Carol Sklenicka on Raymond Carver

I met Carol Sklenicka when she came to Bloomington, Indiana, to read Raymond Carver’s manuscripts and letters in the Gordon Lish collection of the Lilly Library. I had written about Lish’s aggressive editing of Carver’s stories in my book on Esquire (It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun?) and was interested in her own discoveries about that writer-editor relationship, which has raised thorny questions about authorial identity. Not long after she finished writing Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life (2009) I visited her at her home near the Sonoma Coast of California, and we talked about Carver and the challenges she faced in writing the first biography of this complex man.

Carol Polsgrove: Raymond Carver seems to have had the most determined struggle to be a writer, and it was a long time before he saw any real success. What motivated that desire to be a writer? He was not from a bookish family at all –

Carol Sklenicka

Carol Sklenicka: No, he wasn’tfrom a bookish family. I think reading was a way to get away from his family and maybe from himself. He was quite an unhappy boy because he was very overweight and other kids teased him, and reading was an escape for him.

Polsgrove: What was wrong with his family?

Sklenicka: I think there was probably stress in his parents’ marriage. One of his cousins told me that his mother and father were “a mismatch.” That was the deepest analysis I ever really heard from anybody. What I took from that was that they did not get along smoothly on a day-to-day basis. And they lived in very small houses so there wouldn’t have been much place for a child to get away. His father and his mother loved him very much — I don’t think it was an unloving family, but somehow they couldn’t find a way to live comfortably together.

Polsgrove: They had a lot of economic hardship —

Sklenicka: They had economic hardship and uncertainty. They lived in a time in the 1950s when his father was able to earn a good living as a skilled saw filer in a lumber mill with much better pay than the average lumber mill worker, but they didn’t manage money very well. His mother always had jobs, too, but it appears that they just couldn’t hang on to money.

Polsgrove: So how did he discover books in the first place? Was it just in school?

Sklenicka: His dad used to read — his dad liked to read Zane Grey novels.

Polsgrove: Pulp fiction.

Sklenicka: Yes, and Ray discovered pulp magazines, and he said he discovered the library. He had quite a few books of his own — Tarzan books, that kind of thing. And he took a correspondence course from the Palmer Institute of Authorship when he was about 16. It’s unclear whether he actually finished it. His first wife remembered that he did all the assignments and took it very seriously. He himself later said that he never finished it and the Institute gave him a chance to pay more money and get a certificate of completion, and he thought that was fair enough, and he got his parents to pay for it, which is the kind of thing his parents would have done. His dad was very generous to him with the money that they did have.

Polsgrove: After that, he had the good fortune to have a series of mentors that he really listened to. I’m thinking of John Gardner as maybe the first —

Sklenicka: Yes — in my mind that correspondence course was the first because I believe that he did take it seriously, and I got copies of it and read it, and I thought it was very good. But then hemet John Gardner when he was a twenty-year-old freshman at Chico State College in California, which was a very fine teacher’s college that was becoming a liberal arts college then, and they had hired John Gardner to be a writer in residence to teach writing. It was Gardner’s second job, and he was an incredibly energetic guy who hadn’t published a thing outside of student journals himself.

Polsgrove: But he probably had a drawer full —

Sklenicka: He had actually an office full of manuscripts, including what would be his first novel, Nickel Mountain. He was a very energetic guy, and he really, really inspired Carver. Apparently he took all his students seriously, whether he singled Carver out as being the most talented or not, but Ray stepped up to the plate. He edited a literary magazine when Gardner suggested that the students should do that. Carver changed the way he looked. Up until then he’d looked like a Marlon Brando with greaser hairand when he met Gardner he cut his hair short and he had these horn-rimmed glasses and he took on the look of a late 50s intellectual. This was 1958. Then he left Gardner after a year. There were numerous reasons for that. Getting away from Gardner may have been one of them. Then he went to study with Richard Cortez Day, who, like Gardner, had earned a Ph.D. at the State University of Iowa and was also a fine fiction writer. Day and Carver became good friends — part of an intimate circle of friends — and Day mentored Carver.

Polsgrove: That was at —

Sklenicka: Humboldt State College in Arcata, on the northern coast of California. He stayed there three years, and that became his literary home. I think Gardner ignited him, and at Arcata he began to find his own way.

Polsgrove: And the next one was Johnson, the editor of December?

