Thursday, August 16, 2012

Inspiration for Michael Perry Comes from Books, Photographs, and Yes, Friends--Our Event for Visiting Tom is Friday, August 24, 7 pm, at Boswell.

At just about every event, someone asks the question, “Where did you get the idea for this book?” And as the time approaches for our event with Michael Perry for Visiting Tom: A Man, A Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace, my thoughts turn to inspiration. The new book is out August 21, our event is Friday, August 24, 7 pm, co-sponsored by Wisconsin Public Radio

I’m just guessing, based on 1) similarity of themes and 2) he keeps mentioning it that one of Perry’s inspirations is Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. With raves from critics, booksellers, and readers (still on my pile, alas), How to Live divides up Montaigne’s life subject by subject, much in the way he himself was an essayist, to get at the root of a man whose life force was, to paraphrase one writer, “the cheerful acceptance of whatever happens.”

So Perry must have been reading this book and thinks, “Hey, I know someone like that. Tom Hartwig.” Perry met Hartwig years ago, as he was the neighbor of his wife Anneliese while she was growing up, and he and Arlene were as important to his wife as her own family. In some cases, more important.

And he must have said to renowned photographers J. Shimon and J. Lindemann, “I have someone you have to meet. Maybe you can put a photograph of Tom on my next book." For it turns out Shimon and Lindemann have generally provided the cover shots for Perry’s books. No stock photos of a child who has nothing to do with the subject, as you sometimes see in other author's memoirs.

And the shoot is so intense, and it dregs up so many memories, that one photo becomes a series, and the session is incorporated into the story of Visiting Tom. As Shimon and Lindemann wander through Hartwig’s life, shooting the barn, the Rube Goldberg-like workshop where Tom fixes, well, just about everything, to the kitchen with his beloved wife of almost sixty years, Arlene, you can imagine the photographers are in photography heaven.

You’d think photography heaven was when we stopped buying film, but that’s hell not just for Kodak and Fuji. Shimon and Lindemann may teach photography, including digital processes, at Lawrence University in Appleton, but they do some of their best work with antique cameras, and nothing else would do on this shoot.

This is a Perry story too, of course, for it’s about a friendship. So while he learns about all the changes Hartwig faced along the years, he confronts his own. And that leads into another inspiration, roads. For perhaps the most that could have broken Hartwig’s spirit is the day that Wisconsin split his farm in two with an interstate highway, agreeing at least to not sent the road straight through one of his buildings.

Perry’s got his own road issues. The county highway commission makes plans to reconfigure the intersection near their house, and the new layout will not allow folks going up the hill to accelerate. It turns out that without this acceleration, it’s very difficult to make the hill if there is any snow on the ground. But the commission is more obsessed with the occasional speeding car coming down the hill. Now they could fix the problem by putting a stop sign there (instead of the yield which is present) but that would mean the school bus would go through more brake pads. Or so it sounds like to me.

It’s a typically frustrating, confounding fight with a government official, one that Hartwig had again and again regarding his own property’s road issues. But can Perry handle the issue with the same kind of grace as Hartwig? I certainly couldn’t.

Roads, photographs, Montaigne…three different ways to look at life. Visiting Tom is perhaps a quieter, more introspective, less raucously funny book than some of Michael Perry’s previous titles, which include Population 485, Coop, Truck, and Off Main Street, but I can assure you that at his appearance at Boswell on Friday, August 24 (7 pm), laughter will fill the bookstore. No reservation necessary.

We’re also honored to be hosting an exhibit of Shimon and Lindemann’s prints for Tom Hartwig, in collaboration with the photographers and Debra Brehmer at the Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo Street, currently closed while it is readied for a grand reopening in the autumn. The prints are for sale as well--$200 unframed, $275 framed. In addition, the Portrait Society Gallery is offering postcard collections of Shimon and Lindemann portraits for $10.

As a last note, Stacie just posted the Visiting Tom trailer to Facebook. Because there are probably a few folks who follow the blog who might not see it, here it is.

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