No Longer A Southern Writer, Ford Goes To 'Canada'

Jun 16, 2012
Originally published on June 16, 2012 4:57 pm

"First, I'll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later."

So begins Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard's Ford's latest novel, Canada.

The story is narrated by retired school teacher Dell Parsons as he looks back on the tumult that ensued when his parents — two unlikely criminals — find themselves in a financial bind and haphazardly hold up a small-town bank.

It's part of his job as a writer, Ford says, to set the unexpected into motion.

"I have a theory," he tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Jacki Lyden, "...that someplace at the heart of most compelling stories is something that doesn't make sense."

Dell's parents wind up in jail, leaving him and his twin sister, Berner, to fend for themselves. Berner, the more audacious of the two, runs away to California while Dell is carted across the border to live with a murderous fugitive at a hunting outpost in Canada.

The dramatic turns of Dell Parsons' life are softened by Ford's attention for detail. Parsons' languishing desire to keep bees and master chess lie quietly beneath the harsh realities he faces.

Ford says he spent time in Great Falls, Mont., where the novel opens, and also Saskatchewan in order to better convey the richness of those landscapes to his readers.

"I want to give you a place to reside for a while since you've chosen to sort of leave what you're thinking and come do something with me. I want to make it worth your while," Ford says. "It seems to me that I can do that both pictorially by drawing descriptions which take you someplace, but those descriptions are also made up of what I hope is felicitously chose[n] language and that's a place to reside as well."

Born in Jackson, Miss., Ford was once known as a Southern writer, but now eschews the regional label.

"I haven't scoured Dixie out of my voice," Ford says. "But I don't think that the books that I have written...have really in any way been Southern in character."

Ford has taken readers to New Jersey and France, now on to the vast American prairie and the woods of Canada. Where will he travel next?

"I'd like to cruise on this [book] for a while," Ford says, "but I probably won't."

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This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden, in for Guy Raz. Dell Parsons is 15 when things to begin to change. His quiet life of cohabitation with his family in Great Falls, Montana, is shattered one summer when his parents disappear for a few days. When they come back, they've committed a crime in North Dakota, and it will alter the course of his life forever. It's the kind of grand sweep of an American novel with a Western setting that makes for a satisfying, electrifying summer storm of a tale. Richard Ford is a Pulitzer-Prize winning author. His latest book is called "Canada." And he joins us from member station WABE in Atlanta. Richard Ford, welcome to the program.

RICHARD FORD: Thanks, Jacki. Glad to talk to you.

LYDEN: We are very glad to have you with us. So tell us about young Dell Parsons. He's a gentle, intelligent young man. Introduce us to him, please, would you?

FORD: Well, Dell Parsons is a 15-year-old boy who has a twin sister who's a girl, and they are living with their family in Great Falls, Montana. Their father gets out of the Air Force at about age 38 or 39 and pretty quickly follows the foul of some greedy Indians with whom he has entered into a nefarious plot to sell stolen beef and is so terrified by having been threatened by the Indians that he decides with his wife - quite unwisely - to rob a bank.

LYDEN: If you could just read from the top for us, please.

FORD: This is the beginning of the book "Canada."

(Reading) First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed, then about the murders which happened later. The robbery is the more important part since it serves to set my and my sister's lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first. Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank. They weren't strange people, not obviously criminals. No one would have thought they were destined to end up the way they did.

They were just regular, although, of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.

LYDEN: You take these people and you call them unlikely and you build up their character so that indeed this does seem exactly as you say. But you also write that as a novelist, that's kind of your job to draw us into unlikely things actually happening and having consequences.

FORD: Right. I think it is my job. I have a theory - and I don't know if my colleagues would agree with this - that someplace at the heart of most compelling stories is something that doesn't make sense. What I mean is that here is a family - if you were flying over them in a balloon - would seem to be nuclear and regular, that they all love each other and they live under one roof, and the father is trying to earn a living and the mother teaches school. And the next thing you know, panic ensues, and they rob a bank. It's very interesting to me and dramatic and I thought worth a novel, at least.

