Women with Men

( 1 )


Richard Ford's Independence Day—his sequel to The Sportswriter, and an international bestseller—is the only novel ever to have received both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Now, with Women With Men, he reaffirms his mastery of shorter fiction with his first collection since the widely acclaimed Rock Springs, published a decade ago.

The landscape of Women with Men ranges from the northern plains of Montana to the streets of Paris and the suburbs of Chicago, where ...

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Richard Ford's Independence Day—his sequel to The Sportswriter, and an international bestseller—is the only novel ever to have received both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Now, with Women With Men, he reaffirms his mastery of shorter fiction with his first collection since the widely acclaimed Rock Springs, published a decade ago.

The landscape of Women with Men ranges from the northern plains of Montana to the streets of Paris and the suburbs of Chicago, where Mr. Ford's various characters experience the consolations and complications that prevail in matters of passion, romance and love. A seventeen-year-old boy starting adulthood in the shadow of his parents' estrangement, a survivor of three marriages now struggling with cancer, an ostensibly devoted salesman in early middle age, an aspiring writer, a woman scandalously betrayed by her husband—they each of them contend with the vast distances that exist between those who are closest together. Whether alone, long married or newly met, they confront the obscure difference between privacy and intimacy, the fine distinction of pleasing another as opposed to oneself, and a need for reliance that is tempered by fearful vulnerability.

In three long stories, Richard Ford captures men and women at this complex and essential moment of truth—in the course of everyday life, or during a bleak Thanksgiving journey, seismic arguments, Christmas abroad, the sudden disappearance of a child, even a barroom shooting. And with peerless emotional nuance and authority he once again demonstrates, as Elizabeth Hardwick has written, "a talent as strong and varied as American fiction has to offer."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ford's first book since his bestselling and award-winning Independence Day offers three long stories (their action is too concentrated for novellas) in which men try to come to terms, uneasily, with the countless imponderables of a woman's heart. Two stories featuring Americans trying, without much success, to adjust to contemporary Paris flank an offbeat coming-of-age tale set in Montana. In the first Parisian story, "The Womanizer," businessman Martin Austin attempts to establish an affair with an attractive French divorce with a small son, only to mess things up disastrously with his wife at home and then with his would-be lover, too. In the other, "Occidentals," college teacher and first-novelist Charley Matthews is in Paris with a lover, trying to meet the would-be translator of his book for a French publisher and avoid his mistress's Ugly-Americans-in-Paris friends. In both narratives, the male protagonists' senses of alienationfrom their surroundings and themselvesis palpable; and in each a violent climactic incident causes a sudden shift in perspective, without necessarily granting illumination. "Jealous," the most memorable of the three stories, finds Ford firmly on home ground as a teenage boy leaves his father in a wintry dusk with a pretty but erratic aunt to visit his estranged mother in Seattle. The darkening weather hints of danger and hidden relationships, and the brilliantly observed barroom catastrophe that brings the story to a climax contributes to a tour de force. Ford is a writer whose directness of utterance and keen eye is combined with a remarkably subtle sense of the human comedy, all qualities exemplified here, though on a smaller canvas than fans of his novels would wish. 75,000 first printing. (June)
David Ulin
Richard Ford is best known as a novelist, but for many years he has been an accomplished writer of short stories as well. In the past decade, Ford has stuck primarily to full-length projects, including the deft but underrated Wildlife and Independence Day, the first novel to win both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Now he's returned to the shorter form in Women with Men, a volume of three long stories -- they are virtually novellas -- that give us a sense of where he's going and where he's been.

Unlike Ford's earlier efforts, Women with Men is a mixed bag, equal parts superficial and profound. Its best story, Jealous, returns to the Montana of Wildlife and his 1987 story collection, Rock Springs, using language that is laconic but precise to reflect the deep disquiet in its characters' hearts. Revolving around a 17-year-old boy named Larry, who, with his Aunt Doris, sets off to visit his mother in Seattle for Thanksgiving, the narrative explodes into serendipitous, nearly random violence that highlights the at-times-incomprehensible forces in Larry's world. Ford expertly delineates the interior life of adolescence, describing Larry's odd mix of reticence and engagement, his not-quite-passive sense of being on the verge of life. As the boy declares, "I wanted to get out of Montana, where we didn't have a TV and had to haul our own water and where the coyotes woke you up howling and my father and I had nobody to talk to but each other. I was missing something, I thought, an important opportunity ... And after that it would always be impossible to explain how things really were."

