Fall 1991, Volume 8.2
RON CARLSON GOES TO PLAN B
An Interview with Ron Carlson by Brooke Hopkins
Ron Carlson was born in Logan, Utah. He grew up in Salt Lake City and was educated at the University of Utah. After ten years' teaching at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, Mr. Carlson returned to Utah to write fiction and to teach for the arts councils of Utah, Idaho, and Alaska. In 1986 he joined the faculty of Arizona State University.
Ron Carlson is the author of a collection of stories, The News of the World, (W.W. Norton 1987/Viking Penguin 1988) and two novels, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truants. His work has appeared in Playboy, The New Yorker, Harper's, McCall's, Sports Illustrated, The North American Review, TriQuarterly, The New York Times, and other magazines and newspapers. His stories have been included in several anthologies including Sudden Fiction, Editors' Choice 1986 and Best American Stories 1987 (edited by Ann Beattie). His monologues have been produced at The Sundance Playwrights' Institute, The Philadelphia Festival Theatre, The Manhattan Punchline and The Salt Lake Acting Company. Mr. Carlson was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction in 1985. His next book, a collection of stories titled Plan B, will be published by W.W. Norton in the fall of 1991. He lives with Elaine Carlson and their two sons in Tempe, Arizona, where he is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University.
Hopkins: I'd like to begin with the story in this issue of Weber Studies, "The Golf Center at Ten-Acres." In many ways, the story has a lot in common with your recent fiction. It is concerned with domestic issues, with relations between husbands and wives, between parents and children. But I find some striking things that are different about it, and I'd like to explore some of those differences. It seems to me that the story is even more on the edge, psychologically, than many of the stories you have written in the past, stories collected in The News of the World. I'd like you to respond to my sense that this is a story that is exploring terrain that you haven't quite touched on before, especially the fear of failure that seems to haunt the narrator of the story.
Carlson: That's an apt description. I'm a writer who has gone through an evolution, and the evolution is absolutely consonant with the stages of my life. When I was writing Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I thought I was writing real high-wire style, a style that almost calls attention to itself. At the time I thought, "Well, this is the way I'll always write. These are my concerns. I want things to be comic, antic; I want things at ninety miles an hour." I couldn't be farther away from that now. "The Golf Center at Ten-Acres" is more on the edge, psychologically. I wouldn't say that the narrator's fears have crept into my life, but they have in a way, not just the fear of failure, but all kinds of adult concerns. It started as a story about some children, and how taxing they were emotionally on the parents, specifically, the father. And then the story turned on me as stories sometimes do, and started to go someplace else. For instance, there's the wife who is involved with the Russian who owns the pizza franchise. That part of it must have seeped in through the news. At the time (it's two years ago now), I had just written a letter to Harper's saying that I thought the iron curtain was coming down and asking them to send me to Austria. I said, "Send me and I'll bring you back a piece of the iron curtain." I was going to bring it back and use it in my yard. For me the challenge now is that the stories get less neat . . . but I think they get better. There is no solution for the anxiety in writing the last third of a story, as all of the things you had created start demanding things of you. The satisfaction you get as a writer is that you are just not going to be able to answer them all, just as in life. You answer what you can, and you try to get out of the story while there is still resonance.
Hopkins: Let me pick up something you said in the middle of your last remarks, something about the way history, contemporary history seeps into the story in various ways. One is very conscious in reading this story of the contemporaneity of its landscape, of a southwestern landscape that is grotesque in many ways, barren. (The golf course itself would be the best emblem of that.) And the story seems to be very much a story set in the 1980's, in the Reagan era. I wonder if you could reflect for a moment on your own sense of how your stories are either beginning to, or have in the past, responded to the American situation; whether you're beginning to be more aware of some of the ways in which contemporary American political and economic life impinges on some of the subjects that concerned you earlier, domestic subjects, marriages, child rearing.
