The Millions Interview

“The Avengerization of Literature”: An Interview with Benjamin Percy

By posted at 6:00 am on June 11, 2013 0

coverIf you haven’t heard of Benjamin Percy or his new book, Red Moon — hailed as “an ambitious, epic novel” by Publishers Weekly — chances are good you’ve come across one of his articles or reviews in a myriad of popular magazines. Last year, he spent a few days with John Irving and (literally) wrestled the 70-year-old author of A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules for a profile in Time magazine. Esquire published his compelling, intensely personal essay, “How a Percy Gets Old: Lessons from Four Generations of Men,” earlier this year. And in March, GQ published an article about his experience wearing a pregnancy-simulation suit (called the “Empathy Belly”) designed by Japanese scientists, which led to a strange appearance on the Today show.

covercoverThat’s a lot of exposure for the author of Refresh, Refresh and The Wilding, two well-received books published by Graywolf Press, and The Language of Elk, his debut story collection originally published by a university press. As of this writing, Red Moon is in the top 20 of several Amazon.com categories, including “Literary Fiction” and “Fantasy,” so that exposure, backed up by a national book tour and Grand Central’s hardworking publicity department, seems to be working.

Percy, whose fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and Best American Short Stories, is among a select group of critically-acclaimed writers — among them Justin Cronin (The Passage) and Colson Whitehead (Zone One) — who are now finding large audiences with horror fiction. He took time at the end of his recent national book tour to answer my questions about this stage in his life as a writer.<

The Millions: Red Moon, like the werewolves at the heart of its story, is a shapeshifting hybrid — a literary horror novel. In what tradition do you place this book?

Benjamin Percy: If people want to call it a literary horror novel, that’s fine. I know it makes them feel better in a neat-freaky sort of way. Like balling their socks and organizing them in a drawer according to color. And I know it’s a talking point, a frame for discussion. But really, people, it doesn’t matter. These are phantom barricades. What is Margaret Atwood? Or Kate Atkinson? Or Cormac McCarthy? You could argue them into several different corners of the bookstore. If I’m going to align myself with anyone, it’s them. And Peter Straub and Dan Chaon and Larry McMurtry and Ursula K. LeGuin and Tom Franklin and Susanna Clarke and anyone else who makes an effort to be both a writer and a storyteller, someone who puts their muscle into artful technique and compulsive readability.

TM: A few prominent literary writers have published horror-related or –themed novels in the last few years. Like them, you received much praise for your earliest work, but this novel will reach the largest audience. Do you worry that readers will tire of the literary crossover novel?

BP: Realism is the trend. That’s what people seem to forget. Look back on the long hoof-marked trail of literature. The beastly majority of stories contain elements of the fantastic. It’s only very recently that realism has become the dominant mode. And that’s changing. Thanks to people like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, who have been cheerleaders for the Avengerization of literature, and thanks to writers like George Saunders and Karen Russell and Kevin Brockemeier and Matt Bell and Kate Bernheimer, who have a kind of hybridized vigor and playfulness to their work that makes them neither fish nor fowl, both literary and genre.

Some people have referred to Red Moon as a departure for me. It’s no departure except stylistically: I have written an epic, sweeping novel (whereas my previous work has been compact). I grew up on genre and even my so-called literary work is plotted and employs the tropes of horror. “Crash” is a ghost story. So is “Unearthed.” “The Caves in Oregon” is a haunted house story. “The Killing” is a pulpy tale of revenge. “When the Bear Came” and “The Woods” are creature-in-the-forest stories. My short story “Refresh, Refresh” was originally a fantasy in which the boys transformed into their fathers by the end. My novel The Wilding originally contained an ending that revealed a supernatural monster. Both were edited into realism.

There is no crossover. Red Moon isn’t some dalliance. This is the kind of book I’ve been working toward writing my whole life and this is the kind of book you’ll be seeing from me from here on out.

TM: You’ve had a lot of new experiences related to the publication of Red Moon — meetings at Amazon headquarters, a trip to the United Kingdom to promote the book, and an appearance at the Texas International Comic Con (Comicpalooza). What has surprised you most about this stage of your career?

BP: I’m in a constant state of surprise. I don’t take anything for granted. In part that’s because of the way I was raised. And in part that’s because I faced a steady stream of rejection for years before finding any sort of success. Every publication, every award, every event is gravy. There is no point in my life when I have thought, “I’ve made it.” I don’t think there ever will be. I’m constantly amazed (and almost embarrassed) by good news. And I’m constantly certain that something terrible will befall me. On a daily basis, I think about back-up jobs. Like, postal carrier. I think that would be a killer job. Just walk around, whistling, tucking letters into mailboxes, thinking up stories. And I might be considering something like this — how I’m going to pay the bills, how I’m going to get my kids through college — right after I walk out of Amazon’s offices or off a stage at Comicpalooza.

