Mom and Dad, like it or not, is an indictment.
Richard Ford’s new memoir, “Between Them,” makes clear the enormous difficulty of truly knowing that enigmatic pair who invented us. Ford’s parents brought him up in Jackson, Miss. Parker Ford was a traveling salesman for a starch company, Edna his on-the-road love and lover. Their life together began just before World War II in time-stuck nooks of Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas. An only child, Richard arrived, unplanned but half-hoped for, in 1944. Part of the intermittent charm of this memoir is its restoration of that deleted era, a contemplative delving into what now seems antiquity: the traveling salesman, the town square and Main Street, a doctor’s house calls, the tingling novelty of a new model of American car.
Throughout Ford’s childhood, his father was usually gone, “a force largely unseen,” and then one morning he was gone for good. His heart had final say. Ford was 16 years old. Parker’s absence had been “the ordinary, identifying dimension of everything,” and at his death, “of course, everything changed — many things, it’s odd to say, for the better where I was concerned.” He was granted the liberty to do as he pleased, to assemble his own selfhood, away from the flare of that flawed and “combustible” man. At such an age, “a boy could do worse,” says Ford, “than to lose his father.”
Well, not by much. It’s hard to dodge Freud’s inkling that the death of the father is the most psychically disruptive event in any male’s life, and yet Ford manages to dodge it here. He’s unaccountably incurious about his 16-year-old self and the rip his father’s death must have caused at the hub of him.
Ford saves the bulk of his understanding and insight for his mother, whose life after Parker’s death played in anguished slo-mo: the resigned quest for an occupation and identity, the tedium punctuated by boredom, the cancer that erased her in her 70s. She never remarried. “Her life,” Ford writes, “never seemed fully lived” — the saddest line in the book. Hers was a manner of uncomplaining integrity, the everyday “quiet desperation” Thoreau lamented. Ford loved her as he could, mostly from afar, while laboring to create what he would become, yanked between vying loyalties. Guilt is a given. With an ailing and alienated parent, guilt is always a given.
At just 175 pages, spattered with “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure,” “Between Them” is a wisp of a book. It “might seem incomplete or lacking,” Ford says, and it certainly does, though he claims he has “excluded nothing for discretion or propriety’s sake, but only because one recollection or another didn’t seem important enough.” That might be true, but a memoir isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a conveyor belt of recollections. Its importance will reside in whatever mosaic emerges from a life’s morass, and in how searchingly one considers one’s own founding and formation.
At its strongest, with simply etched sentences and slow stabs of wisdom, this memoir conjures “Rock Springs,” Ford’s faultless 1987 story collection: “Most everything but love goes away”; “the persuasive power of normal life is extravagant”; old photos are “scalloped black-and-whites.” At its weakest, though, Ford’s prose mopes with at-hand utterances: “part and parcel,” “pride and joy,” “this and that.”
Tauntingly childless — “I hate children,” he once said — Ford admits: “What I know of children and childhood and of being a parent, I know almost entirely from being my parents’ son.” Which of course won’t do, if knowledge of parenthood is what you’re after. And there’s something else: In his memoir “Experience,” Martin Amis suggests that the childless never really comprehend their parents, are never able really to forgive them for their influential inadequacies. One wonders how the vista of “Between Them” would have been widened if Ford had kids to clue him in to the essence of his own parents, or if he’d been more interested in how the trajectory of their lives plotted his own. What did their lives mean?
But he has attempted a gentle reckoning here, his own exertion of mercy and mourning — his parents breathe in him still — and the attempt alone makes a loving homage.
is the author, most recently, of a memoir, “The Hero’s Body.”
Born and raised in Mississippi, Richard Ford disowns the label 'southern writer'. The son of a travelling salesman, transience is one of his themes. He abandoned a planned career in hotel administration, and a spell as a sports journalist inspired one of his most successful novels, the first in a trilogy
Richard Ford is not Hemingway, nor is he Clint Eastwood, Raymond Carver or Bruce Springsteen. Standing on the dock by his New England home, he reels off the list of frequent comparisons. He is fiddling with a fishing rod, cursing loudly as the line whips back and tangles - the fish are long gone. It is a most successful impression of not being Hemingway, yet Ford has undeniably carved himself out as a man's man, and an all-hunting, all-fishing, Harley-riding sort of a writer. His is the male American voice of motels and freeways and love derailed. It is 27 years since he published his first novel, A Piece of My Heart, in 1976. Since then, he has written five novels and three collections of short stories, edited both the Granta Book of the American Short Story and the Granta Book of the American Long Story and racked up numerous prizes. In 1995, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner award for his novel Independence Day.
