William Carpenter is an expert at juggling his two professions – teaching and writing. Since moving from Chicago to Maine in 1972, he has authored three books of poetry, The Hours of Morning, Rain, and Speaking Fire at Stones; and two novels, A Keeper of Sheep and The Wooden Nickel. The Wooden Nickel was recently optioned for film and is a book of which, The New York Times noted, “Melville would have approved.” (The Times also described the book as “too salty to quote.”)
Carpenter has been a recipient of the Samuel French Morse Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and the Associated Writing Program’s Contemporary Poetry Award. Born and raised in New England, he earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He is a faculty member at College of the Atlantic, a school devoted to human ecology that he helped found.
Carpenter is as modest as he is successful, as much a teacher as he is an artist, with a personality much like his prose, if not a little less “salty”: he is approachable, funny, smart, and completely original. In winter he is rarely seen without a knitted hat that he seldom removes, in-doors or out.
When you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was a little kid?
This is going to be a long talk! I don’t remember ever thinking of the future when I was a little kid. [Laughs.] When I was a little kid, I totally lived for the present.
I don’t remember ever having a desire. Although, as I grew older and began to live in the future – which is like the Fall of Man – I think that my desire was founded after my father, who was a professor, and so I wanted to be a professor – that looked like a pretty good job. For one thing, it had all summers free. I looked around, and I couldn’t see any other profession – astronauts, firemen, lawyers, doctors – that had summers free!
As soon as I could really formulate an idea, I thought I would be like my dad.
When did you decide to be a writer?
I don’t think I decided to be a writer. I think that came upon me. And I don’t know if anybody decides to be a writer. I don’t know if that’s a rational decision. [Laughs.] Or even a decision at all. I think that you are chosen more than you choose to be a writer. It comes upon you and you can’t help it; either you put up resistance or you give in.
My dad was a professor, but he was also a wonderful painter, though I think he was so devoted to his institution that he suppressed his artistic side. I was a little more selfish than he was, and I indulged the creative side. I thought of myself as doing for him something he had not allowed himself in his own life.
I went through a lot of academic training, including a Ph.D., and I got a tenure-track job at the University of Chicago from that. I was a young, little professor there in the department of English and Humanities. All of that really was a following of the overt, visible part of my dad. His invisible part – his, I guess you could say, hidden or suppressed, artistic part – I didn’t follow at first. And then, gradually, that part came out to me as I got really disillusioned with university teaching, dropped it, and came to Maine to start a whole new college in which we would have more creative principals. At the same time as I did that, I was going through some personal struggles – a divorce – which gave an urgency of content that I hadn’t had, and I began to write.
I think that none of this was chosen by me. It just happened that way. Writing emerged as the strongest force in my life then. It was really sort of shocking.
Of course, I had been reading literature as a professional, for decades. I loved it, and I was full of it. I often think of Walt Whitman saying: Walt, you contain enough, why don’t you let it out, then? I felt the same way. I had been reading and reading and reading. For me, it all began to flip over, and I began to write. As an academic, I had always thought writers had to be dead before you got interested in them. An actual, living writer was something I had paid no attention to; I thought life got in the way of real literature.
What was life like for you as a Ph.D. student in Minneapolis?
Minneapolis was the greatest city in the world at the time. It was wonderful to be a grad student there. The Guthrie Theater had just opened – this fabulous new theater. We just partied and lived it up. I was newly married. Many people graduated from college and got married right away then, and I did the same. In Minneapolis the student neighborhood was a community of three or four story houses, called Dinkytown, and everybody had an apartment. The neighborhood was noted in those days as a blues capital. Bob Dylan had just passed through.
And I happened to be married to a fabulous Greek cook – so we ate lamb and oregano and steak and spanakopita. We pooled social resources and ate out with other couples.
How did Chicago compare to Minneapolis?
Chicago was very different. For one thing, I was a professor, not a graduate student. In Chicago, I think I got the job at 25, most of the people of my age group were graduate students and not professors, and I spent time with them, but there were some wonderful faculty members too. One whom I befriended was Norman Maclean who had not written A River Runs Through It at the time. You wouldn’t have known from this highly urbane literary critic that he had that romantic fishing life in Montana hidden inside him. There was a good example of a longtime academic bursting into creativity.
