Working with Words: Richard Ford

In this special Working with Words, we talk to Great American Novelist Richard Ford about his first piece of writing, bad advice from Gordon Lish and why writing will probably make you ‘really unhappy’.

Richard Ford: 'The editor Gordon Lish ... advised me to abandon a novel I was writing called *The Sportswriter*, because he said I was incapable of writing it. I didn’t. I wasn’t.'

Richard Ford: 'The editor Gordon Lish ... advised me to abandon a novel I was writing called The Sportswriter, because he said I was incapable of writing it. I didn’t. I wasn’t.'

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

That’s in dispute – mostly in my own ‘memory’. I think it was in a small magazine published in Christchurch, NZ. It was, I believe, called Edge (as if the magazine was on some edge: the edge of the civilized world; the edge of viability; the cutting edge of literary achievement. I don’t remember what the story was; but it was one I wrote in graduate school. Maybe this was 1970.

What’s the worst part of your job?

There is no worst part of my job; to write stories and novels is a privilege that any kind of occasional unpleasantness doesn’t diminish.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

When I proposed to my soon-to-be-and-still-my-wife that I wanted to try to be a writer, and she said, ‘Great. Yes. Do that. That’s wonderful.’ It happened in the winter of 1968.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Bad advice … the editor Gordon Lish at Alfred Knopf, in New York, advised me to abandon a novel I was writing called The Sportswriter, because he said I was incapable of writing it. I didn’t. I wasn’t.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

The New York Times book critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that my novel Wildlife contained elements of incest between a boy and his mother. These were his personal problems, not mine.

If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

By now, I’d probably be dead. Or retired, living in Florida, or Australia.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I don’t have a view about that.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

My best advice is to talk yourself out of it. You’re probably going to fail; and if you don’t fail you’re probably going to make yourself really unhappy. There are many more productive things a person can do with him/herself – ways of living that serve humanity more.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I mostly buy books in bookshops. Only if something has to be gotten into the house in a great hurry will I buy a book online. I live in a rural place, and bookshops aren’t plentiful.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Lots and lots of books. I’m not a person who deals in ‘mosts’ and ‘bests’ and ‘worsts’. Too much gets overlooked.

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