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Interview With Michael Sean Comerford: ‘American Oz’ Author Lived Among The Carnies—Inspirational Indie Authors Podcast

Interview with Michael Sean Comerford: ‘American Oz’ Author Lived Among the Carnies—Inspirational Indie Authors Podcast

My guest this week is Michael Sean Comerford, who spent the first part of his career as a journalist, moving from town to town. Turned out, life on the road was perfect preparation for what came after his newspaper career, which was writing a book about carnival workers. He traveled with them, worked with them, talked to them, lived among them.

In the end, he emerged with his book, American OZ; An Astonishing Year Inside Traveling Carnivals at State Fairs & Festivals: Hitchhiking From California to New York, Alaska to Mexico. And to talk to him, you get a sense that Michael Sean Comerford is not yet finished with his travels.

Listen to My Interview with Michael Sean Comerford

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On Inspirational Indie Authors, @howard_lovy features @mikecomerford, who lived among carnival workers to write a fascinating, adventure-filled #memoir called American Oz. Click To Tweet

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About the Host

Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last eight years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.comLinkedIn and Twitter.

Read the Transcript of my Interview with Michael Sean Comerford

Howard Lovy: I’m Howard Lovy and you’re listening to Inspirational Indie Authors.

Every week, I feature a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors to find out what inspires them and how they are an inspiration to other authors.

My guest this week is Michael Sean Comerford, who lived the first part of his career as a journalist, moving from town to town. Turned out that life on the road was perfect preparation for what came after his newspaper career, which was writing a book about carnival workers.

He traveled with them, worked with them, talked to them, lived among them. In the end, he emerged with his book, American Oz.

And to talk to him, you get a sense that Michael Sean Comerford is not yet finished with his travels.

Michael Sean ComerfordMichael Sean Comerford: So, hi Howard. My name is Michael Sean Comerford. I’m a writer and an award-winning former international journalist who’s worked in Chicago, New York, Budapest and Moscow. I bicycled three times across America, hitchhiked across America, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. I’ve ridden freight trains and rounded up cattle out West. I’ve studied Buddhism in the Himalayas. I’ve won a heavyweight boxing championship in Ireland. I toured almost a hundred countries. I’ve swum the headwaters of the Nile, fought off a hippo attack, toured the ecological disaster areas of the Amazon. And now I live in the Chicago area, in order to be near my daughter, Grace, who figures prominently in my book, American Oz, and I promised her I’d stay closer to home for a while.

Howard Lovy: But when Michael was growing up, staying close to home meant a lot of traveling since his home moved every few years, and he continued to wander the world into adulthood. It’s one reason he became attracted to the lifestyles of carnival workers.

Michael Sean Comerford: My dad was a Navy officer, and I was born in San Diego, and we moved 10 times before we moved to the Chicago area. I always associated moving with wonder, with exciting people. I kind of felt a kinship to the traveling carnival people and their lifestyle. They are traveling constantly, and the next place has a sense of adventure. And so, I grew up that way. And then I moved to a lot of places, including Washington DC and the Midwest, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and then I went to Marquette for undergraduate. I went to Ireland for a junior year in Cork city.

I went to Northwestern, eventually, to get my master’s degree in journalism, and I worked for a variety of newspapers including the Chicago Tribune and with them, or for them, the Tribune, the Sun Times, the New York Daily News, the Moscow Times, Budapest Sun, Budapest Business Journal. So, I’ve had a long journalism career.

Howard Lovy: Michael is particularly fond of his time spent as a journalist in Budapest, just after the fall of communism.

Michael Sean Comerford: I had a Eurail pass and the farthest it went East was Budapest and so, I stopped there. I loved the city; it was right after the fall of the communist empire. I’ve always been very interested in the Soviet Union and the whole communist era in that part of the world, and in Eastern Europe. And so, I thought, well, if I ever get a chance, I’m going to come back here. I was unemployed at some point and I saw an advertisement to come over and work for the Budapest Sun and the Budapest Business Journal, and I did, I worked for the great Mike Stone and we were there right after the fall of communism, and we were a startup newspaper above a strip joint. It was called the Wild East at the time.

Howard Lovy: And it really was wild being a business reporter, covering the sudden lurch from communism to capitalism.

He worked in Budapest. And then in Moscow.

Michael Sean Comerford: To be a business reporter was amazing at that time, and eventually I went off to Moscow as a business reporter, and a friend of mine said, hey, you’re not really a business reporter in Moscow, you’re a crime reporter.

And it was really, it was during the Yeltsin era, and the kleptocracy was running on all, you know, pistons, and when I got back I became a business reporter again, and I worked for the third largest paper in Illinois, the Daily Herald, which is suburban Chicago, but I covered all of Chicago business except tech, and that was extremely interesting in the nineties and early two thousands.

