Third Coast Writers

Fresh off the farm an aspiring writer finds an apartment in New York City to write the Great American Novel, or so goes the cliché. In reality Wisconsin authors remain home in Milwaukee, Madison or Racine – or even New Auburn, Antigo, or Wonewoc – and their fiction not only wins prizes but sometimes is made into blockbuster films.

Although the East and West Coasts have traditionally been seen as hotbeds of literary creativity, some wags have labeled Chicago the Third Coast, situated comfortably on the shore of Lake Michigan. However, that lakefront doesn’t stop at the city limits of the Windy City, but extends north well into Wisconsin and along the Door County peninsula. The list of Dairy State writers is not only long, but impressive, extending back to those classic authors Thornton Wilder, Edna Ferber, Hamlin Garland, and Zona Gale.

The roll of contemporary Wisconsin writers includes best-selling authors who are not always products of MFA writing programs, but are storytellers who appeal to a wider audience. Jane Hamilton, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Lorrie Moore, Michael Perry, David Rhodes, and Larry Watson are among the favorites of those readers who enjoy the works our state’s sons and daughters.

Readers who have a history of attending book festivals have no doubt heard some of these authors speak about and read from their fiction. Michael Perry, for example, continues to be a frequent guest at such events.

And a number of readers have good memories of working with one of these writers while a university or secondary student. Gibraltar High School in Fish Creek, for example, has a long tradition of inviting authors as visiting artists into the school; past visitors include Jacquelyn Mitchard, Michael Perry, and Larry Watson, in addition to many writers of modest fame who are nonetheless good reads and inspiring speakers.

Not all Wisconsin writers draw upon the landscape of our state for a setting as Jacquelyn Mitchard, Michael Perry, David Rhodes, Danielle Sosin, Eliot Treichel, and Larry Watson have done, but they still bring a Midwestern sensibility to their story telling. And just as moviegoers enjoy seeing familiar settings, so do readers like to recognize familiar places.

Below are brief biographies of a few of Wisconsin’s contemporary authors, some who are well established and others who are emerging. Use them as you compile your to-read list, maybe noting works by familiar authors that you might have missed or discovering books by new authors that you might want to sample.

Jane Hamilton, Rochester, Wisconsin, published six novels all set at least in part in Wisconsin. Book of Ruth won a Hemingway Foundation PEN/Award, Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and a Wisconsin Library Association Banta Book Award. The novel was chosen as Oprah’s Book Club selection and was the basis for a television film. A Map of the World was also an Oprah’s Book Club selection and adapted for film. The Short History of a Prince was a Publisher’s Weekly best book. Her most recent novel, Laura Rider’s Masterpiece (set in rural Wisconsin) was published in 2009.

Jacquelyn Mitchard has published ten novels, in addition to young adult and children’s books and works of nonfiction. Deep End of the Ocean (set in Madison and Chicago) was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, spent 29 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List (13 as number one), and was made into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer. Earlier Mitchard worked as a journalist, eventually becoming a lifestyle columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and through syndication, appeared in 125 newspapers. Deep End of the Ocean was written while she was living in Madison, Wisconsin. Her other novels include The Most Wanted, A Theory of Relativity, Cage of Stars, and most recently Second Nature: A Love Story in 2011.

Lorrie Moore attended Lawrence University, graduated with an MFA from Cornell University, taught creative writing at UW – Madison and presently teaches at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of three novels and four collections of short stories. Her awards include the Irish Times International Fiction Prize for Birds of America, the Rea Award for Short Story, and a 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction finalist selection for A Gate at the Stairs. She writes about popular culture for the New York Review of Books, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is currently a fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters.

She also wrote the novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and most recently the short story collection Bark: Stories in 2014.

Michael Perry was born and raised in New Auburn, Wisconsin, and educated at UW – Eau Claire. The author of seven books, including four best-selling memoirs, including Population: 485 (set in New Auburn), he also performs widely as a humorist and publishes essays in the New York Times Magazine, Esquire, and other periodicals, in addition to working as a contributing editor to Men’s Health.

His other New Auburn books include Truck: A Love Story; Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting; and most recently, Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace in 2012.

David Rhodes, the author of five novels, including Driftless (set in Wisconsin’s driftless area), was born in Des Moines, earned a BA from Marlboro College and an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. In 1977 a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. He lives in rural Wonewoc, Wisconsin. His early novels include The Easter House and Rock Island Line, and his most recent Jewelweed (also set in Wisconsin) in 2013.

Danielle Sosin (The Long-Shining Water) lives in Duluth, Minnesota, and has published the collection of short stories Garden Primitives in addition to her novel (set on the Wisconsin shores of Lake Superior) which won the 2011 Milkweed National Fiction Prize and the Milkweed Edition’s Editor’s Circle Choice Award. She has an MA in Psychology but works part time for a landscape company to allow time for her writing.

Eliot Treichel was raised in northern Wisconsin, earned at MFA from Bennington College, and presently teaches at Lane Community College in Oregon. His collection of short stories Close Is Fine (set around Antigo, Wisconsin) received the 2013 Wisconsin Library Association Literary Award.

Larry Watson took his BA and MA from the University of North Dakota and his PhD from the creative writing program at the University of Utah. He is the author of eight novels, one fiction collection, and one book of poetry. Watson has received prizes and awards from Milkweed Press, Friends of Wisconsin Writers, Mountain and Plains Booksellers Association, Mountain and Plains Library Association, New York Public Library, Wisconsin Library Association, Critic’s Choice, and The High Plains Book Award. The movie rights to Montana, 1948 and Justice have been sold to Echo Lake Productions, and White Crosses and Orchard have been optioned for film. His other novels include Laura, Orchard (set in Door County, Wisconsin), American Boy, and most recently, Let Him Go in 2013.

He taught for many years at UW-Stevens Point but currently lives in Milwaukee teaching at Marquette University.

Locavores champion the benefits of eating locally produced food. And while readers often read to expand their horizons, they may remember Henry Thoreau’s contention that he was extremely well-traveled in his own neighborhood. The value of literature, some English professors maintain, is to help readers understand their own humanity. What better way to undertake that discovery than by turning to those authors among us who share not only our geography but our cultural experiences.