In the wake of Richard Ford’s recently released collection of four ‘long-short stories,’ titled Let Me Be Frank With You, his reading on October 8th in Trinity’s Edmund Burke Theatre took on a relevance to both his past and present career. While the focus was, obviously enough, predominantly based on his new release, Ford’s status as a well-loved household name was never far from the surface of the discussion. Having written such modern classics as Independence Day, The Sportswriter, The Lay of the Land, and Canada, Ford’s reputation as a writer, and the mystique created by his charismatic presence, soon became the main focus of the evening. Ford’s talk, originally billed as a reading of the new release, quickly spiraled into a meditation on writing, the creative process, and the benefits of an isolated existence.
In Dr. Philip Coleman’s introduction, he noted a particular linguistic tic throughout the collection: Ford’s vague and humorous use of the summarizing phrase ‘as the poet said.’ Periodically tacked on to the end of statements, this clichéd conclusion is interesting when we consider Ford’s attitudes to writing and the unpretentious nature of his work. This satirical reliance on the poet’s word as gospel shows a striking contrast with Ford’s persona – his deadpan wit, the casual view he takes towards writing, and his keen sense of the absurd. As the reading progressed, I couldn’t help thinking that Ford was poking fun at his own position as revered writer, vaguely amused to find himself preaching to an audience.
‘Writing novels is easy,’ Ford tells us plainly. He goes on to advise us that if a novelist ever tells you how hard they work, ‘You grab your wallet.’ I was struck throughout by Ford’s innate talent, the simplicity of his statements, and the eloquence of his pauses. His readings work extremely well live, and he has a gift for comic timing rarely seen outside of standup comedy, especially while answering questions from the audience – at several points, the crowd was in uproar at an amused silence or a raised eyebrow.
Ford’s extract from the collection certainly seemed promising. Frank Bascombe is growing older in a New Jersey that is recuperating in the aftermath of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, and adjusting to his ex-wife Anne’s recent diagnosis with Parkinson’s. Ford hesitates before billing these interconnected stories as ‘novellas,’ as he claims not to know what the word means. The extract began with Bascombe, an ex-real estate agent, recalling a memory, some years prior, of running over a dog in his car on the way to work. From the start we get a sense of Ford exposing the shocking in contrast with the banal, weaving colloquial language with a morbid sense of the absurd. Certain phrases and descriptions stuck with me throughout the following days. There is a surrealist quality to Ford’s prose – a man dies suddenly of an aneurism while sitting in the sea like ‘an oversized pink baby’ – and a genuine delight in playing with language, seen in phrases such as ‘neither hanky nor panky,’ and ‘officially on record as handsome.’
Ford shared several interesting insights, seemingly as an afterthought: he recalled Raymond Carver’s advice to him regarding the importance of titles, how they serve as a structural ‘roof’ for the story. His deadpan attitude is counterbalanced by an attention to detail in his creative decisions. Sharing that he chose the name Canada because of its consonantal sounds, the fact that the word is a dactyl, and that it looks nice on the page, he stated that ‘a lot of times words go into stories because you want to see that word, and then you contextualise it.’ There is a mix of technical precision and an almost innocent love of language perceptible in these insights. When an audience member made the comment that women may be deterred from reading The Sportswriter because the title appears geared towards a male audience, Ford’s somewhat amused reply is that he would advise people who don’t like the title to read five pages of one of his works – if he doesn’t keep the reader interested after those five pages, he has failed to do his part. This emphasis on reading as entertainment, as a pursuit that is enjoyable and free of pretention, is reassuring from such an established writer.
Ford’s espousal of a sort of Beckettian ‘lessness’ comes across as absurdly inspiring. He discussed the fact that his protagonist, Frank, is living on what is technically a downward trajectory, a man who had ‘gone down the scale’ – first a novelist, then a sportswriter, then a real estate agent, Frank’s narrative subverts the American dream. In a similar manner, he discussed the process of isolating oneself and reducing one’s social circle in later life, as a way of gaining some ‘well earned, late in the game clarity.’ These observations somehow fail to come across as embittered or cynical – instead, a life of anti-success is described as having a sort of soothing appeal.
These statements, spoken in a voice of the personable, mellifluous Southern variety, take on a sort of aphoristic wisdom. The repeated ‘as the poet said’ assumed a different significance by the end of the talk: perhaps Ford’s observations are indeed worth preaching about.