Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life

Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life

by Carol Sklenicka
     
 

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The first biography of america’s best-known short story writer of the late twentieth century.

The London Times called Raymond Carver "the American Chekhov." The beloved, mischievous, but more modest short-story writer and poet thought of himself as "a lucky man" whose renunciation of alcohol allowed him to live "ten years longer than I or…  See more details below

Overview

The first biography of america’s best-known short story writer of the late twentieth century.

The London Times called Raymond Carver "the American Chekhov." The beloved, mischievous, but more modest short-story writer and poet thought of himself as "a lucky man" whose renunciation of alcohol allowed him to live "ten years longer than I or anyone expected."

In that last decade, Carver became the leading figure in a resurgence of the short story. Readers embraced his precise, sad, often funny and poignant tales of ordinary people and their troubles: poverty, drunkenness, embittered marriages, difficulties brought on by neglect rather than intent. Since Carver died in 1988 at age fifty, his legacy has been mythologized by admirers and tainted by controversy over a zealous editor’s shaping of his first two story collections.

Carol Sklenicka penetrates the myths and controversies. Her decade-long search of archives across the United States and her extensive interviews with Carver’s relatives, friends, and colleagues have enabled her to write the definitive story of the iconic literary figure. Laced with the voices of people who knew Carver intimately, her biography offers a fresh appreciation of his work and an unbiased, vivid portrait of the writer.

 

 

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Editorial Reviews

Ron Hansen
[Carol Sklenicka] spent 10 years on this compassionate, riveting, page-turner of a biography and it shows with its fluent prose, meticulous research and multitudinous interviews with Carver's hundreds of friends. Even when he was weakened and bald from chemotherapy, Carver insisted that he was "one of the luckiest men around." That good luck has lasted to include this finest of biographies.
—The Washington Post
Stephen King
It's as a chronicle of Carver's growth as a writer that Sklenicka's book is invaluable, particularly after his career path crossed that of the editor Gordon Lish, the self-styled "Captain Fiction." Any readers who doubt Lish's baleful influence on the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love are apt to think differently after reading Sklenicka's eye-opening account of this difficult and ultimately poisonous relationship.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
He has been called “a chronicler of blue-collar despair.” He led a relatively private life, much of it spent trying to raise cash via odd jobs and the writing-conference circuit, and died from the cancerous effects of excessive drinking and smoking. Raymond Carver (1938–1988) is a fascinating figure more for what went on in his imagination, as it registered the dynamics of couples' relationships amid the counterculture, than for his messy life. He came from the lower-middle class of Yakima, Wash., and was a father before he turned 21. Maryann Burk, his first wife, had her own measure of success as a memoirist, but as the Carvers' lives came to resemble his stories, they divorced. Carver soon found his second great love, Tess Gallagher. It's ironic that the master of the minimalist short story has his own life recounted in such whopping detail by short story writer and essayist Sklenicka. Earnest and carefully researched, this biography interestingly recounts Carver's working relationship with editor Gordon Lish and other publishing figures. But the writing is most compelling in an epilogue that highlights posthumous legal disputes showing Gallagher maintaining an iron grip on Carver's growing legacy and reputation. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Greatly admired and controversial, Raymond Carver was one of the major short story writers and poets of the 1980s, praised for his innovative, minimalist prose. Born into a working-class family, he married at 19, had two children right away, and never could find enough money. His increasing alcohol use helped to ease his stress but led to serious dysfunction and dependency until he became sober for the last 11 years of his life. The characters in his stories are plagued by some of the same problems with money, alcohol, and relationships he was facing. Sklenicka (D.H. Lawrence and the Child) draws on letters and numerous interviews to capture the tragedy of Carver's life and analyze his work. She tackles in detail the controversy over Gordon Lish's editorial contributions to Carver's style in his first two story collections, a process that substantially altered the works. VERDICT This carefully researched, definitive biography will appeal to scholars, writers, and Carver enthusiasts.—Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
Kirkus Reviews
A rich portrait of a master of the American short story. The life of Raymond Carver (1938-1988) hews closely to a heroic arc: a hardscrabble childhood, a noble struggle for success, a fall from grace and ultimate redemption. But Sklenicka wisely avoids hagiography, sticking to the facts while astutely connecting real-life details to Carver's stories and poems. Born in Oregon, Carver began his writing career in earnest in the early 1960s at Chico State University under the tutelage of novelist John Gardner, earning publications in small literary magazines. He traveled often during his early years with his first wife, Maryann, and two children, as he scrounged for whatever academic appointments might enable him to write his ironic, pointed stories about working-class lives. By the early '70s those stories caught the attention of Esquire fiction editor Gordon Lish, but Carver's finances were in a shambles-he would declare bankruptcy twice in his lifetime-and his alcoholism had deepened. Sklenicka captures many heartbreaking moments from that period-never more harrowing than when he smashed a wine bottle against Maryann's head, nearly killing her. Carver stopped drinking in 1977, and in his final years he wrote many of the stories that his towering reputation is now built on. The "Good Ray" that replaced the "Bad Ray" of the alcoholic years was a gentle man who too often acceded to the demands of people like Lish, who invented much of Carver's "minimalist" reputation by aggressively editing and rewriting his stories. In his final years, though, he earned enough clout and confidence to be nobody's pushover. Sklenicka spoke with nearly everyone in Carver's orbit, making the book a kind ofhistory of American fiction in the '70s and '80s, capturing the crucial writers (Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, John Cheever) and sea changes in the publishing industry that made Carver such a powerful influence on writers today. The epic biography that Carver deserves.
From the Publisher
"Raymond Carver's stories and poems are still very much alive, and thanks to Carol Sklenicka's biography, Ray the writer comes to life again. This is a remarkable book, very thorough and deeply moving. I knew Ray, and now I know him better than ever." — Richard Cortez Day, author of When in Florence and Something for the Journey

