Greg Peck: A pleasant night in Portage
When an author books a speaking engagement, he or she can’t predict the turnout. Drawing a crowd is even more uncertain for someone like me, an author of a regional-interest book.
Michael Perry, one of Wisconsin’s hottest-selling authors, gave me good advice. He said, “Greg, you’re going to have events where 50 people show up and events where five people show up. Give them the same show.”
I’ve experienced both ends of that spectrum.
Besides that, “Death Beyond the Willows” debuted more than eight years ago, and I’m promoting it a second time around with a newly revised and improved edition.
Still, my book is a true story of rural history surrounding a 1927 tragedy that killed a couple married in my hometown of Marshall on their wedding day. The tragedy took place in Portage, and so I was fairly confident that my speech last night at the Portage Public Library would generate a reasonable audience.
My hopes were heightened when my wife, Cheryl, and I arrived 45 minutes early to set up and a gentleman greeted us in the parking lot. He said he had read my book and was quite complimentary. He had to attend another event last night and apologized that he couldn’t stay for my talk but just wanted to meet me.
What greater compliment could an author expect?
The room was almost empty 15 minutes before show time. Before I started speaking, however, we were pulling out more chairs to accommodate late arrivals. I spoke for about 30 minutes, and I sensed an engaged and enthusiastic audience. Afterward, my listeners asked questions, and then we shared interesting conversations while I signed books for buyers. One woman even showed me her black-and-white wedding portrait at Pauquette Park, site of the pond where the tragedy took place. The late Zona Gale, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and native of Portage, dubbed this former clay-mining pit “Bridal Pond” in her short fiction story of the same name.
After the crowd cleared out, Cheryl and I went to nearby 205 Vino for a late supper. This stop, at 205 DeWitt St. in historic downtown Portage, was appropriate. It’s not only because this wine and beer bar has been selling copies of my revised book. It’s because that building is part of the story. It once was home to Wright Motor Co., a Ford dealership and gas station. Attendants were the last to see Johnny Pirkl and Hazel Ferguson alive on that fateful evening, Sept. 27, 1927.
Cheryl and I enjoyed the relaxing, comfortable atmosphere at 205 Vino and wished Janesville had a similar place (if Janesville does, we’re not aware of it). We got home later than I’d hoped, but our trip to Portage proved to be a wonderful evening. It feeds my optimism for my return trip to Marshall, where I’ll be speaking at the library at 10 a.m. Saturday. I’m dubbing this talk “Tales from the Archives” and largely will share stories of rich rural history that I learned and wrote about but that didn’t make my book.