Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford has lived all over Montana, but it wasn't until he went east of the Continental Divide that the state captured him.
In 1983 Ford's wife, Kristina Ford, had recently taken a job with Missoula's city government. The couple came to the city not long after the death of Richard Hugo, a renowned western poet who founded the University of Montana's creative writing program.
Ford had long been an avid hunter, and after his arrival in Missoula he began searching for a hunting partner. Friends pointed him to Bob Hausmann, a linguistics professor at the University of Montana.
Their first excursions in search of pheasants and other fowl began in the Flathead Valley. Eventually they journeyed east.
“I’m motivated so much by romance, that until I saw east of the mountains, I didn’t feel like I had really seen what I needed to see of ‘authentic Montana,’” Ford said. “And once I saw east of the mountains, I never really cared about anything else.”
Ford, 73, was born in Jackson, Mississippi. He spent parts of his youth in Louisiana and in Arkansas where he helped his grandmother's second husband manage a motel. He studied literature at Michigan State where he met Kristina, lived at one point in Flint, enlisted in the Marine Corps and briefly attended law school in St. Louis before enrolling in graduate school at the University of California Irvine to study fiction writing.
His writing has been published in 32 languages, and he's received an array of high-profile awards, including the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which he won for his novel "Independence Day."
His most critically celebrated works are his Bascombe books, of which "Independence Day," is the second of four charting the life and thoughts of sportswriter-turned-real estate agent Frank Bascombe.
Much of Ford's Bascombe books take place in the fictional town of Haddam, New Jersey. Yet Ford has repeatedly visited Montana in his fiction as well, first with the short story collection "Rock Springs," and then with the 1990 novel "Wildlife," and his 2012 novel "Canada," of which the latter two are largely set in Great Falls.
September marked the 30th anniversary of the publication of "Rock Springs." It's been nearly 50 years since Ford first set foot in Montana.
Some understanding of what Ford means by 'authentic Montana' (a term which he said is based on his own illusion of authenticity) can be found in hearing him describe his first visit to Montana.
In the summer of 1969 Ford, then a college student at the University of California at Irvine's graduate program in creative writing, drove up from Southern California with a college instructor to go fly fishing in Montana.
The two stopped in Bozeman for supplies.
“I just thought it’s very modern here,” Ford said of Bozeman. “It was already quite sparkly and busy. ... It didn’t comply with my very highly romanticized view of what a Montana town would be like.”
It would take Ford 15 years to find a town that did: Great Falls.
Ford was drawn to Great Falls before he even laid eyes on it. The sound of the name "Great Falls" and its appearance on the page intrigued him.
What Ford discovered when he finally visited Great Falls was a town he could use as a background for his writing. From the demographics, to the Air Force base, to the mountains and plains and the “great river that makes its epic turn to the east,” Ford said Great Falls is what Hugo would have called a “triggering town.”
“It becomes a source of language,” Ford said. “It’s a place which makes you feel something that inspires the use of language. It makes you feel a way that calls for language.”
Ford said he still remembers the heartfelt publicity former Skylark Motel owner Fred Paoli once offered him after “Rock Springs” was published.
“He put on a little marquee out in front of the motel, it said ‘Welcome Richard Ford, author of “Rock Springs.” And I thought ‘God, that’s such a cool thing to do.’ I didn’t ask him to do it.”
Not everyone in the city shared Paoli’s enthusiasm for his writing, Ford said.
“Plenty of people who lived in Great Falls thought that the stories I set in Great Falls were not complimentary enough about the town, but I had to live through that, live beyond that,” Ford said. “There are certain people who think if you’re writing stories that if there are not angels in them and little girls carrying baskets of flowers, then there’s just no use reading them.”
Ford had wanted to move to Great Falls for years after that, but he eventually realized Kristina's connection to Great Falls wasn't as strong as his. About two years ago the couple bought a house in Billings instead. They divide their time between Billings, New Orleans and East Boothbay, Maine.
Previously Ford has lived in Rattlesnake Canyon in Missoula; off Illinois Street in Chinook; in a rented house in Dutton that he and his wife dubbed “The Mint” (for its green exterior); and for approximately five summer days in the late 1970s he rented a condominium near a golf course in Big Sky. The two had originally meant to stay there for the summer.
“It was so sterile and so unappetizing,” Ford said of his brief stay at the condo in Big Sky. “I went to the guy who rented that place to me and I said ‘I hate to tell you this, I just can’t stay here. Living on this goddamn golf course, I just can’t.'”
Ford's first experience in Billings in the 1970s involved a stunning display of violence.
Ford was taking Kristina to the Billings airport. Another man arrived as the Fords did.
“Some guy was meeting his wife at the airport. Well, she’d gone off on a flyer, apparently, and when she got off the plane he grabbed her by the hair, right there in the Billings airport, and dragged her out of the airport into the parking lot and banged her head on the car window and threw her in the car,” Ford said.
“I’ll never forget that, it was such a violent (event). … We were all calling the police as fast (as we could). ... Nobody had any cellphones. The guy got in his car and drove away before we could really do anything.”
What Ford witnessed is the kind of horrific event that could ruin a place permanently for a person.
Of the viciousness Ford saw in the Billings airport, he said it doesn’t “bespeak anything about Billings.” He believes that another incident, this one in 1995, does say something about the city.
