Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Killer Author

May 23, 2011

Donna White Glaser’sThe Enemy We Know is a suspenseful tale of a woman with multiple stalkers. This murder mystery has the reader trying to guess the identity of a villain who first leaves creepy sonnets, and later leaves bodies for recovering alcoholic Letty Whittaker. Glaser serves the story up with such witty prose that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud several times.

Glaser is the founder of a writers’ group I used to attend. When she released The Enemy We Know (the first book in a mystery series themed  on the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous), I seized the opportunity to ask her a few things about her writing, her personal life, and her decision to self-publish.

You share a number of characteristics with your protagonist, Letty Whittaker. You are both recovering alcoholics and psychotherapists living in Northwest Wisconsin. What are some of the challenges  of writing about a world so close to your own?



Nothing to Sneeze at: An Interview with Michael Perry

February 21, 2011

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. (more…)

Yes, Let’s.

November 10, 2010


Rebecca Meacham (and Stella)

An acquaintance recently suggested I pick up a copy of Rebecca Meacham’s debut story collection, Let’s Do, and I’m so glad I did. The book, which won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction when it came out in 2004, realistically explores high drama writ small. Jennifer Anniston’s divorce may have captured headlines the world over, but Meacham’s Lila in “Simple as That” experiences all the same agony in the privacy of her home. When another character gets struck by a car and can’t take care of herself for several weeks, we don’t expect or get the heroism of Christopher Reeves—instead we get a little insight into ourselves. Let’s Do has been honored by Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” program and attracted other national attention.


Meacham’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications and has been nominated for a 2005 Pushcart Prize. She is a regular contributor of nonfiction to the Women’s Review of Books blog and is an editor of Talking Writing magazine. She is an associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and director of the creative writing program. She lives with her husband, the poet Chuck Rybak, and their two children in the woods of Wisconsin. I spoke with her recently about Let’s Do, her writing technique, and her current projects.

Nearly all of the stories in Let’s Do are in third person. What do you see as the particular virtues or challenges of writing in third person versus first person?
What’s in the collection was written over the course of 10 years. When I was younger I was especially drawn to 2nd person, so I want to throw that in the mix. I’m a very language driven writer, and you can tell that because my stories are not action driven. I like 2nd person because it is pared down. It has an edge. I like that.

For me, 1st person is hardest to write. I have a difficult time capturing the way a person sounds using 1st person. In 3rd person, you can detach and still convey things from the character’s point of view, but be more articulate than the character might be. You can still capture their perspective, use their idioms. When I was writing these stories, I read a lot of Antonya Nelson and Dan Chaon. They use the 3rd person, but in a way that brings you very close to the character. I used to read them every night, hoping that somehow by osmosis their incredibleness would sink into me and my writing.

One thing I tell my students is to think about John Updike’s story “A&P.” Sammy is the cashier, young and working class. When he sees beauty, what will he compare it to? When three girls come in wearing their swimsuits, he makes a comparison between their breasts and two scoops of vanilla ice cream. In his world, beauty is ice cream. Later he compares a collar bone to a dented sheet of tin. Those are the things he knows, and to him, that’s beautiful. You have to know what your character will think is beautiful. You also have to understand attitude. For example, Samantha in “Trim and Notions” has a grumpy attitude. I know how that shapes her sentences.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen pets cast as well as they are in Let’s Do. (I’ve always been sympathetic to W.C. Fields on the question of working with animals–except my own adorable pets of course.) The relationships you’ve written between the humans and the pets are so realistic. What would you say are a few key things about bringing animals into a story?
I’m so happy you asked about this. When the collection first came out people would interview me about the book and I always wished someone would ask me about the animals, but no one ever did. (more…)

Macy’s Day: Interview with Kim E. Nielsen

August 30, 2010

Kim E. Nielsen’s latest book, Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller, provides a rich account of the woman most of us know only as the person who taught language to a deaf-blind girl named Helen Keller. But Macy’s life was extraordinary in its own right. She lost her mother early and was sent with her younger brother to a monstrously disease-ridden and abusive almshouse. Her brother soon died, leaving the vision-impaired girl alone in the world. Through a combination of luck and pluck, she landed a spot at a renowned school for the blind. After graduating with no other employment options, she reluctantly accepted the position of governess to Helen Keller. The two women soon became famous and they would remain the most steadfast of friends for the rest of Macy’s impressive and difficult life. Nielsen is also the author of The Radical Lives of Helen Keller and Un-American Womanhood: Antiradicalism, Antifeminism and the First Red Scare. She is the editor of Helen Keller: Selected Writings. She teaches history, gender studies, and disability studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

I’m always curious about people who write biographies about really famous people. Some people might figure that the territory has already been covered. Can you say why you write about Helen Keller and now Anne Sullivan Macy?
Well, I read biographies all the time as a child. That’s the source of my love of history. It gives you facts and context but also satisfies a love of gossip. When I feel like I have to work but don’t want to, I read biographies because it doesn’t feel like work.

But I initially wrote about Helen Keller out of naïveté. Now I realize that she’s one of the most written about women in the universe, and didn’t understand that choosing her as my subject might present some obstacles in my career. But I fell into writing about her and I love it.

