Prose as Architecture:
Two Interviews with Raymond Carver
Translated by William L. Stull
© copyright 1995-96 Clockwatch Review Inc., all rights reserved
Raymond Carver's death at fifty in 1988 cut short the career of the most influential American short story writer since Ernest Hemingway. But it did not put an end to Carver's writing--or his influence.
In the years since Carver's death a steady stream of posthumous works has appeared, thanks in large part to the efforts of his widow, the writer Tess Gallagher. These range from Carver's last-written book of poems, A New Path to the Waterfall (1989), to some of his earliest literary efforts: No Heroics Please: Uncollected Writings (1991) and Carnations: A Play in One Act (1992). The biographical volumes Carver Country (1990), . . .When We Talk About Raymond Carver (1991), and Remembering Ray (1993) have kept his memory alive, as have the television documentaries Dreams Are What You Wake Up From (1989) and To Write and Keep Kind (1992). And of course there's Short Cuts (1993), Robert Altman's irreverent Hollywood take on Carver's world.
As Raymond Carver surely knew, when the man dies the writer gets the final word, insofar as any word is ever final. (Think of Carver's much-loved poem "Gravy," a valediction published in The New Yorker three weeks after his death.) Despite the passing of the man, then, conversation with the writer continues. During Carver's life his principal means of dialogue with readers was the interview, a medium to which he readily submitted despite his native shyness. In compiling Conversations with Raymond Carver (1990) the editors located some 50 Carver interviews (in languages ranging from Dutch to Japanese) and included 25 in the finished book. There, Carver the writer once again has the last word. "I've got a book to finish," he assures the closing interlocutor. "I'm a lucky man."
Translated below are two interviews with Raymond Carver that have not
previously appeared in English. The first, with the French literary journalist
Claude Grimal, took place during a visit to Paris in the spring of 1987.
(For details of the trip, see Tess Gallagher's "European Journal"
in the Autumn 1988 Antaeus.). The second, conducted by Silvia Del Pozzo
for the Milanese weekly Panorama, dates from the spring of 1986. In each
case, the occasion of the interview was the publication of one or more
of Carver's books in foreign language translation, a process that has intensified
since his death. Indeed, the only complete edition of his worksÑin
seven boxed volumesÑis printed not in English but in Japanese. In
the interviews below Carver talks about his life and writings, taking care
to sidestep labels and abstractions. He defends the short story form in
the land of Maupassant, and in the country of Boccaccio he plays literary
godfather to a new generation of young American writers. A striking keynote
in both interviews is Carver's invocation of Hemingway's modernist battle
cry, "Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque
is over." Proud to claim his American heritage even as he pays homage
to the European masters, Raymond Carver speaks, as ever, for himself. William
Stories Don't Come Out of Thin Air
Having published French editions of Cathedral (1985) andWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1986), Editions Mazarine is now publishing Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, a third collection of short stories by Raymond Carver. This was Carver's first major work. It was published in the United States in 1976 and nominated for a National Book Award in 1977.
The book contains twenty-one stories, each running about ten pages. In the first one, "Fat," a waitress tells two relatively uninterested friends, Rudy and Rita, that she had a fat man for a customer, the fattest man she had ever seen. "That's a funny story, Rita says, but I can see she doesn't know what to make of it." The reader feels a little bit like Rita. The characters drink tea, go to bed. The story ends with an unexpectedly optimisitic (?) phrase from the narrator: "My life is going to change. I feel it."
In the second story, "The Idea," a couple observes a neighbor who goes out in his garden at night to watch his own wife undress in the bedroom. Later the same evening the narrator--the voyeuristic woman who with her spouse has observed the voyeuristic husband across the way--sprays insecticide on armies of ants that have appeared under the sink in her kitchen. All the while she fumes, "That trash. . . . The idea!"
In "Put Yourself in My Shoes," the Myerses pay a visit to a couple whose house they had rented, furnished, for a seinester. The couple, on the pretext that Mr. Myers is a writer, tell him and his wife strange stories, then accuse them of having ransacked their belongings, of having messed up or lost some of them. Through it all Myers bubbles over with laughter. When the Myerses take their leave, Paula Myers exclaims, "They were scary." Her husband watches the road in silence: "He was at the very end of a story."
Carver's characters, drawn from middle America, are threatened in their work, their love lives, their equilibrium, their identity. They are always caught at a moment of truth: revelation, "dis-ease," anguish, fascination. These feelings remain incomprehensible, so inexplicable that it is safe to say Carver's subtle and precise art is an art of effects, never of causes. Carver's sentences, straightforward and direct, fly to the mark, in stories that the author says "ought to leave the reader with a great sense of mystery, but never a feeling of frustration." Raymond Carver read several of his short stories at the Village Voice Bookstore (6, rue Princess) in April 1987. The bookstore will host him again in June for a reading of his poetry.
