BOOKS: PAYING FOR IT

Just like his novels, Richard Ford is tough and inscrutable: famous for his pared-down style and personal reticence. His newest book, published next month, again reflects ordinary people locked in the drama of unremarkable lives

Richard Ford came to meet me in the foyer, looked deep into my eyes, and said he just had to do a photograph for another paper. He would get rid of the man in 10 minutes. Was that okay? Was I sure? He strode off, an eye-catching figure amongst the clustered tourists, his powerful frame suggesting a whiff of the prairies. I was reminded of the strong and silent hero of The Bridges of Madison County and suppressed the thought: Ford has won the admiration of the literary world, and the Pulitzer prize, for his novels. Although hardly a household name - in Britain at any rate - he's known as a writer's writer, widely influential, and widely admired for the stripped-down prose which earned the tag "Dirty Realism" from Granta magazine.

The author of The Sportswriter, the book that first brought him real success, and Independence Day, its Pulitzer prize-winning sequel, is here to promote his latest book, Women With Men. The three novellas which make up the volume are as good - perhaps even better - than his previous work. The territory is the same, however: in each of his books, in different ways, he draws a brilliant, moving, unsettling picture of ordinary people struggling to deal with marriage, death, divorce; a large world made of apparently small issues. The first story, "The Womanizer", examines the consequences of a casual affair continued too long: in "Jealous" a teenage boy copes with his parents' separation; and "Occidentals" is a moving account of the last days of a woman dying of cancer.

They are sombre, thoughtful stories, but as I settled to reread them, Ford came back in a state of controlled but extreme irritation - he is famous for his fits of fury. "This is not working," Ford warned. "He's not the one for me." He submitted, however, then came back and apologised. "We'll go to my suite. Does that suit you?" His charm hits you like the beam from a lighthouse. He set about making me feel as welcome and comfortable as possible, telling me earnestly I could have as long as I needed. He then answered a series of questions in a way that revealed precisely nothing of himself and not much more about his books.

"You don't give much away, do you?" I sighed finally, and he did a rueful double take. "What do you mean? I think I'm answering your questions in an almost fulsome way!" But I didn't know him any better, I said. What was he like? There was a long pause. "What am I like? Nothing surprising! ... That's off the track." Why? "I like that question but I don't ... that's a personal question. That's different." Another pause opened up, then he started talking very quickly as if in a dream. "Okay. I like fish rather than meat. I like to go hunting. I have a motorcycle, I drive a motorcycle. I like to read" - he lingered over the verb - "I like the Mississippi delta. I like the plains of Montana. I like Paris." And was his life happy? "Yes. Extremely."

He gave me a fending-off look - it was clear he was unprepared to reveal much, if anything, of his private life (he is 53, he has been married for 35 years to a town planner called Kristina, based in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and they have no children). And was he happy all the time? He gave me another look, made some private calculation, and said: "No." He was unfurled on the sofa, his shoes off. "You wouldn't do any better with these questions yourself," he observed with amusement. He didn't give the impression of being hugely happy, I suggested. If anything, he seemed rather troubled. "That's because I take this seriously! The few things in life I take at all, I take seriously!" Was I being intrusive? "No, you're not, actually. You're just being unsuccessfully intrusive.

PERHAPS it is simply that his books are troubled, full of characters groping towards some sort of meaning, and failing to find it. Frank Boscombe, the middle-aged hero - or anti-hero - of The Sportswriter and Independence Day, is riddled by small anxieties, petty unhappinesses. Ford's writing explores the things most people don't talk about, let alone write about: people's thoughts as they open doors, or try to unravel the meaning behind a remark, or make small purchases. His books also deal with characters who are in every way what Ford appears not to be: that is, poor, ill-educated and inarticulate.

"My books aren't troubled!" Ford was objecting. "They're about troubling things. People try to translate themselves into something better than what they have been able to erect so far." And invariably fail, I say. "Not invariably. Not invariably. The little boy who narrates the story of `Jealous', he didn't fail. I can't argue about those things. When you say they invariably fail - that's why I've written seven books, because there is in fact a variety of conclusions and points of view and sentiment. At the end of Independence Day you certainly can't say that Frank has failed to do anything he's tried to do. He's established at some price a rapport with his son, he's ended a period in his life when he was ensconced away from vital experience with others - there's always a price you have to pay, it's a bit like a proverb Ford Madox Ford had on his wall. It said, `Take what you want, take what you want, and pay for it!'"

So what is he paying for? Ford is impassioned now, and his manner, previously dreamy and distant, is sharp and angry. "I'm just getting older, I'm using my life up! I'm burning my candle at all three ends! And so, I'm aware of that. When you're my age, that's one of the things you're acutely aware of. You're aware of there being less time in your life than there was and if you had high intentions or serious intentions, now is the moment. Now."

FORD's books may be flooded by fears and small hurts and missed connections, but he seems sure of himself: he deploys his charm with the certainty of someone for whom it has always worked in the past. He thinks he is very smart, and no doubt is. He may think a lot of people are less smart than him. A common observation from people who have interviewed him is that he anticipates their questions before they are put.

He doesn't read his interviews, though, so he might not know this. "I just find them not to be interesting," he explained. "But then what I'm looking for is how someone misconstrued something I said. Or lopped off the end of a sentence to cause it to say something I didn't want it to say ... It's all to save myself, really. Not that I think they're valueless. I wouldn't do them if I thought they were valueless. The value is my books' relationship to a potential readership. And if it's done well, then I remember what I said and probably would say it again. All right: now, you and I have talked for 30 minutes and you've read a bunch of interviews I've done. Do I seem like the same person?" I start to think and he interrupts, cheering up visibly: "No. Let me guess ... Probably in real life I seem less adamant."

