Ron Carlson -
March 28, 2008
About the Author
Ron Carlson is the author of nine books of fiction, including his novel "Five Skies" (Viking 2007). Other works include "A Kind of Flying" (W.W. Norton 2003), the novel "The Speed of Light" (HarperCollins 2003), and the story collection "At the Jim Bridger" (Picador paperback 2003). His short stories have appeared in Esquire, Harper's, The New Yorker, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Epoch, The North American Review and other journals, as well as The Best American Short Stories, The O'Henry Prize Series, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction and dozens of other anthologies. Among his awards are a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, the Cohen Prize at Ploughshares, and a National Society of Arts and Letters Literature Award. Carlson is Professor Emeritus in English/Creative Writing at Arizona State University and the Director of Graduate Fiction at the University of California, Irvine.
About this Book
Award-winning author Ron Carlson's first novel in 30 years, "Five Skies" is the story of three men gathered high in the Rocky Mountains for a construction project that is to last the summer. Having participated in a spectacular betrayal in Los Angeles, the giant, silent Arthur Key drifts into work as a carpenter in southern Idaho. Here he is hired, along with the shiftless and charming Ronnie Panelli, to build a stunt ramp beside a cavernous void. The two will be led by Darwin Gallegos, the foreman of the local ranch who is filled with a primeval rage at God, at man, at life. As they endeavor upon this simple, grand project, the three reveal themselves in cautiously resonant, profound ways.
Jana Bommersbach: Welcome to Books & Co., and surprise, I’m Jana Bommersbach. Normally, you're going to see Ron Carlson sitting in this chair interviewing a new author.
But today we are turning the tables on Ron, because he has a new book out called Five Skies, his first novel in 30 years, his eighth book, a book that's just been chosen by the American Library Association as one of the best books of the year, and he's here to talk to me and to be interviewed on his very own show. Ron, welcome to your own show.
Ron Carlson: Jana, this is great.
Jana Bommersbach: Isn't this wonderful?
Ron Carlson: Yeah, it's terrific.
Jana Bommersbach: You and I founded Books & Co.16 years ago, and here we are, back again, talking about yet more books, and this is a wonderful kind of reunion. I'm very pleased to be here, too.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, I am, too. I knew -- I’ve always said from the get-go that it's a long game. And I wanted to write and I’ve just stayed writing, and there's no hurry. And more and more writers understand that: we're just going to stay with it and do our books and -- so this is a treat for me.
Jana Bommersbach: This is a treat. You have become known, over all these years -- 16 years ago, you already had three or four books published. Now you've got eight books and you've got a couple more in the pipeline, and you've become one of America's best-known and loved short-story writers, but you've given us this time a novel. Now, was it harder or easier to switch those formats?
Ron Carlson: Well, I knew that I was going to tackle a novel eventually, and I had this idea that – in fact, I was showing my brother the early notes from the mid-'90s when I’d made a notebook annotation of two men talking. And I’d been to some movie sets and seen things erected and taken down, and I thought, "What would it be like to do things that are all temporary?" And one of the men in this dialogue says, "What do you work on? Have you ever made anything that lasted?" And he said, "Oh, we did a film in Aspen and we put a deck on the director's house, and I think that's still there." And then I thought, "What is that?" It certainly didn't have the arc of a short story, and so I kept it around. And I realized that if I was going to write this book about work and men, not knowing what I'd use the work to find out about the men, it was going to be a novel.
Stories are such a pleasure. I mean, they are all very difficult, I mean, in terms of going in and -- I never have a plan, I have a very powerful notion and feeling. And I go in, there's -- I get out to where I don't know where I'm going, it's very -- and I stay there long enough to find out. And there's sort of an "aha" moment in writing a story and lots of things to learn.
Jana Bommersbach: Well, you've just gone through all these changes. You've changed your home life, your business life, your career. You've sort of been in a big transition, and this book is about men who are trying to regain their sense of equilibrium after being torn asunder in some way. All three of the main characters all have gone through horrible traumas, which we learn about slowly, very slowly during the course of the book. Did your experiences bring you to create that milieu in this?