The taut, moody character who stares out from the dust-jackets of his books is less doleful in person, his gaze less urgent. He lives in Maine, a region he describes in his book, A Multitude of Sins, as "small in scale, profusely scenic, annoyingly remote, exclusive and crowded". Yet he seems happy enough in his broad, timbered house overlooking the bay. Vitamin pills clutter the dressing table, while in the kitchen sits the latest edition of the New York Times and a copy of a Martin Amis novel, somewhat soggy round the edges where the dog has chewed it.
Ford's story begins in the south. Edna and Parker Carroll Ford were born in Arkansas, shortly before the depression. "My mother was from really poor circumstances," says Ford. "I don't mean eating dirt, but she was born on a dirt floor." At the age of 18, she met Parker. "My father was from an Irish background," Ford says. "He was a big, handsome, sweet man. Together they - and I always say it about my wife Kristina and me - they made one whole person." Like one of the characters in A Piece of My Heart , Ford's father was a travelling salesman, and Edna realised she was pregnant when they were on the road, selling starch. They settled in Jackson, Mississippi, where their only child was born on February 16 1944. While Parker maintained his itinerant lifestyle until his death, Edna invested her efforts in raising their son. "Her ambition, was to be first in love with my father," Ford says simply, "and second to be a full-time mother."
His was a contented upbringing. "My parents loved me," he says. "They were nice to me. They did not foster in me any bad attitudes. Any bad attitudes I have, I have fostered on my own." Yet he describes himself as an essentially dull child. "I was a product of my environment," he says. "Not very ambitious. Not very curious about very much. But my father died at a crucial time and I was kind of left to my own devices. If he hadn't died then we would've stayed quite an insular, nuclear little family." Ford still regards Mississippi as his home, though he describes it as "a churchy, conservative, mostly agricultural, bigoted place". Even today, his speech is sprinkled with the sugar-dipped mannerisms of a gent from the deep south - "sweetheart", "honey".
Ford grew up in the same neighbourhood as fellow Pulitzer winner Eudora Welty. He attended the same high school 30-odd years after her. In August 2001, Ford was a pallbearer at Welty's funeral and he remains her literary executor. Welty and William Faulkner are two of the literary figures whom Ford feels have exempted him from writing about his birthplace. "Fortunately," he says, they have "written about it so well, that I don't ever have to worry about it. Mississippi is already well on the literary map." A Piece of My Heart was set in Arkansas and Mississippi, telling the story of drifter Robert Hewes who leaves his wife to pursue a married cousin. Though it was well-received and nominated for the Ernest Hemingway best first novel award, Ford was irked by the critics' readiness to file him neatly under southern writer.
As if to throw them off the scent, Ford set his next novel, The Ultimate Good Luck (1981) in Oaxaca, Mexico. Later, and most successfully, he would turn his attentions to New Jersey. "I didn't see anything about New Jersey that would obligate me. I wanted to set stories there, to purloin the place, put it down there on the page and say 'that's Haddam, New Jersey'. But I didn't feel any obligation to be faithful to the place." Since then, Ford has encountered numerous New Jersey writers who might have exerted some kind of "obligation" over him. "But," he says, "it wasn't in the way that Faulkner did. If you're in Mississippi and you want to be a writer, you have an inescapable obligation to Faulkner."
He claims only to get to know a place to a certain degree. "What a writer does is not report on the world," he argues. "I never meet anybody that I think I want to put into a book. Sometimes I'll meet somebody and they'll say something, and I'll want to put it in my notebook and bring it back in another incarnation. But do I - when I go here, or to New Jersey - go hungrily into the place? No. When I leave here I don't feel as much a part of it as the lobsterman. But this is how my life has been conducted." He says where he actually lives is inside his head. "I don't mean to make that sound romantic, or even interesting. But I do that rather than go plundering around trying to find nice little ancient graveyards, or going down to the historical society. I do the normal routine things - go to the hardware store to buy hornet spray, get my tyres rotated, go have lunch. Whatever is around in the ambience here I'll find it, without having to go at it."