No, I say. "No? Oh, good. That's good. Tell me." You seem more hawk-like, I venture. At this his voice goes flat. "What do you mean," he says, "more hawk-like? You mean threatening." No, I reply, unable to articulate the contrast between his engaging manner and the steel underneath. "Oh," says Ford in a smaller voice, and adds to himself: "Hmm. Interesting."

While unwilling to talk about his life in the present, he is more open about his childhood in Mississippi. His father was a travelling starch salesman and A Piece of My Heart, his first novel, includes a character whose father is a travelling starch salesman:

"He had scars after all those years doing the same thing. He had piles as big as my thumb that bled in his underwear ... He got a corn on his foot from the clutch. I don't know how he did that. It was funny, I'd see him sitting on the commode in the hotel slicing at his corn with a razor blade ... The corn got infected and got worse and worse, until he limped, and after a while he had to use a cane because the pain, I guess, was hideous. I think he cried sometimes."

I asked Ford if this was a portrait of his father. He asked me to hand over the book and read out the passage in a laboured voice, throwing out "not true" or "true" after every sentence. His father, he said, loved his job and loved him. But later he conceded that his past was more complex.

"When I was a kid in Mississippi I was an only child, alone a lot, living in a place that I knew, before I knew anything, was an extremely blighted place. The life I was living in Mississippi was not a full life - a full life was not possible. I grew up wanting more."

Yet Ford left school to work on the Arkansas railroad ("What I remember," he has said, "is being afoot in those little end-of-the-line Arkansas towns at the dusky ends of days, tired and knowing no-one, just walking back to the rooming house where I had a single with a bed and a sink and a little humming table-fan that played me to sleep while I played over choices in my head.") He was also a Marine, a law student and an academic before he found his metier at 32 with the critically- acclaimed publication of his first novel, then global adulation with The Sportswriter.

I was about to ask about this when the television sprang spookily to life behind me and Ford did a mock-horrified jump from the folds of the sofa. The screen cleared and primly announced that he had a message. But each time he tried to get into it he got diverted by a Kafkaesque loop of commands.

"Come on! You can't just do this, turn yourself on and give us nothing!" Ford shouted, fiddling with the remote control. "Okay, let's try and read the bill." He giggled. "You probably think there'll be all kinds of embarrassing charges, dirty movies and things like this ... I once threw a television out of the window. Done that. Haven't you done that?" He carried on punching buttons without success, shouting from time to time: "Okay, there's a message for you! Right, godammit, tell me what it is!" Finally he loped over to the TV and I thought he was going to chuck it to the Bloomsbury pavement below, but in the end he just pulled out the plug.

This was a disappointment (Ford once shot a copy of The Sportswriter and sent it to a critic who gave it a bad review - apparently he no longer reads reviews in case they hurt his feelings). Four years ago he did such damage to a neighbour that he was hospitalised. But Ford says he has quit fighting. "It was too much. The neighbour comes up and hugs me all the time now. Mm-hm. He does. He said if I hadn't put him in hospital he wouldn't have found out he had high blood pressure and would have had a stroke ... Of course, he cracked my jaw and put me in hospital too. There we were, two grown men, pummelling each other on the street."

He took a look at me (I was giggling because it sounded so ridiculous) and said reprovingly: "It was funny, but it was not funny. If you'd have been there you would have not thought it was funny at all. It was quite horrible. To see what you have been reduced -" he pronounces it "redoosed", with deep contempt - "to, or what you have reduced yourself to."

Yet he seems so contained. "Everybody says about me. That I'm very much in control." His voice went dreamy. "I'm not the least bit contained. I don't want to do damage to people. Who does? I'm sure some people do, but I don't. I've done damage to people. Had damage done to me."

He looked at my wedding ring. "How long have you been married? Do you have children?" There is another silence, and I say: "Why didn't you have children?" He has been expecting this, perhaps fishing for it, and gives a prepared answer. "I don't like them. They'd just get in my way."

The children get treated badly in your books, I said, recalling the dumb way they experience their parents being unfaithful, splitting up or getting drunk. But this is wrong, apparently - or else Ford had a really terrible childhood. "They do not!" he contradicts. "They just get treated like kids get treated everywhere. They get robbed. They get told by their fathers that they love them. They get introduced to adult life in as gentle a way as possible, but that's not always as gentle as one might like."

Maybe this notion of childhood as a series of hurts stems from Ford's experience as the child of older parents - he once said that from the age of five "my family began to die and they steadily died for about 30 or 40 years". Was he afraid of hurting a child if he had one? "Probably. Oh - you mean physically? Oh no! I would be afraid of being a bad parent, I would certainly be nervous about that, that I would be selfish, which I am, that I would not be consistent, not be all of the things a good parent should be. I'm sure I feel that since my parents were such good parents I should just quit while I'm ahead."

Was he a loner? "No. I think it would be a real expression of defeat. I've had people tell me they think that of me - but I've never believed it. I like the company of people too much." His voice sank to a whisper. "There are certain things you can't do alone. John Cheever said that, when he was talking about writing books, he said that books involve a reader. It's like a kiss: you can't do it alone."

! 'Women With Men' is published by Harvill Press on 4 September at pounds 14.99.

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