So, I had a wide gambit.

Howard Lovy: And then came the journalism apocalypse, people stopped reading newspapers. That’s when he thought he’d try to write a book and carnival workers, or carnies, caught his attention.

Michael Sean Comerford: There were great stories told about life on the road, and I saw these carnies as great mysteries and great stories to tell, and I wanted to go out and tell them, and I found it and it became a book. Like so many others, like all the people that you interview must tell you, or a lot of them, must tell you that the book started out one way and ended up in a way that they never expected. And I went out initially to mix it with journalism, be an immersion journalist and spend a year in a single carnival and cover income inequality.

And so, the places in America where that’s the most dramatic is the Silicon Valley, where the people are wealthy beyond anything in history, and they have the poorest people in history, not in history, in America. So, I thought, this great Silicon chasm it’s called, go out there, see it from behind a Ferris wheel, and see what it’s like to be in a carnival and tell the carnival people’s stories and so forth.

And when I went out there, the owner of the carnival, Classic Amusements, but he said, before I came out, you can be a writer out here, everybody blogs, he was kind of condescending about it saying, well, you know, you’re from Chicago, I’m from San Francisco, everyone blogs out here.

And I came out there, I said, I’m going to blog because that’s what I did for the whole year. I had blogs and videos. I was storytelling in every single way I could, magazine articles, everything, but he fired me the second week. And he said, look, Mike, no one’s got hire you. This is a stupid idea. You don’t speak Spanish, half of the people in some of the biggest carnivals out here are Mexicans.

So, you’re not going to get the Mexican side, no one’s going to hire you, the owners, this is a horrible idea, and you’re fired. Here’s 60 bucks, more than you had when you came. And I was near penniless, and so I had to make this work. I had to make this year work, and that is where the whole book starts. And I switched, I switched from going from a year in one carnival, I decided, I’m going to go to many carnivals, and eventually I decided, in order to live on carnival wages, I’m going to hitchhike between those different carnivals. And if I have to learn some Spanish along the way, I’m going to get to know those Mexican carnies.

What I did instead is I learned some Spanish, but I went down to Mexico, to a little town in Mexico called {inaudible} in Veracruz state, that town empties of men every year, it’s a virtual ghost town for nine months of the year. And those men go straight up North to traveling carnivals, and that’s all they do.

And so, I got to see the Mexican side, I got to see the customer side, because I was going through America, just interviewing people in their cars as I was driving along hitchhiking, and I got to see 10 carnivals in 10 states, from California to New York, from Alaska down to Florida. And in Florida, I was in a freak show, but I wasn’t on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in me, Howard.

Howard Lovy: But it wasn’t all fun.

There were times he wasn’t sure he could live on the low salary, well below minimum wage. He went from being a ride jockey, a person who operates the rides, to what’s called a jointy, or somebody who runs the games, which earned hi m enough money to live from day to day.

And there was some danger, but more importantly, boy, did he succeeded in meeting all different kinds of people.

Michael Sean Comerford: There was trouble with the money. There was trouble with finding work. There was trouble with the carnies. It seemed like I was near a fight in every place I went, but everybody I met in those cars was a good Samaritan, and I met a lot of different kinds of people in those cars. I met inventors, lawyers, truckers, families, grandpas, grandmas, rich people, poor people, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, a lepidopterist, which is a butterfly expert, magicians, authors, preachers, bloggers, criminals, and maybe even a Saint in disguise.

Howard Lovy: What Michael wants readers to walk away with after reading this book is a sense of shared humanity. That the people who run the rides and games at our carnivals and fairs each have stories of their own.

Michael Sean Comerford: I think the world runs on untold stories. One of the things about my book that isn’t really touted as much as it should be is that it touches on the big issues. The journalist part of me wanted to touch on the working poor, wage inequality, race, cast, immigration, family separation, substance abuse, and hard loss during this COVID time of state fairs and festivals.

This is really hurting these traveling carnival people that live in those carnivals. So, now their home is gone because that’s where they live nine months of the year, and sometimes a whole year, but also for us as Americans, state fairs attract millions of people, suicide rates are going up and this function in society is going up, all I believe, in part, because of our isolation from each other.

And these kinds of people in these traveling carnivals, their art is to make other people happy and with them missing, we are the poorer, but also, we should think of them. One of the things I want people to take away is that you’ll never see another carnival or state fair the same again, because the people that run these things, you’ll see them as real people and not just as someone who’s putting you on a ride or someone that’s running your game. You’ll see them as fuller human beings. It’ll be a different experience.

 

Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy is an editor and writer with more than 30 years of experience in journalism, from newspapers to magazines specializing in business, science, and technology. He has spent the past few years guiding coverage of independent publishing, amplifying voices of the marginalized. Howard is also a book doctor who enjoys working with authors to get their work ready for publication.

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