Wednesday, June 10, 2020

David Philip Mullins

David Philip Mullins is the author of The Brightest Place in the World, a novel, and Greetings from Below, a story collection that won both the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and the International Walter Scott Prize for Short Stories.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I believe a good title grabs a reader’s attention without being too directive. I.e., I want a title to be interesting, compelling, poetic, maybe even a little flashy, and I want it to point to something in the novel. I want it to have subtext—layers and depth. But I don’t want the title to give away the story, or anything about it. A title that’s too on-the-nose is a bad title, no matter how poetic and interesting it may be. The Brightest Place in the World is a bit of a triple entendre, and it has that flashiness I referred to, or I hope it does. It points to the chemical-plant explosion that opens the narrative, but also to the city of Las Vegas—where most of the novel is set—which is in fact the brightest place in the world, from space, at night. The title also points to the ending of the novel, which I intended to be hopeful: bright.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage reader self wouldn’t be very surprised by The Brightest Place in the World, I don’t imagine. The novel is based, very loosely, on the PEPCON explosions of May 4th, 1988. PEPCON was a plant in the Nevada desert that manufactured ammonium perchlorate for the Space Shuttle program and the military, and my father was an engineer there in the 1980s. He was at the plant when it exploded—when it was leveled. Luckily, he escaped. I was in eighth grade at the time. The experience had a profound, lasting impact on me, and I wanted to write about it for many, many years—especially when I began writing, at the age of seventeen.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I find it much harder to write endings. Beginnings almost always, for both novels and short stories, come easily for me, and they’re fun to write—like starting a race. Endings are tough, like the final half-mile of a 10K. You’re beat, you’re exhausted. You’re out of juice. But somehow you have to cross the finish line. While my beginnings don’t change much, not often, my endings usually change over and over and over, until they’re just right. I throw them away, one after another, whereas beginnings I tend to only tinker with over time.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I see a little of myself in nearly all of my characters—and of course some characters contain much more of me than others. I don’t consciously infuse my characters with aspects of my life or my personality; it happens invariably. I doubt it can be avoided. I think most fiction writers would agree, if they’re being honest. This composite approach to building characters is what gives a work of fiction its soul, I believe. It’s what gives the work its stamp, if you will, its trademark. It’s what makes a story personal and meaningful to the author. Otherwise, the story risks being nothing more—for its creator, at least—than an assemblage of words.