Because of That Book: An Interview with Brian Evenson on Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Brian Evenson is the author of some 200 works of fiction and translation, or so it seems. His prolific output is matched only by the extraordinary quality and variety of his work and his well-known generosity as a teacher and literary champion. He is a great writer and indispensable. When I learned that Brian had written a book about Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, I knew I had to read it at once and then talk to him about it. As such, I interviewed Brian via email over the course of this past holiday season, one question at a time. – RL
Robert Lopez: How did this book come about exactly? I very much enjoy the commingling of the personal narrative with the Carver material, which of course, is what the book and the series is about. Did all of this come together for you when you started putting this work together, the personal narrative/memoir elements with the examination of Carver’s fiction?
Brian Evenson: I’d done a lot of work on Carver and the way he was edited by Gordon Lish in the 1990s, but that was pretty strictly academic, and for various reasons I never finished it and published it. But I always thought I’d go back to that material. I knew about the Bookmarked series because I’d heard Aaron Burch read from his forthcoming book on Stephen King’s The Body when we were at a festival together. I was pretty intrigued by the way his project was such a personal approach to a novella that had meant a lot to him. A few months after that, Robert Lasner wrote to me out of the blue and asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book for the Bookmarked series.
Initially I thought I’d write about Kafka’s short stories, which my father had given to me and which had been very important to me as a young writer. I wrote suggesting that, but also mentioned I could do something on Beckett’s Molloy or on Paul Bowles’s Pages from Cold Point and Other Stories or Muriel Sparks’ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, all of which are books I love. But I also said, somewhat offhandedly, “I could also do something on Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which I read and was shocked by as a Mormon freshman in college, and then learned to understand and gained a lot from.” Robert was fine with any of those choices and was willing to issue the contract while leaving the subject open, and he let me keep vague what I’d actually write about for almost five months. For reasons I go into in the book, I was a little apprehensive about writing about Carver, but the more I thought about it, the more it called to me. I’d also never really written something like a memoir, so wasn’t sure I could do it. It wasn’t until I sat down, began reading Carver again, and wrote that prologue that I knew the book would work.
RL: It’s interesting, of course, that any discussion of Carver and WWTAWWTAL has to not only include Gordon Lish’s editing of it, but the degree to which he drastically edited and in some cases rewrote whole sentences and passages. In many ways it feels more like a collaboration than a traditional editor/author working relationship. Can you think of another case that might be similar, between writer and editor? And what was your reaction when you first learned of the professional dynamic between the two?
BE: I think there have been a number of moments when an editor has intensely edited a writer, but rarely do you have the marked up typescript pages preserved to the degree they were with Lish’s edits of Carver. Maxwell Perkins dramatically edited and shaped Thomas Wolfe (in some cases cutting a novel down by 300-400 pages), but Perkins was more self-effacing than Lish about what he did, and if the manuscripts of the changes are preserved they haven’t been looked at nearly as much by scholars as the Lish/Carver ones have. There’s also Ezra Pound’s edits of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which you can buy a facsimile of: they’re quite dramatic, and also make the poem a much better poem. There are a few other cases like that, but yes, the Lish/Carver case is very dramatic, partly because Lish took an interest in Carver’s career from the very beginning and they struck on a working method in which Lish would mark up the manuscripts quite early.
I do see it as a collaboration in some senses, but the longer it went on, the more Carver and Lish’s ideas of what a story should do seemed to diverge, partly on aesthetic grounds, partly on ethical ones. And yes, I probably decided ultimately to write about Carver because it raised different sorts of concerns than I found in Kafka, Beckett, Spark or Bowles. (Lish, by the way, did try a dramatic edit of a Bowles story; Bowles turned it down.) If you know Lish at all, you know that he has a strong, almost religious belief in the work and the success of the work being the most important thing, really at the expense of all else. With Carver, Lish could be ruthless sometimes in terms of what he did to the work, but in my opinion he ends up with great stories. And Carver could have said no at any time–plenty of writers said no to Lish over the years. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is an interesting case in that Carver did object to the changes and wrote a long letter to Lish saying he didn’t want to do them, but in the end, after a conversation with Lish, he went ahead with them. We don’t know exactly what went on in that conversation. I think Carver regretted that decision to proceed, and it was the beginning of the end of his relationship with Lish.
RL: You discuss in detail the changes Lish made to practically all of the stories and conclude, like most readers do when presented with Carver’s drafts and Lish’s edits, that the work is much better, leaner, more impactful and less sentimental. One can’t argue taste, of course, but it seems that the stories are as close to objectively better with the Lish edits than without. That said, we both agree that Carver’s stories don’t hold up for us anymore. Like you, Carver meant a great deal to me when I first encountered his work in the early to mid-nineties, when I started in with the reading and writing business. But I can’t get next to Carver’s fiction and haven’t for a long time. However, Kafka and Beckett (and others, of course) remain fresh and vital after however many years and re-reads. Why do you think such is the case? Is it style, subject matter? A combination of the two? Other factors?
