The Fox Journal sat down with New York Times best-selling author Michael Perry after his Fox Cities Book Festival panel, “An Afternoon With Michael Perry,” at UW-Fox’s Perry Hall April 20 to ask a few questions about Wisconsin life, cheese, Bon Iver, Perry’s biographical memoir Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time and other written works.
Perry is a Wisconsin native and spent his childhood on a dairy farm. He is best known for his work as a novelist but has done much more than that, from going to nursing school, working on a ranch in Wyoming, playing in the band Michael Perry and the Long Beds, to working as a columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.
FJ: So you’re born and raised in Wisconsin. I think we should start with cheese. What is your favorite type of cheese?
PERRY: Well, it’s kind of like when you grow up in Wisconsin, naming your favorite type of cheese is like being asked to name your favorite child. You’re not really allowed to choose just one. I’m a big fan of the sharp ones like sharp cheddars and I like really gorgonzola-type bleu cheesy stuff. I was raised, however, on a lot of colby. If we were doing the desert island thing, and I could only have one form of cheese it would be the deep-fried curd, there’s no question about that. I’m no purist.
FJ: Your books focus a lot on Wisconsin and kind of the farm life and small towns. How do you draw your inspiration from that? You were born here, grew up here, and still live here. What fuels your writing?
PERRY: From a very fundamental standpoint, I’m a self-employed writer, so I have to write in order to feed my kids or get a different job. So from a basic level, the drive is to keep doing this. As far as writing about Wisconsin, I feel very fortunate in that I’m very much a Wisconsin guy, but I’m also very blessed in that my very Wisconsin-centric rural parents and grandparents nonetheless encouraged me to travel and see the world, and I’ve been all over. I keep coming back to Wisconsin because this is where I feel the most comfortable. But, I’m grateful for that outside perspective, because when I do then sit down to write about Wisconsin, I always try to keep two people in mind. One is the person from Wisconsin who can go, “Oh, yeah, he’s right, the curds are supposed to squeak.” But then I think of the person in New York City or maybe in France or in L.A. who’s reading it, and you need to talk about why the curds need to squeak in such a way that they get it. I would say that is the drive. On one hand, it’s to try to fairly and accurately represent my part of Wisconsin on behalf of the people that are there (not that anyone asked me to do that) and then the other is to try and convey it in a way that a complete outsider would understand. One thing I’m also careful to mention is that no one asked me to be the voice of Wisconsin, and I also reject that notion because I happen to be a guy who grew up on a dairy farm with a red barn and black-and-white cows. So that part of Wisconsin to me is very real, but it is also a Wisconsin story to be raised on a Lakota reservation and it is also a Wisconsin story to be raised in Milwaukee, so there are all kinds of Wisconsin stories.
FJ: So you have no academic training in writing, and you actually went to school for nursing. What got you into writing?
PERRY: Yeah, I was just your average knuckleheaded football-playing high school kid, and I got okay grades but I wasn’t the valedictorian or anything like that. I was working during the summers on a ranch in Wyoming, and then I went to nursing school at UW-Eau Claire and got my bachelor degree, went to work in nursing and liked it. I had also picked up an amateur interest in poetry and started hanging out at poetry readings, and then got interested in writing magazine articles and from there I started self-publishing my books and eventually was offered a book contract from Harper-Collins. I never had time to make plans or set goals. I was just doing stuff. So to this day, I would be in big trouble if I had to diagram a sentence or pass an English test because I write by ear. The other thing I had going for me was that I was raised in this unusual odd religion that I’m no longer a part of. It was a very gentle existence but we weren’t allowed to watch TV or go to the movies or even listen to the radio, but we were allowed to go to the library and check out books so I read books voraciously all throughout my childhood. So, [as a writer], I’m kind of a like a musician who never learned to read music. I just know the chords.
FJ: How does sense of place tie into your books and your characters?
PERRY: Well, I get asked about it a lot, because Population: 485, especially, is deeply about sense of place. It’s about having to know a place, and the many ways you come to know a place and the geography, the topography, the people, the emotions you associate [them] with, all these things. And for a long time, I was into the sense of place, the permanency of it. My heart is never more at home than in a six-square-mile patch of Chippewa County, which, to anyone coming through there, it’s a ragtag place, it’s had a lot of poverty, farming has come and gone. You wouldn’t go through it and [think], “This would be the place of my dreams.” What’s changed over time for me, with that sense of place, is that I’ve begun to realize that it’s portable.
You could spend the rest of your life trying to work out your sense of place when, in fact, you may be happy somewhere else, too. One example I have is how very intent I am on Panama, and I feel a sense of place there even though I’m not associated. I’ve been to Wales, and I love Wales. I think that as I’ve grown older, I still love that idea of sense of place, and still love exploring the idea, but I’ve begun to adjust my perception of it, which is that it may be portable.
FJ: Is that change reflective within your books? Does that reflect in your books as a changing and growing concept?