How did you spend your free time in Chicago?
Chicago food was good, because we had some money. We used to eat at the old Berghoff Restaurant. It had the best weinerschnitzels. We also used to go to the Greek restaurants in Chicago, and that was a fabulous dining experience.
What characterized life at Chicago for me was the political turmoil of the late sixties and early seventies. In 1970, the university went on strike, following the examples of Columbia and Berkeley. After a student takeover I found myself teaching in an underground college set up by the strikers. The faculty was bitterly divided. The president was evicted from his office and had to move his desk to the lawn. It was high theater but a demoralizing time to teach. I knew a better kind of institution could be made, and in 1972 I came to Maine to do it. We wanted to get as far away from the urban university influence as we could, so we could start completely over.
What was your living situation like?
In Chicago, I lived in a faculty apartment right near the campus; I lived in the midst of the university. We lived across from a methadone clinic. There were guys selling stolen typewriters on the corner. People were shooting each other near the university hospital, ambulances taking the wounded from gang battles. We’d wake up in the morning, and our building would say, “Rangers own it.” The next day our wall would say, “Shieks own it.” These were buildings of sleeping professors being fought over by street gangs in the night. I’d go to sleep, and I’d hear people trying to pick the lock. I didn’t even care after a while; I could fall asleep to it.
Did anyone get in?
No, we had three locks. What they were after were stereos, typewriters, anything they could sell.
By then I had a little first-grader. I’d watch him walk home from school past these guys selling our stolen TVs and appliances on the street corner.
On Sundays, I’d pack everybody in the car and we’d drive out to the Greenbelt – already I wanted to get into a more natural setting. During our time there, the one tree on our block died of atmospheric asphyxiation.
Nothing upsetting happened to you or your family in your neighborhood then?
I lived there five years – one night I was walking home from my office to my house, and I was surrounded by three huge guys, and I thought it was all over. And they said, “Can you tell us how to get to the contemporary music concert?”
No, not to me. The year we left, though, for Maine, that summer – a woman professor who lived in our building was raped and stabbed, and she was a very good friend of ours. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t ever go back; we didn’t want to go back to that scene.
Part of that Hyde Park area of University of Chicago is a lovely area – it was also the setting of Native Son by Richard Wright. But on the whole, it was a rather depressing environment, and that’s partly what propelled me to go to Maine. This neighborhood wasn’t a place to raise a child. A lot of people moved to Maine in that generation for that reason [for their kids]. A whole generation went back to the land, left the city, and really colonized Maine and Vermont.
Tell me about moving to Maine from Chicago.
I asked my university for a leave of absence, so I could go to Maine to help start this new college, College of the Atlantic. They actually believed in it, and they let me go for a year. But then I stayed.
In Maine, we bought a house. We had no savings but were able to buy it very cheaply. And there was this old guy who had lived in the house, and he had kept a horse in this little stable right next to it – and I think the horse used to come in to the house from time to time. He [the previous homeowner] had also tamed a raven, and the raven still lived in the house when we moved in. He used to come in through the chimney.
Southwest Harbor was a very different place then. We had a guy living next door to us who built a coffin for his wife, who was still alive.
Yes. When they went drinking down in the cellar, she used to drink in the coffin, and he’d sit drinking beside her in a chair. My son was friends with their son, and we heard the stories from the boys.
The University of Chicago was an academic cocoon within a dangerous urban lifestyle, but in Maine we were immersed in this new way of life.
But when I came to Maine, as I said, I almost immediately started to write – I changed my life completely, and I hung out with Maine writers. We had these big poetry Festivals in the seventies at COA [College of the Atlantic]. We invited every Maine poet we could find, and it suddenly gave me a whole group of new friends.
How did you invite them?
A couple of people simply took it on as a spring project to find every poet in Maine, young and old. We even found them in the prisons. We called them, we wrote them, we dug them up, and they all came to COA for a festival of reading poetry.
