Inspired by his college days and life after
Photography: Courtesy of Ron Carlson
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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.
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.