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Getting Ford's 'Lay of the Land'

LYNN NEARY, host:

Writer Richard Ford is most famous for his novels The Sportswriter and Independence Day, both of which are told in the voice of Frank Bascom, a middle-aged and divorced father of three who lives in New Jersey. Each is set over a holiday weekend. In The Sportswriter it's Easter, as Frank contemplates the end of his marriage and the death of a son. In Independence Day, Frank travels with his troubled son, Paul, to the basketball and baseball Halls of Fames. That book won the Pulitzer Prize for Richard Ford.

In his new book, The Lay of the Land, we meet Frank Bascom and his family on Thanksgiving weekend in the fall of 2000. The presidential election has been contested, Frank now has prostate cancer, and his second wife has left him. Still, the family is trying to come together for Thanksgiving.

Reporter Caitlin Shetterly has been interviewing Richard Ford at his home in Maine over the past four years, from the beginning stages of writing the novel until a few weeks ago, as he anticipated publication.

CAITLIN SHETTERLY: When Richard Ford and I first began speaking about The Lay of the Land, it was 2002. He had not yet actually begun writing, but he had already been at work on the book for about six months, just collecting notes and entering them into a huge notebook, which he called his book for his book.

Mr. RICHARD FORD (Author): So I just have these big loose-leaf binders full of those little things that you used to have when you were in high school - the little tabs that are of different colors, and one said history, one said math, one said spelling. Well, mine say Frank, realty, New Jersey, and Clarissa, Paul. And a lot of the entries for one thing will turn up as entries in another, because I don't quite know when I'm writing the book where they're going to fit.

SHETTERLY: His big binder served as an outline for the now published 484-page novel. This notebook is so important, he keeps it in the safest place in the house.

Mr. FORD: I put my pages in the freezer.

SHETTERLY: In the freezer?

Mr. FORD: Uh-huh. I put them in the freezer, because if the house burns, then the freezer might not burn.

SHETTERLY: Have you ever had a fire?

Mr. FORD: No. I keep a lot of things in the freezer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHETTERLY: Like what else?

Mr. FORD: Notes and notebooks, and dead birds that I've shot places and hope someday to eat. It has old birds I - English pea boxes in there. And it has dead ducks in there. And it's got, you know, the manuscripts from stories that I've written. And it's got sets of notes from stories that I may yet write. It's just all kinds of stuff in there.

SHETTERLY: He stores all his pages in plastic grocery bags to protect them, if the freezer shuts down and gets wet. He also writes everything out longhand, in pen.

Mr. FORD: I write with a Bic pen and I write that slowly. I can't write on a computer. I can't think fast enough. I can type faster than I can think, you know. But in order to function as a novelist, to be responsible for what I write, I need to do it slowly.

SHETTERLY: Ford's process might seem unusually arduous to those of us who imagine famous writers just sitting down at a computer and whipping off masterpieces. But Ford executes every decision he makes with extreme care and deliberation. A few years after The Sportswriter came out, Ford says Frank Bascom's voice was back in his head, yet he was reluctant to write what he feared would just be a re-write of the first novel.

Mr. FORD: And so I finally thought, why are you resisting this? I mean, you've been given something. You're being given a character. You're being given a voice. You're being given a place. You're being given a family. You're being given all of these formal properties, which any writer would cry out to have. And you've already got them before you even start. And you have maybe even a little tiny shard of a readership.

So I finally just thought, what the hell, I'm going to do this.

SHETTERLY: A few years after Independence Day, Ford figured that if he was man enough for a second book, then he could handle a third. In The Lay of the Land, the most acutely political of the three books, Ford concentrated on the inflammatory politics of the 2000 election.

Mr. FORD: Being that it's the end of the millennium, and it is this terrible interregnum period when the whole country basically came to a halt, and we didn't know who our president was going to be, when we had every right to expect to know and had every right to expect that the person who got the most votes would win, and we didn't have any right to expect that the Republicans would steal the election in Florida, that I thought that it was an apt moment to write a political book.

And it's meant to be an indictment of Bush, and an indictment of the Republicans, and an indictment, to a somewhat lesser extent, lesser stinging extent, of the Democrats too.

SHETTERLY: Politics and political discourse take up much of the book. In one scene, Frank gets into a bar brawl with a guy name Bob Butts, who drunkenly sneers at Frank that the Democrats are the ones stealing the election. Here, Richard Ford reads from that scene.

Mr. FORD: Suddenly there's a fishy odor in my nostrils and mouth. And Bob Butts's small, rough hands go right around my neck, his whiskery chin jamming into my ear, his throat making a gurgling noise, both mechanical like a car with a bad starter, and also simian - grrrrr - into my ear canal - grrr, grrr, grrr. So then I tip over off my barstool, which tumbles sideways and Bob and I go sprawling toward the pine floor.

SHETTERLY: When I commented that I thought this book was angrier, or at least more absurdly violent than the previous ones, Ford responded...

Mr. FORD: He's got cancer. You'd be angry too if you're 55 and you have prostate cancer - I'm neither - would make you angry. His kids aren't working out exactly like he wants them too. His wife's abandoned him. He's sort of put upon by his former wife in a way that vexes him mightily. He doesn't feel good. He has to piss all the time. He has cancer. He has radiating BB's in his prostate. I mean he has lots of reasons to be angry.

SHETTERLY: Frank's fragile sense of his own mortality is a backdrop for the complicated relationships he has with his children. Here Ford reads as Frank ruminates on fatherhood, anticipating the arrival of Clarissa and Paul for Thanksgiving.

Mr. FORD: Having children can sometimes feel like a long, not very intense depression, since after a while neither party has much left to give the other except love, which isn't always simple. Your age, after all, taken up with your own business - staying alive, in my case - and for reasons they have no control over, the children are always aware they're waiting for you to croak. Paul expressed this very view as a generic fact of parent/child relations point blank to his mother, which is probably why she fears him.

Clarissa's gift of life to me is the rarest exception, though one partly entered on by her, and why not? Because it allows her to think of herself as equally rare and exceptional.

It's kind of amazing when you think I never had a kid. It has nothing to do with me being smart. It's just kind of amazing what you can dream up. Isn't it? Having no experience on the subject of any kind whatsoever.

SHETTERLY: In a way, this is what is eternally hopeful about the dreamed-up character of Frank Bascom. He is so completely human. And that's why readers come back to him time and time again. Of course, this brings us to the question we all want answered, even before we've finished The Lay of the Land. Will we meet Frank Bascom again on the printed page?

Mr. FORD: No. I'm done. I'm finished. I won't do it again. Too hard. Also, I'm not interested in writing about Frank at the age that Frank would be if I were to take him up again. Which is to say someplace in advance, at 55 - I mean, I'm 62. Jesus, I don't want to write about this particular period of life. Although I like it, I just don't think it's for me interesting to write about. I wouldn't want to get Frank any closer to the end than I've got him now.

SHETTERLY: But Gary Fisketjon, Ford's longtime editor at Knopf and his collaborator on all three of the Bascom books, says he wouldn't bet on it. Ford at least seems content that the book is between two covers, and he is finally released from the enormous effort that engulfed nearly five years of his life.

Mr. FORD: I'm happy that the book is in the world. And that's why I wrote, so someone else besides me could have it and read it. Books are made to be read by others. If I didn't think somebody was going to read my book, I wouldn't write it. So when it finally achieves the form in which they will have it, then I basically salute and say goodbye.

SHETTERLY: For NPR News, I'm Caitlin Shetterly.

NEARY: Find an excerpt from The Lay of the Land and another reading by the author at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caitlin Shetterly
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