Click here for a Bookslut interview with C.J. Hribal
A Conversation with C.J. Hribal
interviewed by Caroline Goyette
Q. You describe The Company Car as an epic for "the little people." What do you mean by this and why do you think it's important that this story be told?
For baby boomers in particular, there was really a whole generation--they called it the Greatest Generation--of people who had survived not one war but two, plus they'd come of age as kids during the Great Depression. They'd all had things happen to them in the war, and what they wanted more than anything was this idea of re-entering American life and getting back to normal. What that meant for waves and waves of them was to get married and pump out babies [laughs], and become kind of company men, and there's that whole idea in the 50s and 60s of just going along with stuff because that's what's expected of you. These people are the backbone on which this country's built--that great wash of humanity just wanting to fit in and not having things necessarily go quite the way they wanted them to. I focused on one particular family and the way in which the Great American Dream plays out over 50 years.
Q. You worked on the novel over a period of seven years. Could you talk more about the process of working on the novel, especially how the characters or plot evolved over time, or how the finished product may have turned out differently from the idea you began with.
I wanted to tell the story of 50 years in America through one family, or 50 years in one family and that would sort of be what America went through. It was the common pattern-still is, really-of starting in a city and then moving to the suburbs, and then the exurbs or, in the case of this family, they skip over the ex-urbs and go to a farm, which of course ends up filling in all around them. So you've got that kind of arc going on.
Initially when I wrote it I was going to start with the parents getting married on TV and end with their 50th wedding anniversary. I wrote it straight through like that, and the draft was about 800 pages long. It took me about four years to write it, two years to get the first 600 pages done, and then about a year-and-a-half, two years to get the last 200 pages done. My agent showed it around, and a lot of people liked it but they all essentially said the same thing: it's too long, it's 800 pages. Jonathan Karp at Random House said he really liked it and if I could get the book down to 600 pages, he'd be interested in it. My agent Nat Sobel and a bunch of friends who'd read it gave me some great suggestions for how to tighten it up and, since it was so long, ways to put a little more pressure on it. What I ended up deciding to do was to take the ending event, the 50th wedding anniversary, and open with that, with the kids gathering for it, so now there's pressure at the beginning, a frame that squeezes that narrative on both ends and you keep coming back to that throughout. The other thing I added as I was revising was the narrator's own marriage unraveling while they're celebrating the parents' 50th wedding anniversary. You've got this kind of bittersweet thing going on, and the kids are themselves deciding what to do with their folks because they're getting to an age -- again, this is happening all across this country, has been for a while - where you have to ask yourself what do you do with your folks when they get too old to take care of themselves, or they're getting close to it and you have to make decisions. So there's a celebration and a bittersweet quality. It's funny, I think I ended up adding more plot lines that way, but it ended up being a shorter book.
Q. Eight hundred pages down to 400. That sounds like agony --
-- and it was.
Q. In retrospect, was it necessary in some way to write those 800 pages to get the 400?
Oh, no question. I think this is true for a lot of writers, you end up writing a lot more pages than you end up using. There are all the things that you need to discover, that you have to get on the page, that the reader may not need. So often your first draft or your second draft is really more a record of your process of discovering things, it's not necessarily the story people are going to read. Are there things I really liked that got chopped? Oh, you betcha. What it really did, though, was force me to go in and tighten things up as much as I could. I cut out some things I liked but they were probably just digressive, ultimately. There's a part of me that says, well, I'll hold that and it'll be in another book sometime. There was a whole plot line with a lot of the kids' lives that was in the original that I ended up taking out because the book became focused on the parents' marriage. And I'd like to use that some other time. In terms of this book, it's still pretty expansive but it's more controlled.
It really only took me about six months to do the cutting and revising, but it took me about a year, a year-and-a-half to steel myself to it actually doing it. First, you're kind of monkeying around the edges of it, saying, "Well, if I do a little of this, oh, if I do a little of that," but in fact you've got to hit a point where you just say, "You know what, it doesn't need to be here; it's got to go." I should say, too, I didn't cut it to 400 pages. The final draft was 500 manuscript pages, but that's 400 in print.
