Arts August 12, 2008

Ron Carlson

Inspired by his college days and life after

Ron Carlson may be the most famous writer you’ve never heard of. His first novel, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, inspired by his college days and life after, was published to some acclaim in 1977. In subsequent years, he has had short stories appear regularly in top magazines in the U.S., including The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Esquire. His stories have been anthologized in many “best short story” collections and in five of his own. In addition, he’s published two more novels. His work draws high praise from other authors, including Michael Cunningham, Pam Houston, even Stephen King.

Carlson is a master of witty one-liners on writing, so you’ll often find him quoted among such luminaries as Shakespeare and Mark Twain for comments like this one: “I always write about my own experiences, whether I’ve had them or not.”

In addition to writing and teaching, Carlson reviews for a number of quality publications. So even if you don’t know the name, or the amiable face that appears on his book jackets, chances are good you’ve read something he’s written.

Two things are likely to put his name on the tip of your tongue this year. For one, he’s appearing in the upcoming film “Keith,” made from his short story of the same name. The film, about an oddball high school kid who woos a beautiful classmate, stars the currently hot young singer/actor Jesse McCartney. Carlson plays a teacher in the movie.

"These are people of all ages who have confronted their own writing and are ready to gather and focus on the elements of that rich process: finding and finishing their fiction.

Another reason you’ll hear about Ron Carlson hereabouts is that he will be conducting a writers’ workshop this summer for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. The class will be a five-day intensive program on the craft of writing and will include a critique of participants’ manuscripts.

At one time in his career, Carlson was a visiting fiction writer in a program sponsored by the University of Utah, the Utah Arts Council, the Idaho Commission for the Arts, and the Alaska Arts Council. He traveled to schools throughout those states, including the Sun Valley area. He looks forward to a return visit.

He even mentions Sun Valley in a story, “At the Jim Bridger,” which originally appeared in Esquire and was later collected in two books including O. Henry Prize Stories 2001. In the story, two men lost separately in a horrendous snowstorm find each other and struggle together to survive the night. Despite his frostbitten toes, one of the men regards the snow dump and remarks, “People in Sun Valley pay a thousand dollars a day for #$%! like this.”

It is his humor, mixed with otherwise tragic circumstances, that distinguishes Carlson’s writing style.

Carlson grew up in Salt Lake City, and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Utah. While he writes steadily, he has also taught for 30 years at such diverse places as Hotchkiss, a prep school in Connecticut, and Arizona State University in Tempe where, as Foundation Professor and Regents’ Professor of English, he teaches creative writing at graduate and undergraduate levels.

His stories cover a wide range of topics: a father seeking the remains of his lost son in Alaska, a couple of American students involved with a sinister new friend in England, a kid who is the only regular person in a family of geniuses.

Sun Valley Magazine interviewed Carlson by email about his upcoming summer workshop at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. >>>



Q) Have you done these workshops before, and do you anticipate a certain number of prototypical students? If so, what kinds?
A) All kinds of people who are writing books and stories about all sorts of things: their family, their first love, crime, science fiction, etc. They all share one trait: They are intent. These are people of all ages who have confronted their own writing and are ready to gather and focus on the elements of that rich process: finding and finishing their fiction.

Q) Have you ever discovered or nurtured a talent, other than your own, that you thought would have great success as a writer?
A) All the time. Talent is everywhere. At times I have also met folks with perseverance—which, of course, is key. Dozens of my students have published books because they persevered.

Q) What, exactly, can you teach at a workshop? Assuming you can’t teach someone to be perceptive or to write in a clever manner, what should a participant expect?
A) Reading and writing are different activities and require absolutely different instruments. We confuse them all the time. Reading is about reacting to text; writing is about being in the dark. All craft elements, when examined, are obtainable. I can’t teach passion; I can’t teach vision. Money cannot buy happiness, but with money you can buy the big boat and go right up next to where the people are happy. A writing teacher can save you time and refocus your efforts and take you right up next to where it is done; the leap is made alone.

"I wrote stories that mattered to me, and I was astonished, and I’m not being coy, I was astonished when they were published."

Q) I read that you have participated in only one workshop where you were a student, and that was not a very good one taught by the amazing Edward Abbey. What did you learn about what NOT to do as a workshop leader?
A) Abbey’s workshop was great. Did I make it sound bad? He was hard on us, and the stubborn among us pressed on.

[Editor’s note: In his online autobiography for ASU, Carlson wrote of Abbey’s class: “I loved Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, but Abbey was not a good teacher. He was a good guy, and we had a few beers, but his workshop was a shambles.”]

Q) Since you are so prolific, can you talk a bit about your work habits? Do you keep notebooks of things you observe? Do you force yourself to write a certain amount every day?
A) A writer works. He or she does not wait. I work every day, sometimes only a little, but I work every day, and I am every day making notes/observations on scraps of paper, etc. A writer has customs and observes them steadily.

Q) You write a lot in the first person; how do you make that choice?
A) We live our lives, most of us, in the first person, and so that is a natural choice at first. But sometimes you confront an idea or material that you need to walk around like a dog deciding if you should bark up this tree. You measure it and decide it would be better in the third person. Most choices, however, are made organically with the work.

Q) If your sons [he has two boys] wanted to be writers, would there be conflict over who owned the material?
A) They are smarter than I am and would thereby win the debate. This is a funny question, but the answer is: my sons.

Q) As you’ve gotten older, how has the fiction market changed? How have you changed as a writer?
A) All these years, and I’ve never looked at the market. I never wrote to a particular market. I wrote stories that mattered to me, and I was astonished, and I’m not being coy, I was astonished when they were published. There are fewer paying outlets for fiction than there were 20 years ago, but that doesn’t mean a thing to a working writer. She wakes up and works on her story. The markets will take care of themselves.

Q) You review for many publications. What do you think of the current crop of short story writers?
A) There is a big crop, and though some of the work runs in schools and trends, there is a lot of good work. It will take a while for the dust to settle; I don’t mean dust, but something like a sky-full of books which will have their time in the sun and then settle.

Q) You seem inordinately happy, even when you are writing about very sad things. Is that happy nature the product of good luck, great talent, a happy home life? Are you ever depressed?
A) Happiness is a serious thing, and I have been associated with it in the past. It has also been powerfully shown to me that I have real capacity for sadness. A writer must truly translate his heart after listening to it for some time.

Q) Annie Proulx said her “Brokeback Mountain” story was inspired by seeing an older cowboy watching longingly on the sidelines at a Wyoming dancehall. Has any similar inspiration put your work on the burner in Hollywood?
A) This winter the people who own the rights to my story, “Keith” made the film and it will be released next year. I got to go out to L.A. and play my one-line part. Of course, I am the English teacher. But they made a good little movie out of that story.

Q) Do you like meeting your “fans” or is that awkward for you? Is there any writer you’d really like to meet?
A) I am a reader and I love meeting readers. I met a great writer last year, Tom McGuane, and I had him sign one of his books for me, and that was special.


SVM’s Senior Editor Martha Liebrum is both a reader and a writer, with years of experience at both. A former newspaper editor and writer, she has reviewed books for a number of years and once had a short story published in a national magazine. As a reader, she finds Carlson’s stories like M&M’s, you can’t put them down unless you just walk out of the room.  

This article appears in the Summer 2006 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.