Ron Carlson: You know, Jana, I have a theory about this, but I have always been prescient as a writer. I mean, I’ve written way off and I've wondered what that was, and then things would happen, and so I was -- the answer's yes, but you don't always – something doesn't happen and then you write about it. Sometimes it's happening unbeknownst to you, if you're about to have good news or bad. It's such an interesting phenomena, so I put these three men -- Ronnie, who's 19 years old and kind of a thief, ends up in Idaho working day labor; Arthur Key, who had a successful film special-effects company and has fled his life because of damage he's done and a mistake he made, he ends up in Idaho; and then Darwin, who's lived in this remote region of Idaho, who's taken this summer work on this project over a river gorge. And so I tried to be true to the specifics of those men, but at the same time, yes, I mean, I was looking at -- I think I’m looking at how painful it is to shed your skin and how – and how difficult and worthy and possible it is to grow new skin, to become new, so it's very interesting. I look back at my work all these 20, 25 years, 30 years of writing, and I see that many times I’d write a story and then it would be played out later. I was just thinking about that. About one of my stories this morning, how did I know what was going to happen? And I don't know. I mean, writing is a form of thinking, of course, and when you're prolific and you work steadily, this is bound to happen.
Jana Bommersbach: Why Idaho?
Ron Carlson: Oh, I don't know. Idaho's amazing, it's so beautiful.
Jana Bommersbach: Do you know Idaho?
Ron Carlson: Yeah, I’ve been in Idaho. I've spend a lot of time in Utah, I’m from northern Utah. I'd love to claim more of Wyoming than I know, and Montana. I drive around up there once a summer. The -- we're in Arizona, of course, everybody takes that for granted, but when you're in New York talking about, say, Arizona, they don't know --
Jana Bommersbach: Anything.
Ron Carlson: They don't know what Tempe's like.
Jana Bommersbach: "Temp-ay." They call it "temp-ay."
Ron Carlson: They think it's a pretty rude arroyo. But the fact is that I like to get out. I've always been a guy who – I grew up in Salt Lake City, and I loved the idea that you just had to cross over the mountains and you were out of town, and that's been a feature of my life. So I wanted to write a story about a very elemental place where there was nothing, a campsite, a stack of lumber. I mean, one of the great pleasures when I understood I was going to write a novel is they erect a tent, and they put the tent together, and Ronnie has trouble and he's cursing it, and once they've erected this tent which is going to be their quarters for the summer, I felt that I was in -- and I saw Ronnie being real proud of this domicile he's established -- that I thought, "okay, I’m in, too." And I thought, "well, I’ll just go" -- and, of course, the novel itself is just a series of the process -- each process, each moment of work. I mean, if the book is different in any way, it's because of that, that it is -- there is work in it.
Jana Bommersbach: Right, Right.
Ron Carlson: I was just going to say, I think work is one of the disappearing entities. I mean, I think about my kids and what they're going to do. When I was their age, you could do a lot of stuff, there were still -- but there's diminished opportunities in terms of physical -- or what we used to call, when I was a kid, work. You know, my dad was a welder. Next door he worked as a mechanic, and then a truck driver and a painter for the board of education, and those jobs are --
Jana Bommersbach: Well, you're obviously fascinated by that, because one of the questions that struck me as I was reading the book is, "I wonder if Ron just built something." I mean, you have enormous detail about construction, about the equipment of instruction, the tools. You have just almost – almost sacred passages about the importance of tools and keeping the tools clean and keeping them organized and stuff, and I was thinking -- so obviously that was a thing that was very -- It's a big foundation of this entire book.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, work is essential. And I wanted to treat it that way, carefully. I mean, my father taught me, "Never leave a tool on the ground overnight."
Jana Bommersbach: I figured that had to be a life lesson.
Ron Carlson: So there's all this other stuff, and I’m not particularly mechanic-- you know, I’m giving myself a "B" as a handyman, but I really love it. I just love to make stuff. And so I bit off more than I could chew here, and I thought, "well, I’m going to have to chew that carefully then. I'll have to go step by step." And the three men and their interchange and their plans, I let it unfold. I've never -- you know, I’ve built a couple small bridges or something like this, and I’m pretty good with a chainsaw for a schoolteacher, but it's not -- it isn't my world, so I went very, very carefully. As I indicated when this book first came out, is that I measured twice, the way you do things. I measured twice and cut once. And so it's -- it's like that. When I was in the middle of this book, I called New York, and it had taken a turn for -- and I said to my editor, "I don't know. I don't want you to think" – he didn't know what I was doing. So I said, "I don't want you to think this is -- I don't know that there'll be many books like this. This is a book about men and work." And so I’ve been very gratified with the reception.