Fred Hobson, Lineberger Professor of the Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says, "He doesn't wish to be considered a southern writer, and I think he is astoundingly insightful in capturing contemporary America, both north and south. He writes within the earlier high tradition of, for example, Faulkner, but tends to parody that. For example, in The Sportswriter, the idea of lofty ancestors is a very conscious playing on tradition seen in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Absalom Absalom." Hobson draws further parallels - both The Sportswriter and The Sound and the Fury take place over an Easter weekend, and, in Faulkner's novel, Mrs Compson's middle name is Bascomb - later echoed in Ford's most famous character, The Sportswriter's Frank Bascombe.
Ford's father died of a heart attack when Ford was 16, and he was sent to Arkansas to live with his grandmother and her second husband, a former boxer, who were running a hotel. It proved educational, allowing the sort of glimpses into other people's lives which have since become Ford's stock in trade. "I did everything in the hotel," he says. "I worked in it and I played in it. A lot of things go on in great big hotels, behind closed doors, and I saw behind those doors. Recklessness and mistakes, y'know?"
His grandmother's husband sought to harness the boy's enthusiasm for the hotel business, researching colleges where he might study hotel administration. By his own admission, he was not an outstanding student. He was a slow reader, hindered by dyslexia, and had no aptitude for maths. His grades placed him in the middle of his class. "But after my father died," he remembers, "I started taking life a lot more seriously."
He applied to Cornell, without really knowing what or where Cornell was, and to Michigan State University. "I knew where Michigan was, 'cause Michigan had football, and it didn't have racial problems the way Mississippi did." At Michigan, he completed just one term of hotel administration before moving to literature. "I said 'I don't want to go back home, what can I study?' They said 'What are your aptitudes, what do you like?' And I liked words, I liked literature."
He excelled at Michigan, spurred on by the apathy of his peers and by a girlfriend he was "wildly in love with". "For me to do well at anything," he explains, "I have to work harder than other people. I can't do a lot of other things at the same time. I have concentration for one thing at a time. It's not such a bad way to be, and it's not such a bad thing to learn."
Graduating in 1966, Ford hovered over various professions - the police, teaching, working for American Druggist magazine, applying to the CIA. For a while, he settled on law, heading off to Washington University in St Louis for a term before returning, disillusioned, to Arkansas to teach. "I didn't have that sense of getting out of university and feeling that opportunities were sitting in front of me," he says. "It was more like looking at a wall which was mostly turning dark. And a little window, which was writing stories, opened up and I just went through it."
Ford enrolled in a graduate writing course at the University of California in Irvine, where he was taught by Oakley Hall and EL Doctorow. He was not, he claims, the finest writer in his class, though he is now its most successful graduate. Although his early novels were greeted warmly, writing brought little financial reward or personal satisfaction, and in 1981 he decided to abandon novel writing. For a few years he had been sporadically teaching creative writing at the University of Michigan, Williams College and Princeton, though he was unwilling to consider academia as a permanent career.
"To me it's kind of like a non-contact sport," he explains. "It's showing off, being the smartest one on the block. I've got a pretty good memory, and I read literature as food. I remember lines, specific poems. But I could never hope to have this Christopher Hitchens-like command, [people] who know everything, but fundamentally don't know jack shit - who have a heart basically made of coal. Literature hit me amidships. When I read Absalom Absalom - the first novel I ever read - it just took me over. In a way it left me with a reverence for literature which does not require an encyclopaedic knowledge. I read what I read really closely. People always know more than I do, but what I know I know."
He sought work as a sportswriter with a New York publication named Inside Sports. "I tumbled, face-forward into sportswriting," he recalls. "I felt I'd had my shot at being a novelist. But all I was qualified to do, all I was trained for, was being a writer. And I knew a lot about sports - I'd been a boxer, a would-be athlete." Sportswriting, he explains, has a different heritage in America. "There's a certain literary side to it." He was employed to cover football and baseball between 1980-83. A year later, the magazine folded, and he once again found himself unemployed.
Here the line blurs between Ford and his most famous protagonist, Frank Bascombe. First introduced to us in The Sportswriter, Bascombe is a 38-year-old who abandoned a promising writing career to report on sports for a glossy magazine. Set in the fictional town of Haddam, New Jersey, the story takes place over Easter weekend 1983. Four years earlier, his eldest son had died, and like some latter-day Rip Van Winkle, Bascombe fell into a spell of "dreaminess" only to emerge to a changed world, in which he is divorced, albeit amicably, from his wife, known throughout as X.
