The Michigan Daily
Ford roots for
his novel cause
Tuesday, April 21, 1992
by John Morgan
Today Richard Ford will deliver
the annual Hopwood lecture, where
the winners of the University's cre-
ative writing prize will be an-
nounced. Once a professor at the
University, Ford has authored five
prominent novels over the last six-
teen years, including Wildlife, his
Despite his difficulty in sununa-
rizing his ideas for the lecture, Ford
was able to offer an outline of his
general intent. "I suppose I'll talk
about how young writers might go
about choosing what they do or
don't subsequently write about," he
said, "and what influences them
negatively and positively, and what
things they ought to pay attention to.
What things they must feel empow-
ered to write about, even though
there might be strong currents in the
culture asking them not to write
The theme of Ford's lecture will
be the way in which our culture cen-
sors writers. He said that he will
touch on issues of multiculturalism
and gender. "The nature of Ame-
rican culture is typified by plu-
ralism," Ford said.
"A quality of pluralism is that
interest groups - to the extent that
they can - exert quite a lot of
public and subliminal pressure upon
people to think a certain way."
Ford asserted that this effect isn't
always negative. "Much of this is to
the good," he said. He cited cultural
phenomena such as feminism as
having a "large and positive effect in
our society" as it has increased in its
ability to articulate its own concerns.
It is Ford's opinion that this sort of
cultural influence can either limit or
delimit what people are able to
discuss, and can also limit the kinds
of offenses that such causes war
Ford said he sees writers as the
agents of cultural change, and
stresses the importance of artistic
freedom. "As a writer, you must
'A quality of pluralism
is that interest groups
- to the extent that
they can - exert quite
a lot of public and
upon people to think a
have the freedom, and exercise the-
freedom, to question conventional
wisdom," he said.
"Writers must be aware of how to
pull apart the fine threads of re-
straint, and the bounds of restraint,
to determine which are useful and
which are not. The earlier you are
apprised of this responsibility and
how the culture influences you, the
more likely you are to be lively in
your discriminations ...
"Many writers are people who
are highly sensitive to what is going
on in their culture, and make some-
thing up out of it. The stories and
poems that they make have, in a dis-
tilled way, all of those forces within
the society at work in them in a very
"Writers have a responsibility
that many other people in the culture
don't, because writers are unbe-
holden to people," Ford said. "We
don't employ people, we don't have
clients ... The writer's relationship
to a completely voluntary audience
is somewhat different."
Citing an example from his own
writing, Ford described how his
background may have influenced the
way in which members of non-white
races are portrayed in his work. "I
grew up in racist Mississippi, but I
also grew up reading Faulkner and
Eudora Welty, so that the special
kinds of care that one has to take in
writing, for instance, about another
race was impressed upon me at a
very early age."
Ford could not explain exactly
how this sensitivity was instilled in
him, but says he has definitely no-
ticed it through his writing. He is,
however, "not trying to take up a
Ford doesn't see younger writers
as being any more susceptible to this
form of cultural censorship than
older ones, claiming that as writers
age, they "trade their freedoms and
limitations in for a whole new set of
freedoms and limitations."
The author characterizes his own
writing career by its diversity. As a
veteran writer of novels, short sto-
ries, magazine articles and screen-
plays, this is difficult to argue.
He recently wrote a novella, enti-
tled The Womanizer, that will appear
in Granta. Another short story will
be published in the New Yorker
around Thanksgiving. In addition,
Ford has continued his essay writing,
edited the 1990 Best American Short
Stories and has written the introduc-
tion for the upcoming Granta Book
of the American Short Story.
"I do whatever I want to do that
comes in the door," Ford explained,
Wildlife, told from the perspec-
tive of a 16-year-old named Joe
Brinson, depicts the gradual decline
of Joe's three-member family. Joe's
father, a well-meaning and practical
man whose only desire is to fulfill
his paternal obligations, is balanced
by his mother, who becomes dissat-
isfied with her life and takes up a re-
lationship with another man.
Set against the landscape of Great
Falls, Montana in 1960, Ford cap-
tures the atmosphere of the small
town while restricting the story al-
most exclusively to his four main
characters. The town is threatened
by a huge forest fire, and Joe's fa-
ther, perhaps in an attempt to find a
identifiable enemy to battle, goes off
to fight the fire. Joe feels increas-
ingly alone and confused as his
mother's relationship with her lover
deepens, shattering the world he has
known all his life.
The descriptions, told through
Joe's perspective, are simple and ve-
ry effective. Joe's narration is quite
convincing, exhibiting the unique
features that his point of view offers.
In one scene, Joe's mother, Jeanette,
drives to the edge of the blaze and
has Joe climb out to "see what it
As always, the portrait the scene
paints is clear and concise, inter-
twined with Joe's own confusion
about his parents: "The small yellow
fires and lines of fire were flickering
in the underbrush close enough that I
could've touched them just by rea-
ching out. There was a sound like
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The 11 songs on this album are
all gorgeous, jagged bolts of noise,
at once comforting and terrifying.
Picking one song that stands out
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Richard Ford reserves his right to write about all the non-PC stuff he wants
to. Yet he still maintains such a sensitive demeanor. Bravo, Mr. Ford.
referring to his writing. He doesn't
believe that writers should limit
themselves to any one aspect of the
field. He won't be working with any
more anthologies for a while, since
he has no interest in becoming a
"judge," although he enjoys assisting
his colleagues and beginning writers
in this way.
Ford now wishes to concentrate
on his own writing. "You have to
find new things to write," he said.
"By the middle of your life, you've
used up a lot of stuff. You have to be
fairly industrious to find really im-
portant things that you want to
write." He spent more than two
years preparing and "collecting
stuff" for his current project, a novel
titled Independence Day.
"In Ann Arbor in 1971, one of
my great fears was to start a book
and then run out of stuff to write
about," Ford said. He has done his
best to avoid that situation, and his
five works are the result. He claims
that his objective is to write the best
books he can, and that he is not in a
"derby" to write as many as possible.
"I dedicate my life entirely to
what I want to do," Ford said. His
career as a writer certainly reflects
this. He will undoubtedly prove fas-
cinating to anyone interested in the
future of literature and his or her
own place in it.
RICHARD FORD will deliver the
HOPWOOD LECTURE at 3:30 p.m.
today in Rackham Auditorium.
wind blowing, and a crack of limbs
on fire. I could feel the heat of it all
over the front of me, on my legs and
my fingers. I smelled the deep, hot
piny odor of trees and ground in
flames. And what I wanted to do was
get away from it before it overcame
Another strength is Ford's use of
dialogue. Each character has his or
her own distinctive voice, and every
line drips of the speaker's personal-
ity and state of mind. For example,
after Joe's father departs, his mother
enters a self-centered spirit of regret
over the course her life has taken,
and asks Joe if he would like her
better if her name were Lottie.
"'I don't like it,' I said. 'I like
Jeanette.' 'Well, that's sweet,' my
mother said, and smiled at me. 'You
have to like me the way I am. Not as
Lottie, I guess."' Her incessant ques-
tions to Joe reflect her own insecu-
rity and confusion: "'What will you
think about me after I'm dead?"'
The novel is wonderfully struc-
tured, building consistently until it
reaches its impressive climax. The
tone of degeneration and confusion
that pervades the book works well
with the many conflicts occurring
within Joe's family. A reader feels
s/he is watching the characters all
heading towards some horrible fate
of their own making, one that cannot
It is impossible not to sympathize
with Joe's fear and confusion as his
world violently collapses all around
him. Ford has created a work about
the shattering of innocence that is
powerful and entertaining.
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