Since Richard Ford’s 1986 “The Sportswriter,” a slyly witty Frank Bascombe novel has followed at intervals of a decade, with 1995’s “Independence Day” and now “The Lay of the Land” (Random House, $26.95). Bascombe is a hyper-observant, somewhat sarcastic everyman (and reformed writer), and “Land,” which the 63-year-old Ford says is his last big book, takes place in 2000 over the Thanksgiving holiday, when the rule of law in the United States after the Bush-Gore stalemate is still up in the air—much like Bascombe in his journey to awareness while working as a Realtor along the Jersey shore.
Ford’s sentences are marvelous constructions within a magnificent, discursive narrative, flights toward the just-right fanciful word or the most adept distillation of a sensation or experience. At 500 pages of vivid and vibrant language, it’s a wonder the latest book never really repeats itself. “Words, certain words, appeal to me,” Ford says. “I’m just kind of basically obsessive by nature, so it’ll turn up again unbidden and I have to be sure to catch it.”
It’d be an entertaining self-criticism for any journalist to do, using Google to mine their commonplace words, a devil’s dictionary of personal clichés. “Mm-hm, mm-hm. I know I have them. I’m particularly wont to have people wearing the same things. When I was finishing this book, one of the last things we did was, I suddenly became aware that everyone in the book had on a pair of deck shoes. So I had to go back and change everybody but one person’s shoes. That kind of crazy-making stuff. But you’re right, with a big book like this, the clerical issues are large.”
Ford describes a quest for “pleasurable sentences,” wanting language legible to the ear but also with felicitousness at hand. “It’s what I read when I read ‘No Place For You, My Love,’ by Eudora Welty. When I read a story like that, which is pretty dense, its pleasures are entirely residing in the sentences, those little, localized pleasures that suddenly pop up out of a sentence and please you.”
Parsimony has its place, but since Ford’s style is so intricate, would he sometimes be tempted to pare sentences down to carborundum instead of just tumbling away? “Yes. But that’s kind of on a diurnal basis. Some days you just feel more expansive than others. I can’t really generalize about it. I mean, the experience for me of just writing sentences is pretty uniform, which is to say I want every sentence to be perfect by the time I say it’s finished on the page with the day that I write it. But it never is. Some sentences seem right the first time you write them and some sentences you have to scratch and claw and wrestle and fight with even to get it to seem to parse. You can’t tell—I can’t, anyway—the difference between the ones that come easy and the ones that come hard. So, for me, as I say, the experience is about the sentence. What I remember is the sentence. I have a very hard time putting myself into the place of a man who writes sentences at the time I was doing it. I can’t quite—maybe there’s some threshold I don’t want to re-cross—but I can’t quite make myself go there.”
Ideally it’s a seamless weave of experience and perception and sentences. “In the book, it is. In the writing, it ain’t,” he says. “In the writing, it’s broken up by one thing and another. And that’s one of the real tricks of writing novels, and particularly long ones, to have the wherewithal, and I don’t mean the intellectual wherewithal, but just the patience, to stop and recommence, stop and recommence, day upon day.”
Inspiration comes through composition? “Mm-hm. Yeah. Sort of like ‘talent is a species of vigor.’ Which is what I think—to be vigorous means to just persevere.” With such a big book, it’s frightful to think that Ford might be a “thrower-awayer,” I joke. “I knew when I wrote this book that I was going long in the sense that I was pushing the sentences toward an extra clause, often, or towards an extra sentence, and maybe toward an extra two or three sentences, a paragraph, and even running the risk, which I think I caught all but one of, running the risk of saying something again in hopes of getting it right the second time, being reiterative, say, if I had something that was here in the book, if the subject comes up later on, and sometimes in similar ways, I would go ahead and write it again, but then I took all of that out. I probably lost ninety pages from the time I typed it out the first time. As it is, it’s forty pages longer than ‘Independence Day.’ I ordinarily think of myself as a putter-inner. But we’re all taker-outers, finally. So probably that distinction melts away at a certain point.”