Carlson: I think every writer has his or her America, or his or her country. I just reread Lolita last month. And I was struck by all those motor courts Nabokov puts into that story. And I realized that in Betrayed there is one America, one West. It's an interesting kind of sanitized Utah. In Truants there is another; you can see my eye being caught by things that are egregious, grotesque, but things that actually do exist in our landscape—for years, for instance, there really was this great big blue ox in Flagstaff, Arizona. As a writer now, though, I think I see the country differently. But I think that it's also a different country. It's much less innocent. I wrote Betrayed in 1974, and it just seems different. We hadn't been through this entire Reagan thing. Now, I know who was innocent. I was innocent. I was twenty-five or twenty-six years old; now I'm in my early forties. I think these things go hand in hand; my sense of where the character is (who is some shadow of myself) and where the country is, are related. I do actually live near a golf course, and it's not a very pretty course. Flat. And I know about tires that have emerged in landfills. It's hard to bury a tire; they expand and contract and keep rising. That's how I developed the grotesque world that I wanted for this guy to make his mistake in. But I think when you go into a story, for whatever reason, a current impels you, and you're following that, the things around you, that's the seepage I was talking about. Things find their way; while you're working on a story, they get in. And for the most part, they help. From time to time, though, they can derail you. If you are not aware of the imagery you're building, you may not be able to get to where you wanted to go, or to a place that will make the story work. The last piece I'll do for the new book I'm working on, which is called Plan B, is a story I don't yet have a title for, but it's set in Wendover, Nevada. It has surprised me. I'd made my notes, and I began typing. The recurrent images are things in the earth, all things embedded in the earth: some crashed planes, bones, some tools, and things that are found in archaeological digs, rocks, and cars. I think when you are working, the imagery more or less becomes congruent with the story you are writing. But back to the American issue. When you describe the sunset or the architecture or the streets or the way the pedestrians are walking or what you see on the bumper stickers, I think you're doing the country. And that's the way we do it.
Hopkins: I think what's so striking about the story is the way in which it doesn't impose its sense of the present American moment on its reader, the way it makes you feel it. It's not self-conscious in that way, and all the more effective for that. But since you bring up the new collection, I wonder whether you could describe some of the ways you see it differing from the previous collection, as a whole.
Carlson: The News of the World is a kind of sweet book. When I think about it in retrospect, I have a nice feeling, one that's kind of warm. I don't think the new book will have that kind of feeling for me. It has more bones in it. I think it's tougher stuff. There's something wishful about The News of the World. The long story, "Life before Science," for instance, or "Blood," about the adopted baby: I'm not saying they're false, but I am saying they are wishful. I think, in that collection, the imagination, when it had its option, took the sunny turn. What I've tried to do in this new book, what I've tried to do more and more in my work, and in the writing I'm doing about writing, is something I call "going to ground." That is, when you get to a turning point in a story, and you have to go one way or another, the way you decide where you're going to go, what choice you're going to go, what choice you're going to make as a writer, is you "go to ground," you try to be as honest as possible. Sometimes those choices will remain what I'd call sunny. But for the most part, the stories in the new collection are much less wishful, more substantial than some of the stuff in News. That's particularly true, I think, of the title story, "Plan B."
Hopkins: Maybe you could elaborate on what you mean by "more substantial."
