Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Héctor Tobar joined the SOJC faculty this fall. In addition to his wide-ranging experiences as a professional journalist at the Los Angeles Times, Tobar is an accomplished novelist—a background that will help him inspire the next generation of storytellers at the UO.
Why are you leaving your professional journalism career?
It’s time to give back. I taught myself how to be a writer, and if I can do it, anybody can. I’ve learned a lot of practical lessons, and I have a lot to pass on. Literary culture is built on relationships and people supporting one another. When you work with students, you are helping people at the beginning of their careers. You don’t need a license to become a writer – you need to have passion, stubbornness and a love of language.
Why did you choose the SOJC over other journalism schools?
I was impressed by the professionalism of the faculty and the ambition of the students here. The SOJC is taking on many different projects – from what it’s doing at the George S. Turnbull Portland Center with the Agora Center, to what faculty members are doing here in Eugene.
Tell us a little about your background.
My parents arrived in Los Angeles as immigrants from Guatemala in the 1960s. I was educated in LA public schools and went to University of California, Santa Cruz, where I received my bachelor’s degree in sociology and Latin American studies. I also have an MFA in creative writing fiction from the University of California, Irvine.
I did not grow up in a family where we were exposed to writing as a profession. My father was a valet parker and a hotel clerk, and my mother was an early keypunch operator. I was never exposed to writing culture growing up, and I didn’t know that becoming a writer was even possible.
How did you first get involved in the journalism field?
I never studied journalism as an undergraduate. In fact, I’ve never taken a journalism class. I moved to San Francisco after college to teach at a nursery school. I wandered into a Mexican sweet bread store on one of my days off, and saw a community newspaper, El Tecolote, with an advertisement for volunteer writers. I started volunteering and by the time I was 34years-old, I had written so many stories for the paper that they made me its first paid editor. That was the beginning of my career as a journalist.
What has influenced your work?
I think writing and being read to at an early age and also discovering the power of being published. When I was in high school, I wrote a story about my school’s football game. One of the players came up to me after and said, “Héctor, I really liked your story, man. It really captured the moment.” That was a revelation to me.
In college, I volunteered to write a few articles for the college newspaper and magazine, and I wrote a piece on International Women’s Day in Mexico City. A woman came up to me and said, “Héctor, today you are an honorary woman. That was a really good piece.” I got to experience firsthand how writing can break down barriers.
What would you be doing if you had never become a journalist?
Being a scribe and a witness is so much tied to my being, but I think I would be a writer or a thinker. However, I wouldn’t have as much to say because journalism forced me into the world and brought me out of my shell. Thanks to journalism, I have more stories to tell.
Do you have any advice to SOJC students?
Read widely. Read outside of journalism. The next time I teach a writing class I want everyone who comes to my class to have read at least one poem. Try to get your work in front of peoples’ eyes. Try to get into print. Seek out editors. Seek out people who will demand something of you. Don’t expect to get rich. You have to be in it for the long haul, and there will be rewards if you stick with it.
Written by Katie MacLean ’15