An Interview With Michael Perry

In April I spoke with Michael Perry, author of Population 485, and most recently, Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting, in anticipation of his April 17 appearance in Door County at the Door Community Auditorium in Fish Creek.

He was on the road when we talked, hauling a few boxes of books in the trunk to a reading. He gave me more material than we had space to print, sharing insights on rural life, his writing process, and his latest book, so I’ve decided to share a little more here. I hope this gives Perry fans a little deeper look at the humble Wisconsin writer.

Perry does readings and appearances all over the country, to all manner of audiences. I asked him if there was any he particularly disliked.

Michael Perry: Well, not really. Anytime I’ve got a chance to talk about my writing, I’m gonna enjoy it. But one time at intermission of a reading I was doing I had to tell the people that were hosting me that we had to make a change. I was at an arts festival and I was reading and doing my little humor pieces, and they put me directly adjacent to a large gentleman in a leather apron who was demonstrating blacksmithing. He was banging away at his big hot chunks of molten iron, and I just couldn’t compete with that.

Given the nature of the stuff I write, I get invited by a lot of different types of groups. Each job is a little different.

I did a Hooftrimmer’s association meeting, and that was terrific because I could do all my cow jokes. I’ve done a conference of EMTs and firefighters, and those are my people.

Today I’ll be speaking to English teachers. I’ve done readings on equipment trailers in the middle of Main St, and sometimes I get to do readings in places like the Overture Center for the Arts [a gleaming new building on State Street in Madison]. I’m fortunate.

Perry’s books are essentially collections of essays about average Wisconsin folks doing things that, on the surface at least, are average Wisconsin things. I asked Perry to try to explain why people are so drawn to such work.

MP: I’m pleasantly surprised that I can be in Mississippi in a town of 40,000 and have somebody come up to me and say “your town is just like our town.”

That’s the thing, you don’t have to be from rural Wisconsin, to relate to our way of life. In a bigger way, I’m not surprised because everybody has a story, even if it’s grim or unorthodox. It comes back to me having this privilege of being allowed to write about folks that I interact with not just as subjects. They’re my neighbors.

Do your neighbors act different around you since you started writing books? Do they know when you’re thinking about a story?

MP: Well, yeah, sometimes they catch me, and that’s kind of fun. We moved to this farm, and the first fall, this guy is a traveling butcher who comes to your farm (which I kind of like because you don’t have to load up your animals and bring them into town. He just comes and does it). He shows up and he’s just a great character. He’s got this kind of cockeye, he gets out of the car and he’s got a pistol in a holster and he’s missing a hand – turns out he lost it in a corn picker – he uses a little hook, and little stump of his thumb, he holds this hook between his thumb and the stump of his hand. There’s a guy who, about 30 seconds after meeting him I thought, “Well, there’s some material.”

He’s there to butcher my pigs. And he was butchering and he says, “So, what do you do?” And I’m kind of embarrassed to say – I’m not ashamed, but it’s unusual. So I say, “Oh, I’m a writer.” He says, “Oh, you gonna write about me?”

I looked right at him and said, “Uh…Yep.”

Do you tell people when you’re writing about them?

MP: When I was writing Population 485, as soon as I had a book deal, I went directly to my chief, and said, “You need to know that I’m going to be writing about us. And you can’t tell anybody.” When it was all finished and I had a chance to make changes, I went to all the people on the fire department and said, “Here’s what I wrote, let me know if I got anything wrong.” I didn’t offer to change things to make anyone happy, I offered to change things I didn’t get right.

What happened is that from that day forward, people started to change their behavior. Some pulled back a little. Some went way the other way and tried to be goofy and nutty. I just told them “hey, the book’s done. You can relax.”

Most of the time, if I have the option, I prefer to let my subjects know I’ve been writing about them after the book is done.

Are people nervous or do they watch what they say around you?

MP: You have to be aware. It does happen to me a lot now. People will stop half way through a story and clam up.

You write in short snippets, going in a general direction through several seemingly unrelated storylines, like a collection of essays. How did that style develop?

MP: There’s a long answer and a short answer. I’ll give you the short answer. It happened over years, frankly it’s still evolving or at least I hope it is, and I hope I never stop evolving.

For years and years, up until about 1995 and ‘96, I would struggle to write these seamless little narratives, mostly magazine articles, and I’d try to very carefully lead the reader all the way through and I’d let you know when we were going to change directions and why and now we’re going to go over here and then in 1995 or ‘96 I read a collection of essays called “Just Before Dark” by Jim Harrison. He, just his general style (and I loved his tone), but the thing that really changed my writing the day I read those stories is this. He’ll be writing along talking about fishing in Montana, then there’s this block of white space and then all of the sudden he’s talking about drinking wine in the south of France, then white space, now he’s in Michigan talking about taverns. But somehow at the end of the piece it all comes together and it all makes sense. Reading those essays made me realize that no, you don’t have to take the reader by the hand, you can take these leaps.

Number one, it keeps things interesting, and number two, if the writing’s any good the reader will come with you and by the end understand why you took him where you took him. To be honest, I’m not always successful at that, but that’s what I’m shootin’ for.

Tell us about Coop.

MP: It’s about my little family moving to this farm. We’re like a lot of folks trying to grow more of our own food and raise more of our own food, so we have pigs and chickens and a garden. But there are some people doing wonderful work in this area (Michael Pollen doing Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver doing Animal, Vegetable Mineral). I like to make it clear that my book is not the book you want to read for guidance. This is the book about what happens when regular stumblebums try to do this.

If you want to know how to restore your vintage vehicle, Truck is not the book for you. If you want to know what happens when an under-qualified person tries to restore a truck, it is. It’s the same with moving to a farm. I killed half my chickens and things like that.

It’s also about becoming a parent and I was a bachelor for 39 years and now I’ve got two little girls. As far as deciding how to act on a farm and how to act as a parent, I go back and try to revisit my experience being raised on a farm in Northern Wisconsin. I was raised by these kind of offbeat folks in an obscure fundamentalist Christian sect. My parents were city people who kind of were Christian hippies and went back and carved out this little life for themselves in rural Wisconsin. So I keep circling back to the story of my childhood. At the beginning of the book my wife is pregnant.