Ron Carlson, author of six short story collections and five novels, including Five Skies (Viking, 2007) and The Signal (Viking, 2009), has gathered 30 years' worth of his poems in the forthcoming Room Service: Poems, Meditations, Outcries & Remarks (Red Hen Press), about which he says, "Poems are necessary. By that, I mean to say there is no way I could not have written these things. I love words, don't you?"
The Huntington Beach cottage where Carlson has lived since becoming director of the graduate program in fiction at the University of California, Irvine, in 2006 is a cozy space filled with his own artwork and vintage curiosities that he scours thrift shops for: a 1950s adding machine, a pair of wooden duck decoys, a stack of vintage American comic books. This mischievous decor reflects the inner life of a writer who—after 10 books of fiction in 35 years—will soon make his debut as a poet whose reach successfully achieves a range of voice, tone, and playful distinction.
“These are odd pieces in that they make me smile,” Carlson says of Room Service. “I work hard on my fiction to craft it and so on, but these pieces I was very tolerant of following and pushing, and there’s a lot of play in them—the things that you sort of don’t admit to doing if you’re a serious fiction writer.” Carlson is a poetry devotee, and his personal library contains more poetry than fiction. While Room Service includes work of some poignancy, it more often veers off into the hilarious. “I love whimsy. My mother was a word person, a real quipster. She was famous in the 1950s for being a contester in Utah: 25 words or less. My bicycle, our hi-fi... in 1959 she won $15,000 from Remington-Rand for writing about a shaver. She was a farm girl from South Dakota,” says Carlson fondly.
Genetic disposition in place, Carlson, 64, who hails from Logan, Utah, began writing as a teenager. “I saw that it would be my way; it would be something I could go off and do without collaborating, and then bring it back. At first it was a curiosity and my teachers were befuddled by it, but along the way there were those who recognized something in my work and encouraged me,” says Carlson. After earning a master’s degree from the University of Utah in English, he took a position at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. “I taught high school English there for 10 years, and sometimes creative writing, and that was a marvelous experience for a young person. It taught me about teaching.” This set the course for Carlson’s long career as a writing professor. After leaving Connecticut he taught for various arts councils in Utah, Idaho, and Alaska before being hired at Arizona State University, where as the director of creative writing he remained for the next 20 years until accepting the position at UCI.
“I believe in teaching as a real job,” says Carlson. “I don’t think it’s a substitute for anything else. It’s been shown to me that teachers can help, and the writing today is just as good as it was when I started out. Technology hasn’t changed that.” His 2007 text, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, a practical guidebook on crafting the short story, continues to be adopted by creative writing programs all over the country.
Carlson came close to not being published at all. In 1975 he sent a handwritten letter to editor Carol Smith at Norton with most of the original manuscript of his first novel, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Carlson found Smith’s name in Literary Market Place and chose her “because she wasn’t a vice-president. I thought, well, she’s an editor, so she won’t be too busy!” he says, laughing. The next day Carlson left town for a month’s vacation. He found a card from Smith when he returned; it had been sitting in his mailbox for two weeks. “Please call me,” it said. “I’d like to make you an offer.”
When Carlson phoned the woman who would become his editor for more than two decades, he said, “Can you send me back that last page? It’s the outline of the rest of the book, and I didn’t keep a copy.” Sheer poetry.