Richard Ford is the author of many books, including Canada and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day. His new short-story collection, Sorry for Your Trouble, was published May 12.
How’s lockdown been for you?
It hasn’t affected me much at all. I live in Maine, on the ocean, in a little compound of about five acres with dogs and we’re pretty self-sustaining. Social distancing is what we call our social life. As long you can get to the grocery store and the liquor store, then you’re basically a free agent.
Actually, with most of the significant things in my life, social distancing is an advantage. The only person I’m close to is my wife, and that’s fine with me. … And my work has thrived. I’ve written 110 pages of a novel in the past six weeks. I was wanting to start this book anyway, so when the lockdown came, I just repaired to my room and got busy.
I teach literature at [New York-based] Columbia University and I’ve been doing that by “distance learning.”
So you’re not binge-watching Tiger King?
Not Tiger King. My wife and I watch English police procedurals. And I wish the Swedes would hurry up and get the last section of The Bridge done; I’d like to see one more season of that.
How have you found the remote teaching?
Well, because I’m so stupid, it took a long time to get the thing to where it would work. It was cumbersome at first, and then it worked its way to awkward, and then it worked its way to tolerable.
Tell me about the provenance of the stories in this new collection.
The earliest one, Jimmy Green –1992, dates from about 2002 or 03. Leaving for Kenosha is from 2006; the two novellas, 2008. The other stories were written in the period between then and now. I always write stories in the interstitial times, when I’m working on something longer. But I had a sense of what their affiliations were. I knew they were about loss. And finding vocabularies of self-consolation. That’s one of those things I’ve been preoccupied with all my life: how you say the things you don’t have language for.
How did you settle on the title, Sorry for Your Trouble?
I stole it from Frank McCourt. I read Angela’s Ashes when I went to Limerick, Ireland, two or three years ago, and seeded all the way through the book and Frank’s young life is just one loss after another – somebody dies, somebody runs away, and people are constantly creeping through their houses saying, “Sorry for your trouble, sorry for your trouble.” I thought it was a nice phrase, and that everyone would know what it meant. Particularly in Ireland.
It’s notable that many of the stories and characters are connected to Ireland. Have you been spending time there?
A lot of late, in the past 15 years. I went to Ireland first in 1985, for a book. And I liked it in the way anybody likes Ireland; it’s beautiful, and the people are friendly, and they like books. So at a certain point Trinity College asked if I would come and teach, and I said yes, and I commuted back and forth for about five years. … It’s one of the great things about Trinity, it has a sodality of colleagues, people you’d like to know and meet, not a bunch of sociopaths. I was supposed to be there now, spending two months in the west of Ireland. One of the things I’ve discovered in the lockdown is that 80 per cent of the things I thought I really needed to do I don’t miss at all, but I do miss going to Europe, to Ireland and France.
One of the hallmarks of the stories, and of your work in general, is the way you depict what I’ll call the changing emotional “weather” between your characters, especially in dialogue.
I think it’s one of the ways in which my process of writing a page of words does, in a way, comport with how human beings actually live. I just think it’s how we conduct our life with others. We try our best to steward what comes out of our mouth, but once those words leave our mouth, the other person has to then find a logic for a reply. And between the two of you, that’s how you reach a kind of comity. And that’s exactly how I write sentences. There’s a moment in Nothing to Declare where Barbara says, “Would you like to sleep with me?” And that was Richard [Ford] getting to a moment in which he didn’t know what to do, and so I had that line floating around in my notebook, and I just slammed it in there. And it isn’t always the case when you slam a line in there that it fits. … Sometimes you have to take it out. But sometimes when you have a line that’s seemingly extrinsic to the scene, you put it in and it just makes the moment refract, in a way. Composition is the arrangement of unequal things, and that’s what I do – I compose by putting together unequal things.
Denis Donoghue says language is where we find values in action. In a way it substitutes for other types of possible actions within stories, physical actions: the cavalry coming over the hill, a man walking through the door holding a gun, all of those things. Sometimes language is just the action of the story.
This isn’t an artful segue, but it struck me that some of the best, funniest characterizations in these stories involve teeth. You describe teeth that are “reckless” or “raucous” or “carelessly spaced.” You even have a dentist who speaks in Beckettian terms about tooth extraction.
That was a cameo by my dentist. He’s a spiritual guy. He’s Catholic and goes for retreats in the woods and doesn’t speak for two weeks. I’ve put him into several stories, actually.
There are also a lot of lawyers and real estate agents, which is what your most enduring character, Frank Bascombe, is. Realty isn’t depicted much in literature; why do you think you keep coming back to it?
In the nineties, I had a character, Frank, who’d been a sportswriter in an early book, and I had to give him a new profession. And I said, what can a man do in midlife without actually going back to college and getting another degree? There aren’t that many things. You can’t become a dentist, for instance. But you can become a real estate agent. I had lived all over the country and been in the cars of so many real estate agents in my life, and I found a real compassion for them. So it was just lucky, a complete shot in the dark. But when I started writing about him as a real estate agent, I found that it was an entrée into so many things about the country: the economy, people’s investment in their own futures, places where they live and die, all of these things became my remit, in essence. And so I backed into it, like everything else.
A line in the novella The Run of Yourself reads: “Things happen that seem life-altering, then everything grinds down to being bearable – sometimes slightly better,” which felt resonant in this pandemic moment. Do you think it applies?
I find it hard to subordinate what’s happening now to anything I would have written about it. Because what’s happening now will eventually have to become subordinate to people’s imaginations, but I don’t feel I have the language for what’s happening now. I wish, in a way, I did. This pandemic is going to produce some wonderful literature. That’s not much of a solace to us, but I wouldn’t even try to apply my thinking about these stories to the situation that’s before us now, because all those stories were framed around a world that’s in jeopardy of never existing again. The stories feel almost quaint.
Can you say a bit more about the Bascombe novel you’re writing?
It’s called Be Mine and it’s set this past winter, much of it in Minnesota. Frank’s son, Paul, has developed an incurable disease at 47 and Frank takes him to the Mayo Clinic. Paul is addicted to the names of places – like Peace Falls, or Chagrin, Ohio – so Frank is determined to rent an RV and take him to as many as he can in the middle of winter. I’m not making any promises for it, but so far it makes sense to me. It’s been in my mind for about five or six years, and you never can tell if something that’s in your mind that long has a better chance of working out than if it’s in your mind for six months. So far, the parts kind of make sense. It’s a funny book about a sad set of events.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.