Nothing to Sneeze at: An Interview with Michael Perry

When prepping for this interview with the multi-talented Michael Perry, I wondered if I should focus on the fact that he is one of the Midwest’s most beloved authors or if instead I should emphasize his outstanding songwriting. Perhaps I should dwell on his hefty contributions to fitness and outdoors magazines or inquire about his role as host of Tent Show Radio. Then again, it might be most interesting to ask him about his childhood in a devout Christian family involving more than fifty brothers and sisters (most of those foster siblings).

In the end I couldn’t resist trying to sprinkle a few questions related to each of these topics in my thoroughly enjoyable discussion with the man who lived up to his reputation as a heck of a nice guy. You can learn more about him by visiting his website (a reference to a memorable incident in which he found himself behind a sneezing bovine. I’ve not had the pleasure of such an experience, but he explains that it involves the release of contents under pressure.)

You joke about how your mind can’t stay focused on one thing, but leaps from one topic to the next. Rather than work against this tendency, you’ve made it a hallmark. In your writing and reading, this often buoys your comedic impact. But I’ve noticed something very different in your songs.  The seemingly illogical and unconnected images are often emotionally evocative. For example in “Indiana” the worn out narrator, apparently à propos of nothing, sees fit to mournfully request the head of Edward Hopper. I have no idea why, but it’s beautiful.  Does songwriting require you to think about your skill set as a writer in a totally different way?

First of all, it’s nice of you to call it a skill set. One thing I love about songwriting is that it is a throwback to my first love, which was poetry. It’s a forced economy.

For my prose, I write thousands and thousands of words to get one 800-word riff. Songwriting forces me to work leaner and with more economy. But also, when you throw in music, something happens and the words don’t have to make strict sense. So in that song “Indiana,” what happened was I had been on a two-week book tour alone and I was on my way back. I just wanted to get home. I was coming from Michigan and I had to stop in Chicago and I was thinking, “no problem, I’ll go from Michigan to Illinois and then to Wisconsin.” Then I saw a sign that said, “Welcome to Indiana.”  I had just completely forgotten Indiana!  So anyway, in Truck I write about that Edward Hopper painting Seven AM. It destroys me. It’s just a building, but something about the color and the light…

When I hit Indiana I was hit by what the Portuguese call saudade. It’s hard to describe what that means, but it’s a longing for things irretrievably lost, which I have a lot of. We all do. I long to be in that abandoned building Edward Hopper made. And so this phrase came to me, “Bring me the head of Edward Hopper.” What I’m doing there is first of all hoping that whenever you ask for the head of someone you get people’s attention. But what I really mean to say is that I want his mindset.

Some lyrics are straightforward, like “Alice Mayhew Jackson.” It’s a short story, you layer one verse on another to build it and make the story progress. Others are what I call abstract existential cowboy songs. “Could Be You” is in that category. It’s exciting to build line after line of seeming tangents and create a feeling more than create a story.

I think one thing rural readers appreciate about your writing is that you are writing about your region in a realistic way. Have you ever written from the perspective of an outsider? And if so, did the experience change anything about the way you write about Wisconsin?

I often write as an outsider when I do magazine pieces. For example, one time for Backpacker I climbed Mt. Rainier with two vets returning from the Iraq war. My experience was not theirs. I’m not a vet. I’m not a mountain climber. We were strangers at the start. There is the old cliché that you should write what you know. Obviously I do that a lot in my books. But I also think you should try to write what you don’t know. It makes you pay attention and not take information for granted. Sometimes when I write about firefighting—which I know—I find I have to be really careful not to use terms or information that isn’t understood by the reader. Terms that I just take for granted. But when I’m climbing Mt. Rainier I’m paying attention to every detail, not taking anything for granted.

But in [book] form, I have not written from the perspective of an outsider. I’m not sure what other people’s perspective is of where my career is as a writer, but it’s not at the stage where every idea I pitch gets approved by the publisher. I’ve had five or six book ideas that have been rejected. I have relatives in Panama and one idea I haven’t convinced my publisher on is to go spend six months there and write from the perspective of an outsider on the life there.

In Truck I wrote about Wisconsin in winter. The whole section was actually written in 100-degree weather in Panama. Hot dusty wind was blowing around and I was writing in front of two fans. So, to write about winter in Wisconsin, you do actually have to know winter in Wisconsin. You have to know about trying to jumpstart your car in -15 degree weather, and you have to know why we put cardboard on our grilles. But writing from a removed position provides a fresh perspective and can help you find the sharpness.

In Coop, you write lovingly of your father’s gentleness. In my experience, this is one of the highest compliments a child—especially a son—can pay a father. You hear people say things like, “My father had a bad temper, but we always knew he loved us.” Or “My father drank too much, but he always provided for us.” When someone says “My father was a gentle man,” there’s never a “but.” There’s just a reverence around that. Yet men almost never describe their peers or their sons as “gentle,” and I would guess most would not want to be described that way themselves. Why do you think that is?

