Michelle Wildgen is the author of You’re Not You (Thomas Dunne Books, 2006), a New York Times Editor’s Choice and one of People magazine’s Ten Best Books of 2006. A film by Hilary Swank and Denise DiNovi based on the novel is currently in development. Her second novel, But Not for Long (Thomas Dunne Books) was published in 2009, and she recently completed her third novel. She’s the executive editor of Tin House Magazine and a serious cook, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
“Afternoons, we felt our way into that odd community, half academic, half political, that was Madison in 1937.” —Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
When I was eighteen and a would-be writer, Madison, Wisconsin, taught me about setting. It was and is a great place to be a writer, particularly if you grew up in the suburbs of northeastern Ohio as I did. I don’t even know what city Stow, Ohio, is a suburb of—Akron? Kent? What I do know is that of all the stories I wrote in Ohio, not one of them actually had a setting. I tried for some time to make an artistic conviction out of this deficit, defiantly writing story after story in which characters floated through white space, occasionally alighting on beds or on lawns or in interchangeable bars. None of my characters had accents. Nor had they grown up eating non-casserole-based foods.
I transferred to the University of Wisconsin (UW) after a quick visit in the dead of winter convinced me I must. Madison in the winter is a mix of drab and lively, with its flint-colored skies and icy lakes and its wealth of places in which to flee the cold, via books, beer, coffee, or the dulcet sounds of food hitting hot fat. I decided the extremity of the cold was an argument in the city’s favor—it provided conflict, something to fight and to brave; it gave me anecdotes to save for my next short story, such as the time my friend’s vinyl coat actually froze into a hard carapace around her. (Soon all my stories involved deserted glacial streets and turgid descriptions of frosted windows.) I had been waiting for many years to encounter an actual local food custom other than cheeseburgers, which don’t count, and in Madison I finally discovered one: Wisconsinites love a good fish fry. Even the crappiest dive bar offers one every Friday. (The natives frequently refer to it without an article, by the way, as in “Let’s go out for fish fry,” not for a fish fry. I made a note of this and worked it into some fiction, feeling secretly, anthropologically proud.)
Madison has a good number of working writers here, particularly given its population of about 220,000. Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer and Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss (Barack Obama: The Story, and many other books) spends part of his time in Madison. Celebrated children’s book author Kevin Henkes (Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse) is based here, as are historical novelist Margaret George (The Memoirs of Cleopatra), Stiltsville author Susanna Daniel, and novelist Jean Reynolds Page (Safe Within).
Many of these writers arrived here in some way tangential to the university, and it is impossible to talk about the literary life of Madison without talking about its beating heart, UW. It’s not just that UW’s creative writing department houses the office of the city’s most lauded literary unicorn, Lorrie Moore; that it boasts writers like Ronald Wallace, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Amy Quan Barry, Amaud Jamal Johnson, Kelly Cherry, Rob Nixon, and Judith Claire Mitchell, among others; or that it runs a stellar MFA program and lures in a handful of talented writers each year for its fellowships (past recipients include Charles D’Ambrosio, Danielle Evans, Anthony Doerr, and Ann Packer, to give you an idea). Not to mention the regular readings from the university’s visiting writers, fellows, and MFA students. (When I waited tables at the venerable restaurant L’Etoile (One South Pinckney Street) back in the nineties, we often knew which authors were in town simply because the faculty would bring them in for dinner after their readings. Not to boast, but I once spent an entire evening lurking in close proximity to the shoulder of Julian Barnes.)
All these offerings combined help anchor a literary sensibility that pervades the city, from the Little Free Library’s microlibraries that dot the landscape to reading series such as the Monsters of Poetry, FELIX: A Series of New Writing, and the Bridge Poetry Series, which is in conjunction with the Chazen Museum of Art (750 University Avenue).
For another art-literature crossover head to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (227 State Street), which also hosts readings. Poetry lovers have more options than I can include here and maybe more than I count: Try Madpoetry.org, a listing of area events and organizations; Verse Wisconsin, a literary magazine that showcases local poets; or turn to Madison poets laureate Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman for inspiration.