Then I finished writing my books on her and swore her off. I told my husband I would never speak Keller or Macy’s name again! [Laughs] I started a completely different project. Then nine months into this other project—and I don’t want to get too mystical—I was haunted by Annie. She had such an important story and no biography had been done of her since 1933. Even then, no one ever focused on her as a person of her own. She was always just an accessory to Helen. (more…)

A Polished Author

January 31, 2010

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. (more…)

She’s Been Working on the Railroad

January 25, 2010

First female machinist at  the Milwaukee Road Railroad.

Sue Doro on the job at the Milwaukee Road in 1976

Childhood: Milwaukee
Current Home: California
Birth Year: 1937

Many have recommended that I read Sue Doro’s gorgeous book Blue Collar Goodbyes about shop floor life on the Milwaukee Railroad in its final days. I never did until a friend suggested I interview Sue for my Leading Ladies blog series. Now I see what I was missing. She uses prose and poetry to paint a warm and honest portrait of her life as the company’s first and only female machinist. Her earlier book, Hearts, Home and Hard Hats, touches on her previous machinist gigs (including being the first female machinist in the repair department at Allis Chalmers tractor plant). Her latest book, Sugar String, is a gripping account of her childhood with a truly monstrous father who not only abused his daughter but refused to lift a finger or allow Sue to call an ambulance as her mother choked to death in the family home. Sue’s life has had more than its share of hardness, so I wondered if when I talked to her I would find her a hard woman with a hard voice. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. Though she was laid up with a post-operative foot when we spoke, she was lively and warm and as eager to ask me questions as I was to ask her. She now lives in California with her husband Larry. She publishes “Pride and Paycheck” for women in the blue collar trades and is a member of the National Writers Union and Railroad Workers United.

You had the sort of childhood that doesn’t exactly breed self-esteem. Why do you think you had the confidence to go into machining when no other women were doing that?
In the beginning it was for the kids. I had no college education—most girls where I grew up did not go. Raising five kids on a clerical or retail salary wasn’t going to cut it. I was a homemaker, and I did it all. I fixed the roof with my son. I fixed the bicycles, whatever. So it wasn’t such a big jump to go into machining. When I found out the requirements for the MTDA [Manpower Training Development Act] and found out machine shop was an option, I really didn’t hesitate. It wasn’t about self-esteem, just survival. And from there it was a matter of sticking up for myself.

As for my self-esteem, that came when I ran away from my father. It took me three tries, but (more…)

A Major Accomplishment

January 17, 2010

Stacy Jo Huser: First woman to work in the US Air Force’s ICBM planning section. Now leads the section.

Major Stacy Huser

Childhood: Northern Indiana
Current Home: Nebraska
Birth Year: 1972

Stacy and I went to the same high school, where she excelled in every subject, and had social skills to boot.  We also ran cross country together and she continues to compete in marathons.  But she is not your stereotypical nerd or athlete.  She is a true one-of-a-kind whose galloping curiosity seems to drive everything from her friendships to her career. A word I hear her use often and never with a trace of sarcasm is “fascinating.”

What do you do and when did you get there?
The whole unit I’m in (which is a couple hundred people) maintains the nation’s war plan.  My section focuses on the ICBM planning aspect of the war plan. I came there in July, 2008.

How did you find out you were the first woman in the section?
The guy in charge at the time was worried about me coming in because they didn’t have another woman there.  So he was worried that the environment would be too raunchy for me.  But the truth is, it turned out to be pretty tame.  It’s funny, I’m not really sure what their perception of women is.  I’m not a person who is easily offended, and I’m actually more likely to be the one doing the offending. Anyway, there is an older civilian guy who has worked there a long time and he said that I was the first one.

What led you to want to want to work in ICBM planning?
When I worked in Montana with ICBM folks, I enjoyed the structure, history, and culture of people in that field.  Also, it’s a lot of math, number crunching, quiet time thinking at your desk.  I like all that.  So I actually tried to get this position the last time I transferred, and they wanted me to come, but I got a different assignment.  That’s the kind of thing that happens in the Air Force. But this time I got it.  I arrived just as one of the regular workers, but shortly after I got there, my boss told me he would be leaving and that he wanted to put me in charge.  I’ve been running this section since July, 2009. (more…)

First Female Forester in the East

January 4, 2010

I met Stephanie about five years ago through her daughter.  She is the original inspiration for my Leading Ladies blog series. I had known her for years when I found out that she was the first woman to graduate in her college program. I realized then that so many pioneering women are hiding in plain sight, and I wanted to learn about their experiences. It was not  until I asked to interview her that I found out she was also the first female forester in the eastern region.

Erstwhile Luddite: How did your family influence your decision to go into forestry?
Stephanie LaBumbard: I liked the outdoors and my step-dad took up the idea in a big way.  He liked to have things to brag about, and he pushed the forester thing.  He took me to college to see the campuses. I applied to the College of Forestry in Syracuse and the Agriculture program at Cornell.  I got in both places, but Cornell said they didn’t have room for me to live.  My algebra teacher was an alumna of Cornell and she was so mad that she called them and they found a place for me within two weeks.  But I decided to go to Syracuse anyway and I don’t think she ever quite forgave me for it.

