Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Michael Perry in Person

Michael Perry at the entrance to his PIRVATE DRIVE.
Photo by Andrea Paulseth, Volume One Magazine, Eau Claire, WI.
Two years ago, we were lucky to Skype with author Michael Perry after reading his book Truck. During our chat, Perry said he'd like to someday visit with us in person. And Tuesday, he did.

We'd recently read and discussed Perry's latest book, Visiting Tom, which is his fifth book and his first to make the New York Times bestseller list. [applause!] 

If you're hesitant to read Visiting Tom because you maybe haven't read Perry's prior works (what's wrong with you?) don't let that stop you. You can read Perry's memoirs in any order and not get lost. He sprinkles just enough backstory to satisfy his newer readers. Although his memoirs unfold along the timeline of his life, each one emphasizes a different aspect, and each book stands perfectly well alone, but shouldn't have to. So there's no excuse: Go buy your copy of Visiting Tom right now and read it. And then go back and get the rest of Perry's books and read those too.

Tuesday morning was cold and rainy, and the homeless were especially eager to get indoors. They filtered into room 216 early, finding their favorite seats, fixing themselves a coffee, shaking off the weather. Mr. Perry also arrived early. Dressed casually in a plaid flannel shirt and jeans, he joined the homeless at the round table arrangement, blending in so quietly, so perfectly, that nobody noticed at first. But soon word got out: That's Michael Perry! And we were off to a great start. 

Throughout our time with Perry, he seemed entirely at ease amidst the thirty or so homeless and their friends who gathered together to share their love of books and reading and writing. He opened with stories about his humble beginnings in a working class family in New Auburn, Wisconsin. As a boy he learned sheep shearing and lambing from his dad, as a teen he worked summers on a ranch in Wyoming to save for college, and as a grown man he's filled many roles: from surgical nurse, emergency medical technician and fireman, to musician, writer, husband and father. After this overview, Perry took questions. As usual, we had prepared several questions in advance, but folks were free to ask any questions they wanted. Perry's answers were animated yet thoughtful, humorous but never glib, truthful but far from uptight. Rather quickly, everyone in the room seemed at home in Perry's company.

*Note: No video or audio recordings were made. I tried writing Perry's answers in first-person, as I've done with several authors in the past, but almost immediately had to scrap that approach. Mr. Perry's delivery is unique and, for me anyway, inimitable. To get the full effect, attend one of his events, like the one this evening: Prison, Prose and Portraiture: Visiting Tom at Promenade Hall/Overture Center at 7:30PM. 

How do you come up with ideas about books to write and, in particular, what inspired you to write this one?

Perry treads carefully on the topic of inspiration, not wanting to come across as glib or insensitive to his many artistic fans. But Perry is not the sort who stares out the window, waiting for inspiration to waft in. He looks for stories he can sell, stories people want to read, and sits down and writes.   

"There's a bald headed little guy named Jim down at the Chetek Bank and he's holding my mortgage in his hands. That's inspiration." 

Perry loves to write and especially loves to write about things around him. In this case, he'd always wanted to write a book about old timers but he wanted to write a book that didn't just show old timers always at their best, as 'peachy,' since old timers can be knuckleheads like the rest of us. He considered writing a book that featured many old timers, one chapter per old timer, but quickly realized everyone and their brother would want him to write about their Aunt Jane or Uncle Ernie, so he tossed out that idea and focused on Tom. 

Did you ask permission from Tom and Arlene before writing this book? If so, what do you recall about that conversation?

Yes, Perry told Tom* (not his real name) that he wanted to write a book about him and what it meant, that he could look it over when it was finished to make sure the facts were correct, but he wouldn't be able to change what Perry wrote just for the sake of making himself look good.

And Tom* answered like this: "That's fine, but you'll have to change my name."

Perry agreed and changed his name to Tom in the book. But Perry also cautioned him, saying "You're such a character, folks within a 50 mile radius will know that it's you anyway."

And Tom said, "I can live with that."

In learning about Tom and Arlene, what surprised you the most?

There wasn't a blockbuster discovery about Tom and Arlene. However, in writing about others we often learn things about ourselves, which is not always good but is often necessary. Perry recognized qualities in Tom that he admired and aimed to reflect in his own life: As a husband, Tom was loyal, careful to avoid giving reason to doubt his faithfulness, and he was hardworking and honest, but he was not always very demonstrative. Tom was the sort of man who might be heard to say something like this: "Honey, I told ya I loved ya back in 1947. " 

When Perry witnessed an exchange between Tom and his wife as she lay in the hospital, he was moved by the tenderness of the moment. And when he learned later from Tom's daughter that such exchanges were rare in the early years of Tom and Arlene's marriage, Perry was confronted with an uncomfortable feeling, that maybe he was not as demonstrative as he could be. Not wanting  Annaliese to have to wait 40 years to experience such tenderness, Perry decided to up his game at home. 

*Perry said it wasn't a blockbuster discovery, but I disagree--this little anecdote makes it easy to imagine this book as a movie. 

