NEA Big Read
Five Skies

Five Skies

by Ron Carlson

Everything he'd put together for weeks was now loose in his heart and the pieces were sharp.


Ron Carlson (photo: Tracy Hall)

Ron Carlson (b. 1947)

"There is terrific value in a good day's work, committed carefully." — Ron Carlson in New West

Ron Carlson was born in Logan, Utah, and grew up in Salt Lake City, fishing and camping every summer with his father, a welding engineer who worked on large structures. His parents were from big farming families in South Dakota; his dad went to Utah State University on the G.I. Bill when he got out of the Navy after the war. "He loved the west and its history," said Carlson. He "told me about the famous accidents in building design, bridges and hotel balconies. His drawings were beautiful" (Penguin). Carlson's mother was "a word person, a real quipster" (Publishers Weekly). In the 1950s, an era of contests, she was known for her winning jingles and poems and epigrams for various product promotions. "She won my bicycle, my basketball, records and a hi-fi and later some money. She loved words."

Carlson grew up across the street from a park. "My brothers and I played a lot of baseball and football and pickup games of all sorts. We had friends and bicycles and a railroad track and even a river; it was perfect." The City of Salt Lake paid Carlson to water the park when he was 16. "I could do most of the job barefoot." In college, he worked as a fry cook—"My copy of Othello is greased up pretty good from that period"—and as a resident advisor in the dorms; as a senior, he was a night watchman at a nearby college. Writing and reading, however, he came to on his own at a young age. "I always loved stories and as soon as I saw some Tarzan movies and those old monster movies ... and Mrs. Ballstead read us 'Leiningen Versus the Ants' and 'The Most Dangerous Game' in fifth grade, I was a goner," writes Carlson. "I wrote skits, all of them richly derivative: there was always a jungle and a monster and a dangerous cliff."

After receiving his master's degree in English from the University of Utah, Carlson taught English and creative writing at a Connecticut high school for ten years, during which he published his first, critically acclaimed novel, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald (W.W. Norton, 1977). In 1981, he returned to Utah to write fiction and teach for state arts councils in Utah, Idaho, and Alaska. "When I'm in Utah or Idaho or Wyoming, the sky fits.... That world fills me with hope and with longing and a sort of sadness that feels real.... I love to be where I can sense I'm on a planet" (Juked).

In 1986, he joined the faculty of Arizona State University, where he remained the director of the creative writing program for 20 years until he took a similar position at the University of California, Irvine. He has a legion of devoted former students, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Adam Johnson, who enrolled in Carlson's class after years as an industrial construction worker. Carlson's class "was the only epiphany in my life, honestly," he told the The New York Times. "All my life, I'd been told that I was an average student, a daydreamer, an exaggerator, a rubbernecker. In [Carlson's] class, all of those were attributes." Writes author Tayari Jones, "His stamp on my work is so indelible that I sometimes call myself, as his protégé, a 'Carlsonite'.... Yet just as valuable as his instruction about which words to set next is his guidance on the life of an author" (Cosmonauts Avenue). More than a few of Carlson's students have remarked on his vivid and sometimes confusing blackboard illustrations of the craft of fiction. "I would remind any of my old students," says Carlson, "that all of those drawings are copyrighted!"

A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship and hailed by Booklist as a "master of the short story" with five story collections to his credit along with six novels, a book on craft, and two books of poetry, Carlson feels comfortable writing in both short and long form. "The opportunities in a novel are so different from those in a story," Carlson explains. "The world is larger and requires patience in every way. The writing isn't full of sudden surprises, but discoveries that evolve credibly over time" (Penguin). While he continued to write short stories, there was more than a 25-year gap between the publication of Five Skies in 2007 and his previous novel. "I don't feel like there's been any time between anything," he told the Los Angeles Times after Five Skies appeared. "I just fell so deeply in love with the short story. Finally, I had the material I needed to get the novel right."

Filled with as much poetry as prose, Carlson's writing office "is a cozy space filled with his own artwork and vintage curiosities that he scours thrift shops for: a 1950s adding machine, a pair of wooden duck decoys, a stack of vintage American comic books" (Publishers Weekly). He has two thrift store paintings that his sons modified and sent him that make him smile: one of a cowboy and an asteroid and one of a deer café full of animals. "I have a spider on a string over my computer who descends whenever I'm Skyping with my grandsons," he said. "You tell them there was a spider here earlier and you look to the side and secretly lower the arachnid and you'll hear their sweet voices warning you: 'Grandpa! Grandpa!'" Carlson is a writer, teacher, family man and Westerner, but perhaps most of all, he's an optimist. "Any story extended far enough," he says, "ends happily" (Juked).

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