Richard Ford On Finding His Writing Voice
I’ve posted a lot of the Paris Review’s Art of Fiction series interview over the last few years. It’s a really interesting look into the personal and professional lives of a lot of the world’s most famous authors.
The Art of Fiction featured Richard Ford in 1996, and of course he had much to say.
I love Ford’s answer to how his writing developed over the years.
You said that when you began writing stories you weren’t good at it. How did your stories go from bad to good? Practice? Breakthroughs?
Not practice. I actually gave up writing stories for a time because I couldn’t do it and couldn’t get better and didn’t see any use in just beating my head against them. So, I started writing a novel. I had been trying to write stories under the influence of Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, William Gass—all writers whose work I still greatly admire. But my instincts, I guess, weren’t particularly well served by those narrative practices and conceits. So when I quit trying to write that way I sort of reverted to the more traditional, realistic fiction that suited what I could do. I, of course, had grown up thinking that what Faulkner and Eudora Welty wrote was what literature was. I remember very well that when we got married in 1968, Kristina gave me The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor. It was the first book she’d ever given me. Then when I got to Irvine as a graduate student my teachers—Oakley Hall and E. L. Doctorow—were moving me back in the direction of more realistic stories. I read all of Cheever and Richard Yates and Bellow and Roth. Plus Babel. Plus Chekhov. Later on, when I started reading my contemporaries—Ray Carver, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, Ann Beattie, and others—I thought, Here are story forms that provide the opportunity for me to write the kinds of things that I know and am ready to put in stories. I think I was very encouraged by the good work of my contemporaries, which is what good work should do. It shouldn’t make you feel intimidated. By the time my first decent stories started to get published inEsquire, I had already written two novels. I wrote the first story in Rock Springs in the spring of 1980 in New York. Another thing that encouraged me to write stories was that people were asking me to give readings and I wanted to read new work. I wrote my little story “Sweethearts” because Dan Halpern asked me to read for the benefit of Columbia magazine and I didn’t have a new story, so I wrote that in just one sitting—as usual— at a table in a rented house. In Princeton—a story set in Montana. Basically I just wrote one short story a year so that I had something new to read.
Great insight there. He tried to be like Faulkner, who had the style he viewed as “real” literature, before eventually scrapping that and finding his own voice.
I bet that’s pretty common for a lot of writers. We emulate others until, through that process, we eventually find our own style and our own writing process.
The world only has one Faulkner, and we don’t need another one.
You can read the entire interview at The Paris Review.