Interview with C.J. Hribal

Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:

An interview with C.J. Hribal

By: Nancy Au

C.J. Hribal is the author of the novel The Company Car, which received the Anne Powers Book Award, and the novel American Beauty.  He’s also the author of the short fiction collections Matty’s Heart and The Clouds in Memphis, which won the AWP Award for Short Fiction, and he edited The Boundaries of Twilight: Czecho-Slovak Writing from the New World. He has held Fellowships from the NEA, the Bush, and from the Guggenheim Foundations, and has twice won the Sternig Award for Short Fiction. He is the Louise Edna Goeden Professor of English at Marquette University, and is a member of the fiction faculty at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.

C.J. Hribal

1.) You’ve said on your website that the “danger in writing about your forebears is that they tend to get lionized.” This makes me wonder if you have ever considered writing a memoir. Do you think the same difficulty lies in wait for the would-be memoirist?

C.J. Hribal (CJH): Oh, I think of writing a memoir, but the fact is that my own life isn’t that interesting. Or maybe it’s that I’ve never figured out a way to shape a non-fiction narrative beyond the illustrative examples I use in my essays.  Most likely, though, my impulse to make things up, or misremember, either deliberately or accidentally, gets in the way.  I might just be hard-wired that way. That impulse to “make stuff up” happens in memoir, too, of course, and all memoirists, I’m sure, are aware that their shaping of narrative uses many of fiction’s tools—selection, omission, emphasis, proportion, distortion. I’d just rather accept that’s the case and use the material for writing fiction, which provides for me the necessary distance to get at essential truths without worrying that my version of events might offend somebody who might have a different recollection and a different narrative of what occurred. What was it William Maxwell said in So Long, See You Tomorrow? Something along the lines of, “When talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.” To which I say, “Guilty as charged.”

2.) As a teen in 1974, you traveled to Sri Lanka, where you “thought you wanted to become a poet.”  In college, you studied journalism, before delving into the world of creative writing. How did your studies in poetry and journalism translate into your fiction writing?

CJH: I still read a lot of poetry, especially before I start writing in the morning. The compression and intensity of poetry is something I want to get into my prose, so it helps to remind yourself daily that every word counts, every sentence can be magical. I did think I was going to be a journalist in college, one of those roaming-the-globe-with-camera-and-pen types, and work for National Geographic. But it seemed that so much of what I found interesting seemed to fit outside the inverted pyramid-shape of news stories, or at least needed a different shape to get at the story that I wanted to get at. Sophomore year I took a class in writing fiction, and it was one of those Aha! moments—so this is where all the stuff I’m interested in goes!  (I also took a poetry class, which convinced me I was never going to be a good poet.) I’ve written a number of feature articles for magazines in the years since, however, and it helps to be reminded of how important conciseness is—you are, after all, filling in the “news hole,” i.e. what’s left on the page after the ads are placed. A magazine editor once told me he liked the fact that as a writer I came at stories from a different angle than classically-trained journalists might, and that’s probably true—I usually don’t know what the story is when I start, and discover it as I go along. It’s also, unfortunately, a fairly time-consuming way to write.

3.) In your novella The Clouds in Memphis, I felt that the mother’s grief was shown in her hurried, furious courtroom questions. For me, this revealed one of the themes in your writing: how the source of our grief is actually fear of the unknown. We can ask (as Janie does), “…huh? Huh? Huh?” and we are met with silence. Your writing reveals this without philosophical exposition. What is your writing process to get to this point? In earlier drafts, do you find yourself running away from difficult themes/questions?

CJH: I think the hardest and most important thing I can do when I write is work with an empathetic imagination. I don’t know when I get into a character’s head and heart what I’m going to find there. I certainly don’t have a road map for where I want to get to.  It’s an exploration, and when I delve deep into a character’s voice and thoughts I try to lose myself, to become them as much as possible. I don’t worry about the philosophy of what they’re expressing, I just want to get at the expression itself. As a person I’ve blundered through most of my life, and my characters often blunder through theirs. Maybe that’s what helps me get at their fear and their grief as well as their joy. Life overwhelms us from time to time, and into the darkness we jump, feet first. That’s what I try to do when I’m writing, catch my characters mid-jump, while they’re still howling on the way down,  before they know if the parachute is going to open or not.

4.) Have you always known that you wanted to teach? What is the relationship between this service and your own creative work?

CJH: A quick story to illustrate where I’m coming from: When I was at St. Norbert, I was blessed by a faculty who saw me, a benighted doofus, blundering his way through college, as someone of worth even though I’d yet to demonstrate any.  I remember my very first college paper, written for Professor Tom Davidson.   I had sailed through high school on my own glibness, and turned in a paper I’d dashed off the night before, thinking my B.S. would be sufficient.  Also, I was writing for the school paper already, and thought I was hot stuff.  My lit paper came back marked “C” and “see me after class.”  After class, Professor Davidson said to me, “I’ve seen your stuff in the paper. It’s pretty good.”  Then he held up my paper.  “You wrote this last night, didn’t you?”  I swallowed.   “You’re better than this,” he said.  “Never let it happen again.”  I never did.

In grad school at Syracuse, I was lucky enough to study under both Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. They were incredibly generous, both with my work and with my life. Again, they took the time for me.  These people took me seriously.  More importantly, they taught me to take myself seriously.  I was blessed with professors both in college and grad school who were full of the joy of learning—they clearly loved what they did and instilled that love in people like me.  I will be forever grateful.  And it’s that love and joy and seriousness that I try to take into the classroom with me now, when I teach.  I think it’s paramount to try to give back what has been given to you. And I have to say, I’ve learned tons more in trying to teach other people how to love what they do, how to work with seriousness and joy. Besides paying the bills, teaching allows me to connect with people and share this thing I love, and maybe get them to love it, too.

5.) Cornell West described himself as “a bluesman moving through a blues-soaked America, a blues-soaked world, a planet where catastrophe and celebration…sit side by side.” If you were to pick a genre of music to compare your writing or writing-self with, what would it be?

CJH: Cornell West is clearly a very wise man. I’m an omnivore myself—perhaps that’s why my favorite musical artist is Van Morrison—blues, folk, jazz, rock, country—he’s done it all.  When I write I often listen to things like Keith Jarrett or Illinois Jacquet, or Lionel Hampton, and I’m sure that influences my writing rhythms.  I could write all day to “Flying Home.” Catch me in another mood though, and it might be Henryk Gorecki.  If I had to pick one genre, though, I’d probably pick jazz—you have the through line, and you have the variations and the riffs, but it keeps coming back to the through line. There’s seriousness and there’s playfulness both, and in my writing I’m usually trying to marry comedy with darkness—or as West puts it, “catastrophe and celebration.” A reviewer once wrote that I was the laureate of “broken-hearted optimism.” That sounds about right.