Paris Conversation with Raymond Carver

The last public appearance Raymond Carver made in Paris was on one of those mythic, all too rare sweltering spring nights.  He was reading at Odile Hellier’s Village Voice bookstore, along with Richard Ford and Jonathan Rabin, with Edmund White on hand to introduce them all.Although the audience was appreciative and enthusiastic at first, reactions slowly began to flatten in the intense, early evening heat.  Carver alone never lost the attention of the audience because… well because he felt the heat too. He was human, and so he kept his contribution brief; and the only complaints heard at the end of that very hot evening were regrets that Carver hadn’t read longer.

Knowing how much to deliver and when to stop has always been a trademark of Raymond Carver’s writing, along with its terse, unadorned prose, quietly desperate dialogue, and its insistence on forsaking description for mood, elaboration for nuance.  His stories are set in a subjective, lonely world which somehow always manages to convey a kind of battered universality.  Perhaps that’s what drew Robert Altman to Raymond Carver: both men possess a vision which is uniquely personal yet at the same time all-embracing.
Although Altman is not the first director to adapt his stories (in 1987 “Feathers” was made into a fine short film set in Australia, and Bob Meyer’s stage version of “So Much Water so Close to Home” will be performed by his Paris-based company, The Gare St Lazare Players at the Institut Oceanographique this spring), his award-winning film, “Short Cuts”, has renewed interest in Carver’s work.  Below are excerpts from a talk which took place in Paris not long before Raymond Carver’s death.  Ranging from his belief that his stories could be set anywhere (LA for example…) to the music of Tom Waits (one of the actors in “Short Cuts”), the conversation oddly addresses some of the themes later raised by the film.    TB

HEBERDEN   Coming from and writing about the Pacific Northwest, could you say there is a strong regional cultural attitude there that has influenced your writing?

CARVER     No.  Sometimes I wish that were the case but it’s not. I’ve lived in too many places, moved around too much, been a gypsy too long.   I admire a number of writers who live in the Northwest, but for better or for worse –and I hate that expression!– my stories could take place anywhere.

BAKER      A lot of your characters seem incapable of articulating their feelings… their hopes, desires and fears.  Do you see yourself as a spokesman for a particular type of person?

CARVER     I haven’t but I’ve been told this enough times for me to begin to feel there may be something there.  But I feel very uncomfortable in the role of spokesman for anybody, including myself. I try to write the best story I can and to bear witness in the same way any writer worth his or her salt does, but I don’t presume to see myself as a spokesman. Many of the people I’ve written about are the disfranchised, the dispossessed.  These lives are certainly valid to write about, more valid in some cases than the lives of other people… the middle class.

HEBERDEN   The irony is that your characters are not intellectuals and yet your reading public is generally assumed to be exactly that. What’s the root of the attraction of your characters for your readers?

CARVER     I don’t think it’s just a case of voyeurism: “Let’s see what sort of lives these other poor, misbegotten souls are leading’.  I don’t know… why are people suddenly listening to Tom Wait’s music? I don’t know if they’re interested in me because I’m a survivor, and they seem to think I’ve come through some of these things I’m writing about: economic problems, problems with alcohol. Or because they’re simply curious about those lives. Or they’re moved somehow.  I think people want to be stirred.

BAKER  In some of your stories there seems to be this need to make an act of confession.  How great is the writer’s need to confess, and do you fear that people will run away from it, as happens in your story, “Sacks”.

CARVER     Well you don’t want to be the Ancient Mariner, where they start avoiding you when they see you coming.  But every writer has something to get off his or her chest or they wouldn’t be writers. But that’s curious; I don’t “feel” I have a need to confess but I see what you mean.  There are some confessions in the stories.  This sometimes makes stories.  You tell something on yourself, reveal something about yourself.  Or about someone else.  And as a result of this, something happens.  I suppose that is there; just as there is an element of voyeurism in some of those stories. HEBERDEN   Is there an element of testimonial as well?

CARVER     Sure.  What it’s like.  That’s there, I think, more than confession or voyeurism.  To witness…


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