Richard Ford On His New Memoir And The Challenge Of Writing About The South

The preteens and teenagers in Richard Ford’s fiction are captivated ― if perplexed ― by their parents’ choices. A 15-year-old drifts around in search of his twin after his parents are arrested for robbing a bank. An even younger boy witnesses a domestic spat just before his mother flees from his life.

Like his protagonists, Ford is taken with the task of understanding his parents. His most recent book, Between Them, is not a fictional exploration of that particular family dynamic, but a pair of memoirs, one dedicated to his father, who died when Ford was 16, and one to his mother.

“Hardly an hour goes by on any day that I do not think something about my father,” he writes of Parker Ford, a hardworking traveling salesman forced to stay still after a major heart attack. Of his mother, Edna Akin, he writes, “The act of considering my mother’s life is an act of love.” 

Of the pair and his relationship with them: “Our parents intimately link us, closeted as we are in our own lives, to a thing we’re not, forging a joined separateness and a useful mystery, so that even together with them we are also alone.”

This sort of matter-of-fact observation is what Ford has come to be known for, and accounts for his categorization as a writer of “dirty realism,” alongside Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff and Cormac McCarthy. The style lends itself well to memoiristic writing, where analysis of one’s own life runs the risk of slipping into sentimentality. That’s not the case for Ford; by describing the details of his parents’ lives, and describing what he failed to ever learn about them, he gracefully pays them tribute.

Below, the author discusses the challenges of memoir-writing and his own Southern upbringing:

Is this your story, your parent’s story, or something of both?

Their story. It’s their story. It’s not my story at all. I mean, I get to tell it because I’m the only one who knows it. I’m the only person left alive who knew my parents. And so it’s inescapable if I want to testify to their experience that I be the person who tells it. I wasn’t obsessively trying to keep myself out of it, but I never imagined it as being my story, or that their importance as two people owed itself to me in any way.

How did the writing process differ for you, between writing fiction and writing these short memoirs?

Well, it was sort of a sensate difference, in that it seems starker to write about my parents because it all depended on the factual rudiments of their lives. So it seemed a little grainier, whereas writing fiction for me, which I’ve done for most of my life, has kind of a plushness to it, as if underneath the surface there’s a volume. And with any kind of nonfiction writing that depends on facts entirely, there is not that plushness. Even when I was provisionally commenting on things that [my parents] did ― supposing this or supposing that ― it still seemed fastened to the mast of the book’s factual underpinning.

You’ve talked about writing and word choice as a mode of discovery ― the meaning of a sentence may change based on a desired tone or sound. How did this function for you when writing about true things rather than made-up ones?

That’s a good question, because you still do ― one still does ― write a sentence, and you come to a point at which you need a verb, or you need even an adjective. In a piece of fiction, you can choose a word without any investment in its content. Only an investment in its effect, or where it might lead the sentence. With a piece of nonfiction you still have a choice. But you have to say about the word and its use, “Is this accurate?” Accuracy is not a phenomenon in writing fiction in the same way that it is a phenomenon in writing memoir or writing nonfiction.

There are some kinds of accuracies in fiction that obtain. If you’re writing about Great Falls, Montana, you can’t say the Missouri River runs south there. There is that sort of geographical accuracy, but even that can be subject to all kinds of fantastical whims. But still, I think, that the Missouri River runs north there is kind of inescapable.

I remember one time I wrote a story for The New Yorker, and I put the address of the YWCA, and let’s say that I said that the YWCA was at 613 2nd Street NW. And the fact checker for The New Yorker called me and said, you know, the YWCA is actually at 132 2nd Street S, and I said, “That’s fine, but it doesn’t have enough syllables.” And they said, “Well, no, this is where it is.” I said, “No, just go away.”

I was raised by two people, and they each had a view of things and a view of me, and I had a view of them which was not always consonant. I felt like if I tried to make everything completely add up, it would renounce something true about the book.
Richard Ford

These two memoirs have some redundancies and also some contradictions. Why did you choose to include them?

I was raised by two people, and they each had a view of things and a view of me, and I had a view of them which was not always consonant. I felt like if I tried to make everything completely add up, it would renounce something true about the book.

Books are written by human beings. I knew that I was leaving some things inconsistent, and I was willing to do that for the sake of a certain kind of accuracy. But also, I wasn’t there. I was there after 1944, but I wasn’t there before that.

Entire paragraphs of this book are composed of strings of questions, without answers. Why did you choose to do this?

Regarding my father, since his absence was predominant in my life, it was to try to penetrate those absences, rather than just saying, “I don’t know,” which wouldn’t make much of a story. I thought that the questioning strategy for the narrator ― me ― was in and of itself interesting.

It reminds me of some of your stories.

And in Canada also. I think it’s just something that ― in the end of “Rock Springs,” when the narrator says, “Would you think he was anybody like you?” you want to give that question over to the reader in an almost conversational way.

I do it because there are certain stories in my past, that I didn’t write, but Frank O’Connor did, that seem to me to be touching and alluring, because they represent, in their first-person interrogative style, a certain kind of human impulse to understand what is otherwise not understandable. There’s a way, when you answer the questions that you pose, of gaining dominion over your life, and demonstrating that dominion. I guess that’s why.

How has your Southern upbringing influenced your approach to writing?

Well, I grew up down the street from Eudora Welty. I started off with the assumption that one could be a writer. You could be from where I was from and be a writer. It was something that was supported in the community.

I think also, because I grew up in a racist society, in which we were constantly being told that what wasn’t true was true, that I had a natural and have a natural skepticism about what I receive, and what I’m told. And that causes me to try to provide explanations for things that I don’t believe, and that’s a way in which fiction can operate. Fiction can be a kind of imaginative explanation of something, when the discrepancy between apparent fact and truth is too wide to believe.

Fiction can be a kind of imaginative explanation of something, when the discrepancy between apparent fact and truth is too wide to believe.
Richard Ford

Even though you’re from the South, you tend to set your stories elsewhere.

Well, because everybody had written about everything I knew before I got there, and had done it better than I was going to be able to do it. If I had just let myself become a writer of the South, about Southern topics, for Southern readers, I wasn’t ever going to be a great writer, and that’s what I wanted to be. And I still do. And I had to be able to have a subject over which I was the world’s greatest expert. I was not going to be the world’s greatest expert about the South. First of all, I didn’t like the South very much, and second of all, I liked the literature that I knew about the South immoderately. Faulkner, Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy. I thought that stuff was just great. Why did there need to be another one of them, which was all I was going to be able to be?

How has your parents’ life on the road impacted you as a writer?

I know in the book I call them transients. And in a sense they were people who didn’t, until I was born, stay in one place very long. And so I’m on a constant quest for some new experience that I could come to know and maybe use. I just never have been comfortable feeling, “This is my home and, by god, I have to stay here.”

And my parents ― my parents were both in their own way fleeing certain circumstances that obviously didn’t make them very happy. Without being miserable and malcontents, and they weren’t because they found each other at a very early age and immediately started making each other wildly happy. So when I think about where I reside, I think I reside wherever my wife is.

Do you think you’ll write more memoirs in the future, or are you more likely to return to fiction for now?

I don’t think I have anything else to write in a memoiristic way. I’ve written a few essays that are kind of memoiristic. My agent, who was very taken by the character of my grandfather really would like me to write a book about him, but I don’t know what I would write. He was a force of nature sort of guy, and did as best he could to ― he was a rakish guy, a real-chaser-after women.

And I’m certainly not going to write any autobiographies. As close as this memoir comes to autobiography, that’s close enough for me.

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