On Richard Ford and Me and And …

When I heard Richard Ford was to publish a new novel this year, I was as breathless as a One Direction fan who’s won a ticket to a meet-and-greet and stayed up all night fantasising about marrying Niall or Harry.

That’s very different to 2001, when I actually met Richard Ford. I hadn’t read any of his work then though, as we both got ready to read to a sellout crowd of maybe 500 at the writers’ festival in Vancouver, I knew enough to know they hadn’t turned up because of me. I was the warm-up act, but an audience that size was a gift I wanted to make the most of. My new book there was Perfect Skin and I picked my best reading from it (in which a cat happens to be urinated on, but in a way that’s brilliantly in context and not at all gratuitous), I edited for pace, I warmed up my character voices, I gave it the big sell in the intro and then threw everything at it. It worked. I cut through the glaze that audiences habitually bring to the warm-up act and I sold every copy of Perfect Skin in the shop.

But I hadn’t sold a thing by the time Richard Ford took to the stage straight after me and, ghoulishly underlit, loomed towards the microphone and introduced his reading by saying nothing more than ‘This is just a simple story.’ He didn’t even say the name of the book. It wasn’t meant to reinforce my status as the undercard try-hard. It was more a statement of purpose.

Since that day, I’ve read every book he’s written and I think Richard Ford works hard at making simple stories. And that’s a good thing. Any clown can overcomplicate something. The harder job is to pull all the extraneous pieces away and pare it back to what it is you’re really on about. And then to hide the fact that you’re on about it and just let the thing be.

I learned a lot from those books, I think. Which doesn’t make me Richard Ford, or make me think I will be or can be.

His new novel, Canada, is now out and I’m reading it. With the candour that allowed him to begin his legendary novel The Sportswriter with the lines ‘My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter’, he starts Canada by saying, ‘First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.’ I’m up to p85 and the robbery is still in the contemplation phase and the contemplation is happening entirely off screen. If you think about it, that’s quite a feat. 85 pages of a narrator noting subtle and sometimes less subtle changes in his parents, while they drift towards the idea of and then plan a crime without him knowing. Could I write that in a way that would absorb the reader and not have my editor suggesting I cut 50 pages? Probably not.

Canada might be another simple story – it also might not (I’m only 85 pages in) – but it’s intricately told in terms of the layers he shaves off to reveal something more, and sometimes in terms of individual sentences. For instance this one, on p63: ‘It was overheated and dark and smelled of mothballs and rot and was full of dust and soot, and I was conscious of rattlesnakes and poisonous spiders and hornets nesting in the rafters, and came down quickly without bringing anything with me’.

That’s nine ‘ands’. For a moment I was distracted from my reading, not because I doubted the place of any one of them but because I wondered how my editors might have responded to that sentence. Can a great writer take nine ‘ands’ and make a great sentence from them, or in spite of them? How good do you have to be to hold a sentence together with nine ‘ands’? And did Richard Ford’s editor put any kind of query in the margin?

He’s with a new publisher now, and presumably a new editor, though I’m not certain about that. How much editing do legends ask for, how much do they take, or is it just a great sentence? Admittedly one plenty of English teachers might break into three bits, but that’s a different matter.

I can get away with more ‘ands’ than I once could, but not nine. That’s what occurred to me after reading that big sentence. In the mid-90s, I’d have editors questioning the third ‘and’ in any sentence, but by Headgames in ’99 I think I could negotiate up to four, provided there weren’t many more either side of it. By Welcome to Normal, I might have managed one six-and sentence and got it through without a query.

I can’t say if that’s me or if we’re looking at things differently at the moment, but I like to think it’s me and I’ve earned my ‘ands’. I can now be trusted to deploy more than two in one breath and sometimes – and with the right amount of thought – to make a sentence of some size that includes several.

I’m pretty sure it’s not that I’ve become old and surly and editors are less inclined to pick a fight with me because of it. I have become old and surly, but no editor of any standing would be swayed by that.

While I might like to pretend that it means something – something good, obviously – about my writing, there’s nothing to suggest I should go quantifying it and thinking I’ve moved from a ranking of 222 milli Fords (two ‘ands’ in a sentence to the legend’s nine) to a career high of 667 mFord.

Maybe the industry’s pendulum’s swung back a bit from short, clipped sentences (excluding the genres to which they’re well-suited). Maybe not. Maybe it’s harder to talk a writer into a semicolon than it once was. Or maybe editors are simply letting the rhythm of the piece do its work.

And maybe I should just stick to my knitting, let the ‘ands’ fall where they may, fight for them when I need to in my own work – and relent when I should – and try to stick to reading other people’s books as a reader, rather than letting the writer part of me intrude.

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5 Responses to On Richard Ford and Me and And …

  1. Cally Jackson says:

    Good luck with reading other people’s books purely as a reader. I haven’t been at this writing caper for nearly as long as you have, and I already have trouble shaking the inner editor while reading.

    I’m sure, though, that you have earned your ‘ands’. On the sentence in question, I’m thinking Richard Ford’s editor was too scared to make a comment. Perhaps I’m alone here, but that’s way too many ‘ands’ in one sentence for my liking!

  2. Siboney Duff says:

    I really enjoyed this blog, Nick – thanks for writing it. I also agree with Cally about that inner editor; she’s always sitting on my shoulder whether I’m reading my own work or someone else’s, and regardless of whether my take on the writing is glowing or critical.
    As for the ‘ands’, I have to say I really love Ford’s sentence. I think the ‘ands’ work, adding to this rolling sense of all things ‘yuck’ and the character’s need to get away. Having said that, I’m sure my own inner editor would have bludgeoned me into dropping at least four of the ‘ands’ had I been the one to create such a sentence.

  3. Great stuff about the ands, Nick. As a writer and an editor, I’ve got to admit I’m pretty hard on them. As you say, you have to pay your dues before you can start lashing out with them. Semi-colons seem to be on the wane – bad news for me as I have quite a few of them in all of my writing, but I notice they’re pretty sparse on the ground in your beautiful ‘All Those Ways of Leaving’ and in Will Entrekin’s latest paperback THE PRODIGAL HOUR. (As usual, his design is to die for.)
    I may have to rethink those semi-colons in the last drafts, I fear.
    Best to you,

  4. I really like that sentence – it’s very evocative, especially when read out loud, and you don’t notice how many ‘ands’ there are. As a (not yet published) novelist I’m looking forward to the time when I can break a few rules! As for reading like a reader, can any writer really do that? Even when I’m really enjoying a book and right into it, a part of me is standing outside it assessing it – the style of writing, the language, how the writer achieves various effects. I think this has contributed quite a bit to improvement in my own writing.

    • nickearls says:

      Most books don’t let me get close to reading like a reader, which is a shame in some ways, since I’m only a writer because of what reading did in my head earlier in life. But I can convince myself that a rare piece of great writing can make me forget at least briefly, or at least distract my inclination to come at it from a writer’s angle. Once I’ve closed the book, the writer is back, even if the first thing I’m doing is marveling at how good the writing is (followed by unseemly envy, followed by an often futile attempt to crack the code). I agree it can make you a better writer, even if it changes you as a reader. Good writing can offer you more tools for you writing tool kit, if you can see them for what they are. It’d be nice if it was a bit easier to separate the processes though, and soak good writing up as a reader first before getting diagnostic about it.

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