Heads up Midwesterners, this week's author -- Michael Perry -- is one of us. Perry is from New Auburn Wisc., and his first book, Population 485 got lots of regional accolades for capturing the characters and voice of the Midwest (and particularly, northern Wisconsin.).
Perry newest book, Truck: A Love Story hit shelves yesterday.
For more about Perry and to see a his itinerary on book tour, go to his website. If he's coming to your corner of the world, take the time to go see him.
WN: What's your writing process like from when you first start writing things down to getting a finished book?
PERRY: Organic, to put it politely. I start jotting notes and fragments and throw them all into one big file. These can be three-word scribbles from a gum wrapper or an 800-word brain dump. Then I print them all out and try to sort them by some sort of topical means. For instance I draw little triangles beside everything having to do with trucks, circles by everything having to do with gardening, squiggles beside everything tied to existentialism, and so on. Then I cut and paste so all the triangles, circles, squiggles, etc., are clustered. Then I begin to write what I call "chunks," which is a rare literary term. Then I print the chunks out, over and over, cutting them apart with scissors and moving them around on the floor like a giant sad game of solitaire. Eventually the chunks enlarge and cohere, and I start finding chapters. Once I have chapters, then I get to revise and polish, which is actually my favorite part of the process. I love to polish and polish. My editor finally demands that I turn it all in. In short, my writing process is unpretty and more like grunting than singing.
WN: "Truck" ranges from seed catalogs and trucks to chicken dinners, the staff of NPR to politics and dating... how do all these disparate topics work together in one book?
PERRY: Well, I am forever running off on tangents. I simply can't keep my head straight. It's like Rain Man in there, without the aptitude for math. So I sometimes see threads that may or may not exist, but I weave obliviously along. Then you lie awake in the dark and hope it will make sense.
WN: "Truck" seems more personal than "Population: 485"... was that harder for you to write, revealing more of your own thoughts/feelings/etc?
PERRY: When it is late and deadlines are nigh, you tend to go for what's available. To choose one specific example, if a guy is losing his hair, he might as well write about losing his hair. I write that stuff after extreme sleep deprivation and much coffee, and then when I see it printed up, I get sweaty and wonder what I was thinking. The questions you are always asking yourself are A) will anyone care, and B) will anyone relate? Frankly, you never know until it's all beyond retraction or repair.
WN: There are obviously lots of real people in your books... how do they react to how you portray them in print?
PERRY: Actually, I get more grief from the people I DON'T include! It is my pet theory that fiction writers face much greater difficulty in this respect...my characters (apart from a superficial name change) are clearly identifiable, whereas every novelist who ever created a nasty mother gets that tearful phone call from Mom, and no matter how much the novelist protests, Mom never does believe that the nasty heartless harridan wasn't based on her.
WN: What is the best/most influential book you have ever read and why did it inspire you?
PERRY: To answer with a question, what is the best breath you've ever taken? Good, bad or sublime, they all add up to now, and leave you hungry for the next one. I should stitch that on a sampler.
WN: What is your favorite word and why?
PERRY: I've always loved the word "evanescent". It is a word that is beautiful on the page and on the eye. It comes off the tongue like a poem. Finally, I take it as a constant reminder that everything is a puff of breeze and so enough with the furrowed brow.
WN: What piece of advice helped you out the most as a writer?
PERRY: My Dad taught me to clean calf pens one shovelful (forkful, actually, but we quibble) at a time. Until you have this big pile of product. This remains my guiding principle.
WN: What's next for you as a writer? Is a new book in process yet?
PERRY: Inspired by the arrival of yet another form letter announcing an increase in my health insurance premiums, I continue to freelance whenever and wherever possible. Currently working on pieces for Men's Health, No Depression, Backpacker, and a couple of anthologies. And I have just started the next book, which is a memoir about growing up on a small dairy farm in northern Wisconsin as a member of an obscure fundamentalist Christian sect. I expect that one may generate some letters. But above all, I am a deeply grateful guy, as I never even entertained the idea of writer until I was well down other paths, and I love what I do. As I have said before, I feel like a guy that got on the wrong bus, but it's a very cool bus and I like where it has taken me.