Jennifer Qian for NPR
Jennifer Qian for NPR
Author Richard Ford has built his impressive writing career by producing award-winning, highly regarded fiction that includes, among other novels and short fiction, 1986’s The Sportswriter and its 1995 sequel, Independence Day, for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize. This spring, the 73-year-old explores a far more complicated—and potentially tangled—realm by turning his attention to the lives of his late mother and father for his new memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents.
Ford uses what he calls his “panorama of a memory” to delve into his past, splitting the book into two parts. The first half, written in 1981, is dedicated to his mother, Edna, who died of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 70, shortly before Ford began writing about her.
The second half focuses on Ford’s father, Parker, a traveling salesman for Kansas City’s Faultless Starch Company, a manufacturer of household cleaning products. In interviews, Ford has claimed that if his father had not died when he was 16 years old, he, too, would have most likely ended up on the road as a salesman, selling packaged starch products throughout the Midwest and South.
Vanity Fair spoke with Ford at an Upper East Side French cafe about the traumatic experiences that shaped him as a writer; his more pleasant memories, including his father arriving home each Friday from his weekly travels with packages of fresh fish, oysters, and shrimp; and why Ford still believes that, even as a Pulitzer Prize winner, he still remains a “fuck-up.” Yes, even Pulitzer Prize winners can think of themselves as “fuck-ups.”
Vanity Fair: Your father passed away when you were only 16 years old. How proud do you think he would have been to have later witnessed your success as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author?
Richard Ford: That’s a more complicated question than you might imagine. I think he would probably wonder why I didn’t have a job. If he lived—and if he hadn’t died when I was 16—I wouldn’t be a writer. He would have taken me in hand long before the first urgings to be a writer came into my brain, and he would have put me to work, probably for the Faultless Starch Company. I would’ve done it, and that would’ve been fine.
When reading your book, it struck me as just how difficult, just how murky, it is to write about the past, let alone one’s own past. Approaching this subject matter—and writing this book—could not have been easy for you.
You know, truthfully, it was. That part of passing a threshold was natural to me because I have this panorama of a memory. I have a remarkable memory. I had all this stuff floating around in my notebook. To get it out of those notes, and to put them together and to get it out of my brain, was a huge relief. I’m not an overly sensitive person. When people ask, “Was it difficult?”, the answer is almost always no. I’m just not smart enough to be bothered, in a way. I just did it. I think that if you’re a writer, you write. Sometimes you write this way and sometimes you write that way.
But these weren’t fictional characters you were writing about.
That’s right. As I say in the memoir, my parents are not made of words, they’re made of life and blood and experience. The only hard part was that because my father had been absent so much—I don’t really know for how long, but many, many years—how I was going to make his absence be anything but a detriment?
photo by Lisa
Kim on El Cap 1970 ~ photo by Edgar Boyles
Just across the border from the Mexican city of Reynosa, technology is on full display.
As vehicles approach checkpoints, stationary cameras take images of the front and rear license plates, an image of the driver and a color picture of the car. Those images are then run through a database to check for criminal records, immigration law violations or terrorist activities.
The cameras also store in a database the location of the vehicle and the date the image was taken — even if a search does not trigger an alert on passengers in the vehicles.
“I’ve never read a book in my life!” Donald Trump
Rachel Maddow sprints onto the set of The Rachel Maddow Show, brain on fire, and slides into her chair. It’s two minutes before airtime at MSNBC’s cavernous New York studio in Rockefeller Center and Maddow, dressed in her standard on-air black blazer and black tank top, Levi’s and blue suede Adidas Gazelles stealthily hidden by her giant desk, hunches over her keyboard, pounding out last-minute revisions to her script with the speed of a court reporter. On the agenda this Friday evening in May: the ever-evolving Trump-Russia scandal and the controversial termination of FBI director James Comey, a story that might as well have been concocted to suit Maddow’s brand of scathing, methodical deconstruction. She begins the hour on a note of quietly seething moral outrage, opening her monologue with a breakdown of the Comey firing, before moving through all the players in the Trump saga: Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Russian oligarchs, New York’s former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara – and ending with a note about a series of investigations taking place in various inspectors-general offices regarding the Trump-Russia matter. They could have a devastating impact on the administration – provided the president lets them continue, Maddow notes: “He’s already fired the FBI director. He’s already fired Preet Bharara and the other U.S. attorneys. He fired the deputy attorney general. Who do you think he’s going to fire next?”
