Brant Short interviews author Michael Perry about his novella Forty Acres Deep, farming, publishing, and isolation.
Brant Short: You warned readers familiar with your previous essays and books that Forty Acres Deep is a departure and that the novella uses “blunt and accurate profanity” and deals with infant death and suicide. What factors prompted this warning for potential readers? Was this a difficult decision as an author who wants readers to explore a creative work without preconceived judgment?
Michael Perry: From an artistic standpoint, I am ambivalent about these warnings of this sort. When I go to a poetry reading or an intimate concert, I want to feel the real-time force of the work as it is shared. Something is lost when an artist over-explains or over-contextualizes a poem or song prior to performing it. So I weighed that. But I also understand my audience is of diverse disposition and experience. There are some among them who enjoy my goofball G-rated rural humor and have supported me in that for years. There are others—and here I think of members of my own family—who have lived through the death of a child. So in this instance, I felt any artistic concerns I might have were easily outweighed by basic respect.
Short: Forty Acres Deep explores the physical, emotional and mental unraveling of Harold, an old school farmer in Wisconsin. Isolation from other people exacerbates this spiral. Do you view Harold’s isolation as an occupational hazard of farming or of rural life in general? Or are there other issues in Harold’s world (corporate agribusiness, rural gentrification, technology) that are more accountable for his slow burn breakdown than the farming lifestyle?
Perry: It’s a convergence of all of those things. I’m a product of people raised to work hard and not complain. And farming—at least the way Harold did it—is so often an isolating endeavor. You’re in the field alone, the barn alone, the cab of the tractor alone. So you take a person raised on stoicism who’s vulnerable and facing financial, physical, and emotional hardship, then throw in isolation, and conditions are perfect for the dark spiral. But those farmers who raised me, there used to be a lot more of them, and they used to meet up at the implement store and waste time and tell stories and complain in unison, and as tough as things were they could get together and relate. Harold’s isolation, on the other hand, is exacerbated by technology and gentrification and societal shifts in ways that even us softhanded non-farmers understand. You can find yourself in a state of desperate isolation while jammed on the subway. It’s not just a farmer thing. And that’s a clear undertone of the book. Harold’s a farmer, but he’s standing in for the low-key lonely dread so many of us feel in this age where digital interconnection drives human disconnection.
Short: Although some may see Forty Acres Deep as a departure from your earlier work, it seems to me that Harley Jackson, the protagonist in your first novel Jesus Cow, is simply the other side of the coin. Harley’s world is spinning out of control from varied forces, yet other people offer a corrective to the destructive impact of isolation. Did you consider any parallels between Harley and Harold as you wrote Forty Acres Deep? Could Harold and Harley simply be neighbors who experience their life from a different lens?
Perry: Ha, it occurs to me that I apparently default to “H” names. I need to work on that. I don’t recall considering Harley in the construction of Harold. The Jesus Cow was my attempt to spin a story based on a goofy example of pareidolia—the perception of a recognizable image or meaningful pattern where none exists (in this case Christ’s face on a Holstein)—while still allowing the characters to be contemplative and reflective. The Jesus Cow has its serious stretches, but it also indulges in comic hyperbole, whereas my desire with Forty Acres Deep was to remain resolutely true to imagery, rhythm, and tone. I wanted to spend ridiculous amounts of time revising descriptions of breeze-borne hoarfrost, or deer dispersing across a snowy lunarscape like beads of black mercury. My first love—the thing that drew a farm kid with a nursing degree into writing—was poetry, and with Forty Acres Deep I found myself flashing back to my days in long hair and late-night coffee shops, writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting a poem that would never make it past open mic night in a small midwestern college town and yet filled me with the electric desire to write more, more, more. And then tear it apart and write it tighter and tighter. So yah, I guess The Jesus Cow was my attempt to write a Coen brothers movie; Forty Acres Deep was my little art project.
Short: Harold is angry, confused and frustrated by his personal failings as a husband as well as the apparent lunacy of the larger world of economics, politics, and popular culture. Only a chance encounter in a coffee shop offers him a ray of hope. Beyond understanding the despair and hardship of modern farm life, do you hope for other responses from your readers, whether rural or urban?
Perry: My intent was to remain unrelenting in pursuing the theme of self-examination. To refuse Harold (or myself) relief through amelioration. The bulk of the emails and letters and comments I’ve received in the wake of the book have come from farmers (although even more so from the spouses or families of farmers), and I’ve wound up doing a lot of interviews and speaking engagements with people and groups involved with mental health and agriculture. I’ve also heard from a lot of husbands. (Gulp.) But an equally heartfelt—and raw—correspondence arrives from folks who—despite dissimilar situations and settings—recognize Harold’s struggle as their own.
