On Sunday afternoon at Printers Row Lit Fest, away from the crowds strolling through aisles of used books or the ruckus of tots being entertained at the Lil' Lit Park Neverland, Richard Ford took to the stage in the Harold Washington Library Center and read the opening of his story "Under the Radar," from the short story anthology he edited, "Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar." (Proceeds from the book benefit 826Michigan, a nonprofit that teaches writing to young people.)
Ford is the writer who created the yearning — and occasionally irritating — narrator Frank Bascombe, who stands with Willy Loman, Augie March and Rabbit Angstrom as among postwar America's most significant literary characters. Bascombe appears in Ford's trilogy of novels "The Sportswriter," "Independence Day" (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and "The Lay of the Land."
From the front row came a patiently raised hand. "Frank Bascombe," began a young man, "more than any other character in literature that I can recall, came alive in a way that made me care about him, not just as a character but as a human being. … What does it feel like to be a writer, to create that character?" And as the audience listened carefully, he added, "Is your allegiance to the character, or the story?"
In response, Ford honored the eloquent inquiry: The questions, he explained, got to the marrow of what it is to be a fiction writer.
Amid all the festival buzz, this intimate moment will endure. It confirmed that though writing, and reading, can be solitary acts, the shared experience can illuminate our worlds and lead us to places we might be afraid to travel on our own.
And readers like Steve Koteff, Sunday's questioner, will lead the way. Koteff, raised in Beverly and a Brother Rice High School graduate, attended the festival on a break from exams at Northwestern University, where he is a junior. "Fiction," he explained, "can teach the reader what it means to be human now."
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