Ray Carver: No Longer a Minimalist

<i> Moffet is a Los Angeles writer</i>

It’s what poet Tess Gallagher calls “the blue hour,” when the sky over Washington’s Olympic Peninsula deepens toward indigo. Raymond Carver’s Mercedes noses west along the coast past Dungeness Spit, then turns inland onto the back roads.

Soon Gallagher, who’s driving, begins wondering aloud which street leads back to Highway 101. Carver--comfortably ensconced in the back seat after a hearty dinner at a Sequim restaurant--urges her to retrace her route.

“ ‘Get us out of here,’ huh, Ray?” Gallagher teases, laughing. “Out of these country roads?”


“Yes,” Carver says mildly. “Out, out.”

Easy Camaraderie

But Gallagher keeps pressing forward and eventually, serendipitously, she finds a street that leads back to the highway. The big car surges toward Port Angeles, where the two writers live, the light of a new radar-detecting “toy” (a device Carver bought as insurance against speeding tickets) shining above the windshield. Every now and then the machine beeps out a false alarm.

There’s an easy camaraderie between Carver and Gallagher, two poet/fiction writers who’ve spent 10 years together. For most of that decade they’ve lived in Port Angeles (Gallagher’s birthplace), despite the demands of separate writing and teaching careers. Each serves as the first and best reader for the other’s work, and in the last few years each has nursed the other through serious illness.

In early 1986, Gallagher, diagnosed as having a pre-cancerous condition, had a hysterectomy. Last fall Carver learned he had lung cancer. Two-thirds of one lung was removed. This spring a new tumor was found, and he underwent seven weeks of radiation therapy.

Now, Carver says, the treatment has been pronounced a success and he can gradually return to his regular writing life, in which “when the Muse is with me, I write every morning, and much of the day.”

Carver is also celebrating the debut of a new book, “Where I’m Calling From: New And Selected Stories,” published this month through Atlantic Monthly Press. The book has already gone into a second printing. On May 18, he was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York. He will read from his work at the American Booksellers Assn. convention in Anaheim on Saturday.

“Where I’m Calling From” contains 30 stories from previous collections, as well as seven newer tales. The book represents what Carver calls “the most durable” stories from his 25-year publishing career. In putting the book together, he said, he left out “some stories that I just don’t like and would never write again” as well as a few tales that didn’t fit into the book’s format. He also did “a little bit of tinkering” on some of the older stories.

Best known as a writer of spare, bleak tales about American working class life, Carver has changed his style since the publication of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (nominated for the 1977 National Book Award), “Furious Seasons, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “Fires,” a collection of fiction, essays and poetry.

With “Cathedral,” which was a runner-up for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, some glimmerings of hope could be discerned among the depictions of contemporary Angst. Some of the new stories in “Where I’m Calling From” also set off on surprising tangents. “Errand,” for instance, is an imaginative recreation of events surrounding the death of Anton Chekhov, one of Carver’s literary idols.

For years Carver has been labeled a “minimalist” writer, a designation he’s never cared for and one he says “seems to be going away. I hope this book will lay it to rest. I think there’s enough different kinds of stories, I won’t be hammered with that hammer again. The stories are changing, they’ve experienced a real sea change, for which I’m glad.”

Doesn’t Like Labels

Carver says that if a label is going to be put on him, he’d prefer “writer. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be called than a writer, unless it’s a poet. Short story writer, poet, occasional essayist.”

Sitting in his Port Angeles living room one recent afternoon, Carver said he knows he’s sometimes criticized for “putting a bad light on America” through his rather grim, unadorned tales. But, he added, he subscribes to Chekhov’s belief that “the writer’s job is to present a horse thief in such a light you’re convinced he’s a horse thief. But as far as saying it’s wrong to steal horses, you shouldn’t need to do that.”

Carver began writing poetry and fiction at age 18, as a young man in Yakima, Wash. He was the son of an alcoholic sawmill worker and a mother who worked off and on as a waitress and clerk. Carver married, had two children and began holding a series of low-paying jobs before he was 20. He wrote during what little spare time he had, sometimes turning the family car into his office.

Eventually he moved his family to California and attended Cal State Chico, where he studied fiction with John Gardner, the late novelist, essayist and teacher, before going on to earn a degree at Humboldt State. He won a Stegner fellowship to Stanford University to study fiction and later attended the Iowa Writers Workshop for one year, before poverty forced him to seek a full-time janitorial job at a Sacramento hospital. His stories, meanwhile, began to be accepted at magazines such as Esquire.

Teaching and Drinking

Carver has taught writing and literature at several universities around the country, beginning with a class at UC Santa Cruz in 1969. At Santa Cruz, however, he began drinking heavily, and, “I went off like a rocket during the ‘70s,” Carver said. “I quit drinking on June 2, 1977.” Five months later he met Gallagher at a literary conference in Dallas.

