Micah Perks grew up in the eastern Adirondacks and in Vermont, and has the relatively rare experiences of living on a commune in her early years, as well as living in the area exploited over 100-years ago (before the park was established) by the mining industry. She uses that as a background to her first novel, We Are Gathered Here, which has often been refered to as a women's manifesto. Pagan Time is a memoir detailing her life on the commune. She teaches now at the University of California--Santa Cruz. Visit her at https://www.micahperks.com/.
We Are Gathered Here (1996)
Pagan Time (2001)
What Becomes Us (2016)
True Love and Other Dreams of Miraculous Escape (2018)
Rick: How much has place affected your writing?
Micah: I think place is profound for me. I always go to place first, whatever I'm writing about, place and the mood that that place evokes. The Adirondacks was my first place. I lived outside of Elizabethtown until I was three or four, and then moved to Paradox until I was 11.
I'm also really connected emotionally to Blue Mountain Lake because I spent a lot of time at the Blue Mountain Center. So, I feel deeply connected to the Adirondacks. I definitely feel that that's my home; that's where I grew up. Any time I talk a little bit about then, I think first about the contrast between living in Vermont and living in the Adirondacks and the profound difference of conifer wilderness and farmland. So yeah, I feel very connected and very much coming out of a place with a lot of trees, a lot of water, a lot of white poverty.
Rick: How much of it is that emotional relationship?
Micah: Oh, very emotional, very intense. I'd probably even say deeply ambivalent. Probably no place feels more beautiful than the Adirondacks. But it can also feel claustrophobic, which is weird because there's so much space in some ways, but also claustrophobic and not a lot of opportunities in terms of culture.
Rick: You mention conifer. So much of the eastern Adirondacks were razed as part of 19th-century coal mining, which you explore in We Are Gathered Here. There were no forests. That must have been a shock to your system to think about how it was back then.
Micah: I think in some weird way it's comforting. I wrote that book "pre-awareness" of climate change, but at that time I felt comforted by the fact that humans had seemingly destroyed the area where I lived, the exact area where I lived. It had been an industrial wasteland, and that by the time I was living there 100 years later, it looked like pristine wilderness. I mean, yes, the trees were young, but still, you would have never known that it had been a mining community. The fact that nature kind of took it all back, I think that was really comforting.
Rick: You did considerable research for We Are Gathered Here.
Micah: Oh, definitely. It wasn't hard because Hammondville, the mining community where the novel is set, basically bordered our property. My stepdad, who I grew up with, is a real outdoors man. He was the director of the Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks for many years and bushwhacked across the Adirondacks. He was Adirondacks Magazine Man of the Year, blah, blah, so a lot of what I learned about the Adirondacks was from him. I would go off on hikes with him, hunting with him, and he took me up to Hammondville and we explored it. You're not supposed to go up there now. It's owned by a private hunting group, last I knew. But yeah, I have been up there. I also did research at the Mineville Museum. It was kind of amazing. It was a winter and unheated and they just basically left me alone in there with their files. They gave me photos. I did research at the Adirondack Museum, and I did a lot of research also at Cornell in the rare books room.
Rick: There is an underlying theme running through your books -- that being the business of escape. The very title of your recent book is True Love and Other Dreams of Miraculous Escape. At the end of What Becomes Us, there's that transition of the twins [the novel's in utero narrators] as they are being born, so there's that movement out. Your first two books end with departures. Do you feel like you have escaped the Adirondacks?
Micah: That's a great question. Well, yes and no. There is a poem "The City" by Cavafy: “You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere: there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.”
And so I think, yes, I have escaped the Adirondacks, which is both really sad, I miss it, and also I haven't because, this is a cliché, but it's in me. I think there was a point where I did want to escape, to live in a place with more cultural diversity and richness, but I don't want to escape the Adirondacks anymore. I more long for it. I long to go back. In fact, I miss it.
