Richard Ford, make no mistake, loves Ireland. "I'd love to live there," he says from his US home. "I was teaching in Trinity for a few years, very happily. And I have family in Cavan." His paternal grandmother came from the county.
His first trip to Ireland was in the company of his British publisher in 1985, when he had “a wonderful lunch with all the literary staff at The Irish Times”, and has never looked back. More recently, he has regularly rented a house in Connemara, near Clifden, and would have been here right now but for the small matter of a global pandemic. “I was planning to be in Ireland all of May and half of June. And I said to my wife, I think I’m just gonna go. Then I realised of course, there’s a travel ban.”
In Ford’s home state of Maine, as in Ireland and many other countries, there is a lockdown, or “shuttering in place” as it’s called there, to combat coronavirus. Though as he says, “in America no one will stay at home”. But isn’t that what writers do most of the time anyway: stay at home? Martin Amis said writers are most alive when alone. “I’m not!” Ford quickly objects, laughing. “I’m most alive when I’m around my wife!”
The book is not an attempt in any way to define anything Irish, or uncover anything Irish. It was just to fit out the stories in a way that was recognisable and plausible
His wife of 52 years, Kristina Hensley, is the dedicatee of all Ford’s books (the dedications read simply: Kristina). They live “right by the sea in a kind of large place, so being at home is certainly no hardship and we’d rather be home than anywhere else”.
It’s particularly frustrating for Ford, who’s now 76, not to be in Ireland for the publication of his new book, a collection of stories titled Sorry for Your Trouble. As the title hints, it has an Irish flavour, and explores the fortunes and difficulties of Irish-Americans both at home and back in the old country.
“Originally, I wanted to call it The Irish in America,” says Ford. “But there are probably 47 books with that title. And I thought to myself, well, rather than leading with that, I’m gonna let that fact of the book kind of winkle out.”
And winkle out it does. Irishness runs through the stories like veins in marble, though “the book is not an attempt in any way to define anything Irish, or uncover anything Irish. It was just to fit out the stories in a way that was recognisable and plausible.”
Ford, who has a “good ear”, uses phrases he’s picked up in Ireland over the years, such as the title of the longest story, The Run of Yourself. For the Irish reader, from a purely chauvinistic point of view, there’s a thrill to seeing mentions of Ranelagh or Ballymena or Buswells Hotel in a Richard Ford book, a little like seeing a shot of your neighbourhood in a Hollywood film. But, he adds, “you hope that the stories, if they’re any good, could be set anywhere”.
The stories in Sorry for Your Trouble are more than “any good”. They have the usual grace and subtlety we expect from Ford, the usual elegant sentences, and the way his characters wind their way slowly toward answers to the crises they face – bereavement, sexual confusion, ungrateful children – feels plausibly uncertain, and makes the reader identify with them more fully.
This is no surprise from a writer who may have as great a claim as anyone now living to be called a Great American Novelist, who last year was awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction lifetime achievement award – and was the first writer to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award in the same year, for his 1995 novel Independence Day.
That book was the second in his chronicles of the life of everyman real estate agent Frank Bascombe, whose story started in Ford’s breakthrough novel, The Sportswriter (1986), and continued with The Lay of the Land (2006) and Let Me Be Frank with You (2014). The last of these is a collection of novellas, and Ford has always pursued short fiction with as much enthusiasm and capability as he has the novel. His collections of stories are always themed, for example, around adultery (the brilliant A Multitude of Sins, 2002) or relationships (the trio of Women with Men, 1997).
Is it important to him that a book of his stories should be a coherent whole? “It’s completely important. If I can imagine a circulating set of preoccupations throughout the stories, then I think the book works better, and the stories interweave in some ways.”
The concept of Sorry for Your Trouble came when Ford realised “that there are so many Irish in America, who are kind of Americanised Irish. They’re there and part of the fabric of American life, and that was an interesting thing for me, because they don’t identify but as American, although they are Irish or have Irish lineage like me. It just seemed to be an interesting little bias for the set of stories.”
