It was Paul Kelly who led me to read Raymond Carver. It was the early 90s, and my head had been stuck in a magic realist place for a while. I’d read loads of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the 80s and wanted to be him, right up until I read Jorge Luis Borges. And wanted to be him. I chased after them with less chance of catching them than a three-legged dog on a freeway going after cars. For me, the 80s was mostly a view of their taillights fading into the distance. And, okay, also Kafka’s.
Then I read Peter Carey’s The Fat Man in History and tried to be him too. That attempt even got published. My mother purchased several hundred copies before it slipped from view. The most memorable review quote for Passion went like this: ‘Nick Earls’s publishers claim he is a rising star in Australian fiction. That claim is to be flatly contradicted … Often we say too many books are published. Rarely are we prepared to name the books. Passion would be on my list.’
Phew. It’s some way back from there.
I read Spalding Gray’s Monster in a Box and found myself a new voice as a writer. But I also heard Paul Kelly’s Everything’s Turning to White, a masterpiece of songwriting, and followed it to its source; Raymond Carver’s short story ‘So Much Water, So Close to Home’. I read Carver. Lots of Carver.
Kelly and Carver are a perfect fit. This story could have been rankly overwritten in either medium, but instead it’s masterfully underwritten by both Kelly and Carver, and the obliqueness and detail selection in the telling give it a lot of its power.
There are five versions of the short story, four long and one short, with the short one shortened by Gordon Lish’s extensive edits. The difference between the Lish edit and subsequent Carver versions fascinates me. The Lish edit of any Carver story is spare, with the largest possible spaces left for implication. The Carver-preferred version tends to have more heart but maybe sometimes pushes up against the border with sentimentality. Some things come to have different meanings in the two versions, or at least that possibility is opened up. Lish has tried to edit away everything but the essential truth, but has he sometimes changed the truth in doing that?
One of the biggest invisible questions when writing something is what to put in and what to leave out. We never get to see that question being grappled with since the writer’s thoughts and drafts and then the edit are conducted in privacy. But in this case, it’s been brought into the open. It’s not as simple as one version being better than the other – one the right version and the other not quite as right. From close inspection, rightly or wrongly, I have my own sense of Carver’s intentions and Lish’s. A close reading of the different versions can’t give a definitive answer, but it’s a brilliant lesson in the questions that a writer needs to ask to create writing that aspires to be great.
More than once, I’ve fantasised about pitching to publishers a project that grapples with this. Here’s how it goes. You take the seventeen stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the collection that includes ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’, and you give each one, in both its Lish-edited version and Carver-preferred version, to a single writer. Note: not an editor, a writer. There’s already been plenty of editing. I want to see how this goes with a fresh set of writer’s intentions given a turn. That writer reads them as closely as possible and attempts, from the two, to create a version that they feel honours Carver’s intent, while at the same time bringing some of the best of Lish to it.
The slow-burn twenty-year North American short-fiction binge Carver set me off on means I even have a list of writers I’d give stories to—Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Michael Redhill, Maile Meloy, Wells Tower for a start—as if any of them would be crazy enough to rip the lid off that can of worms. Ford even knew Carver, so it’d be extra weird for him. So far I have restrained my impulse to push this idea, since it’s possible the book would have zero willing contributors and a market of one.
For some years, my reading and writing lives seemed to move in parallel, each out of view of the other. I was writing comedies set in Brisbane and reading restrained nuanced stories set across the US and Canada.
Eventually, two things had to happen. What I was reading had to impact my writing, and one day I would find Australian writers whose work I could relate to, and who would be perfect for my Carver list. Writers who didn’t even think of adverbs. Writers who under-told, under-sold, and created space for the thoughts of readers, for implication, for a range of possibilities. Writers who would tell me something by giving me a glimpse of it and leaving the rest of the work up to me. That’s what I love as a reader. Writers who don’t tell me everything about how a human works, as though I might want to build one from a kit, but who instead offer me a sideways glance at the humans that fascinate them and leave it to me to sense the story.
Tara June Winch and Josephine Rowe, to name two. After the Carnage and Tarcutta Wake, to name a book by each of them I’ve read recently, but really anything by either of them. That’s what I want to read.
Since I’m a big fan of those two, I’m obviously very keen to get my hands on Adelaide Hegarty’s Mallarmé’s Pupil. Everything I’ve read about it tells me I’m going to love it. I never met her, but it’s tragic this will be her only book and that she’s not around for my Carver (non)project. I have Julie Koh pencilled in for her spot.
Carver and that Paul Kelly song have been back in my mind lately. As a nod to how I got to where I am now, they both make an appearance in Vancouver, one of my Wisdom Tree novellas, and the song’s been played as part of the Wisdom Tree Live events I’ve been doing in various parts of the country. Played by different musicians, but it’s got me every time—the horror, the bleakness, the empty spaces within people, all understated, but with more fear and menace and sadness for not being pulled directly up into view.
Not that I’m looking for six kinds of grimness in everything I read, but I’m looking for something that doesn’t serve me up every last detail, every last adjective. Something that doesn’t join all the dots. Something where the details are artfully and invisibly chosen for what they might imply and the light they might cast if I’m smart enough to see it.
Nick Earls’ latest project is the novella series Wisdom Tree, released at monthly intervals across five months in 2016.