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LATFOB: Raymond Carver biographer Carol Sklenicka [Updated]

April 6, 2010 |  7:10 am


The biography "Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life" by Carol Sklenicka, released in 2009, took more than 10 years to research. To get to know the master of the modern American short story, who died at age 50 in 1988, Sklenicka talked with his first wife, Maryann Burk Carver (who has written her own memoir, "What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver") and his friends and colleagues. Skleicka will be at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on April 24, appearing on the panel "Biography: Literary Masters."

Carolyn Kellogg: Your book "Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life" was the first substantive biography of Raymond Carver. How long did you research it? Was there anything you discovered about him that surprised you?

Carol Sklenicka: I researched for more than 10 years, and there were surprises all along the way:  When I first heard from a family member that Ray had served in the National Guard I didn't believe him, but I checked military records in California and was able to verify that he did indeed serve for a few months in a light artillery squad near Susanville and never really closed out his file with Selective Service.  So Carver was rightfully paranoid about the draft even though he was married with children.  I was equally surprised by his Yakima High School transcripts and interviews with his former teachers.  I'd heard he took "dumb-bell" English, but that wasn't so.  He had even taken a broadcasting class where he did exercises in dialogue writing. That's the fun of biography, being ready for surprises. 

CK: You must have had access to a lot of archival materials and early drafts of Carver’s. What do you think about the discussion (as re-ignited by the New Yorker) about his working relationship with Gordon Lish?

CS: Lish's editing was another surprise that quickly became one of the challenges of writing a fair book.

Carol Polsgrove scooped me on that story in her book about Esquire magazine, as did Dan Max in the New York Times, but by the time the controversy appeared in the New Yorker I'd spent weeks studying the manuscripts at the Lilly Library and making my own observations about the long and complicated, dramatic 15-year relationship between Carver and Lish.  In the biography, I've shown, I hope, how the trajectories of both these men's lives brought them to their much-discussed collision in 1980.  It's a fascinating story.

CK: Did your experience working on the biography affect your perceptions of the role of an editor?

CS: Sure, how could it not?  My experience with Colin Harrison at Scribner was a real partnership, I think, since Colin's a fine novelist who also loves research himself.  When I finally had my full manuscript, it was much too long, because I loved the details I'd turned up.  I could have used someone to slash it for me, but Colin insisted I do that work myself.  He was right, of course.
CK: What are you currently reading?

CS: "Biography: A Very Short Introduction" by Hermione Lee and "Second Chances" by Alice Adams.  I'm also -- surprise -- re-reading stories by Raymond Carver because I'm doing a two-day visiting writer gig at Marquette University and the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, where I'm having fun discussing Carver's stories with the workshop students. These young writers find Carver's work as stimulating as students did 30 years ago.
CK: What are you looking forward to at the festival?

CS: Warm weather and good talk with other readers and writers.

CK: What do you hope to see or do in L.A. apart from the Festival of Books?

CS: If there's any free time, I'd love to see one of the art museums there. Where should I begin?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

[Updated on April 7, 3:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said that Sklenicka interviewed Carver's second wife, Tess Gallagher, for the biography. She did not.]

Photo: Raymond Carver with first wife Maryann Burk Carver in 1972. Credit: Gary McNair