Richard Ford gets Frank – Sunday 25 February, WORD Christchurch

I confess I was more than a little excited to head along to The Piano on Sunday 25th February for the WORD event, Richard Ford Gets Frank. I couldn’t wait to listen to the conversation between one of my favourite authors, Richard Ford, and regular WORD host Liz Grant.

I was first introduced to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s work in 2002 while completing an American Literature paper at the University of Canterbury, where our course reading included both a short story of his (from the fantastic collection, Rock Springs) as well as his first novel featuring the unguarded and wry observationist, Frank Bascombe, The Sportswriter (more on Frank later). In fact, while talking to Ford on Sunday as he signed my newly purchased copy of the 2020 short story collection, Sorry for Your Trouble, I gushed that this required course reading had started for me a life-long love affair with contemporary American fiction. Over the last twenty years, I have added many award-winning American writers to my list of favourites but Ford has remained a staple in my reading life.

The Sportswriter

Ford has made regularly returning to his work an enjoyable and easy exercise for his readers, pulling them back every decade since the 1980s with his Frank Bascombe novels. I was lucky in 2002 that I could immediately revisit the character of Frank by following up The Sportswriter (published 1986) with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day (pub. 1995). At that stage in my life, I didn’t need to wait long to check-in with Frank again with The Lay of the Land (pub. 2006). A series of “long stories”, Let Me Be Frank with You was published in 2014, and now Ford has published Be Mine, the final book in the Frank Bascombe series.

Be Mine

While Frank is 74 in this final book, and Ford himself now 80 (“I keep forgetting Frank’s so much younger than me,” he remarks on Sunday), the two have spanned nearly forty years together and so it is understandable that readers want to know how much of himself Ford has written into his protagonist. Luckily, we’re not too far into the hour’s conversation with Liz Grant, when she asks him just that.

Ford tells us that like Bascombe, he began his career as a failed novelist. He wrote two novels that by his own admission didn’t do particularly well and so, like his protagonist, he turned to sportswriting. When the magazine he was writing for folded, Ford once again began writing fiction and the first Frank Bascombe novel, The Sportswriter, was born. Ford tells his audience that he had no ambition to write a series based on Frank and also didn’t think that one would be received all that well but rather he “backed into it”. In a variety of places and in a range of situations Ford kept hearing Frank’s voice so strongly that he felt he needed to return to him.

While there are also many differences between Ford and Frank (Ford has been married to the love of his life for nearly sixty years, Frank has been divorced twice and is single when we meet him for the final time in Be Mine; Ford has had no children, Frank has had three), both the author and the character share a fondness of people-watching, observing the details and meaning of place, and finding humour in both the mundane and the moving.

Ford generously shared many insights into his writing process on Sunday. An avid notebooker, Ford regularly jots down observations and ideas. He plots his stories and novels around a series of these ideas referring to his process as, “like backing a trailer into a garage. I’m lucky if it fits.” Ford hand-writes his works on paper. He tells us he used to use Bic ballpoint pens and took great satisfaction in watching the ink in the pen diminish as he filled up his paper. It gave him an understandable sense of accomplishment knowing that the ink had been transformed into words. He comments that he also writes by hand because that’s about as fast as he can think, helping him with his process of careful word selection.

When Grant asks Ford about his dyslexia, Ford reveals that this had a significant impact on growing his vast vocabulary. He says it helped him to learn to concentrate on individual words, carefully learning their spelling and their meaning. Ford is always precise with his choice of language whether speaking in-person or in his writing. On describing characters, Ford reveals that he’s not trying to draw life-like pictures from a face that he’s envisioned but rather tries to create “word portraits”, where a character’s face might be drawn from the words he has selected. While I knew I loved Ford’s writing, I am grateful to have a better understanding of just a few of the qualities that make him one of America’s most distinguished writers.

Like many, I’m looking forward to what will surely be a fantastic line-up of events at the end of August this year at the now annual WORD Christchurch festival. I think I speak for everyone present on Sunday when I say that I’m stoked WORD are also bringing quality one-off events such as this one to audiences in Christchurch.

Emily Caygill