Ron Carlson

23 July, 2010
By William H. Coles

Ron Carlson

Ron Carlson is Director of Creative Writing at the University of California, Irvine. He received a Masters degree in English from the University of Utah. He has published widely both novels, his most recent The Signal (2009), and short stories. He wrote Ron Carlson Writes A Story, a nonfiction book for writers. His stories have appeared in many anthologies, including The O’Henry Prize Series and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. He is a popular lecturer and teaches in workshops throughout the country.

William H. Coles

I’d like to start with basic definition. How do you define “short story?”

Ron Carlson

Well, wouldn’t it be great if we could just get a definition? But it’s elusive. Of course, a short story is not a single thing done a single way. It is constantly being invented. One of the conventional ways we can talk about it is that something happens in time to someone. People go through an event that reveals something about them, what kind of characters they are. Event reveals character.

William H. Coles

Is there a difference in your mind, as a fiction writer, between essay, character sketch, memoir, and fiction? Does the use of the imagination or a specific structure set the fictional short story apart from other genres?

Ron Carlson

There is a great deal of talk about this now. We have two instruments: memory and imagination. We think of imagination as wild and free, and memory as responsible. In fact, neither is totally objective. More to your question: stories have a rise and a fall. They take place in-scene. Although there are scenes and commentary in memoir, its purpose is to deliver information more than it is to ask a question dramatically.

William H. Coles

What is the importance of story to humans? Why do humans seek out stories? What is it about stories that makes our lives better?

Ron Carlson

I don’t think they are separate. People live by the evidence around them, and that evidence is stories. We learn in family, groups of friends, and society and culture. There are stories we share, stories we are drawn to, and stories we reject. Stories that are offensive, arresting. I don’t think of stories as secondary, as frosting on the cake of culture. I think of stories as the center of culture. Sometimes we confuse them with literary studies that may be arcane or off to the side, but in fact a father and a son, a mother or a daughter, are constantly sharing stories. It’s the way we learn to live.

William H. Coles

Do you find that readers experience different stories of yours in different ways? And if so, what creates the difference in the interpretations? I ask because a fiction writer may wonder if he or she shouldn’t write for a certain reader who reads in a certain way.

Ron Carlson

There are a lot of answers to that. My answer is that the reader’s not going to come along unless I write the story. The only reason I write the story is because I want to read it. So, I’m the reader. Many things about my stories are provocative for me, but I’m not sure I can offer the best explanation of any of my stories. People come up to me and they respond to different parts of a story. I sometimes think they got something different than I intended. But I’m writing with everything I’ve got. I only have one speed. When I’m writing I don’t think about the reader. I’m trying to make the best story, the story I want to read. Many times I’m writing to find out what the heck is going to happen. So I’m not surprised that people come back and remember a specific image or another moment. It almost seems secondary to my process.

William H. Coles

Do you think that differences in interpretation, when they are multiple, are a result of the strength of your story?

Ron Carlson

I don’t know. It all depends. As I said, I’m not good with this side of it. I get into my stories. So many of my stories I don’t understand; I’m trying to figure them out. I write them as well as I can. As a teacher, I figure what should be done to someone else’s story, but it’s not something I would like to do to my own. If I were working with a table of writers, I would almost never mention the reader. Clarity is important, and we all know the importance of establishing the narrative side. But to tailor something for a reader . . . I mean, when you write, no one else can be in the room. Not your priest, your rabbit, your brother, your sister, your children, and if they are, you’re working for market, in a way. People who write for television write for market. And it’s fraught with a kind of compromise. I think of myself as a sort of benevolent writer, and in writing you can’t compromise. As soon as you start cutting corners, the word gets around. A lot of that writing gets published. It’s all right. When I read someone’s story, I want to read his or her story. I don’t want to read their culture’s story, their family’s story. I’m very interested in what that person’s thinking.

William H. Coles

What is voice in fiction?

Ron Carlson

It’s not clear. It’s spoken about a lot. Everyone talks about voice. It’s related to point of view. Really, what it is, at its finest, is prose that’s occupied with a sensibility. We understand that when certain writers are describing changing a tire, there is something more going on.

William H. Coles

It has purpose . . . or meaning?

Ron Carlson

No. We could call it attitude; we could call it sensibility. The prose is charged with a person. People are always talking about liking the voice. We think about it in the first person, or someone with a dialect. It’s not that. It’s the angle of prose and the way it fits. Sometimes it’s authorial, third person, or it’s first person. So it’s talked about a great deal but it is still ambiguous.

