For Raymond Carver, a Lifetime of Storytelling

From the New York Times, May 31, 1988


As a boy growing up in Yakima, Wash., Raymond Carver used to slip into his parents’ room in the evening, sit at the foot of the bed and ask his father to tell him a story. ”He was a good talker,” Mr. Carver said. ”All I had to do to get him going was ask about my great-grandfather.”

Before long, the boy was telling his own stories. ”I’d thought about writing since I was a squirt,” Mr. Carver said. ”But I didn’t know beans about anything. I began by writing science fiction. It was awful. Really awful.”

He was reminiscing recently during an interview at the St. Regis-Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan and in a telephone conversation from his home in Port Angeles, Wash.

Mr. Carver, who was in New York for his induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, described his struggles with poverty, alcoholism, a broken marriage and, now, cancer.

Through it all, he has kept writing, from the first poem he sold, for $1 more than a quarter of a century ago, to his recently published book, ”Where I’m Calling From” (Atlantic Monthly Press), a selection of what he considers his best short stories.

Snakes, Bears and the Civil War

Mr. Carver recalled the evenings when his father, C. R., a sawmill worker, regaled him with stories of hunting and fishing, snakes and bears. He especially remembered the stories about his great-grandfather’s exploits in the Civil War – like the time he stole a hog so the men in his Confederate regiment could eat.

”It opened up a window for me,” Mr. Carver said. ”But I didn’t know anything about writing. I was a C student. I took dumbbell English in high school. The professor was a gym teacher and we sat around talking about football.”

He loved to read, but didn’t know what to read. ”I’d go to the library and follow my nose,” he said. ”I’d pick up a book because of its cover or jacket.”

Despite his lackluster high school performance – ”very near the bottom of my class” – he decided to go on to college. ”I was married by then,” he said. ”I was married at 19. We already had one child and my wife was pregnant again.”

Studied With John Gardner

At Chico State College in California, he took John Gardner’s creative writing course. ”He galvanized me,” Mr. Carver said. ”He told me who to read and helped me learn to write. I’d write something and he’d patiently go over it line by line.”

But writing had to take second place to earning a living. Mr. Carver, his wife, Maryann, and their two children ”became displaced people like so many other people in California; the only native-born son I ever met in California was my own son.”

”It was a hardscrabble life,” he said. ”We lived in various and sundry places, from Los Angeles to Eureka. We worked all the time. It was strictly blue-collar stuff, like cleaning up in fast-food places. Things would come along that we thought would improve our lot and we’d pack up our kids and the belongings. We’d move on and it would begin all over again. I wasn’t doing much writing. I scarcely had time to turn around or draw a breath.”

Mr. Carver’s marriage broke up in 1977. ”We tried hard, but time finally ran out on us,” he said. ”It was an indelible experience. I’ve circled around it many times in my work. It’s not the only thing I write about, but it’s true I’ve circled around that in one way or another.

Grounded in Real Life

”I think marriage is one of those things that writers draw on, one of those emotional reservoirs that go way back,” he said. ”It’s something that I feel I know about, relationships between men and women. I like to write from the woman’s point of view now and again, to get inside her head, to feel what she’s feeling.”

Mr. Carver’s art has imitated his troubled life. ”Most of my stories, if not all of them, have some basis in real life,” he said. ”That’s the kind of fiction I’m most interested in. I suppose that’s one reason I don’t have much respect for fiction that seems to be game-playing. I’m interested in stories that are grounded in the real world.”

”I guess my writing has changed as my life has,” he said. ”There was a time when drinking figured very heavily. For a while I could hardly write a story without mentioning it. But I’ve beaten my alcoholism. And in the last few years drinking has played a small role, or no role at all, in my stories.”

Mr. Carver, who turned 50 last Wednesday, has been living with the poet Tess Gallagher for the last 10 years in an oak and pine house on the Olympic Peninsula, ”about as far west in the continental United States as you can go.”

‘I Just Tell It Straight’

”We influence each other’s work,” he said. ”There was a time when I wasn’t writing many poems and then I saw how seriously Tess was working on hers. That got me to begin writing my own poems again. And I’m not so sure she would have written her book of short stories if not for my writing fiction.”

Mr. Carver feels strongly about the down-and-out, blue-collar characters in his stories. ”I know these people,” he said. ”I’m one of them. I don’t ever treat them with irony.”

But he believes he can get his passions across better by stripping his prose of the passionate. ”I don’t fire up the prose,” he said. ”I just tell it straight and don’t fool around with it.”

He’s quick to acknowledge the influence of Hemingway on his work. ”I read his early stories when I was 18 or 19,” he said. ”There was something about the cadence of those sentences that excited me. It wasn’t just what he was writing about but how he was writing about it. I can still read Hemingway with pleasure. I know he’s not the most popular author right now, but I think he’s a marvelous writer.”

Mr. Carver said he had selected his best works, including seven new ones, for his latest book. ”There’s something different about the new ones,” he said. ”It wasn’t intentional. It just turned out that way. A writer wants to see a change in his stories, wants different things to happen, and I’m pleased about that.”

Fishing and Writing

When he isn’t working, Mr. Carver is often fishing. He has loved fishing since he used to trudge from his parents’ gray tract house in Yakima to Bachelor Creek a mile away. ”Now I’ve bought my own boat and I’ve taken up salmon fishing in a big way,” he said. ”That’s about my only hobby. When I’m fishing I feel guilty that I’m not writing, and when I’m writing I feel guilty that I’m not fishing. But when push comes to shove, I’ll always take the writing.”

Mr. Carver said he was ”in the pink of health” a year ago when he wrote ”Errand,” the final story in his new book, about Chekhov’s losing battle with tuberculosis. Then last September Mr. Carver, like the character in the story, began spitting up blood. He had cancer, and the doctors cut out two-thirds of his left lung last fall. Then he had a relapse, and he recently finished a course of radiation therapy.

”I was terrified at first,” Mr. Carver said. ”Then I decided to fight it and beat it. But I get so awful tired. I thought I’d bounce right back, be my old self. But it doesn’t work out that way. It takes time. It’s bloody frustrating to feel yourself so whipped out. But I’m going to make it. I’ve got fish to catch and stories and poems to write.”

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