Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2
Shooting the Breeze with Ron Carlson: Cues from a Pro
James Barbour (MFA, Arizona State U) is a sports writer and free-lance journalist, whose work has appeared in Weber Studies, Atlanta Review, Cimarron Review, and The River Review/La Revue Riviere (forthcoming). See other work by James Barbour published in Weber Studies: Vol. 13.2, Vol. 17.1, and Vol. 22.2.
Listening to the stories of the popular author and teacher as he discusses his new book and his trouble with Evil while playing pool
The Cue Club is a welcome retreat from the 90 degree temperatures outside. It's dark and quiet, the kind of place writers might have come to talk about their work in another era. Except for the NBA game flickering from television monitors above the bar, the dark-paneled, brassy Cue Club could easily be the scene of a story by Ring Lardner or James T. Farrell. With a sigh of relief, Ron Carlson walks through the front door. After a preliminary pint of Guinness Stout, Carlson proposes a game of billiards, as he discusses his evolution as a writer.
Carlson himself is a genial presence, and no mean hand with a pool cue. A tall, handsome man, with silver hair that still gives him a youthful air, he maintains a friendly blur of conversation, commenting wryly about his own shots, and complimenting his opponent's. He wins the first break, and lines up three quick shots that drop solid-colored balls into the pool table's pockets.
"I'm a nice guy," he says, sinking a difficult bank shot, 'but that's an impulse I'm slowly conquering.
"It goes like this," Ron begins. "I was a very happy kid, animal happy, unconscious, blessed: baseball, bicycles, the sleep-out record. You can look it all up: the west side of Salt Lake City was the garden of Eden. And I've grown up to be a happy man. Who can talk like this? They'll edit this for sure. But I'll be fifty this fall. The evidence may be in."
Ron Carlson was born in Logan, Utah. His parents moved to a working-class suburb of Salt Lake City~ and he grew up there with two younger brothers in a kind of Little Rascals / Norman Rockwell version of the fifties. His father, a welding engineer, taught him to fish and camp in the mountains of Utah. His mother, a poet and self-taught linguist, was a famous local contestor. In 1959, for twenty-five words or less, she won $15,000 dollars.
"My father was stories; my mother was words. She's still a member of the National Puzzlers League. She's got twenty kinds of dictionaries."
Carlson earned his baccalaureate degree from the University of Utah in 1970, where he met Elaine Craig (his wife of 27 years) in a literature class. They were married shortly after graduation. While he was pursuing his master's degree, Carlson began to work with David Kranes.
"There was a real sense of ignition. Kranes was an inspired teacher, and I've modeled a lot of my own teaching after him. Frankly, he helped me find out what I was writing, that it was possible to go ahead with it. I realized, when Kranes took my stories as seriously as I did, that this wasn't just an assignment crossing his desk."
Fresh from graduate school, Ron and Elaine taught at Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, and Ron worked on his first novel. Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald was published by W.W. Norton in 1977. His second novel Truants (1981) soon followed, as well as his highly successful short story collections News of the World (1987) and Plan B for the Middle Class (1992), all published by Norton.
Carlson has been a writing teacher for over twenty-five years, and a professor at Arizona State University since 1986. He's just finished a six year stint as the Director of the University's Creative Writing program. His short fiction appears in national publications such as GQ, Harpers, and Esquire. Carlson co-hosts a program devoted to books and writers called "Books & Company," which is broadcast on the PBS affiliate KAET. He is a frequent guest instructor at writers' conferences such as "Writers at Work" and the Aspen Writers Conference.
His latest collection of short stories is a departure from the tone of Carlson's previous efforts -the new writing has a tougher, more visceral edge. The Hotel Eden takes a litmus test of the emotional tenor of America's suburbs and small towns.
"The main difference is that I'm a lot less deft than I used to be," Carlson says, with an embarrassed laugh. "But that's an interesting question because it speaks to the genesis and migration of story ideas. Very often the sound of the characters speaking has helped me. Sometimes what they say opens up a whole inventory, so I turn over as many rocks as I can, and often, those elements instruct me as I write."
Carlson explains that creating short stories for him frequently involves examining a situation from a skewed perspective, hoping this will give him insight into the hearts of his characters. "It's like looking behind the cardboard man, and seeing what's holding it up," he observes.
Nancy Forbes, writing in the New York Book Review (4 January1987), said of Carlson's earlier works that "the subject matter is domestic life, whose secrets he tracks like a hunter, flushing them out with paranoid intensity." Indeed, anything which threatens to disrupt the family Carlson sees as an element of the chaos of modern life.
