By Travis Mulhauser
Ecco/HarperCollins, Feb. 2016, 256 pp.
, the debut novel by Durham resident Travis Mulhauser
, is a slow-burning yet electrifying tale set in the dead of winter in northern Michigan. On the cusp of a snowstorm, Percy, an intelligent and eloquent sixteen-year-old high school dropout, embarks to find her meth-addicted mother, who might be with Cutler County’s biggest scumbag, Shelton Potter. The long, winding course of Percy’s evening changes drastically when she finds a not-quite-abandoned baby in a house with two passed out addicts. What follows, in alternating chapters, is Percy’s attempt to rescue the baby as Potter searches for it with less noble intentions, too.
Cutler County is a fictionalized version of the author’s hometown of Petoskey in dark and snowy northwest Michigan. Mulhauser always knew that the elements would dictate Percy’s actions, and that he wanted to write about a blizzard. Indeed, Percy’s truck getting stuck in the snow sets off the plot. We recently spoke with Mulhauser, who has a master’s degree in creative writing from UNC-Greensboro, about how Sweetgirl
emerged from the combination of two stray characters he’d already written, and about quitting his job to write full-time after unexpectedly finding a major publisher.
INDY: What struck me most about your book was the beauty of the prose. Who influenced your style?
This book Wolf Whistle
, by a Southern writer named Lewis Nordan, is about the Emmett Till murder. It’s a fictionalized version, but the way that he wrote his sentences, the way they move from one to the next—it’s the first book I read where I felt that every sentence mattered. There was no buildup. It was like, boom. He had this quote about how he would edit his own stuff by going through and taking out anything that didn’t jump off of the page. He was also really influenced by the blues, so he would write with a real rhythm. If I modeled my writing after anybody, it would be him.
How often do you rewrite a passage, paragraph, or sentence before you find it to be your own version of perfection?
It’s a lot of whittling down. It’s shameful how much I’ve rewritten paragraphs in Sweetgirl
. Some of the paragraphs will stick without too much reworking, but I think a lot of that just ends up being dialogue. When it comes to the paragraphs of description, I revised a lot of that.
An author recently mentioned to me that their book ended up being one-fifth of what they wrote. Did something similar happen to you?
I would say one-fifth is pretty accurate, if not even more extreme than that. I have a database where I put sections that I cut. It is really just a huge junkyard that goes on forever.
I read that Percy was originally a minor character in another project, and then you decided she deserved her own spotlight. How did the genesis of Sweetgirl come about?
This goes toward your previous question, and it’s indicative of my process. I’m just always writing and seeing where the characters will take me. Percy popped up in a different project. It had the idea of this girl discovering this abandoned baby, but she wasn’t the central focus. Everything I wrote for that project ended up in that junkyard, but I wanted to write about her. And then Shelton, the antagonist, I had written his sections previously, almost without context. I was interested in him as a character, and they just sort of fit together. I had a really nonlinear, backward process for this project.
Once you decided Percy was to be the main focus, how long did the novel take you?
Once I focused in on Percy, it was probably two years before I sent it out. A lot of that was writing while having a full-time job, plus having two kids. If I would have been locked in a room, it wouldn’t have taken that long.
Do you currently have a full-time job and then write on the side?
No, I quit. I did forever, but I quit.
What is it like for someone who is published, a professional writer, but not a name like Stephen King?
Weird. It’s surreal. Signing with Ecco was a dream come true. I love them. Then we got some foreign deals, which was extremely unexpected. A lot of my life has changed, but at the same time so much remains the same. My kids, for instance, are pretty unimpressed with me as a writer, but they do like it when I talk in funny voices and play Legos. When I told my daughter about the deal with Ecco, she looked at me and said, "I want some yogurt."
How did you go about quitting your day job to become a full-time writer?
I taught community college and was a lecturer at state schools in North Carolina for twelve or so years. These are untenured positions that operate on one-year contracts. I wasn't a professor. I taught mostly freshmen and sophomores. I loved teaching, being in a classroom with students, interacting with them—that part was always a blast for me and I think I was pretty good at it. The parts I wasn't so good at typically involved meetings and administrators. I left when the book sold, in part because my wife is the salaried breadwinner, and because academics was starting to drive me a little bit insane. And when I say academics, I don't mean teaching or the students.
What is the daily writing process for you now?
I get to my desk sometime between 7:30 and 9:30, depending on what's going with school drop-off times. I write, eat lunch, then come back and write until it's time to get the kids. During football and basketball season my writing time occasionally falls prey to Twitter rabbit-holes and highlight packages.
I was interested in how your prose and plot come off as very modern-Southern gothic, yet you set the story in Michigan. Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?
I don't consider myself a Southern writer, because I write almost exclusively about Michigan. But I am heavily, heavily influenced by the Southern gothic style, and love and admire the literary culture down here.
Why write about a fictional location and not somewhere real?
I prefer a fictionalized version for a lot of reasons—one is that I can move the landscape around a little bit when logistics require. So there's a practical element to it. I also think it's important to leave myself room to invent. Invention is why I like to write fiction in the first place, and I wouldn't want to give up that freedom. I think the truth of a place is a feeling more than a line on a map, and that, ironically, those sort of truths can often be best conveyed when certain elements are free to be created and shaped without limitation.
What about your next project? Do you plan on continuing to set stories in the county?
We're staying in Cutler for the next one, too. Too much going on up there to leave right now.