Since this website’s debut in 2012, we’ve had the pleasure of introducing a global readership to lots of new books and new voices. This time around, we get to introduce our readers to an entire state: WISCONSIN! And, of course, we had a good time picking the brain of one of The Handy Wisconsin Answer Book‘s co-authors, Mark Meier, who has put together a fun answer book chock-full of tidbits about his home state. (Had this nifty reference been available when Love, Actually was filmed, we like to think that the Wisconsin-enamored Colin Frissell (played by Kris Marshall) would have tucked a copy into his duffle bag when he set off to meet American girls who would find his accent adorable.)
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: “Knowing the answers,” wrote an unknown author, “doesn’t take away the wonder. It actually makes it more amazing.” Assuming the same sense of wonderment can be ascribed to the heart of America’s Dairyland, what was your inspiration to pen The Handy Wisconsin Answer Book?
A: The project came about from a former coworker. The publisher approached Terri (Schlichenmeyer) about writing the book, but she was getting ready to build a new house outside the city. “I don’t have the time to devote to such a big project. Can I have a coauthor? I know this guy . . . .”
She asked me, I talked it over with my wife, and I dove into something totally unlike anything I’d ever written before.
Q: Which came first in the book’s development—the questions or the answers?
A: Pretty much that was a 50-50 mix. Researching one thing brought up questions that needed answering. Sometimes getting one bit of information resulted in two or three questions, which came up with two or three more, and eventually I’m forced to limit the questions for that chapter.
Other times finding interesting bits to write about was like pulling teeth. Then the questions followed the answers. “This interesting thing happened. Now, what can I ask to use that as an answer?” Sort of like an episode of Jeopardy!
Q: So how did you go about finding questions that readers would find interesting?
A: I operated on the assumption that if I’m bored, the reader will be bored. If I find something interesting, there will be readers who are interested. It’s not a 1:1 ratio, but chances are anyone reading my chapters of the book will be able to tell the bits where I was bored.
There’s one corporation in Wisconsin. . . .
But I don’t want to cast aspersions.
Q: Are you a native Wisconsin or a transplant from somewhere else?
A: I was born in La Crosse, and grew up outside a community just north of that city. I still live in that same area, though much of what was my grandpa’s farm is now inside the city limits.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about living there?
A: I like the climate. I like the history. I like my connection to my family, which has been in the area for more than a century. I feel connected here, in a way I’ve never experienced anywhere else.
And I like the cold winters. Weird, huh?
Q: What was the funniest, weirdest or most thought-provoking tidbit you discovered during your research about The Badger State?
A: In early Wisconsin racing there was a guy who drove with a rooster in his car. His daughter called his Chevy coup a “Chicken Coop,” and told him he had to have a chicken with him. So he did.
Roho the Rooster was with him for every race, and even went out to the bars to party with the racers. (Anyone who knows the state knows how hard Wisconsinites can party.) The bird drank beer from a shot glass, ate peanuts, and eventually passed out drunk along with some of the other racers.
On a radio interview that racer was confronted with a caller who thought it was terrible to put that rooster in such a dangerous position. He replied something like, “Lady, I’m in the car too!”
Roho died of pneumonia right after that season of racing. They actually performed an autopsy (yes I know there’s a different word when they do that to birds) to find an official cause of death.
Q: Tell us about interactions with your coauthor as well as anyone else who chimed in on the book’s content.
A: Having a coauthor definitely adds a level of complexity to any project. From the start we had eight topics, and Terri assigned them. The topic I was most leery of was Sports. You see, I’m kind of a sports moron. I had to ask someone once what “that yellow thing was” the refs threw onto the field in football games. “And I’m supposed to write about Wisconsin Sports?”
As it turns out, that topic was the most interesting part of the project for me. The History chapters she wrote is where I thought I’d be good, and Terri told me later it was like writing about trees growing.
Q: Does it have to be read front-to-back or can readers pick and choose chapters and read them out of order?
A: Each Q&A is supposed to be brief. The rule of thumb is “two paragraphs, tops.” But the editors told us from the start, “If you need more than two, see if you can split it into another question. If you can’t, don’t sweat it.”
So the whole thing is written in bite-sized pieces. You can open up to any page in any chapter and not worry about missing the flow. Sure, there might be three questions in a row about one thing, but even if you start with #3 in that series you don’t really miss out. Read the other bits next week or next year.
However, if you want to make sure you get to every question, it makes sense to read it front to back. You might not find everything fascinating, but you’ll learn a lot you didn’t know.
