Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time

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An Interview with Michael Perry, Author of Book Sense Pick Population: 485

Michael Perry is a writer who moonlights at all hours as a firefighter in the New Auburn Area Fire Department in New Auburn, a farming town with a population of 485 in Northwestern Wisconsin. No dilettante, he's a certified "first responder," a certified EMT, and a registered nurse. Perry, together with two of his siblings, is on call for the department. His mother recently retired as a longtime volunteer EMT. After growing up on a farm in New Auburn, Perry left to attend nursing school and to see some of the rest of the world. He returned after about a decade away, finding he lacked some of the requisite skills for reconnecting with the small community -- he didn't bowl, couldn't polka, and had hands too soft to repair his pickup.

In the book, he describes the process of reentry: "The land takes you back. All you have to do is show up. Finding your place among the people, now, that's a different proposition.…You can't force your way in [to a community]. In my case, the fire department provided a place of access. The minute I joined up I began to accrete history and acquaintance. I began to meet my neighbors at the invitation of the fire siren."

Since joining the New Auburn fire department in 1995, Perry, by responding to about 120 calls a year, has ministered to someone in nearly every family in town.

In Population: 485 (HarperCollins), Perry artfully relates the pleasures and trials of small-town life through his vantage point as a firefighter. The town and the fire department are peopled with colorful characters, and the community's singular traditions are portrayed vividly and affectionately by Perry. He confronts the tragedies, and there are many, unblinkingly. But Perry is quick to document his own foibles and idiosyncrasies. He's known around the firehouse as the only member to ever miss a department meeting for a poetry reading, and he admits to covering up some of his back issues of Harper's on his coffee table with Varmint Hunter Magazine.

Perry has had articles published in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and He performs his work in a variety of venues, in both big and small towns, and on radio. Other works by Perry include compilations of his essays: Big Rigs, Elvis & the Grand Dragon Wayne and Why They Killed Big Boy… and Other Stories, and audio recordings: Never Stand Behind a Sneezing Cow and I Got It From the Cows (all published by Whistlers and Jugglers Press). Population: 485 was the number-two pick by independent booksellers on the November/December Book Sense 76 list.

BTW spoke to Michael Perry from his home in New Auburn, Wisconsin.

BTW: You have a full touring schedule. You attended two regional trade shows -- UMBA and GLBA, and you've got stops at a number of Wisconsin festivals and at over a dozen bookstores from Omaha [Book Worm] to Jackson, Mississippi [Lemuria]. Does your literary success preclude your service in the New Auburn Fire Department?

MP: Actually, I answered a call this morning at about 6:00 a.m. We have five inches of snow here, and a man slid off a curve, rolled his pickup, and was trapped inside. I am happy to say he was safely extricated, but it took some time and a lot of cutting. The chief let me leave the scene a little early. He said, "Mike, don't you have an interview to go to?"

BTW: How has the town, including your family and fellow firefighters, responded to its portrayal in your book? And what was your brother's reaction to inclusion of the final chapter, which details a horrible accident involving a loved one?

MP: Everyone, including the members of the fire department, has reacted very positively to the book. They knew it was coming out. One of people I write about a lot, the one we call One-Eyed Beagle, came over to my house and read everything I wrote about him. You can't print his exact words, but his point was, Write whatever you want about me.

I asked my family for their permission -- they are very private -- and they were fine with it. My mother kind of fact checked the whole thing. My brother, the one you mention, felt that I should include that chapter but he can't bring himself to read it. Not now, anyway. The book is really about my community and not my family.

BTW: You chronicle the history of New Auburn, which has seen many changes, not all for the better. Many of the family farms have been sold off and local businesses have closed. The town has seen the rise and fall of its production of bricks, pickles, wagons, and potatoes. Yet you don't believe that the small town is a dying breed.

MP: No… Change is part of the comforting certainty of life. Like many places, it's not dying, it's changing. As I've talked to people about the book, I find that people have a positive reaction to it as a book about small towns. And not only towns of 485 people. The small town experience is more than just a number. It can resonate with people from a town of 20,000 or more. When I returned to New Auburn, I didn't only want to write about this place, I wanted to write from this place.

BTW: Does New Auburn -- or some town close by -- have a bookstore?

MP: No, there's no bookstore in New Auburn, but they are selling books at the [town's only] gas station. I'm signing them, and we're donating proceeds to the school. The nearest bookstores are in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. I have done readings in both cities. The reading in Rice Lake was sponsored by Blue Hills Bookseller.

BTW: You do heroic things as a firefighter and an EMT, yet you do not want to be thought of as a hero. In the book you write: "Remove the danger and firefighting is just plain fun. You get full-grown toys, you get to drive fast, and you get to spray water…. Many small-town volunteers feel an unclichéd sense of civic duty. I see it as an alternative to writing a check for some bureaucratic megacharity. We like the idea that when there is trouble, we're the ones sent in. But the whole 'bold and brave' thing gets overblown…. We study. We prepare, but the fact remains: We are amateurs playing a game in which the professionals regularly get their tails whipped. I fear what I fight."

MP: People think it's such a brave and noble thing to do, but the facts are I'm home a lot, I have a valid driver's license, and a pulse. I feel very fortunate to be a volunteer firefighter. I get far more out of it than I'm giving. We have an excellent relationship with the professional fire departments. The nearest professional company is in Eau Claire. We get the same training, but they do it everyday. They are a valuable resource for us.

BTW: What thoughts did you have seeing the footage of September 11, 2001? Have you noticed any change in the public's attitude toward rescue workers?

MP: We happened to have our monthly meeting the day after 9/11. I picked up a copy of Firefighter's [Quarterly] Magazine. It reported that in 2000, nationwide, 120 firefighters were killed in the line of duty. That number was eclipsed just the day before. I could imagine the concerns of scene control and scene safety -- in a situation so huge -- all your training can't give you the answers. You just have to act. Around here, our community has always been supportive. We have nice equipment. People have become more aware of what goes on in firefighting -- the range of things. But everyone in this community has always waved at the fire trucks and they still do.

BTW: Do you enjoy doing bookstore readings?

MP: It's been great. I was surprised and grateful that the book was selected for the Book Sense 76. Booksellers have been very receptive and supportive. You can tell when an event has been well promoted and the word has gotten out. This is a word-of-mouth book. I've done a fair amount of performing previously, so it's fun. I do about a 20-minute mini-essay -- I put together a few short sections of the book. Humor goes over really well. I tell a couple of anecdotes that aren't in the book. Sometimes other volunteer firefighters show up and share some of their own stories.

BTW: You very well may be the first firefighter to quote Sigmund Freud when writing about the experience. You include some excerpts from the great psychoanalyst's The Acquisition and Control of Fire. He apparently claimed that man gained control over fire only after he gained control over his bladder. You write "according to Freud, the first man who saw a small fire and resisted the urge to pee on it committed one of the great acts of civilization." What's up with that?

MP: I am not a Freudian, but I looked into some assessment of his works regarding fire. He claimed that the desire to quell fire is all about sexual potency. Freud said that it was no coincidence that Prometheus smuggled fire to man in a hollow fennel stalk, a symbolic penis. I think he might have gotten a little carried away. I write that Sigmund would be a treat on a fire scene. -- Interviewed by Nomi Schwartz