What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver by Maryann Burk Carver. St. Martin's Press, 2006, $25.95, 368 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Maryann Burk Carver met Raymond Carver in 1955, when she was 15 years old and he was 17. In What It Used to Be Like, she recounts a tale of love at first sight in which two teenagers got to know each other by sharing a two-year long-distance correspondence that soon after found them married and with two small children. Over the next 25 years, as Carver's fame grew, the family led a nomadic life, moving from school to school and teaching post to teaching post. In 1972, they settled in Cupertino, California, where Raymond Carver gave his wife one of his sharpened pencils and asked her to write an account of their history.
The result is a breathtaking memoir of a marriage, replete with an intimacy of detail that fully reveals the talents and failings of this larger-than-life man, his complicated relationships, and his profound loves and losses.
What It Used to Be Like brings to light for the first time Raymond Carver's lost years and the "stories behind the stories" of this most brilliant writer.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Kirkus Reviews: A bittersweet account of the author's hardscrabble life with her husband, the writer Raymond Carver. Divided into four decades, this memoir opens with her and her future husband's first meeting in 1955 -- she was 15 at the time -- and moves on to their secret engagement, their marriage in 1957, and the births of their two children in 1957 and 1958. With a husband in college and two small children to raise, Maryann shelved her plans to become a lawyer and took on the task of ensuring that Carver would hone his talents as a writer. Their young family, she says, was not a burden on Carver, but rather his anchor, and it does seem that she supported him for years, while the circumstances they found themselves in gave the writer material for many of his gritty, realistic stories. In Sacramento, they lived for years on the edge of poverty; she as a waitress and he in mostly menial jobs while he slowly worked his way through college. The '60s brought Carver some recognition, but his youthful optimism was fading, as stability and economic security eluded his family. They were constantly on the move, with Carver never content and Maryann struggling to get her own college degree. She divides the '70s portion of her memoir into three threads that defined their lives then: teaching, writing, and drinking. Both drank, but for him, the drinking developed into a disease, and his writing dried up for several years. The marriage devolved into physical violence, infidelity, separation, reconciliation, and divorce in 1982. Before that decade's end, Carver was living with the poet Tess Gallagher, later to be his second wife. (He died from cancer two months after their marriage, at the age of 50.) Writing here, his first wife coats the bad times with matter-of-fact reminiscences, relating her past more by expressions of love for her husband and admiration for his talent. Raymond Carver fans will welcome this up-close, very personal glimpse into the life of the talented but troubled writer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Maryann Burk Carver married Raymond Carver when she was 16 and he was 19. They were married for 25 years and had two children, Christi and Vance. Maryann Burk Carver is a teacher living on Lummi Island in Washington state.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
On the morning I spoke with Maryann Burk Carver, she had just walked in the door, home from an overnight stay with a friend in Skagit County, north of Seattle. She had, the previous evening, given her third reading in a week. "I read out of the section of the book entitled, 'A Town Called Paradise.' I feel like it contains a lot of the scenes that turned up in Ray's stories. I think it's a poignant, sweet chapter. There are just so many beginnings there -- the beginnings of true family life with four people and Ray starting college and coming into his intellectual prowess. He was reading Richard Elman and Carlos Baker and Ford Maddox Ford and Hemingway and all these people. At the same time, he came out of the study with is first real short story, 'The Aficionados.'
"Our son, Vance, was born there, and he was in the audience last night as I was reading. I couldn't resist reading about his birth and then pointing to Vance and introducing him. I also couldn't resist telling how sweet and tender Ray was during the birth and during all that period with both children. It wasn't all just fires by any manner of means.
"I think Ray protested too much about the challenges of being an artist and living around all that children's consciousness, but the fact is that he spent so much more time with his children than most fathers did. Often I was the one working full time. He felt it gave him more time to write, and he preferred to be home. He'd explain things while they were watching television together, or, later, he'd settle arguments between the two children with the toss of a coin or by drawing straws."
"In his work, Raymond Carver doesn't describe himself as loving and patient."
"But, he was. He cared so much."
"When you are reading from your book, it must bring up a flood of emotions. Are you able to separate your emotional memories of that time and just present it as a piece of writing?"
"Last night I was able to be more objective and just go through it, but I make sure I have some Kleenex -- not just some napkin or a piece of toilet paper -- in my purse. I did need it the first couple of times I read. There were things that brought a tear to my eye, but it's a good thing. It's cathartic."
"How did the book come about?"
"Ray asked me to write it in 1972. He sat me down in his study at our first home in Cupertino, California, and told me to write our story. He said that people were going to be interested in him and what his life was about, and that he wanted me to be the one to write our story because we'd done it together.
