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Friday, May 15, 2009

King of Kenosha

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Franks Diner in Kenosha opened just before the Great Depression. Little has changed except the prices. Narrow as a railroad car and looking like a downmarket set from The Sting, you half expect to find Robert Redford and Paul Newman in one of the booths plotting their next move over coffee. Holding court instead is local hero and noted Wisconsin writer Michael Schumacher, author of a dozen books, and recipient that day of accolades all around and kisses on the cheek from passing women. He is mentioned in Franks' menu along with celebrity lunch guests such as Bela Lugosi and Liberace. "I actually have a sandwich named after me," says Schumacher, whose shaggy countenance and bulky build suggest a dissident novelist from the old East Bloc. "I love this place." And the love is returned in kind.

Were you born in Kenosha?

I moved here from Milwaukee when my father was offered a job as personnel director for the Kenosha school system. That was 1967. I spent most of the Summer of Love in Kenosha! I was so angry about that fact. I wanted to be in Milwaukee and I'd go back every chance I could, but that fell by the wayside. I became a Kenoshan.

I first remember seeing your name in the [1970s alternative newspaper] Bugle-American.

Those were interesting days. So much was happening. There were all these outlets for young writers. I especially loved the Bugle. The first thing they published of mine was a poem and then came reviews and articles. All those pot-smoking hippies were writing serious stuff and making deadlines. Later I wrote longer pieces for the Express [predecessor of the Shepherd Express]. That's how I met Allen Ginsberg when he came to Milwaukee in the early '80s for a reading at UWM. Papers like the Bugle and the Express did really serious stuff-stories that needed to be addressed and nobody else would do.

How did you jump from there to books?

I started writing for magazines. My big break was a short interview with Tom Waits for Playboy. With an article in Playboy, people took me seriously. Before long I was a columnist for the Writer's Digest, interviewing Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Studs Terkel, Joyce Carol Oates. I not only made good money, but the job put me in touch with the publishing mechanism.

Getting to do books was a natural outgrowth. I received a contract for Dharma Lion, my book on Allen Ginsberg, in 1984, but it wasn't published until 1991. In between I did Reasons to Believe, a collection of interviews with young authors from the '80s, and Creative Conversations, a Writer's Digest book on interviewing.

Two of your recent books, Mighty Fitz and Wreck of the Carl D., are about Great Lakes shipwrecks.

No bones about it, I have a tremendous love for the Great Lakes and this region of the country. I wrote the narratives for a series of low-budget documentaries on shipwrecks and lighthouses. This put me in touch with certain stories.

I especially connected with the story of the Carl D., a ship that broke apart in a storm and sank within minutes, taking away all but four members of the 35-man crew. Almost the entire crew came from the small town of Rogers City, Michigan. I fell in love with the place and was drawn to the people, good and decent people. One guy sent me his family scrapbook. People were very trusting, very kind to me. By the time I was through, I felt I knew the sailors who were lost.

Photo by Mikasi
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