Utah native Ron Carlson has been publishing acclaimed novels and short stories for over three decades, and in recent years he’s hit a stride, with two novels, Five Skies and the new The Signal back-to-back. Carlson directed the Creative Writing program at Arizona State University for many years and three years ago became the Creative Writing program director at the University of California at Irvine. The Signal, which Carlson wrote at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, is the action-packed tale of a divorced couple who go backpacking in the Wind River Mountains and run into all sorts of trouble, including some unfriendly meth-runners who poach elk on the side. I recently spoke with Carlson about his new novel, which he started because he “wanted to stand up behind [his] goddamn pickup truck again,” and about how “camping is essentially about when things go wrong.”
New West: Is The Signal just an elaborate way for you to scare other potential campers off of your favorite hiking trail?
Ron Carlson: You know, it has that. I didn’t mean to scare everybody.
NW: In the front of the book, you advise people, “If I was going to go into the Wind Rivers today, I would use the Bears Ears trailhead and I would go before September 10.” But after reading about all the perils that Mack and Vonnie face, nobody is going to want to go on this trail.
RC: I just wanted to make sure that no one went after then, because you can run into snow.
NW: I think I’d rather run into snow than some of the things that Mack and Vonnie run into.
RC: I don’t want anybody to get snowed in the way I did, and I’ve written about that. What I really wanted to do was have my vicarious experience and write a little love letter to the mountains, which I’m not in enough. I just got on fire for that and wrote this outdoor book.
NW: I once heard you mention how you can sometimes coax students into writing a better story by taking the story that they start with—which is often about some kind of drunken road trip, if I remember correctly—and have them add another layer of time to it, so that the voice is that of a changed, somewhat older person looking back on these events. It seems like The Signal works in somewhat of the same way—it’s a story about a camping trip, but everything is overlain with the tension and the past between Vonnie and Mack.
RC: In all fiction—and it’s not spoken of in these terms—but there are always two stories. The stories both have to function. The immediate story that’s right in our face needs to capture us. And then coming along under the boat like some ominous force there should be the other story that’s about some feature of the characters’ hearts. Many times that has to do with the past.
NW: You’ve said that you work intuitively, seeing where the story will lead you. But I don’t know if I buy it with this book—the structure is so precise, the action so taut, I feel like you must have had a blueprint for this one.
RC: I know exactly what you’re saying. But this book just poured out of me. I wrote this in a blind, rushing dream. The draft took six days. It was like no writing experience I’ve ever had, and I hope I’ll have it again, but I don’t know. I went up to Ucross in Wyoming and had the time, and I just got lost in the dream.
NW: You had the idea in mind?
RC: Well, I didn’t exactly, no. I knew I wanted to write about backpacking. I start so much of my fiction from a kind of a hot fusion with an event or a moment. It doesn’t take much, but for some reason with my imagination, if you show me the right event or right moment—and it can be in a hotel lobby or out on a dark road at night, many times it relates to places I’ve been—I can just taste it. I started writing this story about these two people on this trip, and then later after I finished the draft, which was about two-thirds of the current book, I started thinking about who they were and what was Mack’s damage. One of the last scenes I wrote—which is on page 3 or 4—is the scene where Vonnie meets him in jail. So I just began to inform the book with this guy and his flaws and his troubles and his humanity. Then I started thinking about, what can I get away with in terms of: drugs are a problem in the West, poachers are a problem in the West, the mountains are so lovely, how much can I layer this? How far can I take this into harm’s way? That’s what you’re seeing. But if you look at all the historical information, that’s what I wrote last.
It was a wonderful writing experience. I really participated in all of the hiking, walking, fishing, and cooking. And I was able to bring all of the things that I’ve done into it. I’m an old camper, and camping is essentially about when things go wrong. I mean, you forget something, a shoelace breaks. A shoelace breaking can be heartbreaking. I had one of the fasteners on my pack break once. I lost a dog leash—I had it around my neck, and I didn’t know where I’d dropped it.
NW: Wait, you had a dog leash around your neck? What were you doing in the woods?
RC: Well, no, I was carrying it like a towel. I had my good dog Max with me on that trip. Anyway, the way everybody writes about camping, even in disasters where planes crash in the woods, I’m so sick of these fraudulent camping stories. Someone will follow the stream and a minute later they’re dry. Or the bugs bite them for a few minutes but then they stop biting. How did the bugs stop biting? I never saw the bugs stop biting. Then all of a sudden there’s a campfire and we’re enjoying our whiskey around the campfire. Fires are hard and they take tending. And there’s a lot of up and down and work, work, work.
NW: But a lot of good meals in your camping stories.
RC: Yeah, a lot of good meals. And of course there’s nothing better than cut fingers and dirty hands to improve a bowl of soup.
NW: An apple never tastes better than when it’s eaten at high altitude.
RC: Exactly, you know all about it. So, the opening draft of this book was a rushing dream, then I’m an old teacher so there was a lot of calculation and designing. I also knew it would be a short book that a person would read in one or two sittings. It was so fun.
