Monday, February 15, 2016

My First Time: Travis Mulhauser

photo by Viki Redding
My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Travis Mulhauser, author of Sweetgirl, a novel that has been praised by Nickolas Butler (author of Shotgun Lovesongs) as an “upper-Midwestern homage to great American quest novels like True Grit and Winter’s Bone. It is a truly memorable and remarkable read.” Travis was born and raised in Northern Michigan, the insular and remote setting of the fictional Cutler County of the novel. He currently lives in Durham, North Carolina with his wife and two children, where he teaches at North Carolina State University. He earned his MFA from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

My First Fiction Teacher

On the day of my high school graduation I sat on the curb outside my mom’s house, chain-smoking cigarettes and waiting for the school to call and tell me if I could walk that night and get my diploma. I can’t remember what class, specifically, was in question, but I was facing the horrifying prospect of summer school until my mom finally walked out onto the front porch late that afternoon.

“That was them,” she said. “You graduated.”

As you may have guessed, I wasn’t a particularly good high school student. I don’t know what my GPA was or what I scored on the ACT. I do remember riding the end of a mild mushroom trip while I took Michigan’s preferred college entrance exam, which may or may not have helped my score—but either way, I wasn’t being recruited for my academics—or anything else. I didn’t care because I didn’t want to go to college.

I moved out of my parent’s house and into an apartment—it was all of three blocks away—and got a job. I worked as a camp counselor in the summer, then worked retail, then quit retail, ran out of money, and had to move home by Christmas. My mom said fine, as long as I took at least two classes at the community college. The community college had to take anybody that applied, literally, and because she taught there I would receive my books and tuition for free.

Thus, I became a Fighting Ferret of North Central Michigan College. Over the course of four years at NCMC I would earn my two-year degree—I was working too, lest you judge too harshly—and, more importantly, I would discover that I wanted to be a writer. That discovery came, in no small part, because of James McCullough.

James was a fantastic writing teacher, which we’ll get to, but we should probably start with his psychology course, and how terribly I bombed it. I showed up late, or not at all, and was disengaged when I was there. I received a D for my final grade and when we met to discuss my performance in the exit exam I sighed, lamenting the fact that I had not lived up to my potential.

“Yeah, you did,” he said.

“I got a D,” I said.

“That’s because you’re a D student,” he said. “If you could have gotten a C, you would have.”

“No,” I said. “You know what I mean. I could have tried harder.”

“No, you couldn’t have.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Obviously, I could have.”

“Look,” he said. “If you were capable of putting in more effort, you would have.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “I totally slacked off.”

“I don’t even know what that means,” he said.

“It means I didn’t try my hardest.”

“I believe that you think that’s true,” he said. “But you put everything you had into this class, trust me.”

In my own personal mythology, that exit conference is my Dagobah. It’s some real bubbling swamp, Luke and Yoda shit. I would wager James doesn’t remember that particular talk, certainly not in such detail, but I’ll never forget how flattened I was when I realized that he was absolutely right. We are what we do, and there is no bigger, more damaging lie than potential. Talk about the white whale.

I still remember my first day in his English 101 course, largely because it was my first day of college. I sat in the back along a window that faced the parking lot and completed my first assignment on a piece of notebook paper. I handed it in to James and when he handed it back the next class with a nice comment or two I got the feeling that he genuinely liked what I wrote. As the semester wore on, I started to realize that I genuinely liked to write.

I went on to take all of James’s writing courses, and when I cashed those out I badgered him into giving me an independent study. It was extra work for him, but he did it, and it changed my life forever. Over the course of that semester I decided I wanted to be a fiction writer, a decision I announced to James with great fanfare and blustery pride—think blaring trumpets and banners unfurling—and he did the right thing and told me to slow my roll.

James always made me want to write more, and better—the only real measure of a writing teacher’s value—but this was not achieved through effusive praise, or an excess of kind notes in the margins. James was sharp and he was honest and sometimes his critiques stung a little bit. Like the story that came back with a single line scrawled across the top. I don’t know what the hell this is, it said.

He was right, of course. It was a terrible story and I knew better than to argue on its behalf.

James never blew smoke when it came to the prospects of a professional writing life. From the outset he told me that it was next to impossible to earn your living writing fiction, and that it certainly wouldn’t happen any time soon—that I would have to work other jobs, have other careers, and spend most of my free time slaving away at stories that there was no guarantee anybody would ever read, yet alone pay me for.

“Which isn’t to mention if you want to get married,” he would say. “Or have kids, for Christ’s sake.”

Sometimes I’d stagger out of his office feeling like I’d just been on an episode of “Scared Straight”—but for writers. You think you really want this, kid? Well, here’s what it’s going to look like!

He read my portfolio from our independent study closely and with far more attention and care than the work merited. When we met to discuss it—it was countless pages of computer-paper, hole-punched and clipped in a blue folder—he told me that a good portion of it was bullshit.

“Which is to be expected,” he said. “They’re early drafts. But I will say that in almost everything you write there’s at least one sentence that makes me stop. That jumps out because it’s your own, and because it says something.”

I lived on that compliment for a long time. I still go back to it.

My last semester at NCMC I sent him a story I’d been working on. There were no more classes of his that I could take and I was about to graduate and move on to Central Michigan University—and more incredible writing teachers. He read the story and then called me on the phone.

I was living in the upstairs flat of a townhouse apartment and it was sometime in the spring. There was snow piled along the curb and it was a bright morning and I was in the living room looking out on the street when James told me that I had written a very good story.

“I mean, it’s like an actual story,” he said. “Its something you would read in a magazine, or a journal. I gave it to Richard Hruska, he agrees.”

Richard Hruska was another English teacher at the college. I’d never had him for a teacher, had never even spoken to him, which granted his opinion significant weight.

“Really?” I said.

I ended up entering the story in a contest, won the small cash prize, got my picture in the newspaper, and when I published my first book a few years later, a heavily revised version of that same story wound up as part of the collection.

But that’s not the important part. The important part is the jubilation I felt after I hung up the phone. The racing heart and the euphoria. The truth is, I yelled “fuck yes” and pounded my chest. I threw a pillow across the room, then spiked it violently to the floor—Gronkowski style. I called out my haters by name. I made a series of inappropriate gestures. I did my touchdown dance—one that would demand to be flagged for its excessive and unsportsmanlike nature.

It’s the same dance I do every time something big happens. Like when I got my fantastic agent, Susan Ramer, or landed Sweetgirl with Megan Lynch and Ecco/Harper Collins—a literal dream come true.

I celebrate those victories, every one of them. These days, the kids join in, too—we all run around screaming and beating our chests and I try not to swear too much. But I always do. I go on and on until my wife, my significantly better half, yells my name. Shouts, “Honey, the kids!”

I’ll slow down then, but still have a fist pump or two left in me. The thing is, James told me exactly how hard those moments would be to come by. Lucky for me, I believed every word he said.


  1. Love this. Thank you David and Travis. I'm off to Twitter and Facebook to shout about it.

  2. Oh my goodness, as a former Ferret I remember both James McCullough, and Richard Hruska! Were you a Ferret of the late 90s?

    1. I am seeing this far too late but yest, I was a ferret in the late 90s...95-98ish?

  3. Hi Travis, I just read this. I'm so happy that you remembered Prof. McCullough. I remember the way you groaned when I handed you back your stories in the fiction writing classes at CMU. Your stories were so good, but that didn't stop me from marking them up. I am so proud of you!