Let’s be honest—Benjamin Percy is kicking a ton of ass right now. His collection of stories Refresh, Refresh was critically acclaimed, his debut novel The Wilding garnered him national attention, and he’s already been called—by Peter Straub—”one of our most accomplished young writers.” And not to mention, he writes like a punch in the face. Percy’s work is quickly becoming some of the most essential fiction on American bookshelves and it’s only getting better. I got some of his time to discuss what he likes and loathes about contemporary writing, his evolution as an artist, and how in the hell he goes about terrifying his readers.
JYS: What’s it like to be you right now? How has success affected your art?
BP: I’ve always worked hard. Ten years ago, first year of grad school, before I had a publication to my name, the alarm screamed at 4:30 every morning and I went straight to the keyboard and hammered until afternoon. I did it because I loved the work, believed in it, and felt a deep-bellied hunger for readers. I’m the same guy now, only I’ve gone through the refiner’s fire (and become a stronger, cleaner writer) and then the publication gauntlet—but otherwise, no difference, head-over-heels for stories. Critical and commercial success is great—emboldening, sure—but it’s not why I got into this.
JYS: The background for your most well-known story, “Refresh, Refresh,” is a beat-down Oregon town suffering the side-effects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and The Wilding touches on the latter as well. What role do you think the writer has in commenting on current issues? Is there a responsibility for those like yourself who are more visible, to put our times into context? Do you feel that pressure?
BP: Gardner calls fiction the vivid and continuous dream—and if the reader sees the author’s hand (for any number of reasons, politics among them), then the dream dissolves. I try to be political without being polemical. Try. So that when I’m writing about any hot-button issue—like the war—I’m not saying war is good or war is bad. Instead, I’m saying this is war, neither black nor white, written in shades of gray. If I feel like I’m reading an editorial, then the characters come across less organically, less like flesh-and-blood and more like puppets.
So yeah, writers should engage with current events, wrestle with political issues, but what I want to do, with my short stories and novels, is to make them think, not tell them how to think.
JYS: You mention Gardner’s Art of Fiction and his concept of the story as a dream. What breaks that perception for you?
BP: A visible author. A face peeking behind the curtain. Could be the politics are obvious, as I already mentioned. Could be something else. Could be the voice is showing off. I can’t tell you how often I’ve written in the margins of student manuscripts, “Sounds like writing.” Meaning, their sentences are trying too hard, choked with purple prose, and I’m paying too much attention to the special effects and not enough attention to the story and characters.
JYS: So what is it you’re reading now that’s frustrating?
BP: I’m an impatient reader these days. Which is not to say that I’m in a hurry or that I’m interested only in gripping stories or that I avoid work that is challenging and complex. What I mean is, I used to finish everything I started. But I’m too busy for that now. Kids, travel, deadlines, teaching. I’m realizing quickly that I’ll never live long enough to read all the books I hunger for. If an author lets me down, I’m not going to give them two weeks of my life. I don’t want to shit on anyone—this business is rough enough—so I’ll just say I’m growing increasingly bored with suburban malaise in fiction.
JYS: What excites you?
BP: What excites me? Recently, Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Shann Ray’s American Masculine.
JYS: What gets me about a Benjamin Percy story is the voice, that voice I don’t hear anywhere else. Where’d that violence come from, where’d those words come from?
BP: Not long ago I went to see True Grit. When Jeff Bridges first started talking, my buddy leaned over and said, “That’s the voice inside your head.” And he’s right. I am apparently possessed by the ghost of Rooster Cogburn and we séance through the keyboard.
JYS: I think with that voice comes the element of horror that everyone seems to use. In The Wilding there’s a character, Brian, who is one of the most stirring and upsetting psychopaths rendered since Stephen King’s heyday. In regards to horror, do you decide what’s frightening for you and then project it for your audience?
BP: Years ago, I was watching the DVD extras for the original Halloween, which included a short documentary about the film. John Carpenter said that before he began writing the the script, he jotted down “scares.” Various images that creeped the hell out of him. A featureless white face emerging from the shadows. A car (presumed to be empty) with the windshield fogged up from the breath of someone hidden in the backseat. Etc. And then he built a story around them. I can’t say that’s my strategy, but after I heard that, every time I encountered—or imagined—something creepy, I would jot it down for later use. The folder on my computer is named SCARES. I’ve drawn from it extensively in the writing of Red Moon—and I drew from it when writing The Wilding as well. That’s where I got the moment in the tent, when the canvas is pressing inward and darkening with saliva. And that’s where I discovered some of Brian as well. My friend in northern Wisconsin comes from a 4,000-acre tree farm his family has owned for several generations. When he was a kid, he was obsessed with trapping. He once showed me the side room of his barn—and in it, hundreds of traps hung, all of them rusted and mud-caked and spiked, busy with chains, making the room appear like some torture chamber. He told me about what he used to do with the skins of the animals he trapped—mostly he sold them—but once he sewed a pair of pants out of several beaver pelts. That was the seed that gave rise to the hair suit idea, which naturally seemed like a metaphor for someone animalistic to the point of being a lycanthrope.
JYS: Do you read and adopt whoever you’re digesting at the moment, or do you stay your course? I know, for me, John Updike gets into my writing whenever I’m reading the Rabbit novels. Is there any work that gets a hold of you?
BP: Used to. When I was an undergrad, when I was a grad student, everything I read affected me profoundly. I was reading Carver, I wrote like Carver. Or O’Connor. Or Munro. Or Marquez. That’s natural. That’s a good thing. Students shouldn’t feel the anxiety of influence. They should lay themselves bare to it. That’s why forms classes are so helpful—in which you study an author for a week and write a story that channels their voice and then a critical essay that explains every grammatical move and its rhetorical effect. Every author you encounter—as an intentional reader—supplies you with tools you will later employ. This never stops. The workbench in my garage is always busy with new ballpeen hammers, chainsaws, oil cans. But over time, tens of thousands of hours, you of course develop a more mature and consistent and polished voice.
