Whiskey, Guns, and the Restless Spirit of Richard Ford

Richard Ford, with his dog Chloe, in Oxford, Mississippi
Richard Ford, with his dog Chloe, in Oxford, MississippiRandy Harris

It’s nearing dinnertime, and Richard Ford is driving around Memphis looking for barbecue, with his wife, Kristina, a leggy, blond Ph.D., curled up in the backseat of his Volvo.

“Where the fuck is this place?” Richard Ford says. Long before he won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1995 novel Independence Day, Ford lived in Memphis, a skinny teenager working as a switchman in the Missouri Pacific rail yards. But that was 50 years ago, and the city looks a little different now. “I know it’s got to be close. . . .”

Ford just drove in from Oxford, Mississippi, where he’s teaching a writing class at Ole Miss – filling in for his friend, novelist Barry Hannah, who died in 2010. Ford grew up in the South and lived with Kristina in Mississippi in the 1980s, but there’s much about the place that he abhors, from the conservative Christian politics (Newt Gingrich is “a toxic douchebag”) to the football-obsessed good old boys. Throughout his career, he’s gone to great pains to distance himself from the Southern literary tradition. He gets a headache just thinking about all those post-Faulknerians with their clichés that proliferate like so much Spanish moss.

But about that barbecue. “Do you want to look at the map?” asks Kristina from the backseat.

Ford shakes his head. “I know what my problem is. I haven’t had enough to drink.”

He pulls into a liquor store called the Brown Jug and emerges a few minutes later with a bottle of Wild Turkey and directions. Before you know it, we’re in the Cozy Corner, a family-owned joint with Bible quotes on the walls and Aretha Franklin on the radio. Ford orders chicken, Kristina gets the ribs, and they both get plastic cups filled with ice, which Ford fills with Wild Turkey under the table. “It’s the Southern way,” he says, winking. And just like that, life is good.

For the past 20-odd years, Ford has been the standard-bearer for a certain kind of American literary masculinity. His most famous books, the so-called Bascombe trilogy (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land), follow a writer-turned-real-estate-agent in suburban New Jersey who illuminates pointed truths about middle-aged life while doing little more than cruising the turnpike. His newest novel, Canada, shows an artist in full command of his craft – sparsely elegant and bracingly direct, with a refreshing lack of irony or tricks. There’s a reason his friend the late Raymond Carver once called him “sentence for sentence . . . the best writer at work in this country today.”

But he’s also a guy’s guy who trout fishes, rides a Harley softtail, and knows how to handle a shotgun on a duck hunt. He can be ornery, short-tempered, acerbic, profane – but somehow he’s always totally lovable. Back in the Volvo, he starts off down the road. After a while, Kristina pipes up from the backseat.

“Darling?” she asks. (You get the feeling a lot of conversations start this way.)

“Yes, dear?”

“What’s our gas situation?”

“Hmm . . . let me ask the Swedes.”

Ford punches some buttons on the Volvo’s dashboard. “The Swedes say 30 miles.”

Oxford is still about 60 miles away, with not much in between. “Hmm,” Kristina says.

Ford drives on, doing 80 through the Mississippi darkness, south toward home. A few miles later, Kristina directs his attention to a gas station up ahead. Ford looks at the sign, glances down at the needle, and keeps on driving.
The next morning, at nine o’clock sharp, Ford is making his way down the stairs at Square Books, Oxford’s famed independent bookstore. He’s a powerful presence – 6-foot-2 and distance-­runner rangy, with blue eyes and a lean, wolfish grin. His grandfather taught him to box when he was 16, and even at 68, he looks like he could throw a good punch – or take one. (He once wrote a great essay about what it’s like getting punched in the face.) Ford calls fighting “invigorating” and says it helps that he’s often been drunk, but adds that he hasn’t been in a fistfight in a while. “It doesn’t reflect very well on me,” he says of his last go-round. “I got my ass kicked, and I deserved to get my ass kicked.”

Ford is here this morning doing a favor for a friend. The owner of Square Books, Richard Howorth, is one of his closest pals, and he has asked Ford to talk to a women’s book club visiting from San Francisco. For a writer who’s been accused of misogyny, it was maybe not the ideal audience. “One of them went for my nuts right away,” Ford says, grinning. “She wanted to know what I thought of Lolita. I told her, ‘Well, I like any book in which an old man lusts after a 12-year-old girl.’ ” He smiles and makes a little exploding firecracker gesture with his hand. “And then – Roman candles.”

Ford gets a kick out of confrontation. When a writer for the New York Times reviewed The Sportswriter unfavorably, Ford took one of her books out to his backyard and shot it with a .38. He then mailed it to her. A few years later, after another bad Times write-up, he ran into the reviewer at a party and spat in his face. “I do have a bit of a temper,” he admits. “But I’m also usually right.”

