Ron Carlson’s newest novel is Return to Oakpine. He is the author of ten books of fiction and his short stories have appeared in Esquire, Harpers, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and other journals, as well as The Best American Short Stories, The O'Henry Prize Series, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction and other anthologies. Ron Carlson Writes a Story, his book on writing, is taught widely. He is the author of a book of poems, Room Service. He taught at Arizona State University for twenty years and is now Director of the Graduate Program in Fiction at the University of California, Irvine.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Monica Petersen. She said of the process, “I thoroughly enjoyed delving into Ron Carlson’s extensive repertoire as I prepared for the interview. He has so many powerful stories and novels, but there are very few published interviews with him. Interviewing him was an amazing opportunity and a marvelous privilege.” In this interview, Ron Carlson discusses homecoming and empathy, the significance of place, and making stories new.
Superstition Review: Throughout your collection Room Service, you meditate on certain fleeting life moments like a father after his daughter’s wedding or a discussion about grief. What was your process for choosing those particular moments to include in the collection?
Ron Carlson: A moment arrives unbidden and it has the gravity which takes you; it opens and you try to speak to it in various forms. Sometimes such a moment or idea is in the form of an event or an emotion and sometimes it is in the form of a phrase or a sentence. I wrote “The Great Open-Mouth Anti-Sadness” literally a sentence at a time, leafing into the characters quiet consciousness.
SR: Your poem “How Death is Not a Thing” reflects on the intangibleness of death and the expressions used to describe it. What was your inspiration for focusing on this powerful and difficult concept?
RC: Forty years ago the son of a colleague was killed in a spring time car accident; I knew where he was killed and I remembered that tree. I wanted to deal with it, say something that mattered. I think the poem is about how difficult such an impulse can be.
SR: I absolutely loved your short piece, “Single Woman for Long Walks on the Beach.” The story was only a few pages long but it captures the beautiful emotional roller coaster of a couple’s life together. What was your approach to crafting the whole story in one continuous sentence?
RC: It was at a time before the internet when people posted personal ads in actual newspapers. It seemed a wonderful and desperate and impossible task. They all said they wanted to share long walks on the beach. The beach! I used the form of the ad to trace a life story, a love story if I could. I was surprised when it pressed further through the stages of life and I followed like a true scribe.
SR: What prompted your exploration into the experience of homecoming in your newest novel, Return to Oakpine?
RC: The novel, you could say, is about homecoming, coming home. It was a small town, and I put a high school dance in all of my stories and novels. I love that frontier.
SR: Can you please explain what makes a high school dance an interesting frontier and what you love about it?
RC: I don’t actually put the prom in everything, but there are plenty! That period when we are developing the first edges of our private lives is full of such terrific voltage—and the people we know in that era are important to us.
SR: As the main players in Return to Oakpine talk to one another, images of the past seamlessly mix with images of the present. For example, as one character discusses his old high school buddies returning to town, he quickly jumps into a story about their times together. Will you please explain your process in making these transitions?
RC: I’ve said elsewhere that a writer must be a lot of people; you need to sit in every chair with real empathy. That’s key to my discovery process. It is associative: one thing leads to another. The writer has to tolerate it as her or his story starts to evolve and migrate to places or times that weren’t in the original plan.
I think this may simply be the way memory works when you’ve achieved a certain age. How many ages do we live through? Writers, and many people generally I think, are aware of their passages. I am. I think I might be writing for all of the people I knew in the various seasons of this life.
SR: In Return to Oakpine, the town itself seems to function as a character. How did you approach this?
RC: The notion of “place” has been undermined by the internet and our many gizmos. We are everywhere all the time. I wanted a town before all of that. A place where things could happen, a kind of island. Regardless of how tech savvy we are, we are from a place and we live in a place. I’ve always used place or setting to find my stories. The famous line is “nothing happens nowhere.” Oakpine is the world of that novel, the little downtown, the Antlers, and Jimmy’s house on Berry Street, those magnificent trees. The trees allowed me to write the story.
SR: Your poem “Poetry’s Debt to Invention” reads like the thought process of a poet as he composes. How did you approach this piece through the lens of an author writing about the composing process?
RC: You’ve said that better than I could. We are always trying our best to find what might be discovered, sometimes a line at a time.
SR: Your collection A Kind of Flying combines selected stories from your previous three collections. How did you decide which stories to include in this collection? What were some pieces that you simply had to incorporate?
RC: I’m a writer who has written in a range of stories from the very serious to the comic and I wanted that range reflected in the collection. It was just a matter of space and we did include what I consider most of the best, dropping a few oddities. They’ll be back.
