an online showcase curated by Maya Kóvskaya



Travis Mulhauser
interviewed by Raul Clement



I met Travis Mulhauser in the early 2000s, when, as a young cocky undergraduate, I took a fiction workshop with Michael Parker where Travis was the T.A. I don’t remember much of his teaching from that time, and I probably wasn’t listening anyway. Around a decade later, somehow still an undergrad and still taking fiction workshops, I enrolled in another course—this time with Travis as the professor. I enjoyed that class immensely and got a lot out of his feedback. What impressed me most was how he could be insightful, and get to the heart of a story, without the alienating, pretentious tone that writing instructors often adopt. I sought out his first story collection and was impressed by many elements—the tight narratives, the measured way he dispensed key information—but mostly I was impressed by the immediacy and honesty. It seemed like a direct offshoot of his personality. I kept in touch with him over the years and was excited for the release of his first novel, Sweetgirl, from Ecco/HarperCollins. As I expected, it maintained many of the elements that made his story collection so strong—a sense of narrative momentum, fidelity to character, and well-crafted but unpretentious language. But every element was improved: richer, deeper, more moving.

That honesty and immediacy translates into his responses here. I’ve done a number of interviews over the years and this one felt the most like a real conversation. –RC

Raul Clement
: Let's start with a few basic questions about the genesis of this book. This is your first novel. When did you start writing it? And what was the origin or germ of the idea?

Travis Mulhauser: The novel started with the image of a young girl in a hooded sweatshirt, discovering an abandoned baby, and the sense around the image was that the girl was in as much trouble as the baby, and everything spun out from there. It’s hard to say how long I was writing it. I took a lot of missteps along the way—the biggest becoming too concerned with the baby's parents and what could have led to the abandonment in the first place. Essentially, I did a lot of lying to myself. I made up this bizarre series of events that could lead to an abandoned baby and create justification for the parent's neglect because I thought I had to do something inventive and unique with the plot structure, rather than just having somebody be so incapacitated from their self-abuse that they are unable to care for their infant. I overthought it.  

That book actually had a very near miss with a great publishing house, and their feedback was critical in my finally getting back to Percy and the baby as the center of the story and pushing forward with that.

RC: Did you start writing this book before you became a parent? There is real tenderness in the way Percy protects and takes to Jenna. Did your own experience with parenthood aid you there? 

TM: Yes, completely. I started writing this pre-kids, and then when our first was born I felt much more able to write about caring for a baby—some of the logistics of it—but more than anything, being a dad fundamentally changed me. I was completely unprepared for all of it, and the day my son was born was the most intense experience of my life.  

One of the few life events that not only lived up to, but surpassed expectations. And it’s not that it was a great day, like many people say about the birth of their children.  For me a great day is spent on a quiet lake with a good book—nothing much happens on a great day—the day Leo was born was transformative. It was not relaxing, or chill, or fun. 

For me the transformation happened the moment I saw him—literally. Not during the ultrasounds, not when I felt him kick—it was the first time I saw his face and little trembling hands and I just fucking lost it. I started bawling. I didn't know what was happening. I was holding him in my arms and had to sit down. I was terrified and overwhelmed and more than anything I could literally feel my heart expanding—is that dramatic enough? It’s what happened.  

Until that day I had never, ever, put another person's wants or needs before my own—unless somehow I thought it would benefit me in the long run—and then there was this baby and all at once I cared for him more than myself and it freaked me out. I was also terrified that I would fuck it up somehow. So it was blinding love and fear, and when the doctors took him back to do all the measuring and weighing I curled into a ball on the little sofa in the room and fell into a black, concrete sleep. The whole thing was bonkers, and that experience of becoming a parent, which still continues daily, helped me not only with Percy but with the empathy needed to write Shelton's character as well. And don't get me wrong—I don't think having kids is a pre-requisite for empathy or understanding babies or writing a wide range of human experience or anything else...It was just how it happened for me.

RC: I want to double back to something you said in your first response. You spoke about missteps in your initial attempts at this novel. And you spoke about a "near miss with a great publishing house" whose advice ultimately was instructive. I wonder how that connects to the unusual structure of the novel. It starts as a first-person narrative, but a couple of chapters in we see events in third person from Shelton Potter's POV. This could have been jarring, since it's not a combination you see frequently, but ultimately it wasn't. I felt it greatly expanded the scope and emotion of the book and I can't imagine it any other way. How did you decide on these POV switches and was it a hard decision? I feel like there's a "conservative" side of me, especially when I am writing something "realist" as this book largely is, that shies away from such solutions. 

