Author Richard Ford on the power of literature | Books | DW | 28.09.2018
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Author Richard Ford on the power of literature

American writer Richard Ford was honored with the Siegfried Lenz Prize, one of Germany's top literary awards. The renowned novelist told DW what he thought of Donald Trump, German novelists and why literature matters.

Richard Ford's debut novel, A Piece of My Heart, was released in 1976. He shot to fame with a trilogy following the sportswriter Frank Bascombe through his everyday life in New Jersey. Ford has published seven novels, five collections of short stories and most recently, a memoir covering his parents' lives, Between Them: Remembering My Parents, released in 2017.

DW's Sabine Kieselbach met the the short story writer and novelist ahead of the award ceremony for the Siegfried Lenz Prize for his life's work in Hamburg on September 28. 

DW: We're here in Hamburg together because you've been honored with the Siegfried Lenz Prize. How many awards have you received so far?

Richard Ford: Only one this week and that's all I think about. I am fully concentrating on this because it's such an honor. I have read Lenz, and to know his work and now to meet his family and to have this award bestowed by the city of Hamburg, for whom he is a cherished writer, is remarkable.

I come from Mississippi, a land of writers, and writers there are also cherished and honored. It's miraculous to live where I live and to get to come to Hamburg. To come here to have my work that I did in this little fishermen's cottage on the Atlantic read and talked about is a miracle to me. It's something I couldn't have in my wildest dreams imagined.

There are a lot of good writers in the world. Whenever you get an award, you're getting an award for your colleagues, for those who don't happen to be there today. Because we're all writing books in the service of the same ends, which is to say to induce people to read. To induce readers to undergo the experience of imaginative literature, which is to reaffirm life, which is to renew language, which is to say there is always something more in the world than what we may be captive of on any given day.

Let's talk about your famous hero, Frank Bascombe. For decades now, since The Sportswriter was published in 1986, he is seen as an American everyman. What is an American everyman?

There is no such thing, that's just something some cockamamie critic dreams up. He's a very specific man. He's divorced. He's a father of three children. He takes a job. He lives in New Jersey. He could hardly be any more specific than he already is. The notion of everyman is, as far as I'm concerned, a misguided idea because it asks us to generalize about people in ways that blurs their individuality. Literature invites us to see people in particular.

Your last novel about Bascombe was published in 2012. What would Bascombe's place be in today's America? In Trump's America?

Book cover of Richard Ford's novel Frank (Hanser)

Frank Bascombe became a central protagonist in Ford's novels

Who cares what Bascombe feels, he's just a made-up character. I can tell you what Richard feels about all these things. Trump is a disaster. And not even funny. A threat to the world. But if I were going to write about what Frank thought about him, I might write a more nuanced view just to make it more interesting.

By and large writing novels is thinking of something interesting to say.

Like you, Siegfried Lenz declared the American writer William Faulkner one of his great literary models. Is there any German writer who influenced your writing?

Thomas Mann.

Is there any German writer you have always wanted to read and haven't thus far?

Günter Grass. I've never really succeeded in reading Günter Grass. I've tried to read The Tin Drum 20 times. But I wasn't old enough. Sometimes you don't read books not because the book is defective but because you're not old enough for it. It's the same with Henry James. You have to somehow be at the maturity to succumb to what the book deems to be important.

I haven't tried The Tin Drum in a while but it's sitting on my desk. When I read The German Lesson [by Siegfried Lenz], I thought to myself, well here's a guy more or less of the same generation, and as it turned out, I was embarrassed to say I knew him and didn't read his books.

Gunter Grass and Siegfried Lenz (picture-alliance/AP)

Gunter Grass and Siegfried Lenz were contemporaries

Through fall 2019, there will be exhibitions and events and readings in the US by Germans for the Deutschlandjahr USA, or Year of Germany, to highlight the uniqueness and importance of transatlantic relations.

Yes I hope President Trump is not president then.

Currently, we are not sure if Germany and the US still share the same values. What do you think? Is it necessary to highlight relations to remind people about our shared heritage, rules and values?

It depends on what you do with those identifications. If you use those identifications to reinforce some sense of exclusivity, if you use those identifications to diminish others, at the behest of one's self then I think it's probably not worth doing. If you use those identifications between cultures to enhance the idea that we are more alike than we are not alike then I think it's a good thing. 

I think that the translation of texts from German to American and from American to German is a good thing. It's a good thing if I'm reading German writers and it's a good thing if the German writers are reading American writers. Readers too.

But if the only reason for us to read German writing is so Germans can feel that they're better, then that probably isn't the best use. I certainly never feel when I bring books over here or when I come to Germany that I'm showing Germans anything they need to know. I just think that I'm showing them something that they might be interested in. But with the whole idea of cross-cultural fertilization, there needs to be fertilization, not just cross-culture.

Is there any literary wish, one burning desire, that you have not fulfilled yet?

I never had any to begin with. All I ever wanted to do is my best. And I've done that.


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