RC: When I came to the writing of these poems I hadn’t written any for about two years. I’d been writing stories, and I didn’t know if I’d ever write any more poems. I felt writing poetry might have passed out of my life. I lamented that, but it didn’t seem as if there was anything I could consciously do about it. Then I went from Syracuse, New York out to Washington State, with the intention of writing fiction. In the house in Washington, after I had sat still for about a week, not writing at all, I wrote a poem one night. And the next morning I got up and wrote another poem, and before the day was over I had three poems. And I kept writing like this for, I think, 65 days. And I had a book – a full book. I had about a hundred and twenty poems – more than enough for a book. I quit writing then and went with Tess on a trip to South America. Then about three months later, back home again, I started writing poems once more. I wrote the rest of the poems that make up the book. In the space of about eighteen months – it was an extraordinary time – I wrote two hundred and fifty to three hundred poems. I’ve never had a time quite like it in my life. When I was writing these poems I was entirely happy. I could have died then, and I would have died happy. Then, for whatever reason, I stopped writing poems and went back to writing stories, and it is likely I have enough stories now for a new book. But I’ve started writing poems again recently! It’s a good time in my life right now. I’m writing stories, and I’m writing poems. When I began writing stories again, all the poems that are in this book seemed like nothing less than a great gift to me. It is a mystery to me now where they came from. But I began as a poet. My first publication was a poem. So I suppose on my tombstone I’d be very pleased if they put ‘poet gad short-story writer – and occasional essayist’. In that order.
KB: But in some ways your poems and stories are very similar. Your stories are in many ways like poems, and your poems usually tell stories.
RC: True. Narrative poetry, poetry that has content, subject-matter – that’s the poetry that most interests me. And some of my poems are very story-like. I do think there is a stronger relationship between a story and a poem than there is between a story and a novel. Economy and preciseness, meaningful detail, along with a sense of mystery, of something happening just under the surface of things.
KB: You say that the fiction you like to read usually contains an element of autobiography. Your poems seem to be more autobiographical than the stories.
RC: It’s true. But the poems aren’t autobiographical. Sometimes a little, maybe. But even if they were, that would be okay. I’ve just visited the house where Thomas Mann lived – it’s a little museum now in Zurich. I don’t think there’s a more autobiographical writer in the world. Buddenbrooks is a generational novel about his family. It’s more than that, of course, but it’s the history of his family he is dramatising, making them come alive again by turning the whole show into literature. Certainly writers – the writers I most admire at any rate – make some use of their own lives. The poems let me do something that I can’t do in fiction. I think I become more intimate in the poems, more vulnerable in ways I don’t often allow myself to be in the stories. I’m a little more removed there, a little more distant, perhaps. I suppose the poems are closer to me somehow. They come from some place in the deepest interior region. The stories aren’t like that, always. When I was writing all these poems, I felt that never in my life had I had a time like that before. I would sometimes write two or three in a day, if you can imagine. I’d go to bed at night and I wouldn’t know if I had another poem left in me. I was exhausted. And I’d get up in the morning feeling empty but refreshed at the same time, and I’d go to my desk and begin writing poetry again. It was just wonderful. That’s what I meant when I said: ‘Take me now.’ I could have died happy then.
KB: I read that you dislike the word ‘theme’, and prefer to speak of your ‘obsessions’.
RC: Well, I suppose it goes back to being a student. I used to shy away from ‘theme’ and ‘symbol’ and heavy-sounding words like these. I think theme or the meaning of a story declares itself in the work itself, and that it’s finally impossible to separate the meaning of the story from the content and the way things are worked out. For better or worse, I am an instinctual writer rather than a writer working out a programme or finding stories to fit particular themes. There are certain obsessions that I have and try to give voice to: the relationships between men and women, why we oftentimes lose the things we put the most value on, the mismanagement of our own inner resources. I’m also interested in survival, what people can do to raise themselves up when they’ve been laid low. I wish you could see some of the new stories because the new stories are different in a lot of ways – in ways I can’t really articulate – from the stories that have come before. I think all the stories in each of my books seem to be somewhat different from the other, earlier stories. The stories in Cathedral, for instance – most of them, at any rate – are vastly different from the stories in the first book. They’re fuller, more generous, somehow. There’s a new story about Chekhov and his last days: I never would have written anything like that, I couldn’t have, five years ago.
