Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Sincerely, Ray Carver"

In 1984, shortly after reading Raymond Carver's short story collection, Cathedral, I wrote a letter to him expressing my admiration for the story, "A Small, Good Thing." One moment in, particular, struck me as being incredibly vivid, real, "cinematic" (which I thought then was quite a compliment). It occurs in the emergency room of a hospital where a couple has taken their young son. The boy, after being struck by a car while walking home from school—on his birthday, no less—later goes into a coma. In the waiting room, the boy's mother encounters members of another family, who have brought another child to the emergency room. What amazed me was the feeling of intersecting narratives. And I could imagine a story about the second family, with this mother just passing through.

I was 25 at the time and had a different last name, Charny. (Long story short: My wife and I both changed our last names to Dark when we married). I sent the note I wrote to Carver care of Vintage and didn't expect an answer. It just felt important to send, no matter what. But a couple of months later, a handwritten letter with a Syracuse postmark arrived. I had just quit law school to pursue writing fiction, and getting a response from the great man himself thrilled me, almost seemed to validate my choice. I swore that when a fan wrote to me, I'd write back, just as Carver had.

The fiction writing career hasn't quite worked out for me—yet—some 25 years later. (I'm now double the age.) But the pursuit of it did, nonetheless, lead me in a direction I couldn't have foreseen. In 2000, I ended up choosing a posthumous Carver story, "Kindling," for Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. It almost felt like I was returning a favor. In truth, the letter Raymond Carver wrote me, just as he was dashing off to the airport to catch a flight back home to Washington State, was a small act of generosity that I will never be able to reciprocate.