Carlson: Well, in that story, the main character is undergoing a major change. His job is ending, and he's having some difficulty confronting that. Primarily, he's having difficulty telling his wife. It's one of those things you can't quite articulate. I like a guy off balance. He's not in control; he's not the captain. He's just on the ship. I've written lots of stories, and I've read a lot of stories, where the guy is the captain of the ship, and he tells the story; it's his story. I believe this story is different. It's a story about a guy who's off balance, who's not secure, particularly in his relation to women. That's why when he meets the women on the verandah in Waikiki, I was so surprised. He finds out that both of these young women have lost their husbands in an accident. Then I had to be more careful; even though they're dancing in the scene, I couldn't dance. The trajectory of more and more incidents in my stories comes down harder. I mean, I can still have my fun. I can have a moment when a guy's uncomfortable dancing with a strange woman who seems to be romantically inclined, and then later, alone on the beach, he thinks about what it would be like to lose a spouse. I see more and more of life like this, with two edges, where we do have the comic or what we might think of as something ironic. And then later on it bears down on us; it bears us down. A lot of the other stories in the new collection are like that as well: "Blazo," which is about Alaska, "Deray," "Cracroft," a story about two professors. I stand behind all my work, but this is what I would stand on now. It's new. The point is that I think you write what's true for you at the moment. In News some of the stories took turns that might be considered a little too optimistic; those represent metaphorically where I was at the time. Now I see things a little differently, and that's coming out in the stories.
Hopkins: I think that a number of the stories in both collections explore aspects of the male psyche, aspects of male insecurity. And I think they have become increasingly concerned with certain fears of failure.
Carlson: I agree. I laugh about this sometimes. I have, and did have for a long time, a sunny, lucky time of it. And in many ways I still continue to, but life asks us a million questions, and I think now, especially the way I feel today, the riffs of unbridled euphoria come less and less frequently. And more and more we're caught, we're rethinking what we said, how we said it, what we did, how we did it, what we should have done. And I find myself very interested in those concerns, because I think they're honest.
Hopkins: Have you ever written a story from a woman's point of view?
Carlson: Well, I have, a couple of times. It's a big risk for me. I wrote a story, the first person account of a woman who dies. That came close. The piece that I like, and I think that it's fairly good even though I'm not really sure what it's about, is the last story in The News of the World, called "The Status Quo." That's a third person story which centers on a woman who's uneasy about her current situation. When I wrote the first sentence I knew I was in trouble. It goes something like, "She didn't feel good, but she didn't know what the matter was." And I know the things that happened in that story were good things, and I believe them, but when the story was published I was still nervous about it. I reread the story a couple of months ago, and I feel that it is one of the least indulgent stories I've written up to this point.
Hopkins: The story begins, "It was a tough time and she didn't know why."
Carlson: I was trying something there. Because I think some of the tough times are tough because you don't know why. If you could put your finger on it, there might be a chance to solve it. That's what the woman in the story is trying to do. It's not easy.
Hopkins: Actually, that story is linked in an interesting way to the story in this issue of Weber Studies, "The Golf Center at Ten-Acres." They are about the same kind of moment, a moment of transition, domestic transition, change in a marriage.
Carlson: I'm much more interested in adaptation; that is to say, people who adapt to a problem, as opposed to those who simply dispose of one. I'm much more interested in the compromises. The melodramatic, a divorce or a separation, those don't interest me as much as the uncomfortable, but necessary, adapting that we all do. And sometimes these are small moments and are hard to see. But for me as a writer, that's what domestic life is all about. It's what life is like in the workplace, too. It isn't a matter of winning. We've all had our chances to win. But more often than not, we're left with a kind of unease. I'm going to do more of that in my fiction. I'm much less interested in the flashy. I think you're going to see my fiction get quieter. I think that in my next book you're going to see stories with characters whom you have to follow more closely.
Hopkins: What you've just said puts an interesting frame around a moment in the "Golf Center" story, the moment when the narrator rejects a violent act of revenge. That may be analogous to your own rejection of the melodramatic.
