Richard Ford's Canada maps out an uncanny world
“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.”
So begins Canada, the seventh novel from Richard Ford, the American writer renowned for his best-selling Bascombe trilogy, which includes The Sportswriter and Independence Day, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. It’s a gripping beginning, but a tease; Ford is in no hurry. And there is a lot more to the story that follows than stealing and slaughter.
Canada is a coming-of-age novel that starts in Grand Falls, Montana, in 1960. It’s the story of 15-year-old Dell Parsons and his twin sister, Berner, and the events that lead up to and follow their parents robbing a bank and being arrested. Berner runs away to San Francisco and Dell is smuggled across the border into Saskatchewan, where he is taken in by Arthur Remlinger, a mysterious American hiding from his own violent past.
Ford is a slow and thoughtful speaker with a genial southern lilt. It seems fitting that the 68-year-old writer talked to the Straight by phone from a chain hotel in Portland, Maine, a stop on his latest book tour. His father was a travelling salesman who covered seven southern states, and Ford accompanied him as a boy. He’s been on the road ever since, changing homes every few years, from the South to the West to the Northeast and back again, writing all the while about characters in search of roots and meaning in a peripatetic world. It’s no coincidence that his best-known creation, Frank Bascombe, becomes a real-estate agent.
Ford grew up in Mississippi and Arkansas, but his major works are set in New Jersey (the Bascombe books) and Montana. So why set half of his new book north of the border, and go so far as to call it Canada?
“It was called Canada in 1989, when I started writing it,” he explains. Twenty years later, he picked up the few pages he’d written, and the title still seemed right.
Canada didn’t enter Ford’s consciousness until he was 18. Then his grandfather drove him north to take him to university in Michigan, and as part of the odyssey they took a detour to Niagara Falls.
“He said, ‘We really have to go across the border,’ ” Ford recalls with a chuckle. “That seemed to mean a lot to me; it always has. I’ve always been in awe of borders. And crossing them.”
They were only there for a few hours—“We went to a bar and had a beer, a Molson’s”—but ever since, Ford says, Canada has been a very different place to him, a whole other world where you get this sense that the usual rules might not apply. He’s visited many times, and that feeling hasn’t diminished.
Pressed on what he means, he laughs and says: “Well, you’ll have to read the book and tease it out for yourself. If I could explain that in a few phrases, I wouldn’t have written a 400-page novel about it.”
Dell is a teenager who suddenly has to fend for himself; just when he needs a father figure, both his real father and Remlinger let him down grotesquely. Ford has explored this dark theme several times before, notably in the much-anthologized short story “Great Falls”, set in the same semifictional Montana town.
“I actually had a very good relationship with my father,” he says. “Sometimes you write about things that are so different from your experience, largely because the prospect of things that could go awry is so terrible, so frightening.…Your access to the things that frighten you is an access to drama.
“Better that your family not commit a bank robbery and get arrested right in front of you on a Sunday morning,” he adds with a sly laugh.
Speaking of a menacing individual in the novel—a cross-dressing Cree man called Charlie Quarters, who ends up warning Dell about Arthur Remlinger—Ford says he is interested in bad-seeming characters who do good things. He considered having Charlie assault Dell, but changed his mind.
“It is quite bracing, that power you have—in the small, artificial world that is the interior of a novel—to be able to do anything you want. It’s one of the things I enjoy. It’s rewarding, particularly when you make something happen that’s interesting. It doesn’t always work out that way, but sometimesit does.”
And in case that makes you want to write a novel, Ford insists it’s not really hard work.
“There are many, many harder jobs in the world—almost any you can think of.”
Richard Ford discusses his new novel at 7:30 p.m. on Monday (May 28), at UBC’s Frederic Wood Theatre, in an event presented by the Vancouver International Writers Festival and HarperCollins Canada.