When she took a sabbatical from the airwaves, longtime Wisconsin Public Radio talk-show host Jean Feraca intended to pen a book about her experiences in radio. But that project proved to be slow going, so she turned to the recent deaths of two family members: her cantankerous brother Stephen, an expert on the Lakota Sioux, and her difficult mother, who'd slipped into dementia during her final years. And thanks to these flesh-and-blood characters, what had been a dry exercise in nonfiction was transformed into I Hear Voices, a passionate, poetic memoir just published by the Terrace Books imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press. The memoir bravely dissects the people and experiences that have made Feraca who she is.
Feraca admits that during the writing process, her brother and mother proved such potent characters that they threatened to obscure the story of her own growth as an artist and a woman. But with help, she found a narrative thread that accommodated the flamboyant, culturally rich Italian American milieu that helped form her but wasn't overwhelmed by it.
"My editor at the press, Raphael Kadushin, pointed that out after I'd written the first chapters," she explains. "He said, 'You have to emerge from this. These are such strong personalities, they dwarf you.' He started asking questions about other family members and suggested the direction that evolved."
In I Hear Voices, that direction is anything but straight and predictable. Feraca calls her memoir "a family history in jump cuts," and that really fits. A pair of troubled marriages. Time spent nurturing her talent for verse in a seminar run by the poet Donald Hall. Trips to Italy and California with her third husband, UW scientist and wine connoisseurAlan Attie. A handful of crazy days spent filming in the Amazon with a pack of physicians, fakirs and natural healers during a seminar on "Pharmacy from the Rainforest." These episodes aren't always directly related, but they tumble together to form a febrile living picture of her journey to self-discovery.
Feraca admits it's not the portrait listeners of radio programs like "Conversations with Jean Feraca" and her current project, "Here on Earth," might expect. Despite living in the upper Midwest for 25 years, this child of the New York melting pot says, "I have to discipline myself to tamp down my natural inclination to be exuberant, to be expressive, to be angry, to be soulful, to be funny and to be loud."
At the same time, Feraca notes that being an effusive stranger among sober outlanders really formed her radio persona. And for that she'll be forever grateful. "My listeners taught me how to be a talk-show host, and they did it not by criticism - which is what I got from my family of origin - but by encouragement. That's the paradox: It was here in the Midwest where I was ready to change myself. And where I found my voice."