Michael Perry’s bottomless story of people, pursuits & place
Michael Perry is what so many people are trying to be. Not a writer, though he’s that—many times over—too. He’s a local. A local boy who went off and came back and made it big by putting down roots and celebrating his people and his place. But he’s not exactly your garden-variety local because he writes. And because his work has high literary merit and aspirations.
If I had to sum up my “career” in one word, it would be gratitude. I get to write and tell stories all around the country, then come home to be with my family and hang out at the local feed mill complaining about the price of feeder hogs. It’s a good life and I’m lucky to have it.—from Michael Perry’s bio on his website.
Perry self-published four books before he got an agent. Then, writing about his hometown through the lens of his work as a first-responder, he found his deepest material. Swinging for the fence, he produced Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, published first in hardback in 2002.
“You have to write something every day, even if it’s junk, to keep those gears turning,” said Perry, now the author of nine trade books, to a group I volunteer with, Hospice of Central Ohio. He was the keynote speaker last Thursday for our annual conference, held in the depressed middling-size Ohio city of Newark.
In Population: 485, here’s how Perry says he tells aspiring writers the secret of his success:
Stubbornness and blind luck, I want to say, but they’re looking for something tangible, so I tell them I discovered the secret years ago while cleaning my father’s calf pens. That is, you just keep shoveling until you’ve got a pile so big, someone has to notice.
To tweak the metaphor: while building his own ladder—career as a cottage industry—he kept a signup sheet handy, asking for buyers’ names and addresses everywhere he sold books. His 1991 effort was called How to Hypnotize a Chicken. When that New York agent noticed an article he’d written, his third and fourth self-published books constituted his resume that landed her representation.
His mailing list paid off for Population: 485, which got a push by his publisher, Harper, only after its marketing department saw “something happening” in the hinterlands. It was Perry’s humble postcard campaign. Now he compiles both an email and a snail-mail list of book buyers. (And for those who purchase from him CDs of his music, too.) But he still controls the names he collects, as keeper of his own database, even as his publisher now foots the bill for mailings to it.
He runs hard, still writes a weekly newspaper column. He told us that even with Harper asking him for books after Population: 485, its editors “rejected the next two.” It was unclear if those were proposals or actual books. Because in 2005, only three years later, he followed up with a collection of essays, Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets, and Gatemouth’s Gator.
Our hospice branch probably couldn’t have gotten Perry, except he was on book tour for his latest, a young adult novel called The Scavengers. (His next book is an adult novel called The Jesus Cow, about a Holstein with a Christ-like image on its side.) He was an inspired choice as a speaker for hospice because he’s a nurse by training—he renews his certification every two years, he told us—and because Population: 485 is grounded in his work as a paramedic in his hometown of New Auburn, Wisconsin. His mother is a nurse, and he took EMT training with her and a brother in 1988.
He grew up on a small dairy farm, but the mainstream images that conjures get adjusted by specifics. As when he tells us, “I was raised in an obscure fundamentalist Christian sect.” With perfect timing he adds, “I like to tell people that to scare them. It was very gentle.” He’s a farm boy in the way Bruce Springsteen is just a kid from blue-collar New Jersey. Yes, plus . . . He’s a bone-crushingly good writer. In Population: 485 Perry alludes to the death of a brother and a sister in childhood. He’s very quiet about such matters, though his restrained depiction of a sister-in-law’s tragic death is a centerpiece of the book.
One of my favorite stories in the memoir concerns an ambulance run made by Perry’s brother. A poor, ill, elderly woman has summoned emergency help, by pressing the button on the LifeLine monitor she wears, because her aged goose has collapsed—maybe from sunstroke. As the paramedics get the bird under shade, the police reprimand its master for sounding such an alarm over a mere goose. Later she writes an apology letter to the medics. The story is very funny and very sad. When I told Perry how much I admired it, he said a woman in a wheelchair came to one of his appearances and said, “I’m the goose lady.”
You want to say about Perry that he had the wisdom to stay put and mine his material. Except that he’s got a touch of wanderlust—and whatever difference it is that makes someone an artist. The one who chronicles stands somewhat apart. His time away from New Auburn before he returned and joined the fire department is murky. That’s the half-in-shade side of Mike Perry, the aesthete who loves obscure words and who calls poetry “my first love.” Hence the bookish high school football player came back pale, with long hair and soft hands.
Growing up, he says, television was banned in his home, but his mother was a voracious reader. He taught himself to read at age four, and in third grade read All Quiet on the Western Front. He also inhaled the western novels of Louis L’Amour. Perry is a compact man, and despite his hardy EMT work and outdoorsy pursuits there’s a physical delicacy and an elfin quality about him. With his expressive dark eyes and ready smile, he exudes warmth.
It was easy to picture him as a child in one story he told about himself learning to read. His mother, with her own book from the library, would read a chapter of hers and then read aloud a chapter of his. While she bent over her chapter, little Mike held his book beside her. Sitting quietly and patiently with a story in his hands, he awaited the full revelation of his story’s promise and its mystery. And he began to pick out words. In this image—of a tiny boy in a big chair, legs straight out, holding a book beside his reading mother—literature seems indistinguishable from love.