Aged 23, Ford married his college sweetheart, Kristina, and they moved into a one-bedroom apartment in New York. "It seemed," he says, "like the right time. I always thought that, given my Irish background, I wouldn't get married till I was about 35, that someone would drag me kicking and screaming to it. But when you meet someone like Kristina, who's a once- in-a-lifetime person, you don't pass that up." He recalls, early on in their marriage, despatching her dejected suitors. "I called them up on the phone, I said I didn't want to see their sorry asses anymore. She was quite taken by it."
Kristina studied for a PhD in city planning, teaching at New York University and acquiring increasingly prestigious positions in her field. In 1989 they moved to New Orleans where she found a job in the city planning commission, eventually becoming executive director. She now runs a public benefit foundation. They have no children, having decided not to early on in their relationship. It is a subject at which he visibly bristles.
"I hate children," he declares. Seemingly, they did not fit with either their career plans or their itinerant lifestyle. In Ford's fledgling-writer days, as money trickled in, Kristina was the main source of income. In his introduction to a 1996 edition of Ploughshares, the literary magazine of Emerson College, Boston, he recalls his "meatless days in Chicago (while my wife was, of course, pulling down a handsome living for us), of dashes to the mailbox, of envelopes ripped open, form rejections hungrily scoured for encouraging nuances in phrasing, or the slapdash 'Pls try us again'..."
Until 1995, the couple lived together in the French quarter of New Orleans. But Ford had found the process of writing Independence Day , begun in 1991 and published in 1995, exacting. New Orleans, he says is "noisy and crowded and not a good place to be a novelist". So he moved to Maine. "I said to Kristina, 'Look, I love you and I want to be your husband forever, but I don't want to live here anymore'."
Kristina, committed to her own job, stayed in New Orleans. "I would be in love with Kristina no matter what," he says. "And I'd like to live in the same place in the future. But you really only get to live once, and there's a sense of not wanting to waste life by enduring situations that you don't like." A lot of people, he claims, say that having one's wife 2,000 miles away is no way to live a life. "But there's no one way to conduct a marriage," he says. "There's just a lot of bad ways."
Despite Ford's devotion to his wife, infidelity and all the "bad ways" to run a marriage remain dominant themes in his work. In A Multitude of Sins , his most recent story collection, published in the UK last year, "Quality Time" is concerned with Wales and Jenna, who is married, as they collide in a Chicago hotel room, while "Dominion" introduces Henry and Madeleine, stationed in some other Chicago hotel room, at the end of their affair. "You're gonna get restless," says Ford, "if you put the stamp of permanence on your life in some way - institutionalising matrimony or children, a house or a job." Notably, Jenna's husband, a real estate whiz, mourns the lack of "a sense of locatedness" in their life, and this introduces another of Ford's themes - the static versus the transient, real estate versus the open road. A Multitude of Sins shows us snapshots of hotel rooms, freeways, car journeys: the places in between.
Ford wrote about the attraction of transcience in a 1992 article: "Longing's at the heart of it, I guess. Longing that overtakes me like a fast car on the freeway and makes me willing to withstand a feeling of personal temporariness, the darker side of which is a malfeasant sensation that I'm here again with the wrong papers, or I'm lying about something, or that no one in the neighbourhood can vouch for me - the emigrant experience at home."
One of Ford's female characters supposes that after marriage life "would cease to be an open, flat plain upon which you walked with a chosen other, and became instead cluttered, impassable". Even Bascombe's quintessential American-ness is enhanced by the fact that, like a Thoreau, an Emerson or a Kerouac, he is happiest when on the move, liking the travel necessitated by sportswriting, recalling routes and freeways with tenderness. By Independence Day he has settled himself in a job in real estate, but has a little sideline in a roadside root beer stall - keeping, perhaps, a weather eye on the road out. Yet Independence Day is soaked in a love of place, of Haddam, New Jersey, of America itself.
Ford has spoken of his admiration for writers such as Ford Madox Ford, because he "tends towards lushness and wider use of the language. I like books that are generous and at risk of being baggy," he says. What he gives us in the opening paragraph of Independence Day is an unri valled generosity and lushness, slow and wafting: "In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems. Shaded lawns lie still and damp in the early a.m. Outside, on peaceful-morning Cleveland Street, I hear the footfalls of a lone jogger, tramping past and down the hill toward Taft lane and across to Choir College, there to run in the damp grass..."