Q. Augsbury has been the setting for several of your works. What makes you return to it?
Having a small town in a rural community on the edge of a burgeoning area, like the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin, which is a bunch of communities that are all exploding in population, that allows me to really think a lot about the changing nature of America and the Midwest. For me, Augsbury is a place that I don't have to reimagine every single time, which allows me to focus more on the characters, and yet at the same time, the setting and the landscape are a very real part of what I'm working on.
Q. Wally's clichés are a barrier to communication with the family and at the same time, they become a kind of family language - other family members find themselves using them. I'm curious about how the idea for them developed.
No question I borrowed from my own family, there are family clichés, but in fact when I started telling people about them, people were really willing to offer them to me. You'd find them in all sorts of places, those kind of statements that parents say, that you say you will never say to your own kids, which you then find yourself saying to your own kids. What it does, because they're clichés, they don't carry that much meaning, but at the same time, within the family, they're freighted with all the events around which they were uttered, and so they do become meaningful within the family, and you're right, I think it does actually help bind them together and make them feel part of a family, in a way, even though at the same time, within that family, it causes barriers to communication. I'm reminded of that great Viet Nam cliché: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."
Q. The parallels between Emmie and his parents - both the ones he explicitly acknowledges and the ones we observe through his narrative -- were these a surprise to you as the writer?
I suppose there's the sense in which we all become our parents, in one way or another, for good and ill. I didn't set out with that, but as the story evolved, I realized that there were in fact parallels. One of the stronger ones for me that came out -- Emmie wants more than anything to have a real conversation with his father, and he never does, or doesn't for a long time, and there's a point where the father's clichés start to break down, and he actually feels close to his father at that point because the clichés aren't working. But then later in the book, there's a moment where he's realizing things are swirling around him, and he's always sort of had a troubled relationship with his dad in terms of trying to understand where his father is coming from, and when the ground under his own feet is changing in dramatic ways, he starts to understand -- and I don't think he's conscious of how much it is like his father -- that in fact, he doesn't want things to change. The ironic thing is that his father changed fairly regularly. One of the basic misapprehensions Emmie had was that his father was a kind of stick-in-the-mud and as he becomes a more staid person himself, he appreciates his dad and, ironically, his dad is getting ready to make the next move. In most ways, though, Emmie is more like his mother-things swirl around him and he's just trying to hold it all together.
Q. Emmie seems to be telling this story both to claim it for himself and his children, and, in light of his own troubled marriage, to sort of discern how people manage to stay together for 50 years. Does telling the story bring him closer to answering the question or just to a more complex understanding of the problem?
I think he ends up coming to terms or to peace with the idea that it's always going to be a mystery. He's mystified by it going in and that's terribly troubling to him and he's very anxious about it, and over the course of examining his parents' relationship and telling about his own, he comes to understand that it's always going to be a mystery, you're not going to come up with the definitive answer because there aren't any. And in a weird way, that ends up being comforting.
Q. Do you see this as Emmie's story, in the end? Or is it bigger than him?
I don't think ultimately it's Emmie's story. One of the family nicknames for him is Emcee. I see him as the ringmaster, introducing these family stories, of which his is one, in this kind of whirling dervish of stories. So his is very much a part of it, but he's trying to tell a larger story here, and although it's very much the story of his parents, it's also the story of all those strivers, they've been called the Silent Majority and the Greatest Generation, the people on whose backs America has been built.
Q. Wally thinks he can protect his family by moving them to the country, and of course this isn't the case - people die in the country, people get hurt in the country, people get pregnant out of wedlock in the country. There's this moment at the end of the novel where Emmie counters his father's belief with his own hope for the children and grandchildren of the family, to be "not protected, but happy." Does protection preclude happiness?
There's this idea that you can keep everybody in a bubble and the outside world can't touch them. It really is a truly noble idea. But it can't happen. The outside world intrudes anyway, in all sorts of ways. I think it's also very much an American belief, this idea that you can move to a safe place. That's sort of what's generated toa large extent America's migrations for much of the last part of this century, to the suburbs, the exurbs, small towns. It's not as though the world doesn't follow you, or you're not going to find the world there too. The idea that you can bubble wrap people -- it's like being inside one of those hour-glass timers and trying to keep the sand from coming down on you; it's going to come down anyway. And I think ultimately you can be happy in spite of the fact that that's going to happen, and that's what Emmie comes to understand.
