Our English majors explore with their professors the broad and evolving sweep of English and American literature, honing their critical thinking skills as they go.

A reasonable life’s work

Novelist C.R. Hribal ’79 talks about his craft

By John Detrixhe

In a creative writing workshop led by C.J. Hribal ’79, I learned to try to make every word count, and that, for some of the most accomplished writers, a paragraph is a reasonable day’s work. It was a lasting experience, and five years later I was glad of the opportunity to interview him. 

From research I knew he had won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003, and that his latest book, “The Company Car,” was to be published by Random House this month. Having read his fiction, I knew some of his work was set in Augsbury, Wisconsin, a place probably resembling places he’d lived growing up. But there were plenty of questions still to ask.

On a Saturday afternoon after his middle son’s hockey game, Hribal met me at a coffee shop in Milwaukee to discuss writing, his work and a few of his influences.

This interview is abridged with permission from a longer version first published by Bookslut.com, the monthly literary web magazine.

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

Yeah. 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 [at Syracuse University]. But that was all it was good for.

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 ax murderer. 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. 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. 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 didn’t have a space to live, a spot opened up in this 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.

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 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 [a proponent of] what I might call the Lego block theory. His idea was, at least my sense of it at the time was, that you could reassemble and disassemble the thing.

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.

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.

Where did Augsbury come from?

Augsbury, well, it’s in the Fox River Valley. 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.

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.

“Company Car” is your latest book. 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’ 50th 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 50 years.

“Company Car” is really long compared to your other work.

Oh yeah. It’s a monster. Well, we’re talking 50 years in one family, you can’t do that in a little space. Short stories, I love for their compression. Actually, my favorite form, I think, is probably the novella. This thing is somewhere in between the two, which is its own beast. 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 love writing them, but I think I probably am better suited to being a novelist.