As befits a college town, there are plenty of places to perfect one’s own writing as well as listen to others read their work. UW’s Continuing Studies department offers poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction workshops and conferences such as Write-by-the-Lake and the Writers’ Institute, plus critique services, workshops on the business of writing, and plenty more. And if I had any misconceptions about just how many students outside UW are interested in writing, a lively, well-attended panel with my fellow Madison writer Dwight Allen at Madison Area Technical College disabused me of them. Further away, an hour or so outside of Madison, is Shake Rag Alley (18 Shake Rag Street, Mineral Point), which offers a writing residency and workshops in everything from manuscript consultation to performance art to jewelry making.
The point is, there are writing opportunities for adults, for teenagers, for just about anyone with the yen to try it out. For some reason the same creative energy that can feel thoroughly exhausting in a bigger city feels energizing here. Maybe it’s my own midwestern sensibility, which demands some pleasantries and fried cheese curds with its naked ambition, or maybe it is simply the general vibe of niceness that really does abound. In Madison, I certainly encounter many people striving to do creative work, but suspect I am not likely to have someone trip me and step on my face on the way to the next opportunity.
I have set two novels in Madison—the first because I was living elsewhere and wanted to revel in it from afar, and the second when I found myself wanting to write about a Madison going dark, both literally and figuratively. Finally, I felt I understood the point of placing fiction in a specific spot and making the characters interact with that place in some meaningful way! Perhaps more pressingly, writing about Madison gave me a chance to describe the farmers market in exhaustive detail, something I find occasion to do about once a week.
The farmers market was one of the first reasons I fell in love with Madison, and after years away, it was one of the reasons I returned. For many years the farmers market consisted of the spring-through-fall outdoor market that rings the state capitol at the top of State Street, a huge and varied gathering that is packed not only with shoppers and farmers but also with chefs, wanderers, political canvassers, and crackpots, there to stock up on local food and take in the general air of socializing, commerce, and rapid shifting of the seasons. Nowadays the Saturday farmers market moves indoors in November and continues year-round, and a wealth of satellite markets are open throughout the week and throughout the city during the height of the spring-through-summer season. They look small, but they pack in an impressive array of goods. At the Tuesday night market alone I can buy everything from shitakes to goat salami, every bit of it locally produced. I am not entirely sure how the consumption of goat salami helps me as a writer, but instinctively I know that it does.
For those who demand a more direct literary lineage in their food shopping, go to Ela Orchard’s stand at the main market for some apples, and bask in the knowledge that the orchard is owned by renowned author Jane Hamilton and her husband. You’re welcome.
Everyone expects a Wisconsinite to focus on dairy products, and while I am tempted to fight the stereotypes, Wisconsin prefers to celebrate them good naturedly. Which is to say, expect cows. This city is surrounded by farmland, and you will encounter cow statues in unexpected places, or—as dairy-related booster events roll around each year—a few placid bovine visitors at the capitol on a Saturday morning. Their fragrance sometimes wafts off the agriculture section of campus, and that dissonant farmland aroma in the middle of the city is part of what makes Madison Madison. This is the seat of government and education, a left-leaning city packed with restaurants, bars, theaters, pricy cheese and handmade chocolates; it’s home of numerous readings, an annual book festival, and a film festival. Yet if you drive about ten minutes outside its limits you hit farmland—rolling-meadow, red-barn, white-church farmland. Around the state, Madison is often described as “seventy-eight square miles surrounded by reality,” a dig I detest, although I concede that the not-infrequently-sighted bumper stickers about Earth magic probably are not helping.
How did it take so long for this book-loving city to put together the festival that seems like such a natural and necessary part of its landscape? I was certainly no help at all. Instead the Wisconsin Book Festival, held November 7 to November 11 this year, was born in 2002 thanks to the Wisconsin Humanities Council and the festival’s founding director, novelist Dean Bakopoulos. Each year it takes over the city with a wealth of readings and talks ranging from intimate chats in local bookstores to grander engagements in the Overture Center for the Arts. My experiences at the festival have crystallized into odd little fragments of memory: walking through an October snowstorm to a reading inside the Madison Historical Society; Harvey Pekar climbing over the back of a chair during a talk by his fellow comic artist Lynda Barry; Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis, smoking onstage during her interview, which was probably illegal but also kind of fabulous. Madison’s chances to observe the writer species are hardly limited to the book festival, but there is something pleasurably condensed about those few days each fall when we pack them all onto a tiny isthmus and turn them loose.
