You may have noticed Richard Ford’s new book, Let Me Be Frank With You, has a request for a title (as well as a pun). It’s no accident. Ford—who once again adopts the voice of Frank Bascombe, last seen, in reverse chronological order, in The Lay of the Land, Independence Day, and The Sportswriter—wanted to return to his most enduring creation. But not for the reasons you might think. He didn’t want to cash in on his character’s previous successes. Also, he didn’t want to write another entire energeic (or, God forbid, architectonic) novel. Perhaps the best way to explain what he did want is to look at the result: four long, interlocking stories, which allow him to explore loss, mortality, and humanity through a series of small, moment-by-moment encounters.
In Let Me Be Frank With You, the retired, eponymous Bascombe meets old friends, enemies, lovers, and strangers; he blunders, blusters, and stumbles through the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, wryly observant, simultaneously self-aware and clueless, feeling around for the holistic meaning of life like a man floundering in brackish shallows for a life preserver. He’s a comic character, the tragic kind with more than his share of loss, but also smart and hopeful and willful. Ford’s style has often been referred to by critics as “dirty realism,” and compared to the lower-middle class modernism of Ford’s old friend, Raymond Carver, but the truth, at least in this new book, is that Frank’s world isn’t gritty, and the nonjudgmental awareness of his voice gives even his smallest encounters a surrealistic pseudo-omniscience.
I spoke to Richard Ford a few days before he left for Billings, Montana, for a hunting trip with his wife, and he told me all about the new book, as well as what he’s working on next—and if we’ve finally seen the last of Frank Bascombe.
The Rumpus: Let’s start with this book, Let Me Be Frank With You. You’ve written about Frank Bascombe in three previous novels (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land). What made you want to return to that character and that voice?
Richard Ford: Two things. When I was running around with my book Canada all over the United States, a lot of people that came to get books signed said, “Are you really never going to write about Frank Bascombe again? Because we wish you would.” And this happened to me an embarrassing number of times. Embarrassing because I had sworn off doing it. I was touched. I thought, at my age, to have a readership that’s actually asking me to write a book, that’s kind of unusual. So I paid attention to that.
But that didn’t in and of itself give me a book to write. However, when Hurricane Sandy took place, Kristina, my wife, and I, went down to Seaside Heights, the site of many Frank Bascombe scenes, and saw it in shambles. We had in prior years spent a lot of time in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I realized I had a lot of hurricane stories. I started to think about, What would be the consequences of a hurricane that the media wouldn’t pay attention to? Those two things together led to this book.
Rumpus: The first story, where Frank visits the wreckage of his old house at the behest of his friend, the friend he sold it to—they have this moment where they connect. Let’s talk about how the book is structured. It’s broken up into these long stories. They’re interconnected novellas and they’re not the same as previous Frank Bascombe books.
Ford: That’s exactly what they are, long stories. I didn’t have the enthusiasm to write a novel. I’d just finished Canada, and I didn’t want to write something that would lay on me for as much time as a novel would lay on me.
Rumpus: I see what you mean.
Ford: And I just like novellas. I’ve written a book of novellas before. And so I thought, This is a satisfactory form to embody the kinds of inquiries that I want to make. I didn’t have to erect the whole interconnected superstructure of a novel.
Rumpus: It’s interesting, because that’s a form that doesn’t always get a lot of love in the publishing world, but it does seem like novellas are having a renaissance, these days.
Ford: One of my colleagues at Columbia teaches a course in novellas. I don’t know what he teaches, though. I edited a whole anthology of novellas about fifteen years ago called The Granta Book of the American Long Story. I finally came to conclude, at least in modern parlance, a novella refers to nothing but length. Even referring to length is a little bit fuzzy.
Rumpus: Maybe that’s why it’s hard to pin down.