Women with Men runs into trouble when Ford veers from the familiar to the foreign textures of expatriate life. Both The Womanizer and Occidentals, the longer writings that bracket Jealous, take place in Paris and involve men who, at least in part, desire refuge from marriages gone awry. Although these pieces have their moments, each suffers from a meandering structure, relying on aimless walks through the city to establish the ramifications of exile, the way "it didn't feel the least romantic. It felt purposeless, as if he himself had no purpose, and there was no sense of a future now."

Perhaps the key issue is that Ford is a quintessentially American author, whose work loses its authority when cast on foreign soil. Certainly his descriptions of Paris are flat, two-dimensional, as if written by Charley Matthews, the novelist/protagonist of Occidentals, who had "never been to Paris, had simply chosen it on a whim." That's a difficult irony, for place (or its evocation) has long been Ford's most essential writerly attribute; one can't imagine Rock Springs, or even The Sportswriter, without recalling the delicate ways in which geography and action connect. Yet throughout much of Women with Men, that interplay is missing, as if, in the words of Charley Matthews, "[H]e could never write about Paris -- the real Paris. He would never know enough." --Salon June 23, 1997

Kirkus Reviews
A reader meeting Ford via these three pieces might wonder why laurels of the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner kind have befallen this (The Sportswriter, 1986; Independence Day, 1995) particular writer. He here offers two grinding tales of distasteful Americans in Paris and one clone-of-Hemingway story about a boyhood in Montana.

In "The Womanizer," Martin Austin, married but childless, becomes interested in a Frenchwoman named Josephine when he's in Paris on business. The difficulty is—for Austin and for the reader—that he seems not to know what he wants either with her or from her, with the result that Ford offers page after page of clunky vacuity as if simply to put something between start and the end of the story ("He wasn't looking for a better life. He wasn't looking for anything. He loved his wife, and he hoped to present to Josephine Belliard a different human perspective from the ones she might be used to"). More revelatory in this unrelenting non-tale is what Ford says of Austin later—that "very little pleased him much at all." The main character in "Occidentals" is, if anything, even more dreary than Austin. Ex-academic Charley Matthews has written a novel about his divorce and is now quite joylessly in Paris—with mistress Helen—to meet his French publisher and translator. Trouble is, as he quickly discovers, both are out of town for a few days, so he'll have to wait. Helen—a lively ex-dancer who's suffering from cancer—tries to cheer him up; he grows only more hatefully dour, though, until she takes things—perhaps believably to some—into her own hands. "Jealousy" makes for a breath of fresh air with its Montana landscape and Hemingway-esque economies—as a boy, accompanied by his attractive young aunt, witnesses a saloon killing on a snowy night before catching a train to Seattle.

Scraps and leavings, seemingly, caught between the labored and the imitated.

From the Publisher
"Breathtaking." —Boston Globe

"Richard Ford is a born storyteller with an inimitable lyric voice." —Joyce Carol Oates

"A Babe Ruth of novelists.... One of the finest curators of the great American living museum." —Washington Post Book World

"One of his generation's most eloquent voices." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Vintage Ford: intelligent, understated, and touched with a haunting melancholy." —Maclean's

"The best of Richard Ford's stories, like Chekhov's, are unanalyzable, the result of a miraculous alchemy of language, image, and psychological insight ... a wonderful accomplishment." —The Globe and Mail

"He is one of the greatest writers of our time, from any country and in any language, whose finely crafted words can pierce the heart like an arrow." —Calgary Herald

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679776680
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/28/1998
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: 1 VINTAGE
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 449,337
  • Product dimensions: 5.23 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Ford

The author of five novels and two collections of stories, Richard Ford was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Independence Day, the first book to win both prizes. In 2001 he received the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in short fiction.


