Michael Perry: Modern-day Sconnie Sisyphus
Wisconsin author Michael Perry has attempted to lead us astray with false advertising.
Perry, a native and resident of the northwestern part of the state, is the author of "Population: 485," "Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting" and "Truck: A Love Story."
His new book is called "Visiting Tom: A Man, A Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace." On the cover is "Tom," whose name has been changed to protect him – being innocent and all – photographed by Shimon and Lindemann.
Perry is clearly trying to make us think this new book is about his neighbor, when really, it's at least as much about himself.
Sure, across 300 pages, Perry chronicles Tom's life, his varied interests and the wisdom he's gleaned for a long, laborious life, richly lived on a farm, where he's never met a task he couldn't apparently face one-on-one.
Heck, Tom – whom we met briefly in the pages of Perry's 2009 "Coop" – even went toe-to-toe with the government when they wanted to bisect his land with an interstate. Sure, the interstate was built, but Tom kept one of the workman's shovels.
But, also lurking in these pages is Perry's own sisyphean battle with the county over the steep road leading up to his home, not far from Eau Claire. It doesn't mention THAT on the cover.
Without getting too over the top here, Mike Perry is a fine chronicler of rural life in Wisconsin in the 21st century. Some have compared his work to that of Garrison Keillor and I'd be inclined to concur except that I enjoyed "Visiting Tom" and not once did I think of submerging the book in a tub full of water.
As Perry gassed up the car to drive down for an event at Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave., at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 24, I queried him about whether or not his neighbors like being the stars of his books and other pressing questions of the day...
OnMilwaukee.com: Now that you've written about Tom are some neighbors hiding for fear of being the subject of the next book while others hang around more often then ever, showering you with praise, hoping to be the subject of the next book?
Michael Perry: Well, I don't know about praise, but they might shower me with something ... People do sometimes check to see if I'm toting a notebook, but in general the fact that I'm basically just another self-employed guy who splits his own firewood and buys layer mash at the local feed mill and helps the neighbor put up hay means we rarely discuss writing. That said, there are times when someone will say something funny, then turn to me and say, "So is that gonna be in the next book?" I respond with what I intend to be a coy smile, although they probably think I'm stifling a gas attack.
OMC: Is it difficult to write about your neighbors; people you see and interact with so closely and so often?
MP: Yes and no. Yes, because I don't want to inadvertently write something that roils their life. No, because I count it a privilege to write about people who have had such an influence on me and aren't always portrayed in their fullness. I'm not saying I achieve that fullness, but I do try to go beyond one dimension.
OMC: Obviously a chicken coop and a truck can't react the same way a neighbor can. Does it affect how you write a book like "Visiting Tom"? Sitting at your computer, do you have to face some decisions about what to include, what to exclude, how to, perhaps, gently relate a story?
MP: Sure. I'm not in the business of gratuitously blowing anyone's doors off. I couldn't withstand that level of scrutiny myself. But I also want to serve veracity. Sometimes the tough stuff can be woven between the lines. Tom gave me permission to write this book, but asked that I change his name. I thought that was fair enough.
OMC: I saw that Nobbern put the book cover on the New Auburn sign at the edge of town and that the website boasts of being the setting for the book. Was the hometown acclaim universal or were there some grumblers?
MP: Well, "acclaim" is a tad strong. I was just up there for Jamboree Days and hung out in the beer tent with my old crew, like I've been doing since kindergarten. No one greeted me with acclaim, they greeted me with deer hunting updates and jokes about my hair loss, and that's why I love the place. I was honored that they put the book cover on the sign, because the book was about New Auburn, not about me. But beyond that, in "Population 485" I wrote about how I work at writing just like my neighbor works at being a butcher, or at the feed mill. Writing may be a calling, but it's not a higher calling. I suppose we all want acclaim, but above all I just want good roughneck friends who'll greet me in the beer tent whether I sell a lot of books or not.
There were a few grumbles, the main one being from people upset that they were NOT in the book. Also one of my buddy's ex-wives indicated that one of the stories in the book was slightly more, um, nuanced than my buddy's version. So in the "P.S." version of the paperback I told her side, and now I can go to the gas station again.
OMC: Why do you think it is that while some folks travel the world to write compelling stories, you've found enough inspiration and material for numerous books in small town Wisconsin?
MP: Oh, every place – and I mean every place, whether your hometown, a foreign land, or the adjacent cubicle – has a compelling story. It's the writer's job to find it.
OMC: I came across a quote in an interview you did a few years ago in which you note that Brooklyn, for example, is more "small town" America than a Midwestern town that's full of chain restaurants and stores. Do you think our own stereotypes and preconceived notions about the differences between big cities and small towns keeps us apart a bit; prevents us from really knowing one another?
MP: That's a tough one because of course we remain divided by stereotypes and preconceived notions; on the other hand, nowadays you can plow the back 40 while live-streaming a Lady Gaga concert or you can stand in Manhattan and watch a live feed of from the interior of a chicken coop 12 states away, so the walls remain, but they are ever more porous. On my good days, I believe this has to engender more human understanding.
OMC: Finally, tell us a bit about your upcoming tour stop in Milwaukee. Will you read? Play music?
MP: I'll read from the book, but I'll also share some stories not in the book. I call that the "value-added" element of the reading. I also tend to default to humor, because as long as we're all sitting around together, why not laugh? (At ME, if necessary.) I'll also talk some about my long relationship with Shimon and Lindemann, the photographers who shot the portraits in the book. We met in prison. Their work is on display right now (and will be the night of the reading) at the bookstore.
OMC: Do you like Milwaukee? Anything special you'll be sure to see or do while you're here?
MP: I do like Milwaukee. I'm a small town country boy by disposition, but I love the energy and multitudinous feel of big cities.
Unfortunately, the nature of the self-propelled book tour is such that my tourism is conducted from behind the steering wheel and motel rooms along the interstate. Also, my band and I are playing at a fair the next day and load-in and soundcheck are the morning following the reading, so I'll be in and out of town. But if you can make it to the bookstore, you'll see we make the most of my time there.
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