Ford: They always say a novella is a book you can read on a long train journey. I thought, That satisfies me. The process for me of finishing a long novel—reading it aloud to my wife at the last, being sure that all of the decisions are made right—it usually stimulates so much anxiety in me, so much tension and stress, that I have to go to the fucking Mayo Clinic when it’s over. [Laughs.] I thought, I don’t want to go to the Mayo Clinic. Can’t I just write a book that a human being can finish by himself? So I thought, Yeah, I’ll do it this way. Maybe it won’t kill me.
I wrote two of the stories in Let Me Be Frank With You one winter, and two the next winter. I wanted it to be a quartet, because I wanted to slightly violate the tripartite structure that Western culture is supposed to live by. It actually was fun. I haven’t had this much fun writing a book in a long time.
Rumpus: Can I ask which two you wrote first?
Ford: They’re in the order I wrote them in the finished book. “I’m Here,” “Everything Could Be Worse,” “The New Normal,” and “Deaths of Others.”
Rumpus: I noticed that as you’re reading them, they’re separate and self-contained, but at the same time, they have a progression. They each have similar themes. For example, they each have moments of grief. In the first two, it’s tied up with the place—either the wrecked house, mentioned previously, or in “Everything Could Be Worse,” a stranger comes to Frank’s house, and I don’t want to spoil it because it’s quite shocking, but by trying to be kind and neighborly, Frank blunders into this emotional minefield.
Ford: I was trying to imagine some consequences of the hurricane—calamitous consequences—that wouldn’t be observable in the media. There’s a line in Emerson that I love very much: “Nature doesn’t like to be observed.” What that means to me is, nature causes all kinds of things to happen, the agency for which we don’t understand. And so I thought, if I could plot out some consequences of the storm, or imagine some people whose lives didn’t seem to be obviously reacting to the storm, I could engender a certain kind of close notice or empathy in the reader. Nature affects us all. Nature causes all kinds of things to happen. I also wanted to set the stories around Christmas. I wanted to have moments of redemption after the moments of pathos and stress—secular redemption. All of them achieve that in one dimension or another.
Getting them to link up: When you’re in the grip of a good idea—and this was a good idea, I think—so when you’re in that place, things link up on their own. There’s a line of Keats in some letter that he wrote. Something like, When your mind is mature, and mine still is, and you’re in the grip of a good idea, everything radiates out. Everything is part of a larger whole. That’s what these stories did for me. Whether they’ll do it for a skeptical, time-constrained reader is another matter.
Rumpus: It’s true. Today’s reader is very distracted. We live in the shadow of the Disarticulation Machine that is the Internet (to which the Rumpus contributes, I guess). Twitter, Facebook, blogs, all of that—it’s overwhelming.
Ford: I’ve never read a blog, and I’m not sure what one is. [Laughs.]
Rumpus: Speaking of the Internet and media—since the Internet has subsumed all forms of media and regurgitates them—TV is on the Internet—
Ford: —and newspapers, too!
Rumpus: Exactly. How do you get beneath the surface that the media skates over? How do you find a place where, even though they’re covering it 24 hours a day, the media never seems to reach? They’re not able to go deeper.
Ford: I think the broadcast media do as well as they can the first time they touch something. Then all kinds of other forces come into play. They end up repeating themselves and ultimately reducing complexity out of existence. Until at some point the producer says, “I’m tired of this. I’m bored.” Then they go on to some other calamity. Rather than going more deeply, rather than finding out more data, rather than finding new, interesting angles, they just shift to whatever else—like a plane crash, maybe. It creates a deep dissatisfaction in people who consume it. But I’m not so much complaining about the media. I am observing its limitations. For me, how I go deeper, is this: I don’t use that metaphor. There is no “deep.”
Ford: There’s only “other.” I try plausibly to put together events that wouldn’t seem to be otherwise linked. There’s a line of Ruskin’s: “Composition is the arrangement of unequal things.” What I do is, I try to arrange unequal things. Things with no affinity. I say, “This caused that.” You wouldn’t think this caused that. You wouldn’t think that when Miss Pines comes to Frank’s house and unloads this truck of woe into his life, that it would have been caused by the hurricane. But I rig it up in such a way that it is. It’s a kind of fundamental belief that causation is a matter of the imagination.
