Kirk Nesset is an eclectic author and teacher who has deeply studied the works of Raymond Carver, and brings a fresh, empathic perspective to the life and work of the great short story artist. Below, my talk with Kirk about his own books as well as the life and prose of Carver.
Jill Dearman: There’s been a lot of ink lately (again!) about the love-hate relationship between Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish. As a Carver expert, what are your thoughts about the longer, original tales vs. the highly edited versions?
Kirk Nesset: Carver’s biography is just out, and it’s getting reviews, so the dead horse is getting beaten again. My feeling is that Carver benefited much from his interactions with Lish, in the same way Eliot needed and benefited from Pound, who edited him almost equally mercilessly. Carver’s stories are wonderful in their various ways, early to late, even if many from What We Talk About, the volume that Lish worked over most, seem bloodless and bare. I prefer the stories that Carver “restored,” I suppose, which is to say swelled out again after Lish cropped them dramatically. “A Small, Good Thing” and “So Much Water So Close to Home,” for example. They’re written with Lish’s restraint, even as they provide emotion fullness and, in each case, something like muted resolution. Still, they’re not the original stories. They’re closer to the originals—but tighter, more taut, and more strange. Harsh editing taught Carver a lot. He became his own Lish, his own axe, in the end, and it helped. The later stories do seem more generous, yes. They’re fuller. But they’re not hopeful, exactly. Or friendly.
What troubles me most about the debate is the fact that people continue to make such a fuss over it. The whole thing seems petty to me. Mean-minded. It smacks of territoriality, ownership. It seems to want to depict Carver as victim, either that or minimize him, make him less the unique writer he is. Carver was a better writer after Lish did what he did, ruthless as much of that editing seems. The drastically reduced stories of What We Talk About made the miracle of Cathedral possible. Cathedral embodies a compromise, or union, in terms of tone and delivery. Even if by that point Lish was out of the picture.
JD: You’ve published a lot in literary journals; do you see the world of short stories and poetry changing as the culture of publishing changes so rapidly?
KN: Things have changed a lot already, I think. There’s so much more fiction and poetry available now than when I began writing, it’s almost overwhelming. This isn’t just an internet phenomenon, either. With so many writing programs springing up around the country, things have proliferated. There are many, many more writers, and more readers, and more venues for writing and reading. Everybody seems to be starting a webzine, or print journal, or publishing company. I’m seeing more interest in flash and sudden fiction, too, in print and online, which pleases me much. Flash and sudden fiction are something the New York publishing machine is clearly not at all interested in. To say nothing of poetry!
JD: How much does your Northern California upbringing influence your writing, and after sixteen years in Pennsylvania, have you adjusted to your new home turf?
KN: I was raised in a small town west of Santa Rosa, near the coast. A tiny, very backwoods sort of place. So after years of apocalyptic Los Angeles, where I took my first teaching job, rural northwest Pennsylvania was a kind of homecoming, despite its harsh winters. I seem to operate less effectively as a writer in cities, except for short stints. Okay, a few things here still strike me as odd, and now and then oddly humbling. Like blue laws. In most parts of the country you can buy what you want whenever you want it, and not get taxed heavily. In most places you don’t still see people smoking in bars. Illiteracy isn’t uncommon in my county. Poverty and obesity are serious issues. It’s bracing. I’ve learned much in my years living here. I’ve met the place half-way, I suppose, and I’m not the same person, or writer, I was. My house at the edge of its forest is amazingly quiet, too. I need that to work. I can see deer and wild turkey from the window, and osprey and eagles. There’s a bear that crosses the road near my yard.
JD: What’s your writing practice like and what books have had the biggest influence on you?
KN: I tend to work in the morning on fiction and poetry, and translate in the afternoon. At the moment I’m working on several book-length projects simultaneously, which means there is plenty to do all the time. I have to force myself to take a day off, when I do. I’ve been away from teaching this whole year on sabbatical, actually, which has been a long weird wonderful dream—nothing to do for fifteen months but write, write, write, and read, and ride the mountain bike. As far as reading and influence go, I’ve been impacted by books, certain books, like most of us have. The Nancy Drew novels drew me in deeply, at a young age. As did the books of Zane Grey. An elementary school teacher I had read them aloud to the class each day after lunch, and wept during the sad parts. Jack London’s Martin Eden was impactful for me, as were Shakespeare’s plays, and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Lolita knocked me to pieces. As did The Sun Also Rises, and all of Flannery O’Connor, and later, Atwood’s Surfacing, DeLillo’s White Noise, Franzen’s The Corrections, and McCarthy’s The Road. Did I forget to say Carver? I studied him intensely, so I guess he’s in me for good. Even writers who haven’t read Carver can’t escape Carver, it seems. You read the work of other writers who have read him, who were altered or moved by him, and you absorb him that way.
JD: Thanks, Kirk. So for now, readers, I leave you with a question: what have your experiences with editors been like?