The festival was in June when COA got out. We had no hierarchy. Everybody got four minutes to read, and there were about 150 poets. Every poet got the same treatment. No matter who they were, at the end of their four minutes they got the hook. It was ten solid hours of reading.
A few poets refused us. I remember getting on the phone with May Sarton, and she said, I won’t read under those circumstances. Not every poet could tolerate the democracy of it. But it gave me, personally, a circle of friends that generously supported my early work.
I quickly left organizing because I wanted to write, but it gave me a nurturing environment at the beginning. The festival is ongoing even now, as The Terry Plunkett Poetry Festival. Terry had been one of the first organizers of The Maine Poetry Festival, when we started it in 1975. We were very close friends – we both came from the Midwest to Maine at the same time, we both had kids at the same time, we both got divorced at the same time, both started writing poetry, and we supported each other through it all. Until his death by cancer in 1998, we were inseparable.
What did you do outside of your literary practices, while in Maine?
I took up sailing as lifelong passion when I came to Maine, to offset the sedentary trades of writing and teaching. I’ve tried to balance writing and teaching, sometimes going overboard in one direction and the other. But you also need to make contact with the sensations and dangers of physical reality. Sailing and the ocean and getting out there.
I was just reading a book called Hemingway’s Boat, and it talks about his obsession with his fishing boat Pilar in the 1930s. Despite all his reading and writing, he had to get out on the sea. Scratch the surface of a lot of writers, and you’ll find some physical release from the world of words.
We also ski, my family and I; we cross-country ski, we do some mountain hiking, but those really are pretty minor compared to sailing, which is a family identity, and it’s a thing that binds us together. The presence of the ocean is so important.
Why did you move to Maine, specifically?
I had come from Maine originally, and I have to say, in the city, I was quite homesick for it. [The city] always seemed a little bit artificial, the built environment. I started spending summers in Maine when I was in Chicago, and so when I had the opportunity to go to Maine full-time, I just grabbed it and came to help start the College of the Atlantic.
At the same time, my work changed from literary criticism to creative writing. There was something about living in nature and by the ocean that just said – You’ve got to be on the creative side of things and not on the responding side of things; you’ve got to be engaged in primary thinking and not secondary thinking.
All of this could be looked at as, “Oh, I chose Maine, so I could write,” but I think it was the other way around.
Maine chose you.
Yes, it chose me, and it didn’t make itself known until I got there.
Was it a relief to give up scholarly writing?
Was it a relief? Well. I don’t know. Creative writing is more demanding, more urgent and intense. The stakes are higher.
If you are a scholar writing about some poet or novelist – they’re the ones who have gone through the existential struggles, you’re just trying to figure them out. No amount of studying the lives of other writers can prepare you for the kind of confrontations you have when you are writing yourself.
Higher risk than scholarship, maybe?
Oh yes, absolutely higher risk. On the whole, the academic life is relatively risk free – perhaps a practicing critic would disagree with me and say that many critical achievements involve risks. But I think the risk of delving into nothingness is greater, which is the risk you take when you write. As a critic, you are dealing with a page that someone has already written on. It took me a long time to be struck with the fact that what a writer faces is a sheet on which nothing is written, and the writer has to make that first mark. There’s no greater distance than between nothing and something, especially if you’re responsible for it.
When I was in Chicago, a college classmate of mine published his first novel, and I was actually amazed. I thought: “Well, I should do that,” but I had no idea how.
When did you first consider yourself a writer? Was it after you were published?
Oh yes, absolutely. I still don’t think of a writer as being anything but somebody who’s just published something. Yet, paradoxically, a young student has to take on the mask and confidence of a writer, to get started. I treat my fiction students as writers from the beginning. And they are. They know the chill of facing a totally blank sheet. So there are two definitions of a “writer.” One is someone who’s been selected and published in the past. The other is anyone engaged in the actual act of writing, creating the future.
Were you ever concerned about supporting yourself as a writer?
No, that’s a risk I didn’t take. I’ve always had an academic income. And I still have it. But I think that’s kept me out of the necessity of the marketplace. That is to say, I haven’t had to earn a living through writing, and for that reason I’ve had the luxury of being able to write what I want, and not have to be choosing, for subject or style, that which would make money.