Rumpus: It’s a holistic way of looking at the world. The interconnectedness of things.
Ford: An interconnectedness that’s highly imaginative. Once I say that what Miss Pine says to Frank is caused by the hurricane, ipso facto it’s true. But if I hadn’t said that, you wouldn’t know about it—the connection wouldn’t get made. And that’s the ultimate value of a story like that. Truthfully, the connection doesn’t exist. I make it exist.
Rumpus: But once summoned into existence, it’s real, right?
Ford: You can’t unmake it. Right.
Rumpus: In this book, you revisit not just Frank, but characters like Ann, Frank’s ex-wife, and Paul, Frank’s son who lives in Kansas City and works for Hallmark. And of course Ralph, who died during The Sportswriter.
Ford: It was a little dicey, getting down to the core of these books. In a novel, you can pretty well contextualize everything. So if the reader didn’t know who Ralph was, you can have a novel that pretty well explains that. I wasn’t entirely sure I could do that successfully in these stories. I thought there might be some things a reader would just say, “Okay, whatever.” I wasn’t resigning my post! I was just thinking, If I make the stories compelling enough, the reader won’t care.
Rumpus: If you know the history, it’s there, but this book takes place much later in time. You have the echoes, but you also have these self-contained moments.
Ford: It’s a different narrative chore, to keep the reader up to date on all that went before. As you say, these novellas are self-contained. But when you think about books that you read and like, there is always something passing in front of you that you don’t completely understand. I hope these stories are like that. It’s part of literature’s mystery, isn’t it? Everything is highly selective. You just hope—in the forgiving way that novels and stories work—that the things that are interesting, compelling, and preoccupying will carry along the things that are less important.
Rumpus: Considering the fun you had writing this book—
Ford: It was fun! I found that it made me laugh all the time. All the lines I wrote for Frank made me laugh.
Rumpus: —can we expect to see Frank Bascombe again? Or if not Frank, then more novellas?
Ford: I’ve got three other novellas already written! Yeah, if I publish anything in the near term, it’ll be these novellas. But they’re totally apart from Frank Bascombe. Nothing to do with him. He was just a target of opportunity for me. He had the previous books and an intelligence that I thought made him apt for telling the stories I wanted to tell. The other stories, the three I’ve written, they’re very different. One is set in Maine. They have nothing to do with Bascombe. I haven’t looked at them in about three years though. I actually wrote them before I wrote Let Me Be Frank With You. I should look at them in the winter. I owe my publisher a book. [Laughs.]
Rumpus: Always a good reason to get writing.
Ford: I guess it is. [Laughs.]
Rumpus: To switch gears a bit, I understand you’re going on a hunting trip soon?
Ford: Kristina and I just came back from northern Maine at the end of last week, and we’re taking a week off, and then we’re taking off to Billings, Montana, to spend nine days hunting pheasants. We do it every year. We hunt grouse in northern Maine. We don’t have any children, so we don’t have anything else to do.
Rumpus: I saw a TED Talk where a guy was explaining how he takes one year off every seven years to recharge his creativity.
Ford: It’s a good idea. I used to do that. But when my books started to have greater luck in the world, I felt like I was harnessed to a great, throbbing engine, and I felt like I had to keep working. But now I’m seventy years old! I don’t want to work that hard.
Rumpus: Does recharging your batteries help you see those holistic connections?
Ford: I’m always slightly suspicious of metaphors like that. I don’t like the idea that I have a battery. [Laughs.]
Rumpus: I get that!
Ford: I don’t recharge. It’s something a little more homespun. It’s just that you do something for a long time, and then it’s nice to not do that anymore, or it’s nice to do something completely different. Maybe in the process you see something or notice something. Or your mind is at liberty to connect things you didn’t connect before. It is certainly the case that leisure of some kind is helpful.
