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Biography Of Raymond Carver Reveals Writer’s Demons And Gifts

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Aired 1/14/10

Raymond Carver, considered a master of the modern short story, lived a turbulent and dramatic life, but there has never been a biography of him until now. California writer Carol Sklenicka is author of the detailed "Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life" which traces Carver's struggles with alcoholism, marriage, poverty and his long-time editor Gordon Lish. Sklenicka will sign copies of her book at The Book Works in Del Mar.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A teenage marriage, inability to hold down a job, brushes with the law, domestic violence and an addiction to alcohol. The description sounds like the recipe for a failed and somewhat tragic life. It is also a thumbnail biography of one of America's master storytellers, writer Raymond Carver. That there was so much more to Carver than the brutal facts of his life is the substance of a rich and rigorously researched new biography. The story of Raymond Carver, who has been called America's Chekov, is complicated and his literary legacy is controversial. Here to tell us about her book is Carol Sklenicka, author of "Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life." And, Carol, welcome to These Days.

CAROL SKLENICKA (Author): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Raymond Carver’s considered by many to be the master of the modern short story, and yet yours is the first biography of him. What made you want to write about Carver?

SKLENICKA: Well, the simple answer is that I wanted to read about him and I was an English teacher and a writer and it just dawned on me that if no one else had written a biography maybe there was an opportunity for me to do that.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us a sense – give us a sense of the place the Carver holds in literary history.

SKLENICKA: I think he’s probably the most influential and still widely read of the American short story writers from the middle, you know, from the ‘80s basically. That’s when his star was the highest. And a lot of people still remember him. Those who don’t, are still reading stories that come under his influence because he affected so many other writers.

CAVANAUGH: You know, sometimes 20th century writers that are that influential are not accessible to the average reader but you say that’s not the case with Carver.

SKLENICKA: That’s why I say he’s the most popular writer because he’s extremely accessible, very easy to read. When I was working on the book, I always had Carver paperbacks with me when I was in restaurants and I can’t tell you how many times people came up to me and said, you know, waiters, people working, came up to me and said, oh, Raymond Carver, I love his work, or, I read one of his stories in high school, things like that. People remember him when they’ve read his work and it’s funny, it’s sad but funny and, of course short because he wrote short stories.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

SKLENICKA: That makes it easier.

CAVANAUGH: And, of course, there is this term that you have to deal with, minimalist. He has been associated with minimalism. But Raymond Carver himself was not fond of that term. Tell us where – what his feeling was about that and where he fits in with that whole idea of a minimalist writer.

SKLENICKA: Well, that term simply means that his stories are short, his sentences are short, his details are carefully selected. It connects with the whole controversy we’ll probably get to that he had with his editor. But he didn’t like the term because it was slapped on him by a reviewer he didn’t particularly like and in reference to a book that he was not happy about the outcome on, so for all those reasons he rejected the term. It’s not a very useful term for literature. It applies to things like the music of John Cage and it’s used in art but it hasn’t been a handy term in literature, I don’t think.

CAVANAUGH: Now what are some of Carver, for people who are not familiar with Raymond Carver, what are some of his best known works?

SKLENICKA: I was going to tell you about a story called “They’re Not Your Husband.”

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

SKLENICKA: It’s a story – first of all, isn’t that a funny title…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

SKLENICKA: …when you think about it. It’s a story from the point of view of a husband who goes to watch his wife work in a coffee shop. She’s a waitress. And he overhears some other guys commenting that she’s overweight when she’s bending over to scoop ice cream. They’re basically looking up her skirt. And he begins getting on his wife’s case and telling her to lose weight, which she does. And then he goes back to the restaurant and tries to hear what people say after she’s lost weight and it’s – it’s just very revealing of the interaction of this couple and yet it’s also a very simple story. There’s no psychological analysis or anything. You just see how these people behave. And at the end of the story, the guy’s need to have his ego stroked by hearing other guys talk about his wife is just completely revealed and unraveled. And that’s the kind of stuff he wrote about.

CAVANAUGH: Slice of life, working class life, troubles between men and women. They were all – they’re all the substance of Raymond Carver stories. I’m speaking with Carol Sklenicka. She is the author of "Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life,” a new biography about Raymond Carver. And it was a long time before Carver was discovered as a writer. Why was that?

