All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Literary Event – Richard Ford In Melbourne

on July 13, 2012

Photo from Bloomsbury ANZ

In Melbourne last night an event was held at the Athenaeum Theatre in Collins St in conjunction with the Wheeler Centre and the Melbourne Writers Festival. Richard Ford was interviewed by Sean Condon and my husband and I attended the event (although due to unforseen circumstances, he was upstairs and I was downstairs!). The talk went for roughly 45m before Ford took a few questions from the audience and then signed books and posed for pics.

Richard Ford was born in 1944 in Mississippi and the first thing upon hearing him speak, I was struck by how southern he still sounds! He has been married for 42 years to Kristina and the first question that was really posed was: what was worrying him right now? There was a bit of a pause and then Ford admitted he had a 14yo dog and he was worried about the possibility of him not being around in the future. And that he’d hurt his shoulder yesterday. He apologised for the small response but said that he wasn’t really worried by much. When asked which question he’d be happy to never be asked again, he said it was easily a question on dirty realism, a “North American literary movement depicting the seedier or mundane acts of life in spare, unadorned prose.” It doesn’t seem to be a term he cares for and it seems that he’s also heard it far too often. Second behind that was “Tell me what your novel is about Mr Ford,” to which he longs to reply “you know, it’s right there, you could read it and tell me.”

He currently lives in a little village in Maine and when asked if he was lonely, or if he had many literary friendships there, he said he had none but that it was okay because he’d moved there precisely to be alone. And he was alone for the first few years, as his wife didn’t move up to be with him for several years and he had only a dog or two for company. His friends have turned out to be books and keeps in touch with literary people via their books.  He’s dyslexic, which he says has helped him because it’s made it a necessity for him to be a very slow and thoughtful reader to be able to take everything in. He doesn’t read books like The Da Vinci Code or 50 Shades of Grey not because of ethical reasons but simply because he is such a slow reader, poring over every word and sentence and he doesn’t feel he would get out of those books what is intended, because of his reading style.

He was asked what he would be if he wasn’t a writer and his answer was immediate: retired! Over his life he’s tried the Marine Corps, Law School, almost took a job in the CIA but his right wing aspirations didn’t work out and he thought that’s how liberals were born, right wing aspirations not coming to fruition. He talked later of Obama and how he thought he was a wonderful President and would vote for him again, but he was clearly baffled by some things that were happening in America presently and had been happening over the past few years. He hoped that if he had not chosen to be a writer then he could’ve done something easy! He loved baseball, but was not good enough to play pro. He told a funny anecdote of playing in school, going away one summer to visit his grandfather and coming back and his name was off the team. He went and asked the coach, a big strapping man (“nitwit”) why and the bloke said “Well Ford, I was afraid I was gonna have to actually play ya!” At his 50th school reunion, he saw the Coach, now a wizened little old man and had a private “Yes!” moment to himself. He holds the belief that writing novels is not rocket science or brain surgery but a lot of people don’t write novels because in order to do so, you need to examine your responses to things and many people simply do not examine their responses.

He talked a little bit about his process in writing – he’s a notetaker (and whipped out a notebook right then and there) and his preparation for novels is enormous. He accumulates a compendium, separated by dividers of notes, scenarios, character names etc and he studies this endlessly until he finds that he’s studying it now only as a means to put off beginning – then he knows that he’s ready to write. He works 365 days a year when he’s writing so no breaks on Christmas, his birthday etc, he sticks to his routine. He usually takes 2-3 years to complete a book (I’m assuming he takes almost as long to research one, given his breaks between books). With both Canada and Independence Day the title was in place before he began to write. He’s passionate about sentences and word choice, and this is obvious in reading his novels. You can tell that every word has been chosen with care and placed within the sentence with equal care and the structure is perfect. Later on in the question time, someone asked him how long it takes to come up with his amazing opening sentences and he said that someone had asked him about this recently in reference to Canada and he answered that was just the way he wrote it off the bat and later on his wife said to him “Uh, no! That’s not the way it went! You slaved for weeks over that line” and he honestly didn’t remember that. To him it just felt like that line came naturally and immediately. His US publishers tried to talk him out of using Canada as a title as they thought it would negatively affect perceptions and sales – he ended up switching publishers before it was published and the only way in which he thought it had affected sales was that it had been a best seller for 7wks!