Carlson: You have seen me play with that idea in Truants, where I wanted to have a guy tear a phone out of the wall, and then it didn't quite work. You can't tear the phone out of the wall, and that's what I felt in writing the gun scene. He gets the gun in the story; he goes over to his brother-in-law's apartment. He's mad. When I was writing the scene, I thought, "Wait, he can't take his kid; he can't leave the kid alone at home; if he's going to shoot someone, he's going to need to get a sitter." And in a way, I like the scene a lot, because it involves one of the few decisions he's made. He rejects violence. I love those moments—moments when we can see a character grow stronger. I was glad to make the guy in "The Golf Center at Ten-Acres" aware of his own deficits, that he's not a good pro, that he doesn't really know what to say. I like that because it helped me to get in with him. He just wasn't slick. A lot of the fiction I see has these slick narrators who relate interesting things, and sometimes the stories succeed. I'm much more interested in the reflection. The events are easy. Many things happen that are fun to relate, and engaging, but what I'm interested in is how they reflect on who tells them. When you tell a story in the first person, there are going to be two stories. One is the relating of the events, the other is the implicit or explicit effect of those events on the narrator. I see a lot of stories in which it's not clear to me what the effect of those events is on the narrator. In a lecture I gave at the Writers at Work Conference in Park City this year , I said that if you ever get a chance to write a novel for Hamlet, tell it from Horatio's point of view. And I really believe that. I've been thinking a lot this year about point of view, as I made my first substantial forays into the third person. And when I came back to the first person, it was not satisfactory for me alone. It was not enough simply to say, "Let me tell you what happened last night." I don't want to know what happened last night. I want it implied, somehow, in the voice of the speaker, what all that meant to the speaker.
Hopkins: Just a technical question. Is it possible to imagine who the narrator in "The Golf Center at Ten-Acres" is telling his story to? Is there a contradiction in the story between this man's supposed inability to articulate himself and the fact that he's actually telling the story to some kind of imagined audience, and telling it rather effectively?
Carlson: That is inconsistent. It's similar to having a child relate a story which is realistically beyond his means. But I'm willing to go with that. I wanted him to be unable to quip. I don't think he's putting us on about not being clever. But he may be underestimating his ability to put together a little narrative. There are stories, and you know some of them, that are directly addressed to a specific audience: Lolita, for instance. But as a writer I do not, now, specifically think of a reader. I don't think about a reader, nor do I think explicitly of who my narrator is speaking to. It can become apparent in the course of a story, and you get a certain kind of posture with the language. In the theater, when you do monologues, that's the first thing you ask. Where is he? Whom is he talking to? What's the dramatic moment? And when my monologues are performed, that's one of the hardest things to work out. Whom is he justifying himself to? In prose fiction, though, more and more, I think of myself as the reader. When I get done, I want to be able to pick up the folder a month later and read through it and not want to pick up my pencil. That's almost impossible. But I want to read the story; I want to have enough in it. I'm the reader. I want to say one more thing about this. Every once in a while you have creative writing students who are reluctant. They say, "I'm no good; I can't write a story." Then they write a story. They write one story every year or so. I said to one student who was going on and on about liking my stories and putting down his own: "That's because you've been writing for your enemies." Because his letters are fabulous. They are two and three pages, and they just sit you down and you keep them and you read them more than once, read them aloud. That's because his defenses aren't up when he is writing a letter. And more and more I don't think of critics. I'm thinking of a fellow reader who is going to relish the same things I do. I think that's a very good mindset for a writer to have. People are always going to be able to find stuff to criticize in your work, always. Knowing that, you can go ahead and clear yourself to write. I think we just got through a decade of very, very defensive writing, so carefully done that it was impeccable many times. In 1985, I couldn't tell you what was bugging me about the stories I was reading. It was that defensiveness. There was no access. I think we're over that.
Hopkins: That brings up another issue I want you to explore a little. It has to do with the way you represent the intimate moments between men and women, husbands and wives. It seems to me to be a striking characteristic of your writing that you do that frankly, but always with a touch of irony. That seems to have something to do with the observations you just made about the defensiveness, the carefulness, the slightly washed out nature of certain contemporary American writing.