Q. Many of the episodes in the novel are told from Emmie's childhood perspective, or Emmie remembering his childhood perspective. The things he sees, to whatever extent he understands them, emphasize further the difficulty of shielding your children from the world. How did you go about putting yourself into that mindset, and did it help having children yourself?
Oh, there's no question having children helps. I say in the book, thanks to my kids for teaching me how to re-see the world. You get a different perspective just because you're on a different plane, you're a different height-you're always looking up-when you're younger, and the whole world is a mystery. In the book for Emmie, his parents' marriage is a mystery, his own marriage is a mystery, and once you have kids you're confronted by the biggest mystery of all, and their coming to engage the world causes you to remember when the whole world was a mystery for you, too. As a kid you puzzle over the mystery of the adult world. Having kids who constantly ask the "why" questions or the "how come" questions, it reminds you -- it's not like you don't have that perspective within you, it's just that as you get older, you shut it off. To turn it on again or to remember how I used to see the world when I was a kid, I adopted a voice, and I was very conscious about this, of writing in a voice of someone who's older, but who could, in talking about the past, find himself sliding into that child's perspective; it's called double-focus narration or retrospective narration. It's not just the adult looking back, but the adult re-feeling those events, so that the reader feels it as Emmie felt it as a kid, while also being aware that it's an adult telling the story with an adult sensibility; that way you can cross the gap between the way things were perceived and the way things actually were, presenting them both.
Q. Like the narrator, you grew up in the Chicago suburbs and moved to the country; you worked as a cookie salesman. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the process of beginning with literally what you know, and moving beyond that to create something that transcends personal experience, that's fictional, that's art.
That's always a tough question. Things happen to you, things happen to your friends, things happen to your family, you hear about things that happen to people you don't know, you imagine things that have never happened, and it becomes this amalgamation. When I first wrote it, I designed it so that each chapter has a big event, and there's lots of exposition in between. What I ended up doing in my revision was cutting out a lot of that exposition. What tended to happen was the exposition tended to be stuff I remembered happening, and the big events were completely made up, and so what ended up in the novel was much more the things that I made up, and those are the things I found myself giggling over because they were more outlandish. I think what happens with a lot of writers is you start with a kernel of something that might have "really happened" and you transform it into something that feels as real as if it had happened, even though it never did.
Q. Did growing up on a farm help you to develop the work ethic necessary to write?
Being Catholic doesn't hurt, either. Guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt [laughs] … Growing up on a farm, there's just lots of things that have to get done. We were always told, before you get fed and go off to school, the animals get fed, because you can't not feed them -- you just always knew there were things you had to do, whether you wanted to or not. There was that sense of responsibility. All the way through, my parents encouraged us to have jobs and to earn our own money. And I think that's actually a great gift parents can give their kids, that you've got to work for stuff. So I had a series of terrible jobs, and that really made me appreciate, both the people who did jobs like that, and I was also very conscious that these were not the jobs I was going to do my whole life. It made me a little more appreciative of what I had been given.
I worked in a canning factory -- just brutal, exhausting work. Your vocabulary drops over the course of a summer to essentially 12 words, half of which are expletives, and you come out of that and you go, "Whew, life is okay" if you don't have to do that, and you appreciate how much work that really is. These people aren't "losers," which is what our culture often tells us they are. They're doing hard work, necessary work.
Q. Will we hear more from the Czabecks?
There's a part of me that wants to tell the kids' stories. There were whole narratives (about the relationships between the kids) that wound up on the editing room floor, and I'd like to conclude those. I think Emmie's going to show up again as a minor character in anther novel down the road. That's happened often with me: somebody who's a major character here shows up in the background of somebody else's story; somebody who's a minor character in this story gets their own story later. I sort of like that idea, like a small town you can walk through and see people and imagine what their story might be. Everybody's the main character in their own story.
