After studying with Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff at the MFA program at Syracuse University, C.J. Hribal set out on his own career as a writer and teacher. Among the jobs he would take to support himself: hotel desk clerk, garbage man, cookie salesman, and factory worker for a canning company. These days, though, it's all about the writing and teaching: Following the release of Matty's Heart (1984), American Beauty (1987) and The Clouds in Memphis (2000), Hribal published The Company Car (2005), a sweeping, comic, still-sad novel about 50 years in a single American family. It has just been released in paperback. The recipient of several major fellowships and awards, Hribal lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he is professor of English at Marquette University and a member of the fiction faculty at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.
Stephen Schenkenberg: Could you talk about your formal writer's education, from your undergraduate years into your graduate work in a highly regarded MFA program?
C.J. Hribal: Well, I went to college without knowing exactly what I wanted to do. My general notion was to be a writer/photographer for National Geographic—a globe-trotting journalist who also takes great photographs. I starting taking the journalism classes that you need to take, and found that there's this inverted-pyramid structure—the who-what-when-where-why where everything's in the first paragraph—that they want you to write news articles in. But it seemed like I kept getting told that everything I was most interested in for the stories I was writing for the newspaper didn't fit into the pyramid. Or they fit into the very end of the pyramid. The professors wanted the who, what, when, where, why right up front.
Then, I think it was the second semester of my sophomore year, I took a fiction-writing class, and it was like the light went on: "Oh, this is where all that stuff goes that doesn't fit into the other stories I was writing." I was at a college—St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI—that allowed me to structure my own major, so I created a creative-writing major. I went to my advisor and said, "This is what I'd like to do." And he asked what the components would be. I told him, and he asked me to write it up as a proposal. So I did. My senior year, I decided to do a creative senior thesis. I had some faculty members who said this was okay. So my senior year, I wrote a very bad novel. But the important thing was I was able to actually prove to myself that I could sit down and write a book. Ultimately, the content mattered less than the fact that I sat down and did it.
But during that senior year, I wasn't sure what the next step was. I really didn't have a clue. A couple of professors took me aside and said, "The next step for you should probably be graduate school in an MFA program." I ended up applying to three, and got into two. The one that I got into that offered me the best aid package—that gave me an assistantship—was Syracuse. So I went there. In January of that year, Raymond Carver came to the program. In the fall, Tobias Wolff. This started a period when we were pinching ourselves every day. We couldn't believe our luck, being taught by Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff.
SS: What were your impressions of those two writers at the time?
CJH: They were incredibly generous. Neither one had hit it big-big, in the way that they were going to. This would have been January of 1980, and Carver had gotten sober not terribly long before that. I think he felt that he had a lot to make up for. And God bless him, he decided to make up for that by really taking time with us. And the same was true of Tobias Wolff, who had had his first book, In the Garden of North American Martyrs, published to acclaim. As a young writer at Syracuse, he was very generous with his time. We got two very different kinds of writing instruction from them. Both of them paid attention to the text, but Wolff was much more about, "Let's take things apart and move them around and see how things work that way." Carver was much more of a naturalist. The thing sort of grew out of you, and then you started pruning. A lot of it was pruning, and figuring out what shape the thing should have after you got the first draft out. And grafting when you needed to. With the two of them, we were given a tremendous amount of instruction in terms of how to think about our texts.
SS: What did you learn most from each of them?
CJH: If I were to make gross generalizations, I'd say that from Carver, I learned how to pay attention to every single word. And with Toby, I learned how to pay attention to the structure.
SS: Could you feel your work getting better just in those two years?
CJH: Yeah. If we were a baseball team, I would've been named 'Most Improved' by the end of that period. I came in knowing not much of anything. And of course when you're exposed to writers as strong as Carver and Wolff, the temptation initially is to do imitations. I think all of us, at one point or another, did little Ray things, or Ray-like things. And then those of us who continued to write beyond that ultimately discovered our own voices. And certainly Ray and Toby were encouraging of our finding what our voices were. By the kind of modeling they did, a certain amount of your being was sort of imbued with their style. Not because of anything they did, but because you were really paying attention to what they were doing. And then later, you figured out that ultimately what you needed to do was find your own voice. And those of us who kept writing and publishing did that.
SS: You said you were new to the MFA program. Were you also new to observing writers in action? Living life next to those guys for a period of time?
