The Orient's Beth Kowitt sat down with Visiting Professor Richard Ford, a Pulitzer Prize winning author for Independence Day. Ford, who lives in Boothbay, has published five novels and several collections of short stories. At Bowdoin, he teaches Writing Fiction and Making Stories Not Telling Them while working on his next novel, The Lay of the Land The following is the complete transcript of that interview.
Why Bowdoin, and what process did you go through to end up here?
It was a process that took place over some time and it involved a lot of factors. I had some friends who taught here, I live not very far from here, and I have friends whose kids went to school here. It's a place I came to about seven or eight years ago to give a reading and was struck by and thought what a terrific place. Then I happened to move up here sort of coincidentally. Usually I think about teaching when I'm not writing something, when I have been writing something and feel like I have something new to teach. I wouldn't be a teacher if I weren't a writer, and I think every time I write a book I probably learn something else that's worth teaching. I was meant to teach here a couple of years ago, and I hurt my neck seriously and I couldn't do it then. But then Dean McEwen was kind enough to come around ask me again. By then, kind of unfortunately in a way, I was lost in another book, and it's unusual for me to be writing a book and teaching at the same time. So it was the college itself and the fact that I had friends here and then the fact that I live nearby.
Can you tell me a little bit about your teaching history?
I never set out to be a teacher. When I got out of graduate school, my wife persuaded me not to take a teaching job. I was sort of apprenticing myself to be a writer and she said you just had these years in graduate school so why don't you not get a teaching job but instead go home and write and I'll get a job. So I never really started life thinking I was going to be a college teacher, and over the years I have been fortunate enough to teach for a year or two and then not teach for ten years or teach for a year and then not teach for five years. Usually, as I said, times when I wasn't writing a book, and I had some time on my hands and maybe had something that I thought was worth teaching. I taught at Princeton, Williams, Harvard, and Northwestern over 35 years.
What do you like most about teaching?
Students. Students are the reason that I teach. I like the time in the classroom with the students. That's the thing I like the most. That's what makes it worthwhile.
I know that you haven't been here long, but how does Bowdoin compare to other places where you've taught?
I really haven't been here long enough. I've only had two weeks of class. Maybe I could answer that question in ten weeks, but I probably couldn't. I don't teach regularly enough to be able to put the experiences side by side. And I'm not the kind of person who puts things up side by side anyway. I've been really lucky to be asked to teach at really good schools, and that's all I know.
Where did you go to college, and who was your most influential teacher?
I went to college at Michigan State, and then I went to law school for a while at Washington University in St. Louis. Then I went to graduate school in literature at the University of California at Irvine. I had at every stop?law school, graduate school, undergraduate studies?I had really good teachers. I wouldn't call myself a good student. I was a diligent student. I worked really hard, and I got really good grades, but that didn't make me a good student. It just made me a proficient student. But I had a good writing teacher when I was at Michigan State and I had wonderful teachers when I was in law school, and I had some wonderful teachers when I was in graduate school, who not only, particularly in graduate school, taught me some things about literature, but also were models of human conduct in the classroom and taught me a reverence for good writing and a reverence for the acts that make good writing. I had E.L. Doctorow as a teacher. I had Galway Kinnell as a teacher. I had good teachers. Did you ever practice law?
No, I never did. I came to the conclusion that being a lawyer's not for me because, well, I was so young when I left law school. All I knew was that I didn't like law school. I liked the law but I didn't like the teaching of the law very much. And again I had a couple of wonderful teachers but I spent a lot of time in law school being scared, and I didn't like being scared all the time. There was a sense of competitiveness in law school that I didn't like. I'm not naturally competitive. I'm aggressive but I'm not competitive, and I didn't like constantly looking over my shoulder to the left and to the right, wondering who was going to make better grades than I was going to make, and that seemed to be what everyone was good at. But that's natural to law school because the practice of law is adversarial. There's always going to be someone you're banging heads against or brains against. I think that just wasn't what I liked. My mother told me so. She said, Richard you're not going to be a very good lawyer. She said you're not mean. Whether I am mean or whether I'm not mean, she didn't think that I was aggressive enough or heard-hearted enough, tough enough. Maybe she was right.
What are you working on right now?
I'm in the middle of a long novel. Normally I would be teaching at a time when I wouldn't be in the throes of a novel. Normally I'm not, but this time I am. It's kind of peculiar. When I was first supposed to teach at Bowdoin I wasn't writing a book. I had just finished a book of short stories, and that would have been an ideal time, but then I hurt my neck somehow or another. I don't know how I did it. But I'm in the middle of a long novel. I'm well past the middle of it, the last fifth of it probably.
Can you reveal any of what it's about?
It's called The Lay of the Land. It's set in New Jersey like two other novels that I wrote, Independence Day and The Sportswriter. This is the third of what would be little triplets of books if I'm able to write it to its end. It involves the same character, Frank Bascomb, and he is in this book a real estate agent as he was in the second book. It takes place in the year 2000, a millennial year. It has some pretty high aspirations as a novel. It remains to be seen if I can carry them off. It's about a lot of things. There are a lot of things going on in the book of interest to me, and it's probably in that way a larger book than the other two with respect of what's in it, the diversity of issues that are alive in the book.
Place seems to figure in to your novels, so do you think after leaving Bowdoin and Maine that they'll have place in whatever you write next?
