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Author Richard Ford Says 'Let Me Be Frank' About Aging And Dying

The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer's new book centers on Frank Bascombe, a 68-year-old man dealing with his aging body, a dying friend and his ex-wife, who has Parkinson's.


Other segments from the episode on November 12, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 12, 2014: Interview with Richard Ford; Review of Bob Dylan's new box set "The Basement Tapes: Complete";


November 12, 2014

Guest: Richard Ford

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Profound and hilarious, particularly in its descriptions of aging and mortality, is how our book critic Maureen Corrigan described my guest Richard Ford's new book, "Let Me Be Frank With You." It's a series of four interconnected novellas about the character Frank Bascombe, who Ford had already written about in a trilogy of novels. The first, "The Sportswriter," was published in 1986. The second, "Independence Day," won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

The new book is set in 2012 just before Christmas and just a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy destroyed parts of the Jersey Shore near where Frank lives. The character Frank Bascombe is now 68 and retired from his work as a real estate broker. He's dealing with the aftermath of Sandy, his aging body, a dying friend and his ex-wife who has Parkinson's and has moved to a nearby assisted living facility.

Richard Ford, welcome to FRESH AIR. Welcome back.

RICHARD FORD: I'm glad to talk to you.

GROSS: Love the new novel, and I want you to start with a reading from your new - I called it a novel. It's really a collection of interconnected short stories that kind of reads like a novel. So, I'm going to ask you to read a selection that we've agreed on. But before you read it, why don't you just set it up? And this is from the third story in this series of four stories, and it's called "The New Normal."

FORD: "The New Normal" is a novella narrated by Frank Bascombe. And it takes place in suburban, near Haddam, New Jersey, in 2012 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In this passage, Frank is visiting his ex-wife in an extended care facility outside of Haddam and where she is living with Parkinson's disease.

Oh, and one more thing I should say because this passage starts with this, Frank has neck-related pain. He's 68 years old. I guess it's not that unusual.

(Reading) Even before I'd turned the corner at the end of my block on Wilson, my neck had started zapping me, and I had begun feeling the first burning needle's prickle stabs in the soles of my feet; sensations that now, outside Carnage Hill gate entry, had traveled all the way up into my groinal nexus and begun shooting Apache arrows into my poor, helpless rectum. It's classic pelvic pain I've been diagnosed, which, though its true origins are as mysterious as Delphi, is almost certainly ignited by stress. What isn't ignited by stress? I make the turn through the gates and up winding Legacy Drive. Up close, Carnage Hill looks like an oversized Hampton Inn with low-lit grounds and paved contemplation paths leading into the woods instead of to a customer's-only parking. Nothing's bleaker than the stingy, unforgiving, one-dimensionality of most of these places, their soulless vestibules and unbreathable antiseptic fragrances, their dead-eyed attendance and willowy end of the line reclusiveness to whatever has made life be life, but that now can be forgotten. Anne, though, is getting her money's worth out here and is happy as a goldfish about it. Carnage Hill advertises anything but preclusive. On display in the foyer is their platinum certification from the federation of coaxial senior life is a luxury, few want to leave society, based in Dallas - the national death-savvy research center. The goal at Carnage Hill is to rebrand aging as a to-be-looked-forward-to phenomenon.

GROSS: That's Richard Ford reading from his new collection of short stories - interconnected short stories - called "Let Me Be Frank With You." So, in this collection of stories, Frank Bascombe, a character who you have now written four books about, his ex is in an assisted living facility. It's a turning point in his life, I think. When it's not your parent or your grandparent, but it's a friend or a spouse or an ex-spouse that's in assisted living, means it's your generation's turn. It's your turn. So, it's a turning point. Why did you want to write about that turning point in Frank's life when it's his turn to face - it's not like the end stage of life, but it's, you know, closer to it?

FORD: Well, I don't really think I was supposing it was a turning point as a reason for writing about it. It may seem to be that. And it made seem to be that to you, and if it does seem that way to you, you can't be wrong.

GROSS: Right. That's what I always say.

FORD: Well (laughing). I just thought I was writing about something that was interesting to me that happens in a life. I mean, when you're in your life, living day to day, I don't think - I'm not sure, anyway - if we recognize turning points when they happen. I mean, turning points are kind of a term of art, and by which I mean it's a thing we ascribe reality to after the fact. I mean, Frank's just living with his ex-wife of 30 years living and dying down the road from him. You know, I had a friend whose ex-wife died. And she'd been his ex-wife for a long time. And it was one of those experiences which created in me what Katherine Anne Porter calls a commotion, what Neruda calls something kicking in my soul. It was a call to language. I sort of wanted to put language to that.