1. How do you balance writing, teaching and personal life?
I don't sleep much. Seriously. I'm usually in bed by midnight or 1 a.m., then I'm up at 6 a.m. It's a tough balance. For years, especially when my kids were younger, there was an imbalance. There was teaching, there were my kids. I wrote, but not with the concentration that I'd like. It's no accident that I published two books before I had children (three of them, the youngest nearly six now), that I edited one while they were younger, and that the next one that I published (The Clouds in Memphis) occurred 13 years later. That gap is me being a father. Charles Baxter, a friend, said to me during this period, "When you're a parent, you just have to reconcile yourself to the fact that you're going to write fewer books than you thought you were." A hard truth, but a truth. (This, of course, assumes that you're an equal partner with your wife in raising the kids, and not sloughing the job off on her.) It's also not an accident that I was able to do a huge amount of work (600 pages of what has become a 750 page novel, which I'm revising now) during the year I had a sabbatical from teaching duties. What I try to do now, have been doing for a while, is setting up a schedule that allows me days when I'm just writing. Unfortunately, these often seem to dovetail with days when my kids don't have school, or when they've got the flu, and are vomiting into my lap. You do what you can, as best you can.
2. Which of your professional achievements (stories, awards, etc) gives you the greatest satisfaction?
The greatest satisfaction is finishing a story and knowing it's a good, a really good, piece of work. The awards are nice, and I've certainly gotten my share (an NEA Fellowship, a Bush Foundation Fellowship, the AWP Award for Short Fiction), and the recognition that comes with them is great, and that wonderful feeling of hefty a published book that you've written is indescribable--the smell of the pages!!--but for just sheer satisfaction, that moment when you've finished a story, whether it's a short story, a novella, or a novel, and you know the lines are right, you know you've hit the right notes--that just feels terrifc. When I write the final words to something, and I know I've gotten it just write, I say the lines out loud, I shout them out loud, then I got downstairs and dance around to Van Morrison songs, the stereo turned up really really loud. I'm just so happy.
3. When/why did you first start writing?
I suppose in high school. I worked on the yearbook, and edited the school paper, and wrote a column for the local weekly--news from the high school, that sort of thing. I liked it, but I liked math and science at the time, too. I was taking an art class junior year I guess, and the teacher saw I was a mediocre painter, but my written critiques were good. He told me, You should write. You should really think about writing as a career. And in college I had several teachers who encouraged me. I was very lucky--these teachers took the time for me, and I owe them for that. I was writing journalism mostly, and studying that (at the time I thought I wanted to be a writer/photographer for National Geographic--anything to get out of the midwest!), when I took a short story writing course, and it changed my life. You know that inverted triangle shape that news stories are supposed to be patterned after? I had a horrible time writing that sort of thing because everything that seemed to interest me about the story fell outside the triangle. I took that short story writing course, and there was everything that interested me that didn't fit inside the triangle. And it struck me that this is what I wanted to do. I was also lucky in that my school (St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin) let me design a course of study that revolved around literature and writing--not unlike Marquette University's Writing Intensive English Major--though less formal. For one thing, I was the only one doing it. My senior thesis was a novel. I wrote an incredibly bad novel my last year in school. But I proved to myself I could sit down and actually do it. Later came graduate school, and I worked with some truly wonderful writers--Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. Again, I felt lucky. And blessed.
4. What are your future career or life goals?
To keep writing, to publish more regularly. Now that my kids are older I'd like to think I could write a book every 2-3 years. I look forward to that. Sure, I'd like to win a bunch of awards, and have books I've written sell a lot of copies and get made into movies--who wouldn't? But that's not something you plan on, and I'd do what I do regardless. I can't imagine having a different life. As for life goals, I'd like to take my kids regularly up to the Boundary Waters, canoe a bunch of different routes, including doing that hunk of the Minnesota-Canada border that's mostly water. I'd like to go biking in Europe--I look forward to doing that in a few years, when my youngest is old enough to handle the rigors of that kind of trip. I'd like to die in my sleep, old and happy, and still married to my wife.
"I want readers to inhabit the lives of my characters."
NOTE: This interview first appeared in The Wisconsin Academy Review, summer 2001
What is "Morton and Lilly, Dredge and Fill" about, in a nutshell? Not the plot, but the deeper meaning.
This is a good question, and it deserves a long answer. I think it gets at the issue of why we write and read stories, and there's no simple answer to that.
