Thursday, December 07, 2006
Richard Ford Goes to the Margaret Mitchell House and Surveys the "Lay of the Land", and Also: An Email From Film-School Past
A couple interesting things. First off, Richard Ford.
Author of "The Sportswriter", the Pulitzer prize-winning"Independence Day", and most recently, "The Lay of the Land" (which was one of the New York Times' 10 best books of 2006), Richard Ford's considered one of the pre-eminent American novelists working today. He came down to the Margaret Mitchell House here in Atlanta and gave a great reading.
The wife and I drove into downtown Atlanta on a cold Monday night and parked right across from the Center for Southern Literature, which is where the MM House holds the readings. We walked up Peachtree Street a short ways to The Vortex, (which is easily the best burger chain in the city), had dinner, and then walked back to the event and found our seats. The interior space of the Center for Southern Literature is a split-level: the higher level is an L-shaped room where the business of the Center is done. This is where you buy memberships or the visiting authors' books, and it's also where you usually go to get those books signed after the reading and Q&A is finished. A short set of stairs descend from this level to the lower level, where the chairs are set up around a podium which has a plexiglass lectern set up on it from which the writer may address the crowd. We were sitting in our seats on the lower level when I looked up to the higher level and spotted Richard Ford.
In one of the photographs the New York Times took of Ford when they were writing about his new book, Ford looks gaunt, unwell, and a little frightening. In person, however, he looked much less like a horror show and more like a hale and friendly middle-aged novelist, complete with the tweed sportcoat and dark gray hair going a little long in the back. Because I kept glancing up to see what he was up to, I noticed that Ford didn't move from that one spot from the moment I first saw him to when the MC started her Ford introduction, which was about 20 minutes. From my low-angle vantage, I could see him receive his fans with warm smiles and gracious conversation. This wasn't exactly what I'd expected. A man that would shoot a novel written by a woman who'd given him a bad review, and someone who expactorated in the face of novelist Colson Whitehead because Colson reviewed one of Ford's books negatively, would certainly be a surly guy and brusque with questioners, or, at best, a quiet and standoffish guy who was just fulfilling an obligation to his publisher. But as it turned out he was neither of these guys, which surprised me. (I still plan to never write a bad review of one of his books however).
Anyway, I got up to go to the bathroom one last time before the proceedings began, and when I returned Ford was sitting behind my wife, chatting quietly with another guy in a tweed sportcoat. The Director of the Center for Southern Literature was introducing Ford and, when she got to the part about Ford's signing books afterwards, she said that he would only be able to sign one backlist title per person. But as to copies of his new book, "The Lay of the Land", he would sign -- and then behind me, I heard Ford say quietly and in jest, "As many as you can fucking carry." To me, this was hilarious.
He went up onto the podium and talked for a bit. He said he was glad to know there was an actual city in Atlanta, and not just an airport as he'd once thought, he related the story of his mom pointing out Eudora Welty to him at a lunch counter in Mississippi when he was 8 years old, and then he spoke a little about the various places he's lived, including New Orleans. Most of the writers that do readings like this aren't brilliant public speakers. Their business is writing and the talent of writing has very little to do with a talent for public speaking. But Ford's gifted in both aspects. He has a trick he does every now and again, of beginning a line in a conversational and offhand tone, and then, when he comes to the point he's been building to, he lowers his voice and changes his tone to that of a sage dispensing hard-earned wisdom. It was an effective device, and it helped that when he lowered his voice like that, what he had to say was actually wise, or at least seemed so. Contrasted with other writers who speak in what can only be described as a droning monotone, Ford came off like frickin' Cicero. It was a great talk, and a great reading. It's usually pretty easy to zone out during the reading part of these events, but with Ford it was actually easier to stay with him and listen to his story. I'm looking forward to reading it.
When I got up to the table to have Ford sign my copy of "The Lay of the Land" and "Wildlife", the first thing he said was, "Hi, what's your name?" I told him and he reached out his hand to shake mine. "Hi, I'm Richard Ford," he said, and then he signed my books, remarking that "Wildlife" was his favorite of his books. Barbara Ehrenreich, who said not a word to me while she deigned to sign my book, could take a lesson from this guy.
Anyway, it was nice to go to one of these things where the highlight wasn't exiting the building with a signed book.
On to the other interesting thing.
When we got home from the Ford signing on Monday night, I found an email from our old production design teacher in my AOL in-box. Apparently he (or someone he knew) Googled his name, and happened upon an old post on the Inanities. (It comes up 5 pages into the search results.) His email was a response to a blog post from way back in October 2005 in which I referred, briefly, to the circumstances surrounding his departure from school. You can read that post here. My old post is kind of embarrassing to read when you know he's read it too, but there it is. (You may note that I changed the names of the other teachers mentioned to less Google-able initials.) I'm a little skittish about going into depth about the email on what is essentially a public website, but I feel I can say that, in the email, CM related his version of events, named who he believed to be the true villains in the scandal, and defended his wife's choice to do what she did.
Anyway, thought I'd share that with you fine folks and fellow alumni. And I'm out.