Published February 2nd 2016 by Ecco
A blistering debut driven by the raw, whip-smart voice of Percy James, a fearless sixteen-year-old girl whose search for her missing mother leads to an unexpected discovery and a life-and-death struggle in the harsh frozen landscape of the upper Midwest
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’s been unraveling for as long as her daughter can remember. Fearing Carletta is strung out on meth and won’t survive the storm, Percy heads for Shelton Potter’s cabin, deep in the woods of northern Michigan.
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 commences 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.
As the storm breaks and violence erupts, Percy will be forced to confront the haunting nature of her mother’s affliction, and come to find her own fate tied more and more inextricably to that of the baby she is determined to save.
Filled with the sweeping sense of cultural and geographic isolation of its setting—the hills of fictional Cutler County in northern Michigan—Sweetgirl is an affecting exploration of courage, sacrifice, and the ties that bind, a taut and darkly humorous tour de force that is horrifying, tender, and hopeful.
Travis Mulhauser was born and raised in Northern Michigan, the insular and remote setting of the fictional Cutler County of the novel. Currently, Mulhauser 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.
What gave you the inspiration to write this book?
I’ve heard a lot of writers talk about how their novels start with an image—Ron Rash and Michael Parker among them—that was the case here. The image was of a teenage girl in a hooded sweatshirt, discovering an abandoned baby. Along with the image came a sense that girl was in just as much danger as the baby.
Who is your favorite character in the book?
Percy, but I feel like she’s gotten enough attention and I want to talk a little bit about Zeke Turner—the Roy Orbison impersonator who picks up Shelton hitchhiking.
Zeke Turner was the co-star of a short story that never got published—a story based on the greatest, most improbable, terrifically bizarre story that I have ever heard. It is maybe the greatest story that has even been told. I’m serious. It’s absolutely mind-blowing, and suggests something incredibly hopeful and powerful about the universe and the nature of existence. I’m not bullshitting. The story belongs to a man in northern Michigan, the man it happened to. I have heard him tell it several times, and seen entire rooms fall silent at its conclusion—seen eyes widen and jaws unhinge. Every time I’ve tried to write that story though, I get it wrong. The thing is, what I keep coming up against, is that it’s not my story to tell.
Zeke Turner has always been an Orbison impersonator, and in my favorite scene from story that story, the one that never really worked, he attends a tryout for a barnstorming tour of tribute acts.
He arrives with high hopes, but as the audition goes on he becomes incensed with the selection committee and their obvious bias for big name acts like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Elvis. And particularly their unabashed praise for a boy band outfit called Backstreet Sync.
My favorite part of the scene is when No Place Like Home—a Kansas tribute band—is cut-off in the middle of their performance of “Dust in the Wind” by one of the committee members shouting at them through a bullhorn.
“Thank you,” the guy says. “That’s quite enough!”
Zeke runs to comfort the musicians as they file off stage. Here’s an excerpt of that dialogue:
“I can't believe they did that,” Zeke said, tugging nervously on the tips of his bolo tie. “What the hell?”
“Totally bogus,” said the drummer.
“I don’t know why I’m surprised,” said the lead.
“No respect,” Zeke said. “None at all.”
“No shit,” said the lead. “And if not for us, then what about the music of Kerry Livgren? And Prog Rock as a whole?”
Eventually, Zeke leaves the audition in a rage. He gets in his truck, drives off into a blizzard, and that’s where that story runs out of steam and stops. For some reason, I just couldn’t get beyond that point.
Some five or so years later I was writing Sweetgirl. Shelton had just run his snowmobile out of gas and wandered out onto the highway to hitch a ride. He stuck his thumb out and I was just as surprised as he was when Zeke Turner came barreling through that blizzard in his bright, purple truck—like he’d come clear through a ripple in space-time, a wormhole—and finally found his rightful place.
Thinking way back to the beginning, what’s the most important thing you've learned as a writer from then to now?
To write the kind of stories I’d want to read. Old, shopworn advice, that just so happens to be completely true. At least for me.
What do you like most about the cover of the book?
Kimberly Glyder did an amazing job on the cover. I feel like it’s the perfect fit for the book, and particularly that it captures some of the hopeful nature of the novel in the subtle lighting. Honestly, I could not be more thrilled it.
What’s up next for you?
I’m hard at work on my new novel, also set in Cutler County. Hope to have a workable draft done by the end of spring!
Praise for SWEETGIRL
“Mulhauser evocatively describes the bleak landscape and starkly degraded social mores of an isolated community after the tourists have departed.” -Publishers Weekly
”Set in a nicely realized far-northern Michigan and told in Percy’s spirited first-person voice, this is an acute study of lives lived at the margins of society and the redemptive power of innocence.” -Booklist
“SWEETGIRL is a gritty, compelling novel of a world where even a sixteen-year-old must confront what Edith Wharton called ‘the hard considerations of the poor.’ Mulhauser depicts his people and their landscape with uncompromising fidelity.” –Ron Rash
“Travis Mulhauser’s Sweetgirl is a riveting novel about a bunch of drug addicts and drug dealers and boozers and quasi-orphans and quasi-parents deal with the prospect of a missing baby girl during a massive snowstorm in northern Michigan. This sounds grim, and it can be grim, but this book is also far, far funnier than it has any right to be. If you’re a fan of Charles Portis and Denis Johnson--and if you’re not, then you should be--then this is book is exactly what you’ve been wanting, what you’ve been waiting for.” — Brock Clarke, author of The Happiest People in the World
“In its dark and deadpan hilarity, Sweetgirl reminded me of other great chroniclers of the criminal element found in our upper Midwest--Tom Drury, Jim Harrison, the Coen Brothers in Fargo. But Mulhauser’s Cutler County, a place of numbered days and last chances, is a part of that country we’ve not seen before. Nor have we heard it described in a voice like Percy James’, filled with true wit, cunning, and the unwanted wisdom of a child denied a childhood. This novel comes on like the blizzard at its center, and leaves you dazzled and dazed not only by how much Travis Mulhauser knows, but how deeply he cares.” — Michael Parker, author of All I Have in this World