CJH: To that degree of being up close, yes. I did have a short-story writer at St. Norbert's—without the résumé of Wolff or Carver—and there was a poet there as well, John Bennett. They gave me the idea that the writer's life was possible. But I didn't really feel like that was the world I was entirely living in until I was in grad school, when I was surrounded by a group of people for whom this was everything.
SS: Certainly among the MFA students, Carver's and Wolff's presence would have been large. But did the university as a whole have a sense that this program was something special?
CJH: Yeah, I think so. It created a certain amount of jealousy with the Lit. folks. Because the writers' books are being reviewed and talked about. The university, of course, would heap more accolades on the Writing program, because they were getting all the ink. When the ink happens outside the university, it happens inside the university as well. But we did feel pretty lucky, and we knew this competitiveness was going on. We tried not to think about it too much, because we were trying to spend our time getting better as writers.
SS: At the end of your program, did it turn out to be what you thought it would be as you entered? Though you said you didn't know quite what to expect.
CJH: Right, there's the thing. It turned out to be way more than I thought, because I didn't know what to think. But I wouldn't have traded that experience for the world. To a large extent, it helped formulate who I was as a writer, and perhaps even as a person.
SS: Your first collection of fiction, Matty's Heart, was published in 1984 and selected for a New Voices Award. What was your life like at that point of debut publication?
CJH: I was doing what I think a lot of people do after grad school—knocking around, trying to keep body and soul together. I was working in a hotel as a desk clerk. I was living with a woman who would become my wife. We got married that fall just before the book came out. I remember walking around the apartment just before the book was accepted, just hoping I could get a story placed. And then the whole book got taken. I was ecstatic. I felt a sense of validation that what I'm doing matters. Somebody noticed it and liked it. That was a huge moment.
SS: At that point, how were you hoping a career would take shape?
CJH: At that point, I still wasn't really thinking about it, other than to keep writing. I was going to do whatever it took to keep writing. One thing was it gave me the courage to write what I thought was going to be another novella. I got about 50 pages into it and realized there's no end in sight, and what I had was probably a novel, not a novella. I got really lucky right after that as well. An agent from New York moved to town to raise his family. I read an article about him, and sent him those 100 pages plus the short story collection that had come out. He took me on as a client, and very soon after that I had a book deal for the novel, American Beauty. At that point, as I said, I was going to do whatever it took to write. I worked in hotels, worked in a bookstore, whatever I needed to do. I started to teach classes at a small writing workshop in town called The Loft. And that gave me more teaching credentials.
SS: Jumping fifteen years forward, after a few other book projects saw publication, your story collection The Clouds in Memphis was published, also receiving critical accolades. How had you changed as a writer over that period of time?
CJH: One thing is that I felt more confident in my technical abilities. I was willing to take a few more chances with form as well. I had a little early success, then raised three kids for most of the next decade, which meant that except for a book I edited, I had stopped getting books published. I was publishing things in journals, but not getting books published. So I was feeling a little shaky on that front. But in terms of the writing, I felt it was pretty strong. So I was really pleased when the book came out. Again it felt like validation for what I was doing.
SS: You mentioned form. Both those collections I asked you about include novellas. Is this the form you're most naturally drawn to?
CJH: I don't know if it's the form I'm most naturally drawn to. I've certainly written a number of them. The thing I love about the form is it allows me to capture the shape of a life, but with a compression that's closer to that of a story. I love that sense of the need to compress, compress, compress. It's funny, because when I wrote my novels, especially my most recent one, it's much more expansive. And I love doing the expansive thing. I love going off on tangents. The thing I think about the novella that's intriguing to me is that even when I go off on a tangent, I'm much more conscious—because of the form I'm working in—that it's got to come back to the story's center, its spine, whatever the central narrative thread is. It's going to have to circle back, or touch on it in some way. And that allows me to go off on tangents and still be very conscious of structure. So I'm pretty happy to work within that form. It's too bad they're so hard to place. They're too long for most journals, too short for a lot of book publishers.
SS: Had you read novellas as a reader and been drawn to them?
CJH: When I was in grad school I took a novella class that Carver taught. We read a bunch of novellas, and I was struck by the economy of the form, and by the density. It seemed like it was a very dense narrative form; you got so much into it. Whereas with a short story, as wonderful as they are, you got a flash of an illuminated moment. But with the novella, you get to inhabit the characters' lives more like you do in the novel. It seems to me like the best of both worlds.
SS: Your most recent book, the novel The Company Car, is about 50 years in the life of one American family. When did this project originate in your notebooks?