Jana Bommersbach: Tell me about the title, Five Skies.
Ron Carlson: Well, I had -- titles are interesting. I've -- because I’ve written stories, I’ve used a lot of titles. And sometimes they run in names and sometimes they run in prepositional phrases, and when Arthur Key calls back to the life he's left, he talks to his foreman in Hollywood who's still doing these very, very careful special effects for films. And Arthur Key is known for his care. His success is based on the fact that he's never had an accident, he doesn't get involved in high-risk behaviors of any kind. If there's an explosion, he says, "No explosions. If there's a fire, no fire." He says, "You can burn it up after I’m gone." But -- so he calls his foreman. He's been gone for five, six, eight weeks. And he knew, the foreman knew he'd be away, and he says, "Harry, I’m out here."
And Harry says, "Hey, what's it like there? Where are you?" And Arthur Key, without even thinking, says, "Well, there's five skies. There's five skies every day." And that was the other thing that I wanted to do with care in this book is the world and the weather.
I wanted the real sage sand of a river gorge, I wanted the real rocks in the river and the real water in the river, and then I wanted weather that didn't operate independently or symbolically. I didn't want -- you know, I have a big joke with my undergraduates, I say, "It may not rain at the last page of a story." Because the undergrads all bring in the rain at the end to kind of bring it up, say, "Yeah, isn't that affecting that it was raining on her head as she walked away?" You can't do that. It can rain, but rain is precipitation. And so -- there's some rain in my book, but I wanted the weather to be real and the work to be real. I just -- my whole guiding principle here was "Keep it simple, keep it honest, keep it basic."
Jana Bommersbach: Did you ever go to Idaho and sit on a bluff sometime and write? Because there are some passages that I think, "he's sitting there on this thing, he's put up a tent, he's got this campsite, and he's sitting there and he's writing what he's seeing, he's vis--" because it's so visual. You've made it so visual. Did you ever -- you never did that?
Ron Carlson: Well --
Jana Bommersbach: Or did you?
Ron Carlson: No -- yes, I have. I have been on gorges, I’ve been on canyons. I’ve made notes on canyons. I've spent a lot of time at the Flaming Gorge in northern Utah, which is a remarkable river gorge and reservoir. But sometimes you write – and this is -- I mean, I tell my students and I guess I told myself here, I say, "Write a story that makes me want to get out my sleeping bag."
Jana Bommersbach: Get out of your sleeping bag.
Ron Carlson: No, get it out and find it.
Jana Bommersbach: Oh, get out your sleeping bag, I see.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, and write a story like I still feel that way about Hemingway's story "Big Two-Hearted River." And when I’ve been too much time in the city and too much time in my office or too much time in the classroom, I’ll read that story and I’m suddenly made totally aware of what reading and writing is and how reading is a real activity and offers us this sustenance. So yeah, I started with these guys sleeping on the ground and it's cold enough to have frost in your hair. I must've been, you know, ten weeks in an office building when I wrote that, but, you know, I’m going to have my way. And it's the same -- it's the same with the food in the novel.
Jana Bommersbach: They ate very well.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, they do, and I wanted-- you need to eat. And so what happens is, I – I met these graduate students who were debriefing me on this, and they said -- one kid put his finger on the table, said, "I know what this book is about. This book is about the food. "And when you write food, yeah, you're writing "bread and roast beef in a sandwich," but you're also writing the knife, you know, the great big knife and the way it works. And so again, there, too, I wanted it to be real. I wanted it to be involving. If they're eating stew, and the candlelight on a homemade table-- just saying that makes me want to have a little stew.
Jana Bommersbach: On a homemade table. I'm interviewing Ron Carlson, of course, our great professor and short-story writer who's also written a novel. And his new novel is Five Skies, Which is already getting great acclaim. Which character in this book is you?
Ron Carlson: Well, that's sort of complicated. I'll just speak frankly rather than try to obfuscate. I think that they all are versions -- you get to be, as a writer, everybody. I mean, that's what Scott Fitzgerald said so long ago, he said there's no good biography of a good writer because if the writer was good, he or she was too many people. And so I had this young thief, Ronnie Panelli, I like him a lot, I really like that he learned. He came, he didn't like to work. You know, if there was something loose, he'd take it. And he learns some things in the book. And then I -- the thing is, nobody sees this, and I’ll just say it. I named him after me.
