Delivering a pizza is not a complicated task. I put a cardboard box into a bag, I drive that bag over to your house, I walk up to your door, probably say “hi” to your dog, pull the cardboard box from the bag, hand you the cardboard box, say “thank you”, and drive back to the restaurant. Most of the time, these days, there’s not even an exchange of money. Simple, easy, done. I may never see you again and you may never see me again. And yet, there’s a lot more to it than that.
It was 1998.
A new mini-mall was being built just a mile up the road from where I lived. Within that mini-mall was a Papa John’s Pizza. I was sixteen years old. I knew that I liked pizza. I didn’t really want to return to my job as a grocery bagger at King’s IGA, so I applied at Papa John’s. I got the job. I was hired as an instore—answering phones, making pizza, cleaning up after dinner rush. I enjoyed it. I liked the people I worked with, I loved the camaraderie and teamwork, I enjoyed the fast-paced nature of dinner rush, and I did really like the pizza. So I continued working there throughout high school. What I didn’t know was that twenty-five years later, I’d still be working at a pizza restaurant at a position with no more distinction than the one I started with.
It was 2007.
I was working as a shift lead at Papa John’s Pizza in downtown Mankato, Minnesota, while studying for a Master of Arts in history. Not far from the restaurant, maybe just a few blocks, there stands a large stone sculpture of a bison. Known as Reconciliation Park, the bison commemorates the hanging of thirty-eight Native Dakota Indians in Mankato on December 26, 1862. The hanging, the largest simultaneous mass hanging in U.S. history, was one of the immediate results of the U.S. – Dakota War which also included the exile of all Dakota and Ho-Chunk people from the state of Minnesota in 1863. This was the first time I’d ever heard of it. As someone who studied the genocide of Western Indigenous people, I was shocked to find out what happened in my own home state. And I was shocked that I had never learned of it before then. Over the next decade and a half, I would dedicate much time to researching and writing about the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862.
It was 2010.
I was working as a shift lead and delivery driver for Papa John’s Pizza in Columbia Heights, a parking lot attendant at Andover High School, and a high school soccer coach. Three years out of graduate school I still hadn’t found a job with my degree. I decided to write a novel—a novel about the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. I was ambitious and I needed to try something new. I also wanted to find a way to teach others about the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862, to share with them the tragic history that had been kept from me. It would take hard work, but maybe it would be my big break?
It was 2012.
I was working as an in-store and shift lead at Papa John’s Pizza in downtown Washington D.C., a grocery manager at a corner bodega on Rhode Island Ave, and an unpaid intern at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. A year and a half earlier I had finished writing my novel, and sought its publication, but nothing came of it. I had taken the internship at the Holocaust Museum believing that, at twenty-nine years old, an internship might jump start my career since writing a novel had not accomplished that. Unfortunately, it did not. However, a few months after completing the internship, a new opportunity arose.
It was the fall of 2012.
I was working as the grocery manager at a corner bodega, refereeing high school soccer, and working as an instructor for a program called Soccer Shots. It was one of the rare moments in my life when I was not working in food service. I remember the moment distinctly. I was working alone at the corner bodega when I received a contract offer from Tate Publishing. I was thrilled. Ecstatic. Overwhelmed with excitement. According to the contract, Tate was going to dedicate $27,000 toward the publication and marketing of my novel. This was it, I’d finally gotten my big break. I would never have to return to food service again. If Tate Publishing was willing to invest $27,000 toward the publication of my novel, I reasoned, they must think it’s going to sell. A year later, in October 2013, my novel, Thy Eternal Summer, was published.
It didn’t sell. It didn’t change my life. I didn’t have any events or interviews. Outside of my own family, no one even knew I had written and published a novel. Not only that, but I was out $4,000. According to the contract, Tate required a $4,000 retainer that would be paid back after the book sold 1,000 copies. Unfortunately—and I didn’t realize this at the time—the only books that would count toward that quota were those books that were sold through distribution, not the ones that I bought and sold in-person. Tate never intended to market my book to a potential audience of readers. They only marketed it to me, explaining that I would earn more money if I bought the book from them first and then sold it at in-person events. Tate Publishing, as I eventually learned, was a Vanity Press. I would never see my $4,000 again.
