Of Hitchhikers and Writers: Richard Ford Talks to Nam Le
When is a hitchhiker like a writer? What happens in the moment one decides whether or not to pick up that hitchhiker? Or pick up a book, for that matter.
These brainteasers and other burning questions were addressed at an intriguing Pen/World Voices event at New York’s Morgan Library on a rainy, windblown afternoon. Billed as a “writers’ conversation” about the art of the short story between much-honored veteran novelist, essayist and short-story writer Richard Ford and much-lauded short-story newcomer Nam Le, it was more of an interview than a conversation.
In fact, at times the conversation was almost an interrogation, but not by a gushing neophyte seeking wisdom from the grizzled veteran. It was the veteran Richard Ford who gave the newcomer Nam Le the stage. Almost as if a pact was made beforehand in the green room, Ford opened with a caveat that his intention was to not exactly “huckster” Nam Le’s work, but draw sharp attention to the splendid nature of that work to date. And, not at all ambiguously, to spend almost no time on his own extensive oeuvre.
It was an act of stunning generosity by the Pulitzer and Pen/Faulkner award winner Ford. But then, to read Le’s debut short story collection The Boat, generosity was not undeserved.
They were an odd couple, visually and aurally: Ford, all beige and tweed, tall, balding and deferential with his Mississippi-flattened vowels; and Le, black-suited with spiky hair, a short compact build, and an Aussie accent by way of Vietnam and Iowa.
Huckstering aside, Ford began by revealing to the audience Le’s training as a lawyer, and wondered how that training helped inform Le’s writing. This was far from a fishing expedition, for Le took the bait at once. Likening the deliberate vagueness of “precise” obfuscation in legal arguments to a fictional narration, he also saw similar elements of rhetoric and “evidence” in both pursuits.
To Le writing and the law are both very personal and temperamental pursuits, with no a priori conditions, even with legal precedent; each case is new, much like a blank page in a writer’s hands that becomes a story hearkening the classics. Still, Ford graciously affirmed that Le represents us better with his writing than in a docket.
Politics is another matter. Ford posed the question of whether politics affects literature and the private life of a writer, and Le called it more of a subservient force out there, but with a limited range of description available, hampered much like human emotion in that regard.
At this point, the conversation took to the nuts and bolts of craft. The stories in The Boat are so carefully constructed, their characters so diverse, and their experiences so divergent from each in the collection that the reader can’t help but wonder how Le ever found the time to run drugs in Colombia, run an underground cell in Teheran, run aground escaping by boat from Vietnam– on and on they go.
And yet, Le, with no active personal recollection of Vietnam, cannot say that any such experience has informed his writing. In fact, it took the book’s publication for his “Mum” to finally share family history–including his own birth story–with him, as if a license to the past was finally accorded. And he vehemently dismissed the notion of “channeling” characters and their experiences, in firm belief that life must be quarantined from art. To Le, his work is not about characters but about displacement; flux; and the human attachment to forces beyond control – like race, gender and attraction.
For Le, this is where writing exists. The writing must be smarter than the writer, greater than even the sum of all parts of an individual life. Ford cited a character depicted in a Le story as devoid of an interior life, and Le said this turned out to be a great artistic challenge to someone like himself with such a positive prejudice toward linguistics. Yet the story hinges on this character, not the prescient narrator.
Ford wondered if writing wasn’t a compensation for the holes in our histories, and Le allowed that he has, on one hand, an impulse to fill in those holes, and on the other to–separately–dig further in, as with a scabbed-over wound. But both writers resoundingly rejected any notion of digging at that wound in search of understanding. As Le put it, the writing process can only interrogate consciousness, can only make suppositions about its nature, like a physicist who ponders what he can’t see but who still makes theorems. And so writers write stories, in the absence of true understanding of our memories and moral calculus, charged nonetheless to find what cannot possibly exist in our field of psychic vision, armed only with language that is doomed to fail us.
And as for structure, Le called it a shortcoming in his craft, which left the incredulous Ford to point out that no “ribs” were visible anywhere in The Boat.
“Too much fat on them to see them,” Le shrugged. He went on to describe how every sentence is an opportunity if there is complete belief in the process, and if the writer can keep the tone of the work within each sentence. That, plus keeping the “masturbatory pleasure of metaphor” at bay (Ford here invoked Henry James: “Tell a dream, lose a reader”).
This prompted the two master craftsmen to compare toolbox contents, patchwork secrets, and, as Le put it, the “ligatures” a writer uses to create a casing around mere words. Ford seemed to revel in the term, and glowingly called it “where writing exists.”
Finally Ford asked if Le ever reviews books, and was relieved to find that he doesn’t. After some hilarious groveling by both writers to the spectre of Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, Ford likened the practice of reviewing a fellow writer’s book to an age-old dilemma: “Giving a colleague a bad review is like driving down the road, seeing a hitchhiker and rather than picking him up – you run over him.”
Richard Ford had plenty of opportunity to run over a young writer on this day, but both he and Nam Le were standing tall after a lively and provocative exchange.
Dennis O’Donnell is a direct-import marketing specialist in giftware and housewares, and is a frequent business traveler to Central America, Europe and Asia. His interest in indigenous handcrafts has taken him to Guatemala, Honduras, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and elsewhere to promote artisan entrepreneurship issues. He is a native of Philadelphia PA and still lives and writes there.