GROSS: Another thing going on in your character Frank's life - and this is an internal thing - you know, he's survived prostate cancer in a previous book about him that you wrote. But now he has a lot of nerve pain. He has, like, pelvic-related nerve pain. He has neck-related nerve pain.

FORD: Poor guy.

GROSS: And in a way, it's like this new soundtrack in his mind. You know, it's like oh, there's the pins and needles. There's the shooting pain. Or he thinks - in the first story, there's - I won't go into the story, but there's a big guy who he's renewing a connection with who's going to give him a big hug goodbye. And Frank's thinking, like, oh, God. This is really going to hurt my neck. I shouldn't let him hug him, but it would be wrong to say no. So, is this - it's this, like, new soundtrack in his mind. And I'm wondering why you wrote about it, if it's a soundtrack that you're familiar with.

FORD: It is a soundtrack that I'm quite familiar with. And the only thing that made me a little bit sheepish or reluctant to write about it was I thought, hell, everybody knows that. What's the old saying? If I get out of bed in the morning and something doesn't hurt, I'm dead.

GROSS: Another thing that your book is about is loss - things being taken away by Hurricane Sandy, things being taken away by illness, by aging, by death. And...

FORD: These are comic stories, by the way, Terry. I don't want to get anybody to get the impression...

GROSS: Am I not bringing out the humor? I thought everything I'm saying was highly hysterical.

FORD: It's hilarious. It is. Yeah. It is.

GROSS: (Laughing) So, were you already in that frame of mind? Did you have to get yourself into that frame of mind to write this book?

FORD: Well, I think these things are surrounding us all the time. I mean, one of the things that literature does is that it takes on reflected on things around us and brings it up onto the level of reflection and objectivity so we can, in a way, stabilize our relationship with this, which is something Seamus Heaney said. You know, musically satisfying organization of words creates a kind of a stability. And I think that that's what we are always trying to do with the experiences around us. I mean, we don't have experiences to get over. We have experiences so we can sort of deal with them and address them and have, in some ways, some stability towards them.

GROSS: So, so much of these novellas are about houses. One is set in, you know, at the center that is an ex-wife who is now in assisted living because of Parkinson's disease. In one of the stories, a house that Frank used to live in but sold 10 years ago was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. And the person he sold the house to wants Frank's help because now the house is destroyed. In a third story, somebody who used to live in the house that he's lived in for many years comes back to revisit the house and to revisit a tragedy that occurred there. You spent a lot of years when you were young living with your grandfather who owned a hotel.

FORD: Yes.

GROSS: And I wonder if some of your interest in, like, the house almost as, you know, like a metaphor of sorts comes from, you know, living in a hotel and watching these, like, strangers move in and out of rooms. The rooms stay the same, but the people keep changing. And the stories keep changing.

FORD: I'm sure that's right, although I do try to keep metaphors out of my books as much as I possibly can. But yes, I mean, half of my young, teenage years I spent living in a hotel. And very transient, as you say, people living in rooms and dying in rooms and doing bizarre and wonderfully scandalous things in rooms. Opposed to what my father, who died when I was 16, wanted more than anything, which was to have a house, to own a house, to live in the suburbs, to have that sort of serenity, that stability, that assurance that it would be there when he came back on the weekends. He was a traveling salesman. So for me, houses are full of drama because they're always supposed by the chaos that's constantly sort of inflicting itself on us. I mean, he grew up as - with my mother. They were married 15 years before I was born. They basically lived in their car, while he traveled with his job, for the 15 years of their life. They never owned a house. And then when I came along, then that was the excuse to buy a house. I think it was the happiest thing that he ever did in his life. So for me, houses have almost iconic status. I've lived in lots of houses. I've owned a few houses. I love looking at houses because it's shelter. I wrote it in "The Sportswriter" - a house is where you look out the window and see the world. And a house is where you'll die. A house is where you'll get divorced. A house is where you'll have your most sacred and most profane experiences. Houses for me are critical to my experience. And I guess I thought probably critical to many Americans' experiences. I mean, you know, the housing crisis which we're apparently out of - are we? The housing crisis was all about people needing and wanting and desiring and demanding houses.