Today, however, will be a pleasant day, because today he’s decided to take a drive to the Delta. “It’s one of my fondest places on Earth,” Ford says. “It’s the part of the South that I ­really do treasure.” When he was growing up nearby in Jackson, his father was a traveling salesman, and in the summers, he’d take Richard on road trips all over the South. “The Delta just became part of what I loved,” he says. “It just has a deep visceral appeal to me. It really is imprinted.”

We get into the car and start heading west, passing near Highway 61 and through the endless cotton fields of Coahoma County. Ford drives like a man who likes to drive – forearm draped over the steering wheel, cursing at dawdlers who slow him down. Besides the occasional grove of pecan trees, the countryside is green and flat, which is exactly what Ford loves about it. “There are people who like to look up at things and people who like to look across at things,” he says. “I’m somebody who likes the democratization of landscape. I like the long distances you can see. I find it consoling.”

Eventually we crest a hill and find ourselves on a levee overlooking the Mississippi. “There it is,” he says. “The Father of Waters.” You can hear the admiration in his voice.
Ford has always been a wanderer. He’s lived in Ann Arbor, St. Louis, Boston, New York, Chicago, Mexico, Paris, Berlin. He wrote The Sportswriter, set in New Jersey, while living in Montana, and Wildlife, set in Montana, while living in Tennessee. But after his mother died in 1981, he decided to commit to Mississippi as his home. He and Kristina bought a big white plantation house, which they ended up selling a few years later. He still fantasizes about buying it back – “but every time we sold a house,” he says, “it meant we struck off in some new direction. So even though it was heartrending to leave a place you thought would be yours forever, it also released you to do something different.”

It’s lunchtime now, so Ford heads over to Clarksdale to check on one of his old haunts, a downhome spot with pitchers of sweet tea the size of oil barrels. He hasn’t been here in more than 20 years, but he immediately runs into an old duck-hunting buddy named Alcorn Russell. Russell spends the next 45 minutes holding forth on local gossip, the auto-repair business, and the 12-point buck he recently shot with a pistol while sitting on his front porch. Finally, he gets up to pay his bill. “I haven’t seen Alcorn since 1986, but I walk in here and we’re completely simpatico,” Ford says. “Now let’s beat it out of here before he comes back.”

Ford spends the rest of the afternoon running a few errands: checking out bikes at the Harley dealership, picking up some dog medicine at the vet.

It’s nothing too exciting, which is kind of the point. Ford’s books are about the little moments between the big moments – the mundanities that make up 99 percent of life. Canada, his seventh novel, is no exception: It tells the story of a 15-year-old Montana boy named Dell Parsons who is shipped off to Saskatchewan after his parents rob a bank. The book shivers with sadness and unexpected violence but mainly conveys finely wrought observations about what it means to grow up.

Ford writes about relationships and domesticity in a way that’s tough but never hard. The irony, of course, is that, although his stories are littered with the wreckage of failed relationships, his own marriage is almost absurdly happy – the kind of partnership of equals you usually see only in Hepburn-Tracy movies. They review each other’s work – Kristina, a city-planning professor, is one of the country’s foremost experts on urban development – and call each other pet names (Baby, Darling, Sweetheart, Dear). They decided early on never to have kids, because it might interfere with their lives together. “We’re more like playmates,” Ford says. “All the good things that have happened to me happened because of her.”

These days, the Fords are based in Maine, where they’ve lived since 2000 – the longest they’ve ever been in one place. They have a Cape Cod house in a little lobstering town called East Boothbay. Nearby is a boathouse with a nice view of the harbor where Ford drafts his stories longhand with a blue Pilot pen. (He keeps the pages in the freezer, in case of fire; there are some in there now, next to some birds he shot.)

“I love Maine,” Ford says. “I think one way or another, we’ll live out our days there.”

Ford jokes that he’s reached “a certain dawning adulthood – just in time to die.”

He once said his dream was to be able to write three months a year and live his life the other nine, and by this point, he’s gotten pretty close, having figured out the things that make him happiest and organizing his life around those things. “It’s about what it always has been,” he says. “Bird hunting, riding motorcycles, playing squash. Other than that, it’s just Kristina and whatever I call ‘work.’ ”

The sun is dipping low on the horizon now. We get back to the house, and Kristina is fixing cocktails in a red dress and heels, looking better than a woman born during the ­Truman administration has any business looking. They have a dinner date with the ­Howorths, at a tapas place that Ford keeps calling “topless.” PBS News­Hour is on, and the couple’s three Brittany spaniels, Chloe, Lewy, and Scooter, are playing in the den. It’s the kind of home that a man like Ford would be happy to come home to. And he is.

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