Cheesemaking, grief, family drama and nostalgia mix in potent new novel

Wisconsin author of 'The Art of the Break' Mary Wimmer has appearances in Madison on Oct. 4 and Oct. 16.
On the left is the yellow and cheese cover of The Art Of The Break and on the right is author Mary Wimmer against a solid black background
Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Press.
"The Art of the Break" by Mary Wimmer is out Oct. 4.

In the opening chapters of Wisconsin author Mary Wimmer’s new novel “The Art of the Break” — a cheesemaking reference — Charlotte “Charlie” Sobczak is contemplating a break of her own. She leaves her husband, Rick (the alcoholic father of her daughter, Lucy) behind in Milwaukee to return home to fictional Falls River, Wisconsin, where her father has just died and left his cheesemaking business to her. As Charlie navigates single motherhood in the mid-1970s and fresh grief, the return home also unearths her childhood losses of her sister to polio and her mother to depression. She finds both comfort and challenge in keeping Morgan Cheese Factory afloat, in a story Foreword Reviews called an “atmospheric … evocative … novel about the complex traditional and emotional legacies of family businesses.” Wimmer, whose young adult novel “Reaching Shore” won the Midwest Independent Publishers Association-Young Adult Fiction Award, will appear at an Oct. 4 Madison launch event with author Ann Garvin at Leopold’s Books Bar & Caffe, and at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Oct. 16.

Where did this story come from? When did you first envision the character of Charlie, and what were the questions you hoped to explore?
I knew I wanted to write about cheesemaking. I found it such an interesting process — how milk is transformed from a liquid into this delicious food that is cheese. I wanted to explore the father-daughter relationship, how family business is passed on, how Charlie’s father taught her to make cheese, how he never placed limits on her just because she was a girl, and how that influenced her. The story started from a memory I had of visiting a cheese factory up north during college with my friend who grew up there in a small town. I was charmed by the cheesemakers — the guys behind the vat, their pride in their product, their white aprons, white caps and Wellington boots. The cheese curds we bought were so fresh and tasted so good, I was hooked. It was a far cry from the squares of cheese wrapped in cellophane we ate growing up in Milwaukee.

I wanted a woman tell this story, so Charlie came to mind. As a child, she loved the science of cheesemaking so much she carried around a little notebook like her dad, keeping track of pH levels. I wanted Charlie to be part of the second and third generation immigrant experience so common in Wisconsin, especially in the cheesemaking business where many folks came from countries in Europe like Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. They brought their traditions and recipes with them. Lucky for us! I imagined Charlie having to work through loss and grief. I read about the polio outbreak in the summer of 1955 in the Fox River Valley and knew I wanted to set the story roughly in that area and time period. Charlie comes of age during the tumultuous years of the 1960s and ’70s, so the book touches on threads such as the Vietnam War, the fight for Civil Rights for Black Americans and Native Americans, and the fight for women’s rights. Charlie falling in love with Rick, a Vietnam veteran, came to me from memories of guys coming back from the war and having to cope with PTSD. I love Rick’s character — a cook and a musician. I wanted to explore the question of really loving someone but not being able to break free, of trying over and over to help as Charlie did with Rick, who was really hurting.

This book is set in 1970s fictitious Falls River, but the sense of place and details about Wisconsin life are so familiar and so very real. Why the decision to set your story in a fictional town, and was there anything about your background that informed the time or setting?
I set the story in a fictional town because it seemed easier than trying to be true to the details of a real town in Wisconsin. I grew up in Wisconsin and, during summers, my family camped in a Winnebago trailer all over the state. During winters, we skied Up North and went ice skating after school and on weekends. My grandpa owned sawmills, and though I never visited them, I heard stories about logging and was fascinated. My years spent at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point in college really informed the details of small-town Falls River. In Stevens Point, I frequented the Polish bakery on Main Street. There was the local hospital, and the food cooperative that became the inspiration for the food co-op in Falls River. I attended the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater for graduate school and lived on Whitewater Lake. So, the small town of Falls River is a compilation of many memories of life in Wisconsin.