Sean then asked him about how he felt, as a previous Pulitzer Prize winner, that the committee decided not to award the prize for fiction this year. Ford got quite passionate about this issue and I feel that he said a lot of very relevant things – he said that the decision not to award the Pulitzer is a retreat from their responsibilities. The committee needs to be told their job and that they should be promoting and encouraging literature wherever they find it (and it was right in front of them!). They only had to read 3 books whereas the preparation committee have to read something like 500 between them and then nominate 3 for the prize to be decided upon. That they couldn’t do it was an insult. He mentioned that the thing about the Pulitzer was there is such great variety in the books that win that if you win it, then probably someone else should have. When he won (in 1996 for Independence Day) a friend sent him a list of all the awful writers that had won! He did say however that writing novels was not a competitive sport and that you are always happy when your colleagues do well.

 Ford says that he no longer reads reviews. He had to stop himself from reading after he published Wildlife in 1990. He thought that it was really a very good book and liked it a lot but apparently others didn’t and the negative reviews broke his heart and grieved him. So his wife suggested that he simply not read them in future in order to avoid upset so he doesn’t. Occasionally he does ‘sneak in a good one’ but sometimes even they bother him as they don’t praise the good bits enough! He did admit that he’s quite thin-skinned.

He then read from Canada – the end of Chapter 45 and his voice was just brilliant. I could’ve listened to him read all night and I wish he would record his own audiobooks! His voice is so perfect – melodious would be the right word.

He took a couple of questions from the audience, some of which I’ve already mentioned throughout this post as they applied to some of the things he had mentioned in his talk. He admitted that he gave Frank Bascombe (of The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land) prostate cancer as a way to exercise his fear of contracting it (which didn’t really work).  Someone asked if he always knew how a book will end when he begins it. His answer was he always knows where it will end in geographic or spatial sense, but how it gets there is fortuitous and an act of faith that he will arrive at that end point. If he doesn’t, he knows that the book is broken and that he has to fix it. He did say however that he has never started a novel that he hasn’t finished, which I found very interesting. I wonder how many authors can say that?

Another question concerned his reputation for taking such care with his words and sentences and asked what other authors he admired for their sentences. He mentioned both the late Raymond Carver (who was a good friend of his) and also Alice Munro. He described Munro’s work as “unpredictable but readable”.

The event concluded and the host said that Ford would be signing books and taking some pictures in the lobby/foyer area now and I have never seen an event empty so fast! I’m not sure of the capacity of the room, perhaps around high hundreds? But I would say it was almost sold out. Everyone was pouring out to line up to get their books signed, by the time I got out (and I was towards the back of the room!) the line went out the doors and down into the street. I found my husband and we lined up – the line moved pretty fast for being so long and after about 20-25minutes, it was our turn. I got my copy of Canada signed and asked him a couple of questions, including if it was really true that his wife Kristina took the book of an author that had given Ford a bad review, out the back of their house and shot it. He said it was absolutely true and that after that event, for some reason someone sent him another copy of that author’s book so he took it out the back and shot it. Petty, he admitted, but deeply satisfying. He said it made a tiny hole going in but a huge hole coming out. For anyone who is interested, the author in question is Alice Hoffman, who has had her own drama/controversy surrounding her reaction to negative reviews. I mentioned that she didn’t seem to be able to take it, but could dish it and Ford agreed, saying that was precisely why he doesn’t choose to review books he reads. He understands how it feels and that every book he writes is deeply personal to him. My husband mentioned that he actually loved Wildlife the book that garnered the negative reviews that upset Ford and they talked about that for a minute and then I got a photo taken with him.

If I had to think of one word to describe him, it would be gentleman! He was polite, charming, well-spoken and dryly funny in a way I didn’t expect.

It was a fabulous event and I’m so glad I went. The interview was informative and funny and everything was really well organised and smooth. It was my first real event of this type in Melbourne and it’s made me very keen to attend my first Melbourne Writers Festival this year!

5 responses to “Literary Event – Richard Ford In Melbourne

  1. Ms. L says:

    Sounds like a really interesting event! I’ve been to a few of the Wheeler Centre events and they’re great, I’m certainly keen to go along to MWF – although so many events are during the day while I’m at work.

    • I’m very lucky, we have 2 young children and my husband is taking some annual leave to stay at home so that I can attend quite a bit of the festival! I’ve never been able to before (last year I was 36-37wks pregnant!) so I’m grateful that he’s going to do that for me!

  2. Marg says:

    I love going to the Wheeler Centre events and try to go occasionally after work. I am glad you got to meet him, especially seeing as I know that you really enjoyed his book!

  3. […] Literary Event – Richard Ford In Melbourne […]

  4. […] style. This is why I’ve only read one Cormac McCarthy book, and it was his shortest. But Bree is a huge fan and this has made a good impression on me. I found The Sportswriter in Pandemonium, in unread […]

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