William H. Coles

In addition to the character voices, first and third person, and the authorial voice, is there always a narrator voice also?

Ron Carlson

Yes. If you look in the big book of technical terms, there are nine, but the truth is there are probably more than nine. There’s a voice you use to tell a story to a child: “Once upon a time . . .” There are others that start in the first-person vernacular. People want a fiction checklist: dialogue, imagery craft, point of view, and voice. If you look at John Updike writing the Rabbit stories, the novels, it evolves and it becomes his senses and his sensibility. It’s that little bit of humanity in the prose. That’s as close as I can come.

William H. Coles

When you’re in scene as a writer, is it important to keep the voice — not the point-of-view voice but your sensibility voice — clear for the reader so that scene has a more significant impact?

Ron Carlson

Clarity is the goal. But clarity has a lot of different faces. Sometimes you have somebody who writes in staccato fragments, and we understand the pressure of the prose. Other times someone writes in five-line, elegant, complex sentences, and we understand that. Consistency and clarity are always the goal. A writer develops her voice over the course of five, six, eight, ten stories. Not that there is the same voice in each story, but there is a confidence that begins to come into the prose where you understand these language elements are not just being laid together like bricks. There is more force than that.

William H. Coles

So there is the authorial voice — you said “her voice” — always there in the fiction, in the stories.

Ron Carlson

Well, there is a lot of flat-footed writing. Where someone — obviously the juice goes off — gets her books, leaves the library, gets in her car, and goes home and has a drink. It sort of becomes bricks without mortar. I’m not exactly sure about that. I know that sometimes you can write an entire story where you get a certain type of voice. I’m writing a detective story now and I like the guy very, very much. I have no idea what’s going to happen to him. But he’s very self-deprecating. He’s trying to attempt precision in the way he talks that is right at the edge of being comic, and I like it.

William H. Coles

Do all characters need to be likable?

Ron Carlson

No. There is a lot of talk about this. A character needs to be effective. By effective, I mean there is a contact point between the character and the writer. For some reason the character’s engaging. Bundren in As I Lay Dying is not a likable character, but you can’t look away. Again and again it’s like that. We have a mix. Characters should be some type of mix. Even Iago from Othello, who comes as close as any famous literary character. Nobody is all bad. But he’s engaging. There’s contact.

William H. Coles

Is there a need for respect?

Ron Carlson

It depends on the reader. I think no. Readers read. If the story is engaging on a certain level, we take the characters seriously and understand there is moral authority. If the story is not well made, we can see through the costumes of the actors and see who is holding the light. Then we wonder. It’s like in Huckleberry Finn, where he can see the one guy acting, and Huck loves the actors who are so histrionic you could see it, and he thought that was acting, as opposed to an actor who acts in such a way as it disappears and you are sort of threatened by what the characters do.

William H. Coles

Is there a need for a touch of hero in every fiction character?

Ron Carlson

I don’t know about that. I’m much more interested in a touch of credibility. “Hero” is a big word. Full of charge. People do their best. And sometimes it’s not very good, I think.

William H. Coles

What do you think of credibility in first person? Because when all story information comes through the consciousness of a single narrator, there is always the question of credibility and reliability. If that’s true, how do you handle it? Is there a way to use credibility or lack of credibility to best purpose in your story?

Ron Carlson

When you tell a story in the first person there are always two stories. There is no such thing as an objective narrator. Even if you write a letter to your friend about your trip to Russia, it’s always going to be tilted, there are going to be elisions. When the first person is used, we understand that there is going to be: first, the story of the events; and second, the effect of the events on the narrator, implied or stated. So that allows us to begin to understand. I’m acknowledging that I have my proclivities, and my vulnerabilities, and my liabilities. As a narrator, I’m going to tell the story anyway. There is no greater first sentence than: “There is no way I can tell this story without getting in trouble, getting some on you.” So we have in the first person the worst possible narrator — one pretending to be (or the author would believe to be) fair-minded, evenhanded, levelheaded. A window instead of a prism. First person is always a prismatic lens. Never a clear lens. Once you acknowledge that, you can really go. So a baseball player who is telling the story of the game is fabulous, but a baseball player who is telling a story because of his error is a better narrator.

William H. Coles

Is the distance between narrator and narrator as character useful in terms of credibility and reliability? Do you understand what I mean?