It's pretty obvious that my parents wanted to escape what they saw as a really negative, commercial, constraining, materialistic mainstream culture, so they went and formed this sort of Utopian community in the Adirondacks. And yet that community itself became kind of constraining because it was very intense to grow up with 50 other people in the middle of the wilderness. That in itself is a very constraining culture, despite it touting its freedom. So, I think of that paradox of both wanting to create the 'city on the hill,' and also that the city on the hill itself immediately becomes constraining as soon as you build it. I think that's my autobiography, but I also think that that's also the history, the narrative of the United States, too.
I use the phrase 'city on the hill,' but that's that idea of the Puritan pilgrims coming to the US [America] to create this idealized world, and then that world in itself was of course fucked up in many ways. It runs deeply through our literature, right? From Edith Wharton and Henry James on one end, to Huckleberry Finn on the other, of wanting to light out for the territories. So I think that tension, both for me personally but also I would argue for the US narrative in general, is about that urge to create a perfect society and also an urge to escape into some kind of wilderness that's free of all constraints.
Rick: Well, you've moved now to California.
Micah: Exactly, yeah. Nowhere to go from here.
Rick: Do you find the 'city on the hill' narrative still in play?
Micah: It's a cliché, but they say that living in California is like watching America in escape from itself. I don't know, lately yes, I think definitely there is that sense of California as a place of escape maybe, but also, again, we have our own problems. But I have felt, you know, I'm middle-aged now, and I have felt homesick lately, weirdly, because I've been living in California but more missing mostly the landscapes of New England and the Adirondacks a lot. I spent a month in the Adirondacks not this past summer but the summer before that, and it was just so deeply satisfying to be there. I'm trying to plot how I can get back.
Rick: How important in the Adirondacks as opposed to California are the race and class issues that run through your work?
Micah: For me that's complicated because, again, I grew up in this communal experience that was very diverse. At our commune there were people, all different races, ethnicities, sexualities. But definitely class was the major issue growing up in the Adirondacks outside of that commune, both in Vermont and the Adirondacks.
Interestingly, when I moved out here, I felt like class was much less interesting to people than race and ethnicity and gender, and I think it still is much less interesting to Californians, and I'm not sure why. Maybe Californians have a deep sense of fluidity in terms of class, even though it's not really true. Clearly California and the coast of California is much more diverse than the Adirondacks in terms of race, ethnicity, out sexuality, and I really like that. I like living amongst all different kinds of people.
Rick: To come back to some of your dominant themes, your books are also all about family, and families that extend into the community. Is there something beyond community?
Micah: Actually, I would say that my writing is definitely more about communities rather than biological families. Autobiographically, in terms of family, I spent two months in Berlin last fall, a year ago. For the first time we had no kids at home. It was just my husband and I, and he had a fellowship at a library. Because he was gone all day at the library, it was a euphoric experience of, I just felt invisible and adrift, no community basically, and I loved it. I felt ... yeah, it really was a kind of euphoric experience of feeling invisible and feeling like I didn't have any responsibility to anybody else.
I don't know if you've been to Germany, but they really believe in privacy and private space and they don't do a lot of interaction on the street with people, other people. They don't stare at you. They don't strike up conversations necessarily, and so it really did feel ... Also, I'm no longer a young woman, so that was also, and I don't look particularly different from anybody, you know, the average German, and so I did really feel profound and invisible, and I loved it. I absolutely loved it. It probably was the first time in my life that I felt that way. My next project that I've started working on is a nonfiction book that starts there and then looks at women and girls in utopian/apocalyptic situations, including the Adirondacks. Including the 19th century.
It's going to be nonfiction and kind of like a memoir nonfiction exploration of utopias, of women and girls in utopian apocalyptic situations historically and also in literature. A lot of women are in wilderness and in rural situations, but also urban as well. For example, a young woman who in the '70s was in a plane crash, maybe you heard about it, the plane exploded over the Peruvian rain forest and she fell two miles out of the sky and survived. She was the only person who survived on the plane. She was 17. And then she found her way out of the rain forest on a 14 day adventure all by herself. So I'm writing about her. I'm writing about a woman who was in the Hitler Youth in Germany in World War II. I'm writing about Louisa May Alcott at Fruitlands, things like that.
