PORT ANGELES — At 66, Port Angeles-born writer Tess Gallagher has found the measure of her courage. It took a battle with breast cancer to make her realize just how strong she is.
“I think I take a lot more chances,” she said. “Cancer gave me all kinds of courage and quickened my clock.”
Seated in “Ridge House” off of Deer Park Road [one of three homes she owns in Port Angeles] Sept. 24, with her two small dogs curled at her feet or vying for lap time, Gallagher sipped tea and discussed her latest adventures.
The bout with cancer, which is now in remission, gave her the courage to care for her terminally ill mother, buy her dream cottage in Ireland and take on a publishing giant.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted for Ray,” she said.
“It will push the restart button for understanding what kind of writer Ray was.”
Ray, of course, is Raymond Carver, celebrated American short story writer and Gallagher’s late husband.
Since he died of lung cancer at age 50 in Port Angeles in 1988, Gallagher has been in charge of his considerable literary legacy.
She has long contended that he was not the minimalist writer that his editor, Gordon Lish, made him out to be, and she wanted to publish unedited versions of his work to prove it.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was his 1981 breakout book of short stories and cemented him as a minimalist writer in the Hemingway mold.
Gallagher contends that the minimalism was more a result of editing than intent, and she has Carver’s anguished letters to Lish to prove it.
The letters are anything but minimalist, as Carver rambles and rants on for hundreds of words, begging Lish not to print the edited works.
“. . . If I don’t speak now, and speak from the heart, and halt things now, I foresee a terrible time ahead for me. The demons I have to deal with every day, or night, nearly, might, I’m afraid, simply rise up and take me over,” he wrote.
Carver was a recovering alcoholic at the time, and just getting back on his feet.
Lish and Knopf printed the book as edited, and it became known as one of Carver’s most successful works.
Still, Gallagher contends it was not what Carver would have wanted, and she was intent on setting the record straight.
In order to accomplish that, Gallagher fired her long-time agent and hired one who was willing to take on Knopf, Andrew Wylie.
She had to show them, “I’m not just the bullfrog’s widow sitting on her lily pad,” she said.
Carver originally titled the book, Beginners, which is what Gallagher has gone back to.
However, in the United States his publisher, the giant Alfred A. Knopf Books, would not publish a stand-alone book of what they considered a competing version, Gallagher said.
Instead, the short stories are included in a new Library of America anthology called Collected Stories.
The Library of America is a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping in print “authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing.”
Beginners will be released individually in the United Kingdom soon.
In another act of courage, Gallagher has purchased her dream home in Ireland, a quaint cottage on the banks of Lough Arrow in County Sligo, on the west coast of Ireland.
The county has inpired many writers, most famously William Butler Yeats, who is buried there.
“Having cancer made me realize, ‘you better get your dream accomplished.’ Right now is the moment,” she said.
She has been going to Ireland for 30 years, regularly for the last 15 years, and has a partner there, the Irish painter, Josie Gray.
Her cottage is next to Gray’s, and contains a painting studio for his use.
Gallagher has been instrumental in promoting Gray’s work in the United States, often pairing it with her poetry.
He currently has a show at Greenbank Farm on Whidbey Island.
They have also collaborated on a book of short stories, Irish tales that Gray was fond of telling.
Barnacle Soup and Other Stories From the West of Ireland are Gray’s stories as told to and written down by Gallagher.
She uses the cozy cottage as a retreat for writing poetry, and said she has written hundreds of poems there. She plans on producing another book of poetry soon.
“The Man from Kinvara” is a poem she wrote about the removal of a statue of “King Billy” in Ireland. She said she had never been to Kinvara –which is in County Galway — but she liked the sound of it.
“There’s something very mysterious about him — the maan from Kinvaara,” she said, drawing it out in exaggerated tones.
Caring for mother
The walls of Ridge House are covered with photos from Gallagher’s life, both before, during and after her years with Carver.
Not far from a photo of Carver looking handsome and brooding, taken in England, is a photo of an elderly woman with long hair, naked in a bath, covered only by her dog. It’s the same Boston Terrier that trails Gallagher through the house.
The woman is Georgia Marie Morris Bond, Gallagher’s mother, who died of complications from Alzheimer’s earlier this year.
Gallagher tells the story of the dog, Peggy, jumping into the bath.
“Mother wasn’t too pleased about it,” she said.
Gallagher was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, while she was caring for her mother, who was slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s and congestive heart failure.
“The cancer gave me the courage to take her into my own house and take care of her,” Gallagher said. “It was a big vote of love and courage — I had never looked after anyone.”
Gallagher has been married three times, Carver was the last, but she has no children.
“But it seemed like the right thing to do — it tested my mettle,” she said.
Gallagher said she doesn’t know if her mother understood what her daughter was going through.
“I think I suffered less because of having to take care of her,” she said.
Gallagher writes about caring for her mother in the forward to a book of prose and poetry about Alzheimer’s called Beyond Forgetting, published in April by Kent State University Press.
Gallagher writes, “”You’re the mommy now,” she said to me, with an impish smile one day. And so I was. And so I am. Meaning she had passed all she was into me, by the incalculable osmosis of her life conjoining with mine.”
The poetess seems at peace now, having gone through so much in the last 10 years. Her trademark long, black tresses are gone, replaced by an ash blonde pixie streaked with grey.
“There’s not such thing as an ordinary life,” she said, adjusting the Boston terrier and toy poodle, which have worked their way onto her lap. “Every day is extraordinary.”
Features editor Marcie Miller can be reached at 360-417-3550 or [email protected]