My day job is being an author. I’ve written a number of non-fiction books, plus thousands of magazine and newspaper articles.
I was an English major at UW-Madison. I was always a big reader as a kid and during school and during my college years I worked, at different times, for the campus papers, The Daily Cardinal and The Badger Herald.
While I was in school I sold a couple of pieces—a book review to the Milwaukee Journal for $30 and a piece on UW ice hockey for Madison Magazine. I thought, “This is great. I’ll be a freelance journalist.”
When I graduated, I was lucky, I didn’t have school loans to pay, which gave me some flexibility. I wrote for Madison Magazine, Wisconsin Trails, Isthmus and eked out a reasonable living. I got married in ’86 and Madison Magazine offered me a writer’s job as associate editor. I stayed there for 10 years.
But my heroes were always the newspaper columnists: Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin and especially Mike Royko. I read newspapers incessantly.
The Cap Times had let me know I’d be welcome there and in ’97 I made my move to newspapers. I wrote a column for them for 11 years, but they eventually went down to just one print issue a week in 2008. I ended up at the Wisconsin State Journal where I wrote a daily column for seven years.
Unfortunately, by 2015 the writing was on the wall for newspapers and I, along with two other senior writers, was let go. I was lucky in that I’d always done other work and had that to fall back on. At the time I was about halfway into a book collaboration with Tommy Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin, and the timing allowed me to concentrate on that. A lot of magazines reached out, as well as individuals and businesses who were investigating the possibility of me writing their stories as books.
At present I write a regular column for Madison Magazine and its website, which is a great platform for the good stories I continue to run across. A recent favorite on the website was one about George Kittle, the San Francisco 49ers tight end. George’s parents lived in Madison on Madison’s near west side. When his mom went into labor with him, they had the misfortune of turning into game day traffic on Monroe St. George ended up with a police escort to the hospital to avoid being born in his parents’ car!
I continue to write books. My most recent one, Stroke Runner, was written with Eric Sarno. Eric was an elite athlete who suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. He received exceptional care here in Madison at UW Hospital. After his recovery, Eric made a real effort to help families and patients who were experiencing similar medical issues. The UW’s turned that into a formalized program in conjunction with other survivors.
I’ve got three bigger projects currently in the works: a book about Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen, who was the first UW Women’s Athletics Director and a big player in Title IX efforts; Karl Paul Link, who created the blood thinner warfarin and the 100-year history for the United Way of Dane County.
Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to write about big stories and small ones too.
I had the chance to meet Lana Peters, Joseph Stalin’s daughter, who defected from the Soviet Union in the 1960s and lived quietly in Richland Center for many years. That generated a lot of press including an interview on Russian television.
At the other extreme was fun stuff like my interview with Richard Trentlage, who wrote the Oscar Mayer jingle. Oscar Mayer’s ad agency sponsored a contest. Trentlage was working for a different agency, came up with the jingle and taped his kids—including his daughter who had a cold—singing it. He told me he put his kids through college on the royalties from that song.
My most memorable caffeine is the coffee I’d drink at the Kollege Klub during my years at UW. I lot of people just think of the KK as a bar—they don’t know it’s open for breakfast. But the son’s owner was a friend of mine, so I did.
I’d go to Rennebohm’s (drugstore) at State and Lake for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times. I’d go sit in one of the big booths at the KK and read my papers. That’s where I really fell in love with newspapers and where I discovered Mike Royko.
He was one of the most celebrated newspaper columnists of the 20th century—great, funny and tough. Chicago to the core. He really turned my head around. I was writing fiction at the time and he made me want to write for newspapers.
There was another columnist, Roger Simon, who wrote for the Sun Times. Royko was #1 and Simon was 1A—they were both that good.
Fast forward 20 years and I’d just starting writing for the Cap Times when Royko died. His brother, Bob, lives in Madison and decided I should write a book on his brother. It was my first real book and quite a thrill to write about my professional hero. A month or two after it came out, it was reviewed in the Chicago Tribune by, you guessed it, Roger Simon.
And that all started with coffee at the KK.
My current caffeine of choice is usually black with a little almond milk.
My favorite place for caffeine is often Café Maya on Odana and Whitney Way. It’s right by my gym and a convenient place to stop afterwards.
The people I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with are my personal hero, Mike Royko, and author Gabriel García Márquez.
Márquez, who’s best known for writing 100 Years of Solitude, saw himself as a journalist—and that’s how he got his start. I admire both of these men so much and would love to have coffee with them.
World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: Changing the guy who’s in the White House. But the bigger discussion is around finding middle ground, which has largely disappeared.