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?