NW: It seems that you’re in a fertile creative period right now. You’ve done two novels back to back in a short span. Do you feel that way?
RC: I am. I’m working hard. I just got back from Rhode Island, where Five Skies is the One Book Rhode Island 2009 selection. I had breakfast with 500 people. It was quite a discussion group, really lovely. And then this book came hot on the heels of that, and because they both take place outdoors and deal primarily with men, they seem related. I continue to write about men, but this new work is all over the place again. I’m writing some comic stuff. I’m doing some stories, but I have another novel draft that I’ll be working on this summer, so I’m working on things side by side. I sort of need an assistant right now because I have too many drafts and I don’t know what level they’re in. So the answer to your question is yes, it is a fertile creative period for me. That’s primarily because I’ve simply focused my energies and I do a lot of work. I can’t wait for the summer. I’ll be up in Utah again and then I’m going to teach in Aspen at the end of June.
NW: So do you only get to go to the interior West in the summer now?
RC: Well, what you call the interior West is the West. Denver, Salt Lake, Boise, Missoula, Flagstaff. Ohio is not the West. California is not the West. California is California. I need the West, like the intermountain West, where there’s a town and then you can get out of town. If you’re in Philadelphia and they say “get out of town,” you end up in New York.
I’m not an end-of-the-roader or a desperate off-the-grid guy, but I’ve always cherished, from a boy, getting out of town. My feeling about the woods I got fifty years ago from my dad when we’d go fishing up in the Uintas of Utah, and I saw that there were places into the trees that I didn’t know about. There’s a place beyond the last tree that you don’t know about, and I love that feeling. I do everything I can to try to find that. I live three blocks from the ocean now, which is sort of interesting, I’ve never done it before. I like to get back into the interior continent to where I can see it’s a planet again. You get out of the city and out of the suburban grid. Sometimes it’s in southern Utah where it happens, sometimes it’s in the desert between California and Nevada, and you can sense, oh yeah, this place. But it’s been lovely here in California. I’m the director of the Creative Writing Program at U.C. Irvine and I’m working with some amazing people.
NW: Speaking of your father, one of my favorite passages in The Signal was on page 91, when Mack realizes that he was associating with drug dealers now, so “there wasn’t going to be fresh oil in the engines or good tires or a tight lug nut or any single thing done right. This was a free fall at the shiterie.” This seems to be a recurrent theme of yours, especially in your prior novel, that precision and carefully done work are the sign of a life being lived well, and shoddy work is the sign of trouble. I think the last time I interviewed you, you mentioned that your dad was a handy guy.
RC: Yeah, he was. He was just one of the most intelligent and sensible men I’ve ever known. He was a successful engineer. But his whole life was that—he respected his tools, he measured things well. For a guy that had all that exactitude in his life, he was hugely tolerant and very kind.
NW: He seems a lot like Mack’s father.
RC: Well, that was sort of the easiest part to write, wasn’t it? Yeah, he is. I was fortunate to have interesting parents, good parents, good people. I knew them as people for a long time—I had them until four or five years ago. I think they color my work. We’re in an age when I think there’s a lot of confusion about how to do things, and I think there’s a lot of confusion about work and the value of work. I don’t think people understand how work is really the saving element.
NW: Mack’s father doesn’t appear much in this book, but you get to know him well because the dialogue is very vivid. Is it easy for you to write dialogue?
RC: When I wrote this book, I didn’t use quotation marks or paragraph, it’s just the flow. But at the same time when a writer’s working, a scene opens and you have to fall into it. You can’t cruise by it and phone it in. You drop into the chasm with your characters and you participate, you listen. Every time Mack and his father talked, I learned something new.
NW: Like the thing about his hands, “Show me your hands,”—where did that come from?
RC: Well that came from that moment. I was writing there and Mack’s dad says, “Show me your hands.” Then I thought, “Uh oh.” Of course the phrase “a show of hands” is sort of odd. I was so lucky to get that. It is made up but it felt true. I’m to the point where sometimes I don’t know if I’m making something up or remembering it. You can tell—if a guy comes in with Band-aids on his hands all the time, you don’t want him working on your car.
NW: There are several new technologies that are integral parts of the plot of The Signal—the BlackBerry with GPS, the non-functioning cell phone and the experimental drone. The advent of the cell phone has taken away a lot of possible plots, like that of Romeo & Juliet, but has technology created more possible plots?
RC: I think we’re catching up with technology. It’s vexatious for me. I think we’re in this signature moment that people are trying to catch up to technology so fast that they’re making a lot of mistakes with giving their lives over to email, using the Internet in all the ways we do, and the whole compulsion with the cell phone. I think the story isn’t told yet with technology. It will be very interesting to see what happens with newspapers and all forms of media, because I don’t think it’s just going to go one way. I think it will settle down and there will be a little bit of reaction, and we’ll end up with hard copy and electronic copy.
But in terms of plot, I’m just not sure. I always loved Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, and the fact that people could be isolated on an island and one by one they’d get knocked off. But now if the phone line goes out—you can’t go around and clip the wires on everybody’s cell phone, so it’s hard to isolate people.
