An Interview with Michael Perry, by Heidi Sistare
Michael Perry writes memoir that straddles the philosophical and the mundane. He’s also riotously funny. In addition to memoir, Perry writes young adult novels, hosts a radio show, performs in a band, and raises pigs on his farm in rural Wisconsin. His books include Population 485, Truck: A Love Story and The Scavengers. We talked about his next novel, parenting, and his favorite poets.
You write a lot about the people and places around you, in your small town in Wisconsin. How do your neighbors respond to being written about?
For the most part, folks don’t take much notice. Occasionally someone will say something funny and ask, “So is that gonna be in the next book?” My friend Bob the One-Eyed Beagle (who says a lot of very quotable things) got in the habit of trying to generate a quote every time I saw him. I told him his quality was slipping and he needed a better editor. We had a good laugh over that. I do my best to write honestly but respectfully, and I think that helps. It also helps that I really do live close to the ground, I really do walk into the same post office, I still carry a fire department pager, I still have an old pickup truck and a deer rifle, that sort of thing. I have had at least one person get upset with me for something I wrote, but the interesting thing was she didn’t contest the facts, she just wanted to tell her side of why it happened.
Your most recent book, The Scavengers, is a young adult novel. Can you talk about how it was different to write for a younger audience? Did being a father influence your decision to write a book for children?
As a Dad with two daughters, I did want to write a book with a strong, smart female protagonist who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. But mostly, I focused less on writing for a younger audience than just trying to tell a good story, an interesting yarn, something that would keep readers of all ages turning the pages. The book is coming out right about now, so readers will make the final call on that.
How has becoming a parent changed your writing routine?
For years and years I was a bachelor and I usually started writing at 6 or 7 p.m. and wrote until the wee dark hours. I still do that once or twice a month (and last week pulled two all-nighters in a row) (SO MUCH COFFEE) but ever since I became a dad the schedule has shifted and most days you’ll find me at the desk by 7 a.m., trying to get as much done as I can before the day derails. Most importantly, however, I want to be around for dinner and bedtime whenever I can. I’m on the road 80-100 days per year so I don’t always manage it, but my favorite thing is to end the day reading books with my children, just as my parents did with me.
One of the things that struck me about Population: 485 was the way your writing moves easily between side-stitch humor, philosophical musings, and the details of everyday life. Is this cocktail of humor, philosophy, and the mundane important to you? Does it reflect how you naturally think?
My head skitters all over the place. I can’t keep track of things, and I’m constantly going off on tangents. So that certainly accounts for some of the variegations in the ol’ tapestry, if you will. But it’s also a reflection of the people who raised me. They were readers and conversationalists, they were thoughtful and reflective, but they were also rural roughnecks who loved goofball humor and thought nothing was funnier than seeing someone get hit in the head with a monkey wrench as long as there was no long-term damage. So yeah, it is how I think, for better or worse. You aim high, but you don’t ride high. If that makes any sense.
When did you know you wanted to write? Were there particular authors who inspired you?
I was out of college and working as a nurse and EMT before I really got serious about writing. There were little things that led up to that moment, clear back to the first books my Mom read to me, and a 7th grade English teacher who gave me my first free-writing assignment, but it wasn’t until I started writing every day in between nursing shifts that I realized how badly I wanted to be a writer. The list of writers who inspired me is endless, but I’ll mention Jim Harrison (his book “Legends of the Fall” became the famous movie, but it was his collection of essays, “Just Before Dark,” that changed my writing forever and for the better) and a whole raft of poets from Rita Dove to Lucille Clifton to Sharon Olds to Olena Kalytiak Davis to James Wright to Dylan Thomas.
It seems like you do a lot of things beyond writing. Does farming or performing influence your writing? How do you balance all of the things that you do?
Sure, everything we do filters through our unconscious and back out in some form. Going out to feed the chickens influenced me literally (The Scavengers features a silly fictional rooster based on a real rooster) and figuratively (writing in Visiting Tom about fireflies as cosmic teardrops). Performing music helps me consider how words are received upon the ear as opposed to the eye, and thus informs the rhythm of my prose, I suppose.
As far as balancing all of the things I do, it’s economic triage. Do what has to be done to keep the clodhopper dream alive. It’s no more complicated than balancing all the responsibilities of any given person out there working hard to keep the family afloat. My brother the farmer/logger/heavy equipment operator juggles jobs like crazy; he just doesn’t write essays about it.
What are you working on next?
At the moment I am headed out on book tour for The Scavengers. But in my backpack on the passenger seat is a draft of my next book, a novel about a bachelor farmer whose cow gives birth to a calf bearing the image of Christ. I’ll be pecking away at that in my motel rooms between tour stops, because the final draft is due in less than five weeks, and based on my editor’s markups there are miles to go…
Michael Perry’s bestselling memoirs include Population 485, Truck: A Love Story, Coop, and Visiting Tom. Raised on a small Midwestern dairy farm, Perry put himself through nursing school while working on a ranch in Wyoming, then wound up writing by happy accident. He lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Wisconsin, where he serves on the local volunteer fire and rescue service and is an amateur pig farmer. He hosts the nationally-syndicated “Tent Show Radio,” perfrms widely as a humorist, and tours with his band the Long Beds (currently recording their third album for Amble Down Records). He has recorded three live humor albums including Never Stand Behind A Sneezing Cow and The Clodhopper Monologues. He can be found online at www.sneezingcow.com.
Heidi Sistare writes from her home in Portland, Maine, where she attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. You can view her published work on her website: www.heidisistare.com.