The Influence

Author and playwright Louis Nowra says the historical nonfiction book Wisconsin Death Trip changed his life through its macabre insights into another world. By Kate Holden.

Louis Nowra on the nonfiction book Wisconsin Death Trip

The cover of Wisconsin Death Trip
A cover of Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, and Louis Nowra (below).
Credit: Pantheon Books (above), Adam Knott (below)

Louis Nowra is one of Australia’s major writers. He has written plays, film and radio scripts, as well as fiction, essays, memoir and libretti, and his publishing list comprises dozens of works. Plays such as Radiance, Summer of the Aliens and Così have been performed and filmed and studied for decades, while his fiction was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. He characteristically focuses on unlikely communities, renegade spirits and fugitive moments of grace. His Lewis Trilogy of plays – Summer of the Aliens, Così and This Much Is True – has just opened at SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney, in a production by Griffin Theatre Company.

Nowra chose to speak about the cult classic book Wisconsin Death Trip (1973), by Michael Lesy, a landmark historical nonfiction work that combines late 19th-century photographs and text largely drawn from archived media in a small American town.

Tell me about this work.

It’s an extraordinary book. I used to live in Melbourne and there was a bookshop in one of the arcades that would import American books. I went in one day and there was Wisconsin Death Trip. I thought, Oh, the name is fabulous. It had photographs from the late 19th century on the cover and then inside it had babies in coffins and people who looked really scared at being photographed. And then I started to read the text, which was basically taken out of the local newspaper in Black River Falls. What was really interesting was the juxtaposition between the photographs – some of which seemed rather calm and considered – while what came across in the articles was this unruly life. A lot of people had a hideous life in the 1890s in Wisconsin. There were suicides and murders, and there was a fabulous Mary Sweeny, who couldn’t help herself smashing every window in the village. It was an incredible portrait of a town that was becoming decrepit. The mines had closed, and the pressures on people obviously drove a lot of them mad.

It was fascinating to me, to have photographs that didn’t relate to the articles of the time; at the same time it summed up the feeling behind those photographs. I thought it was so original. It influenced me greatly, so much so that I started to collect scrapbooks, hundreds of them, of articles from French newspapers, German, English and Australian – issues from all over the place – I had three or four thousand pages. So Angus & Robertson brought out my book The Cheated [1979], which was a pastiche of Wisconsin Death Trip. I included all those people who suicided and murdered or fought or were cheated. It was a great thing about Australia, that hardly anyone knew about Wisconsin Death Trip, so they viewed The Cheated as being very original.

That kind of assemblage work speaks to people, doesn’t it, as it reflects the fragmented world we are in.

Lots of books now are fragmentary, because they’re responding to this world. Commentary, social media, wars, everything. But one of those influenced by Wisconsin Death Trip is a beautiful photography book that came out in 2022, Some Say Ice. The artist, Alessandra Sanguinetti, went to Wisconsin and photographed in the same areas, and her photographs are just as horrifying and moving. What a tribute! Michael Lesy was so influential with this book, and it was also made into a film, which is rather good. Now … there are also a few bands that have done songs based on the book, and one band has actually done a whole song cycle based on it. So it has been a huge influence from this young academic. I’m amazed to say I was influenced by an academic.

When you first came upon the book, it sounds like you were caught by the macabre or the Gothic elements of it.

It was the first book I saw that was able to utilise text and words – factual words, factual items – and photographs: it came across as absolutely Gothic. Whereas 18th-century Gothic writers, they’d venture into the macabre, and it wasn’t real. But this was real. I found that disturbing and interesting. And also, look, Melbourne in the early 1970s: there wasn’t much going on.

Going back to your connection, the book also has a democratic slant to it: normal life, commonly overlooked people, struggling people.

The scrapbooks were thousands of pages, it was obsessive. Then I started to go to flea markets and buy photograph albums. You see the whole family, then one person disappears from it. So I thought, I’m going to write a book based on this, tracking the people who were involved. What I did with The Cheated, as with Wisconsin Death Trip, was find articles where somehow life failed people, ordinary people. I’m always fascinated how we concentrate on really important people. These are people you’d never hear of, except that a newspaper has covered some drama in their lives or taken a photograph. One of the photographs in The Cheated is of a maid, in her skimpy maid outfit, standing outside a window about to jump from a building in London. She’s just a maid, but it seems so magnified, her anguish. And you’re thinking also, What was she doing, was she cleaning out a hotel room when she stepped out the window? How come she’s still in her working outfit? Photographs are all fascinating to me: how they hide things.

When I was writing my trilogy of Kings Cross, Woolloomooloo and Sydney, I was casting about for people who hadn’t been written about, and I thought, I’m reconstituting them. I’m making them come alive, or they would have vanished into oblivion. It’s like saving somebody’s ghost.

I always think writers are attempting empathy, by writing about other people. They go, “Okay, I’ve only seen you a couple of times but I’m going to invent a story about your background and put it in a book.” I think that’s fair enough. And there comes a moment when you go, Am I just a hoarder? What am I going to do with this stuff? But you can always get away with it as a writer by telling yourself it’s material.

Your play Così was described as a work about people who were broken and redeemed. You’re interested in people on the edges, in collided communities.

I have a trilogy in rehearsal at the moment [The Lewis Trilogy]. The first one is set in a housing commission, the next one in an asylum where I directed a musical, and the most recent one is from when I mixed with a lot of people in the Old Fitzroy Hotel. I said to the director: “Don’t see these people as outsiders. They’re running parallel to mainstream society. They’re not interested in mainstream society.” The values by which they live their lives are extremely different, and that’s what fascinates me. They were going about their business thinking, Well, this is it; we’re stuck. We’ll make the best of it. So I’m fascinated by people who the middle class overlook.

There are books that determine the way you look at life. Wisconsin Death Trip is one; with novels, there is always Lolita – where you go, my life is changed because of reading this. I’ve never forgotten Lolita or Wisconsin Death Trip because they helped me view the world differently. That’s crucial to me, especially. I don’t like reading books that confirm the reader’s view. I like to be shown another world.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Louis Nowra".

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