Ron Carlson Reads A Story

This year, we welcome the return of Ron Carlson, whose renown as a master of the short story is matched only by his excellence and generosity as a teacher—as those in his workshop are bound to discover. And this year, Carlson returns with a just-published first book of poetry under his belt. With five novels, five collections of short stories, a non-fiction book about the craft of writing, book reviews and articles and now a collection of poems, Carlson seems to have covered the waterfront, genre-ly speaking. Let’s not forget a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, the Aspen Prize for Literature and a National Society of Arts and Letters Literature Award.

Carlson’s stories have been published widely (The New Yorker, Harpers, Esquire, GQ, Ploughshares, One Story); selected for Best American Short Stories and The O’Henry Prize Stories; and read on NPR. “These stories,” writes Stephen King, referring to “A Kind of Flying,” a compilation from Carlson’s first three (now out of print) collections, “are full of surprises, jolts, and lightning strikes of recognition. Do yourself a favor,” he suggests, “and read Ron Carlson.”

Carlson is recognized for his ability to depict men doing the best they can under situations perplexing, puzzling and oh so very real.  As Antonya Nelson wrote: “Ron Carlson’s characters embrace a sophisticated, earthy, heroic morality. They are the fellows you hope will teach your children, marry your sisters, tell you stories.”  Well, maybe not all of them (Bigfoot comes to mind), but even so we admire the veracity with which Carlson has portrayed them; these are men we know, we recognize their struggles.

But, of course, that’s not all. Carlson’s skills are wide ranging; many of his stories encompass a much-loved, quirky sense of humor. In “Bigfoot Stole My Wife,” we are left to wonder about the distraught husband’s state of mind; is blaming Bigfoot some sort of crazed reaction to being dumped? Then we find the sequel story “I Am Bigfoot,” in which Bigfoot admits not that he stole her but that women come to him when he calls — he’s sorry, sort of, but what can he do? In  “What We Wanted To Do,” a medieval engineer writes a detailed post-beta-trial report to the boss about the new defense technology of pitching boiling oil over the ramparts, which, although it fails this first time out, really does show a lot of promise.  Carlson’s precise attention to detail and character bring these rather wild premises to life.

Carlson has also written five novels, including “Five Skies” (2007) and “The Signal” (2009), published to critical acclaim.  “Five Skies” was  a New Yorker Notable, named by the LA Times as one of The Best Books of the Year in 2007, and was chosen for Rhode Island’s One Book, One State in 20o9.

In September of 2007, he published “Ron Carlson Writes a Story,” which grew out of his decades of teaching. In it, he explicates, in very useful and inspiring detail, how he created one of his short stories, “The Governor’s Ball.” True to the writers’ credo, he is not only telling but showing us the where, when and why of craft decisions during the story’s creation; he shows us what was inspiration and what was the due work, the one foot in front of the other march to completion. If you could take only one craft book to a desert island, I’d say, take this one.

This March saw the publication of Carlson’s first book of poems, “Room Service: Poems, Meditations, Outcries and Remarks” which has already stirred up some interest. We thought he was joking on his last visit to the Conference when he promised a book of poetry created from the one poem a year he wrote. Then he read some of them and we had to acknowledge he was probably only semi-joking.

Carlson relishes teaching “I teach because I love it,” he told his workshop two years ago, “I love to write and I love to teach.” He taught for ten years at The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, and continued at Arizona State University for another twenty, including a stint as the director of their Creative Writing Program. In 2006, he became the Director of the distinguished Graduate Program in Fiction at UC Irvine, moving to within blocks of the Pacific Ocean, quite a switch for a man whose heart is so clearly in the wilderness and mountains of the West.

Remarkably, while Carlson spends some of his summers camping in the wilderness, he also teaches workshops at various writing conferences around the country: Tin House, Vermont Studios Center, Sqauw Valley, Breadloaf, Kenyon College, and of course, this summer, here at the Napa Valley Writers Conference, for which we, as students and writers, are most appreciative.

Links to interviews, reviews and articles

“Room Service: Poems, Meditations, Outcries & Remarks”

Ron Carlson Delivers the Whimsy

St Mark’s Bookshop

“The Signal”

New West Interview by Jenny Shank 

NY Times Review by Jennifer Gilmore (“Into the Wild”)

“Five Skies”

Esquire – Review by Allison Glock  (“How to Fix a Broken Man”)

Book Reporter Review

LA Times Interview by Susan Salter Reynolds   (“Inner Dimensions”)


“True Grit” a review of “Fine Just The Way It Is,” by Annie Proulx

“What the Dog Saw” – review of “Man in the Woods” by Scott Spencer

“Alone With You” by Marisa Silver – review 




Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  W. W. Norton & Company, 1977.

Truants; W. W. Norton & Company, 1981.

Five Skies. Viking, 2007. (New Yorker Notable; LA 2007 Best Book; One Book, One State, Rhode Island)

The Signal. Penguin Group, 2009.

YA Novel

The Speed of Light. HarperTempest, 2003.

Short Story Collections

News of the World,  W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Plan B for the Middle Class W. W. Norton & Company , 1992. (New York Times Best Book)

The Hotel Eden. Penguin Books, 1997. (NYT Notable Book)

At the Jim Bridger. Macmillan, 2002. (Los Angeles Times 2002 Best Book)

A Kind of Flying. W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.


Ron Carlson Writes a Story  Graywolf Press (2007), subtitled: “From the first glimmer of an idea to the final sentence.”


Room Service: Poems, Meditations, Outcries & Remarks ( 2012)


Best American Short Stories

Sudden Fiction

Best of the West Epoch

In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions

The North American Review

The O’Henry Prize Series

The Pushcart Prize Anthology

Norton Anthology of Short Fiction