“I’ll tell you what brought me to Billings,” Ford said. “We were living in New Orleans and there was a story in the national news about some anti-Semite skinhead knuckleheads who were going around breaking windows and breaking menorahs.”
The way Billings reacted was striking.
“The people pretty much said ‘No, no, no, no, not in our town. We're not going to have that.’” Ford said. “And I thought to myself ‘That's a place I'd like to live.’ And that was 20 years or 15 years before I ever gave it a thought. I thought 'There’s something good about this place and I want to know, I want to be closer to that.'”
In "Rock Springs," a short story collection of Ford's and his first book set primarily in Montana, there are moments of comedy and beauty but often moments of seemingly unavoidable tragedy are what loom large.
Marriages fall apart, lovers fall dead, luck runs out, life both gains and loses certainty and the witnesses to it all often find themselves reflecting on why things happened the way they did.
The stories take place across the state, from Missoula to Sunburst, with references to places including Whitefish, Kalispell, Fort Benton and Floweree. Great Falls features as the setting for one of Ford’s most famous stories, called “Great Falls,” which portrays a young man reflecting on the night his father took them home early from a hunting trip to confront his wife’s lover.
Another story, "Optimists," is written from the perspective of a man who as a boy in Great Falls saw his father kills a man with his bare hands.
The story "Communist," draws on Ford's experience hunting geese around Ovando. He wrote the story after author Tom McGuane told him he knew someone looking for a hunting story.
Ford's "Rock Springs" stories would earn him a pair of labels, neither of which he has embraced. A 1983 edition of Granta magazine labeled him part of a new movement of "dirty realist" writers, a designation he later described to Granta as largely inaccurate but good for marketing.
After the publication of "Rock Springs," Ford said he turned up on a list of "Montana writers."
“I always thought that was as fatuous as me turning up on a list of Mississippi writers or New England writers or New Jersey writers,” Ford said of being called a “Montana writer.” “That kind of pigeon-holing is a thing I've run from all my life.”
Quoting the novelist William Dean Howells, Ford said he wants to write stories “that are good enough for America.”
While Montana plays a significant role in “Rock Springs,” Ford said he didn’t aim to say anything definitive about Montana. The state is used “as a background and appropriates a lot of place names and partakes of the reader’s attitudes about and memories and visual depictions of those places,” Ford said. “I could have set them in Minnesota. I could have set them in Oklahoma.”
Some of the stories do draw on Ford's personal experiences, including his time in Montana. But that doesn't mean characters automatically speak for or represent his personal views, he said.
In 1977 Ford became friends with celebrated short story writer and poet Raymond Carver. That friendship, and Carver's own short stories, helped motivate Ford to return to the form after unsuccessful attempts in college to imitate postmodern writers like Robert Coover and Donald Barthelme. A year later, Ford wrote "Going to the Dogs," a short story partially inspired by Carver and Carver's writing. Carver was flattered by the story, which involves a man resembling Carver who has a gambling habit. "Curly," as he's known, is preparing to skip out on his rent at a rural property when two women arrive at his doorstep with a freshly killed deer. He’s attracted to one of the women and they leave the kitchen for privacy, while the other one claims to be tidying up. When the women leave the man discovers his wallet empty and his train ticket out of town gone.
Ford said after the story he was conscious of not trying to further imitate Carver’s style, which he said many writers were doing at the time.
Another story, “Winterkill,” was based off two separate experiences of Ford’s in Missoula.
Through a bar window at the Red Lion Hotel, Ford said he saw a dear carcass on the Clark Fork caught on the banks in the spring as the river was “just churning the hell through there.” He thought a fisherman could have caught that deer. On another day he and his wife were leaving the Top Hat bar when they saw a drunk man spill from his wheelchair out into the middle of a poorly lit street at night. Ford wheeled him to the man's brother’s house on Fifth Street.
Ford ultimately combined the events into the story, which involves a bar-born love triangle between two friends, one of whom is a wheelchair-bound former smokejumper, and a woman they meet. The one friend breaks down later that night after the big fish he thought dragged him from his wheelchair is revealed to be a dead deer.
“Rock Springs,” follows a man’s journey from Whitefish to the town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, as he, his girlfriend, his daughter and her dog Duke try to make it all the way to Florida in a “cranberry” Mercedes stolen from a Whitefish ophthalmologist.
Ford said the car he and his wife were driving during their escape from Big Sky broke down just outside of Rock Springs. They were stranded in the town for a few days as they desperately looked for a mechanic who could work on the European vehicle.
Walking from their motel into town at night “these cowboys would go by in their pickup trucks and shout at us and sometimes they would throw cans at us and throw bottles at us, when it was just the two of us walking down the street innocently," Ford said.
Ford’s mother-in-law reacted to their woes by saying “Maybe Dick will write a story about it,” Ford said. “And it so infuriated me that her mother would blithely say ‘Oh yeah, it’s all just grist for his mill, he’s a failed writer, so maybe he’ll write a story about that,’” Ford said. “I thought, by God maybe I will.’ ”
Even though the stories inside "Rock Springs" can have bleak scenes, Ford said he felt obligated to try to bring them toward redemptive moments at their conclusion.
“Stories, almost no matter how positive they are or are not in their end or even in their entire arc, are still useful to us," Ford said. "And they still redeem life because they say to the reader ‘This which I am telling you is about life, and it means that life is worth your closer notice and that this thing that you go through every day barely noticing is all there is.’ ”