JYS: You always mention your time as a student and what it has meant for you in regards to your development into the writer we see now. What teachers have influenced you and what have you gleaned from those relationships?
BP: My undergraduate professors taught me little about craft, but their encouragement (and their syllabi) made me fall in love with reading and writing short stories. It wasn’t until I found myself (seemingly by accident—I had no idea that the MFA existed until a month before I applied) in grad school that I began to comprehend what I was up against (the odds of making it as a writer) and how little I knew. Beth Lordan taught me about metaphor and restraint and humility. Mike Magnuson taught me about how to put together and take apart sentences. Rodney Jones taught me about the right word. Brady Udall taught me about story. Jon Tribble and Allison Joseph taught me how you can’t be a good writer unless you’re a good editor. I’ve got all their ghosts on my shoulders today, whispering in my ear.
JYS: About editing—you’ve written a lot about the craft of writing. In Poets & Writers you likened it to refinishing a house and said the professional writer “lops off limbs, rips out innards like party streamers, and drains away gallons of blood…” It all sounds so violent, so severe. What’s your process really look like? More specifically, if you could, take us through a day or a week in your process. When do you write? When do you revise? When do you read?
BP: I begin every workday rereading what I have already written. If a short story, I mean from the beginning. If a novel, I mean from the beginning of the chapter in progress. This might take a few minutes or several hours, depending on how much material there is, depending on the refinishing that needs to take place. I’m cutting here, adding there, moving things around. I’m recognizing tropes and motivations and plot points that I initially didn’t know were there. So I warm up with revision and then move into imaginative/generative mode, filling up the white space.
I try to read every day, usually at night, when I’ve lost the impulse and venom to write. Sometimes, though, I’m sneaking reads while my kids play in the backyard or while my wife runs into the grocery store. I always have a book or literary journal within reach.
JYS: You’re serving now as a professor at Iowa State’s MFA program and at the low-resident program at Pacific. You’ve got a growing family to look after. How has that changed your approach? I know, for instance, that you used to spend obsessive amounts of time in the library, catching up on works you felt you’d missed. How have your responsibilities affected your production or approach?
BP: My many, many responsibilities impact only my indulgences. I used to watch several movies a week, no longer. I used to go camping, go fishing, go hiking, biking. I used to go out to the bar. I used to watch television. I used to read more magazines. I used to sit on the porch and smoke cigars. I could go on. I don’t have time for indulgences right now. Because I have precious little time, and it’s dedicated exclusively to the writing. My production hasn’t gone down—it’s gone up. Everybody is busy, but I’m insanely busy, so I don’t have much tolerance for those who whine about not having the time to write. You make the time.
JYS: You sort of cut your teeth with short fiction and have found success with the novel form—do you see yourself going back to stories or are you primarily interested in longer works?
BP: I love short stories, as a reader and writer. I’ll always be married to the form. But the audience for them is quite limited. I hope to hammer out a few every year, but from now on I’ll be working primarily as a novelist.
JYS: What other clubs do you have in your bag? You’ve tended toward masculine, literary fiction and have flirted with facets of genre. As you keep writing and developing, what else do you see yourself attempting?
BP: Bodice-ripper romances with lots of hot, throbbing, damp euphemisms for genitalia.
In all seriousness, novel, screenplays. That’s my focus right now. I have in the hopper five ideas I’m really eager to write. All of them supernatural (approached, of course, through a literary lens). One of them YA.
JYS: How’s the screenwriting shaping up?
BP: When James Ponsoldt wrote the “Refresh, Refresh” screenplay, he gave me amazing access, passing along the acts, the drafts, asking for editorial feedback. That’s how I figured out the form. We collaborated recently on a horror comedy concept that’s under consideration as a television series—and we’re finishing up a comedy script that we hope to shop before the summer is out. A producer has also asked me to write the screenplay for my novel, The Wilding—I haven’t made up my mind on that one—I only have so much time—but it’s an attractive possibility.
JYS: How do you feel about that method of storytelling?
BP: I’m a film junkie. Before I had children, I subscribed to Premiere, I plugged in to two or three films a week, I read a handful of reviews for every new release. I don’t have that kind of time anymore, but I’m just as in love with movies.
One of the most comfortable feelings in the world, for me, is settling into a darkened theater with a bucket of popcorn. Good cinema has as much to teach the storyteller as good writing, and ultimately that might be my interest, telling stories, no matter the medium. I tend to think of the screen and the page interchangeably.
JYS: Is there anything writers can learn from the form?
BP: What can writers learn from film? The importance of sensory detail, particularly image. The importance of causality and momentum, one thing leading to another. When I teach novel-writing, I draw liberally from screenwriting texts.
JYS: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask—what’ll we be seeing from you in the near future?
BP: Late summer of 2010, I handed over sixty-five pages to my agent, just to get her feedback. She seemed more excited about it than anything I have ever written, said she wanted to write a twenty-five page “pitch” (that summarized the plot and character arcs) and then she planned to go out with the partial manuscript after Labor Day. She did. Submitted it on a Thursday and by Sunday the pre-empts started coming in. By Wednesday, when it went to auction, my life had taken a surreal turn. Red Moon is the tentative title and Grand Central/Hachette is the publisher. The novel (a supernatural story with a political allegory at its heart) is more or less my sole focus right now. I took the spring and fall off from teaching. I have a December 2011 deadline I’m chasing and I’m hammering the keyboard every day to meet it.