Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey
by Daniel Mueller
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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Daniel Mueller
By Ellen Birkett Morris
In his latest collection of short stories, Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey (Outpost 19 Books), author Daniel Mueller presents an array of misfits and outsiders looking for love and their place in the world. From the new kid who hangs out with the neighborhood sociopath to the boy who finds love with a registered sex offender and dreams of Hubert Humphrey, Mueller offers an insightful, open-hearted look at some very interesting characters.
The stories in the collection were written over a period of thirteen years and appeared in journals including Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Iowa Review.
Mueller is also the author of the collection of stories How Animals Mate (Overlook 1999), which won the Sewanee Fiction Prize.
He started his writing career by taking creative writing classes while pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English at St. Olaf College. After a high school teaching stint, Mueller challenged himself “to write something as compelling as what I was teaching to my ninth graders.” He went on to study English at Hollins College where he earned a Master’s degree, studied creative writing at University of Virginia and, eight years later, received his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop.
His studies introduced him to the pressure of trends, as in the college workshop in the early 1980's where everyone aspired to write exactly like Raymond Carver. Luckily, at the same time, he was introduced to the fiction of Stanley Elkin, who at a reading of The Magic Kingdom at the College of St. Catherine in Saint Paul, introduced himself and his novel with three words: “More is more.”
Along the way he was taught by many excellent writers. ”I was in a seminar with Stuart Dybek, who taught me to read fiction in a way I hadn't before, looking at image as a structural attribute of narration, informing how a story unfolds,” said Mueller.
He uses this technique in “Red Cinquefoil,” a story in which a man who spent his life working and living on a nuclear test site discovers his daughter has a child with eleven fingers. The story ends with a reference to the title, a code name for a subterranean nuclear explosion in addition to being a delicate blossom: ”To this day a curious red wildflower springs up on the Test Site after a rain, and it has no name.”
Mueller teaches on the faculty of the Low-Residency MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte and directs the creative writing program at the University of New Mexico.
"You can teach writers craft and how to read like a writer."
“You can teach writers craft and how to read like a writer. Flannery O’Connor said what can’t be taught is vision, which I interpret as imagination. Few people are drawn to creative writing who don’t already have imaginations. Consequently, I believe writing workshops can give most writers everything they need to give substance to the stories in their imagination,” said Mueller.
When working with students he often sees central characters that are seen from a great distance and not inhabited.
“I try to teach my students to truly occupy their point-of-view characters. It is all about empathy. You have to put yourself in your character’s shoes and give readers the opportunity to fully experience the story from within a character's consciousness,” said Mueller.
For him, stories begin with characters involved in some sort of action that will, hopefully, reveal character, as with the man hitchhiking in “I’m Okay, You’re Okay.” This story was first published as an essay in the Missouri Review but then as a short story in his latest collection. He noted that the dialogue he invented thirty years later is what makes the “true” story fictive.
"There is an enormous, complex overlap in the genres. Finding a middle ground is not so easy." |
Mueller often draws from his life experience in developing his fiction. He did meet Hubert Humphrey twice and Humphrey remembered him from the first meeting, though other elements of the story “Say Anything and Everything” are made up.
“There is an enormous, complex overlap in the genres. Finding a middle ground is not so easy,” said Mueller.
He crafts his endings by imagining a crisis point in which something is broken or revealed and asking what is the most interesting thing that can happen next.
“There is so much good writing out there these days. Thus, it’s incumbent on the writer to imagine the most interesting possibility given the characters and circumstances.”
Revision is also key. “If a story comes to me easily, I don’t trust it. I think I have to do more,” said Mueller.
He often portrays people on the fringes of society, characters who aren't inherently likable, his challenge being to hook the reader in spite of this.
“At this point, I realize my stories are an acquired taste,” said Mueller. “But I want to believe that love, in some form or another, informs them all. As dark as the stories are, what redeems them is the characters’ capacity for love.”
Mueller is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunlow, Carlson & Lerner, but published both of his collections of short stories with small independent publishers he contacted himself. Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey was published by Outpost 19, which is based in San Francisco and run by Jon Roemer.
"The best thing I ever did was to decide in 1988 to never give up."
“It is great to have an agent, if the agent really loves your work. Every writer has to love his or her work most of all. Independent publishers pick up the slack left by big presses that don’t want to take a risk on a short story collection by a largely unknown writer.”
His advice to young writers is to not give up. “The best thing I ever did was to decide in 1988 to never give up. Everything I’ve achieved has been through persistence and a dogged refusal to give up.”
Earlier in his career, Mueller served as a personal secretary to writer John Hersey. Though Hersey had suffered a stroke, which left one half of his body paralyzed, and had colon cancer, he wrote every day up until his death.
“He told me that every day you get to write is a blessing. It isn’t about the finished writing, but about the joy of doing it. If you don’t love writing, probably you should do something else,” advised Mueller.
|About the Author|
Daniel Mueller is the author of How Animals Mate (Overlook 1999) and Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey (Outpost 19 Books 2013). His work has appeared in Joyland, Joyland Retro, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, CutBank, Gargoyle, Surreal South, The Cincinnati Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Story Quarterly, Story, The Mississippi Review, Playboy, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Massachusetts Cultural Council, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Henfield Foundation, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He teaches on the faculty of the Low-Residency MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte and directs the creative writing program at the University of New Mexico.
About Regular Contributor|
Ellen Birkett Morris
|Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.|