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Learning About the Dark: An Interview with Ron Carlson

“Whatever you do, stay in the room.” So advises Ron Carlson in his book on the craft of writing, appropriately titled Ron Carlson Writes a Story. He knows what world exists on the other side of the door: a world full of televised sports, dirty dishes, iced mochachinos. A world full of distraction from the task at hand. Writing, he argues, is about staying in the room, pushing beyond the point where your eyes glaze over and your fingers refuse to type. That’s where the magic lies.


Ron Carlson / photo from UC Irvine website

“Whatever you do, stay in the room.” So advises Ron Carlson in his book on the craft of writing, appropriately titled Ron Carlson Writes a Story. He knows what world exists on the other side of the door: a world full of televised sports, dirty dishes, iced mochachinos. A world full of distraction from the task at hand. Writing, he argues, is about staying in the room, pushing beyond the point where your eyes glaze over and your fingers refuse to type. That’s where the magic lies.

The first time I encountered a Ron Carlson book, I was a few weeks into my first real job, trying to convince a bunch of high school students that, Of course, The Old Man and the Sea relates to your experiences. You’ve been alive, what, fifteen years? Isn’t Santiago’s grand struggle against the unstoppable approach of death totally obvious to you? A friend of mine had mentioned Carlson’s name, said I might like his stuff. I was spending my Saturdays at The Boston Public Library in Copley Square, grading papers and roaming the stacks, as if somewhere amidst the million books I would find the answer for what I wanted to do with my life. That’s when I plucked Ron Carlson’s The News of the World from the shelf.

Here, at last, were stories I wanted to tell: a father covers his roof in horse manure in order to sustain the myth of Santa Claus; a man is haunted by the faces of missing children staring out from his milk cartons; a husband (whose wife’s name is Story!) drops a basketball in the middle of a lake, then attempts to swim to it in the dark, an act that recreates a sperm’s journey, a ritual intended to remedy his wife’s infertility. The collection even included a story about Donkey Kong! I knew then that I would continue to teach—I had to pay back some loans. But I would write, too. Ron Carlson had given me permission to tell my stories.

So I was particularly excited when I heard that Carlson would be traveling to Ann Arbor in February to read at the University of Michigan as part of the Zell Visiting Writers Series. And I was even more excited to have the opportunity to speak with Carlson during his trip. Like his stories, he has a sly humor that is tempered by his seriousness about the craft of fiction. He speaks like someone you know: your father, your teacher, your coach. He tells jokes, shares advice. At dinner he orders sloppy joes and root beer. He makes you want to stay in the room.

Ron Carlson is the author of four story collections and five novels, including The Signal, which was just released in paperback in June. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. His stories and monologues have been featured on NPR’s This American Life and Selected Shorts. Last year he received the Aspen Prize for Literature, an honor previously bestowed on Salman Rushdie. He now lives near Los Angeles and directs the creative writing program at the University of California – Irvine.

Interview:

You’ve been teaching in one capacity or another for forty years. Do you see yourself more as a teacher or a writer, or have the two become so connected that you don’t really separate them in your head?

They have become inextricable, but I was a writer first. I was a young guy, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five-years-old, who stubbornly taught against the grain. I knew other people who thought that way. You paid the bills with teaching and you wrote, but what happened to me is I went to teach at a prep school. I came out of a big public school in Utah, but I ended up in this all-male prep school in Connecticut [The Hotchkiss School] where I got captured by the men. It was bizarre. I was newly married, twenty-three-years-old, and I ran into these master teachers, these guys who had given their lives over to teaching. It wasn’t like you went home, because you lived at school. It was hard—the preparations were exhausting, and then I had to run a dorm with twenty boys on my floor. Crazy times. I’ll write a novel about that some time.

For example, I couldn’t skate but I ended up coaching the hockey team. We also had Saturday classes. For ten years, I taught grammar to sophomores on Saturday mornings, and I liked it. I became a guy who saw where the leverage was. I was energetic, so I learned how to teach, and I learned how to write underneath it. In my third year, I told the department chair that I quit because I wasn’t writing my book, and he said something ridiculous, he said, “To hell with it, take the spring off, we’ll pay you for the spring, and you don’t have to come back.” He saw the big picture. He said, “You’ve got to be a teacher, but you need to get this out of your system so go.”

