First aired on On the Coast (28/5/12)
American author Richard Ford won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Independence Day. In his latest book, Canada, he turns his attention to his homeland's northern neighbour. Canada (the country) became both a refuge and a punishment for the novel's narrator, Dell Parsons, who looks back at a traumatic experience in his youth. When Dell was 15, his parents robbed a bank, upending their sleepy suburban existence in Montana. Dell and his twin sister, Berner, are taken in by the brother of one of his mother's friends. Arthur lives across the border in rural Saskatchewan, and runs a cheap hotel.
While a bank robbery sets the story in motion, it's not the focus of the novel. Ford is much more interested in the consequences of such an action, as opposed to the action itself. "I think that's where we become familiar with morality, in the consequences of our actions," he said to On the Coast host Stephen Quinn. He doesn't accept the notion that we should inherently understand whether something is the right or wrong thing to do. "Me, I've always waited to see how things turned out before I figured out if they were good or bad."
Ford chose to have part of Canada take place in Canada because it created an opportunity for Dell to question himself and his life in the wake of his parents' mistake. "[Canada] is a place where he's allowed to become who he wants to become, apart from the exigencies of living in America, the exigencies of living in a family whose parents go to jail and basically never come out. Canada for him is the offering of all things affirmative."
Ford felt that way because of his own relationship to Canada. He first came to Canada in 1962, and every time he's been back, he feels there's something profoundly different about Canada compared to the United States. Many may see the border as arbitrary, Ford says, but that's absolutely not the case.
"There was something that happened to me when I crossed the border that for which there is no language. There was sensation of life, some commotion in life." Like any novelist, Ford decided he needs to put this feeling into words and "give language" to this sensation. "I was also moved by the thought that one could go across an important national border and have everything in life afterward be different."
As a regular visitor to Canada, Ford knew quite a bit about his northern neighbour. But he employed a formula of his previously acquired knowledge, research and his imagination to create the country portrayed in his novel. "When you write a novel, you give yourself over to the crucible that your book is. In that crucible, you figure out what you didn't know, you bring to bear what you did know and you also imagine things you could have never known," he said.
"Whether or not it's true, readers will have to determine."