Ron Carlson

Yes. The narrative distance, the distance between when I’m telling the story and when the story happened. The factor of time and point of view is never talked about. If I’m looking back and telling a story about what happened to me in sixth grade, that’s different than if I’m looking back and telling something that happened to me this morning. One of the things about telling a story in the sixth grade, I might have polished those lies so well you can see them as a sort of enamel. The story of this morning would have other features. Being unreliable doesn’t mean not being unforceful. It can have power and be unreliable. Unreliability takes a lot of forms. The minimizing, the maximizing, the euphemisms, et cetera.

William H. Coles

You teach the advantages of, after starting a story, providing exposition for the reader to build character as soon as possible. Are there ways to provide exposition without stopping the story action?

Ron Carlson

Exposition is not necessarily the story. Some stories have zero exposition. When there was no exposition in a lot of stories — that came along in the 1980s — we called it minimalism. It was minimal because there was a minimal amount of story information. In Raymond Carver’s stories, and those of other successful minimalists (so-called, a word that didn’t last very long, which is sort of good) the exposition is implied. So, a person tapping his lip at a window . . . we’d understand that he was under pressure and having trouble not drinking. Minimalism came along because it was a reaction to the turgid and deadening exposition we’d seen in the conventional stories of the 1940s and 1950s. When you get something going like a man and woman out to dinner and then you flashback to how they met and how they were in college it just became burdensome. Like I said, turgid. Now in a story we want to know who the characters are. Many times the value of a story is established in exposition of scenes, which have their own energy. Narrative evidence — that is to say, short stories embedded in the story itself — don’t necessarily create drag. I never have to worry about pacing in most of the student stories I see.

William H. Coles

Do you have suggestions for framing scenes in terms of pacing?

Ron Carlson

I talk about scene. What you’re offering is scene. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by framing a scene. You have things that take place. That’s the framing. So you have people in a moment or a room or a situation, and you remember they are in bodies and there is kind of a dance going on and you see what they’re saying, honoring the fact that people may not be able to say what’s on their minds, or capable of their own distress in that regard, or articulate. When you ask somebody how they are, you rarely get the story. Scenes are about real people and real places . . . and the complexities. You can’t explain it. You’re setting it out. Then you have to pay attention and see what they do.

William H. Coles

In relation to long descriptive narrative passages, I’ve heard you use the term “energize.” Are there specific ways to energize narrative? Is it word choice? Is it syntax? How do you do it?

Ron Carlson

I don’t know about it. Your story is alive. The writer is interested in surviving the draft. What most stories need is coherence, more specificity, and more drama and bodies, like putting people on stage. If you put two people on a stage, they don’t announce their ideas to each other; they have to talk to each other about what they are doing. Put them together, see what they do and how they do it. A good scene, for example, would be between two people putting together lawn furniture, and one of them wants to explain to the other where the gold is hidden. But it’s hard to do, so they say, “Hand me that wrench.” There is always an in and an out. There is the thing going on in the current moment between two people in the world, and then there is what they’re thinking. And most often, what deadens a scene for me is when the ideas start to creep out and the author starts to use characters as announcers for those ideas.

William H. Coles

You have many ways for finding a stimulus for a story. In fact, you recommend keeping a writer’s notebook for ideas. Once you have found stimuli for stories, how do you determine which are the best to develop into good stories?

Ron Carlson

You gather what you can, and I think indiscriminately. You gather things that stick to you. We’re all magnets. A story you think is worthy I might not think is worthy. One of the things you can’t teach is what a person chooses to write. Nor should you. When you choose to write your story, I want to read the story you chose. I don’t want to choose it for you. Write a story about diabetes. If it matters to you, then it has a legitimate claim on your time. When I look at my list of story ideas, certain ones want to claim me. There are certain ones I know. Usually it is a matter of image, and I do not know the sort, but I do know they’re going to drag me in such a way that I’ll have to swim the length of the pool before I touch bottom again.

William H. Coles

This is a slippery question, but what is the effect of TV on the fiction writer’s approach to stories? Has it changed what writers write? Is it influencing them?