GROSS: So, is that why you made Frank a realtor, now a retired realtor? He had started as a sportswriter, and then that ended and he became a realtor.

FORD: Yeah. Well, when I decided I wanted to write about Frank, I couldn't make him be a sportswriter again 'cause I'd used that up. So I looked around and I asked myself, what do I know anything about that I could generate as a profession for Frank? Because for me, characters become more plausible when I can ascribe to them a profession, when there's a way in which I can say they earn a living. Then I can begin to believe in them and think that the reader will find them more plausible. And I knew a lot about real estate. I knew a lot about driving around in towns in realtors' cars and talking to realtors and looking in other people's houses and seeing their furniture and looking out their windows. What I didn't anticipate was - and I was just lucky, and in order to write novels you have to get lucky. I got lucky that housing turned out to be a kind of barometer for the national spirit at the time I was writing about it. But it's probably housing, as we know now, is a barometer for the nation's spirit all the time. But I just sort of tapped into that at a providential moment. But it was luck. It was pure luck.

GROSS: You know, as he gets older, Frank is trying to live more, like, in the present. And he doesn't have work weighing on him. You know, he's retired. But the past keeps showing up on his doorstep.

FORD: Yeah. It does, doesn't it?

GROSS: Yeah. And, you know, reading your book, I kept thinking of the ending of "The Great Gatsby." So we beat on boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. I was wondering if you...

FORD: I stole that line in the - in "The Lay Of The Land", by the way?

GROSS: Oh, did you use it in "The Lay Of The Land?" I don't remember.

FORD: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Well, it's a big book.

GROSS: (Laughing) So, you've been thinking about that? I mean, even with that sentence?

FORD: You know, I don't know that I've ever been thinking about anything. I just write stuff - I just write stuff down and put it in books. That's as close as I come to thinking. I mean, that's what DeLillo said - Don DeLillo said that writing is a concentrated form of thinking. And that's pretty much as close as I get to actual thinking. But yeah.

GROSS: Do you teach literature because you seem to have all these things just, like, at the forefront of your brain - all these great things that other writers have said about writing?

FORD: I have an absorptive memory about things like that. I do teach literature at Columbia these days. But I - you know, I'm dyslexic. I read really slowly. And one of the advantages of reading really slowly is things get in your brain, and they stay there. And I'm not fiercely dyslexic. But I do - I do remember stuff. And, you know, if I see something that - if I read something that I think is really interesting, I'll copy it out on a three-by-five card and look at it every once in a while. It just sort of reminds me of great things. It reminds me of great things that people have said. And it encourages me about literature. These are usually things that are of literary nature like DeLillo's line - concentrated form of thinking. So, I don't know if it's that I teach literature because I do that or I do that because I teach literature, but yes.

GROSS: So there's three-by-five cards. How do you file them so you actually have access to them or are they just, like, randomly organized and you skim through them?

FORD: They are a chaos. And I often skim through them just. You know, if I'm on a plane sometime, and I don't know what to read, and I don't feel like reading, I'll just get out this lump of three-by-five cards and read them through. I feel much better after that somehow. And I also find all kinds of - all kinds of currents through my three-by-five cards about the efficacy of literature, why people write, what the consequences of literature are, what its value and virtues are for its readers that like that line of Leavis I quoted which I love very much that it's a means by which we undergo a renewal of sensuous and emotional life and learn a new awareness. That's somehow - when I think about that, it encourages me in my line of work.

GROSS: And how come you're not writing these down on a computer?

FORD: Oh, Lord.


FORD: I write novels with a pen.

GROSS: You start with a pen?

FORD: Yeah. I still do. Absolutely. It matches how fast I sort of speak, think. And I kind of like making letters. I have terrible handwriting, but nonetheless, I like making letters.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Ford. And he has a new book. It's the fourth book featuring his character Frank Bascombe. And this is called "Let Me Be Frank With You." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Richard Ford. He has a new book of four interconnected novellas. It's called "Let Me Be Frank With You" and it's the fourth book about his character Frank Bascombe, a character who he created for his novel "The Sportswriter."

Now, you told me in 2006 after your third book about Frank Bascombe, "The Lay Of The Land," you said, and I quote, "I don't know if writing about Frank in his 60s would interest me that much" because I had asked you if you'd write about Frank again and you said, not to say that people alive in their 60s don't live vibrant, useful lives, I just don't have any clue about what I would say about it.

