In the sleepy logging town of Port Angeles, Wash., raven-haired Tess Gallagher hurries around knocking on neighbors’ doors asking folks to please hush their howling dogs. “Ray’s trying to work,” she tells them.
Gallagher’s devotion is not solely unselfish. “I don’t want to move from here,” she says. And well she mightn’t. The peaceful, small-town life that Gallagher, 46, shares with Raymond Carver, 48, her collaborator in literature and love, has greatly nurtured both. His short story collections, including Cathedral, a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 1983, have earned the New York Times’s praise as “among the masterpieces of American fiction.” She has attained major literary status as the author of four volumes of poetry, the latest of which, Amplitude, will be published this month. Their partnership has lasted through nine years and 15 books, but lacks a marriage certificate. “We’re sort of married without a piece of paper,” says Carver. “We’ve talked about getting married, but things are going just swell, so we don’t think about it.”
Considered the dean of minimalist fiction, Raymond Carver paints a rough and disconsolate literary landscape where people struggle to get by in menial, meaningless jobs. Under Gallagher’s influence, however, he has been experimenting more and more with poetry, and this year published his fifth collection of verse, Ultramarine. In her poetry Tess Gallagher weaves a world of lost souls in a small-town muddle of damaged relationships and missed dreams. But under Carver’s influence, she has shifted more and more to short stories. Her 1986 prose collection, The Lover of Horses, was lauded by the critics.
Carver is the more famous, but at home their status is equal, and their work and lives are closely intertwined. “Living with Ray is the next best thing to having a double,” says Gallagher. “There are two of you, and each understands so intimately what the other person is doing. You have to have someone who will tell you the truth of what you did, someone who won’t fool you, who knows what your best is and when you haven’t gone as far as you can.”
Close as they are, Carver and Gallagher are a two-home household. He spends his days alone in his wood-frame house overlooking the sawmill at the edge of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At dawn, sometimes earlier, he is at work in his book-lined study. All day and well into the night he relentlessly revises, in tiny, cramped longhand, sometimes laboring through 30 drafts of a poem or short story before finally typing it. He wages this battle with his lady’s favor at hand—a globe sitting on the bookshelf behind his desk.
“I got him the world for Valentine’s Day,” Gallagher chuckles.
She lives and toils two miles away, on the outskirts of town in a modern, airy one-bedroom house she designed. Until two years ago Carver shared it with her, but, he says, “One house was too small for two working writers.” While he is agonizing away in his place, she is at her typewriter in a glass-walled alcove of her “skyhouse,” writing or gazing at the ships passing along the same strait that her soul mate looks down upon. At her side hangs a poster from a bullfight in Juárez, Mexico, where Carver took her on their first date.
Carver is still likely to be agonizing over adjectives when Tess quits her typewriter in midafternoon. “I’m steadier in my habits than Ray,” she claims. After knocking off, she peruses the mail, then “I call Ray to see what he got. I think his mail is more exciting.” When he is going through a particularly demanding writing period, they live apart for as much as a week at a time, talking only on the phone. In mellower times they meet at one house or the other for meals and the evening. Both of them find this unusual living arrangement congenial and their partnership rewarding.
“Having been with Tess as long as I have,” says Carver, “I can’t imagine living with someone who was not a writer and not understanding of what a writer requires.”
Their relationship began, naturally, over books. After spending some time with Gallagher at a 1978 writers’ conference at the University of Texas, where he was teaching at the time, Carver was impressed. “I had never known anyone who had knocked around even more than I had,” he says, “but it seemed that every place I had not been she had been.” That year she was traveling the country on a Guggenheim fellowship, and after moving on from Texas, “I wrote him every day. I just knew that if I didn’t keep his attention, somebody would get this wonderful man.”
They joined forces at Gallagher’s parents’ home in Port Angeles for Christmas that year. Soon after, they built the woodlands house that she now lives in.
Rootedness was new to them both. Carver grew up in Yakima, Wash., where his alcoholic father filed saw blades for a lumber mill. Right out of high school Carver married a local girl and fathered two children. He went on to an English degree at Humboldt State University in Areata, Calif., got a grant to the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, then moved his family around the West while he worked as a janitor, truck driver and tulip picker. Then he landed teaching jobs at the University of California at Santa Cruz and at Berkeley and started writing. But he was hitting the bottle more often than the typewriter.
“I was really careening out of control,” he recalls. “I was teaching drunk.”
By the time he met Gallagher, Carver was in the midst of getting a divorce and was shakily sober. “I was glad to be alive, that’s all,” he says. “I wasn’t writing anything, and it didn’t matter to me really. I’d been brain dead for a long time from drinking.” Gallagher understood his plight. Her father, a Port Angeles logger, had also struggled with alcoholism, but she remained close to both her parents. After graduating from the University of Washington in 1967, she had submitted her poetry to The New Yorker, “which took a poem called ‘Breasts.’ I was shocked. I had sent it almost to aggravate them.” It led nowhere. She spent the next five years moving from one military base to the next with Larry Gallagher, an Air Force pilot whom she had married in 1963. Divorced after five years, she later enrolled at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where she met and married poet Michael Burkhard. That marriage broke up in 1974, and Tess took up the itinerant life of a teacher-poet.
Since meeting, Gallagher and Carver say, they have each changed. “Ray never had a home for any length of time before me,” she says. Says he: “It’s important to me to have my own place. For many years I worked at the kitchen table or in a library carrel or else out of my car. This room of my own is a luxury and a necessity now.”
Still, they both like a change now and then. Gallagher is teaching writing at New York’s Syracuse University, where Carver writes and “hangs out.” It helps that in 1983 he was awarded a $35,000 annual stipend for five years from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Both see their current lives as a literary mandate. Sitting in Carver’s living room one day, Gallagher reminds him of a note he received about his poem “To Tess.” “It said, ‘Lucky woman,’ ” she says, laughing. She means it might just as well have read, “Lucky man.”