Richard Ford lived with his parents in Jackson, Mississippi, until he was eight years old, at which time his father suffered a near-fatal heart attack. After that, he shuttled back and forth between his parents' home in Jackson and Little Rock, Arkansas, where his maternal grandparents managed a hotel. Ford describes his childhood as happy and contented -- at least until he was 16, when his father died and the young man began to seriously think about his future.

Although he attended Michigan State University with the vague intention of going into hotel management, Ford soon switched over to literature. After graduation, he married his college sweetheart, Kristina Hensley, but was having trouble settling on a career direction. He applied for several jobs (including the police and the CIA!) and even started law school. It was only after none of these panned out that he begin to consider writing for a living. On the advice of a former teacher, he applied to graduate school and was accepted into the University of California at Irvine, where he came under the happy, unexpected tutelage of Oakley Hall and E. L. Doctorow.

He began work on his first novel, the story of two drifters whose lives intersect on a desolate island in the Mississippi River. An excerpt appeared in The Paris Review, and the book was accepted for publication. In 1976, A Piece of My Heart was released to good reviews, but Ford bristled at being pigeonholed by critics as a regional writer. "I'm a Southerner, God knows," Ford said in an interview with the literary journal Ploughshares, "but I always wanted my books to exist outside the limits of so-called Southern writing."

In the early '80s, Ford's wife (who holds a Ph.D. in urban planning) was teaching at NYU, and the couple was living in Princeton, New Jersey. Disillusioned with novel writing, Ford took a job with the glossy New York magazine Inside Sports, but in 1982 the magazine folded, leaving him unemployed again. Tentatively he returned to fiction with the glimmer of a story idea based loosely on his most recent experiences. Several years in the making, The Sportswriter introduced Frank Bascombe, a middle-aged writer from suburban New Jersey who forsakes his promising literary career to pen articles for a glossy New York magazine. Published in 1986, the novel was named one of Time magazine's five best books of the year and was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award.

Ford claims that he never intended to write a trilogy around Frank Bascombe. But, in between other literary projects (including an acclaimed 1987 short story collection, Rock Springs), he found himself inexorably drawn back into the life of his melancholic protagonist. In 1995, the superb sequel, Independence Day, won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Then, in 2006, Ford concluded the saga with The Lay of the Land, a bittersweet set piece nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Although Ford modestly maintained that the only reason he won the Pulitzer Prize was that Philip Roth had not written a novel that year, in fact his angst-ridden suburban Everyman Frank Bascombe ranks alongside Roth's Nathan Zuckerman (or, for that matter, John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom) as one of American literature's most unforgettable, richly drawn characters. For a man who stumbled into writing with very little forethought or design, Richard Ford has indeed come far.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      February 16, 1944
    2. Place of Birth:
      Jackson, Mississippi
    1. Education:
      B.A., Michigan State University, 1966; M.F.A., University of California, Irvine, 1970

Read an Excerpt


In the last days that I lived with my father in his house below the Teton River, he read to me. Seated at the kitchen table after work or on the cold mornings when I dressed in front of him by the stove, he read out loud to me from the Havre or the Conrad newspapers or from magazines — Lifes or Geographics — or from old schoolbooks that had been bound in twine and abandoned in the back rooms by some previous, unknown family who'd left behind the things they couldn't take.

We were alone there. These were the months following my mother's first departure, and we had lived out from Dutton since my school year began. My mother had left the summer before, at the end of a long period of troubles between them, and almost immediately after that my father quit his job in Great Falls and moved us up to Dutton, where he took a new job, working on farm machinery. He had always liked a drink, and so had my mother, and they had had friends who drank. But in Dutton he quit drinking altogether, quit having any whiskey around the house. He worked long days in town, and trained his bird dogs in the evening, and I went to high school. And that was what life was like.