I’ve always loved teaching, especially close work with young novelists. I think I’ve had thirty novels in recent years, almost all written by COA undergraduates. That’s been very pleasant and very satisfying to me, watching young people find their own creative places earlier than I did. Nobody ever pointed out a creative path before it happened to me, and so I try to help my students find that. To some extent, it’s almost a parental act, to help younger people find that way quickly. It took me so long to find my way to being a writer, that if I can help people shortcut it, I feel like I’m saving many years of their lives.
And we appreciate it!
[Laughs.] So, I don’t often send students off to graduate school to get Ph.D.s! I give them a look of horror: “Why read somebody else’s writing, when you could write it yourself?”
What are your thoughts on the MFA?
If [undergraduate] students of mine want a literary direction after graduating, I always steer them towards an MFA. Those programs have a good balance of literature and writing.
It’s very hard to understand literature unless you’ve at least attempted to write it yourself. Anybody who writes understands literature from the inside out, as a colleague, rather than a fan or disciple. Anybody who writes at all is looking at literature from a writer’s point of view. And that is such a strong way to read.
I also feel that in my case, in rural Maine, where my student writers don’t have much contact with a large number of other writers, it’s just wonderful to go where everybody is doing the same thing. That sociability and colleagueship at a place where writing is uppermost in people’s minds must be quite a treat. I didn’t get that in my own education.
Back to city vs. country, then. How do you think human interaction fuels a writer vs. the interaction with nature?
In my own case, I get a little bit perplexed and confused by lots of other people, especially writers, in the immediate vicinity. Nature provides a solitude that lets you confront the deeper and personal self where writing begins. Some writers can find that space in the city, but I couldn’t. In order to get a clearer view of human nature, I’ve had to come out here where no one lives.
I also think solitude helps you to find your own way, in contrast to the ways of others. If you think literature is entirely socially-constructed, the city is your environment; if you think its source is in nature both around and inside us, as I do, you’re almost forced to withdraw into natural solitude. When I write, the nearest humans are a potter, about a quarter mile away, and a painter a quarter mile beyond that. When I was at Yaddo and McDowell, with talented artists in close quarters everywhere you looked, I was never able to write a thing.
It’s great to live in the country, but there’s the risk once again, the risk of nothingness, or nothing human. Writing is ultimately human, so if you pull away from the human element, it’s scary. But writing is also something else – it has to be human plus. Or a little bit trans-human; and to get the trans element, you have to be away from humanity a little bit.
Does that make sense to you?
Makes a lot of sense.
I think the principles of life and evolution that we see in nature are the same urges that drive us as artists and writers, creative human beings. Out here you can see those forces in their rawness at all times.
So, do you consider yourself primarily an educator or a writer?
I’m lucky enough to have a half-year on/half-year off arrangement, so it depends what part of the year I’m in. I’m like the mythological lady Persephone – who went underground and lived in hell for six months out of the year and then returned to the sunshine, the upper air, for six months out of the year; and I haven’t decided which six months are writing and which six months are teaching! I don’t know which of them is the greater hell and which of them is the greater sunlight! [Laughs.]
I’ll tell you, I always look forward to the transition, because writing itself has its infernal aspects. And so does teaching, perhaps to a lesser extent. So, I do both. Right now, I’m writing, and that’s where I’ve got to be, and come January I will leave that writing and go and try to share with my students anything I’ve learned out here.
Is a half-and-half arrangement something you would recommend?
That’s something I would deeply recommend, if you can manage it, because I don’t think for a writer, full-time academia is a good thing.
Some of my former writing students are approaching full-time academic jobs, and it makes me shudder a little bit, because it’s really hard to balance creative works with the demands of full-time academics. I’ve seen good writers disappear into full-time teaching jobs; they are so serious about their responsibility to the students.
It seems to depend on what kind of teaching the writer takes on as well, right? Teaching creative writing vs. academic writing, for instance.
I think teaching creative writing has deep problems, especially long fiction.