"If his stories, told in a clipped, brusque voice, help us better understand life in all its loveliness and anguish, then this biography does the same for the man behind them, only with a shout — full-throated with the voices of those who knew him. Meticulously researched, unflinchingly honest, and always compelling. What we talk about when we talk about Carver will forever be defined by this poignant monument of a book." — Benjamin Percy, author of Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781439160589
Publisher:
Scribner
Publication date:
11/24/2009
Sold by:
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
592
Sales rank:
1,017,304
File size:
4 MB

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.
— epigraph to Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From,
quoted from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable
Lightness of Being

Few American short story writers have been celebrated as Raymond Carver was in the 1980s. Because his spare, colloquial prose hints at something absent and mysterious, critics called him the father of minimalist fiction. Writers and writing teachers revered and imitated his style. Readers loved his grim, often funny, sometimes transcendent stories about the lives of the working poor. He wrote about their money problems, alcoholism, embittered marriages, and disaffected children; about muted, interior crises brought on by bad luck or neglect rather than intent. Carver knew that territory because he lived in it for much of his life.

Carver paid a high price for the experiences that served his art.

When printer's galleys arrived for his first book of short stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Carver and his wife, who was a schoolteacher, had just been released from their debts by a federal bankruptcy court. Carver drank vodka while he corrected the pages at his dining room table in Cupertino, California.

On the day after the book's publication in March 1976, two of Carver's friends arrived at his house early in the morning. They didn't come to celebrate the book that would become a National Book Award finalist. They came to drive him and his wife to his trial at the county courthouse; he had been charged with lying to obtain unemployment payments. As they all departed, Maryann Carver took a shiny, white book from a stack on their table. The book was dedicated to her, a fruit of their nineteen married years. She would show it to the judge as evidence that her husband was still a man with prospects. She hoped to be able to keep him out of jail. She would explain that he was the victim of unfulfilled dreams and alcoholism.

Indeed, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was a career-launching book. Carver, then thirty-eight, had published in literary magazines — plus two stories in Esquire — but this first book had been a long time coming.

It came almost too late.

Alcohol had ruled Carver's life for longer than he cared to admit. Lying to the state of California was hardly the worst offense Carver had committed as he capitulated to late-stage alcoholism. "Everything," he wrote later, that he and Maryann "held sacred, every spiritual value, [had] crumbled away."

Carver's fate had closed in on him when he suffered an alcoholic withdrawal seizure in the lobby of a clinic where he'd just been detoxified. A doctor told him then that he'd risk irreversible brain damage if he drank again; that first book could be his last. Despite the dire warning, Carver continued to drink, detox, and relapse for another two years. As he became sicker and sicker, he hid the severity of his problem more cunningly from everyone but his family and close friends. These people worried, but they couldn't influence him.

Yet Carver finally turned his life around, becoming one of the rare exceptions in a long line of hopelessly alcoholic American authors. When he finally quit drinking, he made the decision alone. That day of his last drink was the natal day of his new life, the beginning of the decade he described as "gravy" — the sauce that enriches an ordinary meal.

In his eleven sober years, Carver made difficult decisions that changed his work and his circumstances. He relished the rewards, affection, and freedom that came his way. When he died 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.

In the end, though, Carver measured his own success by what he'd come through and by the work that he believed would survive him. He wasn't a saint, and his sobriety wasn't perfect — he remained a nervous, obsessive, and lovably boyish man addicted to cigarettes and reliant on marijuana. But he credited his productive final years to not drinking: "I'm prouder of that, that I've quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life."

Carver liked to say he had two lives, and sometimes he spoke of two people, Bad Ray and Good Ray, viewing himself with the bemused, kindly detachment he held for his fictional characters. Of course, he was one man with one life. Bad Ray and Good Ray together were messier and more human than his dichotomy supposed.

Carver acknowledged the irrevocable singleness of his life when he selected as an epigraph to his final volume of stories a quotation from Milan Kundera that speaks of the impossibility of knowing "what to want" or of perfecting oneself within one lifetime. Carver became a more confident and luckier man when he stopped drinking, but he didn't become a different man. In recovery, he accepted himself and marveled at his own achievements. His intention to write well remained his true north.

Copyright © 2009 by Carol Sklenicka

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Meet the Author

Carol Sklenicka grew up in central California during the 1960s. She attended college in San Luis Obispo and taught high school in Oxnard before completing a Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis. She has published short stories, essays, and a study of D. H. Lawrence. She lives with her husband, poet R.M. Ryan, near the Russian River in California.
 

 
Carol Sklenicka grew up in central California during the 1960s. She attended college in San Luis Obispo and taught high school in Oxnard before going to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, where she studied with Naomi Lebowitz, Stanley Elkin, and Howard Nemerov.  Her stories, essays, and reviews have been published in South Atlantic Quarterly, Confrontation, Sou’wester and other periodicals.

To research the life of Raymond Carver, she studied archives and visited towns all over the United States and conducted hundreds of interviews with his relatives, friends, and colleagues. She lives with her husband, poet R. M. Ryan, near the Russian River in California.

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