So Frank in your novel is 68 so when you neared the end of your 60s did you feel differently about the ability to write about somebody in their 60s in an interesting way?

FORD: No, I really didn't. I mean, this is a terrible admission - but I think that that's what FRESH AIR is for, terrible admissions.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FORD: I sort of went through life thinking that when you got to be in your 60s basically you weren't good for much and that's a younger man's view. And I know that they are - phones are ringing when I say that but, you know, now I'm 70. I don't think that anymore, OK? I really got interested in the consequences of the hurricane and I got interested in having Frank be my instrumental narrator and assessing those consequences and in order to make him plausible to myself and to readers who already existed - I hoped - and who would be reading this book, I had to just bring him up to date. And so given the 2012-1945 demographic, that's how old he would be and so once I figured out how old he would be, then I had to sort of fill in the absences there that weren't taken care of in the other books and so that's why - in other words, I kind of backed into it being about aging.

GROSS: And so what did you find interesting there once you were forced to write about somebody in his 60s?

FORD: Well, how funny life was actually. I mean that life seemed to me to be - and I feel this is true in my own life, that there's just a lot more hilarity and in fact I wanted to call this book "Hilarity" and there are probably people at HarperCollins and at Ecco wishing that I had called it "Hilarity" now because it wasn't a particularly popular title, but I loved the title anyway. I thought that the necessities of addressing end of life issues were funny and yet they were also serious, that certain kinds of inevitabilities face Frank. For instance in Frank's life in these stories, he starts throwing useless words out of his vocabulary.

GROSS: Yes, he's decommissioning words (laughter).

FORD: He's decommissioning words because you know, if you think, as Mel Armaise(PH) said that it's the poet's or the writer's responsibility to sort of purify the language of the tribe or renew the language of the tribe. That's what I thought Frank was doing. He's just throwing out all these words that people are constantly using that are fending. Words like siblings or interface or - oh, God, I can't think of what they are. I keep a list, but it keeps getting bigger and bigger all the time. So that's one thing he does and he also begins to decommission some of his friends who he decides are also not contributing enough to his life and that he doesn't feel he's contributing to theirs. So those are things that I - I mean, I made these things up Terry, you know? I mean, I don't know that everybody does these things. I put them in the book because they seemed plausible and I also think thought they seemed funny, but also in a way useful, too. I mean wouldn't it be better if there were lots of words in our lives that we didn't have to use anymore? And so I just had him start throwing them out, which I think is funny and also useful.

GROSS: Some more words that your character throws out are bonding, mentee - as in mentor - no problem, F-bomb.

FORD: Yeah, yeah. They're all there. We hear them in the media which is of course, you know, the public riot and corrupting of our souls, but yeah we hear them all the time - words which don't get intellected, words which pass out of our mouths without there being a censor, without there being a grid. They just - bluh, bluh, bluh - stuff that pours out of our mouth.

GROSS: Richard Ford will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Let Me Be Frank With You."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with novelist Richard Ford. His new book, "Let Me Be Frank With You," is the fourth book about his character Frank Bascombe. The first novel in the series was "The Sportswriter," which was published in 1986. The character Frank Bascombe has worked as a sportswriter and a real estate broker. The new book picks up his story in 2012, when he is 68, retired and dealing with aging.

As you've pointed out, a lot of the book is, you know, comedic, funny. But the subjects themselves really are not. So to bring up something else really hilarious in the book, burials and the geography of death. And this is a kind of...

FORD: Yeah.

GROSS: Like - this is a kind of, like, very contemporary issue that I think... Well, I was going to say it wasn't faced by generations before. But because of immigration, it really was in some ways. But the question is, your character is married, then divorced, then remarried. He has a dead son from his first marriage. And so his first wife has Parkinson's and knows that that's going to be her - her end. She doesn't know exactly when.

FORD: Unless something else gets her.

GROSS: Unless something else gets her sooner. But anyway, she's starting to think about where she wants to be buried. She wants to be buried in Haddam, near their dead son. And she keeps asking Frank, her ex, where he's going to be buried. And he's kind of noncommittal about that. But he's going to have to decide at some point, you know, whether you write about him or not...

FORD: Right.

GROSS: Like, theoretically. (Laughter). He has to decide where he's going to be buried, or if he's going to opt out of a decision like that...

