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Richard Ford (born February 16, 1944) is an American novelist and short story writer. His best-known works are the novel The Sportswriter and its sequels, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, and the short story collection Rock Springs, which contains several widely anthologized stories.
Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi, the only son of Parker Carrol Ford, a traveling salesman for Faultless Starch, a Kansas City company. When Ford was eight years old, his father had a major heart attack, and thereafter Ford spent as much time with his grandfather, a former prizefighter and hotel owner in Little Rock, Arkansas, as he did with his parents in Mississippi. Ford's father died of a second heart attack in 1960.
Ford received a B.A. from Michigan State University. Having enrolled to study hotel management, he switched to English. After graduating he taught junior high school in Flint, Michigan, and enlisted in the US Marines but was discharged after contracting hepatitis. At university he met Kristina Hensley, his future wife; the two married in 1968.
Despite mild dyslexia, Ford developed a serious interest in literature. He has stated in interviews that his dyslexia may, in fact, have helped him as a reader, as it forced him to approach books at a slow and thoughtful pace.
Ford briefly attended law school but dropped out and entered the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine, to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree, which he received in 1970. Ford chose this course simply because, he confesses, “they admitted me. I remember getting the application for Iowa, and thinking they'd never have let me in. I'm sure I was right about that, too. But, typical of me, I didn't know who was teaching at Irvine. I didn't know it was important to know such things. I wasn't the most curious of young men, even though I give myself credit for not letting that deter me.” As it turned out, Oakley Hall and E. L. Doctorow were teaching there, and Ford has been explicit about his debt to them. In 1971, he was selected for a three-year appointment in the University of Michigan Society of Fellows.
Ford published his first novel, A Piece of My Heart, the story of two unlikely drifters whose paths cross on an island in the Mississippi River, in 1976, and followed it with The Ultimate Good Luck in 1981. In the interim he briefly taught at Williams College and Princeton.<2> Despite good notices the books sold little, and Ford retired from fiction writing to become a writer for the New York magazine Inside Sports. "I realized," Ford has said, "there was probably a wide gulf between what I could do and what would succeed with readers. I felt that I'd had a chance to write two novels, and neither of them had really created much stir, so maybe I should find real employment, and earn my keep.
In 1982, the magazine folded, and when Sports Illustrated did not hire Ford, he returned to fiction writing with The Sportswriter, a novel about a failed novelist turned sportswriter who undergoes an emotional crisis following the death of his son. The novel became Ford's "breakout book", named one of Time magazine's five best books of 1986 and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.<6> Ford followed the success immediately with Rock Springs (1987), a story collection mostly set in Montana that includes some of his most popular stories, adding to his reputation as one of the finest writers of his generation.
Reviewers and literary critics associated the stories in Rock Springs with the aesthetic movement known as dirty realism. This term referred to a group of writers in the 1970s and 1980s that included Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff—two writers with whom Ford was closely acquainted—as well as Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, and Jayne Anne Phillips, among others. Those applying this label point to Carver's lower-middle-class subjects or the protagonists Ford portrays in Rock Springs. However, many of the characters in the "Frank Bascombe" novels (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land), notably the protagonist himself, enjoy degrees of material affluence and cultural capital not normally associated with the "dirty realist" style.
Although his 1990 novel Wildlife, a story of a Montana golf pro turned firefighter, met with mixed reviews and middling sales, by the end of the 1980s Ford's reputation was solid. He was increasingly sought after as an editor and contributor to various projects. Ford edited the 1990 Best American Short Stories, the 1992 Granta Book of the American Short Story, and the 1998 Granta Book of the American Long Story, a designation he claimed in the introduction to prefer to the novella. More recently he has edited the 2007 New Granta Book of the American Short Story, and the Library of America's two-volume edition of the selected works of fellow Mississippi writer Eudora Welty.
In 1995, Ford's career reached a high point with the release of Independence Day, a sequel to The Sportswriter, featuring the continued story of its protagonist, Frank Bascombe. Reviews were positive, and the novel became the first to win both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.<9> In the same year, Ford was chosen as winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story, for outstanding achievement in that genre. Ford's recent works include the story collections Women with Men (1997) and A Multitude of Sins (2002). The Lay of the Land (2006) continues (and, according to Ford, ends) the Frank Bascombe series.
Ford lived for many years on lower Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and then in the Garden District of New Orleans, Louisiana, where his wife Kristina was the executive director of the city planning commission. He now lives in East Boothbay, Maine. He took up a teaching appointment at Bowdoin College in 2005, but remained in the post for only one semester. Since 2008 Ford has been Adjunct Professor at the Oscar Wilde Centre with the School of English at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, and teaches on the Masters programme in creative writing.
As of December 29, 2010, Ford will be assuming the post of senior fiction professor at the University of Mississippi in the Fall of 2011, replacing Barry Hannah, who died in March 2010.
Ford's latest novel, Canada, was published in May 2012.In the fall of 2012, he will become the Emmanuel Roman and Barrie Sardoff Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts.
Richard Ford's writings demonstrate "a meticulous concern for the nuances of language ... <and> the rhythms of phrases and sentences". Ford has described his sense of language as "a source of pleasure in itself—all of its corporeal qualities, its syncopations, moods, sounds, the way things look on the page." This "devotion to language" is closely linked to what he calls "the fabric of affection that holds people close enough together to survive."
Comparisons have been drawn between Ford's work and the writings of John Updike, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Walker Percy. Ford himself resists such comparisons, commenting, "You can't write ... on the strength of influence. You can only write a good story or a good novel by yourself."
Ford's works of fiction "dramatize the breakdown of such cultural institutions as marriage, family, and community", and his "marginalized protagonists often typify the rootlessness and nameless longing ... pervasive in a highly mobile, present-oriented society in which individuals, having lost a sense of the past, relentlessly pursue their own elusive identities in the here and now."Ford "looks to art, rather than religion, to provide consolation and redemption in a chaotic time".
Awards and honors
2013 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in fiction for Canada
2001 PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in short fiction
1995 PEN/Faulkner Award for Independence Day
1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.for Independence Day
1995 Rea Award for the Short Story for outstanding achievement in that genre.