"So much of our fiction involves people out of context," Carlson remarks. It is that sense of dislocation which figures most prominently in The Hotel Eden.
Carlson prowls around the pool table, examining different possibilities before settling on a long across-the-table shot in the comer pocket. As the six ball drops, he denies that he's consciously worked away from his previous fiction, which some critics found sentimental. Richard Eder wrote in The Los Angeles Times that the stories in News of The World tended to be "an outpouring instead of an evaporation of spirit."
"It was at a time when the dew was on everything," Carlson says, reconsidering News of the World and Plan l3for the Middle Class, which were published shortly after he adopted his two sons, Colin and Nick. "I listened carefully to what people said, and most often that was 'you're being affirmative.' But I don't want gratuitous affirmation. I want it to be true. Neither do I want gratuitous angst. There's a ton of that. These new stories are darker and tougher, and there's an erotic edge that has a different dynamic to it than my earlier writing.
"Sometimes when a writer is working there's a kind of spillage. I'd rather spill than try and mop up. I'm not afraid of emotion, and most, though not all, of my emotions are centered in and around my family. And I can be a little over-indulgent sometimes. Eder's comments came at a time when my stories were juxtaposed against the minimalist stories that were everywhere. As a writer your concerns do change, as does your willingness to confront things, in that you're more able to bring that to the page.
"My theory of the short story is that anything goes. In these three books, I've tried to write stories that I would read twice. No formulas, stay out of other people's footprints. If someone else can write it, let them. And if you're writing for someone else, stop.
"Each of the stories in The Hotel Eden is an exploration. I usually start from the smallest place, and it's very personal. Without really knowing where it might go, I'll try and evoke something, somewhere Elaine and I went, or a mistake I made. So I start with a hot point, try and feature it, and open it with respect as I write....
"The lightest stories in the collection are about people who have lost their loves. The more serious stories are people who are losing love, and part of themselves.
"I think there's nothing better than a romantic, character or writer, because of all the fraught counter-point within his or her breast. There's the knowledge that you're in love, but you're going to be heartbroken. It's the lost thing -the difference between what I want and what I got. That's one of the great energies in lots of writers - in Richard Ford's work, and it's one of the quiet energies at work in Ann Beattie's as well. I may be more overt, and I think I'm a simpler writer than either of those two writers, in that I name names, and I'm not particularly smart.
"Any writer spends a lot of time 'fishing,' making forays into this and that. For some people, lightning strikes, but for the rest of us, you make inroads into the wilderness, and you're not sure what you're doing. I'd written two novels, and had them published before I felt I could go out into that wilderness and write a message without a rote format that mattered to me. That happened with News of the World. It was then that I felt I could stand on my own. Now, I like that buzz you feel when you're on the trail of something graphic and realistic, and you know the words are really close to something honest."
The landscape figures prominently in Carlson's new work. "I believe in place more and more!" he says, dropping the last solid ball on the table. He turns his attention to the eight ball, calling a comer pocket shot. "It's one of the great pleasures in reading a story, and second, it's one of the key instruments in writing a story. As my friend, Shelby Hearon, said this summer at the Aspen Writer's Conference, 'nothing happens no where.'
"This is part of the absolute fundamentals. I need place. It's place that gives me everything, because if I can believe where I am, I can believe that something happens there."
That fish was a keeper, a twenty-one inch Brown, and so were the two
Toby took around the next bend as we passed under a monstrous spruce that
leaned over the water. Four hills later we drifted into the narrows of Red
Canyon. It was the deep middle of the everlasting summer twilight, and I
cranked us over to the bank, booting the old wooden oars hard on the shallow
rocky bottom. We came ashore halfway down the gorge so we could make
camp. The rocky cliffs had gone coral in the purple sky and the river glowed
green behind us as we unloaded the raft. ("Floating the Green," in The Hotel
Carlson is well known for his imaginative experiments in the form of the story. In "The Chromium Hook" the story radiates out from the central hub of a Halloween prank as explained by a panoply of characters, including a radio announcer, institutionalized. housewife, high school football star, the town sheriff, an estranged husband, and a one-armed psychopath. "The Chromium Hook" was recently staged at Emerson College.
"Many times, I do write a story from a notion, as I did in 'The Chromium Hook.' In that story, and in the other stories which involve a certain retrospective, either by a single character, or stories where different people have different points of view, the story idea starts there, but I have no real sense of where it's going to end."
