Richard Ford wins Library of Congress award: ‘Winning a prize is a great exception to the rule of a writer’s life’

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Fred Anklam Jr.

Richard Ford, right, talks with Millsaps President Robert Pearigen before the start of their discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival, Aug. 19, 2017.

Jackson native Richard Ford will receive the 2019 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction – effectively a lifetime achievement award to be presented during the 2019 Library of Congress National Book Festival Aug. 31.

Of Ford, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said, “He has been called our Babe Ruth of novelists and there is a good reason why. He is quintessentially American, profoundly humane, meticulous in his craft, daring on the field and he hits it consistently out of the park.

“We are proud to confer the Library’s lifetime award for fiction on this luminous storyteller – one of the most eloquent writers of his generation.”

Ford is scheduled to return to the Mississippi Book Festival on Aug. 17, two weeks before he receives the Library of Congress award.

Ford previously has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1995), the PEN/Faulkner Award, (1995), the PEN/Malamud Award (2001) and the Andrew Carnegie Medal of Excellence in Fiction (2013), among many prestigious literary awards. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize again in 2015.

Richard Ford

Responding by email to Mississippi Today, Ford said he could not assign the Library of Congress prize a rank among his many other recognitions.

“On the one hand, I’m lucky still to be writing novels at age 75,” Ford wrote. “Yet, as I am, this selection is a useful encouragement to me. Certainly winning a prize is a great exception to the rule of a writer’s life – which is a life of fairly easy and interesting days spent more or less alone. Any prize I win always makes me first think: there must’ve been a mistake.

“It’s very nice, though, that we live in a country where we have a national library, and one that assigns value to the imaginative arts – this, in sharp contradistinction to most of the nonsense and idiocy we see being passed off the ‘public good’ nowadays. Libraries are unassailably instruments of the public good.”

Ford grew up in Jackson and graduated from Murrah High School. He earned degrees from Michigan State and the University of California-Irvine, where he studied under 2014 Library of Congress Award for American Fiction winner, E.L. Doctorow. Ford’s books, which are read in 35 foreign languages, include seven novels, three short story collections, a novella collection and a memoir. His 1995 novel “Independence Day” was the first to win both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award.

Ford’s body of work surely places him on the top tier of Mississippi’s impressive group of internationally acclaimed novelists, including William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, who was a neighbor of Ford’s in the Belhaven neighborhood when he was a child.

Asked why a small, relatively poor state has produced such an inordinate amount of world renowned writers Ford responded, “Well, first of all I don’t know if, in fact, Mississippi does produce more good writers than say, Ohio or Oregon. Maybe we just don’t know about those others because….well, we’re not interested.

“But if we do – if Mississippi produces an unusual number of good writers – it can only be because Mississippi has so much about itself that requires explaining and reconciling to the rest of the world, and that’s hard to explain and make sense of. Our history. Our present. I grew up (in Mississippi) possessed of a strong sense of the absurd about life. Racism (the dominant human and moral ambient force when I was young) is, after all – among its many qualities – absurd. And absurdity represents mismatched facts. Life ought to reconcile these mismatches, but of course it’s not worked out that way  in Mississippi. So one resorts to other modes of thinking and expression that can reconcile – or try to. That’s just one way literary effort can take hold – trying to explain the otherwise unexplainable.”

At 75, Ford continues to produce. A book of short stories – “Sorry for your Troubles” – will publish in the spring of 2020. He is working on a novel called “Be Mine.”