The legendary minimalist short story writer Raymond Carver distilled the last decade of his life in his poem “Gravy.” “Gravy, these past ten years,” he writes. “Alive, sober, working, loving, and being loved by a good woman.”
Carver was dying of cancer by the time he wrote the poem (he died in 1988 at age 50), but he didn’t dwell on that. “I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone expected,” he writes. “Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.” That poem is etched on his gravestone, a reminder of Carver’s “second life,” living productively with the poet Tess Gallagher, the chaos of drinking behind him.
In Scissors, Paris-born, Cambridge educated writer Stephane Michaka re-imagines Carver’s productive last decade, with flashbacks to some of his worst times with his first wife (called Marianne here). There are tender scenes with the poet he loves in the end — now renamed Joanne. But Michaka’s focal point, the inspiration for his third novel, is Douglas (aka “Scissors”), the editor whose symbiotic relationship with Raymond builds to unbearable tension. It’s based on Carver’s notoriously fraught relationship with editor Gordon Lish, who was known as Captain Fiction for his literary influence on Carver and other writers, including Amy Hempel, Lily Tuck, Rick Bass, and Barry Hannah.
Michaka invents four Carver-esque stories, followed by Douglas’s edited versions. These stories are carved up or pared down, depending on your perspective. (Lish deleted up to 70 percent of some stories.) Michaka also includes a fanciful addendum to the Carver narrative that shows whose side he’s on.
This is not new ground. Carver originals with Lish edits indicated by strikethroughs have become a publishing meme. In 2007 The New Yorker published “Beginners,” the first draft of the Lish-edited classic “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” the title story in Carver’s second collection. A restored version of that original manuscript of the short stories was included in Carver’s Collected Stories, published by the Library of America in 2009.
But you needn’t have read Raymond Carver’s work, or know about the controversial Lish edits, to appreciate Michaka’s empathetic exploration of an author’s soul, his allegiance to his writing above all else, and the increasingly painful submission to his editor that eventually leads to a breaking point.
Raymond accepts Douglas’s cuts at first because he needs the money, he wants to be published, and he’s not exactly thinking clearly (he gets the galleys for his breakthrough collection, edited by Douglas, while in rehab). Marianne argues that the editor is ruining his work. Raymond becomes increasingly distressed. At one point, struggling with writer’s block, Raymond agonizes about being “turned into a puppet. My editor’s puppet. He speaks through me. He swallows my words and spits them out in another form.” But would Raymond have become a ground-shifting author without Douglas’s help? And what would Douglas have done without Raymond?
Like the best literary homages, Scissorsevokes a craving for the original — and, in this case, further consideration of the aesthetic questions at the heart of Carver’s published work.