SR: I really enjoyed your story “Homeschool Insider: The Fighting Pterodactyls.” What prompted you to explore the impact of homeschooling on a family?
RC: The premise was too ripe. Of course, the big ineffable features of school have to do with the fact that we’re marching through the great ideas with our cohort, a grand group of characters our own age, and there is football and the prom and class behavior. It was a lovely exercise, especially that bittersweet prom.
SR: One of my favorite lines comes from your story “Class Remarks:” “This is Commencement which we all know means making room in your backpack for the demands of our complex tomorrows. Get real, did you think they would call this Termination.” Throughout this piece, you deconstruct and combine the numerous clichés used for commencement/graduation speeches, such as “burning questions” and “the future waits for no man.” Will you please discuss your approach to restructuring these commonly used phrases?
RC: For a writer, especially one who has been to plenty of commencements, a hundred phrases jump out. When you treat the metaphoric as the literal (as in “the demands of our complex tomorrows”) it can get funny in a moment. We’re always being bombarded with phrases which challenge our credibility. Now it’s “boots on the ground” and “options on the table.” I want to see that table. From the way people are acting, it must be so much smaller than I first thought.
SR: In an interview with Fiction Writers Review, you said “If you write a lot, you’ll see that you weren’t even aware that you were writing about the person you would become or the person you had been.” How have you seen your changing in personality reflected in your pieces?
RC: Besides the inevitable shift from the wonders of action and event and idea towards a real interest in character and the potential complexity of character as it is revealed in drama, I’ve become calmer as a writer and more willing to wait for the small changes working in the people on the page. My characters have more real shadows now.
SR: You use your short story “The Governor’s Ball” as a basis for several discussions of writing. You talk about it in the introduction to your collection A Kind of Flying and it is the case study for your writing process in Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Can you please explain the significance of this particular piece? Did something unique occur while you were writing it that makes it a great example of your work?
RC: “The Governor’s Ball” is not my best story by any means, but it serves as an example for process very well, and I’m glad that book has found its audience. I wrote it in a short time and upon reflection, it was a piece that I could recall writing and what I did to survive the draft. That I arrived at a place on the last page that I had no idea was coming felt very strange, sort of wrong, but then I saw it for what it was: the writing found the story.
SR: The main character in your story “Life Before Science” uses painting as his method of expression. How did you approach the expression of art through the eyes of a painter?
RC: Painters have all that gear: canvas and paints and easels and such. Writers don’t have much inventory. It was lovely to write that guy and follow him into his passion. I’ve talked to lots of painters who do what I do: find their way using the materials and allowing the painting to evolve through its making.
SR: Your story “Hartwell” feels very true to collegiate life as it tells the story of a professor through the eyes of his colleague. Can you please discuss your inspiration for this piece?
RC: I wrote the first paragraph during a poetry reading a long time ago and I had the voice and he denied being like Hartwell three times and I thought: what is your problem? It’s a point of view story. That is, I knew the witness (the first person) would pretend a kind of objectivity as the person who reports a story, but I also knew he would finally be drawn into the story, away from his safety.
SR: Your most recent collection, Room Service, differs from your previous short story collections because it is comprised of “poems, meditations, outcries, and remarks.” How did you approach writing this collection? Was this process different from your short story process?
RC: That little book is all the short pieces I’ve written and stashed away: odd ideas and voices and language play. Poems, those prose poems, were written very much like my stories: one thing leads to another.
SR: One of my favorite lines in A Kind of Flying is “you find out day after day in a good life that your family is the journey.” This line characterizes much of your work about family and home. How do you approach these themes in so many distinct ways? How important are familial relationships between your characters when you craft a story?
RC: There may be only one story and that is how we fit or do not fit in a family, even the poor superheroes have that issue. As a writer you operate from the quiet notion that there is no such thing as other people; these are our people with all their gradations of good and bad, so called. And we know that every relationship, even mother-child, must be invented and made new.
SR: Your book Ron Carlson Writes a Story takes the reader into the depths of your writing process. What inspired you to write a book about your craft process? When writing this book, did you learn anything about your process that you did not already know?
RC: With that book I wanted to share as starkly and frankly as I could each choice I made as I wrote into the dark. I made an effort to avoid any grand sweeping notes about the challenges of writing and stay close to the kind of information I would have wanted when I was writing my first ten stories.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
RC: I have a little studio behind my house, and I mean little, where I grumble and type and from time to time check the hummingbirds in their negotiations outside the window. The artwork is all homemade, including two thrift store paintings my sons have altered for me of a horseman on a ledge and farm animals at a café.