Sheila Lamb: Your short story collection, Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey , published by Outpost 19, was a finalist for the 2013 Literary Awards Program. What made you decide to enter SFWP’s Literary Awards Program?
Daniel Mueller: For better or worse, writers today must promote their work more than writers of previous generations, and I hoped that by entering Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey in Santa Fe Writers’ Project Literary Awards Program it might receive a little extra attention. When it appeared on the long list of finalists and then the short list, I thought my objective realized. I certainly didn’t expect it to be one of three winning entries. I’m grateful and humbled by this award.
SL: In a Rumpus review of your book, reviewer Michael Jauchen writes that the collection “…fixes an unwavering eye on these dark, unspoken spaces thrumming beneath the flattened landscape.”
Do you agree with that description?
DM: While I can’t say I had this exact thought in mind as I composed the stories in Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey, I’m interested in what isn’t seen and in giving readers access to marginalized moments in marginalized characters’ lives. Landscape, too, is important to me, especially in how it’s internalized by characters over the course of a story’s arc and becomes a powerful means of knowing them. I appreciate Michael Jauchen’s observation because something I set out to do very consciously, i.e., to render place with such specificity that a central character’s own specificity can be felt, resonated with him.
SL: How would you describe your collection?
DM: As eleven stories in which sexual identity figures as a metaphor for longing and, in the book as a whole, a theme.
SL: How did the various stories in Hubert Humphrey begin to come together?
DM: The collection did not begin to come together until 2007 when I finished “Say Anything and Everything,” a story narrated by a bi-sexual character in his forties forced to reconcile his homosexual childhood with his eroding heterosexual marriage. Once this story was completed, I recognized that in it were questions that could be further explored in other stories, some already written and others still yet to be. The ten other stories in the collection connect in one way or another to “Say Anything and Everything,” and in prior iterations of the manuscript it was the title story. That the title “Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey” comes from a passage in this story is, to my mind, significant, evoking for me a taboo dreamscape at once frightening, funny, and lovely.
SL: Was it your goal to create a collection from the outset?
DM: When I’m at work my goal is never more ambitious than getting the sentence, the paragraph, the moment I’m trying so hard to render right. Once stories are finished, one can’t help finding connections between them and hoping that a larger, book-length architecture is taking shape. The stories written after “Say Anything and Everything,” namely “I Killed It, You Cook It,” “High Art and Low,” “Red Cinquefoil,” “Spoils,” “Connected,” “Pleased to Meet Me,” “I’m OK, You’re OK,” and “At Night We Play Hearts,” were written both as stand-alone stories and stories that took my interest in autobiographical subject matter in different directions that I thought might lend coherence and tension to a book-length manuscript.
SL: What kind of set up do you need to sit down and write a story? Is there a certain spot just for writing? Music in the background or total silence?
DM: I write in my kitchen early in the morning before anyone else in my family has awoken. I like that it’s quiet and, beyond the kitchen window, dark. Once everyone’s up and preparing for the day, my writing session is over. Consequently, I typically write more and better when I’m not sleeping well, at least for a while.
SL: You teach at the University of New Mexico as well as at Queens University’s low-residency program and at other workshops. How do you balance writing various teaching responsibilities? How do you balance teaching and writing with family?
DM: By writing in the mornings before anyone else in my family has awoken, I can call myself a writer without feeling like a hypocrite. Even if all I’ve written is a quarter of a page, that quarter of a page keeps me connected to my writing in spite of all the other things I’m called to do that are antithetical to it.
SL: What projects do you have in the works?
DM: I’m working on a novel, tentatively titled Settlement Day, about a young man traveling with the object of his unrequited love.
SL: Any words of advice for writers on selecting and entering writing contests?
DM: Sending one’s work to a contest, or to a magazine or journal for publication, is essentially a prayer to the universe. While I’m no expert on prayers, I believe they’re best delivered with purity of heart and unity of mind, which, of course, is easier said than done.