FORD: Right.

GROSS: By getting cremated - 'cause he has a current wife. He has other children. And it's almost like this new question of etiquette. Like, which people do you get buried with if you're going to get - if you're going to get buried?

FORD: It's hilarious. I think it's absolutely hilarious.

GROSS: Oh, absolutely.


FORD: I mean, it's the old comics' injunction that if nothing is funny, nothing's serious. And so I think that where you get buried and who you get buried with is, of course, quite serious. Frank, in prior books, was going to give his body to science and the Mayo Clinic. And he kind of chickens out of that, as I suspect most people would when they want to sort of think about what the particulars of that are. But he does have to decide that. And, you know, I've had to decide that. You're not old enough to have to decide that, but I am. And I have. Although, quite hilariously, Kristina and I decided we were going to be buried in Princeton. And then, now we've changed our mind and are selling our burial plots. We think we might like to be buried in Maine. But then, sometimes we think it might be nice to be buried in New Orleans. But the water table there is - you know, see?

GROSS: Why do you want to be buried?

FORD: It just - I don't know. The idea of getting burnt up just gives me the creeps. I don't know. I mean - and burial sea, I wouldn't like that either. It just seems the least of evils.

GROSS: And are you a Catholic?

FORD: Oh, God, no.


FORD: I mean, oh, gosh, no.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FORD: Oh, darn. No, I'm not. I'm not an anything.

GROSS: You're not an anything. (Laughter).

FORD: I was raised Presbyterian, which is virtually the same thing.

GROSS: (Laughter). So can I ask you, since your book is so much about aging, how you feel about aging? You're 70 this year.

FORD: Yes I am. I am. Well, I think it's just great, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FORD: Every - everything still works. There'll probably come a day when I - when I'll feel differently about that. But today, I don't feel differently about that. I - you know, I'm married to somebody I care about and love. We own our house. We don't owe anybody any money. I'm not sick and in the hospital. So for the moment, things are fine. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Because death is a presence in the new book, I'm wondering if you ever think about ways you might die, if your brain ever goes there. Like, what's going to happen to me when the time comes?

FORD: Yeah. (Laughter). Don't you?

GROSS: Yeah.

FORD: (Laughter).

GROSS: Yeah, I do.

FORD: (Laughter). Yeah, well, we have - then you and I - you and I have that in common. And you're not 70 years old. Sure, I mean, being, as I said before, a kid of older parents, my father died in my arms, and...

GROSS: Oh, really?

FORD: When I was 16. Yeah, he had a heart attack. And I got up in the bed with him and tried to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation. And he died. So it probably implanted in my brain pretty permanently that death is something that we haul around with us every day and that we have to, in some way, get reconciled to it - and not just begrudgingly reconciled to it, but just reconciled to it as a part of life. I know that sounds like a convention that's something you'd hear at a - you know, in church. But it is. And for that reason, it's OK. It's really OK with me that people die, including myself. And I don't pray too much on what manner it may take. My wife and I and some pals were pheasant hunting last week in Montana. And I was walking across this enormous, wheat stubble field. And suddenly, I realized that the whole left side of my body was numb. And I thought, oh, doesn't that mean something? You know, your mind starts flipping back through all the pages in which you hear about - and people talking about what a heart attack means. And I thought, well...

GROSS: Or a stroke, yeah.

FORD: OK, I'm not going to - or a stroke, yeah. I'm not even going to say much about that. I'm just going to keep on walking. And if - (laughter) - if I pitch forward onto my face, I guess I will. And it didn't scare me. I mean, a few years ago, I went to the Mayo Clinic because I had something wrong with my neck. And they took out something, and they said, well, we think you have lymphoma. And I thought, oh, wow, nobody's ever told me that before. And so I wandered around for a couple of days. And then they called me up and said, well, come back in, and let's talk some more. We don't think you have lymphoma now. So that was a little bit of a jolt. But it wasn't that uninteresting.

GROSS: Whoa, we have to back up just a little bit to when half of your body was numb.

FORD: Did I cover too much ground?

GROSS: No...

FORD: Yeah.

GROSS: It's just that, when half of your body's numb, that really does sound like a stroke. And, like, so what happened?

FORD: Nothing.

GROSS: What, the feeling came back?

