A Polished Author

Acclaimed short story writer Anthony Bukoski released his fifth collection of stories, North of the Port, in 2008. His work focuses on the town of Superior, Wisconsin, which sits on the shore of the lake by the same name. Tony grew up in the Polish East End of Superior and lives there still. His deeply felt characters and rich connection to place have led some to call him the Faulkner of the North, though he disputes the comparison. Favorable reviews from the New York Times, Kirkus, and other prestigious press give testament to his body of work. As important to me, however, are the favorable personal reviews from his students and colleagues. I met Tony after a reading he gave in Rice Lake and he impressed me with his generosity and interest in those around him. He was kind enough to agree to an interview a few weeks thereafter.

When I read your stories, the elements of Catholic mysticism are as comfortable as an old shoe, since they were part of my own Catholic background.  So I was surprised when I heard your writing described as magical realism, though I recognized the accuracy of the description.  Do you think that writing about a community of devout Catholics simply necessitates the technique?
Yes, when I write about Catholic Poles there is an element of the mysterious, even miraculous, in the stories.  Transubstantiation—the figurative transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ—is a miracle of faith Catholics believe in.

The Eucharist is the body of Christ and this miracle is at the center of Catholic life. Having been born in 1945, I was raised to believe that the miraculous is in everyday life too.  My grandparents came from the old country and would talk about the reported strange miraculous events that took place there. We read in the bible, the catechism, and The Lives of the Saints about miracles all the time.  For me it’s natural to put the supernatural into these stories.

Do you also write about the darker aspect of the mysterious, such as Satan?
Yes. The demoniac operates as well as the beatific.  I’ve thought for a long time that I live in a place, a city, that is ideal for metaphor because winter is so long and desolate.  I image the dearth of sunlight as a metaphorical representation for our distance from the Creator.  I describe us as a cursed people in northern Wisconsin.  The darkness. The weather. The lack of flora.  All of this—the climate again, the topography—is a metaphor for our distance from the sun, the distance from holiness. So all of these characters I write about are sinners and in at least one of my stories the devil appears. That’s the result of original sin.

So many of your stories conjure up fictionalized accounts of real people.  When you latch on to someone else’s story, do you have an obligation to them, or does the fiction make the story a matter between only you and your readers?
Some of my stories are autobiographical, so real people enter them.  But it’s my business what I do with them, for I am making fiction, not history. The name or genre of fiction absolves me from some responsibility.  I do change things, names, places. One of my characters, Hedwig Slipkowski in the book Children of Strangers, was given a real person’s name, a person from my neighborhood. I heard she was flattered I used her name.  But when I use real names, I only use them in an incidental way. And at the beginning of my books we always have the disclaimer that says any resemblance to real characters is unintentional.  Enough has been changed in my stories to make them fiction.

You teach writing at UW-Superior.  Is there an interactive process between teaching and creating?
They are separate spheres.  Teaching, a social endeavor, takes so much of my time. And writing is such private work.  One thing that pays off about being both a writer and a teacher is that I can have sympathy for people who are trying to learn to write stories, because I know how hard that is.

You first started seriously writing when you returned from the Vietnam War.  In your role as teacher and mentor to a younger generation, have you helped veterans of more recent wars find their voices in writing?
No. I try to let students know I was in the Marine Corps in Vietnam.  But there aren’t many veterans in my classes. For those few veterans I do have, I try to show my appreciation and let them know I’ve also had the experience of transitioning to civilian life, but I haven’t really had that kind of relationship, a mentoring one, with many veterans. I do think I helped a young man at Lawrence University when I gave a reading there. He was back from a war zone. I’d worked on one of his stories for him. He used the story as part of his application to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and got accepted with a full ride. I’m certainly willing to work with vets. I just haven’t had much opportunity to do so.

When I met you, I was surprised how often you referred to yourself as an old man.  Didn’t you say you are 64?  That doesn’t seem so old to me.
I’ve written so many stories.  It’s like I’ve assumed all the personalities of the people I’ve written about and all that’s happened to them.  There must be some reason I talk about being old, because really I’m in good shape. I walked six miles today and came back and did sit-ups and pushups. Either I’m really self-absorbed and think every new stiffness I feel means the world is coming to an end, or I’ve just absorbed all the pain of these lives that I’ve written about.  But if I am old, it’s happily so.  I’m very happy in my home life, so it’s a good old age.

So many of your characters do such foolish things for love.  The old man who falls in love and is determined to run away with Miss Nude Poland, for example.  Do you have a story of endearing foolishness for love from your own life that informs your ability to write such narratives?
About that story. I was going to meet my wife in Arizona in the 80s.  She was there caring for her mother.  I stopped in Iowa City, where my wife and I had lived when we were at the University of Iowa and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  While I was in Iowa City I saw an ad in the Cedar Rapids paper for Miss Nude Poland. It struck me because most Poles are Catholics, and I didn’t like that this woman was appearing in this way.

But in this story, at the Polish Club, which is now pretty moribund, the rules are that you have to be a gentleman in public and private life.  But this guy wants to shake some life into them, so he suggests going to see Miss Nude Poland and some of them go.  The story’s protagonist has the problem of a lot of old men or middle aged men who assume women find them appealing.  But he is, finally, an idiot who can’t understand what he has at home.  And his wife is long suffering.

And you, have you been foolish in love?
Oh, I’m an idiot.  I don’t deny it. But I hope finally not a hurtful one.  I hope at least I have been kind.

Is there anything from North of the Port that you think non-Polish readers are likely to miss?
I don’t know. Booklist Magazine said something like “These characters have lost so much the only thing they have left is their Polishness.” It was a favorable review by the way.  But maybe that’s a hindrance to readers.  The very first story is a Catholic mystery gone haywire.  So the reader needs a tolerance for that background.

It’s not sexy to write about Poles.  No one cares.  I mean, I’ve been written up in the New York Times and Kirkus Reviews and so forth, but … nobody cares about white ethnics.  Still Polish-American writing is a territory I’ve staked out and I don’t intend to change.

If you were going to write a great nonfiction work, what would the topic be?
[The town of] of Superior.  Yes, I’d like to celebrate it.  Some kind of geo-cultural treatise.  Just as writing about Poles is what I do, I also write about northern Wisconsin.  And I’ve written not just about the Poles here, but Finns, Swedes, Vietnamese, Natives. But always from a Polish perspective.  I’ve never tried to write from [others’] point of view.

What are some of the most significant changes you have seen in the publishing industry in the years since you’ve started writing?
I don’t like all the vanity presses, where you pay $2,000 to see your book published. I don’t mean to sound mean, but such vanity press books hog space on bookstore shelves.  I suppose everyone has a story to tell, but I believe in finely crafting the story and finding a publisher who will pay you for it.

Online publishing gets me, too. I hope I’ll never be published in just an online magazine.  Actually I was once, but there was a print version too.  I’m old and attached to print.  I still use a typewriter.  I write longhand and then type it up on a typewriter.

What are you working on now?
I write book reviews for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and I’m working on a new book of stories. I’m about forty pages into it.  The story I’m writing is called “Two Days Without Coal.”

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One Response to “A Polished Author”

  1. April Says:

    I absolutely love that Tony feels like he’s taken on the personalities of all his characters and the lives they lead. After spending that much time crafting a story, an experience, a writer must feel this way, that these characters are a part of them. If they don’t, what good is the story?

    Great and interesting interview, G! As expected, Tony’s answers are very thoughtful, too.

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