It’s not always easy to pinpoint when a star is born, and Jerry Apps was already pretty well known in the summer of 2011. He was 77 by then, too, which only means it is never too late to take your game to another level.
That August, Apps — best known as the author of more than 30 books — was at a Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) event at the Red Crown Lodge, near Minocqua. Some 200 WPT supporters were on hand to see excerpts from Ken Burns’ new documentary, “Prohibition.”
Apps had been asked to speak about the Prohibition era in Wisconsin. He is an excellent public speaker, but when he ran some of his Prohibition material by his daughter, Susan, she said it was — ahem — too dry.
Apps livened it up, including ending his talk by suggesting the entire ensemble join him in a song. A Methodist minister in the front row offered to lead. There followed a ringing rendition of “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”
“We went out in the hall,” Apps was recalling last week, “and there was free beer for everyone.”
Apps was so entertaining that James Steinbach, director of television at WPT, approached him and said there had to be some way for them to collaborate on a documentary.
The resulting film, “Jerry Apps: A Farm Story” — capturing the author’s boyhood on a Waushara County farm — went national on PBS and was eventually seen on 65 stations. Its sequel, “A Farm Winter with Jerry Apps,” was recently nominated for a Midwest Emmy Award and has also been picked up by PBS for airing early next year. Both films were produced by Mik Derks. A third is now in the pipeline. It seems safe to say that by the time the folks in Minocqua sang, “that’s why we drink it here,” a star was born.
Still, at 80, Apps remains at his core a writer. This is a man who quit his day job at 59, to write full time, at long last. This week he’ll debut a new novel, “The Great Sand Fracas of Ames County,” with an appearance at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the West Towne Barnes & Noble.
“My novels are a lot more edgy,” Apps said, drawing a comparison with the non-fiction books — “Barns of Wisconsin,” “Breweries of Wisconsin,” and many more — that launched his career.
There is usually an issue at the center of Apps’ fiction, and in the new novel — published by Terrace Books, an imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press — a Wisconsin village deals with the fallout of a proposed frac sand mine.
“It’s the hottest topic going right now,” Apps said.
Apps’ life as a writer dates back to that farm in Waushara County, and his contracting polio in 1947, at age 12. It took him 65 years to write about his polio — in the 2013 book, “Limping Through Life: A Farm Boy’s Polio Memoir” — but the disease, which limited him physically, got him started at the typewriter.
Apps tried out for his school baseball team, because that’s what everyone did in a small town. The first pitch beaned him on the temple; he couldn’t get out of the way. The coach, a teacher named Paul Wright, said, “Jerry, I don’t think you’re going to make the baseball team.”
Wright suggested he take typing, then almost entirely the province of girls thinking about secretarial work.
Apps took typing, and since the class was affiliated with the school newspaper, he was soon a newspaper writer. Knowing that Apps liked basketball but wouldn’t be playing that, either, Wright suggested he be the public address announcer. Apps has had a typewriter or microphone nearby ever since.
His recent polio book was among his most difficult. Apps, whose son Steve is a longtime State Journal photographer, never intended to tell his polio story.
But Kate Thompson, his editor at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press — Apps has more publishers and editors than I have favorite cheeseburgers — asked when he was going to write it.
“Never,” Jerry said.
“One day you’re not going to be here,” Thompson said, “and it will be lost.”
It struck a chord with Apps, a longtime writing teacher who is forever encouraging people to get their lives down on paper. As Jim Harrison said, death steals everything but our stories.
When Apps left the UW-Madison safety net in 1994 — he remains an emeritus professor — to write full time, his colleagues thought him daft. “They said, ‘You’re destroying your retirement.’ I didn’t care. I’d always wanted to write full time.”
His production in the years since has been astonishing, and there is no sign of a slowing down. Apps has two books slated for next year, “Whispers and Shadows,” a collection of personal essays on the outdoors and the evolution of his own environmentalism; along with a history of Wisconsin agriculture in a single volume.
There will doubtless be more novels as well. Apps said he will discuss his research into the frac sand mine controversy Tuesday at Barnes & Noble, as well as read from the new novel.
No one should rule out singing, either.