Michael Perry

How To Be Writer: One Author's Story

By Mike Killeen

When it came time to choose a career, writing wasn't on Michael Perry's radar.

Perry's formal training was as a nurse, but he's also worked on a ranch in Wyoming, run a forklift and operated a backhoe, among other things. Heck, he's had more jobs than Brett Favre has had retirement announcements.

"As far as ever thinking specifically about writing and being a writer, it never even occurred to me until I was out of college. A friend wrote a piece about canoeing, and sold it to a magazine. I remember at the time going, 'Oh, I didn't know you could get paid for writing,' " Perry said.

Good thing he found out. The Wisconsin author will give a presentation of his work during "Book Lovers' Night" Thursday, Feb. 4 at Alumnae Hall, Haehn Campus Center, CSB. Perry's 7 p.m. presentation is preceded by a social hour at 6 p.m. and community reader suggestions at 6:45 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

Perry is the author of the best-selling memoirs Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting (2009, HarperCollins); Truck: A Love Story (2006, HarperCollins); and Population: 485 (2002, HarperCollins), as well as an essay collection, Off Main Street (2005, HarperCollins).

Although he wasn't aware of a career in writing, "the signs were there all along," Perry recalled. His mom filled their house with books and taught him to read when he was four.

It didn't take Perry long to catch the bug.

"I went to the library and checked out a book on how to be a writer and just started learning about pitching my work, and trying to just survive," Perry said. "I did whatever it took. I wrote ads for used car dealers, I wrote brochures, I did little speeches for the local hospital.

"Population: 485 actually came pretty late into that. In 1992, I quit my last real job, or as I like to say, the last time I ever had someone other than me buying my health insurance, and I was able to survive as a free-lance writer, doing a little bit of everything," Perry said. "Then an agent in New York City read one of my essays and actually tracked me down at home, and she asked if I was working on a book. I told her I was the only writer who wasn't.

"I was just trying to pay the rent. I hadn't even worked on a book. I worked with her a little while, and she suggested that I write Population: 485."

Population: 485 is a look at life and the people who live in New Auburn, Wis., where Perry lived at the time (he now lives just outside of town). It's a remarkable piece of writing, written as though Perry is telling stories around a campfire.

It reads seamlessly (and it's very difficult to put down), but Perry's writing process is never as fluid as his copy might indicate.

"I'm horribly slow - even glacial. I'm filled - riddled - with self doubt," Perry said. "There's a photograph on my Web site of when I was working on my book, Truck, and I have the copy all over the floor, cut up into little pieces. I do draft after draft after draft. So the actual process of making it sound like I'm just talking is ... it's embarrassing. It takes me forever.

"But the desire, when I get up in the morning, I can't wait to write. I don't know where that comes from, but I'm sure happy to be that way," Perry said. "The actual production is kind of like sausage. I literally cut the text apart with a scissors, tape it together, move it around, cross things out and do all kinds of ridiculous moves to try and get it to come together. But as far as the actual writing, I love to write."

Perry says his appearance at CSB will lean toward performance, usually in the form of humor. He will go beyond "the books and tell stories behind the scenes ... that aren't necessarily in the books."

Be prepared to have fun.

"I always tell people if you've never been to a reading with an author, and you think you've got to wear a black beret and snap your fingers, you can do that. But you can also show up in your barn boots," Perry said.

"I love written words and I love literature, but I'm also a farm kid from northern Wisconsin and a volunteer firefighter. So, there's a certain blue-collar approach to it as well."

January 29, 2010