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Slipping and Sliding Into the Success Zone

To Richard Ford, 'Independence Day' was just his 'next' novel. But it won the PEN/Faulkner and the Pulitzer Prize--a first.


Two months after his novel "Independence Day" became the first book ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the PEN / Faulkner Award, Richard Ford sits in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, appearing relaxed but focused, his ice-gray eyes piercing and clear. Wearing a black open-necked sports shirt and white bucks with no socks, he occupies a large wing chair, from which he occasionally leans forward to make a point.

Ford has a courtly, thoughtful way of speaking, his words inflected with a surgical precision, tinged with the trace of a Mississippi accent and a deliberation that suggests the importance of taking one's time. All in all, he presents the very image of a successful middle-aged writer, one who, at what seems like the halfway point of his "enterprise," has as strong an idea of where he's going as he does of where he's been.

Yet, he is quick to admit, in some ways such an impression couldn't be further from the truth. Although he is completing a collection of three novellas and has just signed a contract for a new novel with Alfred A. Knopf, he's given serious consideration in recent years to walking away from writing altogether.

"Toward the end of finishing 'Independence Day,' " he says, "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. Because I do believe that, at 52, when you've been writing books for 25 years, you have to have made some kind of progress. There has to be a general sense that, hey, I'm here two-thirds of the way through my life, and this is worthwhile to do.

"And unfortunately, even though the book's on the bestseller list now, and it's probably going to have the readership I would have wished for it, I still have that feeling of maybe this is a good time to let go," adds Ford, who was here recently to promote the paperback edition of the novel.

Sentiments like these may sound odd coming from an author of Ford's stature, but the truth is that the novelist has never taken a conventional attitude toward the idea of career. Indeed, he tends to eschew the entire concept, declaring, "Writers don't have careers. All they have is lives."

Pressed to elaborate, he explains, "What I think is: I've done what I've done, and if I have a chance to do anything else, I'm going to have to learn something I don't now know. I don't mind that. All my life, I've written one book and then seen if another book comes. So I don't project anything, and by not projecting anything, I don't really have the consoling companionship of a career."

If, in the course of a quarter-century's writing, Ford has worked toward any kind of consoling companionship at all, it might be that of his own unpredictability, the way so many of his books don't seem to resemble each other, except on the most superficial terms. His first novel, "A Piece of My Heart," (Harper, 1976) operates very much from within the Southern tradition--fittingly so, since the author grew up in Jackson, Miss., across the street from Eudora Welty's house.

Eager to avoid being pigeon-holed, however, he set his second effort, "The Ultimate Good Luck" (Houghton Mifflin, 1981), among the shadowy expatriate community of Oaxaca, Mexico, writing in a stripped-down, muscular prose that owes little to the legacy of the South. In 1986, he shifted his attention to the suburban middle class with "The Sportswriter" (Vintage); it describes a difficult Easter week in the life of Frank Bascombe, who commutes between his home in the fictitious Haddam, N.J., and a job in New York writing for a sports magazine, as his life collapses slowly from the inside out. That was followed by "Rock Springs" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987), a collection of stories, and a short novel, "Wildlife" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990), both of which explore the spare emotional and physical landscapes of rural Montana, where Ford has lived on and off for several years.

Ford, in fact, is something of a nomad; besides Montana he divides his time between Paris, Mississippi and New Orleans, where his wife of 28 years, Kristina--they have no children--is planning director for the city. He has also lived for extended periods in Chicago, Michigan, New Jersey and Irvine (he got a master's degree at UC Irvine).

"Independence Day" (Knopf, 1995) marks another departure, for this sprawling, occasionally diffuse novel represents the first time Ford has attempted a true sequel, returning specifically to one of his characters and adding another installment to his life. Taking place five years after "The Sportswriter," it imagines an older, but no wiser, Frank Bascombe--now a Haddam real estate agent--as he tries to find a way out of the isolation of his "Existence Period" and make some connection to the people he has pushed to the periphery of his heart.

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