In the Spotlight
Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Member Since: 1990
About:C.J. Hribal is the author of two novels and two short fiction collections, including The Company Car, which won the Anne Powers Book Award, and The Clouds in Memphis, which won the AWP Award for Short Fiction. A Guggenheim Fellow, he is the Louise Edna Goeden Professor of English at Marquette University and also teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.
If you could require every student in your program to read only one book, which would it be?
I’ll go with William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. A slim novel originally published in 1980 (it won the American Book Award for that year), it has just about everything essential for a great work of art packed into its 135 pages—a love story, a murder, a coming-of-age story, questions of love and loss and memory and betrayal, plus some metaphysical pondering of why we read and write fiction in the first place. In short, it’s a tour de force.
What writing advice do you give your students?
Love everyone, spare no one. I’m writing an essay with that as its title. They are my two commandments of character creation: you have to care for every character that comes into being on your watch, and you cannot spare them from the bad choices they will make or the bad things that might befall them.
Can writing be taught? Why does creative writing belong in the academy?
Of course it can be taught. Talent can’t be taught, but craft can be. You teach craft and what the writer’s tools are: how to craft sentences, a story’s structure, character development, the use of detail, etc. You teach students to be better readers, and how to analyze craft from what they read—in other words, how they can continue to teach themselves. I’ve always thought English Departments were and should be big tents—there’s the study of literature, which has its theory and practice, and there’s the writing of literature, which has its own theory and practice. They share a number of traits, but are different enough in their approaches that I think it’s a great thing that students have the opportunity to study and practice both.
How do you balance teaching and writing?
When I first had children, and was struggling with finding a balance between work at the university, the raising of my children, and my work as a writer, I was bemoaning this to Charles Baxter, who said something along the lines of, if you’re a parent, you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that you’re probably going to write fewer books than you thought you were going to. As a teacher and administrator, that same dictum applies. There’s no question that as writers we’d probably all like unlimited time in which to work. But I’ve always taken my duties as an administrator and as a teacher as a moral responsibility, and not simply because, well, they pay my salary and you have to give good value for that. Rather, it’s because I’ve always felt a tremendous debt to the people who took the time for me when I was a young doofus in college and who taught me what it meant to do your best work—people like my college teachers Stan Matyshak and Tom Davidson and John Bennett and Ken Zahorski and Bob Boyer, and later Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. I can’t pay my debt to them back, but I can, as they say, pay it forward.
If you could meet any writer, who would it be?
Alice Munro. Besides gushing about her work, I’d want to talk to her about how she structures her stories, the time shifts and leaps within them, the way she compresses whole lives into a single long story. It’s all really quite magical. There’s a long list of others, but if could choose only one….
Who is your favorite literary character?
Svejk, from Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk and His Adventures in the World War.
What is the first book you loved?
Tall Tale America, I think it was called. It was a collection of American tall tales and myths and legends. I loved those stories. I was probably 10 at the time.
Where do you get your best reading recommendations?
Writer friends, and from the folks at my local bookstore—this is a shout-out to Boswell Books in Milwaukee.
What are you reading right now?
I’m re-reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, diving into the anthology A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, edited by Czeslaw Milosz, and I’ve just started Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright.
Share a favorite AWP conference moment.
I believe in the joy of plurality. My favorite moments are when I have meals with friends—many of whom teach with me at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers—who are scattered about the country in their regular lives, but I get to see them at AWP—sometimes it’s one friend over lunch, sometimes it’s three or four or eight of us at a raucous dinner. We talk our work, our families, films, music, art, politics, books, books, books. One of my favorite moments was at the AWP in DC recently where my fiancée and I were lucky enough to score a big table in the bar after a reading and we were soon surrounded by people—friends and former students, former students who’d become friends—and everyone was laughing and having a grand time. I also love going to panels given by my Warren Wilson colleagues and by former students—I’m in awe of their brilliance. One final “favorite” moment—the panel on Raymond Carver as a teacher, where I got to hear from other people who’d been touched by Carver’s generosity.