CJH: It started years and years before my notebooks. I remember being at a party in graduate school, and we got on the subject of how people got coupled up, both the people who were in couples then, but also our parents. This one woman said, "My parents got married on TV." And that just struck a chord with me. It seemed so quintessentially American. I started thinking about this couple in the '50s, which would've been the right age for her parents. And it stuck with me. And I knew in the early to mid-90s, I wanted to write a big family novel that took the scope of a lot of years. One of the first things I wrote down in my notebooks was, "Our parents got married on television." And I took notes for probably four or five years, and then Marquette gave me a sabbatical to work on the book. I thought, 'If I'm going to do anything, it's got to be this book now.' So the first thing I did was print out my notes. I had about 50 pages of single-spaced notes. But the opening image was always the parents getting married on TV. I also knew that I wanted to take them through to a 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
SS: What were your goals for the novel once you took that sabbatical and really started to work on it?
CJH: When I started I had the idea of writing it straight through, with the kids narrating in the present, starting out saying, "Our parents were married on television." And going right from that moment and telling it linearly, going to their 50th wedding anniversary, which is where the book would end. I showed it around to some friends of mine who are writers, and my agent, who showed it around as well. And what a lot of people said was, "There isn't enough compression. It's terrific, but it just goes along on this one track." I started thinking about ways to put more pressure on the narrative, and one of the things I decided to do was take that 50th wedding anniversary that ended the book and open with it, so that the kids are gathering for the anniversary. The other thing I did was give the narrator his story to tell about his own marriage, which is 15 years on at that point and in danger of ending. So you've got that bittersweet quality in that aspect. The other bittersweet aspect is that for the parents, if you make it to your 50th wedding anniversary, you're up there in age. So there are health issues, and questions of whether Mom and Dad are able to take care of themselves. A lot of people of a certain age are having to ask that question now. That was the other bittersweet quality. So I wanted it to be both celebratory—here are the last 50 years, this couple made it!—but also to raise the question, 'How does anybody last for 50 years?' The narrator's asking himself that question, because his marriage seems to be on really shaky ground. You also have that question of, 'So now that Mom and Dad have made it to this point, what do we do next?' The kids are grappling with that answer, but the parents are coming up with their own answers. And that all got added in the later drafts. The first draft was something like 800 pages. The final draft that I submitted to the publisher and got published was 500 manuscript pages. In doing all that cutting, the ironic thing was that I ended up with more plot lines. I ended up cutting out so much, but mostly what I was cutting was a lot of exposition to get me from one big scene to the next. If you think of a book like a slinky, a coiled spring, the problem at first was that with all the exposition and just the one through-line, it was like a slinky that was held too far apart. It was flabby, sagging. Whereas, with the extra plot lines I had added--they were there anyway; I just made them more consciously a part of the narrative design of the book rather than in the background--it put much more pressure on it. It became the coiled spring I wanted it to be.
SS: What was it like to cut almost half the book?
CJH: I probably chopped out half the book total, and then wrote about 150 new pages as I was taking other things out. The final tally came out to be 500. It was massive surgery. There were times when I was working on it when it felt like I was lopping off limbs. One thing I took out that I just felt had to go was the idea of one chapter devoted to each of the siblings. It ended up being Emmy [one of the sons] narrating on behalf of all the siblings rather than each of the kids having a hunk of their own story told. So those chapters went. And that was a loss, but a necessary loss. In terms of a lot of the cutting, the first go-around was me seeing what I could squeeze out—a word here, a sentence there. I was able to chop off almost 50 pages just doing that, but that wasn't going to be anywhere near the radical surgery that had to happen. It took me another year and a half of stealing myself to do this, and six months of really hard rewriting where I just started lopping things off. And there's a point where you just say, 'You know what? This limb does not need to be there.' The interesting thing is that once it's gone, once I got to it, it went fairly quickly. The trepidation before is what took a long time. Maybe I just needed to think through what I was actually going to do. But once I actually got to the point where I was lopping, that went fairly quickly. Once you tell yourself, "It's just got to go"' it's less difficult. It's the time before that when you're mulling—going "Should I? Should I?"—that you feel like Hamlet.
SS: The book is funny—you've described it as a comedy—but it also has real moments of sadness. Did the overall tone of both comedy and sadness exist in the first 800-page draft, and if so, how did you work to maintain it throughout the edits?
