In The Lay of the Land (Knopf Canada, $34.95), Richard Ford kills off Frank Bascombe, the focus of two earlier and highly regarded novels, The Sportswriter and Independence Day. Not literally: Bascombe survives a shooting, the injection of “a bolus of radiant titanium” into his prostate, and the temporary loss of his second wife to her first husband, who has miraculously risen from the dead (or from an extended sojourn on the Scottish island of Mull, which is pretty much the same thing).
In fact, by the end of the book Bascombe's wife has returned, his kids have made heartfelt gestures of love, and the weather has turned “ice-cream nice” . But that's it for his story: Ford's turning him loose.
“This is the end of it,” says the author, taking time off from a visit to Toronto to phone the Georgia Straight. “This book was such a stern test of my abilities to finish it””by which I don't mean write it through the first time, but to get it all smoothed down, to get all the words in the right place””that I don't think I could do it again.”
You might expect a certain amount of regret to accompany this decision. After all, The Sportswriter, Ford's third novel, lifted him to the top rank of American writers, while Independence Day cemented his reputation by winning both the PEN/Faulkner Award and a Pulitzer Prize. But the Mississippi-born author says he feels no need to echo John Updike by following his best-known creation to the grave and beyond.
“Characters, and Frank in particular, they aren't people who inhabit me when I'm not writing about them,” he explains. “When I'm writing a book that doesn't have Frank in it, I don't think about Frank very much. When I am,” he adds, “it's very pleasant because I like him and, especially in this book, he has a sense of humour that I feel like I'm attuned to. The challenge is not to recline back into something about him that's just familiar. In other words, don't let yourself luxuriate in your familiarity with him, but continually keep making him do things that are surprising.”
Having successfully dealt with that particular task, Ford says he's ready to relax. “What do the politicians say when they're scandalized and run out of office? They say they need to spend more time with their family. Well, I really do want to spend more time with my wife. I'm 62 and she's 60, and we've spent the last 20 years being worker bees.” He admits, however, that he's got at least one more book he wants to write””and it's going to be set in Saskatchewan.
“I used to spend a fair amount of time out there when we lived in Montana,” he explains. “I'm on my feet in southern Saskatchewan: I know which way the rivers go, and I know a little bit of the history, and it's just such a prepossessing landscape. I think that's one of the reasons why I want to set this book there.”
For now, that's all he's saying. But it's gratifying to know that while Frank Bascombe is history, we have more to look forward to from Ford.