So I went to Mexico in March and finished my book [Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald]. I called the school in August and said, “I’m coming back.” I served seven more years and loved it. I wrote my second novel at Hotchkiss, one page at a time. Class ended at 12:40pm, I had hockey practice at 1:30, and I would write in the spaces between. I was a teacher who wrote some books. I was never more alive. I’ve never had two years off to just write. If I hadn’t been a teacher, I’d maybe have four more books. But I would have let all the books go in order to teach.

Going back to those years in the classroom and those boys on Saturday mornings, what literature did you enjoy teaching?

There wasn’t much experimentation. You didn’t bring in anything new. I spent ten years reading and learning to love everything I should have read in college—all the Victorians, all the Romantic poets. It fed me in a way that I couldn’t tell you. We read The Odyssey every year. Moby Dick. Then you bring it up to Death of a Salesman, Gatsby. Winesburg, Ohio was particularly poignant in a prep school setting.

What is it like to reach a point in your career where your own books have become part of some schools’ required reading?

Well, it advances the discussion. Now that people have read my work, it’s a privilege. And it’s always a bit of a surprise because everybody knows more about you than you’re used to.

Supposing that you aren’t the author for a minute, are there any Ron Carlson stories you’d enjoy teaching or sharing with students?

Plan BI’m teaching a graduate class this winter called “Forty Stories and One Poem.” That course is oriented on the question “How was that story made?” I’m only interested in how the story was made. Yeah, it bleeds out, and people are going “Wow,” but I say, “Hold the ‘wow.’ I don’t care about the ‘wow.’”  Where does the story start? How does the writer move back? What’s the transition? I’m all nuts and bolts and craft, and I love to share my stories that way. I’d love people to read “Blazo” [from Plan B for the Middle Class] that way or the stories in At the Jim Bridger. I’ve been to a lot of reading groups where people have read my novels, and that’s illuminating. I rarely talk as a writer. I’m always talking as a teacher.

Can you recall a book from your youth that brought you to writing, not necessarily one that made you say, “I want to be a writer,” but “This is the kind of writing I want to do”?

Someone just gave me Robert Stone’s book of stories Fun with Problems, and I read the first paragraph and I put it down and went to write. So Stone, and Thomas McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano. That book is uneven, but even at its low points it’s higher than anybody else.

What I try to do as a teacher, and what I loved as a young writer, is seeing what is possible. When I think of my influences, I think of Richard Brautigan. I think of Ionesco. I think of Cheever. There’s something lovely about being brutally sincere. Simple honesty. Hemingway was a powerful influence when I was in college, but you’ve got to be careful when reading Hemingway. You can’t read him too early. You should really hold the Hemingway until you’re twenty-five. There are also parts of Fitzgerald that I read in college that still get me, passages where he lets go: the center sections of his story “May Day” and  “The Sensible Thing.” That’s where I began to see the viable connection between language and emotion.

In terms of your own writing, you’ve said that the key to success is “surviving the draft,” a process you’ve equated to a refusal to drown. Do you have any tips for those of us out there in the water?

Ron Carlson Writes a StoryThey say that teaching creative writing is a series of offering tips, but I’m not sure that’s true. I think the way forward is always remembering why you wanted it, why you wanted to write. You’ve also got to marry yourself to subjects that have your total attention. That’s so easy to say. It’s like saying, “Find the right person to marry.” But success lies in this 100 percent commitment, even when the writing feels comical or odd. Your desire allows you to stay with the project, allows you to stay in the dark, to survive in the dark. If you’re always in the light when you’re writing a story, it’s probably not a story I’d care to read. One of the reasons we continue this very delicious mystery of talking about creative writing is that you can’t learn about the dark by turning on the lights. Everybody has to go off into the dark. And the reason we’re doing it is not for glory, but for our love of our material. That’s the cornerstone.

You’ve described the stories in your first collection, The News of the World, published in 1989, as “wishful,” and you’ve said that when writing them your imagination “took a sunny turn.” About ten years after that book’s publication, you gave an interview in which you said, “I’m a nice guy, but that’s an impulse I’m slowly conquering.” How is that working out for you?