It may have been, of course, that he was expecting some important event to take place, some piece of new news to suddenly reach him. Possibly he was waiting, as the saying goes, for lightning to strike, and what he wanted was to be in the right place and in the right frame of mind to make a decision when it happened. And it may have been that he read to me as a way of saying, "We don't know all there is to know. There's more order in life than seems to be. We have to pay attention." That is all another way of saying that he was at a loss. Though my father had never been a man who stood by and watched things get the better of him. He was a man who acted, a man who cared to do the right thing. And I know that even on the day these events took place he was aware that a moment to act may have come. None of it is anything I blame him for.

On the day before Thanksgiving, it rained an hour before daylight, when I was waking up, then rained through the afternoon, when the temperature fell and snow began and the front of the mountains disappeared into a bluish fog, so that it was no longer possible to see the grain elevators in Dutton, ten miles away.

My father and I were waiting for my mother's sister to arrive to take me to the train in Shelby. I was going to Seattle to visit my mother, and my aunt was going with me. I was seventeen years old then. It was 1975, and I had never ridden on a train before.

My father had come home early, taken a bath, dressed in a clean shirt and slacks, then sat down at the kitchen table with a stack of Newsweeks from the town library. I was already dressed. My bag was packed, and I was standing at the kitchen window watching for my aunt's car.

"Are you familiar with Patrice Lumumba?" my father said after reading to himself for a while. He was a tall, bony-chested man with thick black hair and thick hands and arms, and the table seemed small in front of him.

"Was she a singer?" I said.

"He," my father said, looking out the lower lenses of his glasses as if he were trying to read small print. "He was the African Negro Eisenhower wanted to poison in 1960. Only Ike missed his big chance. His other enemies blew him up first. We all thought it was mysterious back then, of course, but I guess it wasn't that mysterious." He took his glasses off and rubbed them on his shirt cuff. One of the setters barked out in the pen. I watched it come to the fence by the corner of the granary, sniff through the wires, then walk back in the misting snow to its house, where its sister was in the doorway. "The Republicans always have secrets," my father said, holding his glasses up and looking through them. "A great deal goes on before you wake up to life."

"I guess so," I said.

"But you can't change it," he said, "so don't let it eat at you."

Through the window I saw my aunt's big pink Cadillac appear suddenly up on the horizon road, rushing ahead of its snow cloud, still a mile out.

"What're you going to tell your mother about living out here out-of-sight-of-land all this fall?" my father said. "That there's an atmosphere of mystery on the open prairie?" He looked up and smiled at me. "That I've been neglecting your education?"

"I hadn't thought about it very much yet," I said.

"Well, think about it. You'll have time on the train if your aunt will leave you alone." He looked back at the []Newsweek[] and laid his glasses on the table.

I had hoped to say something to my father before my aunt arrived, something about my mother, that I was happy I was going to get to see her. We had not talked about her very much.

"What do you think about Mother?" I said.

"With respect to what?"

"Do you think she'll come back out here after Thanksgiving?"

He drummed his fingers on the metal tabletop, then turned and looked at the clock on the stove. "Do you want to ask her about it?"

"No, sir," I said.

"Well. You can. Then you can tell me." He looked at the window as though he was checking the weather. One of the dogs barked again, and then the other one barked. Sometimes a coyote came into the yard out of the wheat fields and set them off. "Eventually the suspense falls out of the story," he said. He closed the magazine and folded his hands on top of it. "Who's your best friend now? Im just curious."

"Just my ones in the Falls, still," I said.

"Who's your best one in Dutton?"

"I don't have one now," I said.

My father put his glasses back on. "That's too bad. It's your choice, of course."

"I know it," I said, because I had already considered that and decided I didn't have time to get to know anybody there.

I watched my aunt's car turn onto our road and the pale beams of her headlights burn through the snowy air.

A mile farther down the road, a blue mobile home sat out in the fields, unprotected from the wind. The farmer in town who owned our house owned it, too, and rented it to the civics teacher at the high school. Joyce Jensen was her name. She was in her twenties, and was a heavyset woman with strawberry-colored hair, and my father had slept some nights down there in the last month. "Yoyce Yensen," he called her, and always laughed. I could see a new car parked in front of her trailer, a red one beside her dark one.

