I have been pretty scarce here
for a while, you may have noticed. For the past several months I have been finishing and revising Peter's Story and The Idea of the Local, and preparing them for the printer. Peter's Story came back from the printer about two weeks ago. The Idea of the Local was delivered on Friday.
When you publish a new book, first you feel exhiliration, then depression. Exhiliration because all the work has come to fruition, and you're holding the result in your hands. Depression because a book is never everything that you wanted it to be, and there is always some flaw that only becomes obvious when the book is actually in print. That's the way it always is, yet I still haven't grown used to the up and down of it.
The official publication date for both books is October 1, 2007, which means that's when we'd like reviews to appear and we'll start the hard work of promoting the books. Yet I have to tell you about them now, now that they're in my hands, so bear with me!
Part memoir and part social history, Peter's Story recollects Peter Pizzino's youth in Milwaukee and takes the reader to Milwaukee's Italian community in the Third Ward during the 1920s and 1930s. Peter was abandoned by his mother when he was three-and-a-half years old and was raised by a strict and sometimes violent father. He was leader of a bunch of young "Third Ward hoodlums," stole chickens to feed families in the neighborhood when he was eight years old, and worked at whatever he could find – cleaning horse stalls, making sausages, learning to cook. He collected envelopes for the padrones, hauled alcohol from Lafayette, Indiana, and Thunder Bay, Ontario. He drove hi-jacked furs and booze from New York to Chicago and chauffeured the bosses to their meetings in Chicago and New York. He hunted down those who had broken the code of honor, returning them to Milwaukee to face a harsh kind of justice. Peter was always small for his age, but quick, and he lived more in his first eighteen years than most of us live in a lifetime. Peter's Story is the story of those years.
For many years, Peter - who still lives in the Milwaukee area - operated Baywood Tailors in Shorewood and Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, establishing a reputation as a fine tailor and employing some hundreds of people in custom sewing and alterations. He closed his store and retired for health reasons in 1999.
Peter's Story is Peter's first publication and my first collaboration of this sort. I met Peter in November, 2003, when I was teaching a workshop in "Writing Memoir" at the Northshore Library in Glendale, Wisconsin. He was one of fifteen or sixteen students, but stood out immediately. He had come into the room with the friend who'd driven him to the library and he took his place at the table. When I looked over at him, it was as if a nimbus enveloped him; he seemed almost as if he were an angel. He sat at the table and smiled. I don't usually see halos around people, so I was intrigued. I walked over and introduced myself. "And who are you?" I asked him.
"I'm Peter," he said.
Peter was attending my seminar on writing memoir because he wanted to tell his life story, and he was struggling with how to do it. He thought perhaps the seminar would help him see his way clear. I ended up co-authoring Peter's Story with him because Peter was having health problems - his eyesight was failing him; his hearing was poor; his heart liked to play tricks. At the very beginning of our relationship, I had hoped Peter could write his own story and put the bits of memory into chronological order on his own. He tried, but wasn't very successful at it. Because he was nearly blind, writing was difficult for him, and the pages were nearly impossible for me to read. And because he is essentially an oral story-teller and not a writer, the narratives were cramped and crooked and didn't have the flair of his telling, nor the color of his inflection. Peter is Italian and, you might say, he talks with his hands.
Eventually (and reluctantly) I realized that if Peter's Story was going to be told as it deserved to be, Peter needed more than my advice. And while I really didn't need another project at that point, his was a story worth telling. So I interviewed him at length about his life. I recorded some twenty-five ninety-minute tapes. When I wasn't available, Peter's friend, Anne Buckley, recorded another ten tapes of his remembering.
Peter's memories came as little stories, scenes or vignettes. It was clear that this was not going to be autobiography with a straight-ahead push. There would be starts and stops and overlaps. My task was to transcribe Peter's remembering so that it would be both engaging and accurate. I wanted to retain the sound of Peter's voice in the telling, yet I had to make the prose readable on the page.
So I worked with Peter. Peter's Story remains Peter's story, his memory of his life in those days. Yet I massaged the oral narratives so that they'd work on the page; I arranged and re-arranged the discrete elements trying to create a coherent whole, an arc of greater meaning. I was the one to insist that, as interesting as his life has been, Peter's Story would begin with his first memory and would end by his eighteenth birthday.
Peter had terrific recall of his childhood, yet because so much went on in such a short time during his early years and because there was overlap in his telling, I have not been able to fashion here an exact chronological version of Peter's life. I have stayed with the chronology to the extent that I have been able, but I know these events aren't placed with total accuracy. I doubt that anyone could do that, and I'm not sure, in telling Peter's story, that we'd want to. Yet this version is as accurate as it is humanly possible to make it and, where the actual chronology may vary, I think this doesn't distort the truth of Peter's life. This is not fictionalized memoir, but a telling as true as we can make it.
You may wonder why I did not worry that Peter was just making this stuff up. I did consider that, early on. Yet there has been such an internal consistency in his telling that I am convinced this is indeed Peter's story, to the best that he can remember it. He may not have been aware of it (or maybe he was), but I laid little traps for him. I would say, "You remember when you told me about such and such; tell me more about that." And he would recount the incident, and it was the same story, and he might give me additional details I didn't have. I might ask him a question I already knew the answer to, and he gave me the same answer several months later. Sometimes in telling an entirely different incident, he'd make passing reference to another event and frame it the same way and highlight the same details as I had already heard. If I have been conned, I have been conned by a master. I am convinced that, to the extent it is humanly possible, this is Peter's life as he remembers it.
Of course Peter is the hero of the book: it is his life. Yet, too, there is enough detail here to contribute to a social history of the Third Ward, I think.
The Idea of the Local is a collection of essays that continues my exploration of place and places, of people in place and of ghosts on the landscape. Whether it is my home I'm writing about, or the broader middlewestern vista, whether it is the island of Cozumel or the wild waters of Canada, I try to pay patient attention to where I am and where we are, believing that however much we might shape a place we are also shaped by it. These essays are intended to examine some of the ways our places make us who we are. Some of the pieces have appeared in literary magazines such as New Stone Circle and North Dakota Quarterly; some have been posted here at The Middlewesterner. In both cases, again and again, I have meditated on the meaning of place for us, on our relation to our various habitations, trying to understand how a community or a landscape gets its claws into us. Writing the essays has helped me come to some understanding, yes, and I hope that reading the essays will help the reader in similar fashion.
I am awfully proud of these books: I have worked at them, and cannot not make them better than they are. And that's about where an author has to let go - when you have done everything you know how to do - and send the books out into the world.
So, folks, here they come. You can get your copies of the books from me; make your check payable to Tom Montag, PO Box 8, Fairwater, WI 53931. Peter's Story is $16.95. The Idea of the Local is $17.95. If you order before October 1st, I will pay the cost of shipping. If you order after that, add $3.00 for shipping & handling.
You'll be glad you did.