The bookstore scene in Madison is smaller than it used to be, which hit home the last time I tried to tell an out-of-town writer about the options for giving a reading. There are the monoliths, of course, a Barnes & Noble on each side of town (7433 Mineral Point Road and East Towne Mall) and the University Book Store (711 State Street), where I have spent many hours pawing the course offerings for classes for which I was not registered.
The Borders store on Madison’s west side, the chain store that felt like an indie, was once known among writers as a great place to do a reading, but it fell victim to the Borders sinkhole last year and now it is known as a credit union. Canterbury Books was an indie that sat just off State Street for many years, and it too is gone—long gone—but still missed. The building (315 West Gorham Street) now contains, in several cozy rooms, Avol’s Books and Bookworks, which focus on used and rare books, and soon it will also house Madison stalwart A Room of One’s Own, which has been around since 1975 and remains my go-to all-purpose bookshop.
Now is the time in a literary guide when one implies that one soaks in the life of the city by working in coffee shops. I am unable to write anywhere that has music playing or conversations on which to eavesdrop (I consider all conversations worth eavesdropping on, a useful character flaw in a fiction writer), so I have relied instead on the rooms of Edenfred (6048 South Highlands Avenue), a stately writing residency on the far west side of town that is now in the process of being sold and shut down thanks to some impressively stupid and short-sighted zoning-related moves on the part of city government. (I love you, Madison, but sometimes we all have to hear hard truths.) In the absence of Edenfred, writers in need of utter silence can hit the Wisconsin State Law Library (120 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) just off the capitol square, the designated quiet rooms in Sequoya Branch (4340 Tokay Boulevard), and Monona Public Library (1000 Nichols Road).
There was a time when I assumed a “quiet room” in a library to be redundant, but that was before I and an entire library became unwitting parties to a man’s cell phone bill dispute until he was finally sedated or otherwise shushed.
On the other end of State Street from the capitol is UW’s Library Mall, home of the campus’s main library, Memorial (728 State Street); the Wisconsin Historical Society Library Archives (816 State Street); a fleet of food carts; and Lake Mendota. You could circle Library Mall for days and keep finding new spots to read or write. On Lake Mendota is also the Memorial Union (800 Langdon Steet), which, while getting rather old and in need of some sprucing, nevertheless houses the Rathskeller for wintertime reading and the Union Terrace for summer reading. Both places allow UW students and visitors the opportunity to combine people watching with the thoroughly complementary pursuits of scholarship and beer.
Inside the historical society building is a recently restored reading room that is a hidden gem of high ceilings, long tables, sunlight, stained glass, and silence—soothing and not churchy. And inside the Memorial Library is the divine Little Magazines Collection. For years student writers have been gritching that they cannot possibly find those small journals in order to properly research their submission lists, and for years their professors have smiled grimly and marched them off to this room. Best of all, Memorial Library, and any other UW library, are accessible to Madisonians who don’t attend the university. You can purchase an annual Community Card for about thirty dollars and joyfully overwhelm yourself with the glories of the Special Collections, the Kohler Art Library’s artist’s book collection, and all the other offerings of the UW library system.
So yes, I’m a library person, but I realize others like a little coffee with their literature. Madison does not lack for coffee shops: They sprout up every ten feet or so, some all plastic-wrapped muffins and wobbly chairs, some sleek and bland and blond. If you need a place to read a book or to write longhand—perhaps in a Moleskine notebook the color of melancholy, if you are that guy—the minuscule Victory (2710 Atwood Avenue) on the east side’s Atwood is quiet and friendly, concocts its own sodas, discourages the use of computers and cell phones, and wins my personal prize for best protest slogan against governor Scott Walker with a sign that read, “Out, out, damned Scott.” Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse (1101 Williamson Street) is another eastie stalwart that has been bringing vegan food and open mikes to Willy Street for nearly twenty years. On the other end of the spectrum is Barrique’s, which has several locations throughout the city. Barrique’s food has never moved me much, but its coffee-shop/bar/wine-store concept does. In other words, there is almost always a reason to be there. Many more coffee possibilities line State Street and the spokes that sprout outward from the capitol. If you’re the sort of writer who works better on an unfamiliar couch, you’ll go about five steps before you find one.
