meets Deliverance, a Conversation with Benjamin Percy
The last five years have been good to Benjamin Percy.
After graduating with his MFA in Fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 2004, his fist collection of short
stories, The Language of Elk, was published by Carnegie Mellon in 2006 and short-listed for the Story Prize.
His second collection, Refresh, Refresh, followed just a year later with Graywolf Press, the title story of
which was awardedThe Paris Review Plimpton Prize and was selected for inclusion in Best American Short
Stories 2006 and The Pushcart Prize XXXI: Best of the Small Presses, 2007.
The screenplay adaptation
of Mr. Percy's story "Refresh, Refresh" was one of twelve finalists for the Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers
Award and is currently in production under the direction of James Ponsoldt. "Refresh, Refresh" was also adapted
into a graphic novel of the same title in 2009 with First, Second books, co-authored by Ponsoldt and illustrated by Eisner-nominated
artist Danica Novgorodorf.
Now, in 2010, Mr. Percy lives in Ames, Iowa with his wife and two children and teaches fiction
and non-fiction in the Master of Fine Arts Program at Iowa State University. His first novel, The Wilding,
is forthcoming with Graywolf in the Fall. This conversation took place in March.
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: In the past five years
you've managed to produce two collections of short stories, a graphic novel, countless book reviews and articles on craft,
and, of course, your forthcoming novel The Wilding. What's probably most impressive about this body of
work is the wide-reaching praise it has received. How have you managed to produce so much high quality work in such
a brief period of time?
Benjamin Percy: I'm a workhorse. I put in time at the keyboard every day, with few exceptions. Sometimes
I go an hour-sometimes I go eight hours-whatever is available to me. Used to be, back in grad school, I'd wake up at
4:30 and hammer into the early afternoon. These days, between my teaching duties and daddy duties, I have a tough time carving
out big chunks of my day, so I write whenever and wherever I can. I might work in my office at school with the door closed
or I might work at my kitchen table while something is baking in the oven or I might work in my backyard while my kids are
playing. This discipline has helped me go the distance. I'm a strenuous reader (my books have so many notes in them they appear
corralled in barbed wire) and I'm a hardcore writer (treating the keyboard as a tool, and writing as a job, not as some mystic,
transcendent, artsy fartsy experience) and my doggedness, my single-minded pursuit to do better, has helped me more than talent.
you're not just pounding out story lines and passing them off as prose, your stories quickly moving beyond their telling and
into the more complex (and perhaps stuffy) realm of literary fiction. Peter Straub put it best when he said "Benjamin
Percy moves instinctively toward the molten center of contemporary writing, the place where genre fiction, in this case horror,
overflows its boundaries and becomes something dark and grand and percipient. These stories (Refresh, Refresh) contain
a brutal power and are radiant with pain -- only a writer of surpassing honesty and directness could lead us here."
Yeah, that meant a lot to me, Peter's blurb. He's been a kind of invisible mentor-I started reading his books in middle school-so
he's been with me all along, hovering over my shoulder like a ghost, whispering in my year. And now we're pals, which
feels a little surreal. I'm definitely following his tracks in the mud, trying to write stories that some have called
"literary horror" (if you think of horror as an emotion more than a genre).
Some writers (especially
in the academic circuit) turn their back on genre. That snobbishness pisses me off. If you look at the worst of genre fiction,
sure, the characters are cardboard cut-outs, the language is transparent, but if you look at the worst of literary fiction
(which has become a genre of its own), there's plenty to complain about, too-the wankiness of the purple prose, the high boredom
of the material, etc. I think there's something healthy about getting in touch with those books we loved when younger-whether
horror or thriller or western-and then approaching them through a literary lens. Look to Straub and Ghost Story.
Or Atwood and The Handmaid's Tail. Or McCarthy and The Road. Or Brockmeier andBrief History
of the Dead. Or Chaon and Await Your Reply. Or anything by Lethem or Chabon or Bender. I could go on.
If you look
at the stories in Refresh, Refresh, many of them are literary/genre hybrids. "Crash" is a ghost story.
"The Killing" is a tale of revenge. "The Caves in Oregon" is a haunted house story. "Meltdown"
is a sorta sci/fi, sorta western. I don't think too many people would recognize them as such at first glance-it's only from
the corner of your eye that the tropes and devices of genre announce themselves.
AMK: It would at first seem difficult
to straddle the literary/not-so-literary fence, but you seem to have done so pretty well. Your work has garnered unusually
high praise from such stylistically diverse writers as Brady Udall, Ann Patchett, Salman Rushdie, and Daniel Woodrell. Your
stories are included in Best American and Best of the Pushcart. You've received
high-literary prizes such as the Whiting Award and theParis Review Plimpton Prize. At the same time, however,
"Refresh, Refresh" has been adapted to the graphic novel and silver screen.
