Tales Out of School

Storied author Ron Carlson gives ASU students the word

Ron Carlson steps to the lectern at Changing Hands Bookstore. The podium sits beside the store's "writing" section, next to the books designed to instruct and inspire budding authors. Copies of Carlson's own new volume, The Hotel Eden Stories (Norton), are stacked nearby. The new book is a collection of short stories, but, in a way, it's a writer's guide, too, a here's-how for fiction writing that rivals the more didactic manuals on the shelves.

Carlson eyes the full house of familiar faces, mostly former students from his creative-writing classes at Arizona State University. He adjusts his slightly rumpled white shirt, takes a hitch to his khaki slacks and begins with "a new poem," a tradition at Carlson readings.

"I don't want to set the world on fire," one passage reads. "All I want to do is start a little spark."

Ron Carlson has been starting sparks in local writing students for more than 10 years. Former director of the Creative Writing Department at ASU, he's been on the faculty since 1986. He's authored two novels, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truants, and three short-story collections, The News of the World and Plan B for the Middle Class, and now, The Hotel Eden Stories. Carlson's books have never threatened the best-seller lists, but they've all been critically acclaimed and much admired by his peers. Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness, says one of Carlson's new stories, "A Note on the Type," in which Carlson parallels his artistic ideals with the fascination of a petty criminal for type fonts, "might be the best story in the English language." And rising literary star Brady Udall, whose recently published first effort, Letting Loose the Hounds, has been compared to Carlson's work, says Carlson is one of the best short-story writers in the country.

Such accolades mark Carlson as a "writer's writer," a craftsman who can stay true to his art, yet still get published regularly in Harper's, GQ and Esquire. What fuels Carlson's fiction is an almost palpable subtlety, a heartfelt examination of characters in quiet moments of change or crisis. These moments don't include guns or car chases or alien invasions from the final frontier. They do include humor and a wry talent for observation. Carlson's protagonists are often well-meaning, everyday people in search of answers to questions they never knew they asked.

More often than not, these bemused characters are young people. The two strongest stories in Hotel Eden involve a misfit high school student who gets involved with the homecoming queen ("Keith") and a college student who wrestles with emotional and sexual maturity while working a summer job in Phoenix ("Oxygen"). Carlson, in his late 40s, concentrates on characters who are young enough to be his grown children.

"I think one of the requirements of storytelling is to find someone at the hottest moment, or the sharpest moment, when they're turning," Carlson says during a conversation a few days before the Changing Hands appearance. "Many times, those moments are in the rites of some kind of passage. My work has migrated, my narrators are older, looking back at where they were. There's a sense of narrative distance in a lot of these pieces, but it's all about the hot moment. Why bother telling the story, why now? The story should implicitly answer that question by being about a moment of revelatory stress, a moment of intensity that's worth writing a story about."

That's the kind of talk that endears Carlson to his writing students. He instructs aspiring fiction writers to write from the inside out, from the small to the large. Writing, to Carlson, is the setting off of little sparks.

"You start very close and very real," he says. "Sometimes it's a memory, sometimes it's a distant memory. You listen and you stay in the room and pretty soon the story will come." He adds that the best way to get such a spark is to adhere to the old maxim that writers should write about what they know.

"Writing about what you know is a wonderful line for teachers. Everybody who's taught 11th grade--and I did--uses it to avoid reading a lot of bad science fiction. There's always these ardent science-fiction writers in the 11th grade who write about the planet Dwingor--what you end up getting is a lot of other people's experiences. Start at home. Start at the kitchen table. Start with the mother and son washing the dishes. You start with what you know, and if you stay close--this is one of the great paradoxes of writing fiction--if you stay close and vivid and particular, then you'll be able to write your way into the other room. But if you start on planet Dwingor, with, you know, its translucent gases, you're gonna have trouble getting back."

The creative process, to Carlson, is an embraceable mystery. He remembers first being interested in stories back in Mrs. Thornton's fifth-grade class in Utah. He went from writing classroom skits to penning parodies of Tarzan movies ("We had a little monster club, Johnny Ikester and Darryl Perry and me, and I wrote the stories we acted out. I liked being that person"). He went on to college at the University of Utah and wound up teaching at a prep school in Connecticut for 10 years. Not long thereafter, he hooked on at ASU.

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