SKLENICKA: It was a long time. It might seem surprising because he was so successful but this is what most writers go through. It’s a very big country and America is a very big country and very few writers can be on the bestseller list so – and there are a lot of people who want to be writers so just look at the odds. That – He took forever because it takes a long time to get attention. He made it because he was really tenacious. He did most of his work in California and he was published by small presses out here and he just never gave up on that process until he got noticed.

CAVANAUGH: Now, of course, a lot of your biography is about his private life but he also put a lot of his private life into his work. And one of the major things about his private life that he put into his work was his relationship with his first wife, Maryann, and they married very young.

SKLENICKA: She was 16 when they married. They had two children as quickly as it’s biologically possible to have two children, not twins. And they were – they grew up together, really. He was only 19 when they married. They went – She put him through college and then got herself through college through the California State College system, by the way. And she supported him all the way. She, I think, worried that having a family would slow down his writing career and she promised him that that wouldn’t happen and she broke her back to try to make it possible.

CAVANAUGH: It – Was she, in a sense, his muse?

SKLENICKA: I think so. A lot of his friends told me that. He continued to write stories about her long after they were divorced. She was always someone there in the shadow of the stories. A lot of the female characters resemble her.

CAVANAUGH: And yet right on the brink of his success, they divorced, and the marriage was rather troubled. Tell us a little bit about that.

SKLENICKA: It was, I suppose, now people would say it’s a dysfunctional marriage although it – it held them – you know, things – something about it held them together. They were deeply connected. The troubles, a lot of them came from alcohol, they came from not knowing how to deal with alcohol, not knowing what alcohol was doing to them. From not having good jobs, from living on the edge always, they lived in expensive places like Palo Alto on very low salaries, so that was a stressful thing. Why did they break up when they were finally successful? I – My sense of it and the book goes into all this in great detail but my sense of it is that, you know, they had really just worn each other out. They’d gone as far as they could with it and he particularly wanted a fresh start. It was just easier for him to meet someone else and reorganize his life, which is what he did.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about a new biography of Raymond Carver, the 20th century American master storyteller. The biography is called "Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life,” and the author is Carol Sklenicka. Carol, we hear so much about American – great American authors being troubled by alcohol. In Raymond Carver’s case, why do you think that that became such a central thing to his life and he was consumed by it for so much of his life?

SKLENICKA: I wish I could answer that. I’d be a genius if I could. There’s a genetic factor. His father and his grandfather were alcoholics. There were all those frustrations that I just mentioned and you listed. So he certainly turned to alcohol. He said he didn’t realize that he was slipping into alcoholism. His first wife, Maryann, said the same. The disease does just catch up with people. It changes the brain in ways that people aren’t conscious of. It took him a long time to quit. I think maybe because he just didn’t have the tools for a long time. He went to very brief rehabs where, as it turns out, that someone in a bad situation like he was probably needs a longer rehab period, which he finally got. And he needed something to hope for. It’s interesting, a psychologist came up to me at a reading the other night and said, you know, Carver didn’t really quit drinking until he had a contract to write a novel.

CAVANAUGH: Umm…

SKLENICKA: And that’s true. And this guy said, I know this goes against rehab theory but it looks to me like having that hope, you know, that new job, that something to live for, gave him a big kick in the pants.

CAVANAUGH: You know, all through this alcoholic nightmare that he spent, all the years of not being able to control this addiction, he was still writing. And you write in your book that Carver would learn to use stories as a tool for emotional survival—I’m quoting now—a means of negotiating the terrifying waters of his own psyche. Say more about this. What did writing mean to him through those years?

SKLENICKA: I think writing, all his life, from the time he was a teenager, was the thing that he felt most confident about. I don’t think he ever really had a lot of doubt that he was a good writer. And who knows why that was because his writing style changed a lot over the years but I think it was the solid place that he could come back to. He didn’t write much during his most severe alcoholic years, a couple of years, but he still attended to his writing business. He wrote letters to editors and kept his stories in the mail, so he just never let go of his clutch on that little life raft he had.

CAVANAUGH: Speaking of editors, Carver’s most significant professional relationship was with his editor Gordon Lish. Describe Gordon Lish and his editorial style when it comes to Carver’s work.

