A writer as good as his words

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even before Richard Ford won the Pulitzer Prize for literature two years ago, the Richard Ford profile had become a genre in its own right.

Convention dictates a mention of the piercing blue eyes and the high forehead. They are, it is. Then his Southern roots, manners and accent must be noted, along with the perplexed observation that these things do not make him a Southern writer. Ford wiggled out of that pigeonhole after publishing his first book more than 20 years ago.

There is the obligatory mention of his wife of 30 years, Kristina, executive director of the New Orleans Planning Commission, who stays there as he wanders. A discussion of real estate and geography inevitably follows, for the peripatetic Ford has long maintained far-flung residences - Montana, Paris, Chicago, Mississippi.

One can see why Ford's own real estate became a preoccupation after the Pulitzer-winning "Independence Day." In that book, Frank Bascombe, the title character of Ford's "The Sportswriter," had left magazine writing for the real estate business. And Ford shows that he understands better than Martha Stewart what a house symbolizes to its occupants.

Here is Frank, musing on his profession as he drives prospective buyers around a leafy New Jersey exurb:

"My own view is that the realty dreads ... originate not in actual house buying, which could just as easily be one of life's most hopeful optional experiences; or even in the fear of losing money, which is not unique in realty, but in the cold, unwelcome, built-in-America realization that we're just like the other schmo, wishing his wishes, lusting his stunted lusts, quaking over his idiot frights and fantasies, all of us popped out from the same unchinkable mode."

Yet Ford maintains that his real estate holdings reveal nothing about him. He's not sure why journalists have seized on this facet of his life, but he has a theory.

"I am not an interesting man," he offers, apologetically, graciously. He is sitting in his room at Harbor Court Hotel a few hours before a reading at Bibelot for the just-released paperback version of "Women With Men," (Vintage, $12).

"It is actually absurd - Bob Stone has more houses than I do. Joy Williams has more," Ford continues, naming two writers he considers friends. "But people don't talk to Bob Stone about his houses. I guess I am insufficiently interesting."

Then again, the problem may be that Richard Ford wants to talk about writing and ideas, topics much more difficult to grasp than concrete things like real estate and one's appearance. There is a big brain beneath the broad forehead, although Ford seems to think of himself as more of an overachiever.

Even in reviews, he says, his persona seems to influence the reviewer. How else to explain the wide range of reaction to his work? Not that he reads reviews anymore, he says. He stopped in 1990, he says, when the New York Times suggested his novel "Wildlife" was about incest.

With "Women with Men," a trio of novellas, the tradition of disparate reviews continues. "Richard Ford is among the most traditional of contemporary American writers and also among the most original ... an American classic," Michael Gorra wrote in the New York Times Book Review.

Many others were in the same enthusiastic, almost breathless vein. "Signature" Ford, wrote Gail Caldwell in the Boston Globe. Ford, who considers this critic a friend, says he has no idea what this means.

Yet other critics found his characters tiresome and unpleasant, with their stories lacking the moral gravity that would make their company tolerable.

It's true they're not admirable people - Martin Austin in "The Womanizer," and Charley Matthews in "The Occidentals," the two longer pieces here, are intensely unlikable. Austin, for example, sets out to seduce a woman with this strange rationalization: "He loved his wife, and he hoped to present to Josephine Belliard a different human perspective from the ones she might be used to."

Yes, Austin is obviously self-centered, Ford agrees. But Ford is not interested in whether readers like his characters - a ridiculous standard in art, he points out. Nor do his settings - Paris and Montana in this work - mean much to him.

By his own diagnosis a dyslexic, Ford cares about words. It is here that he and his readers meet, he says. Not in a literal Montana landscape, for example, but in a place he has imagined and brought to life.

"To me, place in a story is a much overrated issue," he says. "It's just the stage set."

The stories in "Women with Men" were written over a five- or six-year period. In the midst of this period, a familiar voice came back to Ford - Frank Bascombe, from 1986's "The Sportswriter."

"He arrived gradually," Ford says of this second visitation from Frank. "It was around 1988, and I was working in the movies. I could feel the breeze. I noticed it was reminiscent of Frank's voice ... but I didn't think of it as a sequel for quite some time.

The first book had been influenced by Ford's own brief tenure as a sportswriter, for Inside Sports. By the age of 37, Ford had written two novels - "A Piece of My Heart" (1976) and "The Ultimate Good Luck" (1981). Neither had done particularly well. He likes to point out that he couldn't even get a paperback deal, in an era when "you could put snow tires in paperback."

So he walked away. He was young enough to start over, and he chose sports writing as his second life. But it never felt like a second choice. He enjoyed it immensely and thought he would do it for the rest of his life.

Then Inside Sports was sold and Ford lost his job. Sports Illustrated wouldn't hire him. He has said the editors there kept telling him he was a novelist. No, he insisted, I'm a sportswriter.

So he became the novelist who wrote "The Sportswriter," a Vintage paperback original that rejuvenated his career. A short-story collection, "Rock Springs," and the novel "Wildlife" followed.

Still, Ford told one interviewer, he was ready to walk away again when "Independence Day" was published in 1995.

"Toward the end of finishing 'Independence Day,' I thought, if this book doesn't find some slightly better readership than I have had before, I think I'm young enough that I could probably discover something else to do with my life."

He was 52 when he voiced those sentiments. He is 54 now - his father's age when he died, when Ford was just 16. Perhaps it was that milestone that persuaded him to put himself through a complete physical at the Mayo Clinic recently. He came away with a clean bill of health.

"My cholesterol was very low," he said. Does he exercise? "Two hundred push-ups a day."

For his mind, he espouses another kind of discipline. "I try to read really hard stuff, really smart stuff, stuff that's over my head. ... Writing is hard, and you need a long attention span so you can come back to it and come back to it."

Has the Pulitzer changed his life? "It's made me a little busier ... made life a little better." But writing, he wants to make clear, does not define him completely.

"Life really should come first," he says. "Where you go, who you love. Writing, necessarily, has to come second."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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