Mike Palecek resurrected his activism during an encore career as a novelist. When he discovered the American story was built on false premises, he ripped those beliefs apart and remade himself into a literary star, going strong into his sixth decade.
Palecek’s beginnings were humble enough in Norfolk, Nebraska, until one day in November 1963. The Sacred Heart Elementary School’s principal came to class shortly after lunch to tell the third-graders that President Kennedy had been shot. Such a landmark did not instantly transform Palecek into questioning his government.
Storm clouds were brewing by the 1970s and ’80’s. A grassroots campaign against the nuclear industry assembled after Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979.
Around this time, the Catholic Church shined a different light on Palecek’s next step. “I was in the seminary in St. Paul, and I got kind of radicalized about peace and justice...I left the seminary, went to New York City, [and became a] Catholic Worker, working with the poor, and then I came back to join...the peace and protest movement, which was going strong in the 1980s.
“I went to jail...five times—county jails, federal prison...I had a child and I was married. In ’89 I left that [movement] and I did not think I could go back to it, which I haven’t. So I went into journalism. I went back to my old college, Wednesday College, and started studying journalism. I got a job at a weekly newspaper in Ainsworth, Nebraska, which is in the Sandhills, really western cowboy country. The Gulf War came.
“I had my peace and justice protest background. I wrote a column that said I did not support the troops...and in really any county in America, but especially in the Sandhills of Nebraska, that did not fly. The publisher says he saw his money [threatened]. You can’t piss people off.
“I just totally disagreed with that. You let the chips fall where they may. He cancelled the column; I quit. We got our own newspaper...in southeastern Minnesota, the Byron Review...In our third year, we ended up winning the big newspaper award. It’s called the Mills Trophy from [the Minnesota Newspaper Association] for the best weekly in the state. We went out of business the same year.
“I was not very good at the money part of it. I spent too much money on color and production, and on [paying] people. Then we moved to Northwest Iowa, the Cherokee Daily Times. I was the editor for a year and a half. Then I took a job as a reporter for the Northwest Iowa Review in Sheldon, Iowa. It’s earned many awards for the best weekly in the country. I ended up quitting there.
To avoid censorship, Palecek began self-publishing. In collaboration with retired University of Minnesota Duluth Professor Jim Fetzer, they launched Moon Rock Books. Palecek has now authored around 40 books, including The Last Liberal Outlaw (2004), The American Dream, (2006) Camp America: or Love and Bigfoot in the Time of Swine Flu (2010), A Perfect Duluth Day (2013), and the one that got banned from Amazon, Nobody Died at Sandy Hook. “They sent me an email that said they were taking it down, and then I forwarded that to Jim.”
Palecek’s novels are set in Midwest cornfields, post-9/11, with Mexican-Americans growing up in a country sculpted by forces not readily seen. Guests of the Nation deftly switches between multiple characters during the events of September 11, 2001. His comedic touch surfaces in Kelly and Someone Else, spoofing Kelly Ripa’s floundering attempt to find a viable co-host.
“I feel so good when I am writing. You know when you are in the middle of a novel...You write a little bit in the morning and through the day, maybe you got this problem that needs to work out. And you are thinking about it and you are even doing your job and it clicks...If you’re in the middle of your day and you are working on a novel, and you may be working with a co-worker and all of sudden in your novel clicks. Just think of the joy of it!”
Geronimo’s Revenge will be released next spring.