July 2004

John Detrixhe

features

An Interview with C. J. Hribal

C.J. Hribal is a creative writing instructor at Marquette University. He is author of several novels and short story collections, including Matty’s Heart and The Clouds in Memphis. In 1999 he was a recipient of the AWP Award for short fiction, and in 2003 he won a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. Hribal’s latest novel, The Company Car, will be out from Random House in 2005.

In this interview, Hribal reflects on his instructors at Syracuse -- Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff -- and their approaches to writing. Hribal also discusses why so many of his stories are about women who survive when the men don’t, and why his stories aren’t about writers living in Manhattan.

On a Saturday afternoon, after his middle son’s hockey game, Hribal met me at the Marquette campus and answered a few of my questions.

You did your undergraduate work at St. Nobert College, and I understand your senior thesis was a novel?

Yeah.

Do you still have that?

No, I got rid of that a long time ago. [Laughs.] The best thing about writing a novel my senior year was I proved to myself I could do it. You know, that I had the discipline to sit down and actually write it. The quality of the novel was... well, it was good enough to get me into grad school. But that was all it was good for.

I think when you're starting out it's more important to be producing work. You have to write to get better.

I've heard of projects where people write a novel in two months or three months.

I had a friend in graduate school, actually, who had a nervous breakdown and tried to write a novel in fifty days. I think it was 49,000 words in forty-nine days. Something like that. At certain points he was essentially writing, "This is my 7,000th word. This is my 3,000th word of the day." He was just typing for the sake of typing.

When you went to Syracuse, did you feel like you were well prepared for the program there?

Actually there was only one other guy there who was straight out of college. Most everybody else was two, three years out, ten years out, and so I sort of felt like the little brother. These people had been through some things I hadn't yet. They'd been out for a while. But it was a very welcoming group. And we felt very much like we were in this together, it was very collaborative, and I felt very much at home. Even though I felt, sort of, little brotherish. By the end of that first year, I think, if we had been a baseball team, I would have been Most Improved. There were certainly better writers there at the time. But it was a great group of people, it really was, we felt very lucky to be there all at the same time, and to feel collaborative. I mean, our workshops felt collaborative, not competitive. And I think that's a huge difference to have.

And Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff were teaching there?

When I first arrived, Carver, we knew, was coming in January. And, I had bought a copy of a chapbook of his. A small collection called Furious Seasons. It was the only one they had in the bookstore at the time, the student bookstore. A lot of us had read that, and we also had a copy of Will You Please Be Quiet Please?, but that didn't have a photo of the author on it. Furious Seasons did have a photo of the author, and he looked like a mild-mannered axe murder. I mean, he had these huge mutton-chop sideburns and looked very, very imposing. And in fact, he was just an incredibly sweet and gentle man.

That winter, they hired Tobias Wolff to come the following fall. So the first fall we worked with the guy who had established the program for a number of years, had been there a long time, whose name was George P. Elliot. He was really the guy who brought in both Carver, and then Wolff. And by that time we felt like we had stumbled on the golden fleece. It was like, "Wow, we are lucky." We knew we were lucky. It was before, really, Carver had gotten big. He was just hitting it.

That reminds me a lot of his [Carver's] relationship with Gardner. How, he'd heard of Gardner and knew he was coming to Chico State College, and he'd never met a writer before. Kind of a similar story.

Right, that feeling that we were blessed. That was right at the time when Carver had been on the wagon for, oh, I guess a year by that time. And felt he had a lot to make up for, I think. God bless him, he decided to make up for whatever past transgressions he had done while he was drinking by giving to us. And so he was incredibly generous with us.

And Wolff was a young writer who had his first book out, and he was just starting to get some attention. Again, very generous, very giving of his time with us.

Did your relationship with Carver continue after college at all?

Yeah, it was sheer dumb luck, I ended up living next to him... I left college, grad school, after the first year for a semester. I didn't know how long, I thought I was leaving permanently. A disastrous first marriage. I wrote to see if I could come back the following fall, actually, and Ray and Toby had engineered it so that I could come back that January. They arranged for a fellowship for me so I could come back right away. I was working nights in a hotel after I left. I was becoming a Carver character, it was a little scary. I mean, he saved my life. When I moved back I didn't have a place to live, I was staying with a friend, a spot opened up in this house, and it was this huge house, and it turned out it was right next door to Raymond Carver. It ended up that my study window looked down into his study window.

