Critics seem fond of identifying Richard Ford with America itself.
Born in 1944 in Jackson, Miss., the only child of a traveling salesman and a homemaker, Ford has led a peripatetic existence, living in virtually every state in the union from California to New Jersey. He spent his restless youth trying his hand at several professions, including the military, the law, and academia. He’s even worked as a journalist. (“And not a very good one, either,” he says.)
As an artist, Ford has created one of the most paradigmatic of American characters in Frank Bascombe, who figures in four of the novelist’s best-known works, his 1986 breakout book, The Sportswriter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day (1995), Lay of the Land (2006), and 2014’s Let Me Be Frank.
Ford has taken a brief sabbatical from fiction to publish his first book-length memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents.
A modest volume, it’s divided into two parts, one devoted to Ford’s mother, Edna, who died in 1981, and the other to his father, Parker Carrol Ford, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1960, when Ford was 16.
Ford will talk about the book Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia Central Library.
The author, who lives with his wife, Kristina, in Maine, spoke to me recently about his experience writing the book.
Your first memoir isn’t directly about you but is devoted to others. It’s quite a change from the usual run of self-congratulatory or self-flagellating memoirs.
That’s a very interesting question, and a temptation to pat myself on the back, which I have to resist. … I knew that if I were to make my parents visible and palpable, I really needed to concentrate on them. And my life, my self, who I am as an adult now, is so very different from them that I don’t really fit in the story.
You begin the first part within weeks of your mother’s death in 1981. But more than 55 years separates your father’s death and your attempt to capture him in words.
You could almost say I knew my mother better than I knew my father. A lot better. She was around my life for many more years, and so it was relatively easy to write about her compared with my father.
What moved you to write that first piece about your mother?
I think it’s because I missed my mother very much. It was as simple as that. She was such a big feature in my life. [My wife and I] don’t have children, and the three of us just fit together as a unit pretty well for the last 20 years of her life.
You felt somehow compelled to write about her?
Well, yes. Until I wrote about my mother, I had never considered writing about my parents. Either one of them. But once I did, it occurred to me that I could, should, and might write about my father. By that point it was 1986 or so, my father had been dead for 26 years, and he was never much of a physical feature in my life -- although he was also a profound feature -- and so I thought: 'God, how do I do that? I don’t know very much about him. So I’ll just postpone this.'
And the years flew by.
Yes, but I had started to keep notes, and over that time I had accumulated little tidbits about him.
How did you finally decide to do it?
Every time I would think about how I would do this, I just came up with a lot of impediments. … I didn’t know how to do it because he was gone, and he was absent. He was absent. Ultimately, it occurred to me, 'If you’re going to do this, you have to make absence a kind of presence.' So that was the key to my being able to write about my father.
He was a traveling salesman who'd be gone five days out of the week. So his absence was a feature of your life even before his death. Did that translate into a certain coldness or a distance in his relationship with you?
No, I wouldn’t say that at all. … I had two loving and wonderful parents.
Your dad never got to know you as an adult, as a husband, as a professional, or as an artist. Over the years, did you ever wonder what he might make of your life choices?
I have never thought that one moment in my life, and I’ll tell you why: Because my father was so real to me when he was alive that, had he lived, I know I would never have had this life I’ve had. ... My life went into the direction it did because he departed when he did.
So he had a great deal of influence on your decision-making? For instance, would he have wanted you to stick with law school instead of studying creative writing?
Oh, yes. And, in fact, at the time of his death, he was having a growing influence on me. And the thing is, I was glad of it, because I liked him. It was very much to my benefit.
That’s around the time you began your short-lived career as a petty criminal, which came to an end when you were arrested for stealing.
Much to my surprise, my father took my side. He was sympathetic to me, which was odd because he had never been in trouble with the police himself and he knew nothing about adolescent sons. So when I went to jail, he was my ally, whereas my mother was my antagonist. She was so mad at me.
She was the more passionate of the two?
There was a real difference in their personalities. My mother was extremely volatile. … She had a temper. My father, while also volatile [Ford drifts off for a second]. Well, I don’t know. I tell you, it’s still a mystery to me. He just took my side and I’ll never forget it.
Was your juvenile delinquency a rebellion against your parents’ middle-class values, their buttoned-down life?
Not at all. It’s much easier to explain. I did poorly in school. I was dyslexic. So I had a lot of time on my hands because I wasn’t doing what I should have been doing. And I’m just also natively transgressive.
Which is an asset if you’re going to be an artist.
Is it? Well, I don’t know. Sometimes, it’s truly not much fun.
Do you enjoy writing nonfiction?
I love it. And I loved writing this piece about my parents, not just because it’s about them and therefore a testimony to them, but I like the starkness of nonfiction. ... I feel a kind of plushness in fiction, and it’s the plushness of immense possibilities, one of which I have to choose. When you are writing nonfiction, that sense of plushness is … to some extent it’s not there because you really have to deal with facts. And I find that comforting.
I imagine it’s also emotionally taxing. Were you ever concerned about how much of your emotional life you expose in the book?
Of course. But I think that almost anything we write exposes us because it makes plain what we care about and what we are interested in. .. But if I expose myself in any way [in this book] it is not because I set out to expose myself, but because I wanted my piece about my parents to be subordinate to nothing. I wanted to be subordinate to it.
You’ve admitted that Frank Bascombe is a semiautobiographical character. Or at least he has roots in your life and psyche.
So, would folks who read the memoir recognize in it something of Frank’s parentage?
That’s a fair question. But it’s not a question I’ve ever thought about. But, you know, I think if people wanted to draw radiant lines for the one set of books to this little book, yeah, I think you probably could. But I’m not going to help.
Richard Ford, Between Them: Remembering My Parents. In conversation with librarian Andy Kahan. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Free Library of Philadelphia Central Library, 19th and Vine Streets. Tickets: $15 general, $7 students. Information: 215-567-4341, libwww.freelibrary.org/authorevents.