But Toutonghi, born in Seattle to Latvian immigrants, grew to love Milwaukee and the Brew City is a major player in his debut novel, “Red Weather,” published in May by Random House.
The novel tells the story of a teenaged Latvian boy who arrives in Milwaukee with his family in 1989 and their attempt to integrate themselves into the American Midwest.
There are lots of sights, sounds and scents that will resonate with Milwaukee readers and we asked Toutonghi about the book and about his love affair with the Cream City.
OMC: Yours is as Milwaukee as a novel has ever been. Is Milwaukee the setting because your here or is there something else special about it as a setting for the "Red Weather"?
PT: I loved Milwaukee when I lived there, in the suburbs. But mine was an outsider's love, in a way. I didn't grow up there. But then again... I think that when I was living there, I fell in love with the city in a way that maybe only someone from another place can.
And the history of the place (is) one of the most fascinating social and political histories in the United States. Especially from an Eastern European perspective. So, I had a lot to work with. And I made some mistakes; I only hope people will be kind with those.
OMC: Has there been any response to the choice of Milwaukee as a setting from folks outside the city? Do you get lots of Fonzie jokes?
PT: Indeed I do, occasionally. But mostly the response has been positive.
OMC: The novel also heavily reflects your Latvian heritage. How has the response been in the Latvian community here? Are they happy with your portrayal?
PT: After the fact, I was very worried about the Latvian community reaction to the book -- especially in Milwaukee and other Midwestern cities, where there's a significant Latvian presence. There are little changes that I had to make -- cultural compromises, say -- that made me nervous about Latvians reading the book. Yuri's name, for instance, is spelled with a "y" and not a "j," which is the Latvian spelling. But, I'm Latvian so, in the end, I hope it's okay!
OMC: How much of "Red Weather" reflects your own family's story?
PT: Well, I have the Latvian cultural background of the main character. Or at least half of it. My mom is Latvian, and I was raised going to Latvian school, speaking Latvian, attending Latvian cultural events. So, that part is true. And I was pretty bookish growing up.
But the father in the book is nothing like my own father. The father in the book is an alcoholic; my dad falls asleep after one glass of wine. In fact -- at a reading on May 23 -- I heard my poor dad saying: "You know, I'm not a drunk," to someone in the audience. I felt badly for him.
OMC: You're now living in Brooklyn, where there is a growing community of ex-pat Milwaukeeans. Do you gather at the corner bar to watch Brewers games?
PT: I love the Brewers. How can you go wrong with a baseball team with that name? They combine brewing and baseball -- two excellent things.
I watch games as much as I can at a local sports bar. They have MLB season ticket, though -- so I have to limit myself, or I wouldn't get any writing done. And the Brewers have a loyal core following -- 10 or 15 expats -- who watch games here and there.
OMC: How often do you get back to Milwaukee? Are you still connected to the city?
PT: I haven't been back since I left in 2002. So, I'm really excited to return!
Pauls Toutonghi reads from and signs copies of “Red Weather” Monday, June 26 at 7 p.m. at Schwartz Bookshop in Bay View. Admission is free.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.