I’ve never written a play or a film script, but nevertheless I sometimes find as much creative inspiration sparked by movies or plays as I do on the printed page. Maybe it’s that film reminds me of how an enduring, resonant image never quite leaves you, or the way a play lets you edge a little closer to the work of the writer, thanks to the sheer lack of filter between performer and audience. At their best, both theater and film can do literally what books helps the reader do for herself: to create that sensation of emerging a little dizzily out of the fog of one experience and back into another.
For five days each spring, the Wisconsin Film Festival takes over several theaters downtown and the excellent Sundance theater (430 North Midvale Boulevard) on the near west side, providing about one hundred fifty films and a Herculean scheduling task for film buffs who lack the ability to bend the laws of space and time. If the Wisconsin Book Festival marks the transition from fall to winter, the film festival is often the city’s first real awakening of spring, when ticketholder lines snake out onto the sidewalk and groups of people emerge from theaters every couple of hours as if from hibernation, blinking in the sudden heat and light.
The last time I was at a (very funny) Atlas Improv Company (609 East Washington Avenue) show, I kept thinking how the rules of improv are also a perfect mind-set for generating active, rather than listless, fiction. I harbor an ambition to take a class there so I can learn how to conduct some kind of fiction-improv mash-up class. The prospect of a bunch of introverted writer types trying to put on a comedy show might be a shaky one for the audience members, but I guarantee you the performers would all leave better writers.
I don’t go to plays as often as I’d like, but this is a failing other Madisonians can avoid. There’s the Overture Center (201 State Street), the grand downtown performance arts center that hosts touring musicals, concerts, plays, and occasional literary bigwigs such as David Sedaris and Elizabeth Gilbert; the Bartell (113 East Mifflin Street) on the other side of the capitol, which houses several theater companies; and the local experimental Broom Street Theater (1119 Williamson Street). It has been many years since I went to a show at the Broom Street, but I have fond memories of deciding on a whim to see a play and paying a few bucks at the door (it’s nine dollars per ticket now, less than a movie) to perch on benches and watch a passel of actors writhing on the floor in their underwear mere inches from my foot.
Still, at times one seeks a theatrical experience that is less, shall we say, earthy. Even exalted. Also, sometimes one wants a picnic. The only thing to do on such an occasion is drive to 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, about an hour outside of Madison, where American Players Theatre (APT) is located, which offers performances of classics, with a heavy emphasis on Shakespeare, in an outdoor theater that manages to be both intimate and stately. I once was there when a rainstorm hit during a production of King Lear, suggesting that even the weather enjoys a good tragedy. The fact that APT performs during only the summer makes it another seasonal joy that Wisconsin wisely cultivates in order to stave off the worst during the dark, coat-shattering winter.
I know there are people who have come to Madison unwillingly and left it hastily, or who don’t share my love for its lefty politics, its general air of lofty earnestness in everything from food to literature, or the fact that it lacks, say, its own Koreatown. I try not to take this to heart and remind myself that people have a right to their own beloved cities, even if they fail to see the charms of mine. But I am a starry-eyed booster at heart, who pretends to see your point but secretly is thinking mean and petty thoughts. Once someone sniffed that the farmers market had less variety than she had expected, and I had to physically stop myself from narrowing my eyes.
I commenced all this with the quote from Wallace Stegner’s novel Crossing to Safety, in which a young couple arrives, not terribly excitedly, to spend a year in Madison and finds another pair there who will change their lives. Despite the fact that Stegner was writing about a Madison more than seventy years past, the novel captures the city in a way that still feels very true, except for the fact that cars can’t access State Street anymore. But the rest of it is still here: the time spent gazing at the lakes that flank the center of town; the road linking the state capitol and state university; the way the pale dome of the capitol building appears above the trees and buildings; the mapled lawns surrounding graceful homes and the not-so-graceful apartments carved out of massive old houses now too big for single families. In Stegner’s novel, the time in Madison is an unexpected idyll that goes sour in the end, but when I reread it, as I do every few years, I can never quite view the Madison portion of the novel as the bittersweet one Stegner intended. It still sounds lovely to me.