Don’t Quit Your Day Job
By Michael Fedo. (Holy Cow! Press, 135 pages, $15.95.)

 

Good reviews, Michael Fedo will tell you, do not necessarily translate into good money. He’s had plenty of the former, and little of the latter. And so his 50 years working as a writer — of books, magazine pieces, book reviews, short stories and essays, even a few poems — were also spent working as a teacher.

In his memoir “Don’t Quit Your Day Job,” Duluth native Fedo (author of a biography of Garrison Keillor pre-scandal, and a devastating history, “The Lynchings in Duluth”) recounts with humor and honesty the difficulties and rewards (more difficulties than rewards, perhaps) of becoming a writer.

He was dogged. While at grad school, he wrote a funny piece that he sent to Reader’s Digest. Reader’s Digest sent it back. “Writers expect rejections, and they simply send their manuscripts elsewhere and hope for better luck,” a friend advised. So Fedo sent it off again, and again, and received rejection notes again, and again.

(He did eventually sell a rewritten version of that piece for $60, and celebrated with a fine steak dinner.)

Fedo’s subtitle is “The Adventures of a Midlist Author,” but it could have been “Adventures in Frustration.” Fame, fortune and glory remained beyond his grasp. He steadily published pieces in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, BusinessWeek, Scholastic magazine and many smaller places. His books often were well reviewed. But publishers folded. Magazines folded. Editors moved on. Budgets of nonprofit presses were slashed.

The structure of the book is not chronological, but thematic, which gives it more a feel of a “how-to” book than a true memoir. Practical, rich with anecdotes and wisdom he learned along the way, it’s an entertaining read that will likely be useful to anyone who thinks that a publishing contract is a guarantee of — anything. “Are we after fame and wealth?” he writes. “Most likely so, but I long ago learned to accept reality.”

Fedo’s book is a healthy dose of reality for aspiring writers.

Fedo will be at Eat My Words Bookstore, 214 13th Av. NE., Mpls., at 7 p.m. Sept. 20; at Magers & Quinn Bookstore, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., at 7 p.m. Oct. 3; and at Subtext Bookstore, 6 W. 5th St., St. Paul, at 7 p.m. Oct. 4.

LAURIE HERTZEL

 

Across the Great Lake
By Lee Zacharias. (University of Wisconsin Press, 240 pages, $23.95.)

It’s an achievement when an adult writes convincingly in the voice of a 5-year-old, and Lee Zacharias succeeds with Fern, the daughter of Henrik Halvorsen, a ship captain who ferries railroad cars across Lake Michigan in the coal-fired Manitou in the 1930s.

The ship is no place for a youngster, but family tragedy onshore leaves her father no choice. Fern, we learn, is adventurous, curious, independent and verging on precocious, but likable. The story is meticulously researched; Zacharias cites almost three dozen books about Great Lakes life and lauds countless websites that enabled her to describe ships’ construction, crews’ roles, the history of ferries, life on shore, even how dining tables are rigged to keep salt shakers in place.

The result is a wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from what otherwise is a rather thin story. Ominous references to ghosts dwindle to surprisingly matter-of-fact reactions once a ghost ship actually is sighted. A teenage boy sent aboard as a deckhand to nip any suspected gayness in the bud will certainly meet tragedy. Fern relates that a secret will haunt her throughout life, but it’s difficult to feel her trauma — perhaps because, at heart, this is a story told from a 5-year-old’s perspective and the distance between Fern and the typical reader finally is too great. Zacharias has brought history to the page with great skill. Read for this reason, letting Fern serve as an excuse.

KIM ODE