By Matthew McEver
Inspired by a Montana prison riot in the 1950s, S.M. Hulse’s debut novel, Black River, belongs alongside the work of Annie Proulx and Ron Hansen, situated among the new literature of the American West. Hulse breaks down nostalgia, offsetting pastoral landscapes against rugged but broken people. Her protagonist, Wes Carver, is a former corrections officer who was held hostage, tortured and maimed in a prison riot twenty years ago. Now, after living in Spokane all this time, Wes returns to Montana, days following his wife’s death, in order to attend the parole hearing for the inmate who held him hostage, an inmate who has supposedly “found God.”
Note: A link to an excerpt from the novel can be found following the interview.
Black River began as your MFA thesis at the University of Oregon. Tell us how things evolved from there.
Yes, I went to the University of Oregon knowing I wanted to write a novel for my MFA thesis, and I had a sense of the characters and story already. I completed a first draft of Black River by the end of my third and final year in the program, and then I headed to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a one-year post-graduate fiction fellowship. In Madison, I revised the manuscript, cutting about 25,000 words in the process, and showed it to a few agents who had approached me after reading my short stories in literary journals. Several offered to represent me, and after signing with one of them, I did another revision and cut another 18,000 words. At that point, my agent sent the manuscript out to about 10 editors, and it sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June 2013, shortly after the end of my fellowship.
Despite being the literature of Willa Cather and Annie Proulx, the Literature of the American West is often considered the domain of male authors. What do you have to say about that, and what is it about this kind of fiction that drew you in?
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about gender when I write—Black River has a male protagonist, the novel I’m working on now has a female protagonist, and my short stories are fairly evenly split between the two—and I’m a bit wary of being defined too strongly as a woman Western writer, simply because the designation seems to suggest that women Western writers are somehow different from “regular” Western writers. I think it’s important that authors (Western and otherwise) tell as many stories as possible, from as many perspectives as possible.
As far as what drew me to Western fiction, I don’t think I necessarily set out to write a “Western” novel. I’ve lived in the American West nearly all my life, so I’m simply writing about the people and places I know best. That said, I’m fascinated by the Western mythology as it exists in the American mind, and I’m interested in exploring how that intersects and collides with the realities of the modern West.
Black River is Wes Carver’s story, no question. The wrinkle, of course, is that you occasionally fold in a chapter from Claire’s (the deceased wife’s) point-of-view. Was Claire’s angle on things a part of your drafts while you were at the University of Oregon? I can visualize MFA students debating whether or not to reveal the dead wife’s perspective. What convinced you that the reader needed to see and hear Claire’s experience?
I was about 100 pages into the first draft when I decided to add Claire’s voice to the novel. Wes, the protagonist, is an incredibly stoic person with a deep but rigid sense of right and wrong. Because he’s such a reserved character—often suppressing his emotions even from himself—I realized that it could be difficult for readers to understand him well enough to appreciate his motives. Wes was also so estranged from his adult stepson, Dennis, that it was difficult to present Dennis as a complex character, because Wes tended to see only his bad traits. Claire, though she certainly had flaws of her own, loved both Wes and Dennis deeply, and through her generally more generous perspective, the reader gained a broader understanding of both men.
I didn’t really take Black River to workshop while I was in my MFA program—I submitted an excerpt in the final quarter of my second year, when we were required to workshop part of our theses, but otherwise always submitted short stories—so I didn’t hear much discussion about the addition of Claire’s voice to the novel. I do know that I wasn’t sure about the decision in the beginning, but by the time I’d finished the first draft, it had become clear that Claire’s chapters helped structure the entire narrative.
Like Ron Hansen, you’ve written a Western that integrates faith, grace, redemption, suffering. How do you manage to tell this kind of story without being didactic?
I love Ron Hansen’s work! I’m fascinated by literary fiction that addresses faith and the themes of grace and redemption that so often go along with it. For me, the key to addressing those kinds of themes in Black River was to let the characters lead. In the novel, Wes follows many of the “rules” of his religion—he attends church, says grace at meals, reads the Bible before bed—but he struggles to have genuine faith. He is eager for it, yearns for it, but it has eluded him all his life, and that elusiveness becomes even more agonizing when he learns that the man who tortured him during a prison riot years ago claims to have become a born-again Christian. Wes’s struggles with faith are central to the decisions he makes throughout the novel, and by focusing on that—why did Wes want so badly to truly believe, why wasn’t he able to do so, what would change in his life if he could—I was able to explore things like faith, forgiveness, and redemption in what I think was a realistic, organic way.
Lastly, you’ve mentioned that you like writing at night. How is that possible? Don’t you feel drained?
I’m definitely a night owl, so I’m amazed by all the writers out there who talk about getting up at four or five in the morning to write—it takes me at least an hour to even be able to speak in coherent sentences, let alone write them. I think I like writing late at night because when it’s dark and quiet, I find it easier to immerse myself in the fictional world of whatever project I’m working on. Probably 85% of Black River was written between 11:00 pm and 3:00 am. That said, it’s certainly true that we don’t always get to write at the times we’d prefer to, so I’m trying to become more flexible in my writing habits.
Matthew McEver holds the MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Currently, he is a Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of North Georgia.
More information about S.M. Hulse, including upcoming events
Excerpt from Black River in TriQuarterlyReview in the Washington Post