It's always encouraging that somebody I didn't know liked something I did. It means I haven't been wasting my time for 50 years
Ford also enjoys varying the form and length of stories; two of the pieces in Sorry for Your Trouble are novella length. “You know, a novella is basically unpublishable, other than in books. But that’s okay. They provide some of the longueurs of novels without the project lasting forever. It’s one of the freedoms of being a writer, that you don’t have to have a template for what you do.”
And what does he hope the reader will get out of his new book? “I’d want the reader to think the language was apt. And I’d want the reader to think the stories had expanded what it’s possible to think. But truest of all, I want a reader just to read all the words in order, and after that think what he or she might.”
Ford has said before that he doesn’t mind what posterity makes of his work, though like any writer, he is interested in what today’s readers think: “It’s always encouraging that somebody I didn’t know liked something I did. It means I haven’t been wasting my time for 50 years.”
He’s said to have responded harshly to reviewers who criticise his books, reportedly spitting at Colson Whitehead and sending Alice Hoffman one of her books with a bullet hole through it. Of these he says only, “The Alice Hoffman thing has always been misreported: it was my wife who did that! It wasn’t meant to threaten. Kristina did it, she just thought it was funny. I have nothing against her at all. It was also 35 years ago.”
This idea of Ford as bad-tempered is hard to square with his demeanour today, which is warm and engaged, and as interested in other people as you might expect a great novelist to be. The stories in Sorry for Your Trouble have protagonists ranging in age from teenage years to old age, but that doesn’t stop people from assuming his stories are autobiographical.
For Ford, however, a story does not represent something; it is the thing itself. “And a story is only the sum of its constituent parts, it’s not the surface of something that’s hidden. And all you have to do to understand any story of mine is to read it.”
Ford himself is a reader of course, a great enthusiast and promoter of other writers, who has edited collections of American short and long stories, a Chekhov anthology, and more. And, with his interest in Ireland generally, there are plenty of Irish writers whose work he loves. “My first great influence was Frank O’Connor.”
We talk about O’Connor’s widely anthologised and much-loved story Guests of the Nation: “I remember exactly where I was when I first read it. It was 1968, it was in Irvine, California. And I thought, when I got to the end of that story: “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again,” I thought: I’d like to write that at the end of every story!
He admires contemporary Irish writers too: John Banville is “a master, if not the master”. And Edna O’Brien: “I know her very well, I’ve known her a long time. That book of hers, Girl, my God, what a remarkable book that is. Stunning.”
He shares the displeasure that's been widely expressed here at last year's New Yorker profile of O'Brien.
“Well, it was crap. It was crap, is what it was. I think the poor writer was defensive, he was geared up to find someone who was formidable and beyond his ken, and he did find someone who was formidable and beyond his ken. And I think he just wasn’t up to the task. I mean, to hold against her the things that he held against her, some little peevish indiscretions that he winkled out of her history. She’s already written about all that stuff. Who cares?”
Ford has always been outspoken politically and wrote about his feelings after both the 2016 US election and the 2018 midterm elections. One of the stories in Sorry for Your Trouble, Jimmy Green – 1992, reminds us just how much things have changed in the past 30 years. "They were happier times," he says now, "when the people that we didn't like weren't monsters. We didn't disrespect them for disagreeing with them."
What does he think will happen in this November’s election? “Well, I tell you, we’re all terrified that the election is going to get postponed or called off. I think that’s exactly what Trump is angling for . . . he is trying to figure out some way to say that because of the virus, particularly if it reflourishes in the autumn, that it’s too dangerous to have the election.
“It terrifies me not just because he would be president for longer, but because that very basic institution of representative democracy would have been vitiated in that way. And this would be the lowest of the low and the worst of the worst.”
Whatever happens in November, Richard Ford fans will have not only these new stories to read, but also the pleasure of a new Frank Bascombe book in the not too distant future. “I’m writing it now. It’s a comic book. I’m about 120 pages into it.”
He doesn’t say more about it, but it’s a relief that Ford is taking the approach of John Updike, who continued writing about his own American everyman, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, throughout his career, rather than that of Philip Roth, who publicly retired from writing.
“I’ve tried [to retire],” Ford says. “I’ve really tried. I’ve proclaimed loudly and boringly that I’m not going to do this any more.” He pauses. “But I couldn’t find anything that I like to do better.”