Although my experience with Tate Publishing was a negative one, it was one of those formidable experiences, like the one I had in 2007, that led me to where I am today. The experience motivated me to learn more about what it means to write and publish a novel—what it means to identify my target audience, to establish an online presence, and to market myself and my book. It was with these lessons that I moved on to write my second novel, Grace and Spirit Lake, a follow-up to Thy Eternal Summer that also dealt with the history of the U.S. – Dakota War, an event that, as I was learning, was much more complicated and complex than I originally perceived. While my research continued teaching me more about this history, it was my everyday life that taught what it means for us today along with my role in both experiencing history and contributing to it.
It was 2014.
I think. I was working as a delivery driver for Jimmy Johns in Northeast Minneapolis and a delivery driver for BiteSquad across the Twin Cities. I went to Birchbark Books, a Native-owned bookstore in Minneapolis, with a copy of my novel Thy Eternal Summer. It should be noted that this was not just any Native-owned bookstore, it was owned by Louise Erdrich, one of the most accomplished Indigenous writers of our time. I’m not sure what I expected when I went there, but I thought perhaps Birchbark Books would be interested in carrying my title on their shelves. At the time I knew nothing of traditional distribution and the various proper channels to get your book discovered by bookstores. I just went straight up to the counter with a copy of my book in hand and told the clerk about what I had written. They politely turned me away. But, the clerk allowed me to linger—to state my case—perhaps recognizing that I was well-intentioned though overly naïve. At that moment Louise Erdrich herself walked up to the counter and pointed to the word ‘Conflict’ in the subtitle and said, “There’s your first problem. From the perspective of the Dakota, this was considered a war.”
This was another formidable moment. With this experience, this moment, I learned many things. First, as I already mentioned, I learned that there are more proper, traditional channels to expose my work to bookstores rather than just bombarding them in the middle of the day. Second, I learned about my position on the writing ladder. Honestly, I didn’t know much about Louise at the time. I didn’t know about the demands on her time, knowledge, and experience. I didn’t even know if she was Dakota or Ojibwe. And third, I learned about my limited viewpoint. When writing about the U.S. – Dakota War, I had only emulated what I had seen from hundreds of white writers before me. I had only relied on my cultural and religious background as Christian, white-American living in the 21st century. I hadn’t even thought to filter history from outside of my own immediate understanding. I hadn’t thought of calling it the U.S. – Dakota War instead of the U.S. – Dakota Conflict.
It was late 2015.
I was working as the pizza chef at Stratton Mountain Resort in Vermont. To receive better cell reception, I drove to the parking lot of the Londonderry Village Market where I parked in order to call my editor about my newest novel, a manuscript about the 1851 treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota called Ceding Contempt. A month earlier I had responded to my editor’s comments and constructive criticism with a litany of questions. Why do I need to do this? Why do I need to change that? I didn’t understand why my editor wanted me to change so much of the content of my manuscript. In response, my editor said that I was being ‘hostile’. Clarification was necessary and a phone call was the only way to do that. The phone call, which ended cordially, was another formidable experience, one that taught me once and for all that although I understood history, I did not understand the craft elements of fiction—I did not understand the science of storytelling—in order to effectively convey history to readers. I needed to go back to school. I needed an MFA in creative writing.
It was the summer of 2004.
I was working at Papa John’s Pizza in Champlin before returning to school for my senior year of college. By this time I had six years’ experience at Papa John’s and my general manager Craig asked if I’d like to manage my own store. My answer was an obvious and resounding ‘no thank you’. Working in the restaurant industry was temporary and I only wanted to stay there long enough to get me through college. It’s always been temporary until something else comes through. It’s not as though I haven’t tried to find a more permanent solution. Over the years I’ve applied for hundreds of positions adequately suited to my educational background and professional skill sets. These include jobs with titles such as Research Associate, Editorial Assistant, Adjunct History Instructor, Production Editor, Historical Interpreter, Writing Tutor, Site Guide, Program Manager, Acquisitions Editor, Adjunct English Instructor, Indian Education Advisor, and the list goes on, and on, and on. While attending Augsburg University I regularly worked with counselors at the Strommen Career Center to revise my resume and prepare me for interviews. I worked briefly with a life coach. I hired a career counselor from LinkedIn. Most recently, I’ve been working with a volunteer mentor from the SCORE business office. And yet, every Saturday night you’ll find me walking up your front step to hand off a hot, delicious pizza so that I can supplement my income while I pursue my passions and interests—while I apply myself to something more.