Rick: How much is any of this tied to your reading or to the kinds of things that you might be teaching?
Micah: Oh, intimately tied. I actually taught a class 10 years ago called Women and the Apocalypse, and so, you know, it's a feedback loop. When I was on sabbatical, I did a lot of historical reading. I read a lot about Germany during World War II because I was in Berlin. Then I went to Spain for the next seven months and I read a lot about the anarchist movement in Barcelona during the civil war. And so, yeah, really interesting readings. It will definitely feed into my teaching as well, and then feed back out again. So it's really helpful, especially when I'm teaching a lecture class, because I have to have something to say.
Rick: Most of what you're reading though is either history or memoir? What fiction is driving you?
Micah: The last book that I really loved was a short story collection, Florida, by Lauren Groff. It came out maybe six months ago. It's really amazing. It's a linked short story collection. I don't know Florida well, but she evokes this presence, this kind of gothic, swampy Floridian presence, and I loved it. Part of the reason I loved it is it's pretty similar to what I do. You know, people who are obsessed with literary figures in the stories and some historical stories, and people who, similar to me, people who are trying to escape their circumstances but also long to be closer. I wrote her a fan letter, Lauren Groff, the author, and she wrote back to me and said to read The Mountain Lion, which is a novel by Jean Stafford from 1947. I recently read that, and I also loved that book too, which also is a really great evocation of place. In this case, in the west, in the Rockies. The Rockies, maybe Montana. Anyway, a beautiful book as well. A really weird book, too.
Rick: You have characters working through some deep psychological issues in your work....
Micah: In We Are Gathered Here ... in my grandfather's family, many people had epilepsy. He grew up in a big extended household with his aunts and uncles. Two uncles and an aunt had epilepsy. My great-great aunt Regina had epilepsy and killed herself by jumping out of a third story window. So there is definitely that autobiographical or familial seed.
And then on the commune where I grew up, somebody had epilepsy. So I witnessed, as a little girl, several seizures. That person actually died. He had a seizure in the water and drowned. So I think it marked me a lot.
In terms of people suffering from mental illness ... the commune I grew up in was a school, or a halfway house, a therapeutic community for disturbed adolescents. There were people with schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness who were there, so I grew up surrounded by a lot of people who were deeply troubled. And again, I think that marked me. I, knock on wood, haven't suffered from that kind of thing myself, nor have any of my close family, but definitely I've been around it.
At the moment of writing We Are Gathered Here, I was doing a lot of research on the 19th century, and I taught a class called Women and Madness, and again, it's a circle, right? The reading-teaching-writing.
I was really interested in the ways that women, middle class and upper-middle class women both, they themselves kind of use, could use mental illness or hysteria as a way of subverting or trying to act out from really constricting societal pressures. But also, madness was mapped onto women. You know, women were considered weak and hysteria was tied to the womb, it comes from the Greek word for uterus. I was really interested in that link between women and madness, and it was much less culturally in the 19th century a link that was made to working class women. Working class women were supposed to be tough, like horses, like animals, and not as susceptible to mental illness.
Rick: How do you know when to stop reading?
Micah: Now, that's an excellent question. I have to say that I was going to start a conversation and ask you the same question. I don't know when to stop reading, because reading is always easier than writing, almost always, and I love reading. I was once told by a writer who wrote historical stuff "You're on a need to know basis" with the material. And that was really useful for me to remember. I'm not a historian and I don't need to know everything about a particular period. I just need to know what I need to know.
So I might not need to know the entire political regime of that moment, you know, who was the governor of New York, say. But I do need to know what the curtains looked like in a typical upper-middle-class household. So I am able to do, I think I do kind of search out things, but then I'm really super attracted to odd details, and that's dangerous. Well, fun and dangerous because I can go down rabbit holes that way of being "oh, this is the way they serve artichoke, this is the way you eat an artichoke in polite society." Then I'm like, "oh, where did they get artichokes?" So it can become too much. But it's also pleasure. Why are we writing anyway? Why are we reading and writing? Because we love it.