"What do you see out there?" my father said. "Have you caught sight of your aunt Doris?"

"She's got her lights on," I said.

"Well," my father said, "then you're gone, you just haven't left yet." He reached in his shirt pocket and took out a little fold of bills with a rubber band around it. "When you get to Shelby, buy your mother a bijou, he said. She won't expect it. It'll make her happy." He handed the money up to me, then stood to watch my aunt drive to the house. "There's a moment in the day when you miss having a drink," he said. He put his hand on my shoulder, and I could smell soap on his skin. "That's the old life. We're on to the new life now. The lucky few."

My aunt honked her horn as she came past the caragana row into the house lot. She drove an Eldorado Cadillac, a '69, faded pink with a white vinyl top. Her wipers were on, and the windows were fogged. She had parked that car in front of our house in Great Falls, and I had given it a good inspection then.

"Let me step out and tell your aunt Doris a joke," my father said. "You go lock the shutters on the pigeons. I'll forget about them tonight, and snow'll get in. I won't be but a minute." My aunt's window came down as my father started to the door. I could see her looking at our little farmhouse as if she thought it was abandoned.

My aunt Doris was a pretty woman and had a reputation for being wild, which my mother didn't have, or so my father had told me. She was my mother's younger sister, and was thirty-six and blond and thin, with soft, pale arms you could see her veins in. She wore glasses, and the one time I had seen her without them, a morning when I woke up and she was in the house, she looked like a girl to me, somebody younger than I was. I knew that my father liked her, and that they'd had something between them in Great Falls after my mother left, even though Doris was married to a Gros Ventre Indian man, who wasn't in the picture anymore. Twice she'd driven up and cooked dinner for us, and twice my father had gone down to the Falls to visit her, and there were a few times when they talked on the phone until late at night. But I thought it was finished between them, whatever it was. My father talked about Doris in a way that made it seem like some tragedy might've happened to her — he didn't know what - -and I really thought he only liked her because she looked like my mother.

"There's something winning about Doris, you know," he said once, "something your mother could use." The day he said that, we were working dogs east of the house and had stopped to watch them cast into the wheat stubble. It was gold all the way down to the river, which was shining, and the sky above the mountains was as blue as I had ever seen blue.

"What's winning about her?" I said.

"Oh, she's sympathetic," he said. "One of these days that might seem important to you." And then we quit talking about it, though it was already important to me to be sympathetic, and I thought my mother was, and knew he thought so too.

My father walked out onto the gravel, still in his shirtsleeves. I saw Doris stick her arm out the window and wag her hand back and forth to the pace of my fathers walking. I saw her smile and begin to say something, but I couldn't hear what it was.

I put on my wool jacket and took my bag and went out the back door into the yard toward the pigeon coop. It was four o'clock in the afternoon, and the sun — just a white light behind white clouds — was above the mountain peaks beyond Choteau, and it was already colder than it had been when I came out on the school bus at noon. The yard around the house had old farm implements sitting useless, except for the tank truck we hauled our water in, and snow was beginning to collect on their rusted surfaces and in the grass. I could see my father bent over, leaning on his elbows against the windowsill of Doris's Cadillac. She had her hand on his arm and was laughing at something. And I must've stopped, because Doris quit laughing and looked at me, halfway out to the pigeon house. She blinked the lights on the Cadillac, and I went on. It occurred to me that they might go inside.

The pigeon pen was an old chicken coop my father had boarded up the sides of to keep foxes and coyotes out. He kept pigeons to train his setters, and he had an idea he could make money training bird dogs if word got out he was good at it, which he was. There were plenty of birds in that part of Montana — pheasants and partridge and grouse - -and he thought he'd have time for all that when the harvest was over. He and I would drive out into the cut fields in the evening with two dogs, and four pigeons stuck head-down in our coat pockets. My father would lead a dog out two hundred yards on a check cord, and I would tuck a pigeon's head under its wing and shake it and blow on it, then stash it in a wheat-straw tuft, where it would stay, confused, until the dog found it by its scent and pointed. Then my father or I would walk up and kick the bird flying, a red ribbon and a stick tied to its leg so it wouldn't fly far.