Claude Grimal: Why did you choose to write short stories rather than, say, novels?
Raymond Carver: Life circumstances. I was very young. I got married at eighteen. My wife was seventeen; she was pregnant. I had no money at all and we had to work all the time and bring up our two children. It was also necessary that I go to college to learn how to write, and it was simply impossible to start something that would have taken me two or three years. So I set myself to writing poems and short stories. I could sit down at a table, start and finish in one sitting.
CG: Do you consider yourself as good a poet as a short story writer? And what relationship do you see between your poetry and your prose?
RC: My stories are better known, but, myself, I love my poetry. Relationship? My stories and my poems are both short. (Laughs.) I write them the same way, and I'd say the effects are similar. There's a compression of language, of emotion, that isn't to be found in the novel. The short story and the poem, I've often said, are closer to each other than the short story and the novel.
CG: You approach the problem of image the same way?
RC: Oh, image. You know, I don't feel, as someone said to me, that I center my poems or my stories on an image. The image emerges from the story, not the other way around. I don't think in terms of image when write.
CG: In what poetic tradition do you place yourself?
RC: Let's see . . . I don't care for Wallace Stevens. I like William Carlos Williams. I like Robert Frost, and lots of contemporaries: Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Ted Hughes, C.K. Williams, Robert Hass, lots of contemporary poets. There's a real renaissance in the United States right now in poetry. And in prose too, especially among short story writers.
CG: For example?
RC: There's lots of very good work going on right now in America. It's a good time for writers. Short stories are selling well. There's an enormous amount of young talent. I edited an anthology, The Best American Short Stories 1986, and discovered writers I'd never heard of, all of them very good. Among the contemporaries I admire there's Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, who's a first-rate writer, Jayne Anne Phillips for some of her stories, Ann Beattie, Barry Hannah, Grace Paley, Harold Brodkey, certain stories by John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. The Englishman Ian McEwan. There's also a very young writer some of whose stories I like, Amy Hempel. And Richard Yates, who lived in France in the fifties.
CG: Are you thinking about writing a novel?
RC: Well, nowadays I can write what I want, not just stories, so maybe I'll do it. I'm under contract for another short story collection. Most of them are written, and it will come out in January. After that, I'll see. After my first collection, everyone wanted me to write a novel. There were lots of pressures. I even accepted an advance to write a novel . . . and instead I wrote short stories. Oh, I don't know, I'm thinking about a longer story in any case . . . which might turn into a novel. But I don't feel any compulsion to write a novel. I'll write what I want to write. I like the freedom I have have now. I've written poetry and essays, autobiographical essays too, on John Gardner, who was my teacher, on my father, on my problems with alcohol that I overcame in 1977. At the moment the publisher is very pleased; my stories are selling well. Things are great.
CG: What do you make of the fact that in France your later short story collections were translated before your first one?
RC: Well, the advantage is that the stories in Cathedral are more developed and that this new book will attract readers who wouldn't have been drawn to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In the end, I don't know . . . Yes, I think the publisher made a good decision.
CG: So you think that between your first book and your latest you've changed your way of writing?
RC: Yes, very much. My style is fuller, more generous. In my second book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the stories were very clipped, very short, very compressed, without much emotion. In my latest book, Cathedral, the stories have more range. They're fuller, stronger, more developed, and more hopeful.
CG: Is this something you did intentionally?
RC: No, not intentionally. I don't have any program, but the circumstances of my life have changed. I've stopped drinking, and maybe I'm more hopeful now that I'm older. I don't know, but I think it's important that a writer change, that there be a natural development, and not a decision. So when I finish a book, I don't write anything for six months, except a little poetry or an essay.
CG: When you write your stories, do you write with the idea of a set, a whole that will be a collection? Or do you consider them independently of one another?
RC: I think of them as a set. I write them and little by little the idea of a whole takes shape.
CG: How do you choose the titles of your collections?
RC: It's generally the title of the best story. But it's also the most exciting title. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is an irresistible title.
CG: Which stories are your favorites?
RC: "Cathedral." "A Small, Good Thing." There are lots of stories I don't like anymore, but I won't tell you which ones. I'd like to publish a "selected stories," but certainly not a complete collection of my stories.