You have to be very careful to be able to maintain your own vision amidst the narrative visions of students. When you are teaching, you have to be absolutely immersed in your students’ work. Their own narrative visions are deeply compelling. As a teacher, you have to enter their creative space, and it’s hard to pull away from that and rediscover your own. Whereas, if you’re teaching academic English – teaching dead people, or even distant people [laughs] – you are not confusing your own inward position with the students’. Teaching creative writing can interfere with your own creativity in a serious way.
When I was in school, relatively few people went to MFA programs. And now they’ve gotten enormous. I sometimes worry about that taming, especially of poetry, that it will be domesticated by so much institutionalization, that all of poetry will be corralled, somehow, and brought to the fireside by the process of universal academicization.
But that’s kind of a theoretical worry – and great poets teach in these places, and great poets come from them. Obviously. And these programs give a couple of years of wondrous immersion to the people who are lucky enough to attend.
Were agents and editors immediately drawn to your work?
As a poet, I was lucky. The first poems that I sent off seemed to be pleasing to editors at the time, and so I got a lot of publications. I was just reading that 65% of scientific articles get published of what are submitted to reputable journals, as opposed to only 5% of poems. It’s hard, but that’s what life is. We continually submit and submit to the world, and the world chooses from among our offerings.
And then when I changed to fiction, I was lucky to get a good agent right away. And she was able to place my fiction manuscript. I couldn’t imagine entering the fiction world without the skill of a good agent.
Do you think your poetry influenced your fiction?
Yes, it’s helpful to any writer to start off as a poet, because it trains you in the details of language, and it trains you in economy of form, and it makes you attentive to musicality and to the aesthetics of the language. The absolute beauty that’s to be expected of every phrase you write.
In my case, my poems just grew too big. They got fatter and longer until they didn’t look like poems anymore. And I got a little desperate! [Laughs.] It was a hypertrophy of poetry that I had gotten into that just grew into a novel, and that was probably because my life was expanding and the sheer pressure of human experience demanded a larger form. But I didn’t choose. I didn’t say, “Oh, I’m going to try to write a novel,” at all. One came to me, and I was the only one around that could write it down.
The main reason to make art is to express human emotions, both conscious and unconscious, and to communicate those emotions to people. According to Robert Frost, poetry is what you tell people; it’s what you do to them. And I completely agree with that. It sounds a little manipulative, but I do think that you are intending to produce an emotional effect when you write, and in a piece of fiction you can direct a long-term emotional sequence that’s more appropriate to large scale human life. That’s the reason for long fiction.
Have you ever gotten to a point where you wanted to give up writing?
Yeah – just give up writing!
I think you reach that point with every sentence that you write. I reach that point on an hourly basis! [Laughs.] And it’s true! It’s like a chain of nerves or conductors, any novel, and you can’t have a broken link in it. It’s all got to be right, and especially the endings. So many novels disappoint us in their endings, and after all that work to get there. Fiction is such a risk, because you enter a narrative not knowing if you can end it, like walking out on a tightrope in the fog. And if you reach the end and it can’t be ended in that form, you have to go back and rewrite the equation until a solution becomes possible.
The only other profession that has such risk is maybe Wall Street, stockbrokers, but Wall Street is rigged, while writing is not. It is at the same level of risk as making an investment, but you don’t have the government to bail you out. It’s amazing to ask a reader to spend twenty hours with your novel, or however long it takes. You pay $14.95 for a novel. If your time is worth twenty dollars an hour and you spend twenty hours reading, that’s over $400 as a reader that you invest in a piece of fiction, an expensive ticket. The risk is mutual, for both writer and reader.
Kurt Vonnegut said that, as writers, we are also entertainers. Do you agree?
Yes, I think a lively surface is good. Though I think sometimes the entertainment element of a novel can be overwhelming when it’s exaggerated. And Vonnegut knew that, too – a novel is an entertainer, but it’s also a teacher, and it’s also a mirror teaching you something that you didn’t know about yourself. While it entertains, it’s also got to do, on another level, a more serious thing, which is to inform you about your life and the lives around you.
Right now I’m reading Infinite Jest. It’s got a very entertaining surface. But beneath that it’s always illuminating its subject from below.