Did Arlene read the book and did she like it? 

Yes. And yes. But you have to understand, if there was something in the book that Arlene didn't like, she may not have said so. She really sees her role as her husband's supporter, and if it worked for Tom it worked for Arlene. Some people might think of Arlene as old fashioned or oppressed, but that's just the way she grew up and she's content, even happy, with the way things work between them. She's more man-centric than younger women tend to be. For example, when Perry is on the road, staying at hotels, chatting with nice people, and Anneliese is home struggling to carry the whole load, caring for the kids, tending the garden, teaching Spanish and yoga, Arlene will call and ask about Michael. "How's your husband?" And she means it in the most supportive way. 

Have Tom and Arlene's lives changed at all as a result of this book being published? Are they getting more visitors?

The changes are small but rewarding. As a result of the book, the Hartwigs have reconnected with neighbors they hadn't seen in years, and there have been more kitchen table visits. So far there hasn't been anything too intrusive. Perry was concerned about this when he set out to write the book, but he's glad to see it hasn't stirred up too much uncomfortable interest. In large part, Perry credits his audience for being the kind of people who like to read memoirs, who enjoy a certain connection to the people in the books, but recognize that there is a line that shouldn't be crossed, that the privacy and peace of others should be respected. 

In most overt ways, Tom is the same old humble guy he's always been. But there are occasions when he can't resist reveling in the limelight for a moment or two, like the time someone overheard Tom at the pharmacy, telling the pharmacist, "Yeah, I'm the guy in that book." 

How has your life changed as a result of writing and publishing this book?

The best thing about the book's success is that it didn't change his life but instead allowed him to keep doing what he does. 

Perry describes himself as a pretty even guy, without a lot of peaks and valleys, not one to get hung up on one success or failure. He keeps working. He feels fortunate to make a living with his writing and speaking and music, but he knows it's a tentative world, that things could change. It's a year-to-year prospect, and he has to keep working to provide for his family, to keep them clothed and fed and housed. So it's back to the grindstone, or, in his case, the keyboard. 

Do you get more visitors coming up your driveway?

In the book, Perry describes the occasional car or truck coming up his long private driveway, circling the barn. Most likely these are just accidental occurrences, someone turning up the wrong drive, but they might also be curious fans, wanting to peak at the Perry farm. Either way, in an understandable effort to protect his family and property, Perry set out to discourage these unpredictable intrusions. He put up a sign painted in blood red that said PRIVATE DRIVE, then shot a couple bullets through the wooden boards for emphasis.  

Since, in a moment of writerly inspiration, Perry remade the sign. It is still painted in blood red and riddled with bullet holes, but now it reads: 
                                  PIRVATE DRIVE 
                                           (see the photo above) 

This one has been especially effective. 

Yes, he's a redneck. 

Have you bought a modern snowblower yet? How about a four-wheel drive vehicle?

For those of you who haven't read the book, the town commissioner set out to make repairs on the road leading up to the Perry driveway. As a result of the so-called improvements, it was now more difficult, and sometimes impossible and dangerous, for the Perry family to make it up the driveway in their two-wheel drive vehicle. When Perry protested, the commissioner suggested Perry buy a four-wheel drive vehicle, but Perry resisted on principle: A road improvement shouldn't make it harder to navigate a road.

As for the snowblower, no, it's not in the budget.  

How does Anneliese deal with your celebrity?

"This one's easy," Perry said, "because I'm not a celebrity. I've known celebrities, spent time with them, and I know what that's like and that's not what I've got."

Perry, who has spent a lot of time performing and selling books in Madison, where he has a large and generous audience, can still walk around downtown and not be recognized. 

And Anneliese certainly has no trouble dealing with his fans.  

About a week after hearing Michael Perry speak in public, a woman approached Anneliese and said, "Oh, you are so lucky to be married to Michael Perry. He is so funny!"

Without hesitation, Anneliese replied, "Yes, he is...On stage." 

*Perry practically beamed with pride over his wife's comedic timing. 

While on your book tours, what is the silliest question you've ever been asked? Is this it?

Perry recalled the silliest observation. Once, while giving a reading at Canterbury Bookstore, he read from Population 485, from a section that talks about hunting, about how he loved being out in the woods and how sometimes he would fall to sleep on the forest floor, his face pressed to the earth. Such experiences could ground him and renew him, and kept him returning to the woods year after year. During the reading, he encouraged his audience to get down and breath in the earth. He meant it as a metaphor, but a man in the front row took it literally, standing and turning to the audience, his back to Perry, to warn them: "You should never ever smell dirt, don't breath it in. If you do you might get fungi-form-a-something illness and die." And then he sat down. 

How many acres is your farm? Were you being serious when you suggested in the book that you might sell the farm and take your family to some tropical place?

The farm is a touch over 37 acres, which, Perry said, is about 36.5 acres too many. Perry is on the road so much nowadays that it's difficult to keep up with the farm and the land. The family has had to cut back on some of the farm activities this year, to give Perry time to travel and Annaliese time for the expanding range of their children's activities. For example, this year they had to say no to raising pigs. They continue to grow much of their own food and to get most of their protein from hunting the back forty. 

