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Michael Fedo's memoir covers five decades of the writing life

Michael Fedo almost quit his day job. It was the late 1980s, and the Duluth-raised freelancer was asked by St. Martin's Press to write the biography of a then-favorite personality on Minnesota Public Radio. The advance was hefty; it was projected to sell between 80,000-100,000 books.

"That was going to be a big deal," Fedo said.

The subject, Garrison Keillor, wasn't involved in the project. And, according to Fedo, he asked friends, colleagues and former teachers not to get involved, either. "The Man from Lake Wobegon" has sold about 30,000 copies, a decent amount, Fedo said, though it was published during a down-cycle in Keillor's regional popularity.

Fedo's most recent book, "Don't Quit Your Day Job: The Adventures of a Midlist Author," is the writer's memoir — about what was published (lots of articles, op-eds, short stories) and where (Christian Science Monitor, Reader's Digest, New York Times, St. Paul Pioneer Press) — and the quirky characters he met along the way, including actors Cloris Leachman and James Stewart, one-hit wonder Major League Baseball players and more. He's an award-winning, critically acclaimed writer who, most notable for this area, unearthed the story of the three black men who were killed by a mob after being accused of raping a white woman and then pulled from their jail cells. "The Lynchings in Duluth," said Fedo "skillfully portrays Northern prejudice and violence. Without preaching or condemning, he makes readers first hand witnesses to fear and injustice."

"Don't Quit Your Day Job," published locally by Holy Cow! Press, gets its release during an event at 4 p.m. Sunday in the August Fitger Room in the Fitger's Complex.

This is the writing life: Not everyone ends up on "Oprah" or "60 Minutes," Fedo said. He talked to the News Tribune recently about his lengthy career.

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DNT: Why this book now?

Fedo: It's the hindsight of 50 years of trying to produce a bestseller, not having succeeded and realizing this is the norm for most writers who have enjoyed some success. This is the more normal thing that will happen with folks who have aspirations to write and publish. In the course of five decades, I've accumulated a lot of anecdotes I thought were worth sharing — for both general readers who might be interested in the working life of a writer as well as people just beginning to think they might like to take a try at this and give creative writing, journalism, freelancing a shot and see where it takes them.

DNT: At what point did you come to terms with being a midlist writer?

Fedo: I suppose it took a while. I thought, about 30 years ago, when I did the Garrison Keillor biography, that it was going to be a big deal. While it did decently, it didn't come anywhere near what I thought it would. There were a number reasons for that, but I kind of thought at that point, if it had gone the way I was led to believe it might have gone, I might indeed have quit my day job.

DNT: What did you think when the news about Keillor came out last year?

Fedo: I was disappointed. I knew there were some other kinds of issues; I'd never heard of that. Also disappointing was his defense of himself. He'd seen the things that he had posted and written. There's nothing harmless and flirtatious about that. It's kind of gross; he didn't see that.

DNT: Did you ever meet him, face-to-face after writing the book?

Fedo: No. Nor before. I never did actually meet him. Backing this way up, I didn't generate the project at all. And I learned something in the process; fortunately, it didn't come to fruition. If he'd said, "I'll help, but I get final edit," he could have killed the project. I don't know anybody who knows him. I'd like to know his reaction to knowing he could have.

DNT: As you were going through your career, do you have any regrets about the close-call moments?

Fedo: No. Clearly I would have liked to have sold more copies of books. One of the things I thought as well, naively, was that once I began writing books that it would also kind of accelerate an ascendance into better magazines and newspapers in the country. That didn't seem to make any difference.

I remember hearing after she won the Nobel Prize, Pearl Buck said in a speech that she still gets rejections. If people reject a Nobel Prize winner, who am I to carp about The Atlantic rejecting something I wrote?

DNT: Is this a memoir that could be written by someone starting out in 2018?

Fedo: I'm sure it would be somewhat discouraging to be who I am starting in 2018. Maybe it's not as grim as people in my generation who've been trying to do this 30, 40, 50 years might think. Most of us have a sense of hard copy being more important, but if someone is getting $1,500 to contribute to an online journal, or would they rather get $65 for an op-ed to the Chicago Sun Times in print, I too would take the $1,500.

It's more difficult to navigate. There are so many online sources. Whereas back in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, you could find 40 or so publications where the kind of work you did might be acceptable, now there might be several hundred to scroll through and find out "would my stuff have appeal or not." It's harder work. There are enterprising people who find a way.

DNT: What are you working on right now?

Fedo: Actually, I'm working on a presentation I'm making up there (in Duluth).

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If you go

What: Book release for Michael Fedo's "Don't Quit Your Day Job: The Adventures of a Midlist Author"

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: August Fitger Room in the Fitger's Complex, 600 E. Superior St.

Tickets: Free, open to public

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What: Fedo's writing workshop: Crafting publishable op-ed essays

When: 2-3:30 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $10 Lake Superior Writers members; $20 for nonmembers

Registration: Contact Felicia Schneiderhan at felicia.schneiderhan@gmail.com

About the book

Title: "Don't Quit Your Day Job: The Adventures of a Midlist Author"

Author: Michael Fedo

Publisher: Holy Cow! Press

Pages: 168

Cost: $15.95

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