LYDEN: Richard Ford, I was struck by the fact that the charming southern born father, Bev Parsons - short for Beverly - he's been decorated in the Air Force, he sells cars, he looks good, he's handsome. And when he gets into trouble like this, it's a kind of financial panic that I'm thinking when you started writing the book, we might not have been able to imagine as readers as well as we can imagine it today.

FORD: It's fairly fortuitous that that should be the case that this book, which is set in 1960, should in some ways mimic, at least in terms of what happens to the Parsons family, the lives and situations of a lot of Americans and a lot of Europeans and a lot of people all over the world in which they are threatened with the loss of their house, the loss of an income, the loss of a sense of being able to anticipate a hopeful future...

LYDEN: Yeah, in this Western expanse. And, in fact, what little I know about bank robberies is they're not so uncommon, as we might think.

FORD: Well, they're not uncommon in the West, anyway, because there is a thought of deceptive quality to the West, which is to say that if I can do this and just get out of town, I'll be OK. But of course, when you rob a bank in North Dakota and you run across the border to Montana, you think you're hidden, but in fact, you're the only one out there who's robbed a bank. And you, in fact, are pretty easily detectable.

LYDEN: We're speaking with the novelist Richard Ford about his latest novel "Canada." And it is a great grand sweep of a novel. Getting back to Dell, he is not a brash boy. He doesn't have a lot of friends. He likes chess. He likes to read. You set him on really quite a tale. He is spirited away across the border after this. The family falls apart. The parents go to jail, the sister runs away, and Dell is taken by a family friend to Canada.

FORD: Right. He is a sheltered boy in lots of ways, unlike his sister, who is brash and who is adventuresome. When the parents are put in jail in Great Falls, Montana, his mother provides for him to get away because she doesn't want him to fall into the clutches of social services and be put in a reform school or into an orphanage. And so he's taken away across into the prairies of Saskatchewan to live with an American who is himself a fugitive from justice.

LYDEN: You lived for a while in Montana, and then went to Saskatchewan for this, right?

FORD: That's right. It's just the way I think about writing stories. I want to give you a place to reside for a while, since you've chosen to sort of leave what you're thinking and come do something with me. I want to make it worth your while. And it seems to me that I can do that a little pictorially by throwing descriptions, which take you someplace. But those descriptions are also made up of what I hope is solicitously chose language, and that's a place to reside as well.

LYDEN: Should we still call you - as you have been called, Richard Ford - should we still call you a southern writer? I mean, you are from Jackson, Mississippi, and you were known that way once but haven't lived there for a long time now.

FORD: Well, clearly, I haven't scoured Dixie out of my voice.

LYDEN: I'm glad of that.


FORD: But, you know, I - when I quit writing about the South, which was in 1982 when I started writing "The Sports Writer," it was largely because I didn't feel like I had anything to say that was new. Everything that I knew about the South was from Eudora and was from Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy. I didn't feel like I had any news to bring. And so I quit writing about the South at that point. But, you know, if you're born in Jackson, Mississippi, I think you're probably a Southerner all your life. But I don't think that the books that I had written since then, which are eight in number, have really in any way been sudden in character. I wrote about New Jersey, wrote about Montana, wrote about France. So probably, Southern writer doesn't fit me very comfortably.

LYDEN: I know that you're living in Maine now, and I'm terribly glad you haven't scoured the Southern out of your voice.


LYDEN: Do you have any notion where you might take us next, or are you just happy to cruise on this for a while?

FORD: Well, I would like to cruise on it for a whole long time, but I probably won't. I'd like to write a memoir of my father. I've written a memoir of my mother.

LYDEN: Your mother. Mm-hmm.

FORD: And I'd like to write a companion piece about my father and publish it in a book called "My Parents." And it's a project that strikes me as a quite attractive project because I've been collecting notes about this for about the last 25 years now. Seems like perfidious moment.

LYDEN: Richard Ford, an honor. Thank you.

FORD: Thanks so much, Jacki.

LYDEN: Richard Ford. His new book is called "Canada." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.