Work in literature and in American culture
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Kai Ryssdal: Most days on this broadcast we talk, in one form or another, about work. Individual contributions to it, or industrial output of it. But straight economic reporting can be somewhat dry.
So today, as part of our series The Art of Money, what artists and others see when they look at the economy, an interview with Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Richard Ford. He’s got a new anthology out called “Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar“: short fiction touching on the theme of what we do every day to get by. Richard Ford, good to talk to you.
Richard Ford: Glad to be here.
Ryssdal: I realize that this is a conversation about the art of writing about work, but I wonder if you would oblige me by relating the story you tell in your introduction about your mother, when she found that you had gotten what she considered your first real job.
Ford: Well I grew up in Mississippi, of Depression-era, I’d suppose you’d say, parents, and having a job was very important to them, it sort of meant what character was to them, how you earned a living. And so when I set away from that track to be a novelist, I think it dismayed my mother in lots of ways. After I published a couple of books, my mother was visiting me in Princeton where my wife and I lived, and I had just gotten this job offered in Princeton. It wasn’t much of a job and I didn’t think it was much of a job. But when I told my mother I was going to take it for a year, she said, ‘Oh Richard, my god, I’m so glad you’ve finally gotten started.’ I thought I was pretty well started, but not in my mother’s eyes, not until I had a job and a paycheck coming in.
Ryssdal: What is it about writing about work that helps a story when you describe a character’s profession and occupation?
Ford: When my father would come home from his job — which was a job of a traveling salesman — and tell us about the people he knew on the road, you always knew what they did first. Their sense of character, their sense of plausibility, was expressed bottom line in what they did for a living. Consequently, when I started trying to make up characters and put them on the page, that carried over into my life.
Ryssdal: You know, it’s interesting though, because it’s one thing to read news reports and listen to radio stories about unemployment and joblessness and the shaky state of the American economy. It’s entirely another, though, to read that in fiction — somehow it’s even more impactful.
Ford: Well that’s what fiction’s good at. Fiction’s good at immersing you in the details which the headlines don’t convey. And if you only hear politicians talking about, ‘well we need to cut back on this amount of money,’ we don’t make that connection, and it is a connection that fiction can make.
Ryssdal: I wonder if you would do us a favor and read us a section from one of your stories that’s included in this. It’s a story called “Under the Radar” about a couple, Steven and Marjorie Reeves. They’re going to dinner with another couple when Marjorie tells Steven she’s had an affair with the host of this party they’re going to.
Ford: “They were extremely young. Steven Reeves was 28. Marjorie Reeves a year younger. They weren’t rich, but they’d been lucky. Steven’s job at Packard-Wells was to stay on top of a small segment of a larger segment of a rather small pre-fabrication intersection that serviced the automobile industry where any sudden alteration, or even the rumor of an alteration, in certain polymer-bonding formulas could tip crucial down-the-line demand patterns, and in that way affect the betting lines and comfort zones of a good many meaningful client positions.”
Ryssdal: You know, that technical description of what he does for a living, it sounded to me like death; I’d be bored stiff doing that, you know?
Ford: That sounded to me like death when I wrote it too. You know, people’s relationship to their work is focal in American culture; it is the thing that grounds us, so attention to it — even morose or funny or bitter or acerbic attention to it — seems never inappropriate.
Ryssdal: You have some amazing writers in this compilation: Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, Eudora Welty, Tobias Wolff. How has reading their work changed your view of what writing about work means?
Ford: What I have found in choosing these stories is that the stories are quite wonderful in dedicating felicitous language to things that we thought we knew about, and distinguished intelligence to what we thought we knew about, but in fact, turn out to reveal more than we thought we knew about. Because that finally is the life-affirming quality of literature, is that it tells you more where you thought there was less. It asks you to pay attention where you want to rely on conventional intelligence.
Ryssdal: Richard Ford has edited a new anthology, it’s called “Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work.” There is more of it on our Big Book blog. Richard Ford, thank you so much.
Ford: Nice to talk to you, Kai. Thanks a lot.
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