FORD: I'm talking to you apparently unimpaired today. It went away. You know, that was my mother's cure for most things. She would say, oh, for God's sake, don't think about that. So I just kind of decided not to think about it. And next thing I know, I was on the plane heading back to New York.

GROSS: Have you told your doctor about it, or just everybody on the radio? (Laughter).

FORD: (Laughter). Please don't write me.


FORD: No, I told my wife. And she kind of sort of pulled a face a little bit and said, hmm, that's interesting. I wonder what that was. I said, I don't know. It went away. She said, oh, OK, fine.


FORD: Yeah, hmm. That's exactly - hmm - exactly right. Hmm.

GROSS: And what about the thing that wasn't the lymphoma?

FORD: Oh, that was - well, it just wasn't lymphoma, that's what it was. It was something else, the nature of which I can't even remember. But it took a little while to figure that out. They were trying to be very precise. But when they told me that, I just sort of wandered around Rochester for a day or so and sort of thought, well, this is the most interesting thing anybody's said to me in a long time, that you have lymphoma. I mean, they were very matter-of-fact about it. They said, oh, we have a nice clinic over here at the Mayo Clinic, which I would have, of course, hastened to had I been diagnosed with it. But then, I was sort of faux-diagnosed with it. I sort of had it, but then it was taken away from me.

GROSS: How do you get to, oh, that's really interesting, as opposed to panic, I might be really, super sick?

FORD: Holy Christ?

GROSS: Yeah.

FORD: It must just be in your genes. I just wasn't terrified. I don't mean to say that I thought it was a good thing or that I thought it was, you know, something to ignore, like my stroke, apparently...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FORD: That you've diagnosed. And I'm not going to ignore that. But, you know, calamitous things happen to people. And calamitous things are going to happen to all of us. It's just - at the age I was, and I was about 64, it just didn't scare me. And I would've had to make up being terrified. I mean, I was at the Mayo Clinic, which for me, as you know, is this sort of - is the sort of Mecca of all great medical institutions. I knew they would take care of me as well as I could be taken care of. So I felt OK about it. My wife didn't. Kristina didn't feel OK about it, I should say.

GROSS: I don't blame her.

FORD: Well - well, and neither do I. But it wasn't happening to her. You know, there's a great line of Philip Larkin's. He said, yours is the harder course, I can see. On the other hand, mine is happening to me.

GROSS: Is that on one of your three-by-five cards?


GROSS: Or do you just know that?

FORD: It's just emblazoned in my brain 'cause it's so funny.

GROSS: (Laughter). It's true. OK, if you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Ford. And he has a new collection of four interconnected novellas about his character Frank Bascombe. This is the character he, a few years ago, said he would never write about again. Fortunately, he has. (Laughter). And the book is called, "Let Me Be Frank With You." We should take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Ford and he has a new book called "Let Me Be Frank With You." It's a series of four interconnected novellas about his character Frank Bascombe who he introduced four books ago in his novel "The Sportswriter."

So Frank isn't you. Frank is a fictional character...

FORD: Yes. Correct.

GROSS: ...But like you, Frank starts off as a writer - as a novelist - then becomes a sportswriter. Your grandfather had been a Prizefighter. Were there ever - was there ever anything written about him? Was he ever profiled?

FORD: No, he wasn't. He came from northwest Arkansas in Benton County, Arkansas. He was a real small-town boy, quite handsome and plucky and - but he married my grandmother, who was a hard-driving person and he was quickly rooted out of being a sort of a bon vivant, boulevardier sportsmen into being a guy who had to keep a job and bring in a paycheck so no, it didn't happen. He taught me to box, something I did a little bit of in my life, along with a lot of unsuccessful fist-fighting.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FORD: But it was just part of - you know, I wrote a piece in The New Yorker about this just a few years ago called "In The Face," which was about being hit in the face and hitting people in the face, which I tried to make art out of. I don't know if I did, but it was just part of life, that - you know, he ran a big hotel so fairly often in big old blousy raucous hotels like the Marion Hotel was in Little Rock, he would have cause to go toe-to-toe with people and he always - you know, he was 5"10 and he weighed 240 pounds so if he popped you, you stayed popped. So yeah, it was part of life.

GROSS: Were you a good fighter?

FORD: I was tall and I still am - I'm probably not as tall as I used to be - and lanky and I once ran from a fight when I was in junior high school and the shame of running from that fight empowered me never to run from another one and so I had my moments and I had my losses, put it that way. I wasn't that skillful, I was just reckless.