We stayed friends for a long time. I saw him about five, six months before he died. And I've stayed in touch with Toby all these years as well. I respect and admire the hell out of both of them.

Is there anything in particular about their influences that you would say has manifested itself in your work?

Well, it was sort of two different approaches. Carver was, what I would say, was an organic writer in that he'd push you to write your first draft fairly quickly, and it was his practice -- and a lot of us started doing it this way -- you prune, and you prune, and you shape, and you feel like you're a gardener out there, with this organic thing. I think Wolff was more what I might call the Lego Block theory. In that his idea was, at least my sense of it at the time was that you could reassemble and disassemble the thing. You know, more like building blocks, and take this out and say, "Maybe that doesn't go here, maybe it belongs over here, maybe it doesn't belong here at all. Maybe you should put this piece in, and maybe if you took the front half of the story and you moved it to the back..." Like I said, I called it Lego Block theory because it felt more like you were playing with Lego Blocks.

But both really stressed paying attention to every single word you put on the page. Maybe not in the very first draft, where you're trying to just get everything out, but in revision, which is really where the work is of getting a story from its inception to something more finished. The multiple revisions you do. Paying attention to every single word.

All of us I think, for a little while, when we worked with Carver, we all sort of wrote Carver-esque kind of stories. And then I realized, I think as I was winding down my time there, the world already had one Raymond Carver, he was very good at what he did, and the world didn't need another one. I had to find my own voice, and I think Toby was really good with that, in terms of trying to push for the kind of rhythms and syntax and diction that's unique to yourself.

It seems to me you write a lot of stories from a female protagonist's point of view. American Beauty, Matty's Heart, Clouds in Memphis...

Right, either in first person, or in their consciousness.

Is there an intension on your part to write from that perspective, or do you find the stories lend themselves to that, or is it a decision?

It's particular to each story. One of the reasons that I do it is that if you only write from the male perspective you've automatically wiped out half of humanity, which seems sort of silly. There's always that writing dictum, write what you know -- but I think there's things that you know as a human which are... how can I put this? That can come out in a voice gendered female or male. Some stories lend themselves more to a female lead.

I find myself curious, since I think the main job for writers is that of empathetic imagination. What's it like to be in somebody else's skin. And that's true regardless of whether they're male or female characters. And for me I think there's a kind of technical challenge. I think all writers like a challenge. Can I do this? So there's that aspect, you know, can I render the female consciousness believably?

I've noticed you're not a writer who writes about writing. You write about people who do different things [or occupations].

Yeah, and that's probably from coming from a farming background. You know, growing up at least a significant portion of my adolescence on a farm in a farming community. I always had a sense that the women around me... had to be tough minded, and had to posses a certain strength to survive. You know, in an economy that's tanking. I wanted to explore that.

When you read about farm suicide, or people giving in to depression and drinking too much, it tends to be the guys. I'm curious as to how the women have that will to go on, and so I'm just sort of drawn to that in terms of exploring it. And that's really where some of those early stories came from.

Where did Augsbury come from?

Augsbury, well, it's in the Fox River Valley. What I've done is, there are two or three communities that I was familiar with growing up. What I've done is create a hodgepodge of them. Created a place that's unto itself, but whose geography is familiar enough to me that I can keep reusing it.

That's interesting to me because so many stories are set in New York or Los Angeles, and typically you write about the Midwest.

And it's not because I'm a Midwest writer, but because I think literature is literature wherever it happens. What tends to happen is, of course, if you're from the Midwest and you become a writer, you become a Midwest writer, and that feels to me that there's a mild pejorative in it, or a limitation. You know, I think of Faulkner, I think of a writer, I don't think of him as a southern writer. I don't think of Hemingway as an Idaho writer, even though that's where he was when he died. It would be silly to limit it that way. They're just writers and they set their fiction often in places that they're familiar with, partly because, often, landscape or setting does have its influence on the characters anyway.

Partly, it allows you to really focus on the characters because the setting is a given. I'm familiar enough with it that I can go to that well, and describe things, and it's there, present in my mind. I can spend more of my time with the characters, imagining them. It's funny because writers who do a lot of their work set in New York, say, aren't called New York writers. They're just writers.

