You know Michael Perry. He’s the guy who writes funny, poignant memoirs about life in rural Wisconsin. He’s written about his town (“Population 485”), his truck (“Truck”) and his chickens and pigs (“Coop”). He’s a musician and an essayist, and in pictures he is bald, strong, and sometimes holding farm animals.
His new book (“The Scavengers,” in bookstores Sept. 2) is pretty much the opposite of everything he’s done before. It’s fiction — speculative fiction. The main character is a girl. And it’s written for middle-grade readers. This all seemed worth asking about. So I did.
Q: Can you talk about what prompted such an enormous shift?
A: It was a convergence of elements, including the adventure stories I read as a child, my recent experiences as the father of two book-loving daughters, a fundamental need to pay for shoes and braces and a desire to write about someone other than my knuckle-headed self.
Q: What was the genesis of “The Scavengers”?
A: The seed was planted several years ago by a pair of editors who asked if I’d consider writing something for a younger audience. I held off, in part because I’m a respecter of genres. I didn’t assume I could just switch gears and get traction. But then I started making notes and writing little scenes, including the one where Maggie decides to change her name to Ford Falcon. Then we had a rooster that couldn’t crow properly. And from there …
Q: Why did you make the book nail-bitingly tense but also funny?
A: On long drives, when my daughters were listening to audiobooks, I noticed how they loved to discover a laugh in the middle of an otherwise cliffhanging adventure story.
I cherish serious and thoughtful people, but I can never bear to go too long without a chuckle or a joke. I suspect humor is the most reliable weapon we possess in our battle against the difficulties of this world. It’s a pressure-relief valve. Humor is also a necessary tool for the adjustment of my own ego.
Q: The book is shot through with references to other books (Laura Ingalls Wilder, Emily Dickinson). Why?
A: My Mom changed my life by reading to me. It took me over 20 years to realize it. Those scenes where Ma is reading to Maggie? That’s my Mom reading to me. And I chose Emily Dickinson because I like the idea of fine literature in roughneck circumstances. Beautiful words, beautiful art, beautiful movement: They’re beautiful no matter where you’re experiencing them. You don’t have to look fancy to enjoy fancy.
Q: Do you now drive, or have you ever driven, a Ford Falcon?
A: Never drove one. But in my memoir “Coop,” there are scenes featuring a Ford Falcon station wagon my parents owned when I was a child. I used to hide out in it, and that’s where I got the idea of Maggie hiding out in her Falcon.
Unlike Maggie, however, I never felt moved to actually adopt the name.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter @StribBooks