NW: There are so many plots that hinge upon people not having the information that they could have if they were in communication with each other.
RC: It’s very much the story of having a person be in once place at one time. That’s the rarity we’re talking about. Nobody’s here anymore because they’re all everywhere at one time. When you’re in a room with twenty people and their cell phones are on, you’re with everybody they’ve ever talked to on the phone. So there are 10,000 people there. It’s really disgusting. With my students, I have a rule—I tell them that you may not get on the cell phone until 15 minutes after the class is over. I want you to think about what we did.
I worry about the fifth graders in this country, being everywhere all the time. Whenever you see a woman walking under the trees, she always has a hand to her ear. You never see a woman walking under the trees anymore. The walk is just ruined. Nobody walks anymore. It’s always this multitasking, which is essentially doing two things badly at once.
NW: How did you come up with the idea of having Mack need to locate a crashed drone—it seems almost like a thriller element.
RC: Well that element is. I thought, “Can I go this big?” So I said yeah, I’ll have this one plot point. There are a lot of experimental aircraft, a lot of them are private, there are a lot of independent contractors who are desperate characters, and there are a lot of former government employees who are trying to figure out ways of profiteering. It’s not pervasive, but it exists. There are a lot of retired upper military Defense Department types in the West, former cabinet secretaries, et cetera. We hear about drones all the time now—they’re not the cute little ones I had, but these very big million dollar unmanned aircraft. They’re flown all over Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they’re piloted from Arizona. It’s sort of horrifying, philosophically, to be able to kill people that way. But it is a thriller element.
This book could have been a relationship story of two people in the woods, and I thought no, I’m going to reach here. I’m going to take a chance and make something kind of larger than life and hope that I’m forgiven for it. I wanted a lot to happen, more than I could handle. As I worked on the last fifty pages of this book you can see that I’m sort of minimal. Anything that I could tuck away without having to explain it, I did.
NW: I wrote in my review that it seemed like it would take somebody else 400 pages to write this 200 page book. Did all your work with short stories help you to condense?
RC: Thank you. I am a writer who wants his writing to have density. You don’t need a four-pound book. I want the story to have real voltage. A little writing can carry lots of volts. That’s the way I’m working now. It’s the way I worked on short stories, and I’m sure it helped me. In a story you have to get a whole world up, deal with it, and then done.
NW: How do you get to that? Do you start with something bigger and then cut out?
RC: I always start small. I started with a guy, and I wanted him cooking on a stove on the back of his truck. I started this book because I wanted to stand up behind my goddamn pickup truck again. I miss it so much. I had an old stove, a couple of emergency knives. I could cook soup anywhere I was. I really do miss it. I had a dog and a pickup for twenty years. And now I have this other life. I love the idea of pulling off in the lost place and making some tea. So this guy has angel hair pasta, boiling water for it on the back of his truck. You start that small. Then he’s hoping she comes. Then the book unfolds. You can see it in my work. It’s a little different—you kind of spotted the fact that there are some things in this book that feel imposed and other things that grow out of the text. I wanted this to be organic so that I could earn those other moments.
NW: The primary cause that drove Mack into his descent was economic difficulty.
RC: What I wanted to do was, I’m a big fan of wear and tear. So you put a guy who is sort of ashamed of what he’s doing, he’s got the pressure of a certain amount of guilt for what he’s doing. He’s worried about money. He starts drinking. He loses the boundary between his own code and taking help. He can’t take help because he’s too fucking proud. Then he makes mistakes. I wanted to earn that. I didn’t want his troubles to be because he was just a bad guy, and I didn’t want his troubles to be finessed.
NW: So what he did is his responsibility.
RC: Yeah, he’s going to do it and then when he’s kind of worn down a little bit, he gets this opportunity. And it’s a bad choice.
NW: I wanted to ask you about the late Carol Houck-Smith, who passed away recently and used to be your editor.
RC: I met Carol when I was 27, 28 years old, a long time ago, and we did six books together at Norton. It’s such a treasure to me to have had this classic New York editor experience with such a professional person who was very interested in my work. I met her through the mail. I sent her part of a book and she said, “This is interesting, let’s talk.” I went to New York in 1976 and we met and we worked together all that time. I was her first fiction writer and I was the luckiest guy. I have a new editor now at Viking, Josh Kendall, and he’s very bright and capable and I just love him. And I’m in the right place. But Carol was a very close personal friend of mine. She was there in the courtroom when the adoption of my kids was finalized and she spent Christmas with us.
I miss her. I was from Utah, and it was so exciting when I walked into those offices across from the New York Public Library and she stood up and greeted me and she said, “We’ve been looking for you.” And I said, “No, I’ve been looking for you.” No one was treated better than me and we did some quality work together. She stood by me and I tried to return the favor for her.
Ron Carlson will participate in this year’s Aspen Writers Conference from June 21 through 26. He is this year’s recipient of the Aspen Prize for Literature.