Memoirist, humorist, singer-songwriter: Michael Perry’s latest book, Danger, Man Working, draws on 15 years of writing.
Michael Perry recently visited Reading Group Choices in Madison, Wisconsin, to read and discuss his work with an audience. Michael also kindly took the time to answer our questions after he shared part of his memoir!
Reading Group Choices: What book changed your life?
Michael Perry: When I was in third grade our family received a box of secondhand clothes. When we opened it a worn copy of All Quiet on the Western Front tumbled out. The long version of what happened next is told in my book Coop, but the short version is that book opened my eyes to the fact that breaking the world down into good people versus bad people isn’t so simple.
RGC: What book(s) are coming out this year that you’re looking forward to reading?
MP: I have too many friends with books coming out this year to name just one. It’ll get awkward fast.
RGC: What books are currently stacked next to your bed/on your desk/in your pile-to-read?
MP: It’s not so much a pile as a rampart, especially around my old green chair. From here I can see a whole pile of books on Montaigne, The Thicket by Joe R. Landsale, Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, every poetry book Honorée Fanonne Jeffers has ever written, The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols, and Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Jesus’ Son by the late Denis Johnson. But these are only the titles visible from this chair. The stacks are deep.
RGC: What book did you most recently recommend to someone else?
MP: Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. Also Lamb, Christopher Moore’s humorous novel about Christ’s “missing years.”
RGC: What was your favorite book when you were a child?
MP: Have never cared for narrowing things down to “favorite.” I take things as they come. I read everything I could get my hands on, from the Bible to Louis L’Amour cowboy books, to Gone With the Wind, to the backs of cereal boxes at breakfast, and the underside of Kleenex boxes in the bathroom. Also the toothpaste tube.
RGC: Who are your favorite writers?
MP: Again, I eschew the term “favorite” as far too narrow and exclusive, but I wouldn’t be answering these questions at all if not for the work of Jim Harrison, the poems of Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, and Dylan Thomas, and I also owe a great debt to Louis L’Amour, who subconsciously planted the idea in me that you didn’t have to be of an East Coast salon to be a writer.
RGC: Do you commonly use a word or phrase that is specific to a place you lived/from childhood/from family that you don’t hear often in day-to-day conversation?
MP: We are “drinking fountain” people, not “bubbler” people.
RGC: What book/s could you never part with? Think “stranded-on-a-desert-island” books.
MP: Having been more than once stranded in metaphorically similar situations, I have learned I am happy to read whatever is at hand. The point is to read as much as you can whenever you can so that if you’re on that island without that book, it is already stored in your head and heart.
RGC: Were you ever embarrassed about a book you loved?
MP: Over time I have come to regard Louis L’Amour’s oeuvre as problematic on many levels but the fact remains he worked hard, he worked seriously, and he gave me a window into a life built stubbornly on words. I was provided relief in this regard some time ago when a well-educated, literate friend who can also fix tractors said, “There are no guilty pleasures, only pleasures.”
RGC: What fictional character do you most identify with? Why?
MP: I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for you there. I just don’t think that way. All of them, a little bit, I suppose. We see ourselves, for better or worse, in others.
RGC: Do you have a favorite musician or genre of music?
MP: Roughneck singer/songwriter types influenced me more than writers in the early days. Again, anyone whose work implied that you could care about art and beauty and the sound of words and yet still wear boots and jeans and hang out at the feed mill was of great help to me. Off the top of my head: Waylon Jennings, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, John Prine. Lately I prefer the proud rebelry of artists like Perfume Genius.
RGC: Is there a creator who is doing something you find amazing?
MP: The way Chance the Rapper has handled his early career, success, and personal life has been most instructional, even for a 52-year-old country guy like me.
RGC: What do you wish you knew more about?
MP: How to fix things likes chainsaws and motors and anything involving electricity. I was born lacking that gene.
RGC: Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
MP: I don’t care much for visiting over dinner with someone I don’t know, I always worry I have something in my teeth. I’d say whoever shows up, as long as they show up friendly. In my time I’ve met a president, movie stars, famous musicians, billionaires, you name it, and the bottom line is nearly every person you meet has a story if you can get out of their way and let them tell it.
RGC: Vinyl, cassette, CD or digital? Typewriter, notebook, tablet or computer? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or none of the above? Sweet or savory?
MP: I like to listen to old vinyl records on my late grandmother’s nicotin-stained console stereo, but the truth is they sound pretty bad. It’s fashionable to love retro things, and I still cherish my old manual typewriter and use it on occasion, if only to remind myself that an electrified laptop really frees you up to get some writing done whenever, wherever.
RGC: What is your most meaningful place?
MP: Inside my head, while writing. That’s a selfish thing to say, but it’s true.
RGC: What’s your favorite bookstore?
MP: I wouldn’t be here if not for the hardworking, handselling efforts of indies all across the U.S. So: A good, energetic, weird, durable, indie.
RGC: Can you share a favorite line from a creative work (book/play/film/song)?
MP: John Prine: “How the hell can a person go to work in the mornin’, come home in the evenin’, and have nothin’ to say?”
RGC: What do you enjoy most about doing a reading or talking about your book?
MP: It’s a chance to meet readers and thank them face-to-face.
RGC: What is something you know about or have heard about Madison or Wisconsin?
MP: I know that I still love the idea of Wisconsin as red barns in green fields filled with cows and cheese wedges, because that was the Wisconsin of my youth, but lately I’ve been writing more and more about how that default view of the state is limiting and cuts out a lot of folks, many of them my immediate relatives. But I’m still all for being called a cheesehead.