You are a Wisconsin-based educator and school psychologist, and this novel explores many weighty themes including PTSD, depression, family violence and alcoholism. This story is set in the 1970s against the backdrop of the women’s movement, but it’s certainly resonant in 2022. What went into your decision to set this novel in the ’70s, and did that make the researching and writing easier or more difficult than telling a modern-day story?
When I visited the cheese factory up north, I was in college. So, in my mind we were back in the ’70s already. With this decision came the task of writing authentically about that time in history. Of course, it helped that I lived through the ’70s and attended high school and college during those years. There were so many good resources available to me for my research. Jerry Apps, the talented Wisconsin author, graciously allowed me to interview him about what it was like to contract and recover from polio as a child. All the cheesemakers who answered my random questions were so incredibly patient, and the writing teachers I’ve had were really insightful. Writers such as Kim Suhr, Ann Garvin and Tim Storm were very helpful. It’s true writing about such topics as trauma and depression came from a place of having worked in the field of psychology. These are important issues I have advocated for working in the schools and teaching at the university level. Ultimately, it may have been easier to write about the ’70s because the memories of that time were so vivid to me.

Charlie is a character already mourning the loss at a young age of her mother and sister, then she loses her father. What inspired you to write about family grief and what did you hope to explore through the mother-daughter relationship between Charlie and Lucy?
Because I lost my parents when I was in college — my father died of a heart attack and my mother died a few years later of cancer — I have always been interested in how we grieve. I think about how we fill the spaces left when someone we love dies. I read how Dennis Klass talks about the “continuing bonds” understanding of grief — how our bonds with loved ones continue even after death and live in our memories. I found this comforting. The mother-daughter relationship was just fun. Lucy, who shares a name with our yappy, loveable poodle, is just a refreshing, sweet character. I have a daughter and wanted to explore the joys of having a daughter, so I did that with Lucy’s character.

Where did you learn so much about cheesemaking? What was your research process like for this book?
The research on cheesemaking was fun! I visited cheese factories such as Marieke Gouda in Thorp in 2017. I toured the factory and cow barn and interviewed Marieke about how she learned to make gouda cheese. I learned how she is committed to training and hiring women. In 2016, I visited Monroe’s National Historic Cheesemaking Center where I learned how, years ago, cheese was made using copper vats. Also in Monroe, I visited Roth Cheese where I watched a young cheesemaker from France make an experimental batch of cheese in a small vat. I watched him monitor the heated milk until he was ready to call a clean break indicating the cheese was ready to move to the next step — separating the curd from the whey. I visited many other cheese factories such as Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa and Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee where they used milk from the cows at the Milwaukee Zoo.

One of the ways in which women still fight inequality is financially, another theme at the heart of this story. Did researching/writing Charlie’s battle with sexism in the ’70s feel much different than the struggles some women in business still face today?
I never started a business but imagine it is difficult but ultimately rewarding. One big advantage from the ’70s compared to today is that women have laws that protect them. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which was passed in 1974, prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status during credit transactions. I relied on the book by Flora Davis, “Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960,” for information about the ECOA. Davis outlined how The National Commission on Consumer Finance held hearings and heard testimony from women who were denied credit. It was revealed single women were more likely to be refused a loan than single men. Married women had to re-apply for credit and all married couples’ accounts were put in the husband’s name. Women today at least have the law on their side thanks to the work of organizations such as the National Organization for Women.

How long did you work on this story? Was there anything that surprised you about developing this story, or anything your readers have said that has you looking at the book in a different way?
I worked on this story for more than six years. I learned a lot about Wisconsin researching this book, details of the women’s rights movement in particular. I liked how Ann Garvin called this book, “a lyrical love letter to rural Wisconsin, cheesemaking, and family.” Seeing her write that sentiment in a review surprised me. Then I realized it was so true.

You’ve written three books before this, two nonfiction and a young adult novel, “Reaching Shore,” for which you received first place in the Midwest Independent Publishers Association’s Young Adult Fiction Award. This is your first novel for adults. What made you want to write a novel for adults and was there anything particularly different or challenging about this?
I loved the story told in “Reaching Shore,” the true story of the sinking of the Lady Elgin in 1860. The sinking of the steamer near Evanston, Illinois, on its return from Chicago to Milwaukee resulted in a huge loss of life in the Irish community of Milwaukee’s Third Ward. Writing about this historic event for young adults was so fascinating. After writing “Reaching Shore,” I wanted to challenge myself to write a novel for adults to see if I could do it. Wow. I found out it was hard. It was especially challenging constructing the plot so that it had a real story arc and was interesting throughout. I was learning as I was writing.

What do you most hope readers will walk away from this book thinking about?
I hope readers enjoy this story about people helping each other out through hard times — working, crying, loving, and laughing together. I hope after reading the story, they think about cows, milk and cheesemaking. Maybe they’ll think about visiting a cheese factory, learning how to make cheese, or perhaps, like me, think about what it would be like to buy and raise some goats.

Newsletter Subscribe Footer22 Cover Wallpaper