Christopher MacLehose, Ford's British publisher, first encountered him in 1985, when Ford joined an American writers' tour in the UK, alongside Tobias Wolff, Elizabeth Tallent and Ford's best friend Raymond Carver, the four being labelled "new minimalists". To a packed reading in London, Ford read a story called "Communists". MacLehose was dazzled, and immediately offered to publish anything Ford chose to write. "He's the best reader of his own work in English that I've ever heard," says MacLehose, who was Carver's editor at the Harvill Press. "There was a certainty that isn't always generated by readings." He is similarly impressed by Ford's work on the page. "It is intensely serious. You don't have any sense that it has been worked. It is so fluent. It is a pleasure to read his sentences."
MacLehose believes the Pulitzer prize was awarded because Independence Day "seems to be a really major American fiction; Ford is among the absolute outstanding writers of his generation". Ford himself says he won only because Philip Roth didn't write a better book. "People had written me off. When the book came out it just took a while to make its way. It didn't happen overnight. It got bad reviews - that's the book that Alice Hoffman wrote nasty things about in the New York Times."
Ford's run-in with Hoffman, with whom he shared a publisher, has become legendary. In retaliation for her criticism, Ford shot a hole through her latest book and posted it to her. "Well my wife shot it first," says Ford, rather proudly. "She took the book out into the back yard, and shot it. But people make such a big deal out of it - shooting a book - it's not like I shot her."
Ford had met Raymond Carver in 1977, at a literary festival in Dallas. "He never made me feel I was in the shadow," Ford wrote in "Good Raymond", in 1998, 10 years after Carver's death,"[he] never scolded me when I inadvertently cadged a character's name, adopted as my own the direct style of his short-story openings, which he, of course, had adopted from Chekhov. To do any of that, to hold myself against me, was not his nature. We were friends."
Ford is now at work on the third Frank Bascombe novel. It is a complex process. He hauls out a large cardboard box from a cupboard in his study. It is filled with tiny scraps of paper - backs of envelopes, corners of notepaper from the University Club and the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood, scrawled with his tight, knotty handwriting. He pulls out a few at random. "I used to wear an appliance, but I lost it..." "Weather is all we really have of real experience in the suburbs... standing out in rain..." "Going to the male clinic... having seen blood on the sheets..."
"And then I just pick at them," he says, "very patiently, and I mean it takes months, and I know what I'm writing, because part of the collation of these notes indicates that I think I'm writing something. And then I start making files." He has a file for Frank and a file each for Paul and Clarissa, Frank's children, and a file for Thanksgiving, when he plans to set the novel. He has a file for real estate and one for carryovers - the things from the other books which may re-emerge in this one, and he has a file for what he calls the permanent period, which is how Frank will define this period of his life, following on from the existence period of Independence Day .
A lot of the files have duplicate entries, phrases he doesn't know whether to attribute to one character or another. He prints up all the notes and puts them into ring-bound notebooks. And then, he says, "I like to put them in the freezer, so if the house burns down, the freezer won't. I probably have more things I want to write about in this book than I had in the other two," he says. "But I hope this book is going to be shorter than Independence Day ."
At the end of Independence Day he thought he had created a natural successor to The Sportswriter. But when he read them both again recently, he decided they aren't alike at all. "I was shocked to see how long the sentences in Independence Day were," he says. "And I didn't like it very much." Right now he is enjoying "lolling about in all the big ol' messy stuff", the mucky business of trawling through notes, distributing quotes to his characters, deciding that Frank's root beer stall will be sold to a gay sandwich shop chain called Twin Buns. "I'm enough of a Presbyterian to know that it ain't the destination - it's all in the trip there. I like the part of being a writer in which you don't feel the sides of anything. You don't see the beginning, and you don't see the end, you're just in it."
Born: February 16, 1944, Jackson, Mississippi.
Education: Davis Elementary School, Jackson; Michigan State University; University of California, Irvine.
Married: 1968, Kristina Hensley.
Career: 1980-3 Sportswriter, Inside Sports.
Novels: 1976 A Piece of my Heart; 81 The Ultimate Good Luck; 86 The Sportswriter; 90 Wildlife; 95 Independence Day.
Short story collections: 1987 Rock Springs; 97 Women With Men: Three Stories; 2002 A Multitude of Sins: Stories.
Dramatic writing: 1983 American Tropical; 91 Bright Angel.
Non-fiction: 1988 My Mother in Memory; 92 Editor, The Granta Book of the American Short Story;99 Editor, The Granta Book of the American Long Story.
· The Sportswriter, Wildlife and Independence Day are reissued this month by Vintage.
· A Multitude of Sins was published last year.