I don’t qualify it with a “but,” though I might qualify it by saying he was a strict man. Not in the haranguing sense, just that he had a set of standards he lived by and expected us to live by. His job was to be the enforcer and my job as the eldest son was to see how he would enforce. It’s not that he couldn’t ever get angry—though he never raised his voice to me. But he had a way of speaking so that he didn’t need to raise his voice.

I’m an agnostic, I have a lot of doubt and questions. I offer that humbly, not out of a sense of superiority. My father is a man who wholly believes Jesus Christ is the son of God. My father taught us charity and humility and he tries to live by those principles. I think that when you get charity and humility together, you get gentleness. I mean, he’s a guy wearing overalls and doing chores, he’s not wafting around. He has much more spine and backbone than me, and he will turn the other cheek—so much so that my brothers and I get frustrated with him sometimes. We will say, “That’s just a bad man.” And my father will say, “Well, put yourself in his shoes” or something.

At the risk of bringing in pop psychology, I think the reason you don’t hear people describe their peers as gentle is that gentleness is not rewarded in our society. We’re in a shout out world, with facebook and everything else saying “look at me!” But gentleness is a quiet long-term thing. I’m confident the world is still full of gentle souls, but we don’t know how to notice them now. Even in the old days gentle people had a hard time, and now we just don’t see them.

The first time I really listened to the song “Tiny Pilot,”[about the death of Perry’s nephew] tears streamed down my face—and I’m not a weepy person. When I saw you sing it live, you could have heard a pin drop in the theater after you finished. Do you just have to wall yourself off from the meaning of the words when you sing that song?

Actually, it’s the opposite. First let me say that I don’t see being an artist as a higher calling. It’s a calling, but not a higher calling. I stumbled into it. I have a blue collar background and my first thought every morning is trying to feed the kids. I never sit on stage and say, “this is the way to salve the heart.” But the truth is there are times when you start on something and you just realize you need to try to honor the person you are writing about. I wanted to write in a way that spoke to the person that little boy was. That spoke to his upbringing, his parents. His life was full and rich to the very end. He went everywhere with his father. One of my favorite pictures of him shows him in a low-slung diaper with grease stains from being in the shop with his dad.

But as to whether I have to wall myself off, no. That concert you saw was probably only the fourth or fifth time I’ve performed it. Of course, I have to keep it together so that I’m not just singing half a verse and bawling my eyes out, but when I’m singing it I’m saying, “I want you to hear who this little guy was. And who his parents are. And I want you to think about all the other little boys and girls and parents out there who have gone through the same thing.” I have to face what the story’s about and do it to the best of my ability. When I sing that song I want to feel it to the bones.

Are there other songs that have that deeper emotional content for you?

I can’t quote you specific lines, but some of my lyrics reference the painful episodes of my life. I just put them in upbeat stomping songs. I call it my weak tea Waylon Jennings. I try to be like Waylon—though no one can be like Waylon—by talking tough about things. But if you could have seen me at the time, I wasn’t tough at all. There are some lines like this in “Could Be You.”

Another song that is more like “Tiny Pilot” in the way I sing it is “Where Are You Now?” I also wrote that for my brother after his first wife died.

How the heck did you luck into such an incredible band [The Longbeds]? Vocally, instrumentally, you guys just sound wonderful together.

The band is a really solid set of characters. Molly Otis plays with us when she can, though she’s busy with her own gigs and her business. Randy Sabien sits in with us sometimes, and he’s just great.

I don’t call myself a musician. People say “he’s a writer, and a farmer and a musician.” I am a writer. I’m a bit of a fraud as a farmer—I mean, I do keep animals, and do chores and all that, but out of respect to those who have to make a living at it I don’t count myself much as a farmer. When it comes to music I will claim singer/songwriter but not musician.

Before I got into writing and performing music, I spent about fifteen years writing about and hanging out with musicians. Everyone from local garage bands to marquee Nashville names. These folks in the band I play with have perfected their crafts. Each of them has been at it for 15-35 years. So they just sound really good.

Also, even the youngest of us in the band have achieved a certain age where we don’t want to be rock stars, we just want to have a good evening. Sometimes I’ll go out on the road for five days, and the first three days will be just me, then they will join me for the last two. I can’t tell you how excited I am for that. I’m looking at the calendar thinking “tomorrow I get to hang out with the band! With my friends!” We have a wonderful time. They bear me along. I always tell people I’m the Britney Spears of the outfit. I’m the flashy one. A bald, middle-aged Britney Spears.


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One Response to “Nothing to Sneeze at: An Interview with Michael Perry”

  1. Donna Glaser Says:

    (Stupid Reply form dumped my first comment. And it was so pithy, too!)
    I wanted to say thank you for bringing us this interview with Michael Perry. I just love him.
    I’m always so drawn in by his comedic timing that his deeper meanings sneak up and clobber me unexpectedly. He’s so talented!
    Anyway, thanks again.

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