Because that’s the way my mind works, I have to remind myself to enjoy the moment. My buddy Jess Walter — novelist and zenmaster — is really good at this. I get on the phone with him and he tells me to chill out, look around, appreciate how the hard work has paid off. And for a few minutes I’m like, “Yeah! You’re right, Jess Walter!” And then I go back to grinding my teeth down to nubs.

TM: Is it true that your agent, Katherine Fausset, sold the novel before it was written? She’s also thanked in the back of your first book, a story collection published by a university press. At what point did you start to work with her? Has working with her affected or influenced how you approach writing fiction?

BP: Katherine sold Red Moon based on seventy pages, accompanied by a twenty-page outline. Same goes for the next novel, The Dead Lands, which releases in June 2014, a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark passage. She’s the perfect combination of tough, smart, witty, and sweet — as an editor, advisor, champion, friend. We began working together in 2004. At the time, I had “sold” my first book on my own to Carnegie Mellon University Press, after soliciting many agents and editors and hearing the same thing from all of them: “Get in touch when you have a novel.” After I signed the contract, I made a ballsy move, posting the deal on Publishers Marketplace, describing it in the most flattering terms possible. My inbox flooded with emails from Warner Brothers, the Paris Review, Albin Michel (who remain my French publisher), and a long list of agents who noticed I wasn’t represented. I was in the fortunate position to get on the phone and talk to all of them before deciding that Katherine was the best match. She’s my first line of defense, the person I send my manuscripts to before they head off into the wild world, and she always has an insightful response, editorial and business savvy.

TM: What is your work day like when you’re at home? Are you able to write while you travel?

BP: On an ideal day, I wake up at six, box up some lunches, ship the kids off to school, then brew a pot of coffee and head downstairs to the cobwebby dungeon where I work. I’ll spend six to eight hours hammering the keyboard and then — come mid-afternoon — I’ll climb out of the dark to play with my kids, hang with my wife, catch up on chores, help cook dinner. When I travel, I’m reading on planes, writing in hotel rooms, which doesn’t suit me, but I make it work. A quiet routine is the best friend of a writer.

TM: Grand Central just reissued your first book, The Language of Elk, as an eBook. What will readers of Red Moon think of that book or Refresh, Refresh, your second story collection?

BP: I wrote the stories in The Language of Elk when I was twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four. This was my time in grad school. Once I “sold” the collection, it took another two years to come out. People might be interested in them archaeologically — to see how far I’ve come stylistically, thematically. Of the stories in there, “Swans” and “Unearthed” are the ones I’m most proud of, but even they make me cringe. I wish I could go back in time and workshop myself violently. But that’s how I am with all of my writing. I’m immediately dissatisfied with it. I’ll edit myself even when standing behind a lectern, reading to a room full of people. I’m glad for that — it means I’m always chasing something better, never plateauing.

TM: Aside from length, what do you perceive to be the essential differences between the short story and novel forms? Do you see yourself continuing to write short stories?

BP: I have another collection ready, but Katherine wants to wait and shop it after I have a few more novels out. I love short stories — writing them, reading them — but over the past few years my mind has rewired and I think almost exclusively in the long form. The differences between novels and short stories are legion, but to break it down as simply and generally as possible: a short story is a stylistically vigorous glimpse of a life.

TM: The Wilding, your first novel, is about a son, father, and grandfather who find trouble during a hunting and fishing trip into the mountains. The role of Karen, the wife/mother back at home, is less important — it’s a subplot. The majority of your short stories are about men or boys. At what point did you decide to make Red Moon’s protagonist a teenage girl?

BP: Red Moon has a huge cast — and I’d say six of them are identifiable as protagonists. They are men and women, young and old, the infected and the uninfected — from all different geographic and cultural and political backgrounds. I wanted these myriad perspectives to tangle together, contradict each other, supply a complicated vision of complicated subjects: xenophobia, terrorism.

With that said, Claire and Miriam are my two favorite characters in the novel. Red Moon has more in common with X-Men than it does Twilight, but I did have Bella in the back of my mind when writing. I’m disturbed by how she — emotionally and physically abused by the man/vampire she falls in love with and sacrifices herself to — became a role model for so many. I’m surrounded by fiercely strong women. My mother is a warrior. My wife is a force, and our daughter is like a miniature version of her. All of my bosses (department chair, editors, agent) are tough as hell, smart as hell. So I was thinking more about them when building the characters of Claire and Miriam, who are stronger than any of the men in the novel.