In 2003, you won the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. Does this fellowship differ in any way, in terms of satisfaction or recognition, from other awards or fellowships you've won? I know you've also won an NEA Fellowship and a Bush Foundation Fellowship.

Yeah, I think the Guggenheim -- one, because it's twice as much as a NEA -- and so it allowed me to buy most of a year off of teaching at Marquette. You know, the greatest luxury/necessity a writer needs or has is time. It's a commodity that's almost always in short supply. So anytime you get time, you feel blessed. The Guggenheim gave me that. And that's terrific.

It's also because it's usually given to people mid-career, and it's for people of all different fields -- you know, social sciences, history, political science, what have you -- so, it's a very large pool of people competing for these. And because it's in recognition for the work you've done already, and there's no requirement that you have to have X done by the end of the fellowship year, or anything. It's like they're saying to you, "Here's time, pursue things."

But it's the recognition of your peers that matters a lot, I think, and it's validation.

Company Car is your latest book, and it'll be available in 2005.

Yes, spring '05.

Does it revisit Augsbury?

It does... at least, half the book is set there. It starts in Chicago in 1952, and the parents get married on television. Kind of a dark comedy. And then they move out to the suburbs. The father is always looking for the safe place. You know, there is no such thing, but he's looking for a safe place where his kids can grow up intact and whole.

So they end up buying this farm in Wisconsin, and the story takes place, officially, on the day of the parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. The kids are gathering. It's one of the kids, one of the sons, who is narrating the story. It's the kids looking at their parents' marriage over the course of fifty years.

Anyway, where they buy the farm is in Augsbury, and in fact they buy the farm right next to Mattie Keillor. The narrator of the book, Emmie --Emil, is his given name, but he goes by Emmie -- marries Dorie Keillor, who was the narrator of my first novel, American Beauty. She's now in her forties. Forty-five at the time the novel opens.

She's back from Greece.

Yeah.

Has it been your experience that short stories are harder to write than novels? I think Michael Chabon once said that. Or is it just a totally different process?

The nice thing, I think, about the novel, at least for me, is it's a baggy monster. I mean, it's a carpet bag. You can throw stuff in -- often you have to go back and take stuff out -- but when you're composing, it feels like I can just go and go and go off on tangents and explore blind alleyways, and it's okay because I'm accumulating so much stuff, it's okay if that gets chopped out.

I mean, you know, the novel [Company Car], when I first submitted it to Random House, it was 800 pages. It's 600 pages now, when they bought [it], and it's going to get even shorter than that before it gets published. Not a whole lot shorter...

That's really long compared to your other work.

Oh yeah. It's a monster. Well, we're talking fifty years in one family, you can't do that in a little space.

I had this sense, I guess in this novel in particular because I knew it was going to be a big book, so I sort of indulged in excess and then pruned back. And figured out a way to shape it better. My editor, Jon Karp, and a number of my friends who are writers helped with that.

Short stories, I love for their compression. Actually, my favorite form I think is probably the novella. This thing somewhere in between the two, which is its own beast. It's hard to sell because it's neither one nor the other. The thing I love about the short story is the compression. You know, the way somebody can get the description just right and it's so economical and there's this flash you feel at the end where you're taken up by it.

I admire the heck out of it, I love writing them, but I think I probably am better suited to being a novelist.

I know better than to ask the old creative writing class question, but since I was in your creative writing class I can't help it. What are your thoughts on creative writing courses?

My feeling is you can't teach someone to be a better writer in terms of -- and I want to make sure that the first part isn't the part that gets quoted -- just knowing that this person started at X spot and they're definitely going to end up at Y spot. There isn't this one to one correlation of, if you do these things, this will happen. That's not the way it works.

I think I can teach people to write better sentences. I think I can teach them to pay attention to the language a lot more. One of the great benefits of creative writing class is that it gives people deadlines where they have to produce. You give them lots of opportunities to produce. The only way you get better as a writer is to write. So it gives them chances to explore things, to make mistakes, to learn from those mistakes, to learn from the mistakes of others, to learn from the success of others. To get patted on the back when they do something well, because it's good to know when something's working.

In terms of MFA, or writing programs, it gives people a couple years outside the pressures of the world, a chance to eat, sleep and breath writing. To figure out if this is what you really want to do, especially once you find out how much work it really is.