Short: Is Forty Acres Deep a story you have considered telling for many years or were there specific events more recently which became a catalyst for the novella? Why did you select this particular form instead of a larger work of fiction or even nonfiction?
Perry: A few winters back I had to fight around the clock to keep our two barns from collapsing beneath the weight of unceasing snows. Many farmers around me lost buildings and cattle. One farmer lost his life. My brother had a shed go down. It was 2 a.m., I was dragging a torpedo heater between barns through drifts and cold, sweating and cursing, when it hit me that I was the clodhopper version of Ahab. I was also obsessing over my failings and shortcomings and what it would be to sweep it all away and start fresh as a blanket of snow. I figured it would make for a short story no one would ever see. Seven pages, maybe. It just kept growing. But I also wanted to keep it lean. I had always loved the novella form but had never written one. So I convened a meeting consisting of me, and made the editorial call. It just felt like it fit.
Short: Your writing seems to have evolved from essays to nonfiction books and finally to fiction. Is this truly an evolution in your interests and goals as a writer or is this a matter of selecting the best form available for the project? In other words, in the future do you plan to write across the genres or prioritize your time in fiction?
Perry: I’ve been freelancing full-time since the 1990s. I’ve never lost the long-haired poet’s gut-level love of writing. The physical act of it and the art of it. And yet in freelancing I made the decision that I was going to do everything I could to pay the rent with my writing. In the early days that meant writing ad copy, proofing brochures, self-publishing, doing whatever it took. That has never stopped. This week I wrote copy for a film documentary, wrote and recorded a television voiceover, wrote and recorded a radio show, wrote and recorded a podcast, worked on a young adult novel, worked on an essay, and turned in the manuscript for a nonfiction book. I do one-man humor shows in small regional theaters, I do keynote speeches, I speak at firefighter conferences and writers conferences. I have a band. In other words, I’m self-employed. I strive for art but am happy to deliver a chuckle. In most cases form and genre depend on the nature of the gig or the book contract. In other cases, because I’m independent I’m free to write whatever I want—Forty Acres Deep is an example of that. The publishers weren’t interested, so we went DIY and now it’s sold a few thousands. All that said, irrespective of the gig, the medium, or the genre, none of it—none of it—happens if I don’t sit down at the keyboard. Writing is at the center of everything I do.
Short: Do you have any particular writing rituals or processes that provide the space you need for writing? Do you allow rough drafts to linger before revision and begin other projects or do you maintain focus on a single project?
Perry: Due to my freelance status and my background in nursing and volunteer firefighting/EMS, I tend to operate based on triage: Work on what’s gonna die if you don’t do it now. Make the space or lose the gig. But of course there are projects—Forty Acres Deep for sure, and even some of the books I’m under contract for—where time does allow me to let them sit. Revision is my favorite part of the writing process, so being able to let something rest before revision is delicious. Ultimately though, just like some third-grader with a book report, I need a deadline and someone to enforce it.
Short: Do you have recommendations of other books, both fiction and nonfiction, which might help readers appreciate the challenge of farming and rural life in contemporary America?
Perry: The late Gene Logsdon was a cherished mentor. His nonfiction was unvarnished and frank and funny and underpinned by the fact that he actually farmed. Most people start with his The Contrary Farmer. There is of course Wendell Berry. I’d also recommend Mapping the Farm, by another mentor of mine, John Hildebrand. Hit By a Farm, by Catherine Friend. The Dirty Life, by Kristin Kimball. Off the page, the song “Me + Mine (Lamentations)” by American Aquarium, pretty much knocks me over every time I listen to it. I also think the third verse of Sturgill Simpson’s “Old King Coal” is masterful in the way it conveys how we rural folks will bristle at injustice and hardship but bristle even more when outsiders drop in to save us from ourselves.
Michael Perry is an accidental New York Times bestselling author, humorist, singer/songwriter, amateur snow plow driver, and playwright from New Auburn, Wisconsin.
Perry’s bestselling memoirs include Population: 485 (subsequently adapted for the stage), Truck: A Love Story, Coop, Visiting Tom, and Montaigne in Barn Boots. Among his other dozen titles are The Scavengers (for young readers), his novel The Jesus Cow, Peaceful Persistence, Hunker, and his most recent book, the novella Forty Acres Deep. Raised on a small Midwestern dairy farm, Perry put himself through nursing school while working on a ranch in Wyoming, then detoured into writing. He lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Wisconsin, where he still makes an occasional call with the local volunteer fire and rescue service. He hosts the nationally-syndicated “Tent Show Radio,” performs widely as a humorist, and tours with his band the Long Beds. His three live humor albums include Never Stand Behind A Sneezing Cow and The Clodhopper Monologues. He can be found online at www.sneezingcow.com. Michael also hosts a subscription audio newsletter at www.michaelperry.substack.com.