I was born in the small town of Richland Center, Wisconsin on what my mother always told me was the first nice day of spring. This was April 2nd, 1974—at the tail end of the Vietnam War. I was the final child in a Roman Catholic, farm family with fifteen children, and like my older siblings, I was expected to contribute to my existence. Contribution as defined by my father meant long hours of field work. As a result, I spent much of my childhood walking barefoot through tobacco fields, hoeing weeds and searching for the finger thick tobacco worms that preyed on our crop. When the tobacco fields did not require tending—which was rare—cows needed milking, hay needed baling, and corn had to be picked. But the tobacco fields remain most clear in my mind.
To get away from the farm and to mingle with friends, my father attended auction sales. He often returned from these sales with boxes of books that he bought for a quarter or fifty cents. Our house had thousands of books, and I read frequently. These books must have had a profound influence on me because, by the time I entered middle school, I saw myself as a future novelist.
Yet when I entered college, I studied natural resources and physics. I never thought about majoring in English until I spent a semester in London. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who had a passion for theater and writing, and for the first time, I was with people who thought like I thought. When I returned to the US, I switched my major and officially studied writing. I spent long hours reading and even longer hours imitating the style of great writers. Also, I was fortunate enough to have two outstanding writing teachers.
Larry Watson, was writing his third novel when I became his student. He already won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize for his novel Montana 1948 and was soon to retire as a teacher of creative writing to become a full-time writer. Donna Decker was and still is a gifted poet with an amazing ear for the music inherent in language. She remains my most influential teacher because through her I gained confidence in my own voice.
My first job after college was as a research writer for New Past Press, a history book publisher in Adams, Wisconsin. But it was not the type of writing that interested me. I quickly enrolled in graduate school, where I met my wife and current companion of nearly fifteen years. She was from western China and missed her native country badly.
After graduation, I agreed to visit China with her. So in February of 2002, I found myself looking out the plane window as we descended into smoky Beijing. I took a job as an English teacher in Dalian. Somehow, despite the smog and unfamiliar culture, China suited me well enough. Unfortunately, after graduation the need to put a roof over my head occupied my free time. For nearly a decade, I hardly wrote at all.
When I picked up my pen after eight years of inactivity, I found that life taught me much and that China provided me with images unfamiliar to most westerners. When I write, I combine these images with the images I knew as a child.