I have one story in Multitude of Sins, which was set in Maine. It's sort of about two people taking a reconciliatory vacation, trying to reconcile their differences in the marriage. It more or less devolves upon Belfast. I was living here when I wrote it. In fact, I wrote it in Boothbay. It seemed strange to be writing about a place where I was at the time I was writing it. That's a way of saying that it's certainly thinkable that I could write some things set in Maine. I don't know. Little by little by little as I'm working on this long novel, I'm also keeping track of stories that I would try to write for a book of stories. Mostly when I imagine stories in advance of writing them, they don't have places very much. They're pretty much situations that don't have locations attached to them. I didn't think when I wrote this story called "Charity" that it would be set in Maine either, but it just turned out to be set in Maine. Mostly I set things in places because names of the places are names that I know provoke in myself and in the person who reads them a set of emotions. It's not so much because I want to describe the Maine coast or the Jersey shore or the Pine Barrens or the Delaware Valley. It's not so much that I want to do that. I want to evoke a set of emotions that are attached to a name of a place. So when I started writing about New Jersey back in the '80s, of course it wasn't really writing about New Jersey because New Jersey is where New Jersey is and my book is my book, and they're different. But I knew that when I said New Jersey on the page, wrote it down, that almost forgetting it was a place on the map, those words would provoke a degree of a response. I wanted to put those responses in play. It isn't so much the place itself as much as it is the name of the place.
Do you have any rituals that you go through before writing?
No, well now I do?the ritual of trying to get the heat into the room I work in. I work in a boat house. I go down there in the mornings and I've got a little space heater on a timer. It goes off about 5:30 and by the time I get down there the chill is taken off the room, but it's a pretty big room and it doesn't really do it so I have to get the stove going. So that's the ritual. Getting some heat into the damn place. Ordinarily though what I do is I sit down and I just stare [laughs]. There's some sense of regret about starting it again everyday.
How do you run your classes? Do you have a certain format?
Classes are designed chiefly to entertain the work of the students in the class. Students write stories and then they give them to the class and we discuss them. That's the heart of the class. The majority of class time is spent doing that. But by way of precedent really, what precedes writing, we always talk about a story first because my notion is that we write because we read. It may seem that we write because we want to express ourselves and that may even happen, but most of us, myself particularly and I try to sell this to my students, to read first, read a lot. So we talk about a story everyday in class and then we talk about stories that students have turned in. I run the class by trying to identify what I think are four or five central issues that the story puts into play and makes operate. We try to talk in appraising ways about those issues. They're always involved with the formal features of the story?the point of view, the character structure, the narrative structure. I basically run it in a semi-Socratic way whereby I ask questions of people in the class and ask them to talk about certain things, and then when they do I sort of focus on them and get them to talk to me about the story. That is instead of the unwieldy and awkward way students talk to the writer who is sitting there listening to it. But then the writer gets to be privy to a conversation amongst his/her student colleagues, a conversation of a focused nature that allows for extended conversation about one thing. The focus is important because I know writers can get pretty well confused if conversations aren't very well organized. I never ask people to generally tell me what they think about a story and let them just sort of rattle of impressions about the story. That doesn't help as much. In one way it's rather structured and tightly run, and then, in another way, I'm always happy to have people expatiate about something when I know that they're talking about something that we all deem to be important.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?
Well, I never really decided. I always decided that I would write something. I decided that I would try to be a writer when I was 24 and then I went to school, graduate school. It was always me trying to write something rather than me having the ambition to be a writer. I've always been very uncomfortable with the designation I am a writer. Somehow it always seemed to be presumptuous when I was young and then kind of irrelevant when I was not young, when I had written five or six or seven books, then I guess it was that if I wasn't a writer I didn't know what I was and I wasn't anything else so it didn't matter. I never would say to myself that I was writer and I would never say to anyone else. But Toby Wolfe and I were once flying to London, and we were just about to get off the plane. You have to make out those departation cards, which you get when you get to the border patrol or whatever the hell they are. At the bottom of the card it said profession, and I thought, well shit, what am I? I went through all of the possibilities of what I could be. This was in 1985 or 1986, and I said to Toby I don't know what to put here. What profession? I don't have a profession. He said, don't be a dimwit, you're writer. And I said oh really? I guess I'm a writer because I'm not anything else.
A writer by default?
[Laughs] There's a nice line, which I used in my novel from J.D. Cunningham which is "Love is all the things that doesn't know it's not love."
Do you have a favorite book or a favorite author?
No, I really don't. I really don't have a favorite book or a favorite author. I think it's my vocation to be a reader, and I'm always a big fan of whatever I'm liking at the moment. It's really not my nature to designate one thing as the best. Art doesn't have to be the best. Art just has to be good. So that's sort of what I think. This is good, and that's good, and that's really good. My wife for instance, and there are a lot people that I know and I really envy this, that kind of read through shitty books, crappy mysteries and stuff like that. I can't. It's too bad because there's a kind of pleasure to be had from that, but I really can't do it. I can really only make myself read really good books.
So what do you do if you read something you don't like?
I throw it across the room. I throw it away. I have no sense of responsibility that I have to finish a book that I started if I don't like it, which is too bad in one way because I'm sure that books that I determined that I don't like from time to time change at certain point and become a book I would like. That fact has made it unnecessary for me to review books. Most books aren't going to be very good so it doesn't do me any good to review books because the books aren't good anyway, and nobody needs to spend his life telling the world that this not very good book is not very good.
And what are you reading right now?
I'm a reading a book called A Sin of Color by an English woman named Sunetra Gupta, which is very good. It's a novel, a novel of passion. She's an epidemiologist teaching at Oxford, and she's really a remarkably good writer.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Try to talk yourself out of it if you possibly can. It's when you can't talk yourself out of it that you know you have a problem. It's like getting married. You should always try your best to talk yourself out of it. When you can't, that's when you know it's for real. [laughs]
That's really good advice. My last question for you is do you know how long you're planning on teaching here?
Well I live in Maine. It's my residence and so I'm hopeful that I can go along teaching as long as it makes me happy and as long as it makes the college happy. There's something about the alternative, which is I guess is tenure, that I find to be so terrifying.