SKLENICKA: I go into the whole drama of Lish and Carver in my book. They knew each other from 1968 until Carver’s death, so a long time. They met in California. When they met, Lish was a man without a mission. Within a couple years, through some amazing events, he became the fiction editor at Esquire magazine and read his friend Ray Carver’s work and eventually published Carver. Lish is a man of tremendous energy. I’ve talked to him in person and on the phone many times. He has this terrifically seductive radio voice.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

SKLENICKA: He had been a radio guy. And I think he won Ray Carver over the way he wins a lot of people over with his skill and energy and enthusiasm. He’s – he loves fiction. He has a lot of opinions about it. This made him, as an editor, quite aggressive because he never had any doubt that his way of doing something was the best.

CAVANAUGH: And people – There are people who argue now that it was too aggressive when it came to Raymond Carver’s work and that some of his short stories, while he was working with Lish, were edited in a way that perhaps Carver would – did not approve of. He did not approve of them. And I wonder, did you think that Lish took advantage of Carver perhaps because he was drinking?

SKLENICKA: I think he took advantage of him because he couldn’t help himself. He actually adored Carver’s material. Everyone says when they first worked together, he thought it was amazing and he was a friend to Carver. He would later deny that. But he got too aggressive on the middle of three books that they did together. That book is called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

CAVANAUGH: And that’s Lish’s title.

SKLENICKA: That’s a title that Lish pulled out of Carver’s sentences, which is often how he found titles. Carver had written the phrase but not made it the title. And that’s – that seems, to me, legitimate. Carver approved the title.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

SKLENICKA: But there were other things in that book that Carver did not approve and that’s why the Library of America has recently included an early version of those stories in their big volume so readers can look for themselves. I actually have an example marked here of a…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, please.

SKLENICKA: …a Lish edit…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes.

SKLENICKA: …that you might like to hear. It’s from the story I talked about earlier about the waitress. Here’s the way Carver wrote it: ‘The white skirt tightened against her hips and crawled up her legs, exposing the lower part of her girdle, the backs of her fleshy thighs and several dark, broken veins behind her knees.’ And this is the way Lish edited it. This is actually in Carver’s first book. ‘The white skirt yanked against her hips and crawled up her legs.’ That’s the same. ‘What showed was girdle and it was pink, thighs that were rumpled and gray and a little hairy and veins that spread in a berserk display.’

CAVANAUGH: So the second one was…?

SKLENICKA: Was Lish.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, so that’s a little bit more than editing, isn’t it?

SKLENICKA: Yeah. It’s – it’s kind of brassy and, you know, if you were that woman—we’re talking about fiction—but…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

SKLENICKA: …let’s say you were that character, it’s a lot harsher.

CAVANAUGH: Yes. Yes.

SKLENICKA: It’s very striking. I mean, it’s – and it’s pretty good.

CAVANAUGH: Now they eventually did stop working together.

SKLENICKA: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And you describe in your book their professional breakup. Could – I think you have a passage there that describes it. Could you read that for us?

SKLENICKA: Sure. This actually was something that a later editor of Carver’s told me and he said: ‘Being around Ray and Gordon in the early 1980s was like watching a marriage go bad. It seemed like Gordon Lish was the one guy who couldn’t be happy about Ray’s success. He couldn’t enjoy it and had to fight it. It was a case of strong affection polluted for reasons of ego and frustration.’

CAVANAUGH: And so that – that’s the characteristic of their breakup and, of course, since you described it – him for us, you have spoken with Lish for this biography. What does he say about his role in Carver’s career?

SKLENICKA: He is really all over the map about it. It took me a long time to pin him down to a point where I believed what he was saying. The first thing he told me was that Carver had been a hoax, that he’d created this work and that it was really his work. It was almost like he thought Carver didn’t exist. He backed off of that position which was, I think, a dramatic thing to say but he knew it wasn’t true. I think what he really wanted was credit as a sort of co-creator. And Carver never in his lifetime told people what Lish had done for him. He praised him in general terms as an editor but he never talked about the extent of the editing or the humiliation of that middle book that Carver wanted restored to his own version and not Lish’s version. And so because Carver covered all this up, Lish didn’t get the credit he wanted and he wanted more credit than editors are supposed to get. He was breaking the rules of editor – editorial practice and so it bothered other editors, too.