It was October 2018.
I was working as a delivery driver at Parkway Pizza, a Special Ed Para at STEP in Anoka, and a high school soccer coach at St. Francis High School. I was also in my second year of my MFA program at Augsburg University and had just started writing what would become my most recent novel, Reclaiming Mni Sota: An Alternate History of the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. The novel began as a short story in which a white settler and an Ojibwe soldier happen upon each other in the midst of battle only to find that they share a common bond. Eventually, they befriend each other. The story was a stretch for me because all of my previous fiction writing was based strictly on real historical happenings. I was challenging myself to do something more than just write history. However, when I shared the story with my assigned mentor, his feedback was not only negative, it was startlingly critical. My mentor expressed that my writing had no redeeming qualities while pointing out my biased, ethnocentric point of view. He said that I needed to learn how to write, but learning how to write within someone else’s culture was not the place to do so. He ended with an ultimatum: write about something other than Native history or find a new mentor.
Hurtful as it was, my mentor’s criticism held within it important lessons while also providing the catalyst to move my writing and publishing journey forward. It challenged me to examine and re-examine who I am and why I view the world the way I do. It helped me to recognize the power of storytelling and the role I play in contributing to a very narrow viewpoint that has been perpetuated from generation to generation. It helped me to write my novel with empathy and true care for the connection the past has with the present.
It was 2019.
I had just earned my MFA and was still working as a delivery driver at Parkway Pizza. I decided to create and launch my own press, History Through Fiction. Combining my integrity for the historical process and my new knowledge of the craft elements of fiction, I launched it with the belief that historical fiction can and should have some component of traditional nonfiction historical texts. That is, historical fiction authors should be transparent about what’s fact and what’s fiction by including things like footnotes, a bibliography, endnotes, recommended resources, or even just a detailed author’s note. I’m incredibly proud of my press and how it’s grown over the years. I’m also proud of the way I have combined my interests, experience, and education to create something meaningful, entertaining, and, hopefully, lasting. But none of this has managed to divorce me from my reliance on your generosity—on your tips. My company’s expenses exceed its revenue by about $15,000 to $20,000 a year, approximately the same as my annual income as a pizza delivery driver.
It is 2023.
We all have dreams and ambitions. We have talents and skills. We all have a handful of formative experiences and another handful of experiences that, for better or worse, led us down one particular path or another. I write this not as a complaint about my years in the food service industry or as a grievance over my inability to find meaningful employment that pays a living wage. I write this to show myself to you—an entrepreneur operating a historical fiction press out of the corner of his studio apartment in Roseville, Minnesota. I write this to say thank you. I’ve delivered pizza through heatwaves and cold snaps. I’ve opened the door to restaurants to begin prep before the sun comes up and I’ve walked home at four in the morning through the streets of Washington D.C. after closing down the pizza shop following bar rush. I’ve washed countless dishes, taken out countless trash bags to the dumpster, put thousands upon thousands of miles on my car, and answered the phone to take your order so many times that I could practically do it in my sleep. So, when I arrive at your door with your pizza, wings, and maybe a pint of ice cream and say thank you, I mean it. Thank you for your tips. They have sustained me through college, graduate school (twice), the publication of five novels, and the creation and operation of my own literary press. I don’t know where my dreams and passions will take me, but I know that I couldn’t even hope to achieve them without your generosity. Thank you for your tips.
About the Author
Colin Mustful is an independent historian, author, and publisher. His work, which includes five historical novels, focuses on the tumultuous and complicated periods of settler-colonialism and Native displacement in American history. He has a Master of Arts degree in history and a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. He is the founder and editor of History Through Fiction, an independent press that publishes compelling historical novels that are based on real events and people. As a traditional publisher, he works with authors who want to share important historical stories with the world. Mustful is an avid runner and soccer player who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He believes that learning history is vital to understanding our world today and finding just, long-lasting solutions for the future.