Q: Who’s your target readership?
A: There shouldn’t be anything inappropriate, so there’s no worries about letting young kids read it. Some of the vocabulary might be a bit advanced for the younger ones, but anyone with a curious mind will appreciate what the book offers.
As I mentioned above, I’m not a fan of sports. I found those chapters fun to write, and I’m guessing other non-fans will find out a lot of interesting things a sports fan might already know. (Who received Brett Favre’s first forward pass as a Green Bay Packer? Brett Favre.)
Anyone who lives in or wonders about the state of Wisconsin should read this book.
Q: What are you doing to market the book and which methods are proving the most successful?
A: It may (or may not) surprise people to know I almost always have copies of every book I’ve published somewhere nearby. When people find out I’m an author, they ask what I’ve written. I can show them.
I also have been posting on social media through the whole process. There were posts about it before I even signed the contract more than two years ago. Terri has done the same.
Terri is a book reviewer appearing in more than two hundred publications worldwide. She knows a lot of people. One of them manages our local Barnes and Noble, and that’s how we secured a book signing for June.
I know some people who run a local cable TV show, and appeared for an interview. That clip was posted to social media, so I was able to share that with my followers.
The publisher is a mid-sized operation, so they have access to major distributors. They also have a budget for promotions that, while small for them, is much larger than Terri or I could afford. We all have a hand in it.
As for which is the most successful, I’d have to say that word of mouth is probably the best for me. I can’t evaluate how Visible Ink’s efforts are playing out, since it’s so early in the process.
Q: Had you done any writing prior to The Handy Wisconsin Answer Book?
A: I’ve published mostly science fiction, but before Handy Wisconsin it was all fiction.
Q: What about the craft of writing most appeals to you?
A: I love words. Finding “that one word” that means exactly what I need is thrilling for me. Crafting stories makes me feel more alive than working at my “regular” job.
Some people like to drive fast, others like to shoot hoops, set up computer networks, cook the perfect steak, or build houses. I create universes.
Q: Conversely, what daunts you?
A: Editing. At times I despair of getting across exactly what I mean, especially when I read a passage to some of my critique partners and they give me a puzzled look. Sometimes the solution is just another word choice, but other times it requires major surgery. But it’s sometimes frustratingly boring to the point where I want to NEVER read about those characters again.
Second place, and it’s a close second, is marketing. These things are not what I’m gifted for.
Q: How do you cope with writer’s block?
A: I can’t say I’ve ever had writer’s block. If it exists at all, I’ve never experienced it. I’ve been burned out to the point I didn’t write for a couple of years, but that’s not “blocked.” I’ve hit difficult parts of one project or another, but I go to work on something else. Is that “blocked?” I don’t know.
I’ve heard people talk about being blocked, but I can’t really relate because I’ve always had something to write. For those reasons I doubt there’s really such a thing as writer’s block.
Q: Any new projects on your plate?
A: My current project is taking a novel and making it three separate books. What I thought was a finished product was really more of a sketch than true novel. Since it was too long anyway, fleshing it out made a lot more sense, and was really a three-part story to begin with.
I have a rough idea of a book series that could end up to be in the neighborhood of thirty novels or short story collections. While working on the above project I’m researching for the bigger one. Those two should keep me busy for the rest of my life, and if I run out there are some smaller works I have in mind.
Q: Best advice to aspiring writers?
A: Write. Writers write, and if you’re not writing you’re not a writer. Simple, but not easy. Every story you write will be better than the last one. If you’re not getting attention with the ones you’ve already written, write a new one. Then another one.
I think Tom Clancy’s first novel published was Red October. It wasn’t his first written. There were at least two before that. He didn’t stop. You shouldn’t.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Find a critique group. Nobody writes in a vacuum until you hit it so big people will buy anything with that name on it. Again using Tom Clancy, if you look at his later books, they all could have used an editor. Rumor has it he had the attitude, “I’m Tom Clancy. I don’t need an editor.” As a fan of his writing, I’d have told him, “Yes you do.”
Every writer needs someone who can tell them they need more of “this” and less of “that.” “Something else” needs to be changed, “another thing” needs clarification, and “are you kidding me” should be left out entirely.
I’m totally convinced my writing would be unmarketable trash without a critique group. If you can’t find one, form one. Twenty years ago my group consisted mostly of “aren’t we good” kind of people. Eventually the skill level of some improved, and people not willing to get better moved out of the group. It takes time to build a group, but they’re instrumental. Don’t skimp on getting other eyes on what you write.