They liked each other, Gallagher says, but the romance didn’t begin until the next year, after Carver’s 20-year marriage had ended, when the two met up again at another writers’ conference in El Paso.

Despite their long-term relationship, they haven’t married. Gallagher, who’s been married twice before, says she has some “hesitations about taking on the trappings of that institution” again. She wants her relationship with Carver to stay special. “It isn’t hard to get married. You can get married in a minute. It takes a lot more effort to not get married.” she said, laughing.

The two writers maintain separate houses in Port Angeles, only a few minutes away from each other, so they can separate for work and get together in the evenings. Gallagher is the highly respected author of three books of poetry, a book of selected and new poems, an essay collection and a short-story collection.

Inspire Each Other

“It’s healthy. It’s a good thing,” Carver says of his relationship with Gallagher. “I can’t imagine living with someone who is not a writer. You share a set of common goals and assumptions. You understand each other’s need for privacy and solitude.”

Each has inspired the other to explore different forms of writing. Carver said that although he wrote poetry as a young man, for many years “I felt poems had gone out of my life.” Then in 1983 “suddenly they were back again, and it was wonderful.” The poetry’s return was influenced by observing “the high standards (Gallagher) has set for herself,” he said. “And I think my fiction has influenced her fiction writing.”

Two books of Carver’s poetry, “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water” and “Ultramarine,” were published in 1984 and 1986. He’s now working on new poems, for a book promised to Atlantic Monthly Press. It’s part of a three-book contract through which he’s also agreed to write a book of short stories and “either a novel or a memoir,” he said. He’s also about to edit “The Essential Matthew Arnold” for an Ecco Press series of classical poets’ selected work.

Much of his new poetry book is already written, Carver said, and “I can feel the stirring now of wanting to write stories, but I’m going to finish the poems first. Poems seem like a great blessing, a mystery to me. I can’t account for where they come from. When I’m writing poems, I don’t know if I’ll ever write a short story again. I feel incapable of it, because the poetry is so much with me.”

Illness Not Mentioned

None of his new poems address his illness, Carver said. “No, I tell you, that may come. But the last poem I wrote was on Alexander the Great, what he wore to battle. I’ve always liked history, ever since I was a kid, and I don’t know if that’s because other times seem more interesting.”

When he’s writing, Carver said, “I just listen to voices in my head, a few good voices. I just seem to home in on something that’s direct, truthful, straightforward and, I hope lyrical, and I just take it where it goes--that thing where you’re writing a poem, you begin to pick up a rhythm of words and you follow that string out. Except when I’m writing stories, it will become a story, and when I’m writing poems, it will become a poem.”

Carver’s poetry draws more directly on the real events of his life than do the stories, and “I’m much more vulnerable in the poems than in the stories,” he said. “I can be much more intimate in the poems.” Yet, as fond as he is of writing verse, if he had to choose between writing in one genre or the other, “it would be hard, but I guess I would come down on the side of the stories,” he said. “I just don’t think I could give up the fiction.”

In 1983, Carver was awarded the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award, a five-year grant that gave him $35,000 a year. The award allowed him to leave his teaching job at Syracuse University. The grant has expired, but Carver said that “with any luck I won’t have to teach” again. He hopes that income from his books, which have been translated into 22 languages, plus income from “the books I’m going to write” will let him go on working full-time on his own.

Never Thought of Career

Yet, when he was a young writer, “I never figured I’d make a living writing short stories,” Carver said. “How far in this world are you going to get writing short stories? I never had stars in my eyes. I never had the big score mentality.” He was “very startled” when he became well known, he added, and his fame “never ceases to amaze me. And that’s not false modesty, either. I’m pleased and happy with the way things have turned out. But I was surprised.”

When he’s not writing, Carver--like many of the protagonists in his stories--likes to go fishing. He wishes, in fact, that he could fish more. “It’s hard. I get into the water, I get whipsawed and I feel guilty I’m not in there writing,” he said. “And then when I’m writing I feel guilty I’m not out there taking advantage of some of the best fishing in the world. But if a hard choice has to be made, I’ll always come in on the side of the writing,” he declared, apparently without irony.

But not even “the best fishing in the world” could keep him in Port Angeles if it weren’t a good place to work, Carver said. “It’s out of the mainstream. I’m not just hung up on a pretty place to live, the mountains and the water. I’d be gone in a flash if I didn’t have my writing.”

Carver recently bought a roomy and secluded house on the outskirts of Port Angeles, replacing a former home in a working-class neighborhood. “It didn’t do anything for me at all to be awakened every morning at 5 o’clock by a logging truck with its motor idling across the street,” Carver said. “It’s quieter out here. I was just being run over by kids on bicycles and fistfights and parents out looking for their kids at night. I can go for hours up here and not hear anything but birds.”

But does he worry about losing touch with the kind of environment that sparked so many of his early stories?

“No,” Carver said, and made a curious gesture, hand to forehead, of a door opening. “It’s all up here.”