Q&A with Ramiro Hinojosa

Ramiro Hinojosa is the recipient of a VCCA fellowship funded by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the “Collateral Reparations: Military Veterans and the Redemptive Power of Artists Residencies” program. A native Texan, Ramiro Hinojosa earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University and a Bachelor’s in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey? You’ve been a journalist, a political analyst and researcher, a lecturer and, of course, an infantryman in the U.S. Army.  What turned your focus to writing?

It’s funny, I dreaded reading and writing growing up. With some luck and a lot of support, I kind of fell into writing and fiction. In college, I wanted to be a photojournalist, but due to a mediocre portfolio, was put in the multimedia track, which was basically the print track at the time. I was about to graduate, but had no thoughts of really pursuing a newspaper career. One of my professors encouraged me to try out for the student paper to see if I would like it. I was hooked immediately. Soon, I came across Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. For the first time, I really felt something energetic and inspiring in words. I even tried to document my college years with his flair, which was probably my first entry into writing.

During my first job at a small newspaper in Central Texas, I became a political junkie and continued to read mostly non-fiction. Then I enlisted in the Army as an infantryman. I started reading fiction, re-reading authors I’d read in high school and college but hadn’t truly enjoyed or appreciated then: Hemingway, Faulkner, Whitman. During my deployment to Iraq, I read Don Quixote (I’m sure there’s a metaphor to be gleaned from that). I also continued to write, documenting my time in the Army and the years afterward in a journal.

After leaving the Army, I felt a little lost. I didn’t have what you would consider a tough deployment. Some close calls, but nothing like what others I knew had experienced. But it was still hard to transition. I got out right at the height of the Great Recession, and the newspaper industry had all but collapsed. I was unemployed for nine months and angry. Though I eventually started working as an opposition researcher, I kept thinking about my service and didn’t know what to make of it. I read Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and it really spoke to me. I felt that same spark I’d felt reading Hunter S. Thompson, and thought it was the truest thing said about what I was feeling but couldn’t quite express (it also happened to be set in Dallas, where I’m from). I wanted to read everything I could get my hands on, but at the time there were only three books about the Iraq War (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, David Abrams’ Fobbit, and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds). So I broadened my scope, working my way back from Vietnam to WWI to see what commonalities, if any, I could find across generations of soldiers. It was great to find a little of myself in each of those books. Of course, I was introduced to Tim O’Brien’s writing. His blurring of lines between fiction and memoir stunned me, not to mention the beauty and power of his prose. James Jones was another favorite of mine. He really dug deep and got at the inter-personal conflict between soldiers.

Around the same time, I started writing my own stories and essays, just trying to explore my experiences, and see what I could add to the conversation. While I had some essays published, my stories were being rejected—and without any feedback (this, I later found out, was normal). So I paid for a private workshop with Write by Night, a writer’s consultant service. Getting feedback from my consultant made me hungry for more. It was great to have some direction. I started considering MFA programs but didn’t follow through. Then at a Kevin Powers book signing, I happened to chat with a generous visiting professor at the University of Texas who offered to take a look at my writing and encouraged me to pursue an MFA. That extra push convinced me to quit my job in opposition research and pursue my newfound passion. 

I was lucky enough for somebody at Texas State to see something in my writing, which was far from polished, and had the great fortune to study under both Ben Fountain and Tim O’Brien, two people for whom I have the utmost respect—just two generous, kind people all around. The entire faculty at Texas State were extremely supportive and challenged me to become a stronger writer. I couldn’t have ended up at a better place.

So, while it’s been a winding road to here, each of those fields you mentioned have in some way centered on writing. It just took me a while to realize what it was I was supposed to be writing.

You were very influenced by war literature before pursuing your MFA. Has that changed and if so, how?

I don’t think so, because it’s a really personal passion for me. While I’ve been reading non-war-related books recently, I don’t think I’ll ever make a clean cut from war literature. I’m always on the hunt for new stories by veterans. In fact, somebody here just lent me a new anthology, Inheriting the War, which includes prose and poems by children of Vietnam veterans and refugees. It’s a fresh angle and I like it so far. I’ve always been interested in writing around the war, much like John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, to see how those experiences overseas cause ripples here at home. So, even if I do stop writing about Iraq directly, I think my writing will always have some connection to it, even if it’s just alluded to. I recently read an illustrated interview with Phil Klay, in which he said it was hard to put aside that part of his life when the war never ends—and he wasn’t speaking figuratively. I’ve found that to be true.

In your article on the importance of veteran’s stories, you talked about the concept of veteran’s art being stereotyped as “therapeutic first, creative second.” Do you think that will always be the case or is the nature of veteran’s art changing?

Every time I go to a reading by an author who happens to be a veteran, there is always someone in the audience who asks how closely the book mirrors their experience. I ask myself the same thing when I read a veteran’s work. Then, of course, someone else asks if it was therapeutic writing it. I don’t deny that writing about war has been therapeutic for me. How can it not be? I’m constantly trying to find a way to express the emotions behind experiences I’ve either had or heard about. When I read other writers’ works and really connect to a character, it feels good to feel as if I’m not alone. But that is true of all good writing, I think. I recently finished James Jones’ Some Came Running, which centers on a WWII veteran, but is not about combat. There were some really good sections about writers, specifically war writers and the struggle to capture and condense life and put it to the page. It’s hard work, you really have to be open and unafraid and approach it like a therapist. In a way, I guess by writing about war I’m trying to share that part of my life with loved ones who either didn’t know me then, or who I failed to open up to during that time. However, the end goal is always to create something artistic. So, while my priority is not therapeutic, I’m not one to be totally dismissive of that side effect.

Is VCCA your first residency? What are you going to focus on while you are here?

Yes! And I’m thrilled. First, I’m going to focus on staying warm (the temperature was in the single digits the day I arrived). But my goal is to finish polishing my linked story collection about the Iraq War, which explores the lives of often ignored and conflicted protagonists—including Mexican-American soldiers, naturalized citizens serving their adopted country, and Iraqis—as they are repeatedly confronted with fear, failure, and faith. The stories examine how the training and army life can be as dehumanizing as the battles, resulting in loneliness rather than camaraderie. I’ve finished a couple of drafts, but my plan is to tie up some loose ends, in hopes that the book as a whole has a stronger arc similar to that of a novel.

And if time permits, I want to work on some personal essays. The grounds are so serene that my time here seems to warrant some space for reflection.

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