Ron Carlson

I don’t know what media does to readers. I think TV is TV. It’s a little bit like what E. L. Doctorow said when they asked what he thought making a movie did to his book. He said, “They didn’t do anything to my book; it’s right over there.” I think reality TV is comical and sad. It’s not very satisfying. I think Bounty Hunter is magnificent. I’m smiling about that. I think much more to the point is the internet and the addiction to email and online, this constant input. Young people in this country have an ongoing stream of media input. When I was fifteen, I had no media input. I had a television and a bicycle. I got a little television every day, but not much. And I had a radio, but not much. When the phone rang, it was not for me. I did not have a telephone. So I had a lot of empty time. I had ideas. I was alone. I daydreamed. I generated things. I talked to myself. I goofed off. I doodled. You put a phone in every fourteen-year-old’s pocket, and all of a sudden they’re connected all the time to everyone. I think the alone time, the focus, and the intensity to write a book is being diminished, but we won’t know that for thirty or forty years. So I don’t know. I’m sorry that people don’t have a little more time alone. I want more writers to be honest about the fact that if you’re using the internet, that is not right. That is some type of community yahoo. It is not a useful activity for writers.

William H. Coles

You’re referring to Facebook and Twitter and things like that?

Ron Carlson

All of it. Email. As soon as you open the window on the world and let everybody else in. I’m very interested in what other people are thinking from time to time. So, I wouldn’t read the paper all day long. Nor would I want something blowing in my ears all day long. I think we’ll learn to be more discretionary in use of media. I was just down at dinner and someone said the longest tennis match in the history of Wimbledon is underway. I said, “Really.” She pulled out her phone and read me the article. It has just ended. It’s dark there. These guys had been playing for two days. A hundred games of tennis.

William H. Coles

This excessive social networking is peeking into individual lives. I wonder if some writers don’t see that as a resource. I’m thinking of film credits and book jackets that declare, “Based on a true story.” It brings up the question whether truth needs to be in fiction. Does it? After all, fiction is made up. Should fiction writers be thinking about truth to be effective?

Ron Carlson

No. Not at all. If Hamlet is based on a true story, is it better? The truth is that most films are badly made. Only 10 percent of films are designed well because there is so much committee work and so many people have their hands on it that the original talent gets muted and insulated by all the commercial instincts, and committees, and focus groups. Fiction is an art because readers wonder, “Did that happen?” And I would say, “No.” And they say, “Is it true?” And I say, “Yes.” It’s like painting. Where it reaches us. “Based on a true story” is a very popular phrase because people think it’s a marketing term. And if you think of it as a marketing term, you’re sort of talking down to the masses. You’re saying, oh, they need information. Not only is this an interesting story, but the bear really did eat the guy.

It’s sort of goofy. The movies are goofy. But come on. It’s got to be scary as hell. The people I’ve known who made movies spent a lot of money, and they were all out there. But if I spent a lot of money, if I spent six million dollars, I would do everything that I could to contact everyone I could. I’d tell ’em, yeah, it’s about a little girl with pigtails loose in the mountains. No, it’s about a talking cow that drives a helicopter. Yeah, and it’s got some mice who cook. They’re fabulous, actually rats. And I would market the hell out of it. When you write a book, you don’t have to spend six million dollars. You can write a novel for about sixty dollars. I have a table. It leaves me free. I can bring in the elephants when I want to. And then, when I consult my committee, it’s just me. That committee changes and I don’t think I’m right all the time. I’m stubborn, and I’m passionate, and I’m intense about my view given the day I’m having it. I’m very interested in readers saying, “Oh, I read your story; I wasn’t sure. Were they in the warehouse in the last scene?” And I say, “Oh, that’s not clear?” So, yeah. That’s great. Thank you. But I do not want them to say, “That was terrible, what happened to the women, there should be more music at the end of the story.” And I’m thinking, well, I love music too, but no, not in my story. If it was a film, I’d be stuck with it. You’d have to bring in music.

William H. Coles

Are there films you recommend that fiction writers see to get a sense of progression and dramatization?

Ron Carlson

No. I don’t know any that would help a writer except taking a bath in the great films: King Kong, 1933; Frankenstein, James Whale, 1931; The Lost Weekend; Harper; Paul Newman’s film The Hustler, which is like a novel, it’s a beautiful film. These are just movies that I’ve seen recently. It’s interesting about No Country for Old Men,, Cormac McCarthy’s novel, because if you read the novel and then see the movie, the fidelity to the novel is remarkable. I can’t remember having seen a movie follow a book so closely in twenty-five years. I track popular culture. I watch television. I don’t watch reality television. Sometimes I watch a little junk TV. I just saw Splendor in the Grass with Warren Beatty, that fifty-year-old movie. So, I believe in seeing what other people do with movies. I was astonished that when I was in my thirties, I was enjoying movies that I would not have written. I was allowing people who had made decisions I considered generic to have their way with me. It was a liberating thought. I thought, “Wow, I would never have made that choice.” Yet they made that choice and it sort of got me. That’s the difference between being a writer versus a reader, or a writer versus a viewer. You look at it all. I mentioned Alfred Hitchcock earlier this week. One thing about Hitchcock: there is always stuff in his movies. Even The Birds, which is sort of silly, has some birds in it. I don’t want to offend any Birds fans, but that movie left me flat.

