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Richard Ford 

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist comes to Atlanta

In The Sportswriter and Independence Day, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford, 62, introduced readers to the angst-ridden sportswriter-turned-real estate agent Frank Bascombe, creating a quintessentially American character in the process. Rendered philosophical by prostate cancer and lady troubles, Bascombe returns in The Lay of the Land. Ford will appear Monday, Dec. 4, at a 6 p.m. reception and 7 p.m. author lecture at the Margaret Mitchell House Visitor's Center, 990 Peachtree St. Admission is $10 to the general public and free to members.

A lot of The Lay of the Land is about awareness of one's own mortality. Do you think that reflects the times we live in?

It's just part of his set of mind because he's ill. You know you've got something that could kill you, and irrespective of whether it kills you or not, something's gonna. And so this is just a reminder of that fact of life. And in a way as much as he thinks about it and as much as the book is concerned about it, it's really kind of a preparation for facing the inevitabilities of your life with a good heart.

Its aptness for the times seems to me to be fortuitous. ... With all of our fellow citizens getting killed, it doesn't seem inappropriate that we should think that death is around us.

Does writing make you feel less mortal?

I'm not looking to feel less mortal. I'm looking to feel more mortal. More in my skin, and not less.

So much of your writing despite the theme of death is flat out hilarious -- and terminology such as "dangly bits" and "word sandwich" so inventive -- do you ever make yourself laugh writing those things?

All the time. Right to the very end, in fact. When I was finishing the book in August, I would read parts aloud that I was for some reason required to read and it would just make me crack up. And I think I have a very juvenile sense of humor. I don't think I have a very sophisticated sense of humor.

What is your writing routine?

On any given day? I just show up. For my novel I have compiled in the first year I'm thinking about it, a big notebook full of all of the stuff that I hope by some device to get into the book. I will do one of a couple of things: I'll either go back through that whole notebook which is 100 or so pages, or I will have the day before set for myself some pages of 3x5 cards full of notes which will let me start right away. The real trick in writing novels is somehow to make it continuous even though you've come to a stop at the end of every day and then come to a start at the beginning of the next. That's one of the real tricks of mind in a way. Because you know when you stopped on Thursday if you had just stayed at your desk another hour you would have written something. And if you stopped before that hour, then when you come back the next morning, you will write something, but it probably will not be what you would have written before. And that can get you down [laughs].

OK, you are not Frank. He is fictional. But in what way do his sensibility or anxieties parallel your own?

I think he has -- the way I would have if I could have -- a rather empathetic turn of mind. He's also quite observant and interested in his surroundings. He is in a way that I'm not, a generalizer. I'm much more of an Aristotelean than he is. But he's a fictive character and in that way not really like a human being. He's much more like a fictive character than he's like anything else. His willingness to be a generalizer is part of the use I want the reader to make of him. Of course all of the many details of his life are not like mine. I am hypochondriacal, I will say that. And I don't know if I would say Frank is or not. Of course he's had something I haven't had yet, which is cancer. And so I think that that makes him probably more like me on a regular basis, which is to say conscious of his health.

In what way are you conscious of your health?

I got sick when I was 20 years old when I was in the Marine Corp. And I got Hepatitis A and it scared me to death. The doctors scared me to death. And I think ever after that ... I probably would have been not this way had I not had it when I was 20. But I almost died and it made a big impression on me that I had to take better care of myself than probably I would have done had I not have been as ill as I was.

I think Frank likes people generally and at the same time he requires a fair amount of anonymous privacy.

He seems very male to me. Is Frank emblematic of American manhood as so many have seen him?

He's emblematic of nothing.

To me he seems like such an insight into contemporary masculinity in general and that maybe men are more tortured than they let on?

I think all of those generalizations are a lot of hooey as my father used to say.

So you can't look at Frank as part of the times we live in and relate that to his gender?

No. I wouldn't do it about you either. I wouldn't do it about my wife. I wouldn't do it about any female or about any male. I just don't make gender-based generalizations, ever. I think they are destructive to our ability to see people as who they are.

Is that because you're a writer or because you're a man?

[Ford laughs.]

I'm getting myself deeper into this hole...

You won't give up on it, will you? Because I'm a human being.