CAVANAUGH: That’s a fascinating relationship. We’re talking about “Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life,” a new biography by Carol Sklenicka who is my guest. And one person who did not talk to you, though, was Carver’s second wife, Tess Gallagher. Tell us about her and why you think she refused to talk to you for this biography.

SKLENICKA: Tess Gallagher met Carver when he was separated from his first wife—I was looking for the right phrase there—quite a ways before Carver got divorced but they were somewhat separated, briefly separated. And the two – Carver and Gallagher, who was a well known poet, got together in 1979 and were together for the rest of Carver’s life, which ended in ‘88. She was a tremendous help to him. They had kind of parallel literary careers, were very much on the same wave length as far as putting their careers first. I think she enabled him to separate himself from some of his family problems and issues he felt he had with his children. She was very well organized, helped him.

CAVANAUGH: And…

SKLENICKA: Got his bills paid, things like that.

CAVANAUGH: Very good. And…

SKLENICKA: So it was a very productive relationship for them. Why she didn’t talk to me, I can’t tell you. She was fairly aggressive about that. I can only guess that she wanted to maintain her privacy. She may have her own biographer designated, although if that’s the case I haven’t come across any evidence that that person is working.

CAVANAUGH: Now Carver was not drinking at the time he was with Tess Gallagher, is that right?

SKLENICKA: That’s right. He had quit drinking about a year before he hooked up with Tess Gallagher and she was instrumental in helping him stay sober but, lucky for her, he was already sober so she missed the worst of his terrible, terrible illness.

CAVANAUGH: Now, after a rather troubled lifetime, being sober and successful, Carver actually dies at a very young age. Tell us about the final year of his life.

SKLENICKA: Well, there was one addiction that he couldn’t give up and that was cigarettes, which he had smoked probably since he was ten years old. So at the age of 50, he died of lung cancer.

CAVANAUGH: And would you say at that point in his life he was content with what his work had become?

SKLENICKA: I think so, and I think he even had a sense that he was going to die young. Maryann Carver said that he always had a sense he would die young. For the last five years of his life, it was – he reportedly said we’re out there in history now, he would say that to Tess Gallagher, so he was looking at his legacy, I think, and was very happy. He thought it was all gravy, he said. It was a…

CAVANAUGH: His write…

SKLENICKA: …miraculous life. He couldn’t believe that he got those ten extra years because he really thought he was going to die of the booze.

CAVANAUGH: Was his writing different when he was sober as opposed to when he was drinking?

SKLENICKA: I think so. He broke from Gordon Lish so his writing was more like it had always been, there’s that. It’s not as different as it might look if you don’t know that. He wrote more poems. He wrote longer poems. He wrote more stories that have somewhat happy end – I don’t know if you want to say happy endings but a little uplift at the end, although he’d done that all along and sometimes Lish changed them. But I think he – You know, he was more expansive. He let himself go in that direction and felt like it was the right direction for him, that he didn’t always have to do the dark, funny side of things.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think this Lish controversy is going to, in some way, impair the legacy of Raymond Carver?

SKLENICKA: I think it’s holding people’s attention a little bit more than it needs to. I hope Carver’s work will outpace that eventually. I actually hope my book’ll help that happen now that people can get the details of the whole controversy and see some of the examples plus the Library of America publication is a big coup for Carver, so I think he’s on his way. I think people will still be reading him. I, you know, I don’t do long term predictions so I don’t know how he’ll stand up against other writers but there’s really nobody quite like him so he should have his place.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Carol, you spent ten years in total researching and writing this book. I wonder, do you know what you’re going to be working on now? Do you have another biography in store?

SKLENICKA: I’ve been debating. I have some environmental interests I’d like to write about but I think literary biography is what I’ve learned how to do now and so I would like to do another one. I haven’t picked a subject yet. People are giving me their ideas and I love that. I hope to hear some tonight. But…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, because you’ll be signing copies of your book at the Bookworks Bookstore at 7:00 p.m. And, of course, the book is called "Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life." Carol Sklenicka, thank you so much.

SKLENICKA: Thank you. It’s been fun.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.org. If you’d like to post comments to – about anything you hear, you can go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. And coming up, the Weekend Preview is next on These Days here on KPBS.

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