American dreamer

Richard Ford is the dazzling chronicler of the real America. He talks to Anthony Byrt about suburban

Richard Ford is the gentleman of American letters. Where his big-name contemporaries - Philip Roth, John Updike, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and Thomas Pynchon - can be strident, bolshy, obscure, misanthropic or intellectually aggressive, Ford, in person as in his writing, is polite, unpretentious and sceptical of literature's place in his country's heart.

"To be talked of alongside these writers is flattering," he tells me from his home in Maine. "Whether the similarities go further - that's a matter for close reading. But nobody ever got rich in America by asking Americans to do close reading. That's why I'm not rich." His Southern manners - Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1944 - are seemingly impenetrable. When I meet him at a reading in London, an audience member accuses him of being "a poster boy for infidelity". Ford pacifies her with con sidered charm. This is as close as he will go to literary controversy.

But his muted personal style is inseparable from that of his fiction. Ford is famous for his defiantly low-key vision of the American dream. When he tells me that "nothing has ever made me think that I'm anything other than a workaday writer", the demurral could easily have come from his anti- or alter-hero, the New Jersey suburbanite Frank Bascombe.

Ford's best-known books, The Sportswriter (1986), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006), trace Bascombe's transformation from aspiring short-story writer to sports journalist to real-estate agent. Compared to the other great American anti-heroes of late 20th-century literature, Bascombe has far more in common with Updike's small-town drifter Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom than with Roth's neurotic, flamboyant Nathan Zuckerman.

In New Yorker-reading, university-lecturing literary terms, Bascombe's trajectory - which draws on Ford's own early experiences as a writer for Inside Sports magazine - is definitely a tragic fall. But the Bascombe of The Sportswriter sees nothing tragic about his transition from Hemingway-hopeful to hack, nor does he complain much about his divorce, the death of his first son, or his unfulfilled potential.

His ambitions are modest: he asks for little more than an occasional evening with a woman and an exchange of views over beers in a run-down seaside bar. In the New Jersey suburbs he finds himself amid people with similarly simple wants: predictable rises in house prices, a new car now and again, and the chance to see out their "normal applauseless lives".

By Independence Day, Bascombe has abandoned writing in favour of real estate, trading on the commuter belt's gilded promises - a life that, despite its allegorical potential, Ford treats entirely without irony. Despite struggles with his ex-wife, his troubled teenage son and demanding clients from Vermont, Bascombe keeps pursuing his everyday American dream, braced by an indomitable sense of possibility.

"The conventional wisdom is that suburban life is eventless and risk-free," Ford has said of his choice to set his books in the orderly, affluent towns of inland New Jersey and the Jersey Shore, the sneering view of which the trilogy seeks to overturn. Bascombe the estate agent is less a sell-out than a modern pioneer, directing his all-American optimism to the tree-lined backstreets rather than the trackless prairie.

Like his creator, Bascombe is at pains to emphasise his artlessness as a writer and an observer. "I got into the habit of putting down whatever occurred to me, and before long the truth of most things turned out to be waiting just over the edge of worried thought," he reflects in The Sportswriter.

This pose - and it is at least a little disingenuous - is at odds with one of the major strands of recent American writing: the whimsical experimentation of Dave Eggers and his McSweeney's collective, Jonathan Safran Foer and Miranda July. "I don't like stories that I have to beat my brains out to read," says Ford. "I'm interested in stories that paint from themselves back to the world in a recognisable way."

Characteristically, Ford is reluctant to criticise the McSweeneyites. "Dave is encouraging young writers to work with forms that might not find publication in places like the New Yorker or Esquire, and I think in that regard what he does is a good service," he says guardedly. And he denies that there is any of the "aesthetic ruckus" today which characterised American writing in the 1970s, the age of Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and literary punch-ups.

"Over here, there is a real sense of collegiality among writers," he says. But his sense of "collegiality" is carefully fostered, for instance, by his refusal to trade stinging reviews with his peers in New York literary journals. "I don't review books. I don't want to do that," he says flatly.

It is easier to deduce Ford's views through his omissions - and there is little room for formal playfulness in his latest project, The New Granta Book of the American Short Story. A companion piece to The Granta Book of the American Short Story, which he edited in 1992, it ranges over the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, from Eudora Welty, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, John Updike and E Annie Proulx to new writers such as Nathan Englander and Nell Freudenberger. "Doing this, the Granta project," says Ford, "is a much more efficacious way of advancing literature than reviewing."

Surprisingly for a writer so intimately concerned with what it means to be American - both individually and, latterly, politically - Ford discovered that in the editing of the second volume, any collective quality of "Americanness" eluded him. "Any country seen from abroad can probably be seen more clearly than from within," he says. "But from within, I don't see an American project." The unifying strand, he says, is the quality of the writing and its emotional impact, from Elizabeth Spencer writing about a summer romance to George Saunders sketching a homicidal Vietnam vet hired as "protection" in a haunted civil war theme park.

In his introduction, however, Ford raises some of the problems facing all American writers, including the exponential growth of university creative writing courses, which he describes in uncharacteristically heated terms as "the cold, suffocating hands of the American writing-programme industry on our faltering national literary 'product'".

"That was tongue-in-cheek," he explains, backtracking slightly when I remind him of his words. "Whether or not writing programmes make anybody a writer that wasn't going to be a writer anyway, I'm extremely suspicious of that. But they make people better readers. And a lot of young writers also come out of writing programmes and go right back in to teach on a writing programme, and I'm not sure about that." He is rather more sanguine about the "mega-contracts" increasingly offered to young writers on the basis of one or two published stories. "If you have the choice between finding a large readership at an early age, or finding one at a late age, always take the earlier age," he says, laughing.

I begin to suspect that it is Ford's gracious public persona that enables him to save his anger and passion for his books. Late last year, the final part of the Bascombe trilogy, The Lay of the Land, was published, and writing it was tough. "It has a lot of words in it," Ford says, "and the responsibility of finding the perfect place for all of those words was a taxing one. To be able to write The Lay of the Land was a joy, but finishing it was less of a joy, and I had never really encountered that feeling before." This may be because it is Ford's first explicit foray into American politics - an area where his reticence evaporates.

Frank's return is set at Thanksgiving 2000, while Florida is struggling with some catastro phically flawed ballot sheets. "I wanted to take advantage of the peculiar goodwill I had from the other two books and put it in the service of writing a political novel," he explains. "When I looked around myself in America, some things seemed worth writing about: the election, the ageing of the population.

I felt that Thanksgiving weekend after the election of 2000, before the presidency was stolen away, to be a time when Americans were literally not paying attention." Eight years on, and with a presidential election looming, Ford still feels that ordinary America - the suburbs inhabited by Bascombe - is still blind to what is happening to it: "It's very hard to get the American electorate away from its own preoccupations, which is, I think, extremely dangerous. It's also a result of being lied to, and finally, being lied to is a little more comfortable than being told the truth."

Thinking back to Bascombe's words, I ask him for his own take on the relation between writing and truth. Ford pauses, before adjusting his character's advice: "Just putting down everything that you think is not going to uncover the truth; what uncovers truth in something is the habit of art. It's when you think, 'I've got to make something out of this for someone else, which I will make well enough that they can make use of it.'

"When you do that, when you turn away from yourself and towards some anonymous person, then I think you have a chance of making up something that might in fact be true." It's a nice riposte to Bascombe's slightly lazy tip. "Good," Ford says, laughing, "because that's my answer, and the answer was frank."

"The New Granta Book of the American Short Story" is available now, priced £25

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide