Pulitzer Prize–winning author Richard Ford grew up living in a Jackson home across the street from writer Eudora Welty as well as in the home of his maternal grandparents, the Marion Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. His father, Parker Ford, was a traveling starch salesman whose wife, Edna, often accompanied him on the road. The fluidity of this living situation and the consequent idea that home is conceptual rather than geographically fixed permeates much of Ford’s fiction.
Parker Ford died of a heart attack when his son was sixteen, prompting Richard and his mother to permanently relocate to the Marion Hotel, a move that further exposed him to the idea of itinerant life. He was also thrust into a role of responsibility within the family, another theme that pervades many of his characters’ circumstances. Ford earned a bachelor’s degree in literature at Michigan State University in 1966. His time in the Midwest represented yet another challenge, leaving him feeling both unsettled in his native South and out of place in the Midwest. Following graduation and a brief stint in law school, Ford enrolled in the master of fine arts program at the University of California at Irvine. At this time he married Kristina Hensley, a researcher of urban and regional planning whom he had met in Michigan. All of Ford’s books are dedicated to his wife.
Ford has taught at the University of Michigan, Williams College, and Princeton University. His debut novel, A Piece of My Heart (1976), is the only one of his works set in Mississippi. Themes in the novel discuss and/or debunk some of the uniqueness often attributed to the South, but Ford has subsequently addressed the idea of the South or of southern literature only outside his work, if at all. He explained in 1997, “I’m a southerner, obviously; I like the South . . . but the South is just not a subject on which I have any interesting things to say or any curiosity about. . . . It would seem to me that if the South could find a vocabulary adequate for all of its equal component parts, it would quit being the South and just become part of America. But by insisting on itself the way some wanton southerners enjoy doing, what it’s basically doing is resisting useful change.”
Ford’s next novel, The Ultimate Good Luck (1981), received mixed reviews, which combined with the death of his mother to prompt him to stop writing fiction and instead to become a reporter for New York–based Inside Sports magazine. When the magazine folded, Kristina Ford challenged her husband to resume his fiction, resulting in The Sportswriter (1986), the pivotal text of Ford’s career. The novel introduced Ford’s most recognized character, sportswriter Frank Bascombe, whose hypercontemplative narrative explores the parameters of consumerist Middle America. Echoing themes learned from Ford’s upbringing, Bascombe also mulls the ideas of personal agency, accountability, and home and community. Critics and readers championed the novel, which earned a PEN/Faulkner citation.
Next came a short story collection, Rock Springs (1987), and another novel, Wildlife (1990). Ford subsequently moved to Montana, published short fiction and essays, and wrote his most famous novel to date, Independence Day (1995). The second installment in the life of Frank Bascombe, Independence Day picks up five years after The Sportswriter and again chronicles the themes of home and community and determination or the lack thereof. Meditating on his place in the world, Bascombe, now a real estate agent in a New Jersey shore town, must interact with family, romantic interests, tenants, and others over the course of the holiday weekend. The novel became the first ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award, not only solidifying Bascombe as an American fictional icon but establishing Ford as one of the literary giants of his generation.
Ford released two additional volumes of short fiction, Women with Men (1997) and A Multitude of Sins (2002), and edited The Granta Book of the American Long Story (1998) before returning to Bascombe’s evolving life and viewpoints in The Lay of the Land (2006). Ford returned to his home state in 2010 as a writing professor at the University of Mississippi before joining the writing faculty at Columbia University in 2012, the same year he released another novel, Canada. In 2014 he published Let Me Be Rank with You, a collection of four novellas featuring Bascombe, and in 2017 he completed a new work, Between Them: Remembering My Parents.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Novelists since WWII, 6th ser. (2000)
- Huey Guagliardo, ed., Conversations with Richard Ford (2001)
- Deborah Treisman, New Yorker (21 August 2006)