Mid-list crisis: Tilghman's rough road to success

Some critics of contemporary literary fiction– notably, the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley– blame its current malaise on grad school creative writing programs.

Christopher Tilghman took another path to critical acclaim: the struggling starving writer route. He didn't go to grad school, didn't go to the Iowa Workshops– and he now proudly teaches creative writing in UVA's graduate program.

His credentials? "Thirty years of being in the cold is enough," he says. "There is nothing about rejection, about being panicked about money– there's nothing about this life I don't know about."

That was spoken from his comfy home study off Blue Ridge Road, which does seem quite a way from the cold. But Tilghman never forgets that he wrote seriously for years without being published.

He also knows the tyranny of being a mid-list writer. "It's a life where you're almost making a living and you need a contract," he says. And if you're known for writing stories about family, as Tilghman is, "You write more about families."

Tilghman isn't the only writer in the family. His wife, Caroline Preston, "started writing and had instant success," he says. "It took me 20 years. She was able to avoid the long apprenticeship."

He admits to a clash of styles as writers and the occasional sniping, but adds, "We're very supportive."

A Massachusetts native, Tilghman seemed destined to be a UVA prof– even without the PhD– and more than once he mentions how much he loves his job, which he took in 2001.

"Virginia has been in and out of my life since the first story I published in the Virginia Quarterly Review," he says. And at the one writing program he did attend, the Bennington College Summer Workshop, he met UVA institutions George Garrett and Sydney Blair.

When his first book, A Father's Place, was published in 1990, another UVA prof/writer, John Casey, reviewed it for the New York Times.

His day job hasn't impeded his writing at all. In fact, he pulled out his typewriter and started writing short stories, a form he hasn't visited in 10 years. "I can't tell you how exciting it is," he says about both the flowing creative juices and the pleasure of pounding out a story the old-fashioned way.

Tilghman will be reading from his latest novel, Roads of the Heart, March 19 at this year's book fest. "The best feature [of the festival] is all those genres," he says. "I love the crime day and the romance writers. We get enough of our snooty literary stuff."

Oh, and his next book– it's not going to be about families.

Age: 58

Why here? A job at UVA. First full-time job after 35 years writing in the cold.

Worst about living here? The stoplights are endless.

Favorite hangout? The Ice Park, at least before I blew out my knee

Most overrated virtue? Laissez-faire capitalism

People would be surprised to know: I hate my cat

What would you change about yourself? I wish I didn't procrastinate.

Proudest accomplishment? Publishing a book before I was 45.

People find most annoying about you: My tendency to give long answers to short questions. For example, the other day... hey, is this thing still on?

Whom do you admire? The late Andre Dubus

Favorite book? This week it's Gogol's Dead Souls.

Subject that causes you to rant? My old Yale '68 classmate, George W. Bush

Biggest 21st-century thrill? New England Patriots

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Paul Wolfowitz

What do you drive? A Toyota RAV 4 with 200,000 miles

In your car CD player right now: Doesn't have one. At home, I'm getting into some very obscure Baroque operas. My dog hates them.

Next journey? To Phillipsburg, Montana, to visit a rancher I worked for 40 years ago

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Oddly enough, the most overt hot water I was ever in was when I lost a pair of binoculars in the U.S. Navy. As a final punishment, I had to draft my own reprimand.

Regret: Listening to editors too much of the time

Favorite comfort food: Spaghetti alla carbonara

Always in your refrigerator: Lemons and capers

Must-see TV: I waste as much time as the next person, but not in front of TV.

Favorite cartoon: Tom Tomorrow

 Describe a perfect day. Any day I get more than a sentence on paper

Walter Mitty fantasy: If I could sing, I wouldn't be doing any of this.

Who'd play you in the movie? Myself, as long as Renee Zellweger played my wife

Most embarrassing moment? The time I took the train back to Boston from New York, forgetting that I had driven there in my car.

Best advice you ever got? My father, a book publisher, told me to quit my day job. I didn't have a day job at the time, but I understood his point.

Favorite bumper sticker? At least when Clinton lied, nobody died.

Christopher Tilghman