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NEW AUBURN, WIS. – It takes less than a minute to drive out of New Auburn, Wis. – perhaps slightly longer if you fall in behind a tractor or other rolling farm implement. Aside from those implements and the occasional full-sized pickup, the commercial traffic through town, on that day anyway, was entirely composed of two Schwan’s ice cream trucks – both of which were parked just outside the Sunshine Cafe on Main Street.
|Michael Perry, author of Population: 485, wasn’t big on the idea of the typical author photo with his hands folded under his chin. Instead, he is pictured above with the farmland of his home in Wisconsin playing a dominant role. Mitch Traphagen Photo|
The signs marking the snowmobile trail somehow don’t appear out of place even planted in the green grass – nor does the old barn that is on a block between Main Street and the volunteer fire department. It is just how life is in a small town in the upper Midwest.
It is also the setting for Michael Perry’s bestselling book, Population: 485. After a 12-year absence, he moved back to New Auburn, his hometown, joined the volunteer fire department and, as the tagline of his book reads, he began to meet his neighbors one siren at a time.
It is a compelling story of neighbors, tragedy, joy and real life – and it is written with such a personal intensity, the reader feels as though he is standing in the middle of this small town watching the characters run all around him. You are in New Auburn, riding along as the volunteer fire department rushes out to put out a barn fire or save one of the neighbors after a car accident. You are there for the tears and the laughter.
Perry is the author of four books and has written for top publications such as Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Outside, Backpacker, Men’s Health and others. Despite his success, however, he is as he writes – he walks the talk.
And he does it wearing rubber boots.
As I parked my car on the gravel drive leading to his rural Wisconsin home, Perry came out in a T-shirt, jeans and… rubber boots.
“Did you see my pigs?” he asked, pointing to a small pen. The ungulates within were, ostensibly, the reason for the boots.
As he began talking about New Auburn, it was clear that Perry’s heart is where his home is – no matter where he may be.
“When I first signed on to do Population: 485, I told them that I love this place,” he said. “I’m grateful to be from that place – it has shaped everything I’ve done. But I also said that I’m not going to write some idyllic, beautiful story of a village in the countryside. To do that, it would almost be a reverse insult [to the people there]. I wrote pretty honestly about the downsides and the gritty stuff, but I wrote about myself, too.”
New Auburn is the epitome of a town where everyone knows everyone else – there is no way to anonymously publish a book that shares the lives of the townspeople with millions of readers. Perry, however, is quick to point out that his book is only one of 485 possible stories of the town. It is simply a story from his viewpoint.
Due to his responsibilities as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician, a few names were changed to protect the privacy of some characters in the book. Beyond that, however, the antics of the town are fully laid out for all to read about. In a few instances, that was cause for concern. Perry was writing about his neighbors but he still wanted to be able to have breakfast in the Sunshine Cafe after his book hit the shelves.
He was most worried about the reaction of one character, a man affectionately named Bob the One-Eyed Beagle.
“I sat down at my kitchen table with him as my neighbor before the book came out because I was writing about a place that I love and I wanted to write honestly, but I also wanted to maintain some tone of respect,” Perry said. “Bob the One-Eyed Beagle – he’s my neighbor – I’m on the fire department with him. He has protected me in burning buildings – so I didn’t want to write about him lightly. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to make him into some sort of caricature, either – good or bad. I told him, Bob, I’m writing a book and you’ve basically become chapter two.”
Perry made it clear that he couldn’t change the facts of the story, but if there was something wrong or hurtful, he wanted to know about it.
“I read the first paragraph to him: ‘Here in the first paragraph I write very specifically about how cross-eyed you are and what it’s like to run into you at 3 a.m. - how do you feel about that?’
|It takes less than a minute to drive out of New Auburn, Wis. – perhaps slightly longer if you fall in behind a tractor or other rolling farm implement. Aside from those implements and the occasional full-sized pickup, the commercial traffic through town, on that day anyway, was entirely composed of two Schwan’s ice cream trucks – both of which were parked just outside the Sunshine Cafe on Main Street. Mitch Traphagen Photo|
“Bob’s response was, I don’t give a [expletive].’
“OK, here I write about a few marital problems and your ex-wives.”
“He said, I don’t give a [expletive].’
“After about 15 or 20 ‘I don’t give a [expletives]’ later, I figured that we were good to go,” Perry said.
It is that realism and honesty that make the story. To the reader, Bob comes through as a guy most people might wish they had as a friend.
Near the end of the book there is a personal tragedy that involves Perry’s brother. That tragedy changed the scope of Population: 485 – and it happened after Perry had already finished the last chapter.
“I just realized that what my brother went through was what the book was all about,” Perry said. “My brother and I are very close, but we’re not demonstrative. We like it that way. I sat down with him and told him that I’d like to write a chapter about it but that it was up to him – if he told me no, I’d never mention it again.”
Perry looked around his brother’s kitchen and saw all the promise that was abruptly taken away by the tragedy, and he looked at his brother, who was so profoundly affected by it.
“He finally just said, ‘You’re my brother and I trust you, so write what you want. But I don’t think I’ll ever want to read it,’” Perry said. “Then I rewrote the last chapter. People tell me that chapter came as such a surprise. I tell them, ‘Hey, me, too.’”
About a year after the book was published, Perry received a letter from his brother – he said that it was difficult, but he had read the book and had liked what Perry had done.
“I make the point over and over that I am not responding to some higher calling,” Perry said. “I’m a self-employed guy trying to pay health insurance bills and pay the mortgage. I approach writing as a blue-collar profession. But occasionally you do write something... I read his letter twice and I put it away to keep.”
Perry’s latest book, Truck: A Love Story, was released in October 2006. It is a humorous story of love, a rusty old pickup truck and a garden – all things that Perry, formerly a longtime bachelor and self-described incompetent mechanic, finds highly ironic.
“I get asked all the time, is it a love story about a truck or a woman? I respond, ‘is there not room enough in a man’s heart for both?’”
His books have no doubt caused many readers to yearn for days in their past – or in their fantasies – of a simpler life in a small town. Perry, however, is no small-town evangelist – he isn’t preaching or promoting anything other than compelling and often hilarious stories of real life.
“The last thing anyone needs is one more writer telling anyone how to live,” he said.
But it is how he lives. And for anyone who has read, or will read, Population: 485, he still has the hovercraft. It doesn’t run and his wife thinks it might be time to get rid of it, but it’s still there. And, apparently, in New Auburn, you can still borrow the community sewer rod.
Michael Perry’s books are available at bookstores nationwide. For more information, visit his Web site at www.sneezingcow.com.
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