I don’t know about you, but I admire a writer who decides to include in his published book a note from his editor saying one of the stories he, the editor, was reading in draft seemed to go sideways and never really came back.
“Had trouble following this one,” the editor wrote.
Here is what Bill Stork knows: Just as the best road trips are seldom made on straight interstate highways, good stories sometimes dodge and weave and become something other than what they seemed at the outset. What matters are the characters—in Stork’s world, they have two and four legs—you meet on the journey.
I first met Stork, a veterinarian at the Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic since 1992, a couple of years ago. We had a cup of coffee. He was hoping I might write about his first book, a collection of nonfiction tales he called “In Herriot’s Shadow.”
The book was self-published—with the estimable assistance of Kristin Mitchell at Little Creek Press in Mineral Point—but any preconceptions I may have had about that vanished on meeting Bill and then reading his book. They were one and the same. Bill’s heart and humor were evident within five minutes of shaking his hand, and the stories in the book were full of both compassion and laughter. A rural veterinarian sees some things.
I wasn’t alone in my admiration for “In Herriot’s Shadow,” and its success has prompted the publication, this month, of a second volume, “Stepping from Herriot’s Shadow.”
It includes stories from Stork’s vet practice and from the twisting road he followed promoting his first book. Nothing is lost, and while Stork writes in an essay toward the end of the new book that he has no intention of riding a rodeo bull or jumping out of an airplane looking for material, he views the world with a wide lens.
“What I do try,” Stork notes in a piece called “Live Like You Were Dying,” “with varying degrees of success, is to search for, accentuate, and celebrate the beauty within every God-given moment and human interaction. The secondary benefit is if you manage to not get hit by a bus, it fends off boredom, and gives a guy great material for a book.”
But don’t assume he can’t call a jerk a jerk. The new book includes a piece called “Prius Pete,” in which Stork skewers the title character for a road rage moment on Highway 12 near Cambridge, in which the Toyota driver gave the finger to a farmer on a John Deere. Stork deftly casts the momentary inconvenience of Prius Pete against the lifelong work ethic of his farmer friend.
The “Herriot” in Stork’s book titles is, of course, the author James Herriot, whose “All Creatures Great and Small” first inspired a youthful Stork—he grew up in Illinois—to consider a veterinary career.
One theme running through both of Stork’s books is the essential worthlessness of first impressions.
In the first book, the reader was introduced to a man named Dan, who had a dog named Buck. They showed up just past closing time at Stork’s Lake Mills clinic. Dan had booze on his breath and Buck had a bad, back right leg.
The dog had torn ligaments, surgery would be $3,000. Dan, discarding a cigarette, picked up Buck and left. “Well,” Stork figured, “I’ll never see them again.”
Ten days later, they were back, and Dan, sober, handed over the cash. The surgery was successful. Dan and Stork became good enough friends that when Buck was dying of cancer, some years later, the vet made a house call and he and Dan wept together. At some point Stork asked how Dan had found the money for the earlier surgery. “Sold my Harley,” Dan said.
In “Stepping from Herriot’s Shadow,” the new book, Stork draws a wrong first impression of a man he calls “Give-‘Em-Hell Harry,” who fumed when Stork couldn’t make a Friday night farm call and fired the vet before he’d ever hired him. Three years later, the farm had become one of Stork’s favorite stops.
The new book is available at Mystery to Me on Monroe Street (where I will be interviewing Stork at 7 p.m. on Nov. 11) as well as through the author’s website.
Bill Stork’s digressions are worth the trip. The essay that gave his editor pause zigs from Kenny Chesney to the lesser known singer-songwriter Fred J. Eaglesmith (a Stork favorite), zags to road trips, daughters and finally back to Eaglesmith.
The editor pointed out it had no narrative arc.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Stork said, “but Fred liked it.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.