KB: Critics talk about your stories – especially the first two collections – as being very bleak. I haven’t felt that.
RC: I’m glad.
KB: There has always seemed to be something.
RC: There’s some humour in the stories.
KB: In that sense, I didn’t feel there to be that much of a jump between What we talk about and Cathedral. But maybe Cathedral is more explicitly hopeful.
RC: I think it is. The stones in Cathedral, most of them – well, some of them anyway – are finally more positive, more affirmative, than the stories in the earlier collection. But I’m glad you don’t find all the stories so bleak.
KB: I found the reviews more depressing than the stories.
RC: Yes. But I think they’re beginning to take a bit of a different tack now. Writers shouldn’t be criticised for their subject-matter, should they? Samuel Beckett is about as dark as a writer could possibly be. His work is very claustrophobic to me. And I have a book in my coat pocket – a book of poems by Philip Larkin, and my God, Larkin is dark – isn’t he? But he writes with such wonderful finesse.
KB: The other thing that the critics like to talk about is failure of communication as a theme. I felt that although the characters maybe don’t communicate verbally, they usually manage to communicate in other ways.
RC: I think that’s true. It’s hard sometimes for people to talk and say what they really mean: either because they’re not skilled enough at being intimate with other people, or just feel the need to protect themselves. But there are other ways of communicating. Things do happen, things do get done and said in the stories, even though sometimes people may be talking at cross-purposes at times, or seemingly to no good purpose.
KB: I’m interested in those stories which appear in different forms in different collections. Are they different versions of one story or different stories?
RC: I feel they’re different stories. I’m certainly not the only writer who has ever rewritten stories after they were published. I read somewhere that Frank O’Connor was constantly changing his stories long after they were in print. He went through about three different versions of his great story ‘Guests of the Nation’. For me, it was like conceiving a story and seeing it as unfinished business. The stories ‘A Small, Good Thing’ and ‘The Bath’ are really two different stories.
KB: You weren’t happy with ‘The Bath’?
RC: It won a prize when it appeared in a magazine, but I felt it was a minor league effort, and I’m not happy with it to this day. I’m going to be publishing a Selected Stories and I’m not going to include ‘The Bath’. I am going to include ‘A Small, Good Thing’, of course. But I don’t do that kind of rewriting much any more. I have more confidence in the stories now, or maybe it’s just that I feel that I have more things to do than I have time to do them, and I tend now not to look back so much. I do all the revision when I’m writing a story, and once it’s published I’m just not much interested in it any longer. I want to look ahead. I think that’s healthy.
KB: I really like your ‘Poem for Hemingway and W.C. Williams’. Do you agree with the suggestion that Hemingway could be called the model for your stories and Williams for your poems?
RC: They both influenced me when I was young and malleable. I had a great deal of admiration, and still do, for much of Hemingway’s work and much of Wiliams’s work.
KB: Williams’s short stories as well?
RC: Yes, especially ‘The Use of Force’ and some later stories. But I did not read his stories, or very much of his poetry, until long after they could conceivably have had any influence on me, except that little story of his ‘The Use of Force’. In fact, when I was reading his poems in my early twenties, it was like I was vaguely aware that he had written prose, but only knew him as a poet. He wasn’t even taught at the college where I went to school. But I came upon his poetry because I was reading something about writers in Paris in the Twenties. About the same time I started a little magazine when I was going to college in California – this was when Williams was still alive, about 1958 or 59. And I wrote to him and asked for a poem for this magazine, and told him what admiration I had for his poems. And almost by return mail he sent me a poem. It was a great, great thrill for me. This poem, called ‘The Gossips’, was published in a post humous book of his, Pictures from Breughel. The poem had his signature across the bottom of it. It was a real treasure. Of course I lost it through a set of unfortunate circumstances. But it was so kind of him to send me a poem. He was my hero.