Careers were expected for us in our family.  My sister and I knew from the day we were born that we were going to college. My mother wasn’t college educated.  My father had to drop out of college his senior year because of finances.

My mother’s mother was pregnant with two young children when her husband died in the flu epidemic of 1918. She managed to get by, which took a lot of strength.  She went to work in an orphanage, which was where my mother was raised.  My grandmother wasn’t an attentive mother, and was not able to give her children a very good childhood, but in those days there was no safety net, so the fact that she could keep the family off the street was saying something.  So I come from a line of some strong women.

My mother was someone that shouldn’t have had children; she should have had a career.  She was so smart and loved numbers and she wasn’t very maternal.  She grew up in an orphanage and didn’t have an easy childhood.  Then she found out her husband (my father) was having an affair in the last year of his life.  Then he died suddenly when I was seven and my sister was four.  She was disappointed in life.  She would have been much happier with a career than with children. (more…)

Courage in Colombia

December 30, 2009

Inside the Galeria.

A few weeks ago, my friend John Walsh traveled with a labor delegation to Colombia.  John is a bookbinder and a regional vice-president for Teamsters-GCC Local 767-M in Portland, Ore. Working through the organization Witness for Peace, he met with Colombian women and men who have been enduring and resisting the brutal realities of living under the thumb of multinational corporations. Many of these corporations, aided by the Colombian and United States government policies, employ paramilitaries to keep unions, peasant groups, and other social or civic organizations from interfering with their power. For years Colombia has been considered the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists.  In 2008 alone, there were 49 confirmed assassinations of union activists.  John spoke with Anggie Tamayo, an activist in Cali who is working to bring light to the stories of those who have been murdered.  What follows is an abridged version of his interview. (Ms. Tamayo’s English is excellent, but not fluent.  In some places I have altered her wording in order to make the English flow better for the reader.)

John Walsh: I’m in the city of Cali, Colombia, and we’re at the Galería de la Memoria Tiberio Fernández Mafla.  I’m here with Anggie Tamayo, one of the people involved in creating the Gallery, and I’m going to ask her to tell us its history and the purpose.

Anggie Tamayo: It began in 1995 with a project that is called Colombia Never Again.  The idea of this project was to save victims’ memory, because we don’t want to repeat those actions that happened to them.  So we collect their testimony, because we think it is a sacred act of pain and mourning.  This project was begun two years ago, and we make different acts to commemorate the victims.  For example, we have Katherine Soto, she was a girl from the Universidad del Valle, she was killed two years ago by the army, and she was almost shown like a false positive—

JW: And people in the US probably don’t understand what a false positive is, so could you explain that a little bit?

AT: Well, a false positive is a policy of this government.  The army used to kill people like farmers, students, people that live in the country, and the [killers] say the [victims] are from the guerrillas.  So, when they say that, they used to get vacation, they used to get more money, so there are many people [killed] that are innocent .

A memorial to the life and dreams of Katherine Soto.

JW: So there was a bounty, basically, on life.  The people who killed these innocent people were rewarded for that?

AT: Yes.  So she was in San Cipriano, it is located near Buenaventura port. She was there with her friend and she was killed because they thought she was a guerilla, but she really was a student from the Universidad del Valle. She wanted to be a teacher. She had many, many dreams, and now, what we are doing is trying to continue with her dreams. (more…)

Krome Plated Activism

December 15, 2009

Margaret Krome is the policy director at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. She serves on the boards for the National Center for Appropriate Technology and the Wisconsin Board of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. She has been instrumental in efforts to promote local, sustainable food systems in the state. She spoke with Erstwhile Luddite about her experiences as was the first woman to lead sustainable agriculture policy efforts in Wisconsin.

Margaret Krome: Before we start I want to explain that although I suppose I was the first woman to do a number of things, that wasn’t my intent.  I’ve always believed that the sustainable agriculture movement was better when you didn’t try to be a trail blazer, when you are part of a group working together.  I came into my career at a time when the movement was starting, but being the first to do something wasn’t a goal. Had I recognized that I was the first on some things, I probably would have backed off a little because I think that when movements have people who start to self aggrandize, that’s a real problem.

Erstwhile Luddite: So noted. How did you get into the field of agriculture?
MK: I was an English lit major at UVA.  I loved botany but almost all the biology classes there were premed.  The exception was this biological station up in the mountains that I visited.  I became passionate for botany.  I graduated and did other things, but always tried to take botany and forestry classes.  Did you know the USDA has its own grad school?  When I was in Washington, D.C., I took classes there on agriculture and biology.

I was working for a time on a Legal Aid project.  I wasn’t an attorney, this was just a job I had to help me learn lobbying and pursue other interests.  It was a really good job, but I found myself clearly uncomfortable in Washington, it’s all about the star system, not the cooperative style that I prefer.  The attitude there is “If you can’t take credit for it, why bother?”  I was a good lobbyist, but I knew I couldn’t live there long-term.