2015 is shaping up to be the year of the debut novel. Recently, we reviewed S. M. Hulse’s wonderful Black River, which is the debut of the year (and the best book of 2015 so far). We were thrilled when Ms. Hulse agreed to answer a few questions for us. Below is our interview, conducted by Bradley Sides, creator of the review website Novel Enthusiasts.
Drunk Monkeys: Thank you, S. M., for agreeing to spend some time with us here at Drunk Monkeys. Congratulations on Black River. It’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful novel. I read it over the course of a weekend, and I was lost to the rest of the world. Honestly, it is a wonderful work of fiction. Before we get into the novel, I want to ask about the book tour. I know this is your first novel, and it’s been so well received—basically everyone loves it. What’s it like going to the book signings? Has it been everything you imagined it would be?
S.M. Hulse: It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to meet booksellers, readers, and future readers. Some readings have been packed and others have been more lightly attended, but in every case I’ve loved sharing Black River with those present.
DM: Is your hand cramping from signing so many books?
SH: You’ll never hear me complain about it!
DM: Let’s talk about the book. Black River’s protagonist is Wes Carver. He’s a lot of things, but the novel does spend a substantial amount of time describing his love of music, specifically fiddling. I know that you fiddle. Being so close to the subject matter, were those some of the easiest moments to write? Or were they the ones you kept revisiting because you knew you had to get that feeling perfect?
SH: I actually learned to play the fiddle while writing Black River, in large part because I found the fiddling scenes challenging to write. I did play the viola for a few years when I was younger, so I wasn’t entirely new to string instruments, but as Black River began to take shape, it became clear to me that I needed more direct experience in order to write the fiddling scenes effectively. While I’m nowhere near as talented a fiddler as Wes, I think learning to play gave me a deeper appreciation of not only the technical elements of playing the fiddle, but also of the deep love Wes has for his music.
DM: Black River is very much an atmospheric read that is set in Montana. As a reader, I’m able to feel the scenery all around me. I can hear the dialect. I see the horses. I can hear the music. You captured it all so well, too. Part of that, I think, has to come from the fact that you are writing about a place that you know so well. I’m curious if you think of your novel as a Western novel, one with the classic Western themes, or a novel that is set in the West (and could only occur in the West)?
SH: I love the American West, and I love reading and writing about the West. If I occasionally take issue with the “Western fiction” label, it’s simply because I think it can sometimes be used to separate so-called “regional” literature from literary fiction as a whole. Black River is first and foremost the story of Wes Carver and the people around him. They are certainly shaped by their community and culture, which are in turn shaped at least in part by the landscape, but I think that’s true of most people no matter where they reside. That said, it’s hard for me to imagine the novel taking place anywhere but the West. I hope Black River appeals both to readers who love Western fiction as well as those who are drawn primarily to character-driven literary fiction.
DM: Your characters are so well developed. Wes is great, obviously. Claire is fantastic. Dennis is good. Scott, though—I was really drawn to this damaged, sad, struggling kid. I was so engaged in those scenes with him because I felt so uneasy. I was rooting for him, but I would doubt myself in doing so. Then, I’d start back again. I never knew where his story was going. When you first began writing Scott, did you know his fate?
SH: I’m glad to hear you felt this way about Scott, because I think that’s exactly how Wes feels during most of his interactions with him. Scott, whose father is incarcerated in Black River, challenges a lot of Wes’s assumptions, and Scott’s actions toward the end of the novel force Wes to reconsider some of his black-and-white thinking—even as Wes judges those actions quite harshly.
I had a sense of what might happen to Scott when I started writing, but I generally leave room open for changes in the storyline. I often write toward a point of decision for the characters, knowing that by the time I reach that decision, I will know the characters well enough to understand what choices they will make and why.
DM: If you could choose one thing for readers to take away from Black River, what would it be?
SH: I hope that by the time they’ve finished the novel, readers feel they know the characters well and have a sense that their lives extend beyond the final page of Black River.
DM: S. M., thank you again. You’ve written a book that I’ll be recommending to people throughout the year. I can’t praise it enough. I’ll be looking forward to your next one.
SH: Thank you very much!