Author Q&A: Richard Ford

Sorry For your Trouble
(Bloomsbury, £16.99 hardback, £14.26 ebook)

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Among his eight novels and four collection of short stories, Richard Ford won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day. Among his characters in this latest collection, a woman and a man, parted a quarter of a century ago, reunite in a New Orleans bar as a parade goes by. A former lawyer grieves for his wife in a rented cottage in Maine. Many have connections to Ireland. There is gentle despair, half-glimpsed happiness and almost accidental wisdom in Ford’s world, rendered as vividly and fluently as usual.

Like most of your collections of short stories, Sorry For Your Trouble’s works cohere around certain themes. Did you recognise the themes after you’d written them or write them with the themes in mind?
I recognised something once I’d written about half of the stories – over a period of 15-plus years. I’d hesitate to say precisely what that cohering something actually is; if the book’s any good that theme can’t be distilled out of the stories, and the stories are the only way to reach it. I don’t think I could write a book to the tune of a previously known theme. Take all the fun out. You’re, after all, trying to write something new, not illustrate something old.

“Some quality of being Irish,” believes Henry’s mother of Niall, “allowed the world not to bother him too much”. What’s in the gap between being Irish and being Irish-American?
That’s a good question. I’ll use Occam’s merciless razor, though: being Irish is being Irish. Being Irish-American is being American. Think of it in terms of someone who “transitions” from male to being female – at day’s end, a female. Not a hybrid.

“Eliminate everything that’s not, and there the solution will be,” teaches one of the many lawyers in the book. Is he teaching writing as well?
No. Not in my pedagogy, he’s not. When I used to teach writing I wanted my students always to say more, not less. Writing’s not like sculpture. (Take away everything that’s not The Thinker, and The Thinker will be what’s left.) Writing’s more like painting. Give me more paint.

Lots of your characters are now financially or professionally successful but you don’t delve into that detail. Does it interest you less than their emotional interiors?
Yes. And I think – at least if I were doing the writing – more details of financial life would be boring, as it surely must be in real life.

New Orleans and Maine are favoured settings for your stories. How does the forthcoming presidential election look from both?
Louisiana – where New Orleans lies – is a “red state.” Thus a majority are nitwit Trumpers. Maine has plenty of nitwits, for sure; but Maine tends to vote more moderate. I think Trump will not carry Maine; whereas Louisiana’s a goner.

We read that Frank Bascombe, protagonist of four of your books, is returning in your new novel. How will he have changed?
As I’m writing this book today, he’s (obviously) older. He’s 75. I seem to be writing him a little harder-edged than previously he was. A bit more fulminant. Sceptical. I may, by the time I finish this writing though, be able to go back through and mediate some of that edginess. I’d like to. Sometime you just have to get things out and onto the page, and then fully assess whether you want to stand behind it. Sometimes you decide you don’t want to stand behind it, so you change it. Best practices though – never part with it until you can stand behind every single choice in the book.

How is coronavirus affecting you now and how do you think it will affect your writing?
Because I live already isolated and socially distanced, it’s conferred a lot of writing time upon me; whereas in the past I’d have been lured away to some now obviously less than essential activity. How it’ll affect my writing – well, the experience of the pandemic has made me feel, as a novelist with readers, potentially more useful. I write pretty much about life as lived, with the upshot that life is confirmed as being both worth living and also worth our closest notice. That’s not a bad thought in the midst of a calamity – that life matters. Pay attention.

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