Richard Ford chooses his words carefully. As he works on his new novel, “Lay of the Land,” he and his wife, Kristina, read pages aloud to each other, stopping often to question word choices, as many as 10 a page, according to the author.
Ford, sitting beside Kelly Writers House Faculty Director Al Filreis on Feb. 14, said he finds it a powerful experience when the vocabulary one has can’t match up with one’s feelings. Novels, regardless of their particular genre, “are experiments in the use of language,” he said.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Independence Day” and “The Sportswriter,” Ford was on campus as the first of three 2006 Writers House Fellows. In that role he is charged with holding a seminar with students, giving a reading and engaging in a conversation about his work. At his Feb. 13 reading, he answered audience questions about landscape, place and the future of New Orleans, where Ford and his wife—former director of city planning for New Orleans—lived for many years.
Ford, originally from Biloxi, Miss., dismissed the argument that being from the South imbues people with something unique. “Place is a thing that one does for oneself,” he said. “I am not one who believes that place makes character. We make who we are.”
When asked by Filreis to read an excerpt of his Sept. 4, 2005 New York Times op-ed piece about Hurricane Katrina entitled, “A City Beyond the Reach of Empathy,” Ford was able to read just a couple of sentences before choking up and handing the paper back to Filreis. Amid all the destruction from the hurricane and flood, Ford said, “art will bloom in those cracks.”
Ford said he likes to write sentences that describe landscapes—and
those sentences are meant to be nothing but background. “What I’m
interested in as a novelist is what human beings do.” He added
that it’s not essential for him to visit a place before putting
it in a book—he set his 1990 novel “Wildlife” in Great
Falls, Mont. without having been to the city.
When asked about parenting—which he writes about frequently—Ford recalled a day when his frustrated mother actually ran away, only to return a few minutes later. “That’s what I think about parenting,” Ford said. “Occasionally you run away and then you come back.”
For more information on the Writers House Fellows program, go to: www.writing.upenn.edu/~wh/.
Originally published on February 23, 2006