Richard Ford’s New Memoir Is His First Nonfiction Book
After Richard Ford published an essay about his mother in Harper’s Magazine in 1986, he always wanted to write a companion piece about his father. “But my father was dead a long time at that point he died in 1960 when I was 16 and even before that was never very physically present in my life,” Ford said recently. “The prospect of writing about him always stayed a little bit offshore for me.”
Now, after more than 30 years of note taking, Ford has found a way to bring the subject of his father to shore. His memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents, was published on May 2. It is the first nonfiction book for Ford, the Emmanuel Roman and Barrie Sardoff Roman Professor of the Humanities, who has been teaching at the School of the Arts since he arrived at Columbia in 2012. For this we are all extremely grateful.”
Ford’s 1995 novel, Independence Day, was the first book to receive both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
He completed the trilogy in 2006 with The Lay of the Land or so Ford’s readers thought until 2014, when he published Let Me Be Frank with You, four linked novellas that further chronicled Bascombe’s life and was a Pulitzer finalist.
His other works include the novels A Piece of My Heart, The Ultimate Good Luck and Wildlife, as well as the short fiction collections Rock Springs and Women with Men. He has edited several collections of fiction, including Best American Short Stories 1990 and Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work. His latest novel, Canada, was published in 2012 and was a best seller.
Q. Why did you decide to write a memoir about your parents at this point in your life?
A. I looked around at the notes that I had accumulated over 30 plus years and there were a lot of them, hundreds. And I thought, well, the least I can do is go back through them and see what happens. I knew that I was going to have to take the point of view that my father’s absence was a kind of presence. It made a kind of metaphorical sense, but not necessarily literal, practicable sense. What I found, though, was that I had a lot of memories that I didn’t know I had until I started writing them down. But why, beyond those logistical or technical considerations, did I write about my parents? I simply missed them. I got to be 70 plus years old and I realized I was a man who missed his parents. I missed them for sentimental reasons and I missed them because I wanted to be able to affiliate with them again. Writing about them would affiliate me with them, and writing about them in a memoiristic way, which is to say, based on fact, was a way that I could testify that they actually existed even though they were not people of obvious consequence in the wider world.
Q. Was writing your first book length piece of nonfiction different than writing a book of fiction?
A. No. I just adhered to the requirement that everything I averred about my parents had to be factual. And anything that wasn’t factual, such as certain aspects of my parents growing up, I had to frame clearly as supposition by me. Therefore, when I said something was true about them, such as when they were born and where they were born and where my grandmother came from, all of those things had to be factual, because fact was my ultimate certifier. It’s important to me to retain the now rather quaint idea that “things actually happen.”
Q. Did the language word usage, sentence structure strike you as different than when you write fiction?
A. I had to develop a style and a syntax and a diction which was apposite to the essay I wrote about my mother. I don’t know if the fact that one was written in 1986 and one was written in 2016 has made any stylistic difference. I adjusted the first essay about my mother at least in its content to more aptly reside in a book also about my father. For instance, there were repetitions from the first to the second which I eliminated, some that I rationalized. But as far as drawing upon some different literary muscle, I don’t think I did.
Q. So the subject you are writing about determines the style of your writing?
A. Yes. I have no investment in making my so to speak writing style be consistent project to project. Sometimes people will say to me,
“You know, I can recognize a sentence of yours anywhere.” I say: “Oh bullshit, you cannot. All of us do. If you’re trying to maintain stylistic consistency, you’re probably cutting off something that you should have access to language, subject matter, tone, humor. Everything. You want to invent a style that gives you access to everything you can say about whatever subject you’re undertaking.
Q. What was it like to write something so personal?
A. My wife, Kristina, said she thought that I experienced a kind of emotional low when I was writing about my father in the winter of 2016. Probably revisiting his death and the bits of his life were telling on me. But if so, that was a little enough price to pay to be able to write about him. I try to write about the most important things I know. That’s what I’m emotionally attuned to do. So if something draws down on me a bit, good; that means I’ve probably hit on something that is worth doing.
Q. Did writing this book about your parents give you a new understanding about your relationship with them?
A. One of the things I think I learned was that in the relationship that existed among my two parents and myself, I was always third. They were the two people that mattered the most. They each mattered to the other more than I mattered to them. I liked that and like it now. I like being able to say it; to exonerate them from narrow, conventional thinking about such matters. They were married for 15 years before I was born, never thought they would have children. But then they suddenly had me, and I think I was a little bit of an intrusion in the serenity of their life. That’s why I called the book Between Them. I came into the world from between them, I was raised literally between them, and I came between them, and it was always the case that what was most important to each of them was what was between them.
Q. You’re not saying that you didn’t feel loved by them?
A. I felt immensely loved by both of them all the time.
Q. Who was in control when you were writing Between Them?
A. Well, the facts were paramount. They did what they did. I didn’t determine or control that my father was born in Atkins, Arkansas, or that my parents were married in 1928, etc. In a piece of fiction I would control such things absolutely. But in a memoir the facts run the show. What I had to decide was what difference it all made.
Q. What are you teaching this spring?
A. A course in memoirs about death, seven memoirs that I chose, all quite different and I chose to teach this course not because I was publishing a memoir this spring, although that’s not inconvenient. So it has a practical application.
Q. What is the focus of the master class you are teaching this semester?
A. I used one book, Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster, a wonderful novel. We just went through it page by page, patiently and carefully. I may use James Salter’s novel All That Is for a master class next year and do the same thing. These rich, accessible books are my models. I want to write rich, complex books that are also accessible. If you can’t read to the end of my book, my book has failed. But a book like Salter’s, his last book before he died, is so full, it’s so full of teachable moments, of pleasurable moments, of new intelligence. And yet you can sit down and read it, you don’t have to study it, it’s not a professor’s book.
Q. How does the intersection of writing and teaching affect you?
A. I always put my own work first. That’s what I advise my students to do. My work’s much more challenging than the work I do for them. Classes are a great pleasure for me because I love to read the books, love to be in class with my students. I take seriously the fact that they’re trying to enter an estimable, difficult, almost impossible vocation. I respect their lives,
their intellects. To get them along toward a writing vocation is a privilege.