Echoes of Our Own Lives
An interview with Raymond Carver
(Iowa City, Iowa on April 15, 1978)
It is late afternoon, a Saturday, and we are
sitting in my apartment drinking
coffee. Outside the
living room window some neighborhood children are
A station wagon moves slowly down the street. It could be the
opening scene from
one of his short stories because it is
Raymond Carver lights his cigarette, gestures
slightly with the match, leans forward.
"You are not your characters, but your
characters are you," he says.
An interesting observation
considering the many roles that Carver has
played in his lifetime. He has been a janitor,
mill hand, a
man, a retail clerk and an editor of a publishing
firm. He has taught fiction
writing at several
universities including the Iowa Writer's Workshop from
For the next few months, however, Carver will
simply be living in Iowa
City, working on several writing
projects before leaving the Midwest to
join the faculty of
Goddard College in Vermont.
"This is a new time in my
life. My children are both grown and I just
received a Guggenheim Fellowship. I have
large blocks of time to work
with," he says?.
"I've been working on a novel.
I had already received an advance from
the publisher, but they've
agreed to accept a collection of short stories this
Carver has previously published two collections of
his short stories: Will
You Please Be Quiet, Please?
which was a National Book Award nomi-
nee for 1977, and
Furious Seasons which includes his Pushcart Prize
ning story, "So Much Water So Close To Home."
thinks of himself primarily as a fiction writer, although he has
lished three excellent volumes of poetry and is assembling a
"A year ago I thought I'd never write another
poem. I don't know exactly
what it is, but since I've been
in Iowa City I've written an entire book. The
weeks have been very good."
a while about the division that is sometimes evident between a
writer's poetry and prose. I suggest that Carver's poems
often resemble his
fiction. He lights another
"I believe a plot line is very important.
Whether I'm writing a poem or writ-
ting prose I am still trying
to tell a story. For a long time I wrote poems
didn't have time to write short stories. The nice thing about
poem is that there is instant gratification. And if
something goes wrong, it's
right there. It would be a hard
thing for me to work for months on a novel
and then have it be
bad. It would be a tremendous investment for me and I
have a very long attention span."
is fair to say Carver's poems resemble his short stories, it is
true his short stories have a poetic intensity. The
language is very clear and
deceptively simple. The reader
is never certain where the action is going
until the climax
Raymond Carver has tremendous skill with dialogue
and his characters
remain tangible in the most bizarre
In the story, "What's In Alaska?," Mary and Carl
spend an evening with
Jack and Helen trying out the water pipe
Jack received for his birthday.
Carver not only simulates the
conversations of four stoned adults with
amusing accuracy, he
succeeds in subtly suggesting a series of conflicts
a subliminal tension in the reader, a tension tht culminates
the disturbing last lines of the story.
fiction quite often encourages a kind of empathic response in
readers. This is due to his keen eye for comon small
details, details we
imagine unique to our personal
histories. We sometimes forget we are
suspect that we are dealing with echoes of our own words,
We refill our coffee cups and I ask him about process,
the origins of his
stories. He pauses for a
"A lot of things come from experience, or sometimes
from something I've
heard, a line somewhere."
that often his titles are taken from lines in his stories. He
"You start writing. Sometimes you
don't find what you are trying to say in
the story until you turn
a line, and then sudenly you know where the story
You just have to discover as you go. Then when you get that
draft, you go back."
"Everything is important in a
story, every word, every punctuation mark. I
much in economy in fiction. Some of my stories, like
"Neighbors," were three times as long in their first
drafts. I really like the
"Beginnings are very important. A story is
either blessed or cursed with its
opening lines. Editors
have so many manuscripts to look through that often
all they do
is look at the first paragraph or two unless it's an author they
Apparently Carver knows what he's doing because
his stories have been
included in some of the most competitive
collections in the country: Best
Short Stories and O. Henry
The longest pause in our conversation
follows my question, "What do you
think about writing programs
such as the Iowa Writer's Workshop? I
know you were a
student here years ago."
"I think writing programs are a good
thing, a place to learn craft. Of course
one problem is
that a lot of people who are active in the writing program
never heard from again after they leave it. They move away
school and they just stop writing."
"My time at
Iowa wasn't very productive. I didn't put much work up.
was here for two semesters and I left before I could get my
"The important thing is to find someone you can work
with. For me it was
John Gardner. He was there at a
very important time in my development."
Carver will read in
the English Lounge at 8 PM today; will read, perhaps, the
title story from his new collection of short fiction, "Why Don't
"I might read another story also, he says,
"Put Yourself In My Shoes."
I'll decide on
Carver stands up, looks at me, his cup in his
hand. "Is there anymore
coffee?" he asks.