GROSS: Your father was a traveling salesman for Faultless Starch?

FORD: That's right - a company that still exists in Kansas City.

GROSS: So that's like, starch for our shirts?

FORD: That's right, but it was a laundry starch. At the time that he sold it - and he only sold one product - he had one product, Faultless Starch which was a powder that he sold in large lot wholesale train car loads to independent wholesale grocers all across the South. He was a man, as I say, who only sold one product and then you would dilute this starch in water and then you would soak your garments in the diluted starch.

GROSS: So was your father really like, enthusiastic about Faultless Starch? He had to sell it. Like, what'd it mean to him?

FORD: Yeah, he was really enthusiastic about it.

GROSS: Right, no exactly. I mean, what was your understanding of what work was, watching your father sell starch?

FORD: It was inevitable. My father used to leave on Monday morning whistling and he would come back on Friday afternoon whistling and that always made me think that somewhere between Monday and Friday, he was having a good time. And I don't mean to say that he was doing unacceptable things - God forbid he would do that - but I thought work was good. I thought work was rewarding, work was satisfying. I mean I have a very good work ethic because of that. I'm not a good procrastinator. I just go do it if it needs to be done and he taught me that.

GROSS: So was your father a good talker as a salesman and did that influence you as a storyteller?

FORD: No, but my father was a sweet - in some ways unexceptional, good-tempered, uneducated, hard-working, decent, loving parent and as a model for me particularly insofar, as he departed my life when I was 16 and he was 55, he imparted a few of those qualities to me. He had a very terrible temper and I have a pretty bad temper myself and I think those are the things, but as far as - you know, as far as telling me things, they were of a generation who didn't tell their kids things. This whole notion of full disclosure by parents to their children in which they talk about their sexual habits and their marital history and their medical history and that we're all obligated to know all these things, my parents didn't feel that way. They thought that anything they could shield me from about the rough and tumble of life was actually to my benefit so I began when I was young, I began to see life as something that I needed to inquire into myself because nobody was going to tell me and I didn't have any brothers or sisters. So I'd really sort of think about writing fiction, which I learned to do by being a slow reader. I think learning about fiction is a sort of inventive explaining, explaining of things whose explanations did not come to you otherwise.

GROSS: Well, it's interesting that your parents tried to protect you from things and then your father ends up dying in your arms when you're 16.

FORD: Well, thank God if he had to die he could die in my arms. I was his only son so that doesn't seem so bad, you know? I would've done for him as I could.

GROSS: No, no, of course but I mean there's things you can't protect your child from, like your death.

FORD: Right and would that, more parents knew that - you know? What if more parents knew that - that those things that we can't be protected from we must finally make use of?

GROSS: So I want to jump ahead to where you are now.

FORD: Where am I now?

GROSS: (Laughter).

FORD: (Laughter). I'm 70.

GROSS: I'm not sure if I meant that as an existential question, but have a feeling I did mean it as that. You were probably right to ask.

So when you look at your writing now - and again like we mentioned, you turned 70 this year - have you ever cared much about like, legacy? Like, how your books are regarded in the future and will they be read in the future, and how will you be interpreted and how much do you need to write? And I'm wondering what you thought about that as a young man compared to how you feel about that now?

FORD: I've never thought about it. I don't care to think about it to be perfectly honest with you. You know, art is the daughter of time which means basically that you write for the people who can read you when you and they are alive and I'm perfectly comfortable with that. You know, the whole notion of legacy, I think it's kind of a media creation in a sense. We all talk about people's legacies. I just don't think about it. I feel like it's a privilege to get to write books. I feel like it's a high calling. I feel like it's allowed me to take full advantage of myself with the chaos that goes on in my brain and if somebody reads me now when I publish these books and write these books, that's all I ask. It's really all I ask.

GROSS: Richard Ford, it's just been great to talk with you.

FORD: Thank you Terry. It's a great pleasure to talk to you. As I said to you, I'm always happy when you're laughing.

GROSS: Well, I did my share, in spite. (Laughter). In spite of the subject matter.

FORD: Oh, the subject matter's OK.

GROSS: (Laughter). No, absolutely, it's what life is. So thank you, it was wonderful to have you back. I really enjoyed the book.

FORD: Thank you.