What you want as a writer is to earn your turns, to earn all the changes. Even when I was in my “sunny” stage, there’s a lot of rube in my stories. If you write a lot, you’ll see that you weren’t even aware that you were writing about the person you would become or the person you had been. A writer has to play with a full deck. You can’t just play with the face cards. You have to reach. A writer’s progress isn’t linear. You don’t go two, four, six, eight. Now I think there’s a clear light and a clear shadow in my work. That’s what you want. Readers are smart, and they want to be taken seriously. They don’t want a gratuitous nod at the good and the bad. I’ve never tried to do that. So-called “happy endings” are very difficult. I don’t even know what a happy ending is. But a dark ending can also be facile in a literary sense. You know, “Cheryl would never be the same again.”  Really? I’m not so sure.

The best writing is recording. We begin with what we know, and we move toward what we don’t. I think that’s fiction’s role. The life I’ve led wants me to be an optimist, but that’s my life. It doesn’t mean I can turn the music up at the ending of every story. I know about craft choices. I know how stories function. What we’re looking for at all times is honesty presented in language so that we can see the world again. Can you surprise me again with something I already know? It’s more important to be real than nice or bad.

You spent a lot of time in your four story collections writing about domestic life: families, husbands, wives, suburbia. Your last two novels in many ways are books without roofs. In other words, they’re stories that take place almost exclusively outdoors with people sleeping in tents, under the stars. Why do you think you’ve gone in this direction as a writer?

Five SkiesI don’t know. I wanted to write a book about work, and that’s Five Skies. I did some temporary work at a fair once where we put up seating and took it down and put up fences and took them down. It was bizarre. So I wrote a page of dialogue, and I’d been reading Rick Bass, and one character asks another, “Did you ever make anything that lasted?” And then I wrote a section about a truck sliding through a snow fence, and it was visceral. I could feel that. About halfway through I saw the real arc of the story, and I freaked out. I called my editor and said, “You’ve got to understand, this book, there aren’t any women in it, and it’s all out of doors, and it’s in the West, and it’s about work. It’s not going to fit.” And he said, “Go. Go nuts.” So I wrote the book, and I was very happy with its reception.

In fact, last year, Five Skies followed best-selling novels such as The Kite Runner and The Secret Life of Bees as the “state book” for the Read Across Rhode Island program. How were you involved in the events surrounding this program?

First of all, those people are the sweetest people of all time. Whenever you go somewhere and meet readers in a room, those are special people. I went to Rhode Island twice for events and it was a dream. We had so much fun. At one of the colleges they had a lecture, and somebody analyzed the book, and somebody cooked all the food from the book, and they acted out a chapter. They were nuts. Then I went to a breakfast later in the year—maybe five hundred people—and some of my old students were there. One guy was in his fifties, he’s a surgeon, and he had skated for me at Hotchkiss.

Does it help with your future projects to think back on the anxiety you felt while writing Five Skies now that it has been so well received?

Yes. That’s why it’s better to remember that you’re only as good as your thinking. In the current world with all the noise, the Internet, and so on, it can be problematic for writers. A lot of things want to divide you. People should talk about that more. A writer can’t multi-task. Multi-tasking is like saying, “I quit.” It’s a phrase people use to explain why they’re doing two things poorly. Both of my last books were received well and got some recognition, but that has nothing to do with what’s next. It’s like flipping a coin. You can stare at that tails for an hour, and it won’t affect what happens next. I’m trying to stay calm about the book I’m writing now because it’s kind of flat, but that’s going to be the way it is. There’s nothing particularly sexy about this next book and that’s OK.

That’s interesting because a lot of people reacted to The Signal by labeling it a thriller. Do you see the book that way or is that description too limiting?

The SignalIt’s very difficult. I have trouble saying what a book is. I say The Signal is a backpacking book, and that’s good for me. I made a decision while writing The Signal that I was going to add some voltage, so I put in some higher profile plot points. It was a really interesting decision when I realized there’d be firearms. I didn’t want it to just be two characters in the woods. I wanted other issues, so I used what I know about writing to make the rest of it have a purchase in credibility. So, yeah, I pumped it up at the end. If it was my only book ever, I might not have done that. But then I thought, “Come on, you’re going to write more books, so let’s put it in.” There was something fun about it. When you tie a knot like that, and then untie it, it’s a kind of pleasure.

