A new life beyond the border
A reader might speak of Richard Ford’s haunting and uplifting new novel, Canada, in terms of magic, mood and morality. But Ford himself talks about the novel he has been thinking about for 20 years mostly in terms of technique: diction, sustaining an illusion and obsessive devotion to the hard work of his craft.
“It’s hard for me not to fasten down on things,” Ford says during a call to his office at the University of Mississippi, where he is teaching creative writing this year. He has been good-humoredly describing how earlier in the day he stopped the HarperCollins presses to correct a few smallish errors in the book. “I’m dyslexic. So in order to function at all, I’ve had to teach myself to be extremely disciplined. I mean I don’t touch anything that it doesn’t get a mistake riven into it somehow. I mistype, I reverse letters. One of the odd things about dyslexia is that what your eye sees will not register in your brain. It’s a well-known phenomenon, but it has advantages, too, I will tell you. The need to so intensely concentrate on every word is good, because that is how you’d like to be responsible as a writer.”
Of course, great powers of concentration and a keen sense of responsibility don’t come close to explaining how Ford has become one of America’s best contemporary fiction writers. But it’s a start.
Ford gained widespread acclaim for The Sportswriter (1986), the first novel in his Frank Bascombe trilogy, and won a Pulitzer Prize for its sequel, Independence Day (1995). Canada, Ford’s 10th work of fiction, is, quite simply, his best book to date.
"Suddenly life is broken and it goes another way, and you never get to come back to that again."
Set in Montana and Saskatchewan in 1960, Canada tells the story of 15-year-old Dell Parsons, whose middle-class parents—an unlikely romantic combo and even more unlikely pair of criminals—rob a bank in Montana and are quickly arrested and imprisoned. Abandoned to their own devices, Dell and his twin sister Berner go their separate ways. The rebellious, sexually precocious Berner heads to San Francisco, almost though not exactly with flowers in her hair. Dell, whose tale this is, is spirited away from social-service authorities and taken to Saskatchewan by his mother’s friend, where he falls under the spell of a charismatic American ex-pat named Remlinger who turns out to be an embodiment of chaos and violence. Canada is ultimately about Dell’s consequential choice to make a decent life for himself.
“I was sitting around in a little wheat prairie town called Dutton, Montana, waiting for my editor Gary Fisketjon to send me back the edited manuscript for Wildlife ,” Ford says of the origins of the novel. “Just twiddling my thumbs. So I rented a little room above a car repair, and I started writing a story about a kid who somehow or other was made to leave his parents and is somehow or another taken to Canada. Then after five or six days, here comes the edited manuscript, so I set the book aside.”
But the idea didn’t go away.
“I’m a person who for better or worse when I write a book I think I have basically written all I know on the subject. But then my mind goes on playing over things. So 20 years later I come back to certain kinds of formal features, certain kinds of tonalities and I want to see if I can extend this whole thing further and better. In the intervening 20 years, I kept on squirreling away notes on this story, without ever going back and looking at it. And I wanted to write about Saskatchewan and I wanted to be able to tell it in the first person and I wanted it to be more active, more antic than Wildlife. I wanted guns to go off. I wanted big actions to take place. Henry James talks about the germ of a story. I had a whole phylum of germs.”
From these seeds, Ford grows a story that seems to be heading in one direction until it veers sharply in another. It’s a shift that will cause readers to catch their breath.
“I very much wanted the move from part one to part two to be abrupt and for the book to change. Because to me that’s consonant with the way kids sometime experience life. Suddenly life is broken and it goes another way, and you never get to come back to that again.”
But as dramatic as its turn of events are for Dell, Canada is also remarkable for Ford’s great descriptive powers. In Ford’s telling, the vast western landscape of the United States and Canada is both physically tangible and resonant with meaning. It’s a landscape Ford knows well.
“Ray Carver and I used to go up to Saskatchewan and go goose hunting, so I have been all over that landscape for 20 years. You could say that was research, but more than research it was just living life. For me life comes first and writing comes second. I hardly ever go someplace with the intention of writing about it. But if I start to write about something and feel I don’t know enough about it, I’ll go look. I did that several times. I would take forays up there with my tape recorder and drive the roads that I knew would be in the novel and record what I saw and how I felt about the things I saw.”
After these forays, Ford would return to a rather spare writing room, a former boat repair shop, on Linekin Bay in Maine to work on the book. Ford and his wife, Kristina Hensley, have lived in Maine since 1999. Ford, who is 68, was born in Mississippi and considers himself a Mississippian, but he has lived all over the U.S. as Hensley pursued her career. Most recently she was head of city planning in New Orleans and then chief of staff for that city’s post-Katrina renewal project. Next year, if the logistics work, the couple will have a joint appointment at Columbia University.
Ford and Hensley have been married 44 years. “She’s my first reader,” Ford says. “Always has been.” He has dedicated each and every one of his books to her.
Returning to the new book, Ford says he found writing the end of part two, where Dell witnesses and is implicated in a gratuitous murder, “actually quite elevating.”
“Because it allowed me to take human behavior that was in some ways like any other human behavior—I mean people do rob banks, as Dell keeps saying. Kids do get abandoned. People do murder other people for completely stupid reasons—and have an opportunity to say provisionally, as all novels are provisional, what the human consequences of this are. We think conventional wisdom tells us what the human consequences are, and we rely on that. Yet to try to invent new consequences, to try to see the consequences through new eyes, made me try to take my book beyond the duff of just murders and bank robberies and abandonment.”
Part of the magic of Canada is that it does indeed take a reader “beyond the duff” of plot and story into some new emotional and moral terrain. Canada is about a boy crossing all kinds of borders, physical and metaphorical, and coming to hard choices about how to lead life as a full human being.
Ford seems reluctant to wear the label but he does admit that his type of realistic fiction does have a moral purpose. “Realistic fiction—and probably any art, whether it’s realistic or not—has as one of its moral goals to bring us closer to life and make us value it more and see it more clearly. And that is what I’ve grown to want to do.”
The remarkable Canada achieves that goal.