You write a great deal about money and class, and real estate. Are those the keys to understanding Americans now?

No, but then that would require another generalization.

I just don't ever think in those terms. I never think in terms that can let me answer those questions in the affirmative. I only, only, only deal in specifics. I only deal in individual instances in individual characters in individual thoughts. What the reader does with them and how the reader makes use of them, I hope will be instructive. But if somebody wants to see Frank, for instance, as an Everyman -- I wouldn't say that ever, but a reader might. But you have to streamline some of the logic of the book and chop some of it too.

No, I don't think that there is some key that we're just not finding to understanding Americans at this particular time. I think fiction, like history, is best understood as a series of particulars, not generalizations.

You've said Frank is not someone you'd want to write about again. But do you ever escape someone you've thought about for so long?

I will probably keep bumping into lines that I write or phrases that I say or hear that I realize I could foist onto a character that would be Frank. I think that will probably go on happening to me after such a long history with him.

Actually I hope so.

You obviously think a lot about greed and real estate and America. Living part-time in New Orleans, what are your thoughts about that city's future in that regard?

I think that city will never be what it was. It might become something that we would like, but it's not going to be what it was again. And it is probably just because of governmental entropy and misfeasance. Many of those people who were washed out of their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, for instance, will not come back. And I don't think that there's a strong motive in the government, in the upper class of New Orleanians -- the Republican plutocrats -- I don't think there's a strong urge to have those people come back. I think they think that New Orleans can get along just fine and become whatever they want it to be without the help of those individuals whose lives were there and now are gone.

Does that depress you, to think that it will be a different city than the one you're used to?

I feel mostly the loss of the people made to leave and who won't be allowed to come back. The city would have changed anyway. It would have gone on to become something different. Whether or not it would have become the little Las Vegas I think that many city fathers wanted it to become, I doubt. But it would have gone on changing.

And who's to say that somebody won't make the best out of these regrettable circumstances? But it won't be the best for the people who got pushed out. It might be the best for the people who are permitted to stay.

Your writing is so associated with introspective upper-middle-class malaise ...

I wrote all kinds of other books, too, that are set in Montana that are not about that at all.

But I am thinking specifically about The Lay of the Land and the two previous books, in those terms ...

I see the wider picture [laughs].

"Don't reduce me to three books." I totally understand.

There are six more.

But I think it's interesting that people do look at you in those terms because of this character, and yet, as a kid you were a more outward juvenile delinquent. Did you need to outwardly rebel in youth to be a questioning adult in your writing?

I never thought about that. I don't know the answer to that. It kind of has a formulaic quality built into it and I would ordinarily just reject it out of hand. Life being in my picture such a chaos.

I don't know. When I was a kid, and I was in trouble some and my parents were really good parents, but they were from Arkansas and only moved into Jackson [Mississippi] the year before I was born. I think I always felt when I was growing up a little bit of an outsider.

Which is fine. There's nothing wrong with being an outsider. And I think one of the things I grew up wanting to do was to figure out some way, some practice that I could bring about that would make me not feel like an outsider anymore. Which is to say I think a lot of writers write books and live in the lives of their books and function as writers as a way of gaining some kind of -- satisfactory to themselves anyway -- acceptance. Even if writers in our culture are not really accepted unless you're famous and you're only accepted in that bizarre way that fame accords. I think mostly what I did in learning to make myself write, I just kind of wanted to get into the society more. Because I am a sort of puzzling person, I puzzle over things. I think once I found that route that was writing, it paid off by letting me both into the society and also gave me a subject for my natural scruplings.

And do you feel accepted?


Like Frank, you live on the water, in Maine. Do you think that living on the edge of the Earth means you are more philosophical about death?

I wouldn't say so. I've lived happily in the middle of the country for years and years and years: in Montana and Chicago and Michigan. All kinds of places that were totally landlocked, and I felt good about living there. I think I kind of came to wanting to live by the ocean more or less as I came to wanting to live in the mountains. I just wanted to see what it was like. I don't think it has much to do with the habit of mind that might be philosophical. I would be reluctant to say so, because nothing about my life tells me that that's true.

Frank tries to make an issue about moving farther east and living on the edge of the continent, but I think that's sort of baloney, actually.

That's just Frank talkin'.

That's just Frank talking. That's right.

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