There was never any shooting involved. My father didn't like to shoot birds. There were not enough of them left, he said — what other people did was their business. But he liked to work dogs and see them point and for the birds to fly. He had grown up in western Minnesota — he and Mother both — and he liked to be out on the plains.

I heard the birds thumping inside their coop, cooing and fluttering. I peeped through the chicken wire and could see them, thirty or forty, gray and stubby and thick-chested, their smell thinner because of the cold. My father caught them in barns, using his landing net, standing in the middle of the barn floor with the door shut in the half-dark, swinging his net on a cord as the birds, excited by the motion, flew from rafter to rafter. He snared them one or two or three at a time and handed them out to me to put in a potato sack. I never knew about things like this before I lived alone with him. We had never done that. But he liked it, and I would stand outside in the daylight, peeking through the cracks in the boards, watching the pigeons, their wings flashing in the light that entered through the other walls, and my father making a humming noise in his throat — hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, a sound I've heard prizefighters make — as his net went around and the pigeons fluttered into the webbing.

I let the shutters down over the wire coops and latched them. Then I stood with my suitcase and watched my father. He was still leaning on Doris's car in the snow. She still had her hand on his wrist. As I watched, she put her cheek against his hand, and my father stood up straight and looked toward the road in front of the house beyond the caraganas. I thought he looked over Doris's car in the direction of Joyce Jensen's trailer. He said something into the window and pulled his hands back and stuck them in his pockets. Then he looked at me and waved his arm in a wide way for me to come on.

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Table of Contents

The Womanizer 1
Jealous 93
Occidentals 147
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Interviews & Essays

On Friday, August 15th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Richard Ford to discuss WOMEN WITH MEN.

Moderator: Welcome, Mr. Ford!

Richard Ford: Thanks for letting me be here, in so far as I am here. Wherever I am...where I am is Montana.

Paul from Morris Plains, NJ: Hello, Mr. Ford. I was just curious how you picked the stories in this book. Did you have a larger collection of books that you chose from, or did you write these stories specifically for this book? Also, I was curious how you picked the order that you published these stories? Does one story work off the other?

Richard Ford: I always intended to write three long stories. I just wanted to see what it felt like to write a longer than conventional length story. So in that way, it was intuitive. These were the only three that I wrote. It seems to me that since two of the stories are set in Paris and one in Montana, putting the Montana story in the middle made a nice sandwich.

Nancy Rosengreen from Portchester, NY: I loved your story "Occidentals" -- were you influenced at all by earlier American writers abroad? Any members of the Lost Generation?

Richard Ford: Thank you for the kind word! I can only say, in regard to influence, probably, yes I was. But not just those writers of the '20s, earlier writers too. It's kind of an irresistible setup for a story to take a character whose basic instincts you feel familiar with and subject those instincts to foreign influences. It's irresistible because in the novelist is a hunger for dramatic situations -- this is an inherently dramatic situation. I always liked the Fitzgerald stories of the Americans in Paris -- particularly "Babylon Revisited."

Dana Clark from Amherst, MA: What are you doing when you are not writing?

Richard Ford: I guess for me writing always follows both in time and in order of importance, just regular living one's life. So, I'm cleaning out the basement, getting my tires rotated, getting my lawnmowers sharpened, talking to my wife -- I probably talk to my wife more than anything. I'm just doing whatever everyone else is doing. Yesterday I rode the bus to Great Falls to pick up my motorcycle. When I got there it wasn't ready, so I rode the bus back -- it consumed a large part of the day. In THE SPORTSWRITER, Frank Bascomb described normal existence as the normal applauseless life of us all -- that's my life.

Clerkin from New York City: What are you reading now? Living out in rural montana, do you read many papers or magazines?

Richard Ford: I read the Great Falls Tribune, and I just ordered Denis Johnson's new novel. Denis Johnson being one of my favorite novelists -- this one's called ALREADY DEAD.

