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Books: On the Road Again

Richard Ford talks about his book tour and letting go of his novel

By Larry Gross · November 29th, 2006 · Books
  The lay of a man: Richard Ford
Roger Yager

The lay of a man: Richard Ford

When I catch up with Richard Ford by phone in Denver recently while promoting his new novel The Lay of the Land, I ask him if he enjoys book tours.

"I always have," he says, laughing, "but I wasn't 62 years old on the last one."

Regarding his current tour, Ford says, "I find when floating around the country like this, every place I stop I get some little jungle drumbeat about how my book is doing, some signals about it. I find it to be quite demoralizing.

"I get tired of having constant updates on the quality of my life, my work, my existence. I try to insulate myself against it. I don't let anybody tell me about reviews, don't let anyone tell me opinions on how I did on Terry Gross (host of NPR's Fresh Air) -- I just don't want to hear about that."

Ford is on the road again promoting the final installment in a trilogy of books about Frank Bascombe, who we first met in The Sportswriter (1986) and then later in Independence Day (1995), for which Ford won a Pulitzer Prize.

The previous novels were set around holidays, Easter and the Fourth of July. The new novel follows events around Thanksgiving.

The year is 2000 and Frank's still selling real estate in New Jersey. As the nation anxiously awaits chads being scrutinized in Florida to determine who will be the next president, Frank has invited his two adult children over for the holiday.

Daughter Clarissa is just over a lesbian relationship. Son Paul and his girlfriend Jill are visiting from Kansas City, where Paul works as a Hallmark greeting card writer. Frank's second wife has left him for her first husband, who has reappeared after being presumed dead. After she leaves, Frank learns he has prostate cancer.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, we're introduced to a strange cast of characters and situations. Frank attends a funeral of an old friend. He has an emotional conversation with a barmaid named Termite. His Tibetan real estate associate wants to buy him out. Early on, he gets into a barroom brawl and he's constantly putting up with neighbors from hell.

Shocking turns and heavy subject matter abound in the book, but Ford imbues his most successful character with great humor and wisdom.

"Frank's always trying to be smarter than the last time you encountered him," Ford says. "As for the humor, I know if the book doesn't seem funny to the person who reads it, it probably isn't getting across."

Ford worked on The Lay of the Land for four years before handing it over to his publisher. It was hard to let go.

"It's a little scary with a book this big," he says. "Even though I had Kristina (Ford's wife) helping me and great editing assistance from Knopf, I worked on this book until I couldn't work on it anymore, by which I mean my brain wouldn't hold anymore.

"My body was kind of rejecting future work. And I went way, way past how much time Knopf had intended to give me to work on it. At the end when it was sent off, I had an odd feeling of numbness. I didn't have a great sense of accomplishment. I had a sense of having used myself up completely."

Ford is slowly feeling that numbness subside.

"Every time I have a chance to talk about the book and hear what people think about it, and I'm quite sensitive to what people think about it, I get a little more objectified in my mind," he says.

While he finds his current book tour "exhausting," he doesn't get tired of talking about his novel.

"I realize that's what these things are for and I spent all these years writing this book," he says. "Occasionally I'll either hear myself say something I haven't said before or somebody will ask me a question that I haven't thought about, so I'm interested and happy to be doing it." ©



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