CG: "A Small, Good Thing" is the result of rewriting an earlier story, "The Bath," that's inWe Talk About When We Talk About Love.
RC: Yes. "The Bath" appeared in a magazine. It won I no longer know what prize, but the story bothered me. It didn't seem finished to me. There were still things to say, and while I was writing Cathedral (I never wrote a book more quickly than that one, let it be said in passing; it didn't take me more than eighteen months), things happened for me. The story "Cathedral" seemed to me completely different from everything I'd written before. I was in a period of generosity. I looked at "The Bath" and I found the story was like an unfinished painting. So I went back and rewrote it. It's much better now. Someone's even made a film of it, a fellow from Hollywood. The Australians, too, they've made a film of "Feathers." I've seen the first film and it looked good, as did the second one. They put in the peacock, the set of teeth. It's very funny.
CG: Could you talk about the endings of your stories? The ending of "Cathedral," for instance?
RC: Well, the character there is full of prejudices against blind people. He changes; he grows. I'd never written a story like that. It's the first story I wrote after finishing What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and I'd let six months go by. Then, when I wrote that story, I felt it was truly different. I felt a real impetus in writing it, and that doesn't happen with every story. But I felt I'd tapped into something. I felt it was very exciting. The sighted man changes. He puts himself in the blind man's place. The story affirms something. It's a positive story and I like it a lot for that reason. People say it's a metaphor for some other thing, for art, for making . . . But no, I thought about the physical contact of the blind man's hand on his hand. It's all imaginary. Nothing like that ever happened to me. Well, there was an extraordinary discovery. The same thing happened in "A Small, Good Thing." The parents are with the baker. I wouldn't want to say this story lifts up the soul, but even so, it ends on a positive note. The couple is able to accept the death of their child. That's positive. There's a communion of sorts. The two stories end on a positive note, and I like that very much. I'll be very happy if these two stories last.
CG: Is the autobiographical element important in your stories?
RC: It is for the writers I like most: Maupassant, Chekhov. Stories have to come from somewhere. In any case, those that I like do. There have to be lines of reference coming from the real world.
CG: That's true for you when you write, but do you think your biography can help the reader?
RC: No, not at all. It's only that I use certain autobiographical elements, somethingÑan image, a sentence I heard, something I saw, that I did, and then I try to transform that into something else. Yes, there's a little autobiography and, I hope, a lot of imagination. But there's always a little element that throws off a spark, for Philip Roth or Tolstoy, for Maupassant, for the writers I like. Stories don't come out of thin air. There's a spark. And that's the kind of story that most interests me. For example, for "Fat," my wife, my first wife, worked as a waitress and she came home one night and told me she had had an enormous man for a customer who spoke of himself in the first person plural: "We would like some more bread . . . We are going to have the dessert Special." That struck me; I found that extraordinary. And that was the spark that gave rise to the story. I wrote that story years later, but I never forgot what my wife had told me. Much later, then, I sat down to work and asked myself what would be the best way to tell this story. It was a conscious decision. I decided to write from the viewpoint of the waitress, not my wife, but the waitress.
CG: And the end of the story, where the woman says her life is going to change, how do you explain that?
RC: I don't explain it. There too I wanted to put in something positive, maybe.
CG: It's a story in the present tense.
RC: Yes. That was the tense that seemed most appropriate to me. The four or five stories I published last year in The New Yorker are in the present tense. I don't know why. It's a decision I make without knowing why. Part of the decision makes itself, but I wouldn't want to lead you to believe it's something mysterious. That's the way it is.
CG: Do you try to write in the American idiom?
RC: Sure. It's sometimes said that I have a good ear for dialogue, and so forth. I certainly don't think people talk the way I write. It's like Hemingway. It's also said that he had a good ear, but he invented it all. People don't talk that way at all. It's a question of rhythm.
CG: What importance do you attach to dialogue in your stories?
RC: It's important. It ought to advance the plot or illuminate character, and so on. I don't like people to talk for no reason, but I really like dialogue between people who aren't listening to each other.
CG: Could you talk about your themes?