Sandra from Fort Worth, TX: What prompted you to become a writer?

Richard Ford: The failure of everything else I had tried to do, which is to say, be a lawyer, be a journalist, be a marine. I was only 23 when I started. It actually seemed that nothing I was trying was working, for any number of reasons. When all of the things I thought I wanted to do didn't work out, I think I decided to be a writer just because it felt right. If I had actually thought about it very hard or looked into the future, I would probably never have done it. It bewildered my mother, but my wife thought it was a terrific idea.

Jack Gallbraith from Manhattan: Surely you were aware of Hemingway's similarly entitled collection of short stories, MEN WITHOUT WOMEN, when you named your own collection -- was there an intentional reference?

Richard Ford: Always be wary of questions that start with "surely." When I thought of my title, I was not aware of the Hemingway book. If I was, it was subliminal, which happens, I guess. But somebody made me aware of it, my editor maybe, so I had to face the relation between the two titles, and I just decided that since I felt I chose my title innocently, I was not going to let a book that was 70 years old, by a writer I had only moderate regard for, turn me away from my own good title. I certainly never meant to invite comparisons or to bounce some echo off Hemingway's wall, but I guess I'll just have to live with people thinking what they think. If someone reads my book -- I'll be satisfied.

Bill Davidson from Decatur, GA: I'm curious, how much of an influence has Walker Percy been on your work, particularly your Bascombe books.

Richard Ford: He certainly has been an influence. I would have actually said that his books were most influential on the first book I ever wrote -- A PIECE OF MY HEART. But there's no doubting that Walker's books affected me strongly, but I would add that so did some other books affect those Bascombe books. Particularly Frederck Exley's novel A FAN'S NOTES. Joe Heller's SOMETHING HAPPENED, John Barth's END OF THE ROAD. I hope in writing my books I added something to these books of first-person narrations.

Dan from New York: The sense of "unconnectedness" and lack of understanding is clearly conveyed from the outset of "The Occidentals," and the story maintains a distinctive emotional pitch. My question is -- why did Helen need to kill herself to prove their lack of connection. The third-person perspective allows us Charley's perception of Helen only, and so if she is truly so solipsistic we have no indication of it. The emotional pitch of the story is disrupted, and could the point not have been made simply by her leaving him. The suicide seems a bit contrived, and while it resonates emotionally, it seems excessive in hindsight.

Richard Ford: All that is interesting to me. In my view, and mine is only one, Helen killed herself because she was suffering from having cancer. So with that answer you can see how committed I felt to the kind of character Helen is and to the life I made up for her. I admit that Helen's death is a fictive contrivance, but so would have been anything else I had her do. I realize that Helen's death is a kind of amplified catastrophe within the story, but I didn't want it to be understood simply as a consequence of solipsism. The story doesn't have that cold irrationality as its structure. Also, I didn't see Helen as a solipsist on the same order as Charley. I think of Helen, and this is why she's older than Charley, I think of her as a veteran of life, and much more generous and good natured and experienced than Charley. It's true though, that Charley doesn't provide Helen with the kind of consultation that perhaps could have caused her not to take her life, so in one way, but only in one way, her death is consequent to Charley's rather limited sympathy, which is to say his solipsism. But I respect that question, and I appreciate the attention it suggests.

Damon from New York: Frank Bascombe seems to travel much better than Charley Matthews. Is a successful trip a function of character? Have you had a bad trip to Europe?

Richard Ford: I have never had a bad trip to Europe, but I've had experiences in Europe, particularly in Paris, that made me believe one could have a bad trip to Paris given the right amount of ignorance, presumptiveness, weather. I've had bad trips other places, and I guess I don't think travel is necessarily a measure of one's character. Sometimes if you rise to the occasion, you can take some satisfaction in your resilience, but the reverse is not true -- that if you are defeated by some circumstance that your character is found wanting. Fundamentally, I'm uncertain of the notion of character both on the street and in the novel. It's like religion -- a lot of harm is done in its name. I'm more of an optimist about humans, so that if you do something that brings discredit to your name, you still have a chance to do something creditable. I'm not certain conventional notions of character would be so lenient.

