Flannery O'Connor once said, "Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize them." Even O'Connor might be taken aback, however, by some of Mitch Cullin's characters. There's Sheriff Branches in the novel/poem Branches, who throws his skinhead son in a well because he catches him poisoning dogs. Then there is Jeliza-Rose, the 11-year-old narrator of the ferociously imagined Tideland, who keeps her dead father propped up in a chair, applying makeup to the decaying parts of his face when necessary. High school football star Willie Keeler, the protagonist of Whompyjawed, Cullin's first novel, is not quite a grotesque himself, but is surrounded by the down-and-out denizens of smalltown Claude, Tex.
Whompyjawed (1999) is a preternaturally controlled performance, considering that Cullin wrote it in his early 20s, and it received admiring reviews. Branches and Tideland were given an appreciative nod in the New York Times when they came out almost simultaneously in 2000, one from Permanent Press, the other from Dufour, which noted of both books that "they're a pair of small, hard pieces, like stones that you find in the bottom of your pockets—which turn out to be gems, after all, albeit strangely faceted and a little bit dirty."
In his latest novel, Cosmology of Bing (Forecasts, Jan. 29), again from Martin and Judy Shepard's Permanent Press, Cullin seems a little less wild. Bing is a closeted gay astronomy professor at Moss University in Houston. In full midlife-crisis mode, Bing is bingeing on self-pity and alcohol. His wife, Susan, once a poet, has been reduced to a TV-watching phantom by an illness that attacked her in her prime. When Bing makes a clumsy, drunken attempt to paw Nick Sulpy, his handsome independent-studies student, Nick retaliates.
This is certainly the first of Cullin's novels to revolve around a recognizably gay theme, not to speak of so many college-educated types. One has the feeling, reading it, that Cullin is coming in from a long journey in a wilderness of his imagining, which evokes mixed feelings in those of his fans who have enjoyed the Texas Grand Guignol of his previous novels.
PW meets the 32-year-old author in Tucson, where he and his companion, Peter Chang, own a snug bungalow in the university district. The house entrance is through a studio, in which Peter's collages hang from cords. "Peter and I are preparing the illustrations for my next book, Undersurface," Cullin explains. "We collaborated on the illustrations for Branches. We used some of my photographs, which Peter would distort, and we made up a name for the illustrator, Ryuzo Kikushima."
PW had unconsciously associated the author with the football-playing narrator of his first novel, expecting to meet the hulking figure of an ex-lineman. Cullin turns out to be a trim, but not strikingly athletic man. He isn't surprised at PW's surprise. "Everybody thinks I am so interested in football. Willie is not based on me. I'm not athletic myself at all. I hated football. I've tried to watch it, but I can't see the attraction. After Whompyjawed, my editor Marty Shepard at Permanent Press would always talk to me about football, until I finally said, you know, Marty, I don't know anything about football. And he said, how can that be? I said, it just is."
Cullin was born in Santa Fe. "My father, Charles Cullin, was the first director of the New Mexico Film Commission. He'd been Governor Cargo's press secretary. Dad describes it as one long cocktail party, with his job being to go out to L.A. and try to entice people to come to New Mexico. He is still in the film business, although he quit the drinking in the '70s. In fact, he just completed a documentary."
Cullin's mother, Charlotte, is an artist who lives in Dallas. Charlotte and Charles divorced in 1973, and that divorce became the dividing line which determined Cullin's own geography. "I lived with my father until I was in Santa Fe High, where I had a terrible time. I dropped out of there, and went to this farmhouse my mom and stepdad had bought outside of Killeen, Tex. You know, it's in the wacky homicides triangle—in Waco you have the Branch Davidians; in Killeen you have the guy who drove into a Luby's Cafeteria and mowed down tons of people; over in Austin you have Charles Whitman, the guy who shot people from the UT Tower. I loved it. Still, I had to go back to school someday, so I went to Guthrie, this tiny West Texas town where my older sister was teaching school. It was small. My senior class had seven kids in it. I felt like I was a total outsider, but I was welcomed by everybody. I had my stereotypes about hicks, but there weren't any stereotypical hicks there."
Cullin's first plan going into college was to be a photographer. The covers for both Whompyjawed and Tideland are, in fact, photographs he took in West Texas. But his enthusiasm waned when he went to school at UNM, in Albuquerque. He dropped out and did other things for a while, living part of the time on his mother's farm. "I always felt really close to the place. I was drinking then, so I would drink on the porch, and pee off the porch, all the Texas liquid things. I started writing okay there."
He enrolled in the creative writing program at the University of Houston, bringing the manuscript of Whompyjawed with him. He took courses from writers like Daniel Stern and Mary Gaitskill. "Mary is a friend," he says. "The great thing about Houston is that the profs in the program teach undergrads, not just graduate students, so you can have a Mary Gaitskill as a teacher. I ended up being her housesitter, and I drove her around, because she didn't have a car. Mary is so gentle, she's not quite the dark princess you'd think she was if you just read her stories. She's very shy, has a great dry sense of humor. She's one of the three people—the board of directors—who I show my work to, who can call me on my crap. The others are my friend Brad and my father. My dad has the part of him that's just a father, and is proud, but he's a really good editor."
Cullin wrote Branches while at Houston. "I turned in Branches as an assignment." He was partly inspired by his negative reaction to contemporary poetry. "I asked one of my teachers, why isn't poetry popular, why aren't there, like, more narrative poems and such, and he said, well, poetry distills a moment. And that sounded so precious to me. I decided I was going to write a narrative poem."
Cullin got burned out at Houston before he graduated from the program. He decided to move back to the Southwest, and chose Tucson. His move coincided with Permanent Press's acceptance of Whompyjawed. "When I finished my first novel, I wrote about a hundred agents. I thought somebody would offer to look at the book. I got mostly no replies or form letters. So then I sent out query letters, and two publishers wanted to see samples, Permanent Press and MacMurray & Beck. Marty Shepard read the complete manuscript and wanted it first." Cullin never has found an agent or felt the need for one. "I've had a great relationship with him and Judith Shepard. They are good friends. I didn't think anybody would go for Branches, but they loved it. Now Simon & Schuster are putting out the paperback of Whompyjawed, but curiously enough, when I sent it to them the first time, I got a form letter back. Which I told them, but you know, after we'd signed the contract for the paperback."
Branches has a definite noir tang. "Of course, if you are doing a novel about a violent Texas sheriff, you have to think of Jim Thompson's Killer Inside Me. I completely admit it—I went back and read it when somebody said Branches sounded like Killer Inside Me, and I should read it to make sure I wasn't ripping off Jim Thompson. After I finished it, I thought, if Jim Thompson were still alive, I would love to see what he had to say about Branches. The closest I could get was Burt Kennedy, who knew Jim Thompson. Kennedy directed the film version of Killer Inside Me. He'd met my dad, and through my dad I got in touch with him. He so liked it that he was responsible for getting it optioned for a ridiculous sum—$25,000. That is, when you think about it being a poem, really. Kennedy has even written a screenplay for it."
At the same time Cullin was publishing his novels, he was also publishing a lot of short stories, many of them in the gay press. "I'd written a short story that was in Cleis Press's Best Gay Erotica 1996, basically a story about adolescent masturbation. Those kind of adolescent experiences that I had." Cullin has some strong opinions about erotic writing, and about gay fiction. "I've always had a beef with a lot of gay fiction, at least a lot of gay short fiction. It seemed the only things that made the stories viable was the novelty of homosexuality. It could be a boy/girl thing and it would be really lame, but suddenly it has this taboo associated with it. Brian Bouldry is a friend of mine at Little, Brown, and he says, Mitch, you don't write gay stories per se, they are all about adolescent longing." It was while waiting for Permanent Press to publish Whompyjawed that Cullin outlined his next two novels, Tideland and Cosmology of Bing. "I set Tideland aside for a while, because I wasn't sure what I thought about it. I knew Tideland was a little more left field and out there."
Inspiration for that excursion into southwestern gothic came from a train trip to El Paso. "I was going by these farms in the middle of nowhere. Some of them looked really decrepit, but people obviously still lived there. It's one of those things, I can't tell you why—I thought of human taxidermy."
Since the book involves, in a major way, the more literally visceral side of human relationships, PW was curious about how Cullin was able to write about decay and evisceration with such cool authority and from the viewpoint of a little girl, no less. "I've always had an aversion to and interest in bodies. Like roadkill. I loved to photograph roadkill in high school. It just looked interesting. This of course implies violence, but my idea has always been not to glamorize violence.
"You know who really loves Tideland is Terry Gilliam. I sent it to his agent in L.A. out of the blue. I didn't hear anything, and then I get this e-mail five months later just raving about the book." After this interview, PW got a happy e-mail from Cullin announcing that Gilliam had prevailed upon Jeremy Thomas to option the novel for a film.
Tideland was not picked up by Cullin's usual publisher. "Permanent Press didn't not like it, they just thought it was too weird. I started looking for a publisher who would simply accept it as it was. Since Dufour publishes a lot of U.K. fiction, I thought, well, this book might be more consonant with that sensibility. They read it and Tom Lavoie, my editor there, picked it up." Dufour will put out a collection of his short fiction next year.
Cullin's upbeat personality and natural warmth stand in odd contrast to the darker preoccupations of his fiction. Although he says that, in writing, he is "interested in isolated states of desperation," he is also happy collecting Texas music (he is a fan of such outsider musicians as Austin artist Daniel Johnson) and blasting George W. Bush ("I still haven't gotten over the election. I met him at the Texas Book Festival. He really is a frat boy"). His writing career at the moment is keeping him very busy. He has quit drinking and has changed his social habits. "I used to party and do a lot, but my writing schedule would get so thrown off if I went out and got plastered." He has a number of works in the middle of either the writing or publishing process, including two novels and a nonfiction project, with Peter, about Asian-Americans. In general, his view of the writing process is short on romantic anguish. "I could bullshit and make writing sound more interesting than it really is, but it is really about being methodical. Half the time I'm not even sure why I make choices in writing, or how it works when it works. I get my pleasure out of completion. After one book is over, it is on to the next one. It is like Sisyphus, rolling the stone up the hill, and watching it roll down again."