Regarding Tess

When Tess Gallagher, the widow of acclaimed Northwest writer Raymond Carver, planned to publish early drafts of her late husband’s beloved short stories, the outcry from the New York publishing establishment was loud and rancorous.

By Claire Dederer January 3, 2009 Published in the May 2008 issue of Seattle Met

ON AN AUGUST morning in 1988, I was sitting at a seminar table in a sunny, dusty-windowed classroom in Loew Hall at the University of Washington. I was taking a beginning fiction writing class from the poet David Wagoner, and he was a little late. Finally, he arrived. He walked slowly into the room and set his books and papers down on the table. “Bad news,” he said. “Ray Carver has died.” Hardly a breath, hardly a beat had passed when one of my fellow students dropped her head into her hands and cried, “Poor Tess!” She didn’t know Carver or his wife, the poet Tess Gallagher. But those of us who were young writers in Seattle in the 1980s felt an ownership of Raymond Carver. His writing was new, it was important, and it was coming out of the Northwest. He was significant to us, and dear. Tess Gallagher, in that moment, became in our minds irretrievably Carver’s widow. She was left behind, with the rest of us.

A poet’s life is not one of renown. A poet usually achieves fame in death, or more often not at all. Had Tess Gallagher not fallen in love with Raymond Carver 30 years ago, she might be living the quiet life of a successful poet at her home in Port Angeles, writing verse, traveling for pleasure, going for walks. For Gallagher is in fact successful, far beyond most poets’ wildest dreams. The Seattle Times said her latest book, Dear Ghosts, was worthy of the Pulitzer. The San Francisco Chronicle called her 1987 collection, Amplitude, a “masterpiece.” She has won the Guggenheim Fellowship; she has published regularly with Graywolf, a venerated house for poetry; she is respected by other poets. But she has another job, one for which she might justly be called famous during her lifetime: She is the widow and literary executor of Raymond Carver.

Since Carver’s death 20 years ago, Gallagher has led a kind of double life. She is both producer of her own work and protector of Carver’s. She, like any writer, creates a new future every time she sits down to write. Yet as widow and literary executor, she is pulled constantly into the past. Last fall, her connection to the past drew her into controversy. Carver’s second book, the breakout 1981 story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, has long been the subject of speculation. Gordon Lish, Carver’s editor at Knopf, reportedly claimed to have edited the stories so heavily that they were as much his as they were Carver’s. This past fall, Gallagher made plans to publish the stories as Carver first wrote them, before Lish got his pen on them, in a volume titled Beginners. Her decision set off a firestorm. She was decried by Carver’s former editors and his still-rabid fans: How could she know what he would want? How could she publish material he hadn’t approved for publication?

As the talk about What We Talk About played out in the press this past winter, my curiosity about Gallagher grew. I had read, and liked, her -poetry. She had written one particularly well-received book, 1992’s Moon Crossing Bridge, a cycle of grief poems about her loss of her husband. Since then, she had moved forward to write with variousness and curiosity. And yet here she was, once again defined by her relationship with Carver.

It seemed strange to think of this serious poet and native Northwesterner sitting in her house in Port Angeles like a sea captain’s wife on a windblown hillside, controlling the legacy of a major twentieth-century writer. I wanted to talk to her, but first I had to find her.

Gallagher’s phone number and address are unlisted. I traveled through a gauntlet of book review editors, neighbors, and former assistants until I finally obtained her e-mail address and wrote, asking for an interview. No, she said, in final tones, if an e-mail can have final tones.

I hadn’t really expected it to be easy. Yet, unlike most poets, Gallagher has made herself visible around town. Seattleites might remember her from KCTS in the early ’90s. She would appear in the intervals between, say, American Masters and some creaky old British sitcom, and stand before a white background, intoning her poems. Poems! On TV! She was an unsettling apparition, with her plucked, arched eyebrows and her heavily rhythmic line readings.

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As executor of Carver’s estate, Gallagher controls all rights and permissions for his work. To get to his writing, you have to go through her. The role has kept her in the public eye. She has written the prefaces and introductions to his posthumously published work; she approved when Robert Altman approached her to re-create Carver’s tales for film, then frequented the set and the screenings of the resulting Short Cuts. The Seattle filmmaker Jean Walkinshaw—who got to know Gallagher while making the Carver documentary To Write and Keep Kind for PBS—told me, “People are always complaining that she plays on Carver to build up her reputation. They say she’s always at his graveside.” Walkinshaw pauses. “I don’t think that’s fair at all.”

I e-mailed Gallagher again. No, she responded, a piece in The New Yorker _was pending and she wasn’t ready to talk about _Beginners. I wrote back, and I wrote back again. Each time the door opened a little further. “I suppose we could go forward,” she wrote, but on her conditions. We could talk, but not about Beginners, not about the unpublished stories, and not about their possible publication. I agreed to her conditions. After all, the Beginners brouhaha had been well aired in the press; Gallagher had made her statements and explained her point of view. She told The New York Times, “I just think it’s so important for Ray’s book, which has been a kind of secret, to appear.” She explained her decision to publish the original stories to NPR: “I think it’s possible to have people preferring Lish’s way of treating it or Ray’s, and I think you’ll learn something in the process of that comparative work. You’ll definitely learn something about Ray.”

Once again, Gallagher aroused conflicting responses over her handling of Ray’s estate. Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon, for one, had helped Carver compile selected stories in the 1988 volume Where I’m Calling From. Carver chose several of the Lish-edited versions to be republished in the collection. Fisketjon railed in The New York Timeslast October, “When we put together Where I’m Calling From, these were the stories that he handpicked from his work to live in posterity in the versions that he wanted them to live in. If that is not the end of the story, I don’t know what that would be.” He dismissed Gallagher’s plan to publish: “I would rather dig my friend Ray Carver out of the ground.”

If this seems like a lot of fuss over a story collection, it should be noted that What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a special book. The collection of 17 stories established Carver’s reputation; it also cemented his standing as a trend-setting minimalist. His stories of working-class despair were rendered in the barest prose imaginable. Every word seemed fought for. The stories of salesmen, waitresses, and fishermen were almost ruthless in their finality and their lack of sentiment. The collection had a spare, blunt beauty, like a Richard Serra sculpture.

What We Talk About influenced a generation of writers who studied Carver’s work and slavishly attempted to imitate his deceptively simple rhythms. “Raymond Carver was the writer who came along just when America needed him,” Charles McGrath told me. McGrath was an editor at The New Yorker at the time of the publication of What We Talk About and would become Carver’s editor at the magazine in later years. “At The New Yorker I saw the revolution happen overnight. You could always measure who was the most important writer by the slush pile,” he went on, referring to the unsolicited manuscripts that unknown writers rain upon the magazine. “Overnight every story became a Carver wannabe.” McGrath concurred, albeit more gently, with Fisketjon’s opprobrium. “I can’t emphasize enough that this is how Ray wanted those stories to be,” he said, referring to the fact that Carver included the Lish-edited pieces in Where I’m Calling From. “He had the power to have them changed, and he didn’t do it.”

The distinctive voice that slashes its way through What We Talk About is at the heart of the matter. In 1998, D. T. Max, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, visited Indiana University, which had acquired Lish’s papers in 1991. Max found that the stories indeed bore the signs of Lish’s aggressive edits. Many lines of prose had been cut, whole paragraphs added, endings changed. Even so, Carver’s reputation survived the hit. After all, his stories that came after What We Talk About were in the eyes of many critics (including myself) the superior work: warmer, more expansive, more practiced. Lish couldn’t claim credit for those stories. Carver was his own man.

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And there the business rested—until last fall, that is, when Tess Gallagher made her decision. Never mind that the Lish-edited version of What We Talk About _had become a canonical work, taught to students in writing seminars and literature classes. Never mind that the stories had been heralded from the moment of publication, when the collection was reviewed on the front page of _The New York Times Book Review. Gallagher had made her choice. She was the widow and the literary executor, and it was hers to make—or should have been.

