Posts Tagged ‘wisconsin’

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…)

Gov. Walker’s Neighbor Speaks Out

February 14, 2011

The following is an open letter from my good friend and brilliant geographer Sigrid Peterson. Wisconsin needs to retain and encourage genius like hers, because there are plenty of employers in others states who want her. For those who haven’t heard, this is in reference to our governor’s recent announcement that he will call out the national guard if he needs extra enforcement of his plan to bust public sector unions.

Who are you gonna trust, Scott Walker (as shown smarmily above) or...

Dear Neighbor:  On the Multiplier Effects of a Public Sector Job

Dear Governor Walker,

I doubt you remember me. In fact, we’ve never formally met, but you and I grew up not half a block away from each other in the small town of Delavan, Wisconsin.  You were in my sister Katie’s high school class, though perhaps you didn’t know her then (indeed, she was a brainy punk rocker, while you were a mullet-haired jock).  Six years your junior, I have only fuzzy memories of you—of riding my bike around the corner, seeing one of the “older boys” in the neighborhood walk out of his house on West Wisconsin Street, and hearing my sister say, “Hey, there’s Scott Walker.”

...this hardworking woman (Sigrid) helping me pull weeds on a hot summer's day?

Our limited acquaintance notwithstanding, within the past four days I fear I’ve gotten to know you fairly well, or well enough.  So perhaps it’s time I introduce myself.  My name is Sigrid Peterson.  I’m your former neighbor from Delavan, and I’m a public sector worker in Wisconsin.

If it isn’t obvious, I’m writing to ask you, your administration, and your Republican friends in the legislature to put a swift stop to your proposed “Budget Repair” bill, along with its crude and unapologetic assault on fifty years of rights and benefits granted to Wisconsin’s public sector employees.  Your measure is nothing short of devastating—stripping most (in some cases, all) of our collective bargaining rights, incapacitating any future resources of our unions, and further straining the livability and reach of our compensation with steep increases in employee contributions to health care and pensions.

And you do this with nothing but unsubstantiated excuses that this is the “only alternative.” And you do this with no effort (none) to meet with workers since you took office.  Forgive me, but this makes you no more forthright or articulate than a tongue-tied and cowardly teenager breaking up with his girlfriend/boyfriend via text message.  Does this mean you’ll bring back your mullet, too?

If I’m irreverent, Governor Walker, I assure you it’s in service to things greater than concern over my job, alone.  I write this out of respect for my late father, too—your old neighbor, a lifelong Wisconsinite, and a public municipal employee.  I also write this out of pride in the progressive legacy of my home state, a legacy you and your colleagues delight in dismantling.

My dad, Lyle (raised in Richland Center, WI), was living proof that (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…)

Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Emissions

July 15, 2010

Many of us in the bread belt are unaware that the agricultural sector is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The World Resources Institute has released a graph that charts the emissions from 1990 to 2007 (below). To see an interactive version, check it out on Google labs.

Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT), World Resources Institute. 2010. Accessed via EarthTrends Delivered - Created with Google's Public Data Explorer -

Hard to Bear

June 15, 2010

some bear tracks found on a walk this weekend

Anna the dog and I have seen quite a few bear tracks on our walks lately.  I always enjoy trying to reconstruct the bears’ movements from the markings they left behind.  Could they have been responsible for digging up that ant hill?  Do these tracks explain the absence of berries on these wild strawberry plants? Anna the dog could frankly care less about the tracks, but she lives to chase live bears.  The sight of a bear, however large, transforms my ten-year-old gentle lab into a barking bullet with one objective: drive the bear back. She is not normally an aggressive animal.  If she sees chipmunks, rabbits, deer, or cats, her attitude is “live and let live.” She reserves her fierce sentiment for only two species: bumble bees and bears.

Happily, we saw no live bears this morning, but we hadn’t gone far when I heard a diesel motor.  I put Anna on the leash as we crested a hill.  Two ATVs emerged from the woods. The middle-aged woman on one of the machines waved me over. With a concerned expression, she explained that she and her husband (on the other ATV) were baiting bears back there, and that I should keep the dog on a leash on these walks. The bears hear their motor and about fifteen minutes after the humans leave, the bears descend on the food.  (Bear baiters train cameras on the bait so that they can monitor when bears are feeding, how many there are, how big they are, etc.)

Impressive bear scat near the tracks this weekend

I really wasn’t that worried about it, because Anna rarely heads in that direction and I rarely am walking her as late as today, so I would be ahead of the food delivery. Someone or another has been bear baiting portions of the walk all three years that I’ve lived here. Still, I appreciated them letting me know so that I can be on the alert. By way of making conversation, I noted that I certainly had seen quite a few bears this year.  “Oh, I know,” she said. “The DNR should really issue more [hunting] permits for them, there are so many. I used to take walks too, but now I don’t because there are so many bears.” The husband noted that the bears tear down their bird feeders every night. I am not an ecologist, and I don’t really know if I think there are too many bears relative to the rest of the ecosystem, but it sure seems like a bad idea to feed them if you think there ought to be fewer bears.

I have never liked bear-baiting. In fact, I’ve never liked the idea of baiting any animal.  If you want to hunt, that’s great, learn to hunt.  That means understand the subtleties of your prey, spend time in the habitat, and take only what you will use.  If you are actually on the verge of starvation, I can understand wanting the certainty of being able to show up at the same place where bear is used to getting donuts, and blowing it away.  But for recreation? I don’t get it.  (Actually, in possible proof that bears are smarter than humans, after a few months, they are less likely to show up at the source of free donuts.)


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…)

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…)