KB: I’ve heard him reading his poems on tape. He sounds nice. Laughing between poems.
RC: He was an extraordinary man. He sometimes wrote poems in between seeing patients.
KB: On his prescription pad. Are you conscious of making comments with your stories?
RC: What kind of comments?
KB: About your attitude towards your characters and how they live, about the society they live in.
RC: I write oftentimes about working-class people, and the dark side of Reagan’s America. So in that regard I suppose the stories can be read as a criticism, as an indictment. But that has to come from outside. I don’t feel I’m consciously trying to do that. And I don’t have any programme for writing stories, as I’ve said.
KB: In an essay called ‘The Post-Modern Aura’ Charles Newman has spoken of ‘Neo-Realism’ in fiction as ‘the classic conservative response to inflation – under-utilisation of capacity, reduction of inventory and verbal joblessness’. The essay was written just after What we talk about came out, and he mentions your work as an example of ‘Neo-Realism’. I think he’s saying that when people don’t have much they become thrifty, in all areas – literature as well as economics.
RC: When I wrote those stories I didn’t have any money at all. I was as poor as a church-mouse. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent. He may be right, although it’s a pretty florid sentence. It’s a theory. He may be right. Who knows? Who cares? The main thing is to get the stories written.
KB: Will you go back to teaching when your Strauss Living Award runs out?
RC: If I do, it won’t be full-time again: it’ll just be a seminar here and there. But I hope I don’t have to at all – not because I can’t teach, or think it’s a waste of time, but it’s just that there are so many other things I’d rather be doing. But I didn’t dislike teaching the way some writers do. I’ve had so many other worse jobs, lousy jobs, that when I was teaching I counted my blessings. I didn’t have to work in the rain or hot sun, or with my hands, and I had more time for my own work than I did with any other kinds of job I’d had.
KB: Do you have any urge to write a novel?
RC: No. But I may have this time next year. Ask me then. I may write a novel and I may not. And if I don’t that’s okay too. I don’t feel as if I have to write a novel.
KB: Anne Tyler wrote that the reason you write such good stories is because you’re not saving the best things up for writing a novel.
RC: She said I was a ‘spendthrift’. Thai’s good. I think that a writer ought to spend himself on whatever he’s doing, whether it’s a poem or a story, because you have to feel like the well is not going to run dry; you have to feel that there’s more where that came from. If a writer starts holding back, for any reason whatsoever, that can be a very bad thing. I’ve always squandered.
KB: I read that you’ve written screenplays.
RC: Yes, I did two. Tess Gallagher and I did them. One of them was published – it was on Dostoevsky. A part of it was published in the States. It’s very long. And we did another screenplay. I think every writer wants to do that at least once, to be involved with Hollywood, and all that sort of thing. I went through that time, I did it, and I’m not interested in doing it any more. But who knows – maybe in five years I’ll be interested again. It was work for hire, and I didn’t like that. I don’t like to have a boss. ‘My goal was always to be shiftless’ – to quote a line from a poem I like. I much prefer to write a poem than to do a piece of journalism.
KB: Has Dostoevsky been filmed?
KB: Have any of your stories been filmed?
RC: A story called ‘Feathers’ has just been made into a film. They did a very good job on it. And then some people in Hollywood made a film of ‘A Small, Good Thing’. I think that they did a good job too.
KB: A few weeks ago I saw the film of John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’.
RC: Isn’t that just a wonderful film? I saw it when it first came out, and I talked to John Cheever about it. We were teaching together in Iowa. He claimed he just took the money and never went to see the film. I loved the film, and told him so. That ending, in the story and in the movie – just extraordinary.