One must wonder what “Black River,” the debut novel from S.M. Hulse, was like in its original form. After all, the author cut about one third of the first draft into the published version.
The initial manuscript, which Hulse started writing during her graduate studies at the University of Oregon, was 125,000 words. She started revising it during a post-graduate fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and trimmed 20,000 words.
Before anyone had even seen the book, she had four literary agents interested in working with her on it. She chose Lorin Rees of the Rees Literary Agency. He immediately asked her to cut another 25,000 words. That got it down to the 80,000 words that made it into the printed version that has been named a Best Book of the Month by Amazon and one of the best books of 2015 by the Seattle Times.
Before Hulse arrives in Batavia in March for the 14th annual “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project, she granted an interview with The Daily News.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always enjoyed telling stories. I was always reading books and writing stories as a child, and I never outgrew either. I began sending out work in college and had my first stories accepted for publication while in graduate school. While I’ve always loved writing, it’s only in the last few years that I’ve chosen to make it a professional priority.
What do you love about writing?
Many things. I do a lot of research for my stories and novels, and I really enjoy the opportunity to learn about new things. I also like the gradual process of getting to know my characters over the course of a piece of fiction, as they change from a mere sketch into a nuanced, multi-faceted person. I love working with words and using language to tell stories as elegantly and effectively as I can. I also enjoy interacting with readers; it’s so interesting to hear about the different ways a single story resonates with different people.
What do you hate about writing?
Nothing. Yes, the writing process can be frustrating at times, and some writing days are certainly better than others, but I feel very fortunate to be able to spend so much time doing something I love.
What is your writing method? Does it start with an outline? Stream of consciousness?
I usually think about a piece for a long time before I start writing. I don’t use written outlines, but I like to have a pretty clear sense of where the story is going before I begin. When I start writing, I often know everything that’s going to happen up until a key point of decision for the protagonist; by the time I reach that point in the story or novel, I’ll know the character well enough that I know what decision he or she will make. I write chronologically and often do a fair bit of revision work as I go; this means it takes me awhile to complete a draft, but it’s in pretty good shape once I do. Then I do at least a couple more rounds of revision during which I usually cut a lot of material; for example, the first draft of “Black River” was 125,000 words, and the published version is about 80,000 words.
How long did it take you to write “Black River”?
About four years. “Black River” was my graduate school thesis, and I was also writing short stories for workshop and completing other academic work at the same time, plus teaching undergraduate courses. I left the University of Oregon with a completed draft of the book, and I spent the next year as a post-graduate fellow at the University of Wisconsin. During that year, I revised the novel a couple times, signed with my agent, and then sold the book to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt shortly after the fellowship ended. I was fortunate to have that time to devote to writing, and I was very motivated to make the most of it.
I understand the basis for “Black River” was a Montana prison riot in the 1950s. What about that event made you want to write this book?
The riot that took place at the Montana State Prison in 1959 bears very little resemblance to the riot in “Black River.” I was most interested in the impact of the riot on the town of Deer Lodge, where the prison is located. The current prison is some distance away, but the original prison, where the riot took place, is quite literally located on Main Street downtown. So when this riot occurred in which, among other things, the Montana National Guard shot a bazooka at the main cell block, it was very much an event that impacted the entire town, not just those directly involved with the prison. The town of Black River isn’t a fictionalized version of Deer Lodge — the two towns have different histories, geographies, and demographics, among other things — but Deer Lodge’s experiences in 1959 inspired me to consider the ways in which a prison riot might affect not only those directly involved, like Wes Carver, but also the community as a whole.
Are you familiar with the Attica prison riot that happened here in 1971?
I have a basic familiarity with the events of the Attica prison riot. While conducting research for “Black River,” I read many transcripts of interviews with prison staff who had been held hostage during prison riots, and a number of the interviews were with people who had been taken hostage at Attica.
I understand you learned to play the fiddle while you were writing “Black River.” What was that experience like? And do you still play?
While writing the first draft of “Black River,” I spent a lot of time reading about and listening to old-time and bluegrass music, but I decided that in order to write most effectively about the music in the book, I should try playing it myself. I’d played the viola for a few years as a kid, but not very well. However, when I picked up the fiddle, I found that I really enjoyed playing folk music. I had a couple wonderful teachers, and learning by ear suited me better than reading sheet music had. I do still play, though admittedly not as often as I did while working on “Black River.” I’ll never be as talented a fiddler as Wes is in the novel, but my cat no longer hightails it out of the room when she sees me take out my fiddle, either.
Aside from your own, which books would you recommend to people?
I recently read Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” and loved it; I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a great novel about the American West, but also to those interested in reading about the course of a marriage between two strong people over many years. I’m also a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day,” which is one of the best portraits of a stoic character I’ve ever read.
Having grown up in San Bernardino, Calif. and also spending time in Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon, where do you call home?
I can answer this question a few different ways. I generally think of Spokane, Wash. as “home.” I’ve spent more of my life in Spokane than in any other single place, and my father lives in Spokane, so even when I’ve lived elsewhere, I’ve never gone long without at least visiting. That said, I lived in San Bernardino until I was almost six, so it will always be the place I’m from originally; whenever I visit the area it feels familiar in a way I suspect only the first place you know can. And then there’s Montana, which immediately felt like “home” in a way nowhere else ever has, and which I hope to call “home” again someday. Ultimately, the West is home.
Have you ever visited Western New York before? What are you looking forward to seeing? (Niagara Falls is about an hour’s drive from Batavia.)
I’ve never visited Western New York before, but I’m certainly looking forward to doing so. No matter where I live, one of my favorite things to do is to drive the back roads through the surrounding countryside to see the landscape and the small towns. I also enjoy seeing how a new place does or doesn’t match the image of it I might have in my head. So I’m simply eager to get to know a new area in a part of the country I haven’t seen before.
Can you tell us a little about the book you’re writing now?
I’m working on a novel about a woman whose brother commits a serious crime after becoming involved with extremist anti-government ideologies. It’s set primarily in a mining town in northwestern Montana, and like “Black River,” involves characters with difficult pasts and complicated presents.
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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation