Wes Carver, the protagonist of Black River, the debut novel by S.M. Hulse (due out in January from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is a stoic former corrections officer who was tortured and maimed during a prison riot, in the fictional town of Black River, Mont., in 1992. In the book, he returns to the area 20 years later when the inmate who maimed him is up for parole.
Talkative and outgoing S.M. Hulse might not seem much like her uncommunicative protagonist, but, she says, “I have more in common with Wes than I might like—I was the kind of kid who didn’t want to go and do anything fun until I finished my homework!”
Born in California, the 30-ish Hulse (who goes by Sarah) grew up and still lives in Spokane, Wash. She’s an enthusiastic and informative guide to her hometown’s attractions, taking me to a pedestrian bridge built by the CCC in the 1930s where we admire the Spokane River and the huge basalt boulders swept down by glaciers millennia ago.
Hulse is as knowledgeable about local politics as she is about local geology—she was a congressional page in high school and attended Georgetown for a year with the idea of entering the foreign service. Instead, she transferred to the University of Montana as an English major and taught high school in Idaho before getting an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Oregon. “The region as a whole really speaks to me,” she says. “It’s such a diverse area in terms of the landscape. I love the way it changes, and I love that it is still a place where the frontier mind-set plays into people’s attitudes and politics, even though we have four Walmarts.”
Black River portrays this modern West, as Wes waits for the parole hearing and grieves over the loss of his wife. He also grapples with his lifelong struggle with faith. Veiled autobiography, which is typical of first novels, is not Hulse’s style: “One of my favorite things about being a writer is that it’s a license to go learn about anything I want; that interests me more than my own life. The book I’m working on now happens to have a female protagonist, but half the short stories I’ve published are about male protagonists. To me, the question is, do I know enough about this character to tell this story?”
“Sine Die,” Hulse’s story about a congressman with anterograde amnesia, won literary magazine Willow Springs’ 2011 fiction prize, which awards publication and $2,000, and she has published short fiction in other literary periodicals. Nonetheless, “Short stories are hard for me,” she admits. “I’m glad I wrote them in grad school—they’re wonderful for craft—but the prime comment I got was, ‘This would make a great novel!’ ”
Hulse found Oregon’s M.F.A. program grueling but rewarding. “The faculty has changed quite a bit since I was there, but at the time they prided themselves on being tough; criticism tended to be fairly harsh. I’ve never had people read my work so closely and put so much thought into what they said, but it was buried sometimes under mean, theatrical bombast. It worked for me because I’m the kind of person who gets angry,” she says, but adds, “so, under the insults, these comments—darn it—have validity.” But if I ever teach writing again, I hope I could find a balance between challenging my students and supporting them.”
Black River was Hulse’s thesis project, and it brought her to Lorin Rees of the Rees Literary Agency, whose first suggestion was that she cut 20,000 words. “I had already cut 25,000 words from the previous draft!” she recalls. “I hung up the phone, said very nasty things about Rees to my cat, and then decided, okay, I’m not going to count words, I’m just going to go through and cut as much as I can. I ended up cutting about 19,000 words without even trying, so he was obviously right. I always do this—I overwrite, and I wish I could figure out how to leave out those parts in the first draft, but it’s not going to happen. In the novel I’m working on now, I know that half of what I’m writing will come out, but I don’t know which half yet, so I just keep going. It’s hilarious to me that the [prepublication] reviews of Black River have mentioned clean prose, when in grad school I was always getting harassed by my professors for being far too wordy! So I guess I learned something.”
Rees and Hulse’s editor at HMH, Jenna Johnson, both favor a hands-off approach that suits the author. They work in pretty similar ways: “‘Here’s a problem, here’s a way you might want to solve it; if your solution is something different, good.’ Jenna and I have similar interests—we’re both interested in writing that looks at faith or religion—and HMH has a great tradition of people writing about the American West. Before I talked to Jenna, of course, I Googled her and saw that she had worked with Kent Meyers, a South Dakota author I really like.”
Hulse is an active, engaged member of the Western writing community, and, when asked about authors who are important to her, she rattles off a list names, including Thomas Savage, Annie Proulx, Kent Haruf, Ron Hansen, and Mark Sprague—though she also mentions Canadian Mary Lawson and Ozarks native Daniel Woodrell, who wrote a laudatory prepublication blurb for Black River. “That was such an incredible thing for me, because I really admire his writing. Southern and Western writers have so much in common, and I’m really drawn to books where place is important.”
“I love writing about the West,” Hulse says. “Even in a city, the rural lifestyle has a huge impact on how people live. And I’m especially interested in stereotypes about the region, the ways they can play out or be subverted. I’ll go back East and people will ask if we have streetlights in Spokane. There are 400,000 people in the metro area: yes, we have streetlights. But then I also have to admit that a moose recently ran down my road.”
Wendy Smith is a frequent contributor to PW and contributing editor at the American Scholar.