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“Possum Trot” chronicles McIlrath’s love of Iowa

The man in charge of filling the campus bookstore and the Pioneer Bookstore with plenty of great literature has just made the collection even richer with a work of his own. Harley McIlrath released his book “Possum Trot,” published by Ice Cube Press, earlier this month. It is a collection of stories compiled over 30 years, all taking place in the state of Iowa. According to one of McIlrath’s friends, his work can be considered as “Gabriel García Márquez meets William Faulkner in overalls.”

Harley McIlrath
Harley McIlrath poses for a portrait holding his recent collection of Iowa-related stories, “Possum Trot” - Ben Brewer

The idea to create this culmination of Harley’s work started a year ago at the Midwest Bookseller’s Association in St. Paul, Minnesota. This is where Steve Semken, President of Ice Cube Press told McIlrath that he was interested in creating a collection of McIlrath’s stories. McIlrath expressed to Semken that this was something he would be very interested in, and the ball got rolling. When Semken made a follow-up call to McIlrath, inquiring about his interest in the book, the project was officially born.

The seventeen stories in “Possum Trot” are McIlrath’s unveiling of the remarkable beauty and the treasures that lie in the Midwest, specifically Iowa. The stories date back to the beginning of the 1980’s, with the title story “Possum Trot” having been published in 1982 by the North American Review.

The decision of which stories to include in the anthology was a rather simple one to make, as McIlrath did not have an unlimited amount of work to choose from.

“I am not a prolific writer so there isn’t tons of stuff I had to leave out, but I wanted it kept to an Iowa theme,” McIlrath said.

McIlrath named “Possum Trot” and “Rain” as his favorite pieces in the anthology. He explained that “Possum Trot” is wilder than the other stories in the collection and is somewhat surrealist.

His other favorite story, “Rain,” is about a father and son in a garage during a rainstorm. McIlrath described the relationship depicted in this story as similar to his own experience. He described it as, “a sweet story in how fathers and sons don’t usually express their love for each other, but it is just known by the way they treat and interact with each other.”

Perhaps the most humorous short stories according to McIlrath are “Possum Trot” and “Memo for the Director of Prairie Studies.” “Possum Trot” is funny for the trials of the poor, inept fellow who just goes bouncing through life. McIlrath explained that ”Memo for the Director of Prairie Studies” does not have any relations to John Andelson despite its name. Instead, it is inspired by a story told by David Campbell about being bitten by a monkey in Ecuador. This story follows someone who goes out to the country away from his home and comes to realize that he is an alien in this town and has to attempt to adapt.

McIlrath explained that his inspiration comes from his love for people and Iowa. This fondness for the Midwest has been brewing since his time at University of Northern Iowa.

“When I was in school around other writers, everyone seemed to want to place their story in Paris, New York or London,” McIlrath said. Yet McIlrath wondered, what could be wrong with the Midwest, where he had grown up? Surely this place could warrant some rich stories.

Other influences to Grinnell’s newest published writer include his favorite authors. “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, a novel about American soldiers in the Vietnam War, is one he particularly enjoys.  Additional inspiration includes Ernest Hemingway and Richard Brautigan. McIlrath is shaped not only by literature—his influences stretch beyond literature to music. His musical repertoire includes Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, all of who led to his writing being “image driven, rather descriptive.”

McIlrath explained that none of his stories were based on events that happened in Grinnell or on the students he has met. His work is given breath, however, through his various conversations with Ralph Savarese, English, Steve Andrews, English and David Campbell, Biology.

Now with his book on the shelf, McIlrath devotes his time to taking care of his two elementary-school age kids and running the Pioneer and the campus bookstore. He also finds time to work on more short stories and hopes to incorporate them into a second book some day.

“Hopefully this book will do well enough that a publisher will take note and want to see if I have something else,” McIlrath said.

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    Martha Mikel-HongNov 3, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Dear Harley,

    Is there some way to get an autographed copy from you without traveling to Grinnell? Do you have any plans to do an East Coast or NYC tour by any chance?

    All the best,
    Martha Mikel-Hong