[17 June 2009]
The Orange County Register (MCT)
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Ron Carlson writes in the morning, when the mind still is quiet, before the world and all its distractions intrude.
Before the coffee is finished brewing, he slips out the kitchen door, crosses the small patio behind his Huntington Beach bungalow and settles into his desk in an office carved out of an old garage.
“You need your time, and you need to find out what you’re thinking before you talk to anyone else,” says Carlson, author of five novels and five collections of short stories.
“What you need to do is get up and be a raw beast and go and type,” he says. “Be as dirty as you can. And if you do that for 20 minutes, you’ll be great.
“You can clean your house in the evening. If you want your book, you’ve got to be ferocious about your draft.”
It’s a method developed over 30 years of pursuing his art and practicing his craft, three decades that have led to literary accolades such as books landing regularly on the best-of-the-year lists and honors such as the Aspen Prize for Literature which he’ll receive later this month.
And new audiences keep finding the 61-year-old author, who three years ago came to the University of California, Irvine as director of the Master of Fine Arts fiction writing program.
His new novel, “The Signal,” seems poised to take advantage of the acclaim the previous book, “Five Skies,” received.
Short stories that originally appeared years ago in magazines such as Esquire and Harper’s have been revived recently as audio books (the story “Towel Season,” read by actor William Hurt) or the source material for movies (the recent film “Keith,” based on the story of the same name.)
“There was a sort of critical mass,” Carlson says of the appearance of the aforementioned work earlier this year. “And part of it is that I’ve just been working, and a lot of people are finding my work now.
“It’s like having your band together — I’ve kept my band together, and now I’m getting recognized.”
Carlson grew up in Utah, knowing that he wanted to write, but never thinking of it as a career on its own.
“I was scared of that,” he says. “There was no way that writing was a career path, but I was just brimming with stories.”
So after graduating from the University of Utah, he went straight into teaching as his bread-and-butter career, writing as the passion he followed on the side.
“Once it took, I was locked up,” Carlson says of teaching. “It’s what I wanted to do.”
A blind query to a book editor in New York City led to an invitation to send her his manuscript which turned into his first novel, “Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Another novel followed, and a third was in the works, when life away from the typewriter shifted and turned the novelist into a short story specialist.
“I was writing a third novel when my kids arrived,” Carlson says. “And I looked at that book about whether these two people would get together and I thought, ‘I don’t care! I’ve got kids!’
Short stories sometimes focused on the life around him. “‘Towel Season’ is what it’s about,” he says. “It’s about family, home and mortgage.”
And teaching took more prominence in his life: In the mid-‘80s he moved to Arizona State University as a professor, and eventually as director of its creative writing program.
About five years ago, though, Carlson returned to novels, first with “The Speed Of Light,” then “Five Skies,” and now “The Signal.”
“The Signal” tells the story of a couple who are no longer together, but decide to take one last fishing trip into the Wyoming mountains, where the sadness and turmoil of their past eventually runs smack into a real-life danger and mystery. He wrote the first draft over three weeks in a Wyoming arts retreat.
“I wanted to make a book about lost love, and I wanted to also make a love letter to the mountains,” Carlson says. “These two people had lost each other, but they were still in love, and they had the mountains.”
Looking at the scaffolding of the story he was developing, Carlson says he decided to more layers, dangerous threats from back-country poachers and a secret quest to track down the signal from an aircraft downed in the woods.
“The Signal,” Carlson decided, was his literary thriller.
“I’ll never have three weeks like that again,” he says of his time in Ucross, Wyo. “Not only did I finish the draft, I did three other projects which I’ve placed.”
Michelle Latiolais, an associate professor of English at UCI, had read Carlson’s work long before she helped interview him for the position as head of the Masters of Fine Arts fiction writing program.
“I remember the first time I read something by him, a story called ‘Zanduce at Second,’” Latiolais said of a story that appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1994. “I read that story and went, ‘Wow, that’s a writer I’ll read.
“It’s a very smart story, a very short story, about a baseball player who keeps hitting balls that kill people,” she said. “The writing is very beautiful, and there’s something just sort of stunningly closely observed about this player’s psychology.”
As a teacher, one of Carlson’s greatest gifts is his ability to read works-in-progress and offer critiques that help guide students toward finding greater depth and complexity in their stories and characters.
“He has an ability to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s all here, but in what world did this take place in?’” says Latiolais, who reads Carlson’s manuscripts for him, and has him do the same for hers. “In other words, the story is there, but there’s this much bigger context.”
Carlson says he loves teaching both his graduate students — already quite advanced in their skills — and undergraduates, too.
“In the undergraduate classes I’ve seen the light go on,” he says of the moment when a student hits upon a piece of inspiration or knowledge. “It’s so much fun.”
His own book on writing, “Ron Carlson Writes A Story,” developed out his interest in sharing the lessons he’d learned over years of hard work.
“I’ve been giving that lecture for 25 years,” Carlson says of the case study the book presents, using one of his own stories as its example. “When I was 20, this is the book I wanted. It’s a cold-blooded look at one of my stories, and how I saved it.”
Later this month, Carlson travels to Aspen, Colo. where he’ll receive this year’s Aspen Prize for Literature, an honor which the Aspen Literary Festival gave last year to novelist Salman Rushdie.
Beyond that, the approaching summer stands as a chance to tackle more of his own projects, like the manuscript for a novel which he unearthed recently from the bottom of a pile of papers on his desk.
“I’m not in love with it anymore,” Carlson says of the new book project.
“When you first finish it, you’re in love with it, it’s golden. But that fades and you realize someone else is going to read it, and you have to fix it.”