As for moving someplace warm, the odds are not high although, Perry admits, he's been working on his sense of place. It used to be he felt the strongest sense of place in New Auborn, but he's gained it now in the place where he lives with his wife and daughters. He now recognizes, as the homeless know very well, that a sense of place is a privilege. Last year, he and his family spent five weeks living in a tiny village in Panama, and Perry realized he could live there. In that short time he and his family were making friends and experiencing that sense of place, of belonging. Perry said he doesn't want to move and has no specific plans to move but he and his family are preparing for the possibility that things might have to change.

You write about chickens and pigs, but not about dogs. What's up with that?

Perry loves dogs and has always wanted to have one. Not having a dog is one of his regrets. But he travels too much to have a dog. Dog's aren't like cats. They need a lot more attention. It wouldn't be fair to stick a dog in a kennel for weeks at a time. 

Have you ever thought about writing a book for kids?

Perry has done more than just think about writing a book for kids. He has a contract to complete one. In fact, he is in the final throws of writing a novel about a young girl, age 12. He set out to write a young adult book, but the publisher recently remarked that what he'd written so far would be more appropriate for middle grade readers. Either way, it's Perry's first work of fiction. 

Perry said that, after years of writing about his children, he's reached the point where he wants to give them space, give them privacy, and so he's taking a new direction.

What is your writing routine like now? How do you fit it in? How many hours do you write a week?

Perry doesn't have a routine but he writes every day, doing whatever he can wherever his is. One of the things he likes about his career is that he can so easily take his work wherever he goes. All he needs is his keyboard and the ability to shut out the world. He'll sometimes write late into the night, burning incense as he goes. "That's when some of the really good stuff happens." 

Perry keeps many projects going at once, in various stages of completion. On any given day, what he chooses to work on is based on triage, his method of sorting based on his priorities, tackling first those projects that are most likely to thrive, and those with encroaching deadlines. Because of his travel, coupled with the ever-changing needs of his family, every day is different. He likes to write in his office above the barn at home but he can write anywhere. He even works while in his tree-stand deer hunting. While editing his latest book, he turned a page, looked up and realized he'd just missed a big buck. Over the years, he's missed lots of deer, which probably makes him PETA's favorite hunter. 

What project are you working on now?

Perry keeps about six projects in the air at once so that they don't all come due or to an end at the same time. His current works-in-progress include a mix of magazine pieces, the one man monologues, a record label deal with his band (he's finished writing the songs, now it's time to practice and record), and the novel. There is another book he's working on, a contract already signed, a nonfiction book, memoir style, following his exploration of French philosopher Montaigne.  

In the movie version of the book, who would play you? Annaliese? Tom? Arlene?

Perry can easily envision Billy Bob Thornton playing himself. Thornton grew up in a working class family, as Perry did. Perry once met the famous actor and was surprised by how well-read he is. "He reads all the time." 

Perry cannot think of anyone but Annaliese playing the role of his wife. As for Tom and Arlene, well, that's tough too. 

Is the international harvester (the nidus for the book Truck) still running?

Yes, but to get her started you'd need to set aside a couple hours. Perry drives her around the farm now and then, but doesn't dare take her much farther.

How has being a father changed you?

Being a father has changed Perry, but not in the big and obvious ways it changes some men. Some men try to actualize themselves through their children, and Perry wants to avoid that. "Besides," he said, smiling sheepishly, "I'm stubborn and selfish."

Would you consider writing a book about hunting? Does your wife know how to shoot?

Perry, who hasn't missed a dear hunting season since second grade, has written about hunting in scatted places in his books, even dedicated a chapter to the subject in Truck.

And yes, Annaliese can shoot, a fact that might be interesting to include on a sign at the entrance to a certain PIRVATE DRIVE. 

Michael Perry, front and center, surrounded by a few of his new
friends from Bethel's Homeless Book Club, including R-L:
Captain Jack, Suzanne, Linda, Jeremy, Alice, Angel, Jim, Connie, 
Ron (?)  and Phyllis. 

Dear Mr. Perry,

Thank you for visiting with us, telling us stories and making us laugh. Thank you for answering our questions, signing our books, and for helping us understand a little of what drives you, what it's like to juggle so many roles while keeping your family in the number one spot. Thank you for showing us what it's like to be a writer and a caring neighbor, a humorist and a husband, a father and farmer. and thank you for introducing us to Tom.

We wish you continued success in your fascinatingly multi-faceted career. And for your family we pray for continued peace, health and prosperity.

Michael Perry signing books. 
The Homeless Book Club


The homeless book club turned three this week. Thanks to all of you who have supported us. You know who you are! 

We'll meet next Tuesday at 8AM in Fireside Gallery to watch Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks. We'll also hand out copies of our next read, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

See you then!

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The average age of a homeless person in Madison is 9 years old.