STEVE INSKEEP, host:
As real estate prices slip in much of the country, let's pause to remember real estate bubbles past. The author Richard Ford created a character who's been through a few.
The character is a real estate broker. He is the narrator of three novels now, including Independence Day and Ford's latest, The Lay of the Land. The man remembers when real estate went nuts in an upscale suburb called Haddam, New Jersey.
And, Mr. Ford, I wonder if you could just read here from page 86.
Mr. Richard Ford (Author, The Lay of the Land): With pleasure. Thank you.
(Reading) Every time I heard myself pronounce the asking price of anything on the market in Haddam, I begun to feel first a sick, emptied out, semi-nauseated feeling, and then an impulse to break into maniac laughter right in the client's startled face as he sat across my desk in his pressed jeans, Tony Lamas and fitted polo shirt. And that growing sense of spiritual clamor meant to me that right was being violated, and that my sense of usefulness at being what I've been being was exhausted.
It was a surprise, but it was also a big relief. It was like the experience of the sportsman who shot ducks in the marsh all his life but one day, standing up to his ass in freezing water with the sky silvered and dark specks on the horizon beginning to take avian shape, realizes he's killed enough ducks for one lifetime.
INSKEEP: Richard Ford from The Lay of the Land. He's in our studios and welcome.
Mr. FORD: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: What keeps bringing you back to all of these upscale suburbs that you've written about quite extensively now?
Mr. FORD: Well, I guess I think I write about the suburbs because we made them and we'd live in them in America. And the moral address of realistic fiction, for me anyway, is to draw my attention to those things that we do as a way of saying to the reader pay attention to this. Pay attention to that because these are your acts. And also as a way of taking pleasure in our acts because conventional wisdom says the suburbs are rubbish. The suburbs are bad places to live. I thought that by trying to find a language for affirmation for the suburbs I might shake loose something that we could learn about the suburbs that we didn't know before.
INSKEEP: The guy who is our guide through all of this, Frank Bascombe, real estate agent at the moment, is a former writer who hung it up.
Mr. FORD: That's right.
INSKEEP: Didn't find any meaning in that anymore and is having more and more trouble finding meaning with anything in life, it seems.
Mr. FORD: But he's trying. My wife said to me, why don't you try to write a novel about somebody who's happy? You haven't done that before. I thought that to write novels you had to write about people who were brow furrowing, soul wrenching. But I thought, well, okay, I'll write a novel about a man, and this is as close as I could come. I'll try to write a novel about a man who's trying to be happy, who's doing his best to be happy. And that sense of striving is important as a moral gesture.
INSKEEP: Is Frank Bascombe - is it safe to say that this is who you think Richard Ford would be had you given up writing years ago and gone into some other occupation?
Mr. FORD: Oh, God, no. No. No. Frank Bascombe is entirely conceived. He's entirely a piece of artifice. He's not anything, I think, like me. When I'm writing lines for him or giving him an interior life, when I bump into myself, sometimes I always think, oh, Christ, what's wrong with you? He isn't a doppelganger for me or anything that I know - that I think I would have become. Unless it's true, Steve, that we're all eventually, you included, is going to become a real estate agent. It may happen.
INSKEEP: Oh, I don't know. I was thinking about there was a - there's a scene in the earlier book, Independence Day, a very small scene in which Frank Bascombe returns to a neighborhood where he wants to spend a lot of time. Runs into his former neighbor, and they're chatting there at the car window for just a moment.
Mr. FORD: Yes.
INSKEEP: And there's just that instant in which Frank Bascombe realizes he's spoken to this guy just long enough, but the conversation goes on. And he doesn't know what the hell to do.
Mr. FORD: Right.
INSKEEP: And I thought you've been in that situation.
Mr. FORD: Well, probably we all have, though. And it need not even be somebody you don't like. I know I will be out on the road on a book tour and I'll call my wife and I just want to hear her voice. Maybe she's got a lot of things to tell me, but I just want to hear her voice to know that she's there and I don't want to have a long exchange. And that just happens to you, to us, with anybody.
INSKEEP: May I mention that this novel takes place in a very specific time period, the end of the year 2000, when there was a disputed election that was obsessing everybody in the country. But to these folks around Thanksgiving in the year 2000, it's background noise, it's mentioned, it's argued about here and there. But pretty much, life is going on.
Mr. FORD: That's right. It may have been that that we were all obsessed by it. We were watching it on TV all the time. I don't know how much any of that crisis actually got under our skin very far, because we quickly got back to buying our Suburbans and getting back to earning money pretty fast, when in fact it was a grave constitutional crisis. But we think, as Americans, that we are entitled to be happy, and we are willing to push that entitlement a long way. And I just felt like that that period of time in American history would have been forgotten already. The American consciousness just shoves on. Just shoves on.
INSKEEP: Your characters seem to be forgetting about it even as it happens.
Mr. FORD: That's exactly right.
INSKEEP: As you continued to write about the suburbs, but you no longer live in them, did you go interview people about what life is like, how it's changed?
Mr. FORD: No, I made that all up. That's my job. I think that, you know, I'm the little tuning fork here. I mean just in life I'm a natural payer of attention, I guess. And so I'll go rent a car at the Newark Airport and I drive around New Jersey four or five days. And not even that I would talk to anybody, I would just read the landscape.
INSKEEP: You said people should pay attention to these suburbs, which we're building. And you said we should pay attention and ask the question, what does it say about us?
Mr. FORD: Yes.
INSKEEP: What do these suburbs say about us in your view?
Mr. FORD: Well, I think, generally what they way about us is what common sense and conventional wisdom tells us that they say about us, that we're ruining the planet, just spreading all over and paving it and wrecking it. But there's something about that that we are drawn to. And once we realize that we are drawn to this, it might in fact unearth some sense of ourselves for ourselves that would be interesting to us.
INSKEEP: Richard Ford is the author of The Lay of the Land. Thanks for coming by.
Mr. FORD: Great pleasure, Steve. Thank you.
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INSKEEP: You can find an excerpt of The Lay of the Land at npr.org.
And if you want to learn more about Richard Ford, you have a rare opportunity tomorrow. A reporter has been visiting Ford at home for the past four years while he wrote this book. So if you want to find out why a Pulitzer Prize-winning author keeps his manuscripts in the freezer, listen to Weekend Edition Saturday on many NPR stations.
And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee's back with us on Monday. I'm Steve Inskeep.