An excerpt from the Paris Review’s wonderful interview with author Raymond Carver.
Raymond Carver, The Art of Fiction No. 76
CARVER: The fiction I’m most interested in has lines of reference to the real world. None of my stories really happened, of course. But there’s always something, some element, something said to me or that I witnessed, that may be the starting place.
Here’s an example: “That’s the last Christmas you’ll ever ruin for us!” I was drunk when I heard that, but I remembered it. And later, much later, when I was sober, using only that one line and other things I imagined, imagined so accurately that they could have happened, I made a story—“A Serious Talk.” But the fiction I’m most interested in, whether it’s Tolstoy’s fiction, Chekhov, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, Hemingway, Isaac Babel, Ann Beattie, or Anne Tyler, strikes me as autobiographical to some extent. At the very least it’s referential. Stories long or short don’t just come out of thin air.
I’m reminded of a conversation involving John Cheever. We were sitting around a table in Iowa City with some people and he happened to remark that after a family fracas at his home one night, he got up the next morning and went into the bathroom to find something his daughter had written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror: “D-e-r-e daddy, don’t leave us.” Someone at the table spoke up and said, “I recognize that from one of your stories.” Cheever said, “Probably so. Everything I write is autobiographical.”
Now of course that’s not literally true. But everything we write is, in some way, autobiographical. I’m not in the least bothered by “autobiographical” fiction. To the contrary. On the Road. Céline. Roth. Lawrence Durrell in The Alexandria Quartet. So much of Hemingway in the Nick Adams stories. Updike, too, you bet. Jim McConkey. Clark Blaise is a contemporary writer whose fiction is out-and-out autobiography. Of course, you have to know what you’re doing when you turn your life’s stories into fiction. You have to be immensely daring, very skilled and imaginative and willing to tell everything on yourself. You’re told time and again when you’re young to write about what you know, and what do you know better than your own secrets? But unless you’re a special kind of writer, and a very talented one, it’s dangerous to try and write volume after volume on The Story of My Life. A great danger, or at least a great temptation, for many writers is to become too autobiographical in their approach to their fiction.
A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best. Read the full interview here…
(Note to Family: I want this for Christmas)
Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life by Carol Sklenicka
When Raymond Carver died at age fifty, readers lost a distinctive voice in its prime. Carver was, the Times of London said, “the Chekhov of middle America.” His influence on a generation of writers and on the short story itself has been widely noted. Not so generally known are how Carver became a writer, how he suffered to achieve his art, and how his troubled and remarkable personality affected those around him.
Carol Sklenicka’s meticulous and absorbing biography re-creates Carver’s early years in Yakima, Washington, where he was the nervous, overweight son of a kindly, alcohol-dependent lumbermill worker. By the time he was nineteen, Ray had married his high school sweetheart, Maryann Burk. From a basement apartment where they were raising their first child and expecting their second, they determined that Ray would become a writer. Despite the handicaps of an erratic education and utter lack of financial resources, he succeeded. Sklenicka describes Carver’s entry into the literary world via “little magazines” and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; his publication by Esquire editor Gordon Lish and their ensuing relationship; his near-fatal alcoholism, which worsened even as he produced many of the unforgettable stories collected in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. She examines the dissolution of his first marriage and his partnership with poet Tess Gallagher, who helped him enjoy the full measure of his success.
Carol Sklenicka draws on hundreds of interviews with people who knew Carver, prodigious research in libraries and private collections, and all of Carver’s poems and stories for Raymond Carver. Her portrait is generous and wise without swerving from discordant issues in Carver’s private affairs. Above all Sklenicka shows how Carver’s quintessentially American life fostered the stories that knowing readers have cherished from their first publication until the present day.
About the Contributor
John Purcell (aka Natasha Walker) is the author of The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy published by Random House Australia. The Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings reached the top ten on the Australian fiction charts and Natasha/John was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist and third highest selling Australian debut author in 2012. The trilogy has since sold over 50,000 copies in print and ebook and has been translated into French, Korean and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for over twenty-five years. While still in his twenties he opened John’s Bookshop, a second-hand bookshop in Mosman in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Now he is the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au.