Monday, October 15, 2012

Not just a man's man

Richard Ford, Friday 12th October, 7.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Words by Valerie O'Riordan. Photograph by Roshana Rubin-Mayhew.

The Waterstones staff at the Whitworth Art Gallery aren’t getting any respite today. Almost an hour before Richard Ford appears, the crowd are already grabbing their copies of the Pulitzer winner’s back catalogue, including, of course, Canada, his latest novel and the book he’s currently touring. Tonight’s event is chaired by Ian McGuire, novelist and Ford scholar (and, full disclosure, my PhD supervisor) and the audience is full of academics, long-time fans and new converts. It’s a sell-out. McGuire’s introduction sketches out the critical background: Ford’s ‘extraordinary attention to and felicity with language’; the American intellectual tradition to which he belongs; his works’ celebration of the ordinary; his combination of a ‘deep and persistent realism’ with an equally persistent idealism. Everybody applauds as Ford steps up. He reads from Canada – from the beginning, so that, he says, he doesn’t have to do the usual ‘blah, blah, blah’ – and we’re rapt; then, the questions start.

McGuire asks, first, about Canada, and its protagonist, Dell Parsons. Ford talks about Dell’s ability to come through a set of very difficult circumstances, which he attributes to his being loved as a child. They discuss normality and disaster, borders and their crossings. Ford started the book over 20 years ago; he says he wanted to write about a boy crossing a border against his will – the idea was ‘something kicking in his soul’, a la Neruda – but it didn’t take off. He stuck his pages on the topic in the freezer and added notes as they occurred to him; when he finally took the papers out, there were 430 of them. The audience laughs. Canada, the country, he says, for him, stands for tolerance and a ‘sense of being disarmed’ – it’s a ‘good place’, while the character of Arthur Remlinger is ‘as close to a constantly evil character’ as anything he’s ever written, which he found difficult. 

He adds that Arthur is a Tea Party-like figure, a man that believes in natural law, who can’t juggle two ideas – he reminds us that Fitzgerald said that ‘to hold two opposites in mind is a mark of intelligence’, and says that, as far as he can see, Barack Obama is a man who can do this. Again, the audience approves. When McGuire asks if the optimism that characterises some of Ford's earlier work might be coming under strain, he replies no, but that sometimes he feels as though scepticism is ‘sometimes gaining ground’. If you’re a novelist, a poet, an essayist – or anybody working in the humanities – your acts are acts for others, and you must then see that there’s ‘a future in which your acts will have some force.’ While we’ve all got ‘dark places’, ‘writers get to make a buck out of them!’ He speaks about setting his work in the past – the early 60s, the death of his father in 1960 and the important novels that he remembers from that time – Catch-22 and Revolutionary Road – and tells us that if you can make the time of your book seem full and identifiable, you’ve got a lot going for yourself as an artist. Plausibility and drama, he says, take the reader to a very vivid space.

It’s been a dense and thought-provoking session, but we’re not yet done; the audience Q&A takes off with a nod to Updike (‘the great writer of my life’) and a discussion about the editorial process (he defends Gordon Lish, claiming the Lish/Carver relationship was a lot ‘less sinister’ than it is sometimes portrayed). Asked about his use of names, he’s honest and witty about his often arbitrary process for christening his characters, and says that he likes these discussions because it’s a chance to demystify the writing process for his readers. There’s a question about writing, and writing about men, and Ford is adamant that he’s ‘not interested in men per se’; he says that ‘the kinds of awareness that I can share with readers about men could equally be about women’ – that ‘the difference between women and men is a pronoun’. He has no interest in writing characters who ‘cut out half the population’ and he says that thinking about his books as being ‘about men’ is a reductive critical overlay. We like this. We applaud vigorously.   

The queue for book-signing snakes through the gallery; a little intimidated, I run away, and feel rather foolish that I have yet to read Canada. But that, I think, is easily fixed.

Valerie O'Riordan is a Manchester-based writer, and she blogs at Not Exactly True.

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