Jana Bommersbach: You did?
Ron Carlson: Yeah, so there it is. My mother called me Ronnie. So there he is, this guy who takes the easy way out. And then there's Arthur Key, who's 100% careful all the time yet has made a terrible mistake. And he's also a perfectionist who's doing a really stupid --they're involved in a colossally stupid project on the gorge that-- what if you took a guy who made things beautifully, wonderfully, with mortise and tenon and all of the ways that you can join wood, and put them out on a stupid project? So that's a paradox I wanted to explore.
Jana Bommersbach: Stupid and dangerous project.
Ron Carlson: Yeah. And so I think Arthur is -- there's a little bit of me in Arthur. And then Darwin is sort of I think maybe the least, but he, too, has his -- well, he has his issues. He's really angry at god because of the accident his wife endured. And it's very private, and when Arthur Key -- and they try to talk to each other, and I guess in a way, the book is -- I mean, at its most highly evolved is about how men do and do not talk.
Jana Bommersbach: Right, and how they deal with failure or disappointment or tragedy or their own – you know, Ronnie turned out to be the kid who had the best sense of humor. I mean, he kept making – he built the table -- I love that he built the table -- and he kept talking about what a great table -- you know, given any opportunity almost, he would mention how great this table was that he had built. And he was just this darling kid. You got to really care for him. I think I cared for him more than almost anybody else. I mean, Arthur, I always just hoped that he would just open up, open up, you know. And Darwin, I just hoped he would finally just see the light. But Ronnie, I saw an enormous --enormous quality in that kid.
Ron Carlson: Well, when Ronnie was coming along and then there's a moment early on -- they keep lining him up, they say, "This is a saw. This is how you use it. This is a hammer." They let him drive the road grader.
Jana Bommersbach: And he almost drives it over the cliff.
Ron Carlson: It's tough news. And -- but that mentor, that father/son mentor situation, I -- I learned that. I thought, "Oh, of course." And then so -- and he's resistant to some of it, but then like all of us, really, what I want -- I think what – I don't know, I can't speak for everybody, but I want control. I want an element of control in my life. I don't want to have someone say-- instructing me from afar. And so, hand me the keys, let me sit in the driver's seat, show me how to do it, I’ll try it. And so all the things from --they go fishing, of course, and then there's also the other work with the saws and the welding, he learns to weld. And so that mentor thing is – I hear a lot about that being a kind of a glue in the book, holding things together.
Jana Bommersbach: If there was any place that I felt a little bit cheated, it was that I wanted to know more about Marian and Tracy, the two major women in the book. And I also kind of wanted to know more about the two thugs, Buster and Darrell, I think his name is. I kind of wanted to -- I had a sense that there was a lot of story there, and sometimes you write that way and you let our imaginations just go and fill in The blanks, right?
Ron Carlson: Well, the other parts of the story are -- it's so interesting, I think, because I don't want -- I see a lot of books, okay? There's a lot of writing right now, and bless us all, and so I want to -- I wanted this book to be right and tight. And if I could imply it – I know exactly what you're saying. If I could imply it, then I won't say it.
Jana Bommersbach: Right.
Ron Carlson: And so it is also – women play a role, a big powerful role, in this book. They're everywhere in it, but they're sort of offstage. And I didn't want this to be about women or blaming it on the women or attributable to the women. I wanted these men in a place I mean, almost like I plucked them out and put them in this place where they were severely alone and would be tried out, would be tested on their own. But I considered, you know, completing this whole arc of Marian and Tracy and the aftermath, and I’d have to say that I take your point, I sort of agree with it, but not for this book. I didn't want to write a 350-page -- I didn't want it to be -- I’d rather have it be astringent than soft, so...
Jana Bommersbach: Well, your imagination does-- you -- in all of your writing, I notice, is that you really do engage the imagination of the reader. You don't sit there and say,"This is point A, this is point B, and I’m now going to connect these two points for you." You say, "Here's point A, and maybe over here I’m going to tell you about point B, but before I get there, I’m going to" -- and then you take us on this -- sort of this sweeping, serpentine kind of thing. Some of the writing in this book is some of the finest, I think, that you have ever done. There are some passages that I made note of because as I read them, I stopped reading to re-read the sentence again. I mean, that is -- one of them was -- I love this one: "This old town seemed 100 layers of 10,000 decisions, only a few of them even interesting." Now, what a way to describe --
Ron Carlson: Yeah, that town.
