WHAT WE WRITE ABOUT WHEN WE WRITE ABOUT RAYMOND CARVER
Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life by Carol Sklenicka. Scribner, 592 pages. Hardcover or digital, $35.00 (paperback to be released in November).
By Erika Dreifus
For me (and, I suspect, for many of you), delving into a biography of a famous author must resemble what non-writers experience when they sit down with a celebrity profile. What an incredible opportunity to know the person behind the reputation. What a way to gain an intimate and comprehensive view into a life we may have perceived mainly through the individual’s professional output and public persona (perhaps mixed with some apocryphal stories and gossipy hearsay). And for writers—especially short story writers who came of artistic age in the last quarter of the 20th century, few contemporary authors have proved more influential than Raymond Carver.
Carol Sklenicka’s recent biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, possesses an exceedingly apt subtitle. The book provides an absorbing and meticulously documented account of how Carver, born in 1938 in Clatskanie, Ore., to a millworker and his wife, developed into a world-famous author.
As Sklenicka notes in the Introduction, by the time of Carver’s early death (from lung cancer, in 1988), “Where I’m Calling From, a selection of his short stories that the New York Times named a favorite book of the late twentieth century, had just been published; he had just completed his third collection of poetry in five years. His work appeared in twenty-two languages and the Times of London called him ‘the American Chekhov.’ He was a full-time writer, acclaimed by the press and supported by royalties from his books and a generous five-year grant from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.”
But this road to literary success was far from smooth. Sklenicka not only demonstrates the struggles, sacrifices and sufferings that Carver’s achievements demanded —particularly from his first wife, Maryann Burk Carver—but she also reveals the extent of Carver’s own single-minded dedication to his writing and the incremental steps, decisions, encounters and experiences that combined to shape the history of his career.
The biography thus recounts well-known staples of Carver’s life story, such as his undergraduate creative writing studies with a then-unknown John Gardner at Chico State College (now California State University, Chico); the dynamics of his relationship with editor Gordon Lish; the alcohol-soaked times he shared with John Cheever when both were visiting professors at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; the reputation he earned (and disliked) for literary “minimalism”; and the second marriage, to poet Tess Gallagher. But readers are guaranteed to glean new insights and discoveries in this book, too.
For example, there’s the correspondence course that introduced to the 15-year-old Carver the “Essential Elements of a Short Story and How To Develop Them.” The first short story publications, in the spring of 1961: “Furious Seasons,” which appeared in Selection, a Chico State literary magazine for which Carver served as an editor, and “The Father,” which was published in the Humboldt State College (now University) student magazine, Toyon. The first book publication: Near Klamath, a poetry collection published by the English Club of Sacramento State College in 1967. The promises and efforts to produce a novel that was never completed. The reactions of his two children when they saw their lives rendered on the page. The genuine friendships with a staggering array of writers familiar to us all. The messiness and disputes surrounding his estate and the rights to his work after his death.
If you are put off initially by the sheer size of this book—the quintessential “doorstop” tome—I have two words of advice: Don’t be. I guarantee that you will find Sklenicka a talented writer in her own right, and, again, there is something simply captivating about reading such a detailed account of an admired author’s life and literary career.
Beyond that, you will discover that nearly 90 of the book’s pages are devoted to extra-narrative material: acknowledgments and sources, an inventory of Carver’s works, endnotes and an index. You will leave this book with an infinitely expanded understanding of Carver as a gifted author - and, just like the rest of us, an imperfect human being.
(A version of this interview appeared in The Writer magazine.)