Gallagher’s voice came down the line, warmer and older than I expected. There was a lilt to it, and I thought of a line in one of Carver’s letters: “Tess Gallagher, that Irish lass, I like to have fallen in love with her.” Gallagher isn’t quite an Irish lass, though she does visit Ireland every year. She’s a Port Angeles girl.

Gallagher was born to a logging family. She left home at 17 to go to the University of Washington. “I’ve come back every year since I left home. I’ve traveled everywhere, and it’s really one of the most beautiful places in the world. That beauty is so nourishing.” She went on, “My town has stayed the same. It’s very extraordinary in that. It still has the wood-frame houses from World War II. I grew up in a house like that.”

Gallagher has stayed in the place where she is from, an increasingly rare choice for an American. “It’s helpful to me to be in the place that I was born. I like to have that reverberation all the way back to my childhood. It makes you feel wholly present in a special way, I think.” She introduced the topic of her widowhood matter-of-factly: “My mother and I each had quite a long widowhood here, and then I nursed her in the house where Ray died.” Her farthest-flung sibling lives in Bellingham. She quickly asserted her worldly bona fides, as though worried she might sound provincial. “I’ve had a very wonderful East Coast life. My East Coast friends do come and see me. I’m a Northwest girl, but I know very well what’s on the East Coast. I also travel every year to Ireland. I consider myself an international person. If it’s not too bold to say, kind of a cosmic person. I don’t relate to a place just physically, it has to do more with affinities.”

Once she left the University of Washington, Gallagher married—and divorced—twice, earned a Masters in Fine Arts at the prestigious University of Iowa’s writing program, lived in England, wrote a lot of poems. Instructions to the Double, her award-winning first collection, came out in 1976.

That same year marked the beginning of Carver’s literary success. Carver also grew up in Washington State, in Yakima. His father was a sawmill worker, his mother a waitress. Right out of high school, Carver married his pregnant 16-year-old girlfriend, Maryann Burk. He had two kids before his teens were over. The family moved to California and Carver enrolled in Chico State College, where he ended up in a class with John Gardner, a famously inspiring—and famously intimidating—writing teacher, and the future author of The Art of Fiction. Through the ’60s Carver and his wife lived a life of odd jobs and poverty. Through it all, writing pulled at him relentlessly. So did drinking. His stories began to appear in magazines. He became a professor; he won an NEA grant and a Stegner fellowship. He kept drinking.

The mid-1970s were packed with incident: In 1976, Carver saw the publication of his first major collection of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? The same year, he was hospitalized four times for acute alcoholism. The following year he quit drinking with a new and serious resolve and made Tess Gallagher’s acquaintance at a poetry conference in Dallas. In 1978, Carver and his wife split up. Not long after, he met Gallagher again at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he was a visiting scholar. And that was that. It was a dramatic and unsettled time for both. Gallagher has written, “When we joined lives…in El Paso, we were both recovering from an erosion of trust and hope. Between us I think we’d left behind something like 30 years of failed marriage.”

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By this time, Carver had finished his second volume of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and was battling Lish over his editorial intrusions. He was also struggling with drying out. Gallagher explained his fragility on NPR: “Ray was coming out of the chaos in which he had three systemic collapses from the alcoholism and I think he really connected so closely with these stories as a part of his reentry into his writing as a sober person.” Last December, The New Yorker allowed a glimpse into this painful moment in Carver’s life. The magazine published the original, unedited title story from What We Talk About. Alongside were letters from Carver to Lish, begging him not to publish the heavily edited versions of the stories. Carver sometimes agreed with Lish’s edits and he sometimes disagreed. His increasing terror of exposure grows more evident in these letters. He feared other writers and colleagues would not believe he had done his own work. The fragility that Gallagher mentioned is all too apparent.

