LA CROSSE – After church service and brunch in a hotel ballroom, more than 150 attendees of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Women’s Conference await the event’s keynote speaker: writer Michael Perry.
It’s 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, chilly and drab outside. Perry, 44, wears a thick black-and-white checkered flannel over a plain brown T-shirt, faded jeans and gym shoes. Unbuttoned and untucked, the flannel almost looks like a suit jacket. Perry means no disrespect. This is how he dresses whether eating in a highbrow New York restaurant to meet his literary agent or feeding pigs at his small farm in rural Eau Claire.
The conference features a polite crowd, but a tough one – not the easiest group to entertain with book readings for 70 minutes.
But that’s why Perry has become one of the best and most popular Wisconsin authors in recent years. His stellar third memoir, “Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting,” arrives on Tuesday. Like Perry’s other books, 2003’s “Population: 485” and “Truck: A Love Story” in 2006, his tales shift gears easily from community chicken dinners to volunteer firefighting to his wife and two young daughters.
For the farm women, Perry weaves small-town humor and hardship. He reads about various farmer snorts (nose blowing without a handkerchief) but also from an emotional chapter about the strong women who helped raise him. He’s sincere and funny. His now-shaved head, he says, once had a mullet with a receding hairline, “cultivating the Ben Franklin look.”
To end the speech, he describes the battered vehicle he used on rural teenage dates.
He drove 50 mph “down a gravel road when (my date) grows warm and bends down to crack a broken vent,” he reads from “Truck.” “When she rares back, she appears to have emerged from a polluted wind tunnel. Her hair is frosted with feed dust and she has pine needles stuck in her banana clip. Her lips are dotted like twin strips of flypaper, and there is a June bug in her braces.”
Perry pauses one beat, a grin growing. “You’re young. You kiss her anyway.”
The women erupt into laughter. Perry receives another standing ovation – and a long line to buy his books.
Back home again
Raised in tiny New Auburn, about 25 miles north of Eau Claire, Perry was constantly surrounded by siblings; several biological and dozens of foster children. His mother, a former nurse, often took the county’s toughest cases. His father farmed and did other work to help the family scrape by. Perry’s family also belonged to an obscure fundamentalist sect, which Perry left in his 20s. He writes poignantly about his unusual religious upbringing in “Coop.”
In high school, Perry played football and was the only member of the school’s track team. Practically on a whim, he chose to study nursing at UW-Eau Claire. To pay for college, he worked summers on a Wyoming ranch.
“I was the only cowboy in Wyoming,” Perry says, “who was working his way through college to be a nurse.”
After being a surgeon’s nurse in Rice Lake and a stint at an Eau Claire hospital, Perry made a 180-degree career turn: He decided to become a writer. In 1989, he moved back to New Auburn and began a relentless and often fruitless attempt to be a full-time freelance writer.
“I wrote ad copy for the local radio station. I wrote about call waiting for a business newsletter,” he says. “I wrote chapters of medical legal books.”
Perry, who is modest to a fault, does take credit for his blind determination to write. He advanced to national magazines and now is a contributing writer for Men’s Health. But it was his volunteer work in New Auburn as a firefighter and emergency first responder that formed the book “Population: 485.” Intense, humorous and, in the final chapter, profoundly moving, “Population: 485” is a timeless hit. It’s frequently used in community reading programs, including the most recent Fox Cities Reads. The book is six years old, but it keeps selling several thousand copies annually. It could reach 100,000 copies in print by next year.
“I had friends with major publishing companies who wrote wonderful books that sold 500 copies,” Perry says. “I understood the odds of your book selling are infinitesimally small.”
Twice, Los Angeles studios have bought options on the book. NBC was one. “They kept saying, ‘Northern Exposure,'” says Perry, who doubts it will ever become a TV series.
“Population: 485” has had such effect on readers that some, he admits reluctantly, have considered moving to a small town.
“I always say, ‘Hang on there, Sparky,'” he says. “Small towns can be very difficult places.”
Pigeonholing Perry is impossible. Encouraged for any description, he uses “existential redneck.”
He’s written for The New York Times Magazine and the trucker-friendly Road King. His 50-city “Coop” book tour ranges from two stops in Fish Creek, Wis., to three days in Seattle. His schedule includes a speech to Wisconsin arson investigators and appearances on NPR. He hunts deer; dismisses NASCAR; loves poetry (he’s reading a book by Czeslaw Milosz now); serves as frontman for an alt-country band; eats his farm animals; and defends highbrow types who judge his small-town peers harshly.
“I’m glad I don’t like just bowling,” Perry says. “I like bowling after seeing a modern-dance recital. It gives me more options to being happy.”
He’s often described as a humorist. (“I don’t know the difference between humorist and comedian,” he says, ” but I think it has something to do with public radio.”) Perry also has appeared in nearly 40 video essays for Wisconsin Public Television’s “Here and Now,” adding a light touch to the weekly news program.
“I don’t think he’ll ever run out of ideas because he’s so awake to his life patterns,” says Andy Moore, WPT’s senior producer of news. “When we work together, I can see him focus on the task at hand, but his power of observation of the action around him is always toggled high.
“Mike’s eyes dart sideways a lot. When I first met him, I thought it was a quirky offshoot of his deep humility. I’ve come to know it as what happens as he impulsively acts to take in the world around him. He’s not going to miss anything if he can help it.”
And Perry doesn’t drink alcohol. Ever. He’s a lifelong teetotaler. His reasons for not drinking range from his church upbringing to seeing people in detox. He fears loss of control and the depression in his background. So he’s never had a sip.
He still serves an emergency first responder with a pager set to go off when he enters his home county. Sure, “Coop” could send his career to another plateau, but he’s braced to continue freelance writing and speaking engagements to make a living for his family. (His publisher has sought a fourth memoir from Perry, and he wants to write about “the old-timers” he’s met.) With “Coop,” Perry’s writing becomes sharper and raises the stakes. Two-time Oprah author and Wisconsin resident Jane Hamilton calls Perry “funny and lyrical and wise and tender, and sometimes all at once.”
In La Crosse, the ballroom is empty. Perry’s remaining books are in boxes and he maneuvers his dolly toward his car. He talks about struggling to blend the funny and serious moments of “Coop.”
He gives up analyzing and smiles.