Carlson: Surface. A lot of what we're talking about is that impec-cable surface, impervious to any kind of emotional access. That is not the way I write. I think a person has to train himself to write that way. And I think people successfully did. So much of the writing I've done to this point has been a letting go. As I think back on it, it was a lucky thing to be able to do, to be able to go into a story and write it as if everybody or nobody was going to read it, never looking back. As soon as you start measuring yourself, you're done. And I think a writer betrays himself. You can't hide. I know this is true. When I did a story for public radio last year, they [George Garrett and Susan Stamberg] asked us to write a story with a wedding cake in the middle of a road. That's all they said. The six writers were Ann Beattie, Joy Williams, Judith Guest, Stuart Dybeck, George Garrett, and myself. And if you look at the stories each of those writers produced, they exist as short, radical metaphors for each of them: their work, their attitude. This is a sensitive issue for me now, because I'm finding myself more and more self-conscious. I don't know what to say about that, except I'm aware of it. When I go into a scene, I try to stay as close as I can, and I try to get a scene that I would like to read. These two things have guided me well so far. There have been times, as I said a minute ago, when I've been blessed with the ability to let myself go and really write. I'm writing a story now which is based on a single parent overhearing the apple of her eye, her fifteen-year-old son, say the one word that offends her to no end. She's a professional woman, a technical writer and editor for a magazine. Years and years ago, I had a wonderful liberal friend, Susan, who taught prep school with me, and she said this one word (it's obviously a sexual swearword.) It was the one word that upset her. She just couldn't stand it. That stayed with me and I wrote the story. Well, this word is in the story thirty times, when the woman confronts her son. And she uses the word. And its one of those scenes where, as I am rewriting the story, I am finding myself incredibly self-conscious. It's the weirdest sensation.
Hopkins: I am confused about self-consciousness here. Is it a bad place to be?
Carlson: I think that the answer to that question is, "I don't know." I think that a writer needs to measure, to use judgment. Because there are certain things that are indulgent. I think that what we are really looking for is the ability to be kind of fresh about personal matters, sex for example. There are after all only just so many combinations. I think I've been able at times to make close contact with what people, and especially men, go through, in anticipation and tenderness. I like the idea of touching common ground. Writing a story about something we all have in common but we haven't had the chance to talk about yet.
Hopkins: Let's just focus on this word "ground" for a moment because you have used it in another context earlier to talk about some of your new stories. I don't remember precisely the phrasing: "touch ground" or something like that.
Carlson: "Go to ground."
Hopkins: "Go to ground." And now you're talking about "common ground." And I wonder if we can see whether these phrases link up. I was a little confused about the first phrase, "go to ground." I think it means something like hitting a place of authenticity as you are writing, something like that.
Hopkins: And the "common ground" you refer to would be that place of authenticity where all of us share rather simple human things in common, desire, for instance, vulnerability. In your stories you usually treat this from the point of view of the man, and sometimes comically, sometimes sadly. Could you reflect for a while on what these two phrases have in common.
Carlson: "Going to ground" means you'll be writing a story, and you'll be about three quarters of the way in, and you begin to live in it. You begin to create the condition for a world, and you create what I call the angle of inclination of the narrator, his various traits, so you know when confronted with a dish of relish at the table what he's going to do with it. Push it back or eat it all. But late in the story there will sometimes be a point where I can't trust it anymore. That's where I go to ground, where I shake the scaffolding and check it. Sometimes I'll do it after I finish the story, I'll finish the next draft, and then I'll end up with a whole different ending. "The Golf Center at Ten-Acres" is a good example of this. It really got a lot better once I understood that it wasn't just going to be about fun with the kids. Now about "common ground." An example of that is the title story of the new collection, "Plan B," where the guy has wanted desperately to sleep with his wife, and they are interrupted by the children and his lust is building, and he comments on it. And then finally they get into bed, and he feels his wife's body against his, and it's a funny thing because he's still imagining what it's like to want her. And there she is. When I'm working on that, I try to write as closely as I can, and that was a really nice discovery, because, in fact, I've had that experience, but I didn't know I'd had it until I wrote it down. That's what I mean by common ground. It sparks recognition in the reader. You've got a world that they believe in, and then you give them these shocks of recognition and they'll continue to follow you for three, four more pages, and that's how you try to pay for a story.