BP: I like to keep things interesting.
When working on a novel, I often take breaks to punch out short stories and articles. So I move from the longer to the shorter
form-and from fiction to nonfiction-and lately I've been playing around with screenplays, comic books, and a television series
concept. The writing always feels new and exciting to me-and I think, I hope, this energy comes across on the page.
AMK: Are you at all
concerned how your work has changed as a result of these adaptations?
BP: Not at all. James Ponsoldt (whose first film, Off
the Black, starred Nick Nolte and Timothy Hutton) is a hell of a smart and talented guy. I trust and respect him. He's
involved me from the beginning-shooting me drafts, asking questions about the story and its characters, inviting me out to
scout locations with him and the producer. He didn't have to do that-but I'm grateful that he did. I'm grateful that he's
taken on the story and made it his own.
I can say the same of Danica Novgorodoff. I'm thrilled at how she's reimagined
"Refresh, Refresh" - the way the seasons serve as chapters, the way army green infects every frame, the way the
nightmarish watercolors at the conclusion serve as an emotional bridge to the boys enlisting. Before she began her illustrations,
she sent me several pages of questions about the story, about the location-and then she asked me for an itinerary and traveled
to central Oregon so that she could realistically bring the setting to life. Sometimes it's eerie how closely her drawings
resemble the images in my head.
AMK: Are you happy with the graphic novel?
BP: I'm thrilled by it. Danica is an extraordinary
artist, and I love what she did with all the army green that smears its way through the pages, with the nightmarish water
colors that close the narrative. I love, too, the way she keeps the writing to a minimum-and tells the story almost purely
with image. And she made a smart decision about time-framing the three acts of the novel around the seasons. We had so much
fun working together that we're now collaborating again on a book of fables. She's providing three or four black and white
illustrations for each-and we've published several of them so far in journals like The Southern Review, Ninth Letter,
Iowa Review, Ecotone, and Orion.
AMK: One of the things I love about "Refresh, Refresh" is the absence
of any sort of fatherly influence in the boys' lives, even though they live with their grandfather and the entire town is
mourning along with them. It seems to me that this is what "Refresh, Refresh" is largely about: the failure
of the community to intervene. But it would seem that this is a sort of "happy accident" as a result of some
pretty heavy editing by The Paris Review. As a reader, I find this kind of disappointing...but, as
a writer, I find this fascinating and, in many ways, a source of hope for the process.
BP: You're misinformed. The heavy
editing by the Paris Review was purely surgical. They took stuff out. There were three boys that became two. There was a storyline
about the grandfather that got axed (and then became its own story, "The Killing"). There was a kind of Greek chorus-a
brain-damaged vet who dragged his karaoke equipment in front of the Dairy Queen every night to sing songs that bore witness
to the boys' progress. So in fact nothing changed about the story's themes, the story's vision-it simply became tighter, leaner,
more focused-as forty pages shrunk down to eighteen.
AMK: Tell us about The Wilding.
BP: There are a lot of fingerprints
on the book. I owe a lot of buddies- and I owe my agent- credit for reading over earlier drafts and giving me some solid advice.
And I especially owe my editors at Graywolf Press the world for their dedication to the manuscript. When they bought it-in
March 2008-it was more shnovel than novel. And my editor, Fiona McCrae, helped me reinvent it, break it into pieces and mold
it into something bigger, stronger, fiercer.
I moved the point of view from first person to third person-and, with the freedom
afforded to the characters, created four interlocking subplots that came to a head at once. The soundbite summary is this: Crash meets Deliverance.
you could call it a literary thriller. The plot is set in motion by the razing of a wilderness area to make room for a golf
course community. Most of the narrative follows characters in the weekend before the developer breaks ground. The themes
concern the latent animalism within us all, the tension between the wilderness and civilization with a particular focus on
continued Westward expansionism (the railroad tracks and mill towns of yesterday replaced by ski lifts rising up mountains
and too green golf courses spreading into desert environments where the grass would otherwise grow a blighted yellow).
AMK: What aspects
of composing a short story/collection of short stories did you find useful in writing this novel? What wasn't so useful?
are a different beast entirely. We're not just talking about a long short story. The language can't be as intense-or the reader
will get exhausted. The structure isn't as precise-the novel encourages some messiness and digression. The engine is different-you
can't get away as well with an elliptical structure, with a juggling act, as you can with short stories; the novel has a much
more causal arrangement, with one thing leading to another.
AMK: Are you at all concerned that too much might be expected
of The Wilding? The bar has been set awfully high.
BP: Sure, sure-how could anyone not be worried? I can
imagine the reviews already: "Percy should stick to the short stories." But hey, I had fun-and I'm happy with the
book-and I've learned a lot-and the next time around I'll hammer out something even better.