Winning the next break, Carlson runs the table, sinking four balls in a row. He pauses, passing the cue back and forth between his hands.
"One of the things I'm proudest of in my work is that I'm not smarter than any of my stories," Carlson says. "They've taught me a lot! But you have to be patient, and listen. It's humbling." He resists having his work categorized, or thought of as operating in a particular literary tradition or style. "As a writer I stay away from the teacher's side of the desk, come out from behind it, and go native."
The rebounding of the pool balls across the table reminds him of the writing life; of influences, the waxing and waning of literary fashions. "I think writers are doing the correct thing by writing as fiercely as they can, in the way in which they want to," he says. "What we need in stories is a true dramatic dynamic, which is evidenced by the complicated human heart. Everybody knows this. It isn't a secret!
"I'm most interested in finding dramatic moments that broaden and reveal our emotional inventory. What I'm trying to do with these stories is have an examination of some of our, for lack of a better phrase, 'moral conundrums.' You get into a place where some of the options benefit you, where some harm you, sometimes where both are true, and it isn't clear which is which.
"When I was working on 'Oxygen,' there's a scene where the main character is asked to get a glass of water for a man who is bedridden":
Mr. Rensdale lay white and twisted in the bed. He looked the way
the dying look, his face parched and sunken, the mouth a dry orifice,
his eyes little spots of water….
He rolled his hand in a little flip toward the bed table and his glass
of water....Who knows what happened in me then, because I stood in the little bedroom with Mr. Rensdale and then I just rolled the dolly and the expired tank out and down the stairs. I didn't go to him; I didn't hand him the glass of water. I burned; who would ever know what I had done? ("Oxygen," in The Hotel Eden).
"It's the turning point in the story~ and the kid doesn't do it. He just leaves the room. And that's what I mean about fighting my nice-guy impulse. Because he could have got him the water, and when he didn't, I sat at the typewriter for about ten minutes absolutely mortified, but I was thrilled, it was this sense of nasty shame. And I knew the story had taken the turn I wanted, and now I had to follow it very closely."
"My favorite quote about this is what Joy Williams said. She wants her stories to be 'swift and damaging.' The responsibility of fiction is to ask the question precisely. And that's all we do—not answer the question; not be pat, zip it closed, or make us all pleased with ourselves.
"I don't think about theme. I'm interested in a story because it is real, and it will help us believe what the next sentence might be. That's my credo. You write a sentence, and you hope you keep people around the fire, that they believe you, until the next sentence.
"We were talking about craft considerations in stories at a writing conference once, when this guy said he was 'worried about evil in his novels.' And it just stopped me flat. I said, 'Good, good! you want trouble with evil.' There's an example of a writer with his cart before his horse, where he knows what he wants to say, and he's going to prove it somehow. I see a lot of that-does theme come before story, or story before theme?"
After a second win at the pool table, Carlson "scratches" after the break. Replacing the cue ball on the table with a rueful grin, he recalls an analogous experience. "My editor called me up and said, J have good news and bad news." I said "Tell me the good news." It turned out that my first book was reviewed in the daily New York Times. And it was good news because the Times isn't going to blast nobody from nowhere. So she read the review to me, and it was fabulous, written by an editor from The Nation; everything I wanted. So I asked, "What's the bad news?" There was a blackout in New York; the paper never bit the streets. It was 14 June 197 and so my picture and that review appear in a collector's edition of the Times.
"It's a funny story now. Reviews are an interesting problem for a writer. Honestly, I'm not really used to them. It's part of the marketplace, and I try to not think of the marketplace."
A scratch indeed, but it's the kind of self-deprecatory anecdote Carlson likes to impart when he is a guest instructor at writers' conferences. As the billiard balls have stopped dropping for him, Carlson turns philosophical. He explains that he continually seeks out new challenges as a writer, so that he doesn't find himself writing the same book, or story.
"You know (that you've challenged yourself) when you get in the margins, writing about when people do and do not tell the truth; when you're talking about how close people get to each other. Then you're involved in writing a story that you realize will be revelatory. I feel a sudden moment of doubt, a hesitation, but I ignore it. I want to get the story, but it's going to be tough.
"Part of the privilege of having written so many stories is that now I feel 'bring it on.' That's what writing is, a strange pleasant dance you do, in which you know at any time you can be harmed. I wouldn't write a story that didn't matter to me, or write a story that I felt anyone else could write. So there, as soon as you've defined those boundaries, you understand that you're at risk-that this all matters, and is important."