Michael from New York: Do Americans really travel so badly as they do in "The Occidentals," or is the experience meant only to reflect Helen and Charley's relationship? Does this Parisian jaunt stem from an actual experience? Because it conveys so well the sense of displacement and awkwardness of the foiled vacationer.

Richard Ford: Generally, I don't know how Americans travel. Helen and Charley's trip is for the most part one that I entirely made up, although personally, I have wandered around a lot in Paris and Fez and Berlin and gotten lost and not known where I was. I don't think of the physical action in a story as a vehicle for the exemplification of a relationship. I tend to think of all formal parts of a story as being rather inextricably interwoven, so that if Charley and Helen didn't go to Paris there would be no Charley and Helen. One thing I do notice about Americans in western Europe, and that is that Americans, particularly post-Vietnam, seem more respectful of other cultures than was true when I was much younger. Americans now to me, and I'm sympathetic, seem much more full of wonder, and that may be because less affluent people come to Europe now. But God knows I'm no authority on Europe. I'm as full of wonder as the next guy -- which is probably why I am as sympathetic as I am.

Thomas from East Hanover, NJ: What do you consider your greatest literary accomplishment? Winning the Pulitzer?

Richard Ford: No, getting to be a writer at all. Winning the Pulitzer was just luck. And I guess, I should add, getting to be a writer with any readership at all, however fleeting the readership might be.

William Dennis from State College, PA: Your portrayal of women is insightful -- is it difficult to write about women?

Richard Ford: Well, it doesn't seem to me any more difficult than writing about men because you're not working from models, you're basically making characters up out of language. The principal difference between writing about men and writing about women is at the end of a dialogue putting "she said" instead of "he said."

Tally from Darien, CT: Of all the states you've traveled through and homes you have lived in, which place left the largest imprint on you?

Richard Ford: Well, I don't know that I can really specify one place. I guess I would be naive if I didn't say that where I was born and grew up -- Mississippi -- had the most varied and important impression on me. But that also has as much to do with the time I grew up in and the parents I grew up with and the circumstances of our life as it does with the physical place we call Mississippi. But generally I try not to let physical location overpower my, or by extension my characters', own volition. Most of the powers that we ascribe to place are just powers that we have ourselves, which we are trying somehow to externalize, so that sometimes people ask me could the stories in Rock Springs have been set someplace other than the West? And my assumption is that the West is just a convenient background for those stories, and if I had wanted to say Fort Dodge instead of Great Falls (and of course this kind of reductivist thinking can get silly) the stories would have worked just as well in Kansas. But you may not believe that, and if you don't then I respect that.

Lisa Rose from Scarsdale, NY: I think this collection is stellar! I read somewhere that you read the audio version of WOMEN WITH MEN -- most writers don't do their own audio -- why did you read yours?

Richard Ford: Because I thought I could do a better job, and thank you for your kind word. I had heard another book of mine being read by a perfectly well-trained actor, and for me it seemed to have the wrong sound. Now I don't suppose that somebody who didn't know my voice or my story would be likely to care, but I cared. I know that William Hurt read a story of mine once, and I was in the audience, and many people have told me that they loved his reading, but to me it sounded very strange. But I understand that how it sounds to me probably shouldn't make any difference, so ultimately I guess it's just me trying to extend my writerly authority where I have no business extending it.

Peter from Los Angeles: Hey Richard, what's next for you? Anything in the works?

Richard Ford: My little brain is buzzing, but I probably won't even try to start a lengthy project until next spring. I've written about three short stories, and if I could write three more before next spring then that would be a good start on a collection. But I have to see if the stories are good enough and if they are cohesive. Just because I wrote them doesn't mean they belong in a collection together -- but thanks for asking.

Moderator: Thanks for joining us online this afternoon, Mr. Ford. We wish you all the best and hope you will consider joining us again.

Richard Ford: I wish my whole life could operate at this pace, and thank you!

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