Hopkins: Let me ask a slightly different question. I don't think you could exactly be called a regional writer, but many of the stories and both of the novels take place in a specific area, Salt Lake City, its environs, and the surrounding states, Arizona, Nevada. What do these places mean to you as a writer? What kind of sustenance do you get from them?
Carlson: There are several comments I want to make about this. I am from this area. I was born in Logan and then raised in Salt Lake City. It's hard to get away from the quality of light here, the quality of vegetation, the sense of enclosure by the mountains: so many things that I like. So that colors an attitude that I have for this place, which is a kind of general affection with some irony. Salt Lake is like every other place, a mixed experience. I use real places, and I've written about Salt Lake specifically a lot. I do it without apology. It helps me write the story. I lean against it while I'm writing, and then I remove some of the local references. But Salt Lake is a city I know. I have a great deal of information about this city. Updike's Rabbit Run is set somewhere in Pennsylvania. That story works for me. I read it before I had been to those places, and I imagined those places. When I use specific restaurants in town in my fiction, people recognize them, but I wouldn't use those places because they were real. My hope is that I write a story as specifically and personally located as possible, but that it will have larger ramifications. The thing that I haven't done much of is to use this region's Mormonism. At Utah State years ago I gave a lecture, and some guy said, "Yeah, well, I read your book and liked it a lot. But where are the Mormons?" I think that I was a little fey with the Mormons in Betrayed. But you can write about them. They've got lives. I'm kidding. And there is a lot of interesting Mormon fiction being written right now by some of our friends, and by some other writers. I've read four novels in the last year that were located in and around the Mormon experience. Most of it here. To go back though, to what we were talking about earlier. I am a Westerner. I've lived in the East for ten years, and I think that I will write one novel set in a prep school sometime. But if I had my choice, I would want to be known as a Westerner. The light and the space here sustain me. I couldn't go to New York and type. I wouldn't want to go back to Connecticut. It's beautiful: rolling green hills. But I find it oppressive and enclosed.
Hopkins: Up to now, however, the focus of your writing has not been on the West per se, but on certain domestic situations that happen to take place here. In a way, it seems to me that the region is, more or less for you, secondary. It's not a primary concern.
Carlson: That's a tough call, because in a way I agree, and in a way I don't. There's a story in The News of the World called "Milk." The guy is a lawyer, and he's clearly a lawyer in Salt Lake. He goes to Denver for the day, does a deposition in Boulder, comes back, takes his kids on a ride out State Street in the car. You say that for me that's secondary. The fact is, you're right. It is secondary. But if we took those external ingredients from that story and we put it in Hackensack and had him take the day trip to Manhattan and back, I couldn't do it. I wouldn't believe it; it would just counterfeit the story for me. And I can't explain that. There's a reference I remember from that story. He's waiting for his plane in Denver. He misses the early flight, so he sits, and he says, "I sit in a bar and I scan the magazines and I have a Manhattan. My little joke, living in the West." As I think about it, I do the same thing in a story called "Half Life," where the main character takes one of his former students skiing—this actually happened to me on the way to Alta one time with one of my former students. I said, "Do you want some coffee." And he said, "Well, yeah, but you can't get any coffee here. This is the woods." And I said, "No, that thermos on the floor." He picked it up like it was the Academy Award, and he said, "God, coffee from a thermos! You guys in the West!" There's something in me, and I think other writers have it too who have lived in the West. Whatever it is, I like it, I'm proud of it. When I get the chance to pull that switch, I'll do it. Or touch that button, I'll do it. But you are right. When there was a lot of talk about regional writing, my joke was that I was a regional writer, but I hadn't chosen my region. But I have now. I like stories set in places that I can take hold of and live in and be there. And then the people can have their lives and their mistakes and their victories. Those are what I am writing.