Launched nearly a decade ago, The Rachel Maddow Show, hosted by an openly-gay Rhodes scholar who came to TV news by way of progressive Air America Radio, is now the number-one prime-time news program on cable television. It’s a significant though not totally improbable achievement for a show whose mantra, “Increase the amount of useful information in the world,” has taken on new resonance in the Trump era, when a single presidential tweet can receive breathless coverage by the mainstream press, and journalism itself is denounced as “fake news.” Though Trump’s so-far chaotic presidency has helped boost cable ratings across the board, no program has benefited as much as Maddow’s, whose audience has almost tripled, from 849,000 nightly viewers in 2014 to more than 2.3 million today, and growing. In mid-May, The Rachel Maddow Show was second only to the NBA playoffs as the most-watched program on cable, period.
In person, Maddow is taller than she appears on TV – a lanky five feet eleven – and also less feminine, her contact lenses replaced by chunky black glasses, mascara wiped off. Maddow’s one concession to the female norms of TV news is agreeing to wear makeup, which she does for precisely one hour and 15 minutes per day. Off camera, she dresses in grungy attire, which on an afternoon before Memorial Day means Levi’s, a beige T-shirt, a hole-ridden thrift-shop denim shirt, and camouflage Adidas Shell Toes. “They’re invisible,” she says about her sneakers, though she could be talking about herself. At 44, Maddow is naturally, neutrally pretty, which is a positive if one’s aim is to let the words, not the image, make the point. “I have no visual-presentation goals for myself,” she says in her office at 30 Rock. A long rack of near-identical dark suit jackets hangs on one wall. “It’s on purpose. You line me up with Lawrence O’Donnell and Chris Hayes and Brian Williams, and we’ve all got a very similar shade of the same haircut.”
As is true for many journalists, Maddow’s office is sort of a mess, with manila file folders stacked on the floor, and printouts of various stories she’s keeping track of piled on her desk and along the windowsill. “This is how I’m going to die one day – crushed under a pile of paper,” she says, giving me a quickie tour of her various tchotchkes: the Trout of North America wall calendar that she quickly flips to May (it was still on March); her Vladimir Putin nesting dolls; a G.I. Joe, still in its box; a metal Tabasco tub housing her Emmy, which is lying sideways, a tiny bit of gold orb emerging from the top. On the whiteboard behind Maddow’s desk is a running, if haphazardly diagrammed, list of the stories she’s thinking about, with the most important circled in blue marker. Perpetual favorites like Flynn and Trump’s ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort hold a prominent place. Another name floating in its own blue circle: Viktor Medvedchuk, “a superclose-to-Putin oligarch” whose name recently turned up in intercepts for having had contact with the Trump campaign. “But we haven’t talked about the fact that he was [also] one of the first individuals sanctioned by the U.S. government after the Crimea thing,” says Maddow. “And so what is that guy doing talking to the Trump campaign during the campaign when he is one of the sanctioned individuals?”
Maddow goes on like this, describing the other stories she finds fascinating, or more specifically, pinpointing the most under-reported, yet possibly important, facet of the stories that interest her, and then drilling down, which can be riveting, as well as exhausting. But that’s just how Maddow’s brain works. “What’s remarkable about Rachel is that she actually is that brilliant,” says her senior producer Laura Conaway, who has worked for Maddow since 2009. “The thing about this show is it starts with digesting an enormous amount of information every day, and then basically throwing it all out and saying, ‘OK, that’s what everybody already knows.’ It requires attention, and Rachel is supremely gifted at paying attention.”
Maddow’s friend and fellow MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who considers her a mentor, compares her to LeBron James. “No one can do what she does,” he says. “She is a master of the medium in a way that is just unparalleled – she can figure out how to tell a story and do things she cares about in ways that grab people’s attention, without just going to where the attention is. And she does that every night. To produce what she produces every day is kind of incomprehensible to me, actually.”