I never thought I’d read it.
Do you like it?
Yes, I very much like it. I was drawn to it, because a very dear and close friend of mine, last month, committed suicide. I had Infinite Jest on my shelf, having thought: “This is too big; it’s a thousand pages.” But after dealing with one suicide in my life, I was immediately drawn to David Foster Wallace. Killing yourself when you have not succeeded is one thing, but killing yourself when you have done so well.
To read this book in an attempt at explanation of why my friend might have taken his own life, I went back to it. I’m learning from this novel, even though, God knows, David Foster Wallace did not know he was going to commit suicide when he wrote this book way back in 1996. Nevertheless, that act must have been in there in embryonic form. No number of psychological treatises can equal the insight of fiction into a human act like that.
You know, it could probably use a little editing. [Laughs.] It’s huge! It’s a little bit indulgent, as some post-modern things. Nevertheless, it’s very entertaining on the surface, and it’s very profound underneath.
It’s interesting, bringing up David Foster Wallace’s state of mind, which also brings up this idea of success. Success must always be considered subjective to a degree, right?
Yes, I just read a passage in his [DFW’s] book about tennis. He says that the opponent in tennis is never your actual, physical opponent; it’s yourself. I think that’s true with writing. The manuscript is the record of the struggle with the self. Readers have no idea what that engagement with the self is like [for the writer]. They see evidence of it, but they don’t see the real thing, and I think the genuineness of a book is an index of how much that struggle is.
David Foster Wallace did not finish his last book. He died during the production of it. And that makes me think it was probably that encounter with the self that became unbearable to him, perhaps because he felt his work could no longer contain the expression of it
Writing is a dual struggle with the material that you are writing about and also with your own self, and that’s where the glory of the book comes from, but it’s also one of the huge dangers – that [while writing], you will find aspects of the self you can’t contain.
David Foster Wallace lost that struggle?
Yes. I guess you could say, in David Foster Wallace’s own terms, he lost the tennis game.
Well, I’m not going to get into suicide, but it’s on my mind, because this happened so closely, and my friend was also a poet and an artist, also struggling with the self, who lost that particular struggle.
You said success is only as you measure it, and yes, that’s true. One more thing about success in writing: to the reader, the writer’s success looks like it is always contemporary, but for the writer it’s always in the past. For the work you are working on, which is the only work that counts, success is always in the future. The reader does not see the actual writer working in the present, but some figment of the past. Readers can be a great problem for writers, because readers want the writers to do what they did before.
They just want more.
But an artist is not turning out the same thing over and over again. They have to do a completely different thing every time, and so the audience becomes a real problem.
Yeats used to give readings, and they all wanted him to read “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which was written in his youth, and he said: “I can’t stand that poem anymore! I don’t want to read that anymore!” That’s all the audience wanted, and they were holding him back. He wanted to be a modernist poet, and they wanted him to be a Victorian poet.
Therefore, success can be completely blinding and confusing to an artist.
It sounds like success relates to what you mentioned earlier, regarding the danger of distractions from the outside world.
Absolutely. It’s another case where you have to preserve your creative freedom by insulating yourself from the clamors of the world, including noise about your own work. That’s where an agent can be indispensable. Also bear in mind Krishna’s words in the Gita: “Act without regard to the fruits of your action.” And yet you can’t exist as an artist without a two-way connection to the outside world that is both the inspiration and destination of what you do. There’s that very delicate balance between the solitude of the artist and the needs of the audience. The audience needs the solitude of the artist.
The audience hires the artist to go on a journey that they can’t make themselves, and they expect the artist to come back with the results of that journey. It’s got to be brought back in a form they enjoy; that’s why Vonnegut says it’s got to be entertaining.
Yes, publishing completes the circuit, and success can only be in terms of the public readership; you can’t be successful in solitude. That’s the paradox of solitude and publication that every writer’s in.
Publication makes it a conversation.
A last piece of advice for young writers, undergoing the journey?
Yes, yes: Don’t worry. Just let it happen.
Interview by Marni Berger, a former student of Carpenter’s at College of the Atlantic
Photo by MaJo Keleshian