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Wisconsin Book Festival 2007: Michael Perry speaks

Michael Perry
Michael Perry
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Michael Perry wrote about his experiences as a volunteer firefighter in the best-selling Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. A registered nurse, emergency medical responder and humorist, he is also the author of the essay collection Off Main Street, has appeared on Wisconsin Public Television and on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, and written for Esquire, Salon, Backpacker and The New York Times Magazine.

Perry's most recent book, Truck: A Love Story, is about collaborating with his brother Mark to restore a vintage International Harvester L-120, about his friendship with a quadriplegic, about gardening and small-town Wisconsin life but most of all about being blindsided by true love. During this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, Perry reads from Truck at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11, at the west-side Borders Books & Music.


The Daily Page: Where were you and what were you doing when you hit on the idea of hanging your narrative on the restoration of your International Harvester L-120?
Perry: Googling tax code, trying to determine if giving tender literary treatment to an old truck might render a nice fresh pair of racing seats tax-deductible.


Who did you envision as the book's audience -- and how have the audiences attending your appearances compared to the one you foresaw?
I think my biggest concern was that non-gearheads might be turned off by the idea of a glorified truck repair manual. So I tried to write it in a non-gearhead way, which was simple enough as I need three weeks, a complete socket set, and three Paxil milkshakes just to assemble a discount store bookshelf.

Ironically enough, the Library of Congress has filed the book under "IHC trucks-Maintenance and Repair," so I wind up inadvertently snagging that critical Chilton's automotive service manual demographic. I also included worthless gardening tips, which broadens the appeal. Legions have been betrayed by the picture in the seed catalog as compared to the wizened cucumber in the bucket.


Why Truck: A Love Story and not Love: A Truck Story?
Once, on a postcard, I asked Fyodor Dostoevsky the parallel question: Why War and Peace and not Peace and War? Our literate postmaster forwarded the note to Tolstoy who foxed me by being dead.


Back when you were living Chapter 1 -- entertaining the hots for Irma Harding, appraising your International Harvester L-120 as "an ugly truck" and acknowledging that "the art of going steady eludes me" -- what would it have taken to convince you that your future would include Anneliese, Amy, fatherhood and quite a handsome truck?
A winning Powerball ticket, an invitation to join MENSA, and the resprouting of my hair -- all before lunch at Ponderosa with Pamela Anderson.


To what or to whom do you attribute your aptitude for crafting such great aphorisms as, "Tender intent has no more relevance than the wake of a sinking boat"?
Trial and error, and much revision. I have several pages of that line in various forms. They don't always work out, that's for sure. I used to credit tangential thinking powered by low-grade ADD, until a licensed clinical psychologist chastised me for using the term loosely and told me I did not exhibit the symptoms of ADD but rather "flight of ideas," which, she said, "is associated with a completely different manic-depressive disorder." So that put my mind at ease.


What is your favorite sentence in Truck, and what was your reaction upon writing it?
Boy, y'got me there. Usually I am so busy picking my nose and vibrating with coffee that I don't realize when one sentence ends and another begins.


Will you be driving the truck to Madison? And where will you be coming from?
Perry: On her best day, Irma the truck has a top speed of 54 mph, an effective operating radius of 15 square miles, and rides like a cantankerous hippo. I shall instead tool smoothly into town behind the wheel of my partially oxidized '99 Chevy Malibu, which smells of evaporated Café Karuba, pig feed, and something I ran over in Iowa.


Have you and Mark considered collaborating on any subsequent automotive restoration projects?
Perry: Automotive-wise, Mark is suddenly "unavailable." However, I did recently help him butcher 43 chickens.


Among visitors to Amazon.com, 86% of those who viewed items like Truck: A Love Story bought Truck: A Love Story; 8% bought Population: 485; 3% bought Confessions of a Teen Sleuth, by Chelsea Cain; 2% bought Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link; and 1% purchased Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. What do you make of this?
Well, everybody bought Harry Potter, so that's not a surprise. As for the rest, it involves math, and I swore off math the moment I was told I couldn't divide things by zero.


Which other books, besides your own, might you recommend as complements to reading Truck?
I enjoyed reading Industrial Design and Never Leave Well Enough Alone by Raymond Loewy, and Raymond Loewy by Paul Jodard. I also enjoyed nosing around all the wonderful International Harvester material in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The late, talented John Jerome (whose The Writing Trade I've been re-reading for years) resurrected a $200 Dodge and wrote about the process humorously and thoughtfully long before I had a driver's license. His book was called Truck: On Rebuilding a Worn-Out Pickup and Other Post-Technological Adventures.

If you prefer two wheels over four, read Fred Haefele's Rebuilding the Indian: A Memoir. You might also wish to revisit your Neil Diamond albums. You know where they are.


In terms of gratification, how does a Banta Award compare to having the New York Times call Truck a "touching and very funny account"?
I am grateful for kindness in any form, but let's face it, the Banta Award is from the home team -- that is, the people who will renew your library card long after the New York Times has lost your address.


You've appeared before at the Wisconsin Book Festival: How might you quantify or qualify its significance to you as an author?
I am struck most of all by the number of people who pitch in to make the whole thing happen and hope they know how thankful we are. I am speaking as someone who has benefited from being included as a writer, but also as a straight-up book geek who loves the chance to hang out, listen and rubberneck.


The theme of this year's festival is "Domestic Tranquility." What does that phrase mean to you?
Every morning I am home, I feed the chickens and then read the news, an exercise in juxtaposition that sandblasts me into realizing I am the luckiest man in the world and had better act accordingly.


Where do you go to seek domestic tranquility in your own life? And when you seek it, how often do you find it?
I don't have to seek it, it surrounds me. The trick is to get me to shut up, open up, and take note.


How might Truck: A Love Story contribute to domestic tranquility?
When I read certain passages describing my wife, I realize I am a misguided doofus who stumbled into great good fortune and should act accordingly. I am forever occupied with trying to act accordingly.


How is Ozzie doing these days?
He's doing good. Got his '68 Charger up and running. It was recently featured in Mopar Muscle magazine. You can see Ozzie (real name Nicholas) and his car here.


Where, when and how do you prefer to write?
Since I freelance full-time and am on the road 80-100 days per year, I can write pretty much anywhere. I prefer to write at my Goodwill desk in my room over the garage with a view of the chickens, but have churned out many thousands of words in the airport, at various coffee shops, and in an endless string of Super 8 and Motel 6 hotel rooms.


Among the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, whose appearances might you be most eager to attend?
It'd be neat to see a guy like James DeVita (Shakespearean actor, author, and volunteer EMT -- I love the combo). I have been reading the poems of Max Garland again, and his readings are gentle and beautiful. The Poet Laureate/Commended Poets reading should also be wonderful. Having said that, there is nothing better than dropping into an event with an unfamiliar author only to come away with a new book under your arm.


What was the last book you read that you would recommend to friends and strangers, and why would you recommend it?
I just finished reading Jude the Obscure. I recommend it because I heard the singer Greg Brown recommend it, and it now ranks as one of my Top Ten, but if you're not familiar, be warned: there are not enough smiley face stickers in the world… My review? Uff-da.


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