Wednesday, June 10th, 2009
“I love to write about life, from an offbeat but incredibly human perspective. I’m not one of those humorists who view everything from a distance, or objectify things. I’m emotional.”
Wade Rouse headed for the woods with a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and a vision of remaking himself in rural life. He and his partner Gary would leave fast-paced jobs and lives in the city to live off the land in rural Michigan, detaching themselves from materialism and pop culture and really expensive shoes. Rouse wanted to create what he called “Wade’s Walden,” and he set goals to achieve emotional and spiritual fulfillment in the woods.
Needless to say, things didn’t exactly go according to plan. Life lessons are learned (you cannot clean eggs in the dishwasher) and locals are won over (rednecks love a good karaoke performance). Rouse describes himself as the world’s unlikeliest Thoreau, but even Thoreau had his false starts (like the 300 acres of the Concord Woods he accidentally burned to the ground in 1844). Rouse is persistent, and the resulting account of his great experiment is At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream. The memoir, subtitled “Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life,” is sweet, good-natured, and oftentimes hilarious.
I recently asked Wade Rouse a few questions about the book, his writing process, the life he hoped to find in rural Michigan—and the life he actually found.
But to really make the move? I think about leaving New York and doing something crazy in the woods all the time. How did you actually make that leap?
I hit 40 with a mega-thud, and my partner, Gary, and I went on vacation to Saugatuck, MI, to clear the mollusks off our asses. And we fell in love with the place; it just called to us deeply. And I knew, mentally and spiritually, that this was the place I needed to be. BUT it was a huge mental leap; we were the ultimate urbanites. We had grown up in rural America and ran from it. Still, we knew that the balance in our life savings account were dwindling, and we leapt off the bridge w/o parachutes.
Gary’s reaction was really surprising—he seems to just go right along with it. Was there any serious resistance on his part? He seems very supportive.
He is. Gary is incredibly adventurous, and truly believes in pursuing one’s dreams. His resistance came when he moved, found he was unhappy in his, job, too…and, of course, since he’s incredibly social, missed all of gal-pals.
Did you? I mean, you must have missed your friends, but I feel like we don’t hear so much about that in the book.
I did miss my friends. Very much. But I was totally focused on this dream at the time. I focused more, I guess, in the overall silence and the incredible rural-ness of our new lives. Everything had been removed—friends, malls, Trader Joe’s—it was just like falling down the rabbit hole. Which was very, very quiet.
So was it a lot quieter than you expected? You were raised in the country. Was it more of a shock because of decades of living in cities?
Honestly, it was a shocker after living in the city for so long. I mean, I lived in Chicago or St. Louis my entire adult life. I became accustomed to that…the noise, the people, the stuff. It was like, as I wrote, being James Caan in “Misery,” except I was socially and culturally hobbled.
Did you have a hard time coming to Chicago and St. Louis in the first place? Or were you just so eager to get out of the Ozarks that it was an easier adjustment?
I went to college in Springfield, Missouri, which was small, but still a huge leap from the Ozarks. And nearly all my new friends grew up in St. Louis or larger city. Then I went to grad school at Northwestern, before leaving Chicago and heading back to STL. So, it was a gradual immersion…and, to be honest, I was ready to leave the Ozarks. I always dreamed of living in the city, but just because I lived there didn’t mean I was fulfilling my life’s goal.
That’s a great point—I feel like I’m coming to terms with that here in New York right now. One thing that struck me is that our city experiences are very different. The noise, the people, the pace are similar, but sometimes I felt like the life you wanted to leave behind was one that was as much about consumerism as it was about urban life. Is that a fair assessment?
Yes, I think that is. I grew up without a lot of the “city nonsense,” as my parents called it, and I wanted that. And, honestly, I still do: I love my “stuff.” But one can become consumed with it. And I saw that reflected back at me with many of the wealthy families I worked with, which was detailed in my last memoir, Confessions of A Prep School Mommy Handler. And I realized it wasn’t always about what you had in your life but what you were doing with your life. (I just realized I sounded like Dr. Phil, so feel free to slap the crap out of me).
Hahaha, don’t worry about it. What was the biggest sacrifice you had to make, material or otherwise?
I hate to sound totally materialistic BUT for a man who considers Kenneth Cole to be on par with Gandhi, the loss of fashion, cable and cell phone reception, and my favorite foods was very difficult. And it was probably equal parts the stuff as it was the convenience of the stuff. When you are surrounded by consumerism, you tend to want it all. NOW. I also think the adjustment to working for myself was very difficult. I was responsible for driving my entire life, career, pay…
Cell phone reception! Now that’s just upsetting. But you are quick to point out in the book that you moved to a house outside a resort town—and a gay-friendly one, too. There were a few conveniences at least a drive away. Do you think you would have been able to do this if you had moved to the tiniest town you could find?
First thing people need to understand is that resort towns basically shut down in the winter. It’s like being in “The Shining.” There are no chain stores nearby, really, so when stores and restaurants close, you have access to nothing. And we do live WELL outside the towns, within walking distance of a country store that sells rope, duct tape and chains, all the stuff necessary to drag us behind the pick-up. But, honestly, the resort town’s gay-friendliness, charm and beauty was a huge attraction to us. The towns were like Gayberry. I did not want to move to a place that was not accepting of us. I had lived through that. And I did not want to live in an igloo. What I wanted to do was find me, and I did.
And your neighbors do seem pretty accepting—have they read the book yet? Did you leave anything out for fear of alienating/angering them?
I did show a few of our neighbors the chapters that pertained to them. The man who tried to show us his man-burrito moved. And the crazy ones, I don’t believe, can read. Typically, however, I don’t hold anything back.
And I’m glad. This isn’t your first memoir, I know, but I’m guessing you wrote this one differently than the others. I’m just thinking of that scene where you go to the coffee shop and it’s just not working for you anymore. Has your writing process changed? Has your writing changed?
The process has not changed. I start early and write all day. When I’m not in front of my laptop, I am still writing in my head. I keep Post-Its in my car, and stick ideas on the dash, or on the dogs’ heads while I’m driving. I do think, however, that my style has changed. I think I’ve honed my comedic timing more. My idol has always been Erma Bombeck…I now consider myself a humorist and memoirist. My next book, in fact, is in a similar vein; it’s titled, WHY IS SANTA TAKING DADDY’S LIPITOR? And Other Heartwarming Holiday Tales. I love to write about life, from an offbeat but incredibly human perspective. I’m not one of those humorists who view everything from a distance, or objectify things. I’m emotional.
Reading anything good right now?
Well, I’d highly recommend my first two memoirs, America’s Boy and Confessions. Right now, I’m reading Pretty in Plaid by Jen Lancaster, who is me with pearls and bigger boobs. And I just read And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, which I loved. I always re-read one classic a year, and this year it’s going to be The Catcher in the Rye.
What’s your six-word memoir?
OK, here’s a couple:
Ran from myself. Stopped. Finally fulfilled.
Buy my books. Mama needs shoes.
Laughing at oneself. God’s greatest gift.
READ an excerpt from At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream
BUY a copy of the book
VISIT Wade Rouse’s website
WATCH his videos of life in rural Michigan