Raymond Carver

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
arguing.  A station wagon moves slowly down the street.  It could be the
opening scene from one of his short stories because it is seemingly
ordinary.

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, a saw mill hand, a delivery
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
1973-1974.

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
fall, instead.

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 win-
ning story, "So Much Water So Close To Home."

Carver thinks of himself primarily as a fiction writer, although he has pub-
lished three excellent volumes of poetry and is assembling a fourth.

"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
past few weeks have been very good."

We talk 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 cigarette.

"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
because I didn't have time to write short stories.  The nice thing about a
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
don't have a very long attention span."

If it is fair to say Carver's poems resemble his short stories, it is equally
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 arrives.

Raymond Carver has tremendous skill with dialogue and his characters
remain tangible in the most bizarre situations.

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
which create a subliminal tension in the reader, a tension tht culminates in
the disturbing last lines of the story.

Carver's fiction quite often encourages a kind of empathic response in his
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
reading fictions, suspect that we are dealing with echoes of our own words,
our own lives.

We refill our coffee cups and I ask him about process, the origins of his
stories.  He pauses for a moment.

"A lot of things come from experience, or sometimes from something I've
heard, a line somewhere."

I mention that often his titles are taken from lines in his stories.  He leans
forward.

"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
is going.  You just have to discover as you go.  Then when you get that first
draft, you go back."

"Everything is important in a story, every word, every punctuation mark.  I
believe very much in economy in fiction.  Some of my stories, like
"Neighbors," were three times as long in  their first drafts.  I really like the
process of rewriting."

"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
know."

Apparently Carver knows what he's doing because his stories have been
included in some of the most competitive collections in the country:  Best
Amerian Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories.

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
are never heard from again after they leave it.  They move away from the
school and they just stop writing."

"My time at Iowa wasn't very productive.  I didn't put much work up.  I
was here for two semesters and I left before I could get my M.F.A."

"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 You Dance?"

"I might read another story also, he says, "Put Yourself In My Shoes." 
I'll decide on Tuesday."

Carver stands up, looks at me, his cup in his hand.  "Is there anymore
coffee?" he asks.




ęDavid L. Koehne & Paleale Productions