Shirley Hazzard and Richard Ford: A Conversation at the PEN World Voices Festival

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Last Friday night, for about one hour, Richard Ford asked Shirley Hazzard questions about her life and her writing. It was part of the PEN World Voices Festival. It cost $20.

Shirley Hazzard walked onstage with a cane in one hand and her black purse in the other. Her hair is red. She’s 79. She kept the purse beside her in the chair and sometimes gripped its strap as she spoke. “I’m so glad to see you, thank you for coming,” she told the audience. Salman Rushdie was there.

First, Richard Ford asked about her short story “Harold.”  She said it was the first story she’d ever written.* She said she sent it to The New Yorker because why not send it to the best place and that William Maxwell had accepted it. Richard Ford told us that Hazzard was 20-years-old at the time.** He was flabbergasted. The audience laughed. He wore pink socks.

Hazzard worked for the U.N. at the time, not “an encouraging place.” Because she wasn’t “brutally ugly” everyone at the U.N. expected her to marry so they didn’t give her interesting work to do. Richard Ford asked whether Maxwell edited her fiction very heavily.

“I didn’t want changes,” she said.

Ford said Hazzard was “natively funny.”

Hazzard said: “It’s nice that we have the alleviation of being amused by things.”

Three times friend and novelist Annabel Davis-Goff came out and read Hazzard’s work.

Hazzard said poetry was “the longest important thing in my life.” Ford said he thinks writers now “feel challenged to be tough on the page.” Hazzard said we are lucky to have “a very flexible language” but that it is nonetheless “a challenge to find another shade or tone.”

Richard Ford: “Do you think places have spirits?”

Shirley Hazzard: “I don’t know how to express that. A place is always changing… and yet the language gives us continuity. I wish I had a more romantic vision of place.”

Richard Ford: “What is the hardest part of being a writer?”

Shirley Hazzard: “I like writing dialogue. I like to have an open ear for speech.”

Richard Ford: “Is there something you don’t like about writing?”

Shirley Hazzard: “No.”

Shirley Hazzard: “Well, writing checks or something.”

Richard Ford: “Literary theory has pretty well strangled itself.”

Shirley Hazzard: “I don’t feel we need to be instructed all the time. The more criticism the less spontaneous acceptance there is.”

Richard Ford read to us from Transit of Venus. I felt that he was performing Hazzard’s greatness, even with Hazzard seated beside him. It was uncomfortable. Two people instigated a standing ovation.

*Both authors indicated that “Harold” was Hazzard’s first published story — in The New Yorker or anywhere. This Guardian interview corroborates said indications. But New Yorker archives suggest that “Harold,” published in October of 1962, was actually her EIGHTH New Yorker story. The first was “Woollhara Road,” published in April 1961.
**This too doesn’t make sense. If she was born in 1931–she’s 79 today–she would have been 30-years-old in 1961, not 20.

The whole event was recorded. You can watch the video here.


Lauren Spohrer's fiction has recently appeared on BenMarcus.com and Everyday Genius. More from this author →