May 1 2013 12:00 AM

Pulitzer Prize-winning MSU grad reflects on his early struggles


A woman from a local book club recently accosted me about Richard Ford’s novel, “Canada.”  She’d read my review, but was perplexed by its lack of kinetic action. 

“When are the murders?” she asked me. “I’m almost two-thirds into the book and there are no murders.”

“You’re close,” I told her. “Real close.”

Ford would have probably told her to enjoy the journey, but it’s his own fault; the first sentence of “Canada” really gets the reader wound up: “First I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders ... ”

You knew the murders were going to happen — you just didn’t know when. Quite like Ford’s life, which is filled with fits, starts and pitfalls. 

Ford, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, will give the keynote speech and receive an honorary doctorate of fine arts at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Michigan State University’s advanced degree commencement ceremony. Ford, 69, came to MSU in 1962 to study hotel restaurant management, but he changed his major to English when he discovered he was not good at organic chemistry or math — along with “having done all the work as a kid.” Ford worked in his stepfather’s hotel growing up.

Even though Ford arrived on campus from the Deep South during the height of the Civil Rights movement, he said he found MSU to be “very invigorating” and different from what he experienced in his hometown of Jackson, Miss. He received his MSU degree in 1966. 

“The first thing I noticed was I was going to school with African-Americans and that there were a lot of people with non-Anglo-Saxon names in my classes,” he said. (Neither of those would have been the case back home in Jackson.) “MSU enabled me to run from the identity I had worked up for myself.”

Part of that identity was boosting cars for joy rides with a friend, who ended up in prison.

“I didn’t like it, and it was Etch-A-sketched out of existence,” he said. “For me, the South was a bogus place, and the Midwest was real America.”

Ford said he was “a real dogged student,” spending six nights a week in the library. Most often, he was on a study date with a coed he met bussing tables at Mason Hall. after four solid years with great grades, he applied to the top tier law schools. 

“I’d been expecting to go to law school, but I was rejected by all the places I wanted to go,” he said. “I had no other plans.”

After graduation, his life took a meandering route. He put in a short stint at a law school that did accept him, St. Louis’ Washington University, but returned to Michigan before he graduated and taught junior high school in Flint. He also had a go at being an Arkansas state trooper and even enlisted in the Marines Corps, but an illness there forced his resignation.

“I was working with the fear of failure — I was sick of failing,” he said. “I had failed at everything. But then I remembered one of my writing professors telling me that if I wanted, I could get into a good writing school for an MFA.”  

Ford was accepted to the University of California at Irvine’s writing program, where he studied under famed historical fiction author E.L. Doctorow, among others.

“I knew what it was like to work hard, but I was not the star of the show by any means,” Ford said. Following graduation from the University of California in 1970, Ford wrote two novels — “Piece of My Heart” in 1976 and “The Ultimate Good Luck” in 1981 — but sales were disappointing, and Ford was once again facing failure. But then things took a fortuitous turn. 

He took a job with a start-up sports publication, “Inside Sports,” which soon folded. The experience, however, inspired his 1986 novel, “The Sportswriter,” which took his writing career in a completely new direction. “The Sportswriter” became  the first of what would become one of the most highly regarded trilogies in literature, often cited as one of the most forthright books about being a man in modern America.

Ford calls the trilogy “unintended.” Following “The Sportswriter,” which was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award, he wrote “Rock Springs” (1987), but then switched gears for the second book in the trilogy, which took eight years to write  — but that ended up being well worth the wait. That novel, “Independence Day,” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and made Ford the only MSU graduate to win that award. He finished the trilogy in 2006 with “The Lay of the Land.” 

He’s dedicated all of his novels and short story collections to his MSU study date, Kristina Hensley, who’s now his wife. Some would argue that Ford is a born writer; his prose has a deep, hypnotic rhythm that propels his languid stories forward. But he refuses to wear the mantle.  

“I’m not a natural born storyteller,” he said. “There’s nothing natural about (writing) — it’s artificial, an illusion. What’s natural to me is work.” 

He certainly didn’t pick it up at home. 

“Nobody in my family told stories,” Ford said. “They lived through the Depression and didn’t want to revisit that. If you would ask them about the past, they would say, ‘Why would you ask me that?’”

What does come naturally to Ford is his ability to represent life, including its many disappointments. For him, it’s not the challenges that matter but what you do with them. “Canada” is filled with conflicts; What could be worse than having your parents rob a bank and end up in prison? 

Well, there are those two murders. But you have to wait for them.