Ron Carlson’s Stories Got Censored in Fourth Grade

As long as Ron Carlson is out there writing, the rest of us will always have good short fiction to read.

Booklist called Carlson “a master of the short story,” and the Los Angeles Times remarked that throughout each of his four story collections, Carlson has done “what only good writers can do: make us see and feel what his characters see and feel and draw us into their world as if we had been born there.”

During his 30 year career, Carlson’s short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire and Playboy, and have been featured in prestigious collections like The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Carlson now runs the MFA fiction writing program at UC Irvine, but he had to work hard to get where he is today.

“I felt I had what it took. I wanted to write, and the times that I’d applied myself to it, the results had been good,” Carlson declared in his book, Ron Carlson Writes A Story.  “But how could I get better?… I knew grammar. I’d read the two hundred great stories of all time, eternity… So now?”

Carlson was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail about his early days writing horror skits, why he almost majored in the sciences and how teaching nearly killed his writing career.

Opening Lines: When did you first start writing creatively and what subjects interested you the most early on?

Carlson: I was at Edison Elementary in Salt Lake City and I wrote skits which some of my pals and I put on for our fifth grade class. We had a monster club and watched horror movies Friday nights and my skits were all a mishmash of Tarzan stories and the Wolfman.  I loved the story “The Most Dangerous Game” and “Leiningen Versus the Ants” and I wrote after those stories again and again. I wrote a story in fourth grade titled “Miss Pickerell and the Toothpick Smugglers” after the Miss Pickerell books.  It had been “Miss Pickerell and the Cigar Smugglers,” but this was Utah and I met the censor.
“I always wanted to be a writer and it is a simple thing which I actually got.  It isn’t a big deal. There are legions of writers.”
OL: What kind of feedback did you get once you’d started writing more frequently? Did you have someone who encouraged you to continue?
Carlson: I met the fabulous teacher David Kranes when I was in college and he was the first overt encouragment I received. People had liked my quirky stories, but David, who was my teacher at the University of Utah and later Director of the Sundance Playwrights Institute, knew what I was doing and pushed me and took me seriously.
OL: I’ve read that you had a competing interest in science as a teenager and were hesitant about pursuing English as a major in college. What were your big concerns at the time with pursuing a career in writing and why did you decide to do it anyway?
Carlson: Seriously: what would you do with an English degree?  I loved math and my father was an engineer, and I loved physics (or really the involved narratives in physics which I studied at the University of Houston for a year), and I loved geology. But English kept calling and finally I turned and leapt into her arms.
OL: Was there ever a point after embracing writing where you wavered and felt that a career as a writer might not be feasible for you?
Carlson: My first teaching job was simply omnivorous.  I went to a boarding school where I taught, coached, and ran a dorm. We had Saturday classes and then you got on a bus with hockey team and drove seventy miles to play Taft and get back by midnight.  There was no space whatsoever; there was no sleep. I wrote two books at the school and learned that I loved to teach and that if I fought for it, I could write also.
OL: So at what point did you say to yourself, “I’ve really made it as a writer?” Or is that something you’re still hesitant to say?
Carlson: A person is a writer.  I always wanted to be a writer and it is a simple thing which I actually got.  It isn’t a big deal. There are legions of writers.  When I sit down to work every day, I might was well be working on my first story.  You get some nice mail somedays, but mostly it is you again going into your story –happily.
“I wrote a story in fourth grade titled ‘Miss Pickerell and the Toothpick Smugglers’ after the Miss Pickerell books,” Carlson says. “It had been ‘Miss Pickerell and the Cigar Smugglers,’ but this was Utah and I met the censor.”
OL: Finally, what advice do you have for those now debating whether to pursue a career in writing? What is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out?
Carlson: Keep your own counsel; choose projects which you love; don’t choose projects because of the marketplace. Don’t do anything for the marketplace. When I read your book I want it to be deeply your book. Dive in, take heart, go nuts.
Image courtesy of University of California, Irvine.

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