TM: In an interview several years ago, you mentioned having abandoned earlier novels, but that The Wilding played to your strengths. What do you see as your strengths now?

covercoverBP: I didn’t abandon any novels. I completed four — all failures — and buried them. Most writers have a similar arc: you get the bad writing out of your system. Throw away a few thousand pages. The Wilding, my first published novel, was a negotiation between the short and long form — in that it has a small time frame, follows a small cast, takes place on a small stage. It was a gateway to the epic sweep of Red Moon (which is a novel that follows many characters over many years in many different places). I’ve always loved the epic — the immersive reading experience provided by T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Stephen King’s The Stand — and I’m excited to have conquered something of this scope. It’s the same exhausted satisfaction that comes from completing a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. With that said, I know I can do better — and plan to in the next novel.

TM: You’ve published a number of articles about the craft of fiction writing, including several for Poets & Writers, and a craft book, Thrill Me, is on the way. How do you answer critics who say it’s too soon for you to publish a book of writing advice? That it’s too early in your career to assume that role? Stephen King, a writer you admire, had been publishing novels for twenty years before On Writing.

BP: Writing a craft book is such a small pebble tossed in the big lake of letters, I can’t imagine anyone even noticing or caring. Dozens of people will be outraged by the dozens of people who read my writing advice!

I’ve been teaching writing for over a decade — including time served in MFA programs, among them the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — and I’m a regular on the conference and festival circuit. And people use my Poets & Writers columns regularly in classes, so I guess I must have at least a few nuggets of half-assed wisdom to share.

What distinguishes the book is this: I’m not going through the standard motions, talking about character, setting, point of view, and blah blah blah. I’m looking at genre through a literary lens and focusing especially on how to ramp up suspense and momentum. Hopefully it will be helpful.

TM: Young writers are often told that teaching will take time away from their writing, but it doesn’t seem to have hindered you much.

BP: I’ve had some killer teaching loads. The 4/4, with four different preps a semester. All writing classes of thirty students or more, so that I was grading what amounted to two thousand pages a semester. And doing service. And raising kids. And renovating a house. But if you know me — like, live near me, see me regularly — you know that I’m no fun. All I do is work. I’m obsessed. Writing is my obsession. And when I had those heavy teaching loads, I would sleep four hours a night in order to get the writing done. The writing has always been the priority. Everything else is what I need to do, but writing is what I must do. If you don’t have that mindset, then you’re always going to be prepping class or grading papers before you’re building worlds, pushing sentences around.

TM: You’re adapting The Wilding for the screen, working with producer Shana Eddy and director Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams). To my knowledge, this is your first screenwriting job. How did this opportunity unfold, and what have you learned during the process?

BP: I’ve written a few original screenplays that didn’t go the distance, but taught me quite a lot. But yeah, this is my first job as a screenwriter. If you look at Arriaga’s Twitter bio, you’ll see that he describes himself first as a hunter, then a storyteller. When Shana read about the book, she thought it would match his sensibility.

It’s been fun, getting a second chance on a novel. And playing around with the form. Arriaga always employs a non-linear design and he wants me to do the same.  So I’ve rearranged the narrative in a way that contributes to suspense and gives the viewer the sense of being lost in the woods.

TM: The magazine writers I know work hard — they’re word hustlers — but they don’t have major book contracts and movie deals and a university position. Maybe one of those, sometimes two, but not all three. Why do you write for magazines? What do you get out of it?

BP: I’ve never had writer’s block because I keep a lot of irons in the fire. When I get sick of the novel, I write a short story, fiddle with a screenplay or comic script, hammer out a craft essay, pitch an article. Then I return to the novel, which is always my central concern, with renewed energy and a fresh perspective. So there’s that — this compulsion I feel to dabble in all different forms of storytelling — and there’s this: magazine writing is fun. I typically take on some sort of challenge (like, jump out of a plane, raft a river, hang-glide off a mountain, climb a 250-foot old-growth tree and spend the night in it, go on a crazy detox diet in which I drink only water and eat only fruits and veggies for 21 days). Usually it’s something I want to do or need to do, and then I scam an article out of it. When writing fiction, I’m visiting faraway places and meeting new people, but only in my mind. Magazine writing puts me in new and uncomfortable situations, introduces me to interesting people, exposes me to danger—all of which I’ll probably find a way to channel into my fiction as well.

TM: “Refresh, Refresh” was adapted into a graphic novel by the talented Danica Novdorgoff. Do you have plans to write an original graphic novel or comic book series?

BP: I’ve talked to Vertigo [an imprint of DC Comics] several times — we’ll see if something flies there — and I’ve just finished a graphic novel that M.K. Perker will be illustrating.

TM: What would you go back and tell young Ben Percy, the boy just beginning to dream of becoming a writer?

BP: I was going to say something like, “This is going to be a long painful apprenticeship. Be ready to put in your 10,000 hours at the keyboard before you produce anything of note,” or “Read your brains out and write your brains out,” or “If you want to go the distance, you’ll need the right balance of ego and humility,” but I learned all of that without anyone whispering Yoda-esque platitudes in my ear. So I guess I’d say what Jess Walter is always saying to me, “Don’t forget to enjoy yourself.” Not that I’d listen.





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