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Kevin Fenton writes a portrait of an ad man as a farm boy

The St. Paul ad writer follows up his first novel with a memoir about growing up in a southern Minnesota farming community.

Photo by Corey Docken
Kevin Fenton

There’s a character on “Mad Men,” a copywriter by day, who goes home and writes fiction. He even had a story published in “a magazine called the Atlantic Monthly,” which inspired a fair bit of razzing from his colleagues.

A version of that guy works in most ad agencies — the day job pays the bills, but the book is the dream. Kevin Fenton is not that kind of ad man. “I didn’t go into advertising writing as a cheap second cousin to novel writing,” he says. “If I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d still write ads. I love it that much.”

The St. Paul ad writer has followed up his first novel, “Merit Badges,” with a memoir about growing up in the southern Minnesota farming community of Rollingstone (pop 662 in 2010). “Leaving Rollingstone” (Minnesota Historical Society Press) is a graceful look at small-town life in the 1950s and ’60s.

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Although Fenton’s father was grievously disabled and their family lived on the edge of poverty, this is the story of a happy childhood and, more curiously, the origin story of a natural-born ad writer. From his first glimpse of Orange Crush and Nehi pop bottles, Fenton was on the path to a world far from the farm.

Here’s our conversation:

MinnPost: Are you the only writer to hail from Rollingstone?

Kevin Fenton: A local lady wrote a history of the town’s Luxembourg roots some years ago. But otherwise I’m it. There are a lot of writers from the western part of southern Minnesota, the ones we think of as prairie writers. From Laura Ingalls Wilder on to the great poet Mark Vinz, the prairie has grown plenty of writers. But I wanted to write about the farming communities, which are very different. I think that’s a story that hasn’t been told.

MP: How did the town nurture you as a writer?

KF: Well, I was raised Catholic and attended a Catholic school, and in a way this is a Catholic memoir. There are a lot of Catholic memoirs out there, and most of them — understandably so — are not happy. But my childhood was happy, and the Catholic aspect of the community was an antidote to the harsh realities of farming. There was an expectation that a certain number of boys would go on to the priesthood, so more intellectualism was permitted than perhaps in a typical farming community.

MP: So you were not an outsider if you weren’t bound to be a farmer.

KF: Right. And I clearly was bad at farming, unlike my brother, so I wasn’t expected to stay. I thought I’d stay close to home, though, go to school in Winona and maybe practice law. But it turns out that I was much more of an urban person than I realized, despite growing up in a place with a healthy amount of fear and distrust for the cities.

MP: That persists in a lot of places. Why do you think that is?

KF:  Well, in outstate places, we have a sense of being on the outside. We want to be counted, too, to have our lives explained. I don’t think it’s a good thing for the state, to have so much us-them in the city-outstate relations. There can be a sense of judgment coming from small towns, and a sense of condescension coming from the urban places.

MP: You write so expressively about the impact seeing products and brands had on you when you visited the local market. Is that the beginning of your life in advertising?

KF: I think it was. Those early branding messages still have a powerful nostalgic effect on me. The people who created them were the contemporaries of the characters on “Mad Men,” and they were really creating a new world. Something in me responded so powerfully to their messages.

MP: You worked in advertising in the Twin Cities and New York not long after the time depicted on that show. Do you think “Mad Men” gets it right?

KF:  To be honest, I don’t like “Mad Men.” It shows my favorite profession, my favorite place, my favorite time period, but I just can’t like any of the characters. They aren’t straining for anything important in life. I know art is supposed to be able to tell you something even when it’s about people who aren’t sympathetic, but these people bother me.

But when I first entered advertising, it was a very exciting time to be in that world, in that city. I remember being so inspired by the big, beautiful posters you’d see on bus shelters, just works of art. You couldn’t miss them. The show gets at that newness of it all. And I do admire the way the creative process is depicted. There’s nothing I love more than brainstorming in a group.

And, for all his faults, [the character] Don Draper takes his work very seriously. I appreciate that. I get into ad writing in the same way he does. I get to be Everyman when I’m writing. If I’m writing an ad about horse feed, I think, why would someone want to buy this horse feed? And I try to understand the person.

MP: That’s why you love to write ads?

KF: Well, they mean things to people. So they matter.


Sept. 12: 7 p.m., Common Good Books
Oct. 3: 7 p.m. Rochester Historical Society
Oct. 19: 1 p.m., Winona Historical Society