This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

July 8, 2001 — Chuck Kinder's fictonalized saga of his long friendship with writer Raymond Carver, the just–released "Honeymooners" (FSG $24), was so long in the making that it inspired one of Kinder's students, Michael Chabon, to write a book about him — "The Wonder Boys." Our conversation continues . . . .

DJ: You started the book in 1977. Then what?

CK: I really got off track, man. I was too influenced by academia, trying to be artsy fartsy and write metafiction and one thing and another. And at one point I looked at it and I thought, God, what is this? It's sort of "Ulysses" meets "Dune" — I even had science fiction in there — meets "On the Road" meets "Remembrance of Things Past." And I said, What am I doing? And when Ray died in '88, I simply put it away. And I didn't look at it again for a long, long time.

DJ: How long was it then?

CK: At its longest it was really three volumes, and each of 'em were pushing over 900 pages.

DJ: So you cut the more experimental stuff?

CK: I did. But it's not like everything I cut is gone forever. It's like, down home, in front of their double–wides they always have a big old car, like a big old Buick, up on cinderblocks, that they use for parts. And that book — it's just like a big old Buick to me. I can pick it for parts. I can go out and I can lift the hood and I can pull me out a poem or a story or a novel, or three novels. So it's not like all gone.

DJ: Exactly how close to the bone is it?

CK: Well, the plotline kind of unfolds pretty much, I guess, as our lifelines. But I still consider it a work of imagination. I go back into my memory and shave here and cut a little bit here and collapse characters and events and combine them, and so it's not literal, it's sort of not fact and it's not fiction, it's faction. People call it a roman a clef — you know, I had to look that word up at some point. I swear, for years I thought they were saying "roman a chef." I thought it was something about Italian cooking.

DJ: I wonder if you were after setting the record straight at all. Were you upset about things that have been said about Carver?

CK: I can't think of anything. You know, Ray is worshipped now. If anything, it's St. Ray, you know? It amuses me. I'm sure anyone from the old days will tell you that he was never a saint. Anyone can tell you even after he quit drinking he was still the same old Ray. It cracks me up, but I don't have any record to set straight.

DJ: Let's go on to Michael Chabon. Was he actually one of your students?

CK: Yeah, Michael took a bunch of classes from me. I gave him special permission to to sit in on graduate classes because he was clearly one of the most brilliant young writers I've ever been around.

DJ: Did you receive word from him about the book before it came out?

CK: I received word, but not from Michael.

DJ: Then from who?

CK: Oh, just a mutual friend . . . telling me, early on, that Michael's writing a book that — well, I don't want to get specific, but that it's an interesting book about a professor in Pittsburgh. So I'd heard about it earlier.

DJ: Did that make you nervous?

CK: Oh, I didn't care. I don't much go through life much caring what folks think.

DJ: So how did you feel about "TheWonder Boys"?

CK: It's a good book, and I've seen the movie. And I enjoyed it. I'm just pretty much amused by the whole thing.

DJ: Are you?

CK: Yeah. That, and the character of Grady Trip — the way I look at it, he's a much more generous and nice character than I am a person. I mean, it's Michael in that character. There's really not that much I can say. I just have nothing but respect and love for him. The only thing I've said for quotation is that Michael Douglas is not nearly cute enough to play Grady Trip.

DJ: Let's get back to your book. How did you finally get it done?

CK: I don't know what got me back to it. But I did, basically just cutting stuff out. I got it down to, oh, I don't know, about 900 pages or so. And my old friend Scott Turow read it and gave me advice. And I took his advice and cut it more. And he kind of opened that Farrar Straus door for me. You know, kind of persuaded them to look at it. And lo and behold, one day I was setting out to go teach and there's a registered letter waiting for me behind my screen door, saying that they'd like to take it, if I thought that was a good idea. And I dropped everything on the floor, my books, and ran for the telephone to say, Yes, yes, yes!

Last Week’s Column: THE REAL WONDER BOY Part one of an interview with Chuck Kinder, whose book about his friendship with Raymond Carver was so long in the making it inspired one of his students, Michael Chabon, to write "The Wonder Boys."


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