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Struggles of faith and forgiveness form DEBUT novel Black River

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 Black River by S M. Hulse

An exclusive Authorlink interview with S. M. Hulse,
Author of Black River

By Diane Slocum

April 2015

Black River
by S. M. Hulse
Buy this Book

Guard Wes Carver is held captive and tortured by prisoner Bobby Williams during a riot in a Montana prison, leaving him with his hands permanently damaged. Williams stole more than he knew from Wes, a gifted fiddle player who had defined his life through his music. Decades later, Wes returns to Black River with his wife Claire’s ashes and has to confront his complicated relationship with his stepson, his former band-mate and Williams.

“I’ve always been interested in the aftermath of major events—the kinds of events we often see covered on the news.”

AUTHORLINK: Where did your idea for this story start?

HULSE: I’ve always been interested in the aftermath of major events—the kinds of events we often see covered on the news. I find myself wondering about the impacts of those events on the people involved not only during the event itself, but also months, years, and even decades afterward. The initial spark for Black River came when I was living in Montana and read about a riot that had taken place at the real Montana State Prison in the late 1950’s. Black River explores the way a fictional 1992 riot affects not only those directly involved, like the novel’s protagonist, former corrections officer Wes Carver, but also his family, friends, and community. In Wes’s case, it even impacts his relationship with God.

AUTHORLINK: How did Wesley’s character develop and how did you gain such a deep understanding of him?

HULSE: Wes was fairly easy for me to understand and to write. He’s a fundamentally decent person, but his rigid morality sometimes blinds him to the needs, desires, and motivations of those around him. He’s also a deeply stoic man, partly by nature and partly by necessity, and this stoicism can make it difficult for him to connect with others. While writing the book, it was clear to me that in any given scene, Wes was generally trying to do the right thing—and when he wasn’t, he knew it. After the book was finished, I realized that in some senses, Wes can be considered a quintessential Western man—stoic, laconic, self-sufficient—but Wes is living in the modern West, not an old movie, and those traits don’t always serve him well. He was occasionally challenging to write simply because he often hides his feelings even from himself, but I hope I’ve portrayed him well enough that my readers are able to understand him as well as I do.

“Writing, on the other hand, is a much more significant part of my life, and a much greater part of my identity. “

AUTHORLINK: You play the fiddle as does Wesley. For him, it’s a spiritual quality that helps define him. Do you identify with that?

HULSE: Not so much with the fiddle in particular, but perhaps as a writer. I learned to play the fiddle while writing Black River, so it was something I picked up to improve the book, at least initially. I enjoy playing, and it’s a hobby I like quite a bit, but I can put my fiddle aside for weeks or even months without missing it too much. Writing, on the other hand, is a much more significant part of my life, and a much greater part of my identity. In that sense, I can identify with Wes, because writing’s importance to me goes well beyond a mere hobby or job, and the way I feel about words and literature is, I think, similar to the way Wes feels about notes and music.

AUTHORLINK: Your location, Black River, plays a big part in setting the mood and action in the story, and in Wes’s life. How did you develop the sense of place? What is it about the west as a place and the people there that appeal to you?

HULSE: Black River is a fictional town, and while it borrows some elements from real places (like Deer Lodge, Montana), it isn’t simply a fictionalized version of that or any other real town. It’s very much its own place, and that’s a decision I made primarily so I could shape the community’s history, collective personality, and even geography to best suit the story I wanted to tell. I feel a very deep connection to the West; I grew up here and I’ve lived most of my life here. The people and places of the West are those I know best, so it seemed only natural to set Black River here. I think readers from all over can connect with the humanity of my characters and identify with their trials, but I also think readers are drawn to the unique elements of the West and its people: the vast landscapes, the isolation and its accompanying frontier mindset, the tension between the historical West and the modern West, and between the myth of the West and its reality.

“I like exploring this messy kind of faith, the sort that isn’t certain, isn’t simple, and isn’t easy.”

AUTHORLINK: Wes’ faith, and Bobby Williams’ conversion are important in the story. Is this another theme you like to explore?

HULSE: Yes, though I didn’t realize it would become such a central part of Black River when I first started writing. One of the things that most interested me in Black River was that Wes and Williams represent two very different experiences of faith and religion. I think that while there are some people out there who are very, very certain about their faith—or lack thereof—there are many more who struggle somewhere in the middle. For Williams, depending on whether his conversion is sincere or not, faith is one of two things: an absolute that changed his life, or a lie he can use to achieve his goals. For Wes, as for many others, things are messier. He can neither find sincere faith nor abandon his desire for it; it’s been a lifelong struggle for him. I like exploring this messy kind of faith, the sort that isn’t certain, isn’t simple, and isn’t easy.

AUTHORLINK: The first chapter of each part is in Claire’s viewpoint. Everything else is in Wesley’s. Did you originally write it that way or did that idea come later? Why is this technique important?

HULSE: I was about 100 pages into the first draft—no Claire chapters—when I realized I needed to make some kind of change to the manuscript. Much of what I had written up to that point does appear in the book now, but it was all from Wes’s point of view, and I realized that because of Wes’s stoicism, and because of his black-and-white thinking and his unwillingness to look directly at his own emotions, readers were going to have a difficult time understanding or sympathizing with his character. For most of the book, Wes also has a pretty uncharitable view of his stepson, Dennis, and I knew it would be difficult to show much nuance in their relationship without another point of view. Claire, though not without her own flaws, is generally more generous in her assessments of others than Wes, and her ability to see the good in both Wes and Dennis offers the reader another perspective on both characters.

“The first draft was about 125,000 words, and the final book is about 80,000 words.”

AUTHORLINK: Did your book change much from the original draft? Do you expect your second novel to require less editing?

HULSE: Well, it certainly got shorter! The first draft of Black River would certainly be recognizable to someone who has read the finished book: the structure hasn’t changed much, and almost all the scenes that appear in the book also appeared in the first draft. What I did do was cut, a lot. The first draft was about 125,000 words, and the final book is about 80,000 words. I think of myself as a “sculptor” sort of writer—the first draft is my block of clay, and then I carve away words and sentences and scenes until I’ve shaped the story into its best form. I imagine my second novel will be similar.

About S. M. Hulse:

Hulse received her MFA from the University of Oregon. She has been published in Willow Springs, Witness and Salamander. She is working on a second novel set in western Montanta with new characters with difficult pasts and complicated presents. She now lives in Spokane, Wash.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.