Sklenicka: Yes, and it’s instructive for young writers to look at this pattern, because Carver often made word-of-mouth connections. Dick Day was familiar with the editors at December magazine and suggested that Raymond send a story there, and then this fellow Curt Johnson took over December, along with the Carver story that had been accepted, and they began corresponding, and that story, “Furious Seasons,” won some notice, so Johnson got excited about Carver. Then Johnson published “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please,” which won a prize. I think Carver was the first writer Johnson had published who’d won a prize. And those two corresponded over the years. Johnson helped Carver find an editing job and introduced him to another man named Gordon Lish, who was an educational editor and publisher in Palo Alto.

Polsgrove: And he turned out to be the most famous as a mentor —

Sklenicka: Lish initially allowed Ray to submit his work to him at Esquire when he became fiction editor at Esquire — another surprising story that you know well, Carol — and Lish began changing Carver’s style by the way he edited him. Carver had his doubts about this from the beginning, but he was very excited to be published in Esquire and he let it happen. And as Carver had more success through Lish and Lish gained independence as an editor, Lish’s influence on Carver’s work became a kind of Faustian secret for Carver.

Polsgrove: Lish edited threeof his collections —

Sklenicka: Three altogether. Carver always told his wife that when his stories appeared in a book he’d change them back to the way he wanted them. At that time, he didn’t dream that Lish would be his first book editor.

Polsgrove: So he accepted the editing in Esquire but thinking that —

Sklenicka: That he was taking a couple of thousand dollars and the celebrity of being in Esquire

Polsgrove: Then Lish became an editor at Knopf and gave him his first chance to publish in book form. Did Carver publish in his lifetime earlier versions of the stories that Lish had edited for the books?

Sklenicka: He did, and it’s quite a long story. It’s been in the press a bit in the last few years. There was a long time period when Carver was a practicing alcoholic and Lish was his book editor, and Lish’s influence became stronger and stronger. Carver eventually got sober and began objecting to Lish’s editing, but one of his most important books, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, went forward in Lish’s form. After that book came out over Carver’s objections, Carver began to find ways to publish those stories in the form he wanted them. One that people know is a story called “A Small Good Thing” about a boy dies in a hospital. The story concerns his parents’ confrontation with a baker (played by Lyle Lovett in the movie Short Cuts). Lish had eliminated the closing scene with the baker, and Carver restored this original ending. But Carver never ever spoke about this. He said that he had expanded the stories — he never said he was restoring them.

Polsgrove: Why do you think he never ­—

Sklenicka: I think he was embarrassed. It goes back to your first question. I think his motivation as a writer was so individual and so private that the idea that somebody else had messed with the stories — even if he accepted that this was very skillful, sometimes inspired, editing — the fact that he needed help to get these stories in the form that became famous was humiliating to him.

Polsgrove: It undermined his sense of himself as a writer.

Sklenicka: And I think he struggled over that.

Polsgrove: When I was working on my Esquire book,I read a letter that he wrote to Lish begging him to let him publish those stories in his collection called Cathedralthe way they were written. He seemed quite wrought up about it.

Sklenicka: He was. It was very, very personal to him. For some writers, by the time something reaches publication, it’s out of their hands and they don’t really feel that close to it anymore. I think Carver tried to have this attitude but he really couldn’t. He believed in a writer’s individuality. He was a romantic, perhaps, in that way.

Polsgrove: Well, it was such a struggle for him. It wasn’t that he’d written fifteen books and one more didn’t make a difference —

Sklenicka. No.

Polsgrove: And his life would have suggested that every inch he gained, it might be another three years before he gained another.

Sklenicka: Exactly.

Polsgrove: So everything really mattered a lot. I wanted to ask, too — you mentioned his alcoholism. That section of your book is truly grueling. You tell us for a long way that he’s drinking too much, and then he descends into a maelstrom with his first wife Maryann, and it’s just a grueling section of the book. I wondered what got him out of that. He did get out of it —

Sklenicka: To go back to the first thing you said, if it’sreally grueling to read, it was also grueling for him and his family. I’ve read many biographies of alcoholic writers—there are a lot of alcoholic American writers particularly — and I put more emphasis on the physical aspect of it than I’ve seen some others do because I think most people don’t realize how awful it really was. It took Carver three years, from the moment he began to admit he had a problem, to really quit. There’s a whole medical healing he had to go through, and he was lucky, I guess, because by 1974 when he started quitting, there was a knowledge in the world about how to quit, and the writers of the Twenties, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, did not have the benefit of that knowledge, so he was able to go to rehab centers and learn some things about it. He was exposed to the idea that alcoholism is a disease, and he had to overcome the mystique that alcohol is something that writers do, that it’s somehow beneficial to the imagination.

Polsgrove: It was a disease in part because by that time alcohol had changed his very body and brain.

