Reading Richard Ford is no small comfort. His writing is a mixture of minute details infused with big ideas, and his characters, particularly Frank Bascombe, who has graced the pages of three of his novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day, exist in readers’ minds as sharply and vividly as any flesh-possessing person. For local lovers of literature, good news is coming in twos: Frank Bascombe is back, and Ford is coming to Halifax to talk about it.
The Cyril Byrne Lecture Series at Saint Mary’s (Friday, February 28, 7:30pm, McNally Theatre, 923 Robie) is an annual event that has hosted such luminaries as Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín and the beloved Alistair MacLeod. On Friday, Richard Ford will be added to the guestbook. He’ll read from his most recent novel, Canada, as well as the latest Bascombe installment.
Although born in Jackson, Mississippi, Ford has easily expanded the definition of Southern writer by setting his stories in such places as Mexico, Montana and the suburbs of New Jersey. Ford’s 2012 novel, Canada, takes place mostly in southern Saskatchewan. The most consistent trait of this roaming writer is his style of language, often described by way of the term “dirty realism”. It is mostly terse and unadorned, but never detached or too far from a certain sort of joy. “I take greatest pleasure as a writer in handling words,” Ford says. “I'm dyslexic, so I read slowly. Therefore I become pleasurably familiar with words' palpable dimensions—their weight as objects, their internal make-ups, their appearances, their relations to their assigned meanings, along with their variances.”
In Frank Bascombe, Ford has managed such a meaningful character partly because his language is so familiar. Frank thinks and talks and free-associates in a way that is acute and keenly observed, but still intuitive. He’s accessible in a way that most real people aren’t. It’s nice to imagine that fictional characters haunt writers in the same way they do readers; that somehow a writer’s creation exists in their mind like an old friend. The truth is that this probably would not make for great literature. “Frank Bascombe never becomes for me other than a fictional character; albeit one I like imagining,” says Ford. “To view him in any other way would be to narrow what I can do with him, as an instrument.”
This makes sense, coming from the man who has, in all likelihood, spent countless solitary days, months, and even years, inducing this character onto the page. As hard as the work is, the payoff seems worth it. “I can say that I've gotten much more from this vocation than I've probably ever been able to provide for others. But life's not fair.”
And so there is still more to come. “I just concede that I do this now, the best I can, then I go on and don't much look back. It seems healthy, and creates its own vital intensity for the work itself as I do it. I won't come this way again.”