William H. Coles

I agree. Are there instructive works of fiction, either short stories or novels, that you feel are iconic for instruction of writers in fiction?

Ron Carlson

A writer reads all the time. And a writer reads everything. You don’t put down a book until you know why you’re putting it down. It’s not necessary to read everything. I just read Tobacco Road, and I thought it was an awful book. That book sold a hundred and ten million copies. It was on Broadway eleven years. But I think the classics we read all the time. I love to read the old stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne and then going forward in American literature. Mark Twain is a great writer, all of his stories and essays. Huckleberry Finn.

William H. Coles

Herman Melville?

Ron Carlson

I taught and read Moby-Dick for years. Ernest Hemingway is hard to beat. I think he is a very, very powerful influence, the ratio of things to words is nice and tight. He screwed it down tight for the first time. After Hemingway, the twentieth century opens up. There are lots of good writers. Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie. I like Richard Ford’s stories. I love John Cheever. John Updike’s novels, and his stories too. Flannery O’Connor. D. H. Lawrence. But they’re all so different. I’ll be reading something and there are choices I wouldn’t have made. And I like Cormac McCarthy.

William H. Coles

Would you recommend V. S. Pritchett?

Ron Carlson

Sure. I don’t know his work very well. Writers are all under the influence of what they think a story is. Many times in undergraduate classrooms, that comes from film. So, there’s a problem in the rise and the fall. And there is television. Half of my work is dismantling their understanding of a story and opening their tolerance for complexity so they can deal with it. That honest-to-Pete darkened shadow that people have. The idea of reading is so valuable. If you were trying to explain baseball to someone who had never played it . . . in literature, how wide is the ballfield? I have writers who come to stories and think it’s only between first and second. They haven’t read. It’s a big ballfield. I remember reading Virginia Woolf and all of a sudden the playing field kept getting wider and wider. Oh, you can do that? We find and seek influences. Emulate, emulate, emulate. Imitate, listen, listen, and we find ourselves in the middle.

William H. Coles

You’re an excellent presenter and reader. How do you choose the right story to read aloud, and how do you prepare?

Ron Carlson

Well, you’ve read your work aloud in the study. Nothing leaves my room without being read aloud. Reading aloud is better than a focus group for me because I can find and hear the metrics and the lyrics that fit my mouth. The other thing is, I’ve been doing it for a thousand years. I try to slow myself down. I try to be very considerate of the audience because they’re out of their houses at seven-thirty at night, it’s God awful, they’re looking at me and I’d better deliver this thing with the kind of confidence that doesn’t embarrass anybody or make them squirm. And then I pick things I like, that I want to hear. I try to pick new work that is not published in a book, because if people want to see my books, they can buy them and read them. I’ve never read from a book in order to sell the book that night, but I know writers who do it. And that’s fine. It’s just not what I do. I always travel with one or two new drafts, things I’ve done in the last six to eight months, and that’s a great joy for me. This has been my custom now for thirty years. And I’ve had some really good readers tell me that I’m a good reader. Tim O’Brien said that once to me. It meant a lot to me. I’m not an actor. When actors read your works, you hear a whole other thing. And bless them. Actors have another strand of DNA that I don’t know about. I’m a teacher. So I want my work to stand up. I want it to be clear. In an evening of entertainment, I don’t particularly want to make a lesson, but I want to deliver the manuscript, the story, in a way that’s coherent to the group.

William H. Coles

What consideration do you give to the length of presentation?

Ron Carlson

If you’re reading alone, you can read for forty minutes if they’ve invited you. If it’s a hall, you can take questions and answers, and the evening can go an hour. It cannot go an hour and one minute. If you’re reading with other people, you always want to be the person who reads last. And I always want to be the person who reads the shortest. If I go last, then I can make it fit. I have material. I have four-page material and I have twelve-page material. If you read alone for over forty-seven minutes you are not going to go to heaven. If reading with another person and you read over twenty-five minutes, you’re putting your chances in jeopardy.

William H. Coles

It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you very much for participating in this interview.

Ron Carlson

Absolutely, Bill.



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