Raymond Carver

The interviews with writers in the Paris Review are almost always entertaining and informative. While the questions range widely across literature and the writer’s work, most of them also pass along a few tips on how they write and what strategies they use to overcome some of its difficulties. It is interesting to speculate about what effects they might have on other writers who read these interviews.

Like the first two volumes of the Paris Review Interviews, the third in the series collects those of some very fine writers. I read seven of the sixteen--Raymond Carver, Isak Dinesen, Harold Pinter, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, Jean Rhys and Ralph Ellison. What an impressive bunch!

The questions put to Raymond Carver and his extensive answers interested me most. In response to the question, Do you write better on the West Coast—out in Washington—or here in the East? I guess I’m asking how important a sense of place is to your work.

Carver responded: Once it was important to seem myself as a writer from a particular place. It was important to me to be a writer from the West. But that’s not true any longer, for better or worse. I think I’ve moved around too much, lived in too many places, felt dislocated and displaced, to now to have any firmly rooted sense of “place.”….There are plenty of good writers with this sense of place that you’re talking about…But the majority of my stories are not set in any specific locale…In any case most of my stories are set indoors.

Originally I thought the interviewer was asking about the role of where you are when you write, rather than what you write about. I thought, example, Carver might answer in terms of how well he wrote in the Northwest, rather than when he was in other places in this country. But Carver interpreted place in terms of his subject matter that, as he points out could be anywhere but in his case is clearly indoors.

I know there are places, physical places, where I seem to be working at my best. They tend to be in warm places where Italian is spoken and art treasures abound. And when I am moving around as Carter puts it, it is hopeless for me to try to get anything done.

A few questions later, Carter is asked a question that is central in my thinking about literature: How do you hope your stories will affect people? Do you think your writing will change anybody? Carter responded:

I really don’t know. I doubt it. Not change in any profound sense. Maybe not any change at all. After all, art is a form of entertainment, yes? I’m not saying there isn’t spiritual nourishment involved too…

I remembered in my twenties reading plays by Strindberg, a novel by Max Frisch, Rilke’s poetry, listening all night to music by Bartok, watching a special on the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo and feeling in each case that my life had to change after these experiences, it couldn’t help but be affected by these experiences and changed….

But then I found out soon enough my life was not going to change after all. Not in any way that I could see, perceptible or otherwise….Art was a luxury and it wasn’t going to change me or my life. I guess I came to the hard realization that art doesn’t make anything happen…

Maybe writing fiction about particular kinds of people living particular kinds of lives will allow certain areas of life to be understood a little better than they were understood before. But I’m afraid that’s it, at least as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps it’s different in poetry. Tess has had letters from people who have read her poems and say the poems saved them from jumping off a cliff or drowning themselves, etcetera.

Clearly Carter vacillated from one extreme to the other in considering this question. From “I don’t know” to “not a profound change” to specific instances (Strindberg, Frisch, Rilke, etc) where says he was “affected…and changed” and back again no change at all. In that uncertainty Carter reflects the wide disagreements that characterizes present day discussions of this issue. For readers who would like find out more about the effects of reading literature see my own review in the last essay at www.the-essayist.com/literary

The remaining passages I made note of in the Carter interview follow:

I think most of my characters would like their action to count for something. But at the same time they’ve reached the point—as so many people do—that they know it isn’t so. It doesn’t add up any longer. The things you once thought important or even worth dying for aren’t worth a nickel now. It’s their lives they’ve become uncomfortable with, lives they see are breaking down.

I’ve done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story.

That life is simply gone now, and I can’t regret its passing. I have to live in the present. The life back then is gone just as surely—it’s as remote to me as if it had happened to somebody I read about in a nineteenth-century novel.

The past really is a foreign country, and they do do things differently there. Things happen. I really do feel I’ve had two different lives.

…he [John Gardner] believes good fiction is moral fiction. It’s a book to argue with, if you like to argue.

Good fiction is partly a bringing of the news from one world to another.

But changing things through fiction, changing somebody’s political affiliation or the political system itself, or saving the whales or the redwood trees, no.