"I worked on it off and on -- more off than on. Then, in the '90s, I got serious about it. But it was a difficult and emotional book to write. Some of the coming to terms takes time."
"You end your book with the end of Ray's life. What have you been up to the past 20 years?"
"Well, I don't want to say it's a tough life, but the fact of the matter is, everything that's in that book -- those were my glory years, by comparison.
"I've substitute taught over the years, from computers and orchestra to science labs -- things I know absolutely nothing about. I hated it at first. As a substitute, you're like a ghost. You go into the faculty room and the other teachers are talking. They acknow-
ledge you, but barely. Afterwards, I'd have to go sit in a brightly colored Mexican restaurant for a couple of hours and get over the sadness of what my profession had come to."
During the '70s, Ms. Burke Carver taught English at Los Altos High School while she and her husband lived in California.
"Then, I took a break from substituting. And, as I've returned to it the last little while, I find that I love it again. It feels like, now that I'm 65, I've got it down.
"I had a firewood operation on my farm from 1984 to 1987. During one of the last conversations I had with Ray before he was diagnosed, I said that I was like Scarlett O'Hara. With my second marriage I started a lumber business.
"I waitressed again from '87 to '91, and then, as I said, I did a lot of writing in the '90s. Right now I work in a health food store three days a week in Lynden, Washington.
"I've got another book written that goes into detail about the '80s. My plan is to write another one that would take my story up through 2003 or so. That would give me 50 years of a documented life.
"It's tough for me to narrow myself down, though. Ray was a man of few words. But for me, I have to curb all this verbiage. Although, you know, one time we were out driving and I was quiet, and Ray said, 'I'm just going to turn the car around right here if you're going to be morose.' I realized that he counted on me to be verbal and enthusiastic. He counted on being entertained, and I wasn't meeting my part of the bargain, so he was going to turn around and go home."
"You are very forthright in the book about some difficult times. How did you resist the temptation to make things prettier than they were?"
"Well, Ray was the great example. We used to laugh about the double entendre when we'd discuss it, but part of the reason that people loved Ray was that he dared to expose himself. People are drawn to that kind of honesty. What comes out of it is the real, universal human condition. In a way, all our secrets are the same -- as Gorgon Lisch once titled a book.
"What are your children doing today?"
Maryann chuckles, "They're both such good-looking children, if I do say so myself.
"Vance, who was at the reading last night, is heading to Baltimore next week to take a position at a private Catholic boys' school. He'll be teaching two classes of German and three classes of French.
"Chris, our daughter, is a happy girl in a lot of ways. She has her dad's dark humor, though. She can see something funny in even the most god-awful circumstances. It's just Ray all over again, and it's delightful.
"She was a single mother with three children when she went to college. I'm so proud of her. She was a year and a half through a human services program when she had her last baby. She gave birth on a Wednesday, and the following Saturday she took the baby along on a planned field trip. For a whole year she took the baby to school with her. She was incredibly courageous. Then, after the baby was walking and could go do daycare, Chris went on and finished school.
"Since that time, she has hurt her back and can no longer work in human services. So now she's starting a screenwriting program at the college near her home in Santa Maria."
"What in your childhood made you the tenacious 15-year-old we meet in the beginning of your book?"
"It was the women in my family. My grandmother was a teacher -- a pioneer with five little children. She was a Victorian lady who never said a negative thing about anyone in the whole time I knew her. My mother and her sister went through college together and were both teachers, too. My father had three sisters, two of whom were teachers and the other was a nurse.
"My Aunt May ran a farm, single handedly, and wrote for five different newspapers for 58 years.
"All the women in my family were well educated at a time when most men didn't go through the eighth grade. None of these women had money, either. They all worked to put themselves through school."
"How do other women respond to your having stayed with Ray during the years of drinking and the difficult times?"
"When I did the reading in Portland, a woman made a snide remark about codependency. The fact of the matter is, codependency hadn't been coined as a term when we were going through all this in the 1970s. The ethos when we were young was that you got married 'till death do you part.' I especially felt that way because my own parents had gotten divorced, and it caused such terrific pain in my life. I determined early on that divorce wouldn't happen to me and my children. And, the truth of it is, they were both through high school before we did finally go our separate ways.
"I didn't say this to the woman in Portland, but I wanted to, 'I did finally leave him and claim my own life. Is that good enough for you?'
"When he died, the grief I felt was profound. It was as if I'd gone from a world of Technicolor to a world of black and white. Like I said, those were my glory days. I was young, I was able to always get a job, I was with the man I loved, and I had little kids I adored. Those were my glory days. I've had to reinvent myself and heal for many years before I could produce this book."