More from Ron Carlson
Published: June 1, 2007
|In an interview with Jackie Dishner that ran in the July 2007 issue of The Writer, fiction writer Ron Carlson had much to say about his creative process and the kind of truth he was after in Five Skies, his latest novel, which is set in the Idaho Rockies. Here are some additional insights from Carlson:|
You've spoken of the value of creating an "inventory"--the various pieces of each fictional world you create--as part of your writing process early on. How did that work in Five Skies?
This is what I mean about creating an inventory. ... Since I don't know where I'm going, why would I hurry? So I wait. I write. I'm careful. If it's going to snow, I let it snow. By starting off and featuring and including things that are suggested organically in the work, after two or three or four pages of a short story, or a chapter or two in a book, there's an inventory that you could not have seen before, that you've included as you've written. That inventory is going to be a great help and ally as you go forward.
In Five Skies I had my construction site, of course, and all the [workers'] duties, and literally I had inventory. So I just took my time with that. And if it was going to include a big pile of lumber, I put in the lumber. If it was going to be a tractor, or a pile of cut wood, or the generator, I put those things in there. I was kind of surprised when I thought about the telephone poles, but yeah, given that place--out in the middle of nowhere--they had to put in some power. And so we had to dig those holes. And then there was the accident. ... So, the word inventory is a word I've been using for some time. It's not one writers or teachers use very much, but it is one I use.
Do you do character sketches, or do you just let the characters evolve? Do you write all that out?
No, I don't. I make notes constantly. I'm a maniac that way, but they're absolutely unreadable. My notes have a half-life of about 36 hours. I never set out and plan. I wrote some maps and charts for [Five Skies]. I did do a map of the town of Mercy, which had another name in the beginning. I drew where the stores were, and the streets. It was a funny little map. It's what you do to keep the dream alive. I didn't even use all of it, but I did use some of it. I put it in Darwin's hand when they go into town for the first time. I didn't have a nifty set of notes or time frame. I wrote scenes, and the ones that I could believe I kept, and then I put them together in a way, and then I just kept writing.
How do you keep it all organized?
I had a couple of folders; one was red and one was manila. And then I had a notebook. I've used note cards before, but for this project I didn't. I just had a yellow legal pad, and I would make notes and tear those out.
And then I would write on the computer, print it out, pencil it up, make the changes on the computer, and push forward. Once I got it done, then I read it back and forth quite a bit. And then I knit things together, cut and edited, things like that.
But I don't have a nifty way of doing this. It's a struggle, and sometimes that struggle can be quite daunting, but you just have to stick it out. There are a lot of organizational issues that you need to address, and the way I address them is by force of will. I mean, I just say, "I want this." I just call out a question on the project or the scene, and I just bring all my energy to it, and spend a couple of days fighting it out.
You threw in a word in Five Skies that caught me off guard: bifurcated. What'd you do that for?
That's the word I wanted. I thought that word is physically what [the character] feels about the sky; it's been all divided up.
Then there were some of your more beautiful phrases, like "clouds backing up like bricks." Where'd you get that?
I don't have that in a notebook, but I've seen it, especially in big weather. ... The sky has been described a billion times, as has a woman's face, as has the touch of a hand. Try not to be trickier and wilder, but simpler and truer.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "It's harder to write now than when I was a boy because there's hardly any men and women and almost no weather." That line always bothered me a lot, and I always wanted to see if I could make it untrue by making real men and making some weather.
You've won so many awards and you continue to publish so much work. What does it take to reach that kind of success?
I don't know. I'm still feeling that I'm in a struggle. I've been teaching for these 35 years, and I've been writing for that long. For me, if I really step back and think about what I've been doing, I see that I've been able to pursue something I really wanted to pursue, that I've wanted to be a writer.
I wanted to be around people who are concerned and interested in stories. I think stories are so valuable in our lives, not as a lovely literary artifact, but just the vitality of stories. And so I got to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to teach, and I wanted to write, and so that's allowed me, or that's encouraged me, to be productive.
I had two very talented parents whose influences have been terrific for me. And I love language, and I love a good puzzle, and sometimes the blank page is a sort of puzzle. ... And so here I am, and I'm still going. So it's good. I'm very happy, very excited about the future.