AMK: Your stories often jockey back and
forth between scene and exposition. "Refresh, Refresh" opens with the depiction of two brothers beating the shit
out of each other in organized boxing matches after school. We then quickly move into the depiction of their fathers
departing for Iraq. Once this background information is provided, we move back into scene again.
works similarly, opening with several pages of exposition that illustrate the nuclear meltdown that has struck the entire
West Coast and then moves into cinematic flashbacks in which we learn about the story's main character, Darren Townsend, a
veteran of the war on terror who travels the wasteland in search of, among many things, himself. His life is inexorably
altered when he rescues a young girl named Roxana from a hungry pack of wild dogs (scene), but his nights are still haunted
by flashbacks of Iraq, of the men he's killed for his country now destroyed from within by its unquenchable thirst for, literally,
How is it that you render scene and exposition so seamlessly and to such great effect?
BP:Summary is useful to provide
background, to characterize, to swirl through time. And scene is necessary-it's the heart of storytelling-the key to creating
a felt experience for the reader. I move back and forth between the two for rhythm (exposition is legato to scene's staccato).
And for efficiency (Look at a story like "Meltdown." If I told it entirely in scene, it would go on for over
two hundred pages. But summary allows me to move swiftly, to transition, to make the narrative sweeping but economical). Summary
also allows me to intrude and exert some control and commentary.
AMK: Tell us about your "geometry of dialogue."
BP: I published
an article in Poets & Writers about this. Triangulation, I call it. It's dangerous, I think, to set characters down at
a kitchen table-or at a bar-or at a park bench-and have them chat. It destroys momentum. So I advise writers to find a way
to triangulate meaningful dialogue. To create some action, some short-order goal, that accompanies the characters' voices.
Maybe they're painting a porch. Or driving through a construction site. Or gutting an elk. The way they slop a paintbrush
or stomp the gas or wield a blade says as much as any snippet of dialogue. And it creates an engine that moves the conversation
AMK: Do your characters typically come from your imagination or do you borrow from your surroundings?
All of my fiction is a stew. Some of the ingredients are drawn from life (in the case of character, my grandfather's nose,
my neighbor's voice, my best buddy's way of walking), tossed in a pot, an oozing ladle of imagination served over the top.
AMK: You are a lover
of metaphor, comparing the Army's recruitment in Tumalo, Oregon (a town mourning the deaths of the 2nd Battalion,
34th Marines in Iraq) like "poaching the burned section of forest where deer, rib-slatted and wobbly-legged,
nose through the ash, seeking something green" ("Refresh, Refresh) and the cell phone in "The Killing"
to a bullet, "squared at one end and rounded at the other, gleaming silver." While it's nothing rare for a
good writer of prose to use metaphor it does seem unusual for one to use it as often as you do.
BP: I like special effects.
I try to hold back, because I love metaphor so much, plunking no more than one into a paragraph ideally. Otherwise the reader
might feel overloaded, the writing might begin to sound like writing.
AMK: You also like to work in the same motifs or themes, especially
the deformation of nature, the conflict between the classes, and the difficulty men have with love. It seems that most
young writers have a sort of central axis or motivation from which most of their works emerge. But I've also heard you
say that you set out to write stories that looked at the war on terror and its effects at home in your stories because, while
poets, film makers, painters, etc... were concerning themselves with the war, few fiction writers were. You had a desire
to change that and did.
How often do your stories and their themes happen as a result of a desire to write about something in particular
rather than a more organic, spontaneous moment between yourself and the page?
BP: I begin with an image. Or a voice. Characters come
alive. A world comes alive. I never have my themes preplanned, my tropes in place, when I first set out. If I did that, I
suspect my stories would feel hollow and forced.
AMK: Are you at all concerned that writing about the war might
alienate a potential audience for your work?
BP: I distrust partisan fiction. Something that reads like an editorial, an
after-school special, with a clear message, the author's politics obvious and pushy. I try to occupy a kind of gray territory,
to toe a line, so that hopefully my audience doesn't know where I stand. With a story like "Refresh, Refresh," the
boys feel pride for their fathers even as they resent the military for dragging them away-and they are attracted to the violence
and heroism of the war even as they're horrified by the possibility of losing those that they love. I've had vets and war
protestors alike love the story, hate the story, for very different reasons. Some have called me a liberal pantywaist and
others have called me a conservative nutjob. That's what makes me feel like the story is successful.
AMK: What's next?
BP: I'm working
on a book of personal essays. And a book of craft essays. Another novel. The book of illustrated fables. I've also put together
a comic book proposal. And I'm juggling several screenplay ideas. I've never had writer's block, because whenever I feel worn
down, I jump genres and the writing becomes electric and exciting again.AMK: Thank you.