At home with Richard Ford

By Murray Waldren
SO there I am, jeans rolled above knees, wading in Linekin Bay's autumnal waters and holding the pointy end of his dinghy as Richard Ford manoeuvres it towards the semi-submerged trailer. The American novelist knows what he's doing. I patently do not. With his pedigree retriever Susie steering and a minimum of swearing, we eventually secure it for transportation. He's been keen to get his craft out of the bay before the ice arrives. I'm keen to point out he's too late.

It's been a decade since we met and in that time Ford has won a Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, the sequel to his bestselling The Sportswriter. He has been lauded among America's "finest storytellers". He has a collection of short stories, A Multitude of Sins, due and he has hardly aged. Still the same piercing blue eyes, still that lean, patrician physique. The hair's a little greyer maybe but he looks fit enough to go several rounds.

I'm relieved he's in relaxed mode. Ford has a Southerner's manners, a melodic delivery and a good-ol'-boy's appreciation of sport, country music and jocular insults. I find him engaging company always and funny frequently but he can be tetchy, particularly where his work's concerned. He banned himself from reading reviews in 1995, after all, because bad ones gave him "a visceral response". But his wife saw one by Alice Hoffman that so incensed her she took Hoffman's new novel into the yard and shot it with a revolver. When another copy arrived soon after, Ford himself did the pistol honours ...

His two pointers skitter up as we enter his home at Paradise Point. Welcome, he deadpans, to "pure paradise". And it is, despite the juxtaposition of a Dead End warning tacked below the street sign. "Everyone has to reach a dead end sometime," he asides, "and if it happens to me here, well it could be worse ..." A chronic peripatetic, Ford has been ensconced in Maine - Vacationland according to the State's number plates - for two years now after returning from two years in Paris and wanting to live on the ocean.

Trouble is, his wife Kristina - the soulmate of 37 years to whom he dedicates all his books - is not with him. Hasn't been, it transpires, for five years. She's in New Orleans, where she heads a building corporation doing multimillion-dollar restorations. "We're not estranged," he qualifies, "it's just we're not living together. I can no longer live in New Orleans and Kristina needs to ... but we're in constant contact, we talk six or seven times a day, and we're heading off together in two weeks for a month's hunting in Montana." The living apart, he suggests later, is about to end, with Princeton as a near-future compromise.

If his landscape is blessed, his home has its own attractions. A wood-clad Cape Cod on 6 acres, it's a 1930s lobsterman's home renovated from two-storey shack into rambling one-story shooting 'n' fishing lodge with very high ceilings. Nantucket on the outside, it's ersatz Normandy inside, mostly rough plaster whitewashed walls, with some clad in wide redwood vertical planks. Huge hewn Tudorish beams from a Vermont barn add to the ambience but have no structural bearing. "It's a house of illusions," he says, "the perfect home for a writer."

It's all very neat and comfortable, if backwoods blokey. His office by contrast is a spartan two-desk affair, one for longhand originals, the other for typing finished copies. Outside lie the guesthouse, boathouse, wharf and island. "It sounds luxurious," he laughs, "but it's really quite contained the people who owned this place also owned a big truck company and were able to lavish their untold millions on it. And then little me comes along late in life and latches on to it. I'm the recipient of a lot of people's hard work."

On the deck we overlook a clearing sandwiched by fir trees to the left, an anarchic wood of beech and poplar to the right. A hundred metres offshore is Perch Island, which Ford owns, where a single tree towers from a small brush copse and a pair of osprey swirls in the afternoon currents. The other side, he tells me, "is a good place to put out decoys and shoot duck for the freezer. And to fish, although I don't much now - I've caught more than my share and I just don't like killing them any more. I don't yet feel that way about birds though."

Ford has very distinctive looks but at times his features metamorphose. There's always that Hemingwayesque aura, and a Dirty Harry squint when he talks of violence. And there's a Chevy Chase sheepishness when coffee spills over the bench onto the floor because he's too distracted to put the pot under the dispenser. In the two days we mooch around together, we talk a lot about writers. He's known many, Joyce Carol Oates, V.S. Pritchett, Eudora Welty and Ray Carver among them. (Carver, Ford's close friend until his death, was unequivocal in his praise. ''Sentence for sentence,'' he'd said, ''Richard is the best writer at work in this country today.'') But Ford has a feisty take on many fields. He's well tuned in to OzLit, very good on history, very direct on politics. All I can safely relay there is that being president "just doesn't seem to attract good job applicants" and that watching American politics "is enough to make your stomach turn".

As for his Pulitzer Prize, "that meant that the thing I had set out to be, a writer, well there was now some evidence that I was that was the most important thing. The money and acclaim were nice but not fundamental." In America, he expands, "there's no real role for a writer, you're always working in a room with no walls. It doesn't confine you, doesn't define you, you're always aware that your made-up self as novelist is highly provisional." His new collection reflects this sense of acceptance. The tales are accomplished, full of yearning, of brief engagement and inevitable disengagement but the tone is less melancholic than before. Still that gritty edge, of course, with an unyielding eye for emotional detail and without an unnecessary word. He called it A Multitude of Sins because "within the rubric of adultery are sins of a more precise nature. There are sins of inattention, of insincerity, betrayal, lack of passion, of moral myopia, but they get typecast as adultery. I've taken conventional ideas and particularised them in ways that are unconventional. They are from my view always cautionary tales, alerting me to things to watch out for, to beware of in life so that you may live better, do less harm."

He seems to have learnt from his own fables, I suggest, in that he appears pretty laid back these days. Another illusion, he says. "I'm not but I try to create that impression. I used to drink a bit and when I did it played to my worst suits. I like to get into arguments and then I get into trouble. And I saw over time that this was not working out for me.

"So eventually I quit drinking, especially gin which was like a red rag to my combative self. I had a terrible fistfight in 1992 after gin. That was when I started to put things together - drink, fight, regret, suffer. I realised I had to change the pattern. So I stopped, and I don't get depressed anymore." But he misses the fighting. That was "part of wanting to feel alive. I like it. I got my ass kicked three or four years ago and I remember driving home bleeding and bruised thinking, 'That was great.' When your life is in words, sometimes you long for a little bone to bone contact to affirm you are alive."

Then he gives a wise-guy chortle. "But then I'm 57 now and irrespective of what physical shape I'm in, I'd get whipped. And I've still got all my teeth, even if that's just been luck."

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian, 3/11/2001

Copyright 2001 Murray Waldren


Murray Waldren's latest book
The Mind and Times of Reg Mombassa (HarperCollins)
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