Sklenicka: Yes, it had changed the chemistry of his brain and once he had a seizure when he tried to quit drinking and he feared he would have another one. His memory never fully recovered. He did not have a good memory for certain events and dates. He had experienced blackouts, which are periods of hours or even days when a person has no idea what they’ve done. I think finally publishing his first book gave him some motivation to want to quit — he began to see a future for himself as a writer — and that was 1976, his first book, his first commercial book of short stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

Polsgrove: He was how old then?

Sklenicka: He was about 38.

Polsgrove: And he’d been writing since he was —

Sklenicka: 17 or earlier.

Polsgrove: His wife was also a heavy drinker — Maryann.

Sklenicka: They partied together. She would get more drunk than he would, to other people’s eyes, although she began trying to quit before he did. But she would backslide and drink with him again. They had been very, very closely linked together since they were teenagers, very dependent on each other.

Polsgrove: That’s something I wanted to ask about — how that fed his writing. The way you present it I come away feeling that his stories, the heart of his work, came out of that relationship between two people, who had been together since they were not yet adults.

Sklenicka: They grew up together. She was 14 when they met and 16 when they married. They had their first child within a year.

Polsgrove: After they separated and divorced, did what he write about change? Or was he still drawing from that well?

Sklenicka: He continued to draw from that well for the second half of his book What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, and largely for Cathedral.

Polsgrove: These were new stories?

Sklenicka: These were new stories. His attitude about it changed. I can certainly tell that he’s looking back at the relationship even if he’s writing as if it’s right in front of you — there’s a tonal change. “Cathedral” itself, which is his most famous story, was not based on that marriage, but marital relations remained his primary subject, always. He died at the age of fifty. Only in the final years of his life was he not married to Maryann.

Polsgrove: And then he was with Tess Gallagher.

Sklenicka: Then he was with the poet Tess Gallagher, and they had what she called in one interview a common-law marriage. They lived together for the last ten years of his life and married shortly before he died. She was an influence on his work as well, but in a different way.

Polsgrove: Gallagher controls the literary estate. You did not have her cooperation on the book?

Sklenicka: No, I didn’t.

Polsgrove: So it was very courageous of you to take on this big, intimate biography without the approval of the estate because that means you couldn’t seek permission to quote from Carver’s writings at great length. What difficulties did that pose for you?

Sklenicka: Initially I hoped that I could gain Gallagher’s cooperation. I have loved Carver’s work since I was graduate student. Actually, Carver once declared that there’s something called the “right of love.” He quoted from many other authors in his poems and when people asked him about this very kind of thing he always said he could do that because he loved the work. I may have felt that way. When I found out that Tess Gallagher really wouldn’t cooperate, I continued to do the research. I felt that I had to quote Carver’s work because people care about Carver because of his writing, so I had to work very closely with counsel and my editors to quote minimal phrases that would represent his work fairly. It was quite difficult, but I wrote the book the way I thought it had to be.

Polsgrove: You quoted under fair use.

Sklenicka: Yes, very strictly.

Polsgrove: What about getting people to talk to you? Did you find doors were generally open or were there doors that were shut because you did not have the official approval of the estate?

Sklenicka: I think of it as sort of a stairway that I had to climb through Carver’s life. I had the names of a couple of people who had known him as a boy in Yakima, so I went to the town of Yakima and talked to people there, and really by word of mouth I met a lot of people, and almost everybody handed me on to somebody else. I found in Yakima that people were extremely friendly. Of course they were proud of Ray but these were not literary people so they found it strange that I was coming there to talk to them,but they were extremely generous. I loved these people and their voices. A lot of them were Arkansawyers who came to Yakima in the 30s, people that worked with Carver’s father in the sawmill. They just handed me on and opened doors for me. Another big step was when I first contacted Richard Day at Humboldt State University. ThenI was aware that I would be dealing with somebody who would be more critical of my intentions. I spent about a week with him and his wife, and they examined me as closely as I examined his memories. When Day decided I was all right, I again got passed on to other people. But there were a few who are close friends of Tess and checked with her before agreeing to speak to me and then decided not to. I don’t know what she said to them.

Polsgrove: You spent ten years on this book.

Sklenicka: I did.

Polsgrove: You traveled all over the country

Sklenicka: I did. I like to travel.

Polsgrove: Did you ever count up the number of people you did interview for the book?

Sklenicka: I think it might be around 300 but I never counted. I hope they are all listed in the biography’s acknowledgements. They deserve to be. Some were only brief conversations, but I interviewed at least 100 people at length, in person.

Polsgrove: Did you ever get to a point where you were tired of the whole project?

Sklenicka: That didn’t happen until I had already written it and was trying to get the book into shape. I loved the interviewing process. I was usually willing to drop writing and go off and interview one more person.

