For one writer, 'it's all gravy' Prize winner: Pulitzer is 'all gravy' to 'Independence Day' author Richard Ford.

April 22, 1996|By BRUCE DORMINEY | BRUCE DORMINEY,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARIS -- Three days after winning the Pulitzer Prize for "Independence Day," the sequel to his celebrated 1986 novel "The Sportswriter," Richard Ford stands in the doorway of his Montparnasse kitchen reflecting on fate, fortune and the randomness of life.

"The difference between winning and losing is an inch, just like that," says the 52-year-old author, marking the distance between thumb and forefinger. "Like Raymond Carver said before he died, 'It's all gravy.' I've always felt like I was awfully fortunate just to get to write books at all. Winning the Pulitzer has a large measure of luck in it. My first reaction was tinged with disbelief. But it will not create more pressure for me, because I've been doing what I've done for a long time."

The literary world owes Sports Illustrated a debt of gratitude. For if the native Mississippian had not been given the bum's rush after applying for a job at the sports magazine, he might have been content to continually churn out features on the angst and aura of Mike Tyson's sex life. Instead, nearing 40, Mr. Ford packed in his year as a sportswriter for the defunct publication Inside Sports, went home and began skulking about the house making notes for his third novel.

It became "The Sportswriter," the one that would win great reviews and a cult following on the paperback circuit. With it came the inimitable protagonist, Frank Bascombe, a divorced and somewhat detached writer for a major American sports magazine.

"Bascombe was a product of my reading a lot of first-person narrations," says Mr. Ford. "It all developed out of that voice, that first line: 'My name is Frank Bascombe. I'm a sportswriter.' That has tonal relationships with books that I had read in my past: "Something Happened" by Joseph Heller, "The End of the Road" by John Barth and "The Moviegoer" by Walker Percy. Percy sent me a letter saying he liked it."

Through the vagaries of dealing with the death of both a child and a marriage, Bascombe evolves into one of recent fiction's most poignant characters. And the novel has continued to remain in print, which Mr. Ford views as any book's ultimate test and reward.

"I sit down to write the best book that I can possibly write about the most important things I know about," says Mr. Ford. "I hope that someone reads it. I think a long period of life spent either underappreciated or out of the limelight has made me work harder to try to win a readership."

In "Independence Day," Bascombe has quit sportswriting, bought his ex-wife's house in New Jersey and turned to a life in the real estate market.

"Bascombe decides to take the pressure off himself," says Mr. Ford. "He's sitting in his house. He's got enough money and is relatively happy, when someone comes along and says you know you would really make a good real estate salesman. So, he does. Your ability to buy a house is your ability to shelter and protect yourself. As Frank says in 'Independence Day,' it's no wonder that house prices and property values are a general index to the human spirit."

While Mr. Ford can't say if "Independence Day" is head and shoulders above the rest of his work, he does believe that his early novels, "A Piece of My Heart" and "The Ultimate Good Luck," still hold up. Yet he'd like to think he has gotten better over the years.

"I've learned to work harder, to stay with things," he says. He worked 12 to 18 hours a day on "Independence Day," seven days a week for a solid year.

"I write in pencil, usually 1,500 to 2,000 words a day, then type it all up at the end," he says. "It's work and I think it's worthwhile, but I don't love it. I like it when I like it, don't when I don't, but do it no matter what."

Kristina, his wife of 30 years, is usually the first to hear Mr. Ford read his work. She's a city planner in New Orleans, where the two maintain their permanent residence. But the author continues to be driven by wanderlust. He spends several months out of every year in Europe, and still owns property in Mississippi and in Montana, where he plans to commence work on a new short novel.

He's published in 22 countries, with "Independence Day" selling 50,000 hardcover copies in Germany alone. As a result, Mr. Ford has been fielding calls from European publishers all morning; handling them all with the good grace of an altar boy. Yet that wasn't always the case.

"I stole my fair share of cars out of the church parking lot when I was a kid," he says. "In the '50s and early '60s people would leave their keys in the car. The trick was to take the car, get out on the interstate, race it with another guy, then try to get it back in the same parking space before the people came back from church."

But his flirtation with crime ended abruptly at 16, when Mr. Ford's father died and his mother spelled out her aversion to ever bailing him out of jail.

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