I can’t talk about “Mule” without talking about Cherry by Nico Walker. If anyone who’s read Cherry reads my story, they’re going to notice the obvious parallel in plot: a soldier leaves the military and enters a world of drugs. But that aspect of Cherry isn’t what inspired me to write “Mule.” I had my reasons for writing about California’s marijuana business just as Mr. Walker had his in regards to writing about heroin.
That said, reading Cherry was, for me, an incredible, inspiring, mind-opening trip. The protagonist’s voice was something I’d been searching for. The writing, from chapter length to scene development to the book’s blunted, deadpan sentences, were what I wanted to do with my own writing. I was one semester into a two-year MFA program when I read Cherry, and it was Cherry that finally gave me permission to just let go and write.
Sure, a writer has to have his toolkit. Maybe you’re a killer writer of dialogue, but can’t come up with an engaging narrative arc. Whatever. Know your strengths, know your weaknesses. With “Mule,” as soon as that first sentence came to me, I knew what kind of story I was writing. I knew that I was going to lean on my strengths. Straightforward sentences. Punchy descriptions. Humor. Masculinity—what that is and what it isn’t. When I was drafting “Mule,” every time that ambitious writer-student voice spoke up in my mind and said, “How about a clever metaphor that speaks to the narrative at large?” I pushed it aside and reminded myself to just tell the story.
“Mule” came out in a bang, and I think that process was the result of a lot of pent up creative energy locked behind a literary world that I didn’t feel like I belonged to. It just so happened that Cherry was the keeper to that door. Since lockdown in the spring, I’ve picked up and put down more books without finishing them than I ever have in my entire life. That’s just where I am in my writing career right now. Maybe a book promises an original story, but if the voice isn’t speaking directly to what I’m trying to do with my own fiction at the moment, forget it. I’m not interested.
Read what you want. I mean, have an open mind, but don’t be afraid to tell Tolstoy or Austen that you’ve got better things to do if they’re not absolutely blowing your mind. The highest compliment a writer can give a book is, “Reading this made me want to write.”
ELIE PIHA is an MFA student at Cornell University. In 2016, he won Southwest Review’s David Nathan Meyerson Award for Short Fiction. Before writing, from 2008 to 2012, Elie served as a paratrooper in the Army. His fiction is forthcoming in War, Literature and the Arts. He is at work on a novel.