In the end, the stories were published as Lish wanted. But if output and personal happiness are anything to go by, Carver triumphed. After stints in El Paso, Tucson, and Syracuse, he and Gallagher moved to Port Angeles. There they hopped from house to house until they finally built their own. “Sometimes we borrowed a cabin out in Chimacum, sometimes we stayed in a place that was actually called ‘The Place.’” She laughed, livelier than you expect a shawl-wearing poetess to be. “When Ray and I had a house on B Street, he was always sending me out to quell the noise of children playing in the street or dogs barking.”

We can’t know what happens in someone else’s relationship or marriage. Certainly, from an outsider’s point of view, Carver and Gallagher seemed about as alike as chalk and cheese. Carver’s aesthetic was stripped-down, humble, and as painfully honest as any fiction writer ever has been. Gallagher’s poems were full of arcane references and intimations of spirituality. Her persona was flamboyant and flamingo stylish. It was an odd coupling. But a productive one.

As filmmaker Jean Walkinshaw observed, “I think she was the one who pulled Carver out of his drunken state; I think she saved him from total alcoholism. So she has a claim on him.” She paused. “Now, whether she has a creative claim on him, well, I think they really did work together. I don’t think Carver would’ve been what he was if not for Tess.”

"People are always complaining that Gallagher plays on Carver to build up her reputation. I don’t think that’s fair." —Jean Walkinshaw, Filmmaker

Whatever the two of them were up to out there in Port Angeles in the 1980s, not only did Carver stay off the bottle, he had grown into the full, awesome flower of his talent. He produced what many regard as his best book, Cathedral, a collection of stories published in 1983 that’s more emotionally warm and more hopeful than his earlier work. The same year, he published Fires, a compendium of essays, poems, and stories. He also wrote several new stories for the 1988 volume Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories. He published three books of poetry: Where Water Comes Together with Other Water _in 1983; _Ultramarine _in 1986; and _A New Path to the Waterfall, published after his death, in 1989.

Gallagher too wrote a lot during this period. She published Willingly _in 1984, and then in 1987 _Amplitude, which the _Bloomsbury Review _said was “a great joy” to read. She and Carver had met in 1977; they were married just before his death in 1988. Carver was fiercely grateful for their decade. His poem “Gravy,” inscribed on a stone near his grave, bears testament to his hard-won, late-life love. It reads, “Gravy, these past ten years. / Alive, sober, working, loving, and / being loved by a good woman.”

When Gallagher described to me their life together, it sounded like a little poem: “We always worked in periods,” she said. “Working, teaching, fishing, seeing friends, traveling, writing.” According to her, she and Carver edited each other ceaselessly. “We were very workmanlike about having sit-downs. We’d sit side by side on the couch and I’d just shoot it at him. I started to see stories earlier and earlier in the process because he felt I was so helpful. Or we’d take walks down by the Morse Creek and talk about characters and how the ending was coming along. Those walks were good times.”

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Gallagher and Carver treated each other’s work with the kind of ruthless beneficence that characterizes the best literary partnerships. “It was always a spirit of helpfulness toward the other person,” she said. “He was better at taking criticism than I was. To edit with your mate really takes a certain kind of balance. I tended to be more protective of my work, but finally I got rid of my attitude. It’s about discovery, the method and the intent of your discovery.” The process took some undoing of ego. “If I mandated something and he didn’t use it, so what? It’s his work. I never felt any possessiveness about what he was up to. I would be very frank, and that frankness I think served him well.”

Gallagher isn’t the first poet to wield posthumous responsibility for another writer’s work. David Wagoner, the very man who first delivered me news of Carver’s death, is another. As a young man Wagoner, now a renowned poet and a professor at the University of Washington, put together Straw for the Fire, a model of what a well-edited posthumous publication can look like. Wagoner combed through the notebooks—215, he said—of his teacher, the great Northwest poet Theodore Roethke. (Gallagher also studied with Roethke.) Wagoner culled fragments of poetry and prose and brought them together in a 1972 collection that has inspired two generations of writers and readers with its sharp juxtapositions and surprising insights.

