Although Travis Mulhauser now lives in North Carolina, his years growing up in Petoskey, Michigan, are never far from the surface. Michigan is often the vivid background in his stories, as it is in his debut novel, Sweetgirl (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2017), a 2017 Michigan Notable Book.
“Sweetgirl is about a 16-year-old girl whose mother is a drug addict,” Mulhauser says. “Her mother has gone missing and the girl, Percy James, who is the narrator, becomes pretty concerned when a big storm starts to gather and she hears that her mother has been spotted out in rural Northern Michigan.”
As the snow falls, Percy heads out to find her mother, trekking through woods and small country roads. When she comes to an old farmhouse belonging to the local meth kingpin where her mother sometimes goes for a drug fix, Percy doesn’t find her. But she does find a crying baby by an open window. As snow swirls into the room, Percy does the first thing that comes to mind — she takes the baby.
When asked about research for the book, Mulhauser says, “With the exception of meth, a lot of the drugs in the book I did. It wasn’t intended as research at the time. As a young kid growing up, some of that stuff was around and I participated in it. So I knew that part of the world.”
What he didn’t directly know about the drug culture in Michigan, Mulhauser extrapolated from what he did. “I knew the characters and the area where they lived well enough.”
Mulhauser says people in rural Michigan struggle most with meth and other drug addictions. Sweetgirl tells the story of young people who find themselves stepping up, even raising younger children, when adults are lost in their addictions.
Mulhauser says he didn't initially plan to be a writer. “I was about 20 years old and living in Petoskey working weird jobs. I took a night class at a community college (and) I had an English teacher who said I was good at writing. I didn’t believe him at first, but it was a positive message, so I stuck with it. It really gave my life a focus.”
Mulhauser says that English teacher is still a friend and mentor.
Sweetgirl was long-listed for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. It was also a Michigan Notable Book Award winner in 2017, an Indie Next Pick, and named one of Ploughshares' Best Books of the New Year.
Mulhauser is also the author of Greetings from Cutler County: A Novella and Stories. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.
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