As a blizzard bears down, Percy James sets off to find her troubled mother, Carletta. For years, Percy has had to take care of herself and Mama—a woman who has been unraveling for as long as her daughter can remember. Fearing Carletta is strung out on meth and that she won’t survive the storm, Percy heads for Shelton Potter’s cabin, deep in the woods of Northern Michigan. A two-bit criminal, as incompetent as he his violent, Shelton has been smoking his own cook and grieving the death of his beloved Labrador, Old Bo.
But when Percy arrives, there is no sign of Carletta. Searching the house, she finds Shelton and his girlfriend drugged into oblivion—and a crying baby girl left alone in a freezing room upstairs. From the moment the baby wraps a tiny hand around her finger, Percy knows she must save her—a split-second decision that is the beginning of a dangerous odyssey in which she must battle the elements and evade Shelton and a small band of desperate criminals, hell-bent on getting that baby back.
“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.” — Ploughshares, Best Books of the New Year
“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.” — NPR
Main Street Books Interview with Travis Mulhauser
Main Street Books: The protagonist of your debut novel, Sweetgirl, is a 16-year-old female. You, from what I have read on the internet, are not a 16-year-old girl, nor have you ever been one. How did you find your way into the headspace of Percy James?
Travis Mulhauser: Can I plug my website and an essay I wrote about this very thing? It’s actually a pretty complicated answer if I really get into it, but I think a short summation would be I never really thought of her as a girl. She was just Percy, and like any character or actual person, she came from all these different places and I never really felt like I had to reach to get into her headspace. I always felt really comfortable writing in her voice and in her point of view because I felt like I knew her and I think I felt that way because I did.
As a sort of summary of the essay, I essentially drew her from the girls I grew up with in Michigan, the students I taught at a community college in Smithfield, North Carolina, and some of the personal history of my Polish immigrant grandparents. It was an interesting mix, and common characteristics that cut across those different groups were toughness and savvy.
Here’s the backstory: http://www.travismulhauser.com/about-percy-james.html
Main Street Books: Some fiction writers are driven by their characters, others by their plots, and yet more by their settings. When reading it’s often pretty clear which element spoke to an author with the most volume. Yet, in Sweetgirl, all three components come together in a flurry of brilliance, informing and transforming one another. Was there one component that sparked and/or directed the novel?
Travis Mulhauser: I think the whole novel springs from the unexpected discovery of the baby, and, working out from there, everything sort of fills in. The natural world places a role in everything I write and, to a certain extent, the characters and the situations are only really possible in this particular time and place. So the evasive, writerly answer is they are all related and inextricable from each other, but if this were Family Feud and I had to narrow it down to the one I thought was at the top of the board, I think I would say setting, and by that I mean northern Michigan in the winter because of how present the blizzard is, and how limited the characters are by both the conditions and the limitations of a small tourist town in the off-season.
Main Street Books: You construct some intriguing familial relationships in Sweetgirl. Young Percy’s dedication to her negligent mother, Percy’s attachment to the stolen baby, and the quasi-fatherly presence of Portis Dale all point to the elasticity of the term “family.” Is there now or has there previously been anyone in your life who you considered family, despite narrower definitions of the word?
Travis Mulhauser: This is a really great question and the answer is yes, absolutely. And I think - more to the point - it is one of the things I wanted to capture in the book. So many people have to create family and are not lucky enough to be born into one that provides them what they need when they need it. Maybe everybody has that experience to a certain degree, but I think for a lot of people it's really, really fundamental to their development and, in other cases, their survival.
I have had those people in my life and created relationships to help sustain me when my own family, for whatever reason, was unable. My parents, who are both wonderful people and parents, had a terribly destructive relationship with each other. It was volatile and problematic for most of my childhood, involved separations, frequent and colorful arguments, and all sorts of chaos. There was always the feeling, even between fights, that there was another one coming. You could feel it in the air; we all sort of lived with the sense that the rug could be pulled out at any moment, and so I went other places for the feeling of solid ground beneath me. Some of those places were good for me, and some were wildly unhealthy, but that search is something I often find myself writing about and I do love the idea of people making and finding family where they can. I think those bonds, at the end of the day, were as instrumental as anything in my own story.
Main Street Books: Why do you think you were drawn to Michigan as the backdrop for Sweetgirl?
Travis Mulhauser: I was born and raised there and it’s always with me. It’s such a stark, beautiful place, and I just have it in my bones. I don’t know any other way to say it. I think not living there for my adult life has really helped me write about it, as well. I go back at least once a year and it's always sort of mystical and intense, which feeds my energy to continue writing about it.
Main Street Books: How long have you lived in North Carolina? Do you think the Tar Heel state might ever be the setting for your fiction?
Travis Mulhauser: I have been here for almost 20 years, and I do want to set something in NC eventually. I love the South for many of the same reasons I love the Midwest. At this point, it's pretty clear to me that I’ll never be a coastal elite. I’m a flyover country guy, and the south has such a rich culture and sense of being. A lot of things have happened here. Serious shit has gone down in the south and I think it hovers over the place in a really interesting way. I love the trees in Durham. I love the way some of the side streets look in the summer and how tangled and viney everything is—and I like the mountains and the beach. Like Michigan, there is a real sense of the seasons here, and the extremity of the heat in the summer drives me a little bit nuts in the same way that the cold did during a Michigan winter.
Main Street Books: If you could only read one book for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Travis Mulhauser: It would without a doubt be Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle, because it is my favorite book ever written. I’ve probably read it over twenty times, in part because I always used it when I taught...but it's such a brilliant and funny book, and there is so much there. Lewis Nordan is my favorite writer. I adore everything he did, and his interviews about writing helped me as much as anything I’ve read about being a writer. He had both a sense of humility and magic about his work, right down to each individual sentence, and I had so much success with students on that book. I can’t tell you how many told me it was the only novel they ever liked or were ever able to finish. I find it endlessly interesting and entertaining and laugh out loud funny. How’s that for an endorsement?
Main Street Books: What was the last movie you watched?
Travis Mulhauser: Boss Baby! I went with my kids on spring break and we all laughed like crazy.
Main Street Books: Sweet or savory?
Travis Mulhauser: Savory, and it's not even close.