Polsgrove: Do you think that people were more willing to talk to you because you were not a famous biographer? You had written a critical book on D.H. Lawrence but it was an academic press book, so you were not a household name as a biographer — did that make people more willing to talk to you than if you’d been, say, Janet Malcolm?

Sklenicka: I guess it would depend on who — Carver started out in a very nonliterary, small-town part of the world and he ended up celebrated in New York City, and there’s a whole spectrum of people that he met along the way, and those same people had differing attitudes toward me. My own background from a small town in the west made it pretty easy for me to meet the kind of people he grew up with and the people he knew in his earlier part of his life. When I got to his famous years, I was a little nervous about meeting some of these people myself, and I don’t know if they were more forthcoming to me because I wasn’t a professional. In some cases they didn’t take me too seriously right away, and I had to have a publisher’s contract before they would talk to me because they didn’t want to waste their time on somebody that wasn’t going to finish a project.

Polsgrove: Can you generalize about what these various people felt about Carver in different ways — how they felt about him as a human being?

Sklenicka: It seems to me that he was one of the most beloved people I’ve ever heard about and that he had a tremendous number of people who considered him a close friend, and I think that was even before he was famous, that people were protective of him, they were very forgiving of his flaws, which were considerable.

Polsgrove: There were violent episodes.

Sklenicka: Yes — his first wife was quite forgiving of that, because she was a formidable personality herself and because she knew his drinking was a factor.

Polsgrove: And he seems often indifferent to his children —

Sklenicka: That’s a whole interesting subject that we should probably talk about at more length, but his children had a tough adolescence. He and his wife were children themselves, as Carver said later. They did not have an easy childhood, and they did not have an easy relationship with their father, but they loved him.

Polsgrove: I get the feeling from at least what one of them said that the whole emphasis of family life was on Carver’s writing, his possible success as a writer, and also on the parents’ friendships with other adults, their socializing. They were party people — they spent a lot of time partying and the kids seemed to be kind of off in the corners.

Sklenicka: The parents aspired to be middle class, and they often lived in suburbs, which were places where people went to have a middle class family life, but they didn’t quite have the template for that. They were, as you say, focused on Carver’s aspirations, and parties were a way of connecting with other writers, and the kids were certainly not given the kind of nurturing, child-focused environment that was the ideal then. But the kids had many opportunities. Christine at one point owned a horse and took horseback writing lessons, so it’s important to recognize they did have a lot of opportunities — Vance participated in sports — but at some point the family chaos and alcoholism just simply took over and they were a very vulnerable age then.

Polsgrove: It was worse really when they were in their teens.

Sklenicka: I believe so. Because a lot of kids, including Carver himself, survive having a low income. The problem was social dislocation, and the ethos of the Seventies in California was surely a factor too.

Polsgrove: So the family paid a pretty heavy price for his success and in the end they got very little from his estate.

Sklenicka: This is true.

Polsgrove: This is something you write about in the Epilogue of the book. Do you have any thoughts that you’d like to express briefly? The Epilogue does lay out what happened.

Sklenicka: I think it’s important to try to have all the information. Carver himself — it came out of the divorce settlement with his first wife that there were no legally binding arrangements for her or their children to inherit ongoing royalties from his work. But in thinking about all that, people need to remember that short story writers and poets don’t make very much money. Carver was a college professor and he didn’t become that until he was forty. There was never really any expectation that he’d make any much money.

Polsgrove: And it was after his films that that expectation changed?

Sklenicka: Yes, that was one indication. His work has also been translated into dozens of languages and he’s beloved in Japan, so his success continues in that way too. Two films were made of Carver’s stories. One was Short Cuts, which probably hasn’t made a lot of money — the estate was paid about two hundred thousand dollars initially, but the movie wasn’t a big hit or anything. It was an art movie. And then there was an Australian movie called Jindabyne that was made from one of Carver’s stories, and that has disappeared. I saw it in a movie theatre and it seemed like it was gone to video about a month later.

Polsgrove: So it’s hard to see how much money the stories will eventually make. He definitely has a reputation as a — perhaps the — leading American short story writer of his generation.

Sklenicka: His second wife, Tess Gallagher, has been an energetic steward of his work in many ways. She’s kept it out there — she’s published a number of things posthumously. She’s seen to it that a Library of America volume was put together, so she’s had a lot to do with his enduring reputation. The stories themselves have to be good or this doesn’t happen. I think emotionally it’s difficult for Carver’s children to accept that they didn’t receive a portion of the proceeds of his work as it continues to be celebrated in the literary world twenty years after his death.

