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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.


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.


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.


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.


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."

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