GROSS: Richard Ford's new collection of four novellas is called "Let Me Be Frank With You." You can read an excerpt on our website,

Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward reflects on Bob Dylan's "Basement Tapes." The complete collection has just been released. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Bob Dylan's career was interrupted in 1966 when he crashed his motorcycle while riding near his home in upstate New York. He wasn't badly injured but used the occasion to disengage from the grind of touring he'd been doing to relax and hang out with his band. During this hiatus, some tapes surfaced of new songs he'd been writing - the infamous "Basement Tapes." On the occasion of the entire archive being released, rock historian Ed Ward has these thoughts.


BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Well, a big, dumb blonde with her wheel all gorged, and Turtle, that friend of hers with his checks all forged, his cheeks in a chunk, with his cheese in the cash, they’re all gonna be there at that million-dollar bash. Ooh, baby, ooh-ee. Ooh, baby, ooh-ee. It’s that million-dollar bash.

ED WARD, BYLINE: The first thing to know is that "The Basement Tapes" weren't entirely recorded in a basement. Some were recorded in a room in Bob Dylan's house known as the red room, which of course wasn't red. Some were recorded at a house rented by Rick Danko and Levon Helm, and some, yes, were recorded in the basement of the big, pink house in Saugerties, New York, that the band used as their clubhouse. As far as can be determined, this all started around February 1967 and continued at odd intervals for about a year.

The red-room tapes were - for want of a better term - folk-jam sessions. Dylan hauled out old favorites, and the band improvised arrangements around them. There were Hank Williams songs, Johnny Cash songs, Irish songs learned from Dylan's friend Tommy Makem, a couple of Canadian songs the band would know and a few rather undistinguished Dylan originals. The whole thing just gives the impression of friends fooling around, far from the intensity of Bob Dylan and The Band on their 1965 and '66 tour.


DYLAN: (Singing) I don't hurt anymore. All my teardrops are dry. No more walking the floor with that burnin' inside. Just to think it could be. Time has opened the door. And at last, I am free. I don't hurt anymore. I used to deny I wanted to die the day that you said we were through. But now that I find you're out of my mind, I can't believe that it's true. I forgot it somehow.

WARD: His physical convalescence was long over, but Dylan was in no rush to engage with the public again. He got married, started a family and liked the unhurried life he was living. But he was also a songwriter, and he was writing songs. That summer the jam session moved to the basement, which was probably cooler, and the faithful tape recorder, manned by keyboardist Garth Hudson, followed along.


DYLAN: (Singing) If your memory serves you well, we were going to meet again and wait. So I'm going to unpack all my things and sit before it gets too late. No man alive will come to you with another tale to tell. And you know that we shall meet again if your memory serves you well. Wheel's on fire, rolling down the road. Best notify my next of kin. This wheel shall explode. If your memory serves you well...

WARD: Here, they recorded the songs that formed the legend. These were better crafted than the variations on folk songs they'd recorded in the red room and were originals. It was apparently Dylan's plan to write songs for others for awhile, thereby providing him with an income without having to hit the road. His publishing company, Dwarf Music, would circulate a demo tape of them to bands Dylan specified - Manfred Mann with "Quinn the Eskimo," Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity with "This Wheel's On Fire," The Byrds with "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." The band, too, record a healthy number for their debut album "Music From Big Pink," which featured a cover painting by Dylan. These demo tapes circulated widely. I first heard these songs on a reel-to-reel tape a guy I knew in college lent me - given to him by his father who worked at Columbia's Screen Gems which administered Dwarf Music's copyrights. And a few months later, there was the first of the infamous bootlegs "Great White Wonder." Dylan's lawyers tried to find the bootleggers, but Dylan dismissed this remarkable body of work as stuff written for others which he certainly wouldn't have released himself.


DYLAN: (Singing) They say everything can be replaced, yet every distance is not near. So I remember every face of every man who put me here. I see my light come shining from the West unto the East. Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.

WARD: Well, he wrote them, so of course his opinion matters. But I can't help but think that beyond the deeply rooted lyrics and the folk-based melodies, what people responded to was the sound of a star at his most relaxed, making music he had no intention of releasing - in short enjoying himself amidst other musicians doing the same. No matter who the artist - no matter what the era - that's rare and welcome.

GROSS: Rock historian Ed Ward reviewed Bob Dylan and The Band, "The Basement Tapes Complete." If you want to listen to our show on your own schedule, you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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