Jana Bommersbach: Isn't that something?
Ron Carlson: Yeah.
Jana Bommersbach: I love the way you said that. You know, "100 layers of 10,000 decisions." I mean, you could just see --you can see that old place. And the little tour down the road you gave as we went down the road, you could see that all happening. The other one I loved was where you talk about a telephone and you said: "The rings sounding like a cup of pennies falling in a glass jar." I mean, you give us --
Ron Carlson: Right, an old phone, yeah.
Jana Bommersbach: You give us audio, you give us -- I mean, you could hear that sound as you read that paragraph. The other one I liked was – I think this time you're talking about Ronnie. There was a heavy post, and you said: "When it broke, it took him to the ground like an insult."
Ron Carlson: Yeah, he got hurt.
Jana Bommersbach: He got hurt very badly. But that "insult," I mean, that-- you use words in ways that people don't normally use them.
Ron Carlson: I had forgotten that one.
Jana Bommersbach: But I really liked that one, too. As you're writing along, are these rewrite sentences or are these -- does this kind of come out in a -- I mean, do you remember?
Ron Carlson: Well, it's interesting. I've been thinking two things while you were talking. One is that in a novel, I feel-- and I don't speak this way, I'm all nuts and bolts, I’m all daylight, I’m not magical – but there's a sense of the dream. You have to get into the dream. And there's -- I think any book-- any good book that I’m going to write is going to take the density of days, that I can't go away from it for two weeks, write a day, two weeks away. You have to bring in -- and then you work on it in the mornings, and then your life and so on, and make notes in the evening, work on it in the morning, and pretty soon you've got the dream going. I've had this with other work. And it is then -- so then you're in this world of it. On the individual writing, when you're writing a paragraph, one of the things I talk about with my students is that you can't teach attention. You can't teach someone to pay attention. People say, "Can you teach writing?," and I’ve talked about that way too much but it is -- and so I’m in the dream, and I’m totally alert. And so I’m listening -- I have a lot of trouble writing the sentence, "They made their way to the boathouse." I mean, I want to go back and say how they made their -- "They walked up the stairs, up the wooden stairs." And so I’m -- I’ll take the long way around the block, always. And sometimes you get it right. I believe very much in rewriting. This book is -- you know, I don't know how many drafts. I would say six or seven big-change drafts.
There's a lot on the backstory that I dropped out, and there was a good line about Arthur where his mother said to him --he was trying to say, like, when he was a kid, in high school, nobody dates him, and she says, "Well, Arthur, you're not exactly a barrel of laughs." And he says -- instead of doing what -- and then I thought, "What would he say?" And of course, what he says is, "How many would that be? How many would fit in a barrel?" Because that's the way he was thinking. But I let it go. I mean, I’m glad I used it now, but it's gone.
Jana Bommersbach: That's right. Who is Gail Hochman, who you dedicate this book to?
Ron Carlson: She's my longtime agent, and she has been -- you know, you need people around you who are saying, "Whatever you're doing, I'm for it. All ahead full." And so she's been a great advocate for my work, and some of my work is sort of odd and silly and fun and comical, and some of it's serious, and some of it's very, very short, and some of it's like this, and she is a person -- of course, she's a trained professional, but she is a person who reads it, understands what it is, and then makes her remarks in that region. So she's been just a great support for me, and --
Jana Bommersbach: Well, I think all your readers are a great support, too, because whether it's silly or small or long or a novel or a short story, you capture – I mean, you are so in that book that you're not, like, phoning it in. I mean, you are absolutely in very tight into that book. And this one is really good. I'm so pleased that the library Association has recognized it as one of the best books.
Ron Carlson: That was terrific, I was pleased.
Jana Bommersbach: So libraries all over the country will now be buying this book and suggesting people read it, and I hope everyone does. And I think it's probably going to be a film someday. It's a wonderful book, Five Skies, Ron Carlson. You know his work, you love his work. I'm glad you could meet him here on Books & Co. Thank you very much. Come again.