CJH: It did, and I think it ended up both funnier and more poignant—a little sharper and funnier—because of the deletions. One of the things I took out, as I said, was an awful lot of exposition. Because I was taking this family through 50 years, I had lots and lots of notes of things that transpired—"Where were you when Kennedy got shot?" and things like that—that I ended up just leaving out. One of the people who saw it, Richard Russo, said, "C.J., you write great exposition. The problem is, it's exposition." I really tried to chop out that exposition. Initially, each chapter was a fair amount of exposition leading up to a big scene. In revision, what I tried to do was make each chapter as much just the big scene as possible and get rid of as much of the exposition, which was cultural / historical, but you can get that someplace else. You don't need my novel to do that for you. I think I write funny scenes, so those just occur more frequently now in this draft because there's more of an emphasis on the specific scenes.
SS: The book's main themes seem to me to be failure, the reality of disappointment, but also the real need for dreams, and for persistence and promise. Even the cover image, a brand new car on a dealer's floor, is one of promise. In many ways the novel's about flawed plans, but the importance of making those plans. I'm curious how this one reader's take fares with your intentions as the novelist.
CJH: I think those were very much my intentions. The big trope for America is the American dream. The idea that—you know, it's the Gatsby thing: If you can run faster and stretch your arms out further, dot dot dot. The closing lines of Gatsby: "And so we beat on, boats against the current." The fact is, the current's running against you. What I wanted to do in this book was look at the degree to which people strive and dream. And the fact is that although we hold that up as the great thing to happen—and for a lot of us it does happen—for a lot of us it doesn't. Or it does, but in a kind of bungled way. Or in a slightly broken way. Which doesn't detract from our need to dream and desire, even though in fact it's not going to quite work out. How often do things work out exactly the way you'd planned them to? I wanted to capture that, but I didn't want it to be this dark heavy tome. People have told me that I've essentially updated Death of a Salesman. But I think the difference is that this has a lot more humor in it. The arc in Death of a Salesman is ultimately tragic. There's no question. It's a downward arc. I wanted this book to end in a different place entirely.
SS: I wondered if you had gone back to that play.
CJH: I didn't go back to read it. I'd read it in college, and seen a couple productions of it. I didn't consciously try to do a one-to-one correlation sort of thing. But certainly that was the dark version of this novel. And there's still plenty of darkness in this book. Bad things happen. The father drinks too much. Various marriages do come to an end—not the parents' marriage, but others'. People die, stuff happens. But that doesn't mean the overall thrust of the book can't be comic, and bittersweet. I wanted both. For me, that was the big thing—to make sure I got both in there. It's why I used that Zbigniew Herbert quotation as the epigraph—Central Europeans are great at the comic shrug in the face of darkness: "It's good what happened/it's good what's going to happen/even what's happening right now/it's okay."
SS: There's a moment when Wally, the memorable patriarch, finishes building a boat in his home's basement, but then realizes that he didn't take into consideration his need of sending it back up the stairs and out into the world. It's too big to leave the basement. So he has to get out the saw, and the line about the memory of that noise was: "It is the sound of dreams being sawn in two." So there's that scene, and you've got Wally's shirt with the little triangles in which he gets sunburned, and you've got their house where the sidewalk—
CJH: The house built backwards—
SS: The house built backwards, right. I'm curious if you had to consciously balance Wally's construction, so that he was never too much of a boob.
CJH: There's part of me that was a little concerned with that. Wally messes up a lot. But I also think that there is a basic kind of nobility to him. And he just reminded me of a lot of people in my father's generation. Without question, they went off and fought in World War II and Korea, and what they wanted more than anything was the world to be safe when they came home. And they worked very hard, and they made tremendous sacrifices to do that. And they also messed up. And some of it I think was stuff they saw while they were gone that put forces on them. I don't think that the three-martini lunch happened by accident. So I wanted some of his character to be comic, but ultimately he gets the big things right.
SS: The novel contains a brief nod to a plot line from your short story, "The Last Great Dream of My Father," published in The Clouds in Memphis. How did you decide on this overlap?
