Wisconsin author Michael Perry shares his stories

Perry talks life and learning at a book signing event in Eau Claire

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Photo by Hillary Smith

Michael Perry shared excerpts from his newest book “Roughneck Grace” at an event at a book signing event at Volume One last weekend.

Dressed in a short-sleeve gray tee with glasses perched on his mostly bald head, Michael Perry looked less like a New York Times bestselling author promoting his book and more like he was shooting the breeze with some old friends.

Perry’s gap-toothed smile flashed often as he struck a rolling repartee that elicited laughter and applause from the audience. Alternating between reading passages from “Roughneck Grace,” released Sept. 30, and keeping a casual stream of commentary and conversation, Perry seemed right at home. His natural, down-to-earth presence proved the book was aptly named.

The book signing event took place at 7 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Volume One store in downtown Eau Claire. About 40 people, mostly upper-middle aged and elderly folks, attended.

Perry writes a weekly column for the Wisconsin State Journal about, as he put it, “pretty much anything I want.” The book, titled the same as the column, is a compilation of short essays which cover a wide variety of subjects. From riding a New York elevator with models to sharing a cigarette with the septic tank repairman, “Roughneck Grace” offers the balance of humor and reflection for which Perry’s writing is known.

Raised among farmers, loggers and truckers, Perry now lives in rural Wisconsin with his family. He paid his way through nursing school by working at a ranch in Wyoming and his writing reflects these roots.

Perry said sometimes it is difficult to define both tossing hay bales and writing as forms of labor, but he also said “work is work whether your hands are calloused or not.”

“I’m always trying to write some sort of bridge between the world of blue collar, hard physical labor and the great beauty the world of art has given me,” he said.

Some of Perry’s best-known works include “Population 485,” “Truck: A Love Story,” “Coop,” “Jesus Cow” and “Visiting Tom.”

“I’ve haven’t read a book of his that I didn’t like,” said Rod Brunzlick, a native of Auburn, WI.

Brunzlick said he enjoys how relatable Perry’s books are, noting how people in his own life remind him of certain characters in Perry’s previous works.

Volume One store associate Bonni Knight commended the author’s accurate depictions of local customs. Knight said she gives Perry books to all her “bigshot” friends so they can understand and appreciate life in the Midwest.

Knight also said Perry is an excellent observer of human situations.

“He has a really great way of looking at things,” she said. “Where you or I might not see beyond just the outside of a person, he kind of reads their social situations and turns them into stories.”

Some fans of Perry’s work applauded his ability to make Midwest culture widely relatable.  

“He’s really good at making small-town Wisconsin feel like anybody could be here,” said Becca Wickler, a sophomore at UW-Eau Claire. “Even if you don’t live here or if you’re from a big city, you can still be like, ‘That would be a cool place to be.’”

Perry has made significant impacts on the Eau Claire community, particularly for artists, said Geoff Carter, a junior at Eau Claire.

“He made Wisconsin a part of the world,” Carter said. “This guy is really leading the charge for local people… He’s really paving the way. He put Eau Claire on the map.”

But there is no rest for the weary; Perry has not one, but two more projects on his plate.

One will be a sequel to “The Scavengers,” geared toward younger readers.

Perry said the sequel will begin upon completion of his current project, a more “personally daunting” book that delves into the philosophies of Michel de Montaigne and reflects on personal topics such as shame and marriage.

Both are anticipated to be released sometime in 2017.