Archive for the ‘Authors’ 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?

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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 www.sneezingcow.com (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…)

Charmingly Discharming: An Interview with Denise Sweet

December 2, 2009

Poet Denise “Dee” Sweet was Poet Laureate of Wisconsin from 2004-2008 and is Professor Emerita of Humanistic Studies, English, and First Nations Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She has been honored with awards from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas,  the Wisconsin Council or Writers, the Positive Indian Development Center, the Wisconsin Women’s Council and others.  She is the author of two collections of poetry, Songs for Discharming, and Know By Heart. I met her at the Rice Lake Library’s Coffee with the Author series and suggested an interview. When we talked by phone two weeks later, she shared her thoughts on poetry, faith, culture, and her struggles with an eating disorder. You can read some of her work here.

Erstwhile Luddite: How long have you been writing poetry, and when did you realize this could be a significant part of your career?
Denise Sweet: I wrote a poem when MLK was assassinated.  That was 8th or 9th grade.  I was always raised to imitate nursery rhymes and I always loved language, but around this time I realized poetry was more than just rhymes.  There was content.  I could communicate my grieving through putting it down on paper.  This poem was read over public radio and I realized that I had some talent.  Throughout high school I wrote poems. As a young mother, I would write poetry just to occupy myself.  I would write in my journals at night.  It was mostly bad poetry.  A writer has to hone her or his trade by writing bad poetry.

When I returned to college, I was blessed by the faculty at UW-Eau Claire.  So many award-winning writers—fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, journalism. They cultivated a community. I decided with all this, I should give writing a shot.  I had some talent, and I worked very hard. (more…)