"Deeper meaning" is one of those phrases that gives me the willies. I don't think you can reduce a story to a simple statement of intent, or a single meaning. Stories function best when they're about more than one thing, when they're about a great many things. In my stories, I try to get at the significance of people's lives, and how they live them, and that seems to me a very complicated business. Someone once asked Milan Kundera what was the essence of his great philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, and Kundera responded something along the lines of, "It's a love story." I love that answer. A book about history, about politics, about philosophy, about language and how we use it, about the meaning of life, and Kundera says he's written a love story. And he's right. If you've been on this planet for very long, and been married or in a relationship for any length of time, you start wondering what it is that keeps people together, particularly people locked in what seem to be bad or even mediocre marriages. But then, even good marriages can go through tough times. I was thinking, too, of what people are willing to do for love. I've written about Morton and Lilly before-they show up in a novella called War Babies and the nature of their relationship has always fascinated me. Morton feels trapped, but won't leave, and Lilly feels neglected, betrayed, and taken for granted, but her longing to be loved by the man she's always loved-a man she wanted to have children with, though that never happened-drives her beyond self respect. There's both loathing and longing in that relationship, and a lot of dark history between them, and it's their shared and separate pasts that both drives them forward and holds them in place. That their house is built on a marsh was one of those intuitive decisions that just seemed right as I was composing the story, and, if you'll pardon the pun, grounds the action. The idiocy and the effects of sprawl-people building houses where they don't belong-pop up as a subtext in my writing from time to time, and that Morton and Lilly would have made that kind of mistake seems in keeping with their character. So I suppose that's part of what the story's about, but I'd like to think it goes beyond that, too.
Ultimately, I want readers to inhabit the lives of my characters, to "live" lives they wouldn't have experienced any other way, and I don't think that experience-or any life, for that matter-is reducible to a simple declaration of deeper meaning. If I could put things in a nutshell, I wouldn't need to write the story.
What makes you a Wisconsin (or at least Midwestern) writer, beyond the fact that you live here? Are there qualities that mark the writing of this region?
The short answer to this is that I think Midwestern writers are aware of the particular qualities of their landscape. It's not as dramatic as other landscapes in this country, perhaps, but being surrounded by land--an ocean's worth of land, when you think about it-puts things in a certain perspective for Midwestern writers. Then, too, we're aware of our place in a different sense as well-we're flyover country, after all, the checkerboard pattern of the nation's midsection that people look down on as they fly from coast to coast, to where "the real stuff" is happening. We're told constantly that we're not exciting, that we're backward, a step behind what's happening, bucolic, not worth bothering with because we're all so darn wholesome. And we know those are condescending myths, and that the real "real stuff "-love, work, children, how we conduct our lives-is happening all around us down here, too. We're "simple" folk living pretty complex lives. (And while we're generally good-natured about the Laverne and Shirley/cheesehead jokes, it rankles us a little, too-nobody likes being labeled and stuffed in a box.)
So we look closely at what's around us, to see what connects us and what divides us, what drives us and what makes us who we are. In that sense, I don't think we're any different than writers anywhere else. Our particularities of place have helped shape how we look at the world, but our concern with exploring the human condition is the same. Doesn't all writing that hopes to be universal begin as "regional" writing- Think of Faulkner-his work is grounded in Mississippi and its troubled history, but his truths are human truths. Is Alice Munro a "regional" writer because much of her fiction is set in Ontario? Of course not. As writers, we make use of what's around us, bringing our characters to life through close observation of the details of our lives, and that may make for the writing having a particular flavor, but in the big scheme of things, we're no more regional (or provincial) than a writer situated in Manhattan and writing about New York.
How did it feel to nab the top prize?
It felt great. Recognition is an elusive joy for most writers, so when it comes, it's a wonderful feeling. So much of what a writer does is done in solitude-the composition and seemingly endless revision-that when you've finished something and people say, "That's good," you positively glow with happiness. I know I'm lucky, too. Most people don't get their work recognized-nobody is publishing the names and accomplishments of, say, mothers or bank examiners or millwrights-so I feel blessed that I'm doing what I love, and have the opportunity to get what I do recognized in this fashion.
Questions can be e-mailed to me at email@example.com and I'll answer the most commonly asked ones here.
You can learn more about CJ on his Biography Page