I have a confession. I've never read Richard Ford. Over my life as a reader, I've noticed that I tend not to read anything by "celebrated" authors. "Oh, he's won awards. He doesn't need my help." Truly, this is how I approach most of my reading choices.
But a note to copy writers: I've been missing out! Why didn't you just tell me that Ford rocks a pair of pink socks like no other? Sure, it has nothing to do with his books - and a truly admirable career - but it connects me to him in a way that "award-winning" can't.
And after hearing Ford speak last night, clearly as well-read as he is - effortlessly fusing quotes from Kundera, Sartre and Oates into his responses - I don't know that he'd mind this approach. While this may not be the most flattering accolade a writer of his calibre can accept, Richard Ford, I'm happy to have finally met you. You had me at your ankles.
I also can't help but think that he'd appreciate it that, after leaving the event and stepping out into a blustery rain storm, I, along with my lone umbrella, was commandeered by a Cape Bretoner who had just come fresh from a dinner-and-dancing harbour tour. It became clear within moments that she thought I'd been on the boat, but there we were, cheek-to-cheek and strangers, rushing to get her to the yellow school bus. "Where are you from?" she yelled before boarding, as if to suggest that I wasn't from this place, that I wasn't a card-carrying TTC rider steps from my own carriage home.
Place, Ford suggests, is a construction. Places don't have essence so much as similar characteristics that serve a collective purpose. But to have been raised in the South during segregation, he's quick to say that there are those everywhere who know something else; in some cases, something right or wrong about how any place is defined.
He's also laissez-faire when speaking about how he comes to choose the locations in his book, saying that Saskatchewan, which features heavily in his three-fifths completed upcoming novel Canada, was chosen in part because of the need to get his character across the border.
What he does take seriously is the beat of life that presents itself to writers, urging us to "Pay Attention," something Ford felt in Saskatchewan and felt obligated to explore.
Beyond that, he says to see the name on the page makes his heart flutter, that often writers do things simply to amuse themselves.
Ford's conversation with Eleanor Wachtel was rife with these gems, Ford often apologizing to the audience, as if to say, "You did know that writers make this stuff up, right?"
Another such kernel of wisdom is that setting isn't as important as a reader would like to think it is. I immediately thought of my recent chat with Giller finalist Alexander MacLeod, who has had to defend that his collection of short stories, Light Lifting, is not a tribute to Windsor, his old stomping grounds. Ford says that setting is necessary to make the actions of your characters plausible. And while he strives to do the appropriate research, he says, "I'm not trying to out Karen-Solie Karen Solie," the Griffin-winning poet of the stunning collection Pigeons.
Tally thus far in favour of Ford fandom: pink socks, Karen Solie, transparency, and, yes, somewhere down the list, "celebrated" and "award-winning."
On my way out, I bumped into Sarah Elton, a volunteer board member at PEN Canada. Only the night before, we'd met at another event where we talked about a young man - a friend of hers - who is imprisoned in Iran.
Wednesday evening, PEN Canada's "empty chair" held the image of Hossein Derakhshan, a 35-year-old Canadian-Iranian blogger. "That's the guy," I said.
Earlier in his discussion with Wachtel, Ford had talked about the absurdity of coming from a place where people know that things are not as they are reported. Absurd, he emphasized.
"You should write something that I include in my blog post," I told Sarah. "I can't duplicate your voice. It's your friend. He's a picture on a chair."
So below are a few words from Sarah, and I hope you'll keep in mind the "absurdity" of Derakhshan's circumstances while I have the freedom to use a national platform to tell you that pink socks and poetry hold more influence over my reading choices than a someone who used his platform for justice and change. Not that there's anything wrong with pink socks and poetry.
From Sarah Elton:
On stage last night was an empty chair to remind the audience of writers who couldn't be present because they'd been jailed for speaking their minds. Perched on the chair, directly facing me, was a photograph of Hossein Derakhshan, the 35-year-old Canadian-Iranian blogger who has been jailed in Tehran for nothing more than speaking his mind.
The last time I sat across from Derakhshan was three years ago in a Kensington Market cafe where he encouraged me to try his drink, a matcha tea latte. I was writing an article about his legendary stature as the man who launched, from his computer in Toronto, the Iranian blogging revolution. I enjoyed his ornery and opinionated conversation and we kept in touch over e-mail and chat. Then, in 2008 while visiting his family in Tehran, Derakhshan was arrested and has been held in jail without access to justice ever since. And now he has been sentenced to more than 19 years in jail.
In the photograph on last night's emtpty chair, Derakhshan stands in front of a typical Toronto brick wall, wearing a jean jacket and looking straight into the lens with the hint of a smile. It is hard to reconcile the handsome young man in the photograph with the knowledge that Derakhshan is likely beaten down and anguished, alone in some jail cell - and will continue to be this way unless someone speaks up for him.
On Nov. 15, we will join Canadians and other concerned citizens across the Internet to lobby the Canadian government to act now to bring Derakhshan home.