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Holding a mirror up to his readers' souls

Richard Ford is most often referred to as the great est American writer of his generation. His novel The Sportswriter, part of the Frank Bascombe trilogy, won him the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award, the only book ever to have done so.

Ford doesn't write to entertain, although he manages that easily. He writes, as the best writers do, to hold up a mirror to our own souls.

His latest novel, Canada, moves as far away from Ford's middle-aged suburban American everyman as possible, into the frontier land of Montana and, of course, the Canada of the book's title.

The book is told from the point of view of Dell Parsons, a teacher on the cusp of retirement looking back on a moment that changed his life forever as a teenager in the 1960s.

It all sounds terribly ordinary and Ford specialises in the lives of ordinary people, but don't make the mistake of reading ordinary as boring. Take the opening lines of the book: "First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later."

At 68, Ford is remarkably fit and healthy looking, despite the thick, raised scar on the tender skin of his neck -- the result of an operation to dispatch a cancer scare. His hair is steel-grey, his eyes still that much-commented-upon aquamarine, and his penchant for brightly coloured jumpers is intact. We met in his room in Trinity College, Dublin, where he stays when he is in town when lecturing on the Masters in Creative Writing.

He agrees Canada, while having much in common with the themes of his previous books, is very much a novel unto itself. "It just has certain lingering concerns and curiosities that all of the other books haven't satiated."

For someone who never had children -- and once advised anyone who wanted to be a writer to refrain from procreating -- he is much preoccupied with the family unit.

"The family is the laboratory for all morality, irrespective of how it's configured. A child's relationship to his parents is where everything starts." Does he ever regret not having children? "No. There was a time or two, when I had a sentimental feeling about the thought that I wasn't going to have a child; that was as close as I ever came."

In this book, Dell is 16 when his family life is turned upside down, the same age Ford was when his father died suddenly of a heart attack.

"None of this book is in any way autobiographical, except that my father died when I was 16." He says all of this in his persistent, languorous Mississippi drawl.

"It affected me in two different ways I can articulate. One is it broke my family, just broke it. At the same time as I was aware that this, my father's death -- he died in my arms -- was breaking my family, I was also freed from all of the parental overweaning, loving, constricting forces that were focused on me by being an only child.

"And it was the first time I really ever remember feeling a right-down-the-middle-of-your-chest sense of conflict. If I'm supposed to be sad, why am I not crying? If I'm supposed to be sad, why do I feel a sense of freedom?

"Those are the kind of things that make little boys become novelists."

One of the side effects of reading Ford's novels is a sense of urgency, a keenness to avoid a life of regret.

"One of the things that literature is constantly doing is saying, 'pay attention, pay attention to what you do, don't make a dog's breakfast out of this'. It's just native to me to use literature that way."

He says it comes from a lack of religious belief and a conviction that this is all there is. "I don't believe in an afterlife. Do I think about dying? Yes, I do, but I don't think of it as morbid but a quickening thought: pay attention. Look around. It's going to be gone from you one day. I'm okay about that but I don't want to miss anything in the meantime."

Canada by Richard Ford is published by Bloomsbury

Indo Review