TM: The feedback from the editor at the publishing house got me to focus on Percy, and I rewrote it with her as the central character, and that draft included sections in Shelton’s POV. Initially it was all in third person though. After that publishing house passed, I decided to try and get an agent and went through, like, twenty close-but-no-cigars on my rewrite. I was totally good with Shelton's sections, but something was still nagging at me with Percy.  

One day I was driving home from work and I started to hear her voice—it was somewhat surreal. I was always thinking about the novel on some level, but in that moment I started to hear her sections being read in her voice.  

I rewrote the first chapter in first person and sent it to my good friend, Soren Palmer, a fiction writer I was carpooling to work with every day. He said the first person was better, which was what I wanted him to say. Then I wrote my friend Jon Baker. I went to grad school with him at UNCG, and he's a foreign rights agent now in NY with his own shingle...he'd really been helping me a ton with referrals and had read the original version, and I basically asked him if I could rewrite Percy's sections in first person. Like you mentioned in your question, I'm sort of conventional when it comes to choices like that, and Jon gave me this great answer. He said, "There are no rules. Do what works best." 

So I rewrote all of Percy's sections and it took, like, maybe 10 days. This is with a full-time job and two kids under five. So after two years of slaving away and plodding, it all came together in a rush—I sent out a new batch of submissions to agents. The first said, literally, “I love this and I don't know why I'm passing, but I'm passing.” The second response was from Susan Ramer, my agent who I love, and she asked if she could set up a call. I went nuts celebrating, and my daughter said something like, “You're too loud and I want some yogurt.”

RC: Both this novel and your short story collection, Greetings from Cutler County, are set in the same part of northern Michigan. I know you grew up in Michigan, but is there something else that pulls you so strongly to write about this part of the US? I hope that question is not too vague. 

TM: I love the landscape because it’s severe and beautiful and because there are such strong contrasts seasonally, both in the way the place looks and feels and who is there to inhabit it. Tourist towns offer socio-economic dynamics that I think are generally interesting to write about, and growing up there makes it loaded for me personally because so many transformative things happened in that time. This was a small town, pre-internet, and there was a real isolation to northern Michigan that I found valuable and that may not even be available in our more global and connected world. I grew up steeped in a sense of place because it was quite literally the only thing I knew or even had access to.  

One of the biggest vacations we took when I was a kid was to Sault, Canada. It’s a few hours away and the whole trip materialized out of my dad's desire to purchase a VCR, and to do so in Canada where we could save on the exchange rate. This was parlayed into two nights in a hotel with a swimming pool, a trip to the shopping mall, and a ride on something called the Snow Train, which was this awesome afternoon tour of snowy Canada.  We went to a few semi-pro hockey games at night and I remember it all so vividly because it was so much fun and because it blew my mind. It was a cultural experience and I don't say that ironically.  

I also really love the people. Both in the Midwest and the South, actually. I've given up on becoming a coastal elite and I just don't know that I have much to say about cities I've never lived in and rarely visited. 

RC: In this last election, Michigan was a surprise victory for Donald Trump and proved a huge factor in his victory. Do you have a sense of why he won there? And what, in these politically frightening and internationally turbulent times, is the relationship of the writer to politics? Can we afford the Olympian "art for art's sake" attitude of past generations? 

TM: Art for Art's Sake: Not only can we afford it, but I think it’s imperative. Art is a great escape and it’s a great way to construct and search for meaning and I don't think either of those aims is best served by political messaging. And I would go even further and say that the best way to illuminate important social or political truths is to do so through the thorough and honest telling of a story. Through the radical act of not messaging.  

Didactic books and characters never work for me as a reader, and I feel like the last thing people need right now is to have political ideology, which we're strangling on to begin with, included in their art and entertainment like some sort of nutritional supplement.  

Trump in Michigan: I saw a political writer on Twitter making fun of "Michigan coal miners" who voted for Trump to have their "browsing histories sold," and while I think it’s unfair of me to do so, I'll point to that tweet as a nice summary of factors. Trump got rural votes on wedge issues and enormous, fantastic lies, while the Democrats, whose policies would, comparatively, help rural America can't be bothered to go there—literally, in Hillary's case. So, a political writer on the East Coast getting snarky with Michigan coal miners—who haven't existed since the 1950's because Michigan hasn't mined coal for almost 70 years—sort of irked me. Maybe it was a simple, honest mistake—he fired off the tweet and mixed up states—but honestly, it’s not a mistake anybody at all familiar with Michigan would make.  

Also, the assistance of a foreign government didn't hurt Trump, and neither did the fact that Flint still doesn't have clean water.




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