In 2012, one question author Travis Mulhauser tried to dodge was that inevitable writer-at-a-dinner party query: “How’s the writing going?” Seven years had passed since the release of Greetings from Cutler County, his debut short-story collection, and he was juggling teaching work at a North Carolina community college with novel rejections and an ever-growing database of unused material.
“I learned to say that the writing was going good, but I hadn’t published anything recently,” Mulhauser says, sipping coffee before a recent book reading in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
But as standard as that answer might sound coming from a writer, big things were brewing in Mulhauser’s fictional Cutler County, a Michigan locale based on his far-north hometown of Petoskey. Cutler County started to grow full of quirky, country-hardened locals that bring to mind more southern tales, like Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone or, at their most extreme, Donald Ray Pollock’s warts-and-all portrayal of Northeastern Ohio in Knockemstiff. And though you might expect a massive tome to emerge from this effort, Mulhauser produced something else entirely. A lean gutpunch of a novel surfaced from Cutler County this month, and its name is Sweetgirl—a lyrical tale that practically demands to be read in a single sitting.
Sweetgirl tells the story of Percy James, a 16-year-old drop-out who stumbles upon a neglected infant during one of Northern Michigan’s infamous blizzards. In her quest for help—and at some points, survival—Percy untangles complicated questions on family, loyalty and growing up in a cultural vacuum.
We recently caught up with Mulhauser in the midst of his book tour to discuss writing about Michigan, crafting flawed characters and what he’s working on next.
Paste: Both Sweetgirl and your 2005 collection of short stories take place in your fictional Cutler County. Are you looking to build a bigger, self-contained world with this location?
Mulhauser: Yeah. My first book with University of Michigan press was short stories, and what I’m working on now is back in Cutler County. I like that idea of having a place. I know it well enough that it seems that I know where to go back to. I feel comfortable writing about it in a way that I might not feel writing about the South, where I live now. I feel like I haven’t earned that credibility for some reason. But growing up in a place, I feel like it grants me a certain amount of authority. Also, I just like it. It hasn’t gotten old to me.
Paste: Is that a regional impulse, to earn your keep in an area? You see writers discussing, say, Detroit who don’t live in the city, and Detroiters are quick to point out if something doesn’t feel authentic. Do you feel that even after living in the south for 16 years?
Mulhauser: I kind of do. My wife is a death penalty lawyer. People are always like, why don’t you write in that world? Part of it is that I don’t want to. It’s a super dark, depressing world where very little good happens, even if it would be very marketable. Also, I live in Durham now. It’s not really the South. It’s like New Jersey, but in the state of North Carolina. But I’ve written some non-fiction stuff about my time in the South that I feel comfortable with.
I feel like when you write about the South, it’s really easy to come off wrong. Their literary culture is so fantastic. I don’t know that they need me to chime in. [Laughs] I was a little bit conscious of that with [Sweetgirl’s narrator] Percy, because she had a bit of a southern vibe to her. It made sense to me that her mom would be from South Carolina as a way to incorporate that and still make it work. With everyone who’s read it from the state of Michigan, I haven’t had anyone say that it didn’t feel [true to] the state. I feel good about that part of it.
Paste: People can be defensive about Michigan, especially given the current events. But it seems that—despite a cast that includes drug addicts, alcoholics, bad parents—readers are still responsive if it feels right.
Mulhauser: I’m sure that with some readers, it would piss them off. Actually, I taught at a community college in Johnston County in North Carolina. It just had to do with the language, and they shut that reading down. It didn’t surprise me that much, but I haven’t had any reaction like that from the folks in Michigan. But some people look at things really black and white.
I read some of the comments on GoodReads, which I probably shouldn’t look at. It’s totally positive, but people will be like, “Despite the despicable lifestyle…” You forget that there are people who assume that if you’re a drug addict, you’re a bad person. That always surprises me. Or if someone says something like, “Why can someone who is uneducated say something like that?” I’m irritated by that particular critique. Sometimes you say really smart shit when you’re drunk and on drugs. Do people not know that? Some of those folks are still out there.
Paste: We’ve seen your fictional take on the state of Michigan, but what was your own experience like?
Mulhauser: I grew up in Petoskey, which is 40 minutes south of the [Mackinac Island] bridge. It was a unique experience: growing up pre-Internet in a period that might be hard to duplicate in terms of cultural isolation. Like, I never heard of hummus until my mid-20s. I never heard of a chick pea until I moved to Greensboro, and I was like, “What the fuck is a chick pea?” Thai food, I’d never had Thai food. Sushi? Never had sushi. My parents are educated, it’s not like we were out in a field or something, but there was nothing. There was a movie theater with one movie, and if we had to go school shopping, we would go to the mall in Traverse City. That was a treat, because we got our clothes there instead of the J.C. Penney downtown.
In winter, there’s just nothing. It’s so cold. I almost think now they’ve got it easier with global warming. It’s probably brighter, they don’t know what true darkness and cold was. You couldn’t do anything ever, you could just go outside and sled or whatever. So I was always bored and entertaining myself with my own brain. I think that’s why, becoming a writer, I was very comfortable in solitude and making things up. That’s what everything was back then. It’s not like we were playing with wooden dolls or anything, but my mom would try to take us and get us culture when she could.
Paste: When did you start writing for real?