RC: A writer ought to speak about things that are important to him. As you know, I've taught in universities, in fact for some fifteen years. I had time there for other work, and I never wrote a single story about university life because it's an experience that left no mark on my emotional life. I tend to go back to the time and the people I knew well when I was younger and who made a very strong impression on me . . . Some of my recent stories deal with executives. (For example, that one in The New Yorker, "Whoever Was Using This Bed," where the people discuss things the ¥charaters in my earlier stories would never discuss.) He's a businessman, and so on. But most of the people in my stories are poor and bewildered, that's true. The economy, that's important . . . I don't feel I'm a political writer and yet I've been attacked by right-wing critics in the U.S.A. who blame me for not painting a more smiling picture of America, for not being optimistic enough, for writing stories about the people who don't succeed. But these lives are as valid as those of the go-getters. Yes, I take unemployment, money problems, and marital problems as givens in life. People worry about their rent, their children, their home life. That's basic. That's how 80-90 percent, or God knows how many people live. I write stories about a submerged population, people who don't always have someone to speak for them. I'm sort of a witness, and, besides, that's the life I myself lived for a long time. I don't see myself as a spokesman but as a witness to these lives. I'm a writer.
CG: How do you write your stories and how do you bring them to a close?
RC: For the ending, a writer has to have sense of drama. You don't miraculously arrive at the ending. You find it in revising the story. And me, I revise fifteen, twenty times. I keep the different versions . . . didn't do it in the past but I do it now because of the book collectors. I like the physical labor of writing. I don't have a word processor, but I have a typist who gives me back clean corrected texts . . . then I revise them and revise them. Tolstoy rewrote War and Peace seven times and he kept revising right up to the last minute before printing. I've seen photographs of the proofs! I like this concern for work well done.
CG: Then you surely don't like Kerouac, who claimed to have written On the Road in a single stretch at the typewriter, on a huge roll of paper?
RC: Yes, though I like On the Road a lot. But not the rest of his work. It's unreadable. It's aged very badly.
CG: And maybe Kerouac was lying.
RC: Yes, writers are big liars. (Laughs.)
CG: Yourself lncluded?
RC: (Laughs.) My God no, not me. I'm the sole exception.
CG: What writers interest you?
RC: When I was teaching, I chose writers I liked and who were useful to me as a young writer. Flaubert, his Tales and his letters, Maupassant (about whom I've written a poem, "Ask Him"), Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, a novel by William Gass and his critical essays, Eudora Welty . . . .
CG: And Hemingway, with whom you're so often compared?
RC: I've read a lot of him. When I was 19 or 20 years old I read a lot, and Hemingway was part of what I read. Hemingway interested me more than, for instance, Faulkner, whom I was reading at the same time. I'm sure I learned from Hemingway, no doubt about it, and especially from his early work. I like his work. If I'm compared with him, I feel honored. For me, Hemingway's sentences are poetry. There's a rhythm, a cadence. I can reread his early stories and I find them as extraordinary as ever. They fire me up as much as ever. It's marvelous writing. He said prose is architecture and the Baroque age is over. That suits me. Flaubert said close to the same thing, that words are like stones with which one builds a wall. I believe that completely. I don't like careless writers whose words have no moorings, are too slippery.
CG: But you, you talk a lot about secrets and you never say what they are. There's a certain frustration for the reader because of the abruptness, let's say the disconnection at the endings of your stories. You frustrate your readers.
RC: I don't even know if I know how I write stories. I write. I don't have a program. There are people who are capable of saying a story has to progress, reach a high point, and so on. Myself, I don't know. I write the best kind of story I can write . . . The story ought to reveal something, but not everything. There should be a certain mystery in the story. No, I don't want the reader to be frustrated, but it's true I create an expectation and don't fulfill it.
CG: Do you think there's voyeurism in your stories? There are often people who spy on other people, who are fascinated by the life of their neighbors, and so on.
RC: That's true. But it can be said that all fiction is like that. To write is to say things one wouldn't normally say to people. (Laughs.) In "Neighbors" there's voyeurism, and in "The Idea," too, with the older couple, the sexual charge. Yes indeed. And in "Neighbors," after seeing the neighbors' apartment the couple is sexually excited.
CG: The sex in your stories seems humdrum or aroused by observing the private life of others. For example, in "Feathers," in "Neighbors" . . . .
RC: But there isn't a lot of it, of sex in my stories. The stories are pretty cool, and so is the sex. It's cool, not hot. It's true that the sex in my stories, when it's there, takes place offstage or mechanically . . . But I don't know.
CG: In "The Idea" you put two things together that don't seem to go together: the couple who spy on their next-door neighbors and the ants under the sink. You put things together that don't appear to have any connection.
