Never Fully Getting Inside

Richard Ford speaking with Michal Silverblatt on KCRW's Bookworm:

MS: You’ve been with the hero of these books (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land), Frank Bascomb, for how many years?

RF: Twenty five.

What is it like to inhabit a character for that long?

Well, I don’t know if that’s the word I would use: inhabited. And indeed, over the course of three books, I have written other books in between. And so, it’s more of a matter of, first of all, going an fetching something that you think you used to have, which is to say a measuring voice, which is Frank’s voice for me. It’s more projecting it.

You know Graham Greene said that writers are people who impersonate other people and so that’s what I think I do. Without the notion of inhabiting. For me it’s more important to make something -- a character or a narrative arc -- that’s separate from myself, that I kind of operate at arm’s length a bit. I sometimes think it’s like Bergen and Charlie, you know, I’ve got my hand in his back and I’m making him say these things and I’m making his head move and making him respond, but never fully getting inside.
One of the painful things for me, is that Frank comes to know that he’s not going to be remembered. And that in the realm of a novel in which you’re the hero and you’re saying everything, you can feel very big. You know, the largeness of thoughtfulness, of meditation, can seem enormous, and yet in this book, Bascomb is going to be experiencing his own smallness, his own distance from himself. And it’s very, it seems to me, hard to do: to have the world contract to your own size when you’re the hero of a novel, narrated by yourself…in other words, that a certain kind of really-hard-to-earn humility seems to beset him at a certain point.

I think that that’s true. You know, the moral address of realistic fiction, at least as I understand it, is to say to the reader: pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. Because those things that are small, which we overlook because they are so familiar to us, will gain in stature and will gain, for us, a sense of moral responsibility when we notice them more fully. And then that becomes my task. My task is to make the minutiae of the book be felicitous, be interesting, be provocative, and yet at the same time, not promote them to a higher stature of importance—seen from the point of view of eternity—than we know they are.