Doug Moe: Writer launched by rural roots

2012-08-22T08:00:00Z Doug Moe: Writer launched by rural rootsDOUG MOE | Wisconsin State Journal | dmoe@madison.com | 608-252-6446 madison.com

Saturday morning, Michael Feldman stood before the live audience of his public radio show, a few minutes before going on the air, and told it the best way to speak en masse.

Pretend you're talking to your hard-of-hearing grandma, Feldman said.

"She's deaf, but she's not stupid," he said.

The audience laughed, and a short time later, Michael Perry jumped on the stage at Monona Terrace to banter with Feldman on "Whad'Ya Know?".

It seemed appropriate. Feldman's line about grandma might have been lifted from one of Perry's homespun and humorous books about life in rural Wisconsin.

It was clear Saturday that Perry — who will read and sign copies of his latest, "Visiting Tom," at 7 p.m. tonight at Barnes & Noble West Towne — has arrived. The audience was with him even before he mentioned his neighbor Tom's cannon.

Mrs. Moe and I were among them. I insisted, in part because I wanted to see in the flesh the writer I tracked down by phone a dozen years ago, before he was famous.

Back then, I kept encountering the byline "Michael Perry" in all manner of publications, big and small, but mostly small. His range appeared limitless. Perry wrote about country music and snowmobilers, rodeo and lumberjacks, and he did it all from a little village north of Eau Claire called New Auburn.

When I reached Perry, it was early January 2000, the first days of the new millennium.

"We had our Y2K meeting over the weekend," Perry said. He was a volunteer member of the Fire Department in New Auburn.

"The chief made prime rib and someone brought taco dip," he said. "Nothing happened, and I'm not sure what we would have done if it did."

Perry paused. "I guess we could have hosed down any anarchists."

I knew Perry was a fire volunteer because in April 1999 Esquire published his terrific piece describing that experience.

What neither Mike nor I knew in January 2000 was that the article would lead to a book, and the book would launch his career into another, more successful orbit.

Last week, after his appearance on the Feldman show, Perry, 47, sat at a window table in Monona Terrace and chatted about the track of his life and career.

The Esquire publication brought a call from a New York agent asking if Perry was working on a book.

He said he wasn't. It may have been there wasn't time. It was not uncommon in those days for Perry to have a dozen or more magazine stories in various stages of development — just assigned; researched but not written; written in first draft; accepted but in need of revision. He also played music and did stand-up comedy.

Perry and his agent decided Mike would write a book based on the five summers he spent working as a cowboy in Wyoming to put himself through nursing school at UW-Eau Claire.

Then it turned out a similar book by another writer was nearing publication, so they scrapped the idea.

"It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me," Perry said Saturday.

His agent asked if he might expand his Esquire volunteer fire piece instead. The result — Perry's book "Population: 485" — has become a classic of sorts. Michael Korda called it "a joy of a book, as gnarly, stubborn, courageous, and full of eccentricity as country life itself."

That book led to others, "Truck: A Love Story," and "Coop," each growing organically out of Perry's rural Wisconsin life. He doesn't commit experience with the idea of writing about it. He lives his life and finds his art in how it unfolds.

Perry today lives with his wife and daughters outside Fall Creek. "Visiting Tom," his new book, concerns an octogenarian neighbor who is not Perry's mentor, but rather a friend who has lived a full life and has stories to tell, especially about the time the government decided to put an interstate highway through his front yard.

I was reminded of the first time I spoke to Perry, and he mentioned a piece he did on a 67-year-old Michigan grandma who was a rodeo star.

"My blue-collar background," Perry said, "means I'm never going to be condescending toward these people."

In other words, she may be deaf, but she's not stupid.


Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Copyright 2015 madison.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(1) Comments

  1. LiLa
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    LiLa - August 22, 2012 1:52 pm
    I've read all three of Michael Perry's books and loved them all. He's a Wisconsin treasure. It's good to know Mr. Perry is doing so well and that he has written a new book. I'm going to go buy it now.
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