Polsgrove: Isn’t there a court ruling that says they do get some portion of the proceeds from the copyrighted works that were written before a certain date?

Sklenicka: No, not a court ruling. There was a change in federal copyright law that affected Carver’s estate because he wrote on both sides of that change — it was in 1978 — and sorting that out has been the basis of a couple of lawsuits that Carver’s daughter has brought against Tess Gallagher. It’s been a pretty unpleasant business for everybody involved. And you might wonder why Carver didn’t foresee some of this, but he did die very young and he was very sick with cancer.

Polsgrove: And he was pretty sloppy with his life — he was not a hands-on guy who would sit around worrying about —

Sklenicka: He cared about his writing above everything else. He was glad to have other people take care of his daily life for him. He liked having nice things. He was delighted later in his life when he could afford a good car and a fishing boat and a nice house, but he was a consumer, he certainly was not someone who planned for his financial future. And he did — he helped his children a great deal during the last ten years of his own life, while they were completing college, still in their twenties.

Polsgrove: We’ve talked about all the people whose lives went into Carver’s work in one way or another — his mentors, his editor Gordon Lish, his wives, his children. Do you think that was true of Carver to an unusual degree, or is that simply true of creative writing: that it is often more of a group effort than we may think?

Sklenicka: I think it’s probably very easy to recognize in his work. With a lot of fiction writers it’s perhaps not so obvious, but I would say it probably is true of many writers.Some writers make a bigger effort to disguise it than Carver did. He had such a long struggle and the last thing he had to think about was disguising the sources. I do think that a lot of people seem to be very interested in pointing out that they’ve had a part in his work, plus his poetry gives a lot of information that we might not have if we only had the fiction.

Polsgrove: We haven’t talked much about his poetry. Do you yourself think it’s as powerful as his short fiction?

Sklenicka: I do I think it all has to be looked at together. His short stories are poems in a way and his later poems are quite long and narrative — there’s certainly a strong similarity in the kinds of things he’s doing, and I’ve been thinking lately that his poems are probably as fictional as his stories. I’ve said that the poems are like a personal journal, but I’ve begun to wonder about that, because of course they are composed.

Polsgrove: Am I right in thinking that in his later years when he was celebrated and he did have enough money and there were a lot of public demands on him, the balance shifted and he was writing more poetry, relatively speaking, and less fiction?

Sklenicka: Yes, he was. He had the freedom to do that.

Polsgrove: When he had the freedom to write whatever he wanted he turned to poetry.

Sklenicka: Yes, he did.

Polsgrove: Does that mean that was what he had in his soul all along? Is there any way to know why he turned to poetry?

Sklenicka: I don’t think there is any way to know. He was living with a poet, so that surely was an influence, but she began to write short stories herself — certainly there was a cross fertilization.

Polsgrove: Carver’s life and writing have obviously touched a lot of readers and writers. Why is it so appealing? What is the strength of his work?

Sklenicka: I think it’s very artfully done but I think his work appears to be simple, and there’s nothing difficult about approaching it for a lot of people. He writes about things like alcoholism that are really common problems. He writes about it with the kind of details people recognize. And yet it is tremendously artful so people that are interested in literature find something as well. He’s a writer that teachers like to introduce to their students. He continues to be read by young people.

Polsgrove: What do you think younger writers can learn from his experience as a writer?

Sklenicka: The whole editing controversy has muddied that water. I taught Carver myself when I first began teaching in the 80s and what I hoped that students would learn was how to let their selection of details to do the work — the old showing instead of telling advice. Now we know that he had help from Gordon Lish in making those choices, but it’s still something students can learn.

Polsgrove: And what can younger writers learn from his life experience — other than that they shouldn’t become alcoholics?

Sklenicka: They can learn to use whatever experiences life brings them. Carver was a product of the public colleges and creative writing programs that grew in the post-World War II era, but he didn’t write about colleges. His characters may seem like grad students in their nervous relation to life, but he wrote about working class and middle-class people struggling with families and jobs. Very ordinarystuff.And yet, students should notice the extent to which Carver was very aware of himself as a writer and always reading — he didn’t just start out writing to express himself. From the age of 18 or so he was reading books to find out what writers did, and what the world of literature was. So though he appears to be not bookish at all — in his way he was. Somebody described to me that when he was in college he always had paperback books falling out of his pocket. One reason his stories were so good was that he knew Chekhov — he knew Isaac Babel and Turgenev. One of his friends told me that Ray talked about the great writers as if they were people he knew — that they were alive in his head.

Carol Sklenicka’s next biography, Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer, was published in 2019.

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