BSS #90: Richard Ford

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Trying to get the lay of the land.

Author: Richard Ford

Subjects Discussed: Bill Buford’s “dirty realism,” inland vs. coastal territory in the Frank Bascombe books, nautical motifs, Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World, the development of Haddam, recurring supporting characters, crafting long, information-heavy sentences, Ford’s dismissal of cyclical metaphors as “a bunch of baloney,” religion and irony, the politics of the Bascombe books, arranging Frank Bascombe’s days, Ford’s violent reactions to reviews, Colson Whitehead, Bascombe’s culinary habits, quotidian details, street names, evading the influence of other writers, the Permanent Period, self-help books, Sally’s letter vs. Frank Bascombe’s voice, roomy novels, writing short stories vs. novels, dyslexia, research and real estate terminology, William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, Frank’s Great Speeches book, making trips to New Jersey, Haddam vs. Updike’s Brewer, memory and perspective, the relationship between Ford and his readers, on pissing the right people off, responding to the “fool” Christopher Lehman, and character conventions.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Ford: I don’t think of [Haddam] as a character. I think of it as just the backdrop of what the real characters, which is to say the human beings in the book, do in the foreground. Setting for me is always just the context that makes what people do more plausible. And I invented Haddam out of what experience I have had and continue having in central New Jersey. And so for me it was an amalgamation of a bunch of different places that I sort of organized under the name Haddam. And it never really was intended to be more than that, except as these books began to develop to be more about American cultural life and American spiritual life in the suburbs, it sort of rose to become a bit of a touchstone subject in and of itself. Because in describing a town’s housing stock, in describing moratoriums, in describing sprawl outwards from these little towns, that became for me a subject I never intended to find but did find and then did use.

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4 Comments

  1. What a voice this guy has! I love it.

    There is something interesting about these interviews that I’ve always loved. I’ve noticed authors tend to be more aggressive in response to your questions, e.g. the book reviews question in this one.

    If I remember correctly, the Bookworm interview with Richard Ford includes mention of the shooting-of-the-book-reviews, and I think Mr. Bookworm and Richard Ford even have a laugh about it, whereas here, he’s all, “My wife does that. It’s none of your business.” What’s up with that?

    Do you think there’s something about you that brings out authors’ combative sides? (You’re asking perfectly reasonable questions, I think, and there’s still this aggression in response.) Or is this merely a reflection of the blah blah, raw unedited podcasting form, vs. the boring polish of Bookworm style interviews?

    Either way, your interviews are much more revealing. I couldn’t stand T.C. Boyle during your interview with him. I didn’t think too highly of his books beforehand, and now I like them even less knowing their author is some blowhard who demands we see him as an artist working in obscurity even though he—being T.C. Boyle—regularly appears on the Hot List in Entertainment Weekly.

    Keep it up, anyway. It makes for good radio.

  2. I do think there’s something Ed does to bring out this combative nature in those that have it – he doesn’t completely suck up to the authors like most interviewers seem to most often do.

    He rarely find any work to be perfect, nor any author’s full backlist – and he’s not afraid to question whether or not they agree with him about the book, or section of, that frustrates him – wondering if the author agrees with him that they let something slip away.

  3. Patrick: To address your interesting comment, I think the difference is actually quite simple. I don’t record these conversations in a studio. Silverblatt and company do. The natural environment of cafes, restaurants, and the like (which I have always insisted upon) may have something to do with the way that some authors open up to me.

    In fact, during our second conversation, even TC Boyle (who I don’t think came across as a blowhard; I actually enjoyed talking with him very much) remarked that he forgot that the mikes existed. (And as an aside, one’s opinion of an author shouldn’t hinder one’s opinion of the books.)

    I’ve always tried to find the balance between respect for the author, having fun, and asking tough questions. But I never let my admiration for an author prevent me from asking good questions. Most of the authors I’ve talked with get this formula.

  4. I think Ed deserves to take as much credit as the environment. He does what the best interviewers do, ask the questions that are most interesting to himself (and by extension his audience) instead of carrying another agenda. It’s a basic form of honesty that is reciprocated by the interviewee in the form of candor.

    I’m watching Tim Russert “grill” Mike Huckabee, and while Russert’s got this tough interviewer reputation, he’s anything but since he’s not asking questions that are interesting and therefore require thought. He’s asking questions that will most effectively try to put Huckabee in a box. Theyr’e questions that anyone who says he’s running for president is prepared to deflect, not answer honestly. So, when Russert confronts him about a quote saying that we need to take America back for Jesus, he’s prepared to push it aside, rather than give an honest answer about his faith and the role he’d like to see it play in governance.

    Most of the interviews writers like Ford or Boyle do are designed to promote, not illuminate, so I imagine they appreicate a fair challenge, even if a little pique leaks out in the process.

    Silverblatt generally does a nice job too, but he can get too esoteric for the average book lover and he seems to choose his subjects based on a deep love of their work, so there’s not enough salt there to make it that compelling. Terri Gross is actually still pretty good too at asking interesting questions, but she tends to stroke those she admires, rather than offer a balance.

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