BE: I do think it’s hard to make an effective case for Beginners being better than What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and there are countless things you can muster in service of an effective argument for What We Talk About… being better. For me, what Lish’s edits did was make the book feel genuinely different and new when considered next to other books that were getting attention at the time. I think it’s hard now, after a whole generation or even two has been influenced by Carver, and American fiction has at least slightly been redirected by it, to understand how different What We Talk About… felt when it was first published. It really felt distinct from any other book (or at least anything else that was getting even a modicum of that acclaim), and it made a lot of us feel we could write differently, that we didn’t have to live in New York, or write like Fitzgerald, have a worldview like Updike, etc. The importance of that book for me, and for many other people, was the way it opened a door to new possibilities. But now the door is wide open and has been for years, at least partly because of that book, so it’s hard for a reader today to feel that impact.
So, it’s partly that: a book that is so much of its moment or of its time doesn’t always manage to have a full life after that time. What We Talk About… was published at just the right moment, and I fear that as we move further away from that moment we’ll see Carver more as an important moment of literary history and less as a vital writer that can influence current young writers. He won’t be forgotten in the way that a writer like Walter Besant has been (who was incredibly influential in the late 19th century but now is unknown), but my guess is his influence on the next generation of writers will be much weaker than it was on my generation, and the next weaker still. But, paradoxically, that’s a testament to how much that book changed literary culture.
Kafka and Beckett were never in a way “timely,” and that’s the big difference. The influence they had was always a subterranean one—they always were highly original and unique, and the people who were (and are) influenced by them produced work that is varied enough that those writers don’t ever feel used up. In a way, Carver is a victim of the fact that there were several distinctive stylistic elements in the fiction that were readily visible and easy for young writers to imitate—present tense voice, lack of dialogue tags, a certain lyrical uplift ending, etc.—and of the fact that so many writing programs pushed his work. What happened was that you ended up with a lot of beginning writers writing stories that were less influenced by Carver than they were stylistic appropriations of his work. In a way he was victim of his own success, and of the consistency of his style. Beckett, on the other hand, is incredibly stylistically varied–every book tries something different–but there are echoes of attitude and gesture and mood throughout the work that other writers have responded to. That’s why you can have writers as varied as J. M. Coetzee and Carole Maso (with all sorts of writers in between) talking about Beckett as an influence–each of those writers opens up Beckett in a certain way. The people who get attention for being influenced by Carver fall into a much narrower stylistic range—though as you mention there are a lot of people like you and me who were influenced by Carver but don’t fit that mold. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was to try to make people understand that Carver could (and maybe should) be read in a different, more interesting way.
RL: You mentioned that you’ve never written something like a memoir and being uncertain you could do it. What was that experience like, writing memoir for the first time, particularly as a veteran fiction writer? Has it sparked an interest in the genre that might compel you to do something else like it?
BE: About a decade ago, I wrote a short memoir piece for Tin House called “The Refiner’s Fire” on what it was like growing up in Mormon culture with liberal parents, and about becoming an artist. I guess that was a draft for at least some aspects of this book. But it still felt like uncharted territory, especially considering the Carver book would be book length and more than ten times as long as the Tin House piece. I’d also been working on a series of 1-2 page nonfiction/memoir pieces called “Reports” that deliberately blur the line between fact and fiction (which will come out as a chapbook from The Cupboard in April). I think those helped me to try things out, figure out what the parameters of the genre for the Carver book would be for me.
I guess I feel that the majority of the tools that you use to write fiction and memoir are the same, but that there are some real crucial differences in terms of how a narrative develops, how you do or don’t manipulate reality, how you think about truth-value, as well as certain ethical considerations that are distinct. But there are also a different set of conventions that go with a new genre that you have to decide whether to accept or at least partially reject. With a book like this, which is part memoir and part criticism, I had to think about how to move back and forth between those modes, how to overlap them at times, how to make readers feel they might be in one mode and realize they’re in the other or in both at once, and how to make all that feel like a complete experience.
I read a fair amount of nonfiction when I was working on the book. Maggie Nelson’s excellent work, Nicole Walker’s work (very different from the Carver book, but still quite helpful). I read Joan Didion for the first time, three of her books, and then wondered why I hadn’t read her sooner. I read most of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, which is a series of short books each of which focus on a particular object: “dust,” say, or “cigarette lighters.” Those exist along a continuum between personal nonfiction and theory so were quite useful in helping me figure out my own balance between criticism and memoir. I also read all of the books that Ig had published so far for their Bookmarked series, to figure out both what I did and didn’t want to do. The first book I read in that series was Aaron Burch’s Stephen King’s The Body and I really loved it, partly because it is such a vulnerable book at a personal level–I think that convinced me I could be pretty open about my own life as well. Matt Bell’s video game book Baldur’s Gate II was also useful to me, partly because he talks for a few pages about his own experiences with Lish in that book and I could bounce of them.
I think I have a book-length memoir in me about being excommunicated from the Mormon Church and all the ramifications that leaving it had in my life, but I have enough fiction projects that I’ll probably only get around to it if an editor approaches me and asks me to do it. I don’t think I would have done the Carver book if I hadn’t been approached about doing something for the Bookmarked series, but I’m glad I did it.