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Richard Ford's Ultimate Good Luck

August 09, 1987|SUSAN SQUIRE

RICHARD FORD IS the kind of seamless Southern gentleman who can obscure even the most spontaneous irritation under a veil of polite charm. When a UCI undergraduate comes up to him, after his formal reading of what has clearly been a short story about one eventful night in a young boy's life, and says, "Mr. Ford, was that poetry or science fiction?" Ford answers the student slowly, seriously, without a smidgen of sarcasm. "No," he says in his mellifluous country drawl, "that was a short story."

Ford, a 43-year-old Mississippi native, first came to Irvine in the late '60s after chucking law school to try to write stories. "I didn't come out here with a mission or with any expectations," Ford says. "I just wanted to see what would happen."

What happened to Ford at Irvine was not palpably dramatic. There were no six-figure book deals, not even a $150 check from a literary quarterly. "At Irvine," Ford says, "I learned how to read, and that helped me to write." Ford studied with James McMichael and the late Howard S. Babb, at the time chairman of the English department. "I had never caught on to literature as an undergraduate," Ford says. "But Howard and Jim made me realize that literature was entirely congruent with real life and that the books I revered were written out of life experience."

Ford duly earned his MFA and was offered a teaching job at Louisiana State University, but his wife, Kristina, talked him out of it. "She said, 'Look, you've spent two years writing stories, why don't you keep at it?' " They moved to Chicago, Kristina took a job at Marshall Field and Ford sat at home writing stories that weren't very good. He'd send them out to small magazines and they'd come back in the mail with "puzzling, infuriating" letters of rejection. He began to wonder if he wasn't wasting his time. But then Oakley Hall nominated him for a fellowship program at the University of Michigan that paid him $8,000 a year for three years to write.

During the interview process, the fellowship committee asked Ford if he was working on a novel. "I wasn't, but the answer quickly became yes. I knew I'd go on to novels anyway because I was so sick of getting my stories back in the mail. If I wrote a book, I could have an uninterrupted period with no one rejecting me." He got the fellowship and started what would become his first published novel, "A Piece of My Heart," a fierce narrative of flight and mystery set in and around the Mississippi River.

When his stipend at Ann Arbor ceased, Ford spent several months back at Irvine, teaching writing and fine-tuning his novel. Then he and Kristina headed east to Little Rock to visit Ford's mother. En route, Ford stopped at a phone booth in New Mexico to let his mother know when to expect them--and learned that Harper & Row had bought "A Piece of My Heart." Little Rock, the Fords decided exuberantly, would have to wait. They swung their car south to Mexico.

Today, Richard Ford is cruising down the interstate of new American fiction. His short stories are regularly published in the New Yorker and Esquire; he has won Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts grants, which jointly bankrolled him during the writing of his taut, tough second novel, "The Ultimate Good Luck," set in Mexico. His third and most recent novel, "The Sportswriter," was lauded in a full-page New York Times Book Review for his "extraordinary ear for dialogue and ability to create everyday life with stunning accuracy." His first collection of short stories, "Rock Springs," will be published by Atlantic Monthly Press this fall.

"I was lucky," Ford says. "I spent two years in a place where people cared about me and were sympathetic to my work. And I married the right person--someone who believes in what I'm doing. But I also work my ass off."

He slides on a pair of glasses to ward off a threatening migraine. "Luck," he says, "is the residue of design."

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