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Left Foot, Right Foot
Continuum chats with alumnus Ron Carlson about his walk across the years as a teacher and writer.

by Linda Marion

Best-selling author Ron Carlson BA’70 MA’72 is a happy man. Far from the stereotypical tormented artist, struggling to juggle the demands of life with the desire to create, Carlson thoroughly enjoys what he does and where he is in life. He says, simply, “I wanted to write and I wanted to teach. And I wanted to learn how to do both.”

Carlson currently carries out his dual role at the University of California at Irvine, where he became director of the Graduate Fiction Program in spring of this year. Previously, he was Regents’ Professor of English at Arizona State University, where he taught for 20 years.

But, what was it that made Ron Carlson want to be a writer? Maybe it was his growing up years on the west side of Salt Lake City—the “wonderland” of his boyhood—which were filled with exploration and mystery, providing fuel for his creative fires. Or perhaps the idea took root during his teen years at West High School, where he published his first piece (“a haiku”) in the school’s literary magazine and wrote the senior skit, “Caesar Disgustus.”

Or, he could have inherited the inclination to take up the pen from his mother, who was a poet—“in love with words”—and “minor celebrity” as a contester (she once won $15,000 in a 25-words-or-less writing competition).

Whatever the influences and inspirations, Carlson has indeed left his indelible mark on the world page of literature, producing nine works of fiction and a bookshelf full of short stories (see sidebar), garnering him numerous awards and accolades along the way.

To learn more about Carlson and the influences that shaped him and his career, Continuum spoke with him during his visit to Salt Lake City in March 2007 as part of the English Department’s Guest Writers Series. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

Boyhood Influences
I was born in Logan [Utah] but grew up on the west side of Salt Lake in the ’50s, and it was a rich place, a paradise. It was the working-class side of town, and I lived across from Sorenson Park in the area of Poplar Grove, defined by railroad tracks on one side and the Jordan River on the other. I look back at it now and I see it as almost comically rich.

I had some great buddies, and we all had bicycles, although they were crude and kind of scotched-together. And there was always baseball, always tree climbing, always adventure—sleeping out in the summers—always exploring the river, which I found full of mystery.

When I was 18, my family moved to Texas [his father was a welder and later an engineer], where I attended the University of Houston for a year, but I missed home [and a steady girlfriend, whom he eventually married] so returned to Utah to go to the U, where I lived in Ballif Hall.

This morning I was doing a reading at West High School, and I realized that I have set many of my stories in a similar place. We use what we know. Being in that building—it was almost like the years had disappeared. It’s a very powerful place for me.

Place is everything. Returning to Salt Lake City, I feel it fits. I stop by about three times a year, and it feels like home. It’s changed a great deal—but at least it hasn’t yet become a corporate theme park.

Influence of Other Writers
[Tobias Wolff] and I share a lot of concerns—about family and place—and I admire his work tremendously. We’re similar in our prose, our dialogue and description. When you first start, you write under the influence of certain writers, such as [Wallace] Stegner BA’30 and Ann Beattie, who’s also a peer. But then you move past the influences and end up writing a kind of hybrid in order to tell the best stories you can.

I met David Kranes [University of Utah emeritus professor of English] as an undergraduate. At the time I didn’t know what was possible in writing. I knew I had some talent, but it was David who focused things for me. His support wasn’t blind, but instead was very pointed. He took me seriously and was quite encouraging, and I eventually came to think that writing [as a career] was possible.

Writing is not frivolous or beside the point, it is the point. [Kranes and I] have been friends for a long time. He helped get me my first job. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, bouncing work off each other and sharing books before they got published. It’s been a privilege to know him.

Norman Foster, director of CACIR
Scott A. Mackenzie, assistant professor of theater at Pennsylvania’s Westminster College, directed “The Bigfoot Monologues”—adapted from Carlson’s short stories “I am Bigfoot” and “Bigfoot Stole My Wife” (first published in the U of U’s literary magazine Quarterly West in 1986 and performed by the Salt Lake Acting Company that year)—while on active duty in Iraq with the Army Reserve in 2006. It was the first show produced entirely by military and civilian personnel stationed in Baghdad’s International Zone.
Process and Inspiration
Writing has just been left foot, right foot, walking through the years. I try to be mindful of the days and get my work done. I don’t feed more than one bird at a time, because I want to bring my attention up to a boiling point, and you can’t do that part time. There’s always more material than you can use. I’m fortunate in that I’ve never written myself out or exhausted my ideas. I keep a log of story ideas and put everything else aside to work on that project. A story can take anywhere from three to four days to five to six weeks to complete.

When I’m traveling, I’m making notes all the time. I always have my notebooks with me, and there is an intensity to it, although it isn’t obsessive. I am sort of a nerd, but I’m not a crazy nerd. I tend to know what I’m going to get out of a writing day—I’ve been at it so long—and I usually succeed.

Writing becomes a very physical act, and I rarely look outside and conceptualize. I try to let the dramatic materials—of character and place, time pressures, plot issues—lead me. I emphasize the physical story. It’s important to stay close to the world and let it guide you, which is why my work is based on observations of people—a husband-wife relationship, family dynamics.

In the many stories that I’ve published, I know how the stories will end only in a small percentage. I listen to what I’ve created and look back at what it could be. The endings of my stories are often surprises.

Sometimes I’ll share a work with someone [to get feedback], but I mainly use myself as critic. I look back at my career and all these strange stories I’ve written—some comic, some conventional, some sad—and I have just learned to trust myself. However, I’m also really suspicious of my affection for a story. If I really like it, I know to be worried. So I wait; there’s no hurry if you’re working correctly. I got over that 50 years ago. I write my story, wait, and go back to it. I can always make a story better—colder or tighter or rougher.

I read everything aloud, and if I discover some small thing later I would have said differently—like using the word ‘clothing’ instead of ‘clothes’—it’s because I didn’t read it aloud.

Working with Editors
I’ve learned that other people are smarter than I am. I say that with some pride, because it doesn’t come naturally—I was stubborn for a long time. I advise writers for a living, and I’ve learned to listen. The first thing I do is try to understand what exactly they are trying to say.

If I am edited [he was once asked to rewrite a story’s ending], I try to think like an architect and ask myself, ‘If I did what he/she suggests, what would [the story] look like?’ Sometimes others can see things that you can’t see, and I love that. Most of the time I consider [editors’] suggestions. On the other hand, I must admit that I’ve been edited very lightly. I don’t show a work unless I’m pretty confident that it can walk and talk.

New Life at Irvine and Future Projects
I’ve been [at the University of California at Irvine] just 10 weeks, but it’s a very exciting school, and I’m working with terrific people. It’s a new world, sort of fun. [Irvine has] one of the best writing programs in the country. One thing I know is that I have to live in the West. The West is full of good people.

I’ve got a couple of projects in the works. In fall 2007, I have a book coming out on writing (Ron Carlson Writes A Story). After that, I plan to publish another novel, and I have a bunch of stories that are almost ready. I continue to work at a regulated pace and keep my energy up.

I really love this life—writing, then teaching, then writing. It’s a constant balancing act. And if your projects are worth it, they’ll stay around while you put your writing life on hold. I enjoy teaching and developing new ways of approaching my work. I try to be as original in my teaching as I am in my writing.

— Linda Marion BFA’67 MFA’71 is managing editor of Continuum.

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