I had the pleasure of reading a funny life writing by Michael Sieleman entitled Hippie from Iowa. He doesn’t like me to call it a memoir (even though it is one), and it really is more than just memories of his early life and travels, encompassing his philosophies on life, religion, politics, race, and, well, you name it. He does warn readers: “this thing will meander and digress all over the place,” and it does! But all his chapters wrap up nicely. Michael writes with a warm charm as though he is sitting on the porch with you on a summer afternoon shooting the breeze, and you will fall off your chair laughing.
Hippie in Iowa begins with a lot of coming-of-age stories, which means s-e-x (nothing graphic) and a fair amount of teen boy swearing. Michael is a smart, thoughtful guy so we find a lot of musing (digressing) about various hot topics and injustices. I love this: “I’m sure right now many readers have their hackles up… but don’t get all riled up. Not yet, there’s more.” The hitch-hiking across Europe, mostly alone at the age of 18, in the year about 1973, gives a real feel for the road and hostel life. Along the way he has the craziest adventures, including encounters with a giant Welshman, a murderous Jenny, a too-friendly little German man, and American tourists wanting to take a photo of an American hippie in Europe (hippie meaning long-haired man with dirty jeans). Then there’s the Stonehenge experience.
I’m pleased to post a short interview here with Michael. Well, short on my part. Since most people, including me, have online attention spans of about 30 seconds max, I will post this in two parts…
You wrote this book many years after your journey and have detailed memories. Did you keep a journal of your travels? What made you decide to write down your experiences and how long did it take to finish writing?
The Europe trip had and has had an enormous impact on my life, coming as it did when I was eighteen years old and just after high school. Growing up in a very secure society in the Midwest to incredibly wonderful parents, I had a pretty clear life ahead of me, and did not have the angst and chaos of most teenagers going through high school. (I saved it instead for the rest of my life.) As long as I can recall, everyone told me I should be a lawyer. I could out argue nearly anyone, and would ask why about everything, going down one layer after another until I’d just wear people down or there were no longer any viable questions or answers. I didn’t intend to be this way; it was just the way I was born. My parents called me “the little why guy.” Besides, nobody seemed to have satisfactory answers to the truisms they threw out. At the age of five, I’d have conversations like:
Mom: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too!”
Me: “Why not?”
Mom: “Because if you eat your cake, it’s gone, and you don’t have it anymore.”
Me: “That’s different. Saying you’re cake is gone after you eat it is not the same as saying you can’t have it and then eat it.”
Mom: “You know what I mean.”
Me: “No, I don’t. They’re two different things, and what you’re saying isn’t true.”
Mom: “Of course it is. Everybody knows that.”
Me: “Look, every year you make me a birthday cake, I have it, and then I eat it. Right? So, I have my cake and I eat it too. Besides, what good would it be anyway if you had a cake and you couldn’t eat it?”
Mom would throw her hands up and walk away in despair.
(It wouldn’t be until I was thirty years old that I’d read in an old book, “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.” Finally, a logical statement: everyone just had always said it backwards, or perhaps more appropriately put for this unique case, backwords. It was about the same time I also read, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” I’d always heard, “It’s a doggy dog world,” and that made no sense to me when juxtaposed against the context in which it was used. It also clashed against the phrase, “It’s a dog’s life.” Thirty was a good year: I got two things cleared up.)
That’s how my life went, up until I went to Europe. I was very rational about things, and “the law” seemed to be my future. When the proposal to hitch Europe was presented to me and I got over the initial stun, I seemed to intuit (finally) that I needed to just experience the journey without analyzing, cataloging, or even keeping a journal. I didn’t even take a camera, because I didn’t want to miss what I was looking at while trying to capture it on film. I figured if things were important enough, I would remember them.
So, no journal. Was that a long enough answer?
Well, that was a round about answer! (Which reminds me of how I love the roundabouts in Europe – tip: don’t try to hitch a ride within a roundabout.) You wrote this book many years after your journey and have detailed memories. What made you decide to write down your experiences and how long did it take to finish writing?
In my first year of college after getting back from Europe, I decided no law school for me—I was going to be a writer. I was and am a serious writer, having written the first novel of a trilogy at the age of twenty-seven about the Russian Revolution, after years of research. (War and Peace, of course, was just too brief.) Though the novel had a great plotline and characters, it read as dead as dead, and recognizing this I abandoned the book. Never again would I research something to death, and I would learn to write in my own voice. I set in for the long haul. I wrote for years (decades, actually) without trying to be published, but it 2005 I finished the first draft of a very good novel. Unfortunately, it needed a ton of work, and being broke, I needed to go back to work. By 2008, I was fired from a job because I didn’t fit in with the good old boy managers. However, I was well like by my coworkers and realized on the day after I was fired I’d never gotten a chance to tell them the bizarre story of my night alone at Stonehenge. I figured just for the hell of it, I’d write it as a short story and send it off to them. As I thought about how to present it, memories and the suggestion of friends who loved my stories and said I should write a book about them came flooding back. I’d always told my friends while I could tell a funny story, I had no idea how to write humor. As I thought about Stonehenge and other stories, things began to take shape, and by the end of the afternoon, the title “Hippie from Iowa” hit me and everything congealed. I was off the next day, writing—as I had learned over the years—by the seat of my pants.
I had concerns in the early going, wondering how long I could sustain the crazy energy level that it seemed to contain (and how long it would remain fresh with the reader), but it evolved in directions I never anticipated. I got out of the way and let it happen. I finished the first draft in four months, writing five to eight hours a day, five days a week. When you write by the seat of your pants, you find when you are at the end that there are a lot of false starts that don’t belong in the “story” that has evolved. So, you start cutting, sometimes vast tracts, even before you rewrite. The cutting and two more drafts took another three months. I then wasted my time for the next four months trying to get an agent before realizing the book was too different to be picked up, and nobody is interested in unpublished writers unless you are a celebrity. So, off to the world of indie publishing: six months of setting up the business, website, cover design, ISBNs, LCCNs, copyright, et al, along with five more major drafts and innumerable proofs. From the time my fingers first hit the keyboard until the book was printed took about eighteen months of fulltime work. Now I’m marketing … oh joy.
Stay tuned for Part II this Sunday. It’s going to be very hot here in the Midwest. Bring a beer.