Richard Ford

February 13–14, 2006

February 14 Discussion

Listen to the whole discussion, moderated by Al Filreis MP3 (1:22:25).


Richard Ford
"Richard Ford's power lies in the deceiving simplicity of his language, in the complexity of the emotions he explores, and in the extraordinary tenderness with which most of the people in his stories go about the solitary business of loving, and seeking love. His stories are exemplars of the form. For their clarity, for their unfailing grace, their intellectual beauty, they deserve to be celebrated."
--The 1995 Rea Award Committee

A leading figure among American writers of the post-World War II generation, Richard Ford is the author of many novels, collections of short stories, and dramas. Independence Day (1995), the sequel to The Sportswriter (1986), was the first novel ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Among numerous other honors, Ford has been a Guggenheim fellow (1977-78), a two-time National Endowment for the Arts fellow (1979-1980, 1985-1986), a recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, and winner of the 1995 Rea Award, which is given annually to a writer who has made a significant contribution to the short story as an art form. His short stories have been widely anthologized and have appeared in Esquire, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Granta. His most recent publications include short story collections Women With Men (1997) and A Multitude of Sins (2002).

While Ford is known for writing about the South, he continues to challenge existing notions of regional literature. "Personally, I don't think there is such a thing a Southern writing or Southern literature or Southern ethos," Ford has said. Instead, he works toward understanding the complexities of American culture as a whole.

John Carroll's introduction

When I'm alone with my father, we usually sit together in silence, unless we're talking about sports. Or, if we're listening to WIP, we'll talk about people who are talking about sports. But mostly there is silence, and these silences make me feel sick. I never become sick, though, because that would mean breaking the silence.

And while I've learned to not be so queasy when it comes to these silences, they certainly don't help me when I'm writing. Writing about my father, that is. My father isn't dead or diseased. Or racist. He hasn't had any extramarital affairs. And he drives a minivan. The most interesting development in my dad's life these past few years is that he now has to wear glasses when he reads.

Naturally, I set pen to paper once he returned from the eye doctor's office.

And while I'm certainly not complaining, I also don't know what exactly to say. We're here at the Richard Ford reading, the Richard Ford whose fathers and sons have such dramatic relations in books like Wildlife, The Sportswriter and Independence Day. In the Fellows seminar, we spent hours discussing father and son relationships -- why Jerry and Joe Brinson couldn't name what Joe saw his mother doing with Warren in their house, or why Frank Bascombe, so willing to talk about his deceased son Ralph in The Sportswriter, is so reluctant to talk about Ralph in relation to his troubled son Paul in Independence Day.

So naturally, Richard Ford's introducer will speak about his own father. But I'm not here today to talk about my dad. You know him pretty well by now, and I'm only on the fifth paragraph. Instead, I'm here to talk about John Carroll Sr. the amateur astronomer.

When I come home in the evenings -- yes, I still live at home -- I like to sit down and read. Mere seconds after flicking on a lamp, however, my dad will slide open the deck door and let out a noise -- it's hiss-like, but not exactly a hiss. He then shuts off the light and I sit in darkness briefly before walking out on the deck. There, my dad is scanning the sky.

There are times when I'll try to see what he sees, but I don't wind up seeing anything at all. He'll tell me that my eyes aren't adjusted quite yet, and I should stay for a while, but instead I go upstairs and find a new place to read.

A few months into this new hobby, I decided to reach out. I enrolled in Astronomy 007 here at Penn, an exciting course title that combined the wonders of space with the legendary Bond number. How could it fail? Well, a lot of physics and no work at a telescope dampered my spirits. When I went home to talk astronomy with my dad, I lost him once I asked if I could introduce variables to the equation. He was back to the deck in a matter of minutes.

Fortunately, I was also enrolled in a Shakespeare course that semester.

My father still examines the sky to this day, although not as much as he used to. Still, I couldn't help but think about my father, the amateur astronomer, while I read Richard Ford's novels and short stories these past few weeks and discussed them over e-mail and here in the Arts Cafe with my fellow classmates. I kept coming back to a passage in Independence Day, when our narrator Frank Bascombe says, "This may be the only way an as-needed parent can in good faith make contact with his son's life problems; which is to say sidereally, by raising a canopy of useful postulates above him like stars and hoping he'll connect them up to his own sightings and views like an astronomer. Anything more purely parental ... simply wouldn't work."

I'm not here tonight to commit the sin of misguided and misapp-ropriated assoc-iation. I am not Paul, and my father is not Frank.

But as I shut my door and open my book each night that my father sits on the deck, I know now that, despite our silences, we're each looking at our own canopies, whether it's Frank Bascombe's honest independence, or one of the thirteen constellations of the Zodiac. The search for a place to stand in A Multitude of Sins, or the search for Orion and his hunting dogs. Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, or "the push, pull, the weave and sway of others" that Frank Bascombe finds himself in at the Independence Day parade.

It's not the moments, but the search, that we share -- whether we are father and son, professor and student, author and reader. While my father looks to the sky, I look not to him but to his postulates, and for once, I can see what he sees. There's no need to introduce variables to the equation -- our silences already filled with noises.

With that, I'd like to step aside and introduce to you tonight's honored guest -- a man whose writing ignores the "purely parental" and opens up a canopy of ideas about what it is to be not just a father or son, but an American, or any member of a community, trying to figure out exactly what that title means. Please join me in warmly welcoming our first Writers House Fellow of 2006, Mr. Richard Ford.