PERRY: Yeah, because in Population 485, that book is all about sense of place. It’s all about, “Why do I love this odd, little, otherwise nondescript, place.” That whole book is about about finding my place, settling and [returning]. It’s all about that “Can you go home again? I’ve been away for 12 years.” When I finished that book, I was settled on the idea that I would live here for the rest of my life, and I was happy there, and content there. In the next book, it turns out that I, a longtime bachelor, wind up meeting someone. I get married, and so that book is about that change in my life. At the very end of that book, we’re maybe talking about buying a farm that’s not right in this fire district, and in the next book, sure enough, we move 40 minutes away, still very much in rural Wisconsin, but we moved. Then, in Visiting Tom, which is a more recent book, I’m again talking about how happy and content I am in Wisconsin, and yet realizing, I could maybe be happy in Panama, too. So, yes, that progression of thought is reflected in the books.
FJ: And you are a musician, too. What’s going on with that?
PERRY: Well, I’m always careful with that because I have a lot of friends who are professional musicians, and let’s just say that I’m a guy who knows about six chords and just enough to be dangerous. I can play a very rudimentary rhythm guitar and that’s enough to write the songs, so I write the songs and sing them, but the band, they’re the true musicians. What I like to say is that I play guitar with all the nuance of a man cutting brush—just banging out those chords. I’ve got friends who can make the beautiful noises. I did a lot of writing about musicians early on and some of my biggest literary influences were singer/songwriters, alternative country people like Steve Earl and Lucinda Williams, and so I would go on tour with musicians and write about it. I saw the life and witnessed up close but I think I was in my thirties before I ever learned a chord, and then I just started writing songs for fun and then a buddy of mine wanted me to play out, and I told him I’d be too nervous, but he went and booked us in a coffee shop anyway. We played and I was really nervous and I sweated all over my guitar but it was fun and it just kind of grew from there.
FJ: Were you serious about the comments you made about knowing Bon Iver at the presentation?
PERRY: Yes, but I need to be clear, I’m not like his best buddy. I’m not his inspiration. He has kindly cited me and Population: 485 as a source and as a mentor, but he got his success on his own. But, yeah, he used to be in my band. I met him when I first started writing songs, and when I started performing. People always [ask], “Well, do you have an album?” and I didn’t. I was in the coffee shop, and had some friends who were musicians, and I said I was just looking for someone to record an album, and they said this guy named Justin [Vernon] does albums. The first time I met Justin was at a rehearsal, I was dating a woman who rented rehearsal space to Justin and his friends, and when they introduced me to him, he was just this guy slouched on the couch, and they said, “This is Justin. He writes songs.” I remember thinking, yeah, well, good for you. Then we recorded an album together, because he needed the work, and we got to be friends. We worked together, and then when I started playing out, the band was a little bigger. He often would come along on the road and play lead guitar in the band for me.
He once gave me the greatest advice I ever got as a musician. I was starting a show. I started playing and I went up to the microphone, and when I looked back I could see he was trying to get me to come back to where he was. I walked back and I didn’t stop strumming, and he leaned back and said, “Plug in your guitar.” That’s the greatest advice I’ve ever gotten from Justin Vernon.
Then, over time, he went on and we all know that he became very successful, and we just happened to live very near each other, and he has a studio, and I recorded one of my albums there and I record all my audiobooks there. We worked together on the festival that he does. So, yeah, we know each other. We’re neighbors, we see each other once in a while, and we work with each other every once in a while. He’s a good dude.
FJ: On the end note, what advice would you give to anyone who are interested in a career in writing?
PERRY: My advice is pretty boring, but it worked for me: one’s “read” and the other’s “write.” I know that sounds so obvious, but I meet a lot of writers who say, “I’m going to be a writer, and I’ve got this novel I’m going to write,” and I say, “How’s that going?” and they say, “Well, I haven’t started yet.” You just have to get out there and make mistakes. I made and continue to make all kinds of mistakes in public, but if you don’t put your stuff out there, it won’t go anywhere. I mean, Justin Vernon, if you go back and listen to his old music, he had to go through a progression before he got to where he finally wound up, where all the sudden, he did this thing that resonated with people. I say that as a writer, you got to write, get your stuff out there, keep polishing it over and over because you might be the genius who wrote that one thing, but probably what you need to do is write 50 more things. The final thing I would say is don’t be intimidated in any way. I don’t care if you grew up in an urban setting, rich or poor. In my case, I grew up as a farm kid. There’s this image that the arts are only available to certain people. Well, sometimes you can just walk in and take the art. I see that in music a lot, the barriers are down. You can make your whole album in your basement now, and you can release it to the world, and it’s getting that way with writing, so go and do it.
FJ: What do you have coming up next in the works? What’s next for you?
PERRY: A paperback of The Jesus Cow is coming out in a month, and a collection of my short columns, called “Roughneck Grace,” is coming out in October. Then, I’m finishing my nonfiction book, which is about the French philosopher Montaigne. After I finish that, I’ll be writing the sequel to The Scavengers.