RC: Yes. But the connection seems not only possible but inevitable. I don't know how to explain it. Once again, I don't have a program when I write these stories. I began the story without knowing I was going to put in the ants. When I begin I don't know where I'm going. But I have illustrious predecessors in this regard. When Hemingway was asked one day if he knew how he was going to end a story when he was starting it, he said, "No, I have no idea." Flannery O'Connor also said that, that writing is discovery. She didn't know what was going to happen from one sentence to another. But as I said, you don't miraculously arrive at the ending. You have to have a sense of drama. And you discover the ending in the writing, or rather in the rewriting, since I firmly believe in rewriting. In rewriting, the themeÑor rather, since the word theme makes me a little uncomfortable, let's say the sense of the storyÑin rewriting, the sense of the story, then, changes a little each time.
CG: Are you at all current on what's being written in France?
RC: Hmm, no . . . not since the "new novel." (That's good, isn't it?). But it looks like short stories aren't popular in France. I was told that last year there were barely ten books of stories published. What's going on? With an ancestor like Maupassant!
Interview translated from "L'Histoire ne descend
pas des nuages," Europe [Paris] 733 (May 1990): 72-79. Headnote translated
from a shorter previously published version of the interview: "Raymond
Carver qui écrit des histoires sur 'les gens qui ne réussissent
pas'" La puinzaine littéraire [Paris] 485 (1-15 May 1987):
I'm Sort of Their Father
Silvia Del Pozzo
Many consider the "minimalist" Raymond Carver the father of today's young writers. Here's why. When Arnoldo Mondadori-published Cathedral, a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver, in Italy in 1984, critical attention was limited to a narrow elite. Nonetheless, many young writers of the 1980s regard this shy writer, the poet of a provincial, semi-industrial, banal, and depressed America, as a precursor and master. Carver is master of a genre, the short story, and of a style: that maximally pared-down writing that critics have labeled "minimalism." Panorama asked Carver to comment on the new stars of American fiction.
Silvia Del Pozzo: Are Leavitt, Ellis, and McInerney really part of a literary movement?
Raymond Carver: Movement isn't the right way to put it. They're all distinct personalities; they don't belong to any literary circle or group. But something binds them together, for example, the rediscovery of the short story form and the pleasure of writing well. It's the publishers, rather, who have been reading them as a real phenomenon. Until a decade ago, publishers would risk bringing out a collection of stories only when the author had already proved himself as a novelist. But these kids aren't Updikes; they've burst from obscurity like "literary phenomenons" precisely with story collections. That's what's new: publishers have discovered the short story has a market and, what's more, a lucrative one.
SDP: Some critics and some younger writers regard you as the "father" of the new wave. Do you agree?
RC: I'm only the father of my own children. But think my experience and success have encouraged lots of young writers to follow my path.
SDP: Still, many people see traces of "minimalism" in the style of the younger writers.
RC: Critics often use the term "minimalist" when discussing my prose. But it's a label that bothers me: it suggests the idea of a narrow vision of life, low ambitions, and limited cultural horizons. And, frankly, I don't believe that's my case. Sure, my writing is lean and tends to avoid any excess. There's a saying of Hemingway's that I could take for my motto: "Prose is architecture. And this isn't the Baroque age."
SDP: But don't you hear some echo of your style in the prose of these young writers?
RC: If we're only talking about an echo, I agree. These young people have read a lot. They've assimilated both the classics and the contemporaries. They don't reflect any particular style. Among my works, they've perhaps taken most into account What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It was published in 1981: short short stories, almost flashes, built exclusively on dialogue. But since then I too have changed, and I've written Cathedral.
SDP: How would you describe the young writers' style?
RC: Their prose is vigorous, highly realistic, and at the same time fresh, poetic.
SDP: Can they truly be considered spokesmen for Americans in their 20s?
RC: They're spokesmen only for themselves. Perhaps, considered as a group, it can be said they recreate the world of young America today. But in America young people's realities are widely diverse and hard to lump together. Let's say instead they're spokesmen for an educated minority.
SDP: But what ideals do they express?
RC: If we're referring to sociopolitical ideals, I'd say these writers are absolutely indifferent to any kind of engagement, pressure, or political struggle. Instead, they write about themselves, their psychological problems, their relations with their peers. They have no political message to convey, not even a negative one.
SDP: Are they just promising or something more?
RC: In my opinion these kids have already lived up to their promise. Their technical level is very high. Sure enough, some of them will be able to go very far.
Translated from "Sono quasi il loro papa," Panorama [Milan] 23 March 1986: 95.
William L. Stull is professor of rhetoric at the University of Hartford, where for many years he was director of the writing program. He has edited four books by or about Raymond Carver: Conversations with Raymond Carver , with Marshall Gentry (1990); No Heroics, Please: Uncollected Writings (1991); Carnations: A Play in One Act (1992); and, with his wife, Maureen P. Carroll, Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver (1993).
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