Mulhauser: When I was 19 or 20, I decided I wanted to write fiction. I think I took it about as serious as a 20-year-old could take anything. I wish I took it less serious. I’m an all-or-nothing, and I spent a lot of time working on my stuff. I think, in some ways, I should have been doing other things. I don’t mean like having other experiences, I just mean like putting pressure on myself to be this writer guy. As soon as I decided that I was going to do it, I really tried to do it, and I made it a little more difficult than I needed it to be. I would not say that I was a writer in public. It was more of an internal thing, where I was holding myself up to some standard. But with the guys I hung out with in high school, if I said it then, they would’ve said, “What is that?”
Paste: The idea of leaving Michigan is a major theme throughout this book, and I think life-long residents can definitely relate to a certain anxiety in leaving the state. Was that a theme you wanted to instill in this book as your debut?
Mulhauser: Yeah, leaving your home and also the idea that your parents are—I felt like Percy had to completely disconnect from her mother, and that’s a really hard decision to make. A lot of people don’t make it, because it’s really terrifying and they feel so guilty about it. A lot of people suffer for that. A lot of people are in certain situations where you have to cut bait, when you tell people that you love more than anyone else in the world that you can’t live in their world anymore. A lot of kids would be better off if they made that decision. That decision to bail and just run away from home, there are situations where that has to happen. That was definitely what I saw her arc being.
Paste: Did that come before the story?
Mulhauser: No, the story started from the perspective of the parent of the [neglected] baby. In the original version, he was an alcoholic. It was from his perspective, and I finished that novel and got feedback on it, which was, “It’s good, but we hate your main character because he’s such a dick.” I looked at Percy, and the image of her finding that baby really stuck with me. I knew she was in trouble, was a troubled kid, but I didn’t realize it would be about her escaping the clutches of her mother.
Paste: That story went from featuring a very unlikable character to a very flawed, likable character. What attracts you to characters who are just on the cusp of keeping their lives together?
Mulhauser: I think they’re interesting, and I grew up with a lot of them. One of my lines was that I’m not a badass, but I hung out with a lot of badasses. And I learned that they’re a lot more than the bad decisions they make. There’s something interesting about that. Portis, in particular, was a guy who made a lot of mistakes, but there’s still this good in him—he’ll do the right thing when it matters. There are so many guys like that, and that interested me.
I found myself hanging around these characters in my real life, who in some ways were larger than life. To tie it into my wife and her death penalty work, you learn that there are not many people who are just monsters. All of her clients, there are so many things that they’ve done that are admirable in some ways. Her thing is like, these guys are never the sum result of the worst thing that they’ve done. They’re more than the worst thing that they’ve done.
Paste: You’ve talked before about how your students’ personal essays had a big impact on how you shaped Percy. What would this book have been like without reading those experiences year after year?
Mulhauser: I think it helped me with the voice, and it helped me with the world view. I remember reading papers from kids who had horrible things happen to them. Just reading this—they’re trying to fulfill a three-to-five page assignment for English—and they write about this horrible thing that happened and try to make sense of it by page five. They’d try to order their experience, try to move on, and it was mind-blowing. Eighty percent of it was mind-numbing trash, but some of it was really mind-blowing stuff. To give myself some credit, I think I made myself an open audience, but they’d let it all hang out. If anything, it taught me how a kid in a situation would try to process this situation.
Paste: How much material is between your 2005 short story collection and Sweetgirl?
Mulhauser: A lot. I sent out two different novels, then the version that would have been this one. I have a database where I looked at the entry for just this novel, and there were 750 entries of copy-pasted text. Part of that is because I’m a non-linear writer, and if it doesn’t fit I set it to the side, maybe it’ll come back. The character in Sweetgirl, the Roy Orbison impersonator who picks up Shelton when he’s hitchhiking, I tried to write a whole story about him. I really love that guy. In the story, he’s trying out for this traveling music thing, and he gets really pissed because they’re not giving credit to artists like him. He gets really pissed because this Kansas tribute gets kind of booed off the stage, and he drives toward the snowstorm. That’s when his story stops. And then I’m writing Sweetgirl, and then there’s this scene. It’s almost like he came out of the storm, and it’s like I copied and pasted him in there. And I wrote that like five years ago. I’m not sure how smart that is to talk about, it’s kind of like “that’s how the sausage is made,” but some of it is really non-linear with me. Some of that is just being open to changing things all of the time.
Paste: Readers have been reacting favorably to the humor in this book. You’re a funny guy in person, but is that a craft you had to hone? Was there intent behind the humor?
Mulhauser: My standard reply to that is that I’m only funny when I’m not trying to be. I’ve given talks and Q&As where I’m baring my soul, and people are fuckin’ laughing. I guess it’s funny, but that’s the way I see it. With the book, I just wrote it. It just happened that way, and that’s what I’ve found that people react to. If I ever try to be funny, it’s a disaster. I just feel comfortable enough with myself to write things and see what happens, though I do appreciate the humor in things I watch and read. That goes a far way with me as a consumer. I don’t want to sit through a three-hour, depressing slog. I’m never going to watch Schindler’s List again. [Laughs] I’ll get upset with my wife when she ropes me into watching these depressing movies that I don’t know that I’m getting into…so, laughter’s huge and a good coping mechanism in life. You can laugh about it or feel shitty about it.
Paste: Can you talk about what you’re working on now?
Mulhauser: It’s set in Cutler County, and it’s going to be fast and tense and hopefully funny. I’ve kicked around a lot of ideas in a lot of directions. I hope to have a readable draft fairly soon.