Rick: Because we love it. Do you have an audience in mind?
Micah: Gertrude Stein said, "I write for myself and strangers." Probably that's true for me too. I would say that my husband and my two of my kids, Samson and Esther, are my first readers, and I do think about what they're going to say and what they would think. But even they don't all read all my work. So probably I would just have to say myself and strangers. I'm kind of imagining somebody who, besides myself, who would also find my work funny or thought provoking.
I had a really, really hard time publishing What Becomes Us. The novel takes place in the years after 9/11 and has a lot about terrorism and communities and violence. And then this editor said, "Well, I'll publish this if you rewrite it. There's too many characters. It shouldn't be about anything except for an abused woman escaping her husband." That was such a reductive, frustrating idea of what I was trying to write about. And sad, it made me really sad that that's what people just wanted, some book that there's a million books about that. And I'm not the best person to write that book either.
Rick: So how do you handle that kind of response? I'm going to assume you would handle it differently from an editor than you would from a reader?
Micah: How do I handle it? There's nothing I can really do about it. And the same with reviewers. If they don't get your book, what can you do? There's nothing you can do about it. In terms of editors, it's much more complicated, as you know, because you want to get your work published. And they're gatekeepers. I never made any changes that I really felt really uncomfortable with. I've never done it. So I guess the way I handle it is just not do it.
I make my living teaching, so I have the luxury. That's the great thing about being a teacher at a university. You can write what you want to write. You can get someone to publish it. You don't have to compromise, or you shouldn't. Hopefully you don't have to compromise too much, so much that it'll make you uncomfortable to make money or something like that.
Rick: Do you adjust your current project or a scene in your current project because you've gotten such and such a response to an earlier book?
Micah: Probably have got my husband's voice in my head. Half jokingly, he's always saying, "Don't you want to write something popular and make a lot of money?"
And I think a lot ... You know, anybody you meet who aren't writers will say, "Oh, have I heard of you?" Even now, I have friends who say, "How's your book doing? How many books have you sold?" You know, as if that's the main goal, right?
So there is pressure to try to write something that would be really popular, and of course I would love to have a bigger readership and write something that lots of people really like, but I don't think I have the knack for it.
Rick: What is the question you don't get?
Micah: That's a good one. A question I don't get. The question I don't get is "What do you like to eat?" Nobody's ever asked me that. I mean, it's sort of funny, but also food plays a huge role in my writing. I write a ton about food, and I love to eat and cook, and so that is something.... And I've actually even written about food a little bit, separately. But I think that's something. I grew up eating very weirdly. My father served us blue jays and pigs' knuckles and chocolate-covered ants and army surplus food in cans. I’ve always been really interested in how people eat and what that says about them. I find that really fascinating.
Rick: Food definitely informs the communities in your book. You've got the major role of a Seder, in the last two books, as a communal meal.
Micah: Right, that's right. I often cook big dinners for people, and I like that.
Rick: To come back to your writing, would you say there are definitions of community or regions that are based upon food?
Micah: Yeah, that's interesting. I would say that my ex-husband, who raised my kids when they were little, comes from upstate New York, and he's very much a meat and potatoes kind of guy. I remember his parents cooked classic upstate country food like jello molds and fluff and ham. But that kind of food was always really pleasurable to me because I didn't get that growing up. And you know, when I was in the Adirondacks growing up, I'd be eating the pigs' knuckles and the turtle soup, and then I always dreamed of eating what I thought of as 'normal kid,' food marshmallow fluff sandwiches, and jello molds and mashed potatoes and white bread.
Rick: For a number of communities, like the one I grew up in ... mashed potatoes, pbj sandwiches, macaroni and cheese -- comfort foods.
Micah: Totally. It's totally comfort food. And I think I'm more like my dad. I didn't provide my kids with comfort food because I'm a restless cook and I always try to make something different that I've never made before, so I think they didn't get that from me. They didn't get to have it, but they did from their dad. Their dad would cook the same five things, and he does it well, and it's really comfortable. So definitely, yeah. But that so profoundly says something about who we are, right?