Followers of Richard Ford's fiction may feel thrown off course by the setting of his recently published novel, "Canada" (Ecco, $26.99), which plays out in the wide-open spaces of Montana and Saskatchewan.
This arid territory rimmed by mountains is a far piece from the teeming suburban New Jersey background of the Frank Bascombe trilogy -- "The Sportswriter" (1986); "Independence Day" (1995); "The Lay of the Land" (2006) -- and of many of the stories in "Women without Men" (1997) and "A Multitude of Sins" (2002).
Ford will be at Off Square Books in Oxford, Miss., Monday at 5 p.m., to read from and sign his new novel.
Though Ford was born in Jackson, Miss., he has never written about the South, or certainly not in the sense that his mentor, Eudora Welty, did. In fact, Ford grew up on the same street where Welty lived for most of her life, attended the same elementary school that Welty did and had some of the same teachers. As a child, Ford also spent a good deal of time in Little Rock with his grandfather, a hotel owner. (A hotel figures prominently in Part II of "Canada.") He has a bachelor's degree from Michigan State University and a Master of Fine Arts from University of California, Irvine.
Unlike many American writers, Ford has not built a career in academia, having taught briefly at Williams College in the 1970s and one semester at Bowdoin in 2005. During the school year of 2011 and 2012, however, Ford taught at the University of Mississippi. This fall, he will take the position of the Emmanuel Roman and Barrie Sardoff Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts.
In a recent telephone interview from Denver, a stop on a 23-city book tour, Ford pointed out that the high plains are a natural setting for him and that "Canada" is a sort of homecoming.
"The stories in 'Rock Springs' (1987) and the novel 'Wildlife' (1990) were set in Montana," he said. "The new book really goes back to my own experiences of living in Montana and going across the border to go goose hunting in Canada with Ray Carver." (Short story author Raymond Carver died in 1988, at 50.)
That border is significant for Dell Parsons, the narrator of "Canada." Looking back from the present, he relates the events that occurred when he and his twin sister Berner were 15, living in Great Falls, Mont., in 1960, and their parents, bizarrely, robbed a bank and were quickly arrested, convicted and sent to jail. Left on his own after Berner runs away, Dell is spirited off to Saskatchewan and into the even stranger company of the eccentric and violent American hotel owner, Arthur Remlinger.
Anyone who has written a novel or attempted such a feat understands that courage, conviction and confidence are required. Asked what he knew about himself, as a person and writer, that gave him the confidence to begin anew each time, Ford said:
"First, I know that books changed my life. Second, I know that I have written good books before, so I should be able to do it again. Third, I always have the aspiration to write a better book. And finally, I have the energy to do it."
But he continued, curiously, because he is only 68, "Of course, I could die before I finish a book. That's a strong motivation."
Ford described a prostate scare he had during the writing of "The Lay of the Land" in which he did not go to a doctor "because I didn't want to know. It turns out that I did not have cancer, but it gave me a sense of mortality. I work out now three days a week, try to lessen the odds."
The arc of "Canada" falls into distinct parts, Montana and Saskatchewan, and the difference in tone is apparent, the first more spare, the second broader, almost like a "boy's adventure" story.
"Yes," said Ford, "and that's what I wanted, a difference in landscape and language. That was one of the first things I thought about when I started. I think they're a reflection of Dell's fears and uncertainties as he tries to understand things that seem beyond his control as best he can in completely different circumstances."
Bad things aplenty happen to good people in "Canada," and some bad people get away with being bad, but that, Ford implies, is how it has to be.
And still, "I'm always looking for something dramatic from which I can draw something of affirmation and survival. I wouldn't put a character through the wringer for sheer giddiness. Look," Ford continued with animation, "nobody ever accused me of being smart, but it's the galvanizing ability of the creative and artistic act that brings a book to life. You can make a book far smarter than you are, bright and luminous. Readers really like to surrender to that authority."