As he worked on the collection, Wagoner thought about how Roethke would have wanted the writing to be used and presented. “I tried to imitate his own random intensities,” he told me. Like Gallagher, Wagoner ran into criticism for the project. “A number of people expressed doubt about doing it. For instance, a couple of other poets, who I think had the creeps that someone might do it to them.” While Wagoner wouldn’t comment on Gallagher’s efforts to publish Beginners, he felt no worries about his own role in reviving the material in Roethke’s notebooks. “The journals of Emerson are published in toto. The journals of Thoreau are published complete. Why not?”

Wagoner’s matter-of-fact tone is illuminating. As an editor, he tried to approximate Roethke’s process as best he could. The role of the widow is more complex. One imagines all kinds of emotional wet spots, and of course there is the question of self-interest.

Gallagher described her role as a kind of moral imperative. “Right now my responsibility is to make known exactly what kind of writer he was. He very much resented being called a minimalist and being shoved in a category where he didn’t believe he belonged. I think it’s important to see the whole shape of a writer’s career and to see it truly. He can’t see to that, and so that’s the charge I have.”

"If I mandated something and Ray didn’t use it, so what? It’s his work, I never felt any possessiveness." —Tess Gallagher

Gallagher has felt a new urgency in this project since being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. She’s quite open about it—she even mentions her doctors and the “crack crew in Blood Draw” in the acknowledgements of her most recent book. “When I got cancer I really had a list of things I wanted to do. I suppose it was my bucket list.” She laughed. “Publishing Beginners was on there. I wanted to bring forward those things which allowed people to know Ray.” She continues to make poems; at the same time, she continues to treat Carver’s career as a vital force that must be managed. “I work on Ray’s things in the morning and my own in the afternoon,” she told me.

And let’s face it: As executor, Tess Gallagher has done a very good job of honoring Carver’s legacy. A 2000 collection of previously unpublished stories, Call If You Need Me, was a valuable addition to the Carver canon. (Full disclosure: I reviewed the book for The New York Times Book Review and loved revisiting Carver’s work afresh.) She didn’t get some hack to adapt Carver’s stories for the screen; when Robert Altman called, she answered. And now, with Beginners, she’s raising the level of interest in Carver’s work to a pitch that’s surprising, given the fact that he’s been gone 20 years. She’s not taking the job lightly, either. She’s enlisted the superagent Andrew Wylie to represent Carver’s estate, and the two of them hope and plan to see Beginners published. Knopf retains the rights to the stories as they appeared in What We Talk About, but whether or not the company will agree to publish the unedited stories is unknown.

Carver is just one of Gallagher’s responsibilities. She produces her own work but can’t resist midwifing the work of others. For years, the man in her life has been the Irish painter Josie Gray. As a frequent visitor to Ireland, Gallagher made it sound inevitable that she and Gray would find each other. “When I met Josie Gray,” she told me, “one of the most amusing and wonderful aspects to his character was his storytelling. I decided I was going to try to tape-record it.” Record it she did, and then she published it in a new book titled Barnacle Soup, out this year from Eastern Washington University Press. “It required of me some self-erasure,” she said. “But collaborating is so fun that you wonder why more people don’t discover it.”

Getting Gray’s stories down on paper thrilled her and fed her enduring interest in teaching other people how to write. Referencing her abiding attraction to Buddhism, she said, “I think an interesting thing about Buddhism is that it encourages you to believe that everyone has an incredible capacity to discover new capabilities within themselves.”

Gallagher’s 1987 collection, Amplitude, includes a poem titled “Bonfire.” In it she writes, “Once in Quebec I drank cognac in the snow and / on a dare / ice skated with my friend’s violin…How many times I saved myself on behalf of / that borrowed / that shuddering / violin!” The poem is centered around the image of this borrowed violin, “a perishable, fragile beauty / that belongs to someone else.”

I asked Gallagher about the poem and she said, “We have all been charged with the beauty and fragility of another life. We have all been ice skating with the borrowed violin.”

The poem appears to be about Gallagher’s relationship with Carver. The violin could be Carver’s love; it could be his talent; it could be his sobriety. It could simply be his life. In these years following his death, we can think of another meaning for the violin. Gallagher, the widow, is now the protector, the carrier, of Carver’s work.

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