Let me throw a Ron Carlson quote at you as a way to address your writing process. You said, “I’m not going to wait for eight months of free time to write a great big book. That would be like a snake eating a pig. I want to nibble. I want to eat every day.” Still nibbling?

Absolutely. On the best days, I can get ninety minutes or 700 words. You use whatever ritual you can find. You push. I’ve written some stories five sentences a day for a hundred days. A lot of days I’d stop in the middle of a word. I’d know how to pick up, because I knew how to spell. But during my busiest times at school, I have to keep myself alive with blips, maybe only two days a week. Ultimately, the goal is to be working more days of the week than not.

I’d like to ask about the ways that your love of movies has influenced or hovered in the background of much of your writing. A number of your characters are connected to Hollywood in some way, either as professionals or as movie-lovers, and several of your works include epigraphs that are from films. What kinds of movies interest you, and how has your appreciation for on-screen stories affected your writing?

In my formative years, movies were something you saw rarely. You saw them once, or if they were on TV, you made sure to watch. I loved horror movies and all the old science fiction. It was the 1950s, so we had It Came From Beneath the Sea, and all that stuff got me. It still does, because that’s what I rent on Netflix. It’s pathetic. Someone will come over and I’ll say, “You want to see the octopus that attacked San Francisco?”

Really, all culture has affected my writing. Songs, stories, especially ballads, Western ballads. I grew up in a time when we had a monolithic culture. We all had the same twenty references in television, in movies, in song. And now there’s such a multiplicity, such huge diversity.

In a long-ago interview you mentioned that you were working on a screenplay for your story “Life Before Science.” Then, in 2008, your story “Keith” was made into a movie. Many readers have also suggested that Five Skies and The Signal would translate well to the screen. Do you see more Hollywood in your future?

All my work is under option, and I wish them the best, but I’m not following it. There’s one piece I have that I’d like to write the screenplay: my story “Beanball.”  I did write a screenplay for my novel The Speed of Light and there are inquiries about that every few years. Really, film is just a windfall. When someone buys the rights to your book, you’ve got to let go. My plate’s full with teaching. If I was worried about money, I might go scrambling, but I’ve been blessed not to do that. I never had to write anything for money because I had a job and that allowed me to write crazily. I had to write and not let my students know what I was writing. And I’ve been lucky. I’ve published just about everything I ever wrote. So, no, I don’t plan on doing anything in particular for the movies. I would much rather spend the day at my house having a pot of coffee, having gotten in my six hundred words. Maybe go to the post office on my bike, call a friend, write for a bonus hour. That really is the center of my life.

Further Links and Resources:

  • Read Ron Carlson’s story “At Copper View,” which was originally published in Five Points Vol. V, No. 1. This story was collected in At the Jim Bridger. It was also one of fifty stories short-listed for a 2001 O. Henry Prize.
  • You can also read Carlson’s introduction to the Fall 2006 issue of Ploughshares, in which he discusses what makes a good story.
  • Here is a 2009 interview with Carlson from the New West website where he discusses his new novel, The Signal.
  • Listen to an audio version of Carlson’s Christmas story “The H Street Sledding Record.”
  • Ron Carlson describes teaching as “an act of investigation,” much like the process of writing itself, in this brief clip about teaching in the UC-Irvine writing program:
  • Here is an interview with Ron Carlson from UC-Irvine’s 2009 Literary Orange Festival:
  • Watch The Gold Lunch, a short film by Joanna Kerns adapted from Ron Carlson’s story:

Contributor

Tim Hedges

Tim Hedges holds degrees from Cornell University, Ohio State University, and the University of Michigan, where he is currently a Lecturer. His fiction has appeared in Sycamore ReviewHarpur PalateThe Summerset ReviewSoundings East, and Cicada. A native of Ohio, he taught high school English near Boston just long enough to see the Celtics win a world championship, the Red Sox win two, and the Patriots win three. He does not like any of those teams. He now lives near Detroit with his wife and son. Three books that may or may not have made him cry are Love of Seven Dolls by Paul Gallico, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.


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