On Writing Michigan: An Interview with Travis Mulhauser

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Travis Mulhauser was born and raised in northern Michigan. His novel Sweetgirl (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2016) has been selected for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, was an Indie Next Pick, and was named one of Ploughshares Best Books of the New Year. He is also one of the 2017 Michigan Notable Book Authors.

My admiration of Mulhauser’s writing began almost twenty years ago when we were creative writing students at Central Michigan University: he was young, I was auditing classes as a senior citizen after editing the third edition of Michigan Authors (Michigan Association for Media in Education, 1993) as a librarian. He already had an enviable style and I was happy when I heard he had gone on to the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Just a short time ago, I ran across him in the 2017 list of Michigan Notable Books from the Library of Michigan for his first novel, Sweetgirl; finding many rave reviews, I got in contact with his agent about doing an interview. After reading his work I saw that his writing had taken more of a flavor of another writer associated with Michigan—a writer also familiar with the setting for Sweetgirl, Ernest Hemingway. Living not far away, I had taken the first of the annual Fall Hemingway tours of his Walloon Lake family summer home, the Horton Bay General Store, and relevant Petoskey places.

It was a great pleasure to get in touch again through an interview. Greetings from Cutler County: A Novella and Stories (University of Michigan Press, 2005) also uses the setting of northern Michigan.

You are a graduate of North Central Michigan College and Central Michigan University. In “Eddie Bauer Girls” (from Greetings from Cutler County) the line appears: “On Mitchell Street alone there was the public library, JC Penney’s…” Ernest Hemingway knew the library well and stayed in Petoskey a while after returning from World War I. Has he had an influence on your fiction? Your uncompromising bent reminds me of his Nick Adams stories. If he hasn’t, what are two or three writers that have?

I love Hemingway and read everything he wrote as I was deciding to become a writer myself. He influenced me on every level—particularly the ability to use clean, simple sentences to address complex ideas.

Hemingway, I think, would have done even better as a writer now. I’m nearly certain the character limit and self-promotional elements of Twitter, particularly, would have been ripe ground for Papa. Which is probably a sacrilege to say, but as much as he moved writing from the Victorian to the Modern I think we have to acknowledge some of his influence in our current obsession with quick hit on social media.

His biggest influence on me is probably that issue of time. People don’t have much of it and I don’t want to waste it—just as I don’t want others to waste mine. My first priority is to tell the story well and completely, followed shortly by the aim of getting there quickly. In all honesty, part of that probably comes from my mom, as well, who drove everybody nuts with her constant frenzied work—both in her professional and home life. I remember her telling me it was most important to do a good job, but once the job was done well, could you also find a way to get to that end result more quickly?

NPR said about your novel: “Sweetgirl works on so many levels, it’s difficult to know how to classify it … hilarious, heartbreaking and true, a major accomplishment from an author who looks certain to have an impressive career ahead of him.” That is great praise and well deserved! Please share what you’re now writing (I know many writers prefer not to)—or give us some idea of what your daily writing schedule involves.

Well, I’m writing about Northern Michigan as usual and one thing I am comfortable disclosing right now is that it will be set primarily in the summer and that the natural world will once again play a significant role.

I think that good writers can create a fully-developed, lived-in physical space for any location and time, and I consider myself lucky that I grew up in–and am able now to write about–a place as physically interesting and beautiful as northern Michigan. As a writer, it’s a great place to hang out in and explore, and as much as anything continues to drive my interest in the landscape. I simply like being here.

According to Ploughshares Best Books of the New Year: “The perfect balance of humor and heartache … a masterful debut … as wise as it is suspenseful, as funny as it is tragic … written with guts, grit, and grace, Sweetgirl is the book you want to keep you company on a cold winter’s night.” How did you achieve the very difficult balance that a good novelist achieves? You published a novella and stories before–how did you manage a novel?

My process is very non-linear and frustrating and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody, but since you asked here it is: I usually start with an image and work backwards or forwards from that spot to determine the importance of the image and/or the story that surrounds it. In Sweetgirl, it was the image of a teenage girl in a hooded sweatshirt discovering an abandoned baby—and with that image was the sense that the girl was actually in more danger then the baby and the story was essentially trying to figure out if they could help each other find safety, and possibly, if they were lucky, eventually a better life.

The frustrating part for me is that I take a lot of wrong turns working out or in from that image. As an example, when I started writing Sweetgirl I became too swept up with the baby’s parents. How the baby had become abandoned in the first place? I created entire narratives that ended up being completely unnecessary and that never appeared in the finished version of the book because I was trying to explain to myself how somebody could abandon an infant, and on some level I think I was trying to soften the story for myself. I didn’t want to write about an addict that passed out and left their baby to freeze by an open window, but in truth that was what I needed to be writing about because it was what felt true once I finally hit on it. So my process becomes exploring an image and trying to train myself to hear what rings true and false as I write and attempt to fill the narrative out.

The Midwest is often regarded as the place between California and New York (as far as writing goes), but D.H. Lawrence gave words to a vital concept: “Every people is polarized in some locality, which is home, the homeland. Different places on the face of the earth have different vital influence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality.” What are you finding about the importance of place for a writer?

Wow, that’s a great quote … I don’t know what to add to that except to say that my favorite praise comes from Michigan and/or Midwest readers and writers. When I do events in Michigan and people tell me I hit some thread of truth or resonance for them, that really, really matters to me, and I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of that feedback from those readers and it basically makes my day every time.

You had a collection of stories published while still a college undergrad with a Bruce Springsteen quote about dreams, and am very fortunate to have kept the 1999 autographed copy. Please tell readers about Corvallis Road.

My friend KJ Stevens and I put out a chapbook of stories between our junior and senior years of college … we did everything ourselves … including the actual binding and it was really fun. It basically kept us occupied for an entire summer and likely helped us avoid a good deal of trouble. We did it, in part, to send to other writers because we were stupid and thought they would be impressed and write us back and introduce us to their agents—you have to understand how little two kids from northern Michigan know about how the publishing world works—and while nobody ever wrote us back, it was fun to put those in the mail and have some hope that they would!

What advice could you give to writers thinking of giving up or not finding their way?

I would say that everybody thinks about giving up at some point or another, and that you shouldn’t. But more to the point, after you don’t give up enough times you stop even taking the thoughts about giving up seriously—you sort of realize that you’re trapped, which is ironically a very freeing realization to have.

How did you select a girl as your main character? Was it difficult as a male writer?

It wasn’t that difficult, honestly. I think part of that was not really thinking of Percy as a girl. She was just Percy. I felt like I knew her and so I was very comfortable writing her.

I taught community college for years in Johnston County, North Carolina, and I think reading all those essays really helped me understand how Percy might view certain situations—it wasn’t anything specific as much as it was a sense of familiarity with girls around that age that gave me the confidence to write in her voice.

If I was conscious of anything with Percy it was to present her selflessness and strength. As a teacher I had so many great students who dealt with such difficult, complicated issues with remarkable grace and I wanted to capture some of that in her character. I think so much of our media right now is dismissive of young people. We think they’re all about selfie-sticks and developing personal brands, but the vast majority of kids I worked with were really remarkable human beings.

Find out more about Mulhauser’s upcoming projects at travismulhauser.com, or follow him on Twitter @slangjive.

Carol Smallwood’s recent books include In Hubble’s Shadow (Shanti Arts, 2017), Interweavings: Creative Nonfiction (Shanti Arts, 2017), and Library Outreach to Writers and Poets: Case Studies (McFarland, 2017). She lives in Michigan.

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