CJH: It was actually one of the first things I wrote for The Company Car. Two of the chapters that ended up in The Company Car appear in The Clouds in Memphis, only I flipped the order of them and wrote different material, which became the novella "Loose Lips Sink Ships." I also wrote another story for "The Last Great Dream of My Father," which is not about Wally, but it's actually a darker version of his story. It's what happens when there isn't the comedy to levitate the failure. Or ameliorate the failure. "The Last Great Dream of My Father" is narrated by a son who's looking at his father who's dying of cancer and who has this idea of growing the design of a liquor bottle in his field as a way of making a killing from some ad company. And it doesn't turn out the way he planned. And the son recognizes that his father was done in by this, and the son is angry. Angry both at his father and at the forces that caused this to happen in the first place. I think the idea of that parallel thing of daring to dream and not having things work out the way you planned is something that runs through my work. And I think what I do is I take different approaches. In The Company Car, it's comic-tragic. In "The Last Great Dream of My Father," there's a harder edge to it. For some people, they're just completely undone by it. The thing I wanted to show with The Company Car is that we can survive our own catastrophes and our own self-made failures. For some people that doesn't happen, they don't survive the dashing of their dreams. I didn't want to write a whole book about that; I'd already written a story that seems to hit that note.
SS: I'd like to return to our first subject, the classroom. You taught briefly at the University of Memphis and, since 1990, you've been at Marquette University. You've also been on the faculty of Warren Wilson College for several years. How does your life as a teacher inform or fit into your life as a writer?
CJH: I think I've become a better writer from teaching students. If you have to explain something to somebody else what it is you think they're doing, and how they might be able to do it better, that helps you understand process. When you look at somebody's work and you think,"'Where has it started to go wrong? How would you unravel and remix this, and make it go where it seems like it wants to go?," I think that helps you understand your own craft, and what it is you're about to do. Any time you have to explain to somebody else what is happening in a given piece, the fact that you understand the process better is also useful to you, whatever you're working on or will work on next. That's been useful.
The one thing—and this is always the conundrum for writers who teach—is trying to balance the teaching life and the writing life. There's no question that a certain amount of energy that you'd like to use for your own writing goes into your teaching, if you're going to do it well. I don't know anyone who teaches and writes who probably doesn't want to teach a little less.
SS: Do you think the teaching of fiction writing has changed in any way since your own MFA days?
CJH: I can't speak for other places. I know there's that whole question of, "Can you teach writing?" What I say you can do is give people the opportunity to teach themselves, and give them pointers, and what they make of it is going to be their own. But MFA programs in particular give you a timeout from the world, without the pressures of the world on you while you decide if this is really what you want to do. And the programs give you the tools you would need if you want to continue to pursue this. In that sense, I don't think it's changed.
I do think there's an odd kind of belief in this country now where you don't trust people who are experts. Talk radio has helped popularize the idea of being anti-intellectual for its own sake. "Trust your gut, not your head," and all that. "Don't trust anyone from a university. If you really want to write, you should just do it outside the academy." People say Hemingway didn't get an MFA. Well, actually, Hemingway had the equivalent. He went to see Gertrude Stein on a regular basis. And he had his work looked at by Maxwell Perkins. Essentially, he apprenticed himself. There wasn't a degree-granting institution, but in fact he had what amounted to a workshop…So in that sense it again gets back to that 'guild' notion. Craftspeople teaching lessons of craft—I think that's always been around in one form or another. It's just a little more formalized now.
SS: From your vantage point, do you think there's anything particularly unique or notable about being a university student, or a fiction-writing student, now?
CJH: I think there's more pressure on people to use the skills that they have to go into screenwriting. That's the desire I see in a lot of students. I wouldn't say we're moving away from a literary culture, but there's more of an emphasis on people taking these skills and applying them in another format, the one that is much more popular right now. I don't think it's a bad thing to want to do that. I think the degree to which that is happening gives me cause for concern. Because they are, essentially, different kinds of things.
People tell me, "You write great scenes," and "It's very visual," and "Wouldn't you like it to be a movie?" And I say, yeah, it'd be nice if it was, but what I really want them to do is read the book. Because I worked on it in this form so that people could screen their own movie in their heads without having the received notion that they're going to get with a film version. I didn't write it as a movie; I wrote it as a book. And I hope that students will come to workshops and writing classes with the idea that they want to be writers and be aware of the tradition they're coming out of. One of the things I work on in class, and I think a lot of my colleagues do as well, is the idea that you're coming out of something. It's not just, "Okay, I'm going to take what I learned here and plug it into this new thing, or newer thing." Movies can do some things that books can't, but the reverse is also true—there are things a novel can do that no movie can hope to touch, particularly in terms of taking us inside the hearts and minds of our characters. I'm glad both media exist; I just hope we never get to the point where we don't have that choice.
© 2006 Stephen Schenkenberg
Image of CJ Hribal courtesy Tom Bamberger