Rumpus: It’s funny—the way we talk, the metaphors we use. The things we say without noticing. It reminds me of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. It also reminds me that careful language is something you’re known for. There’s an eye for detail and language in your previous books, and in Let Me Be Frank With You. Would you say that’s important to you not just on the sentence level, in the way you write your books, but also to your life in general?
Ford: It is indeed. The words we use are the worlds we live in. Being dyslexic, as I am, I have found that to be even more profoundly true for me than it is for most people. Frank, somewhere back in his annals, uses the old realtor’s adage “location, location, location,” but modifies it to be “locution, locution, locution.” How you say something is hugely determinative of what you mean. The words you choose, your diction, ultimately invest what you say with spirit. Or divest it of spirit. Which is why Frank is throwing words out of his vocabulary when this latest book opens. He sees them as being hollow.
Rumpus: I’m fascinated by that, the way language shapes the world.
Ford: Oh my God, yes. Language is so pleasurable. I don’t use it, but this is why I worry about things like Twitter and texting. Maybe there’s some pleasure in “OMG” and things like that, but I’ve not been able to find it. I just like words. When I was young, and I had to learn to read, I had great difficulty. I experienced the beauty and the non-cognitive quality of language. Its poetic, corporeal quality. How many syllables a word has. Synonyms and antonyms. How many fricatives. All of those things. It’s so part-and-parcel to me of what language is. So I’m alarmed when I see language being reduced to short little telegraphic spasms of communication.
Rumpus: Telegraphic is the right word. In some ways, things like Twitter seem like a return to the telegraph machine.
Ford: People write me emails and they use these telegraphic acronyms. I don’t even know what the fuck they are! [Laughs.] I just happen to know OMG because I think that’s the kind of thing Frank would think is hilarious. I can’t even remember another one now. I’m sure you know thousands of them, because you’re a young man, and I’m an old man, and I’m not supposed to know them.
Rumpus: Things swing back and forth, though. When I taught writing at the university level, some of my students would say they’d have to delete Twitter off of their phones so they could write a paper. Only something like 10 pages, but still. They couldn’t concentrate. So I wonder if people will start switching off. Going back to books.
Ford: I think you’re right. There’s hope. The absurdity will finally catch up with us. People will think to themselves, I haven’t gained anything from this—I wonder if there’s something I used to do that I could try again.
Rumpus: Maybe they’ll go to the library and pick up a book.
Ford: I was at the post office earlier and I saw someone packaging up two books to send to someone. I thought, how nice: They’re actually sending books to somebody.
Rumpus: It’s important to share books with people. Speaking of, I understand you teach a course at Columbia?
Ford: Yes, I teach one course, in the winter—a literature course. It’s a cushy job. It lets me teach literature, which I love to do. And I love my students. It’s win-win for me. I get to teach and read all kinds of really good books, and pass these books on to them. Columbia’s a great place. I’ve taught at lots of universities over the years, and Columbia is the best place that I’ve ever had anything to do with.
Rumpus: You also did your MFA at UC–Irvine. Can you tell me about that?
Ford: Yeah. With E.L. Doctorow. He was great. I found it to be completely wonderful. I was just prime for it at that time in my life. I had an empty brain, no prospects. You could just fill me up like a pitcher. But there was a guy who game out there at the same time as us. He drove with his family from Vermont. And he got there, and he got out of his car and looked around, and he said, “Yuck. Jesus! What is this about?” He packed up his car and drove back to the Catskills. He’s done very well with his writing since then. He’s a wonderful guy, very talented. It’s just a way of saying it wasn’t for him. Just because I took to the MFA and got a lot out of it doesn’t mean someone else would.
Rumpus: You’re saying there’s no wrong way to be a writer?
Ford: No, there’s not. That’s well put. There’s no wrong way to be a writer.