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Benjamin Percy: The Powells.com Interview

Benjamin Percy

Benjamin Percy lit up the literary scene a few years ago with his second collection of short stories, Refresh, Refresh. The title story won a Pushcart Prize, a Plimpton Prize, and was anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2006, for good reason. Peter Straub raved, "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 contain a brutal power and are radiant with pain — only a writer of surpassing honesty and directness could lead us here."

The Wilding, Percy's first novel, seized the imaginations of many of us at Powells.com (and led to more than a few sleepless nights), and we were unanimously excited to choose it for Volume 22 of our Indiespensable program. Antonya Nelson called it "a tour de force meditation and treatise on the nature of violence, the violence of nature, man in the wild, and the wild in man — cleverly disguised as a page-turning adventure. Not just a 'must' read, but a need read, this book is timely, terrifying, terrific." In a starred review, Publishers Weekly remarked, "It's as close as you can get to a contemporary Deliverance."

The Wilding is one of the best novels published this fall, and if you haven't read Percy before, it's the perfect introduction to a remarkable American voice.

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Jill Owens: As I was reading The Wilding, I remembered that it grew to some extent out of the story "The Woods" in Refresh, Refresh. But I didn't realize until I went back to reread Refresh, Refresh how almost all of the stories lent elements to it in one way or another. How did The Wilding evolve in that way?

Benjamin Percy: My father once said to me that the problem with my stories was they were too short. That began to make sense years later when "The Woods" became stuck in my maw. I couldn't let it go. It felt as though the story wasn't complete yet I couldn't let it go. It felt as though the story wasn't complete yet, so I started to turn it over and over in my head, polishing it like a stone, and eventually figured out a way to make it into a novel.

That novel came first as a single-track, first-person narrative, which my publisher, Graywolf, liked. They bought it, but with some concessions. They said that it wasn't yet a novel — it was a "shnovel," sort of like a long short story.

Fiona McCrae, my editor, said that I should switch it from first person to third person, and in doing so, with the freedom of four different characters, create five interlocking plot lines. I set to work, and it took me a strenuous year to put forward that next draft. Fiona read it and said, "Great. Fantastic. But two of these plot lines aren't really working for us, and we want a female perspective."

I went back to work again, and that's the draft that went to the printers. It's been a long revisionary process, that collaborative process. I'm very grateful to Graywolf for helping me figure out how to write a novel, because I had been for so long in short-story mode. I had punched out four failed novels prior to this one, and the failure often came from structure, from me not understanding the structural causality that has to go into a novel, and the thematic sweep that needs to inform it.

For the first time, it clicked, and it took somebody else to shove me in that direction. And now, bizarrely, all I do is think in novelistic terms. It's hard for me to write a short story.

Jill: Like a switch has been flipped.

Percy: Exactly, yes.

Jill: It's interesting that you say that, because I found The Wilding incredibly well paced and well structured. Notably so, even.

Percy: Glad to hear that. It didn't come easily, though. There's a lot of sweat and elbow grease there.

Jill: I also didn't realize until I went back and reread Refresh, Refresh, that "wilding" was a term coined during a particularly bad time in Central Park when several brutal rapes took place. How did you think about the title of the new novel?

Percy: Well, the novel is in so many ways about animalistic impulses. Every character is struggling with this inner wilding, and in some cases it boils over. It manifests itself most obviously in the character of Brian, who in donning this hair suit becomes almost lycanthropic. Then there are more subtle examples such as with Karen, where she's stepping outside the boundaries of marriage and wrestling with sexual impulses that might lead her away from her family.

This is an idea that parallels some of what we see in James Dickey's Deliverance. This year marks the 40th anniversary of that novel, and it's one of the most important books in my library. I modeled The Wilding in many ways after it. If you look at Deliverance, it's one of the central themes that Dickey is trying to explore as well.

I didn't set out to write about animal instinct. I didn't set out to write about the clash between wilderness and civilization. I never set out with a theme in my mind. I begin with images in mind, with characters in mind, and the themes rise up organically. It's at first an instinctual process for me, and then it becomes more intellectual as I go through draft after draft. Dickey's Deliverance and its furry, toothy core became kind of a model for this work.

Jill: That's a great phrase. I love the scene where Justin and his father are literally throwing deer organs at each other during their mock fight. That's about as animalistic, in a way, as you can get.

Percy: That's one of the few scenes of levity, where hopefully you can crack a smile even though the circumstances are a little bit disgusting.

Jill: Yes, definitely, and in some ways, as a reader you need to at that point. The relationships between Justin and his father and his son are the meat of the book, in many ways. So the book brought up a lot of questions in my mind about what role genetics and then culture plays, and what is determined by some other innate force. How much do you think their differences are generational versus based in personality?

Percy: That's something I've thought about a lot, even just with my own family. My grandfather was an incredibly powerful personality, someone who physically and emotionally dominated every room he was in.

My father, too, is a powerful personality, although he has almost no words. He's one of the most intelligent people I've ever met, and he has no words. He's silent — he's almost Vulcan — and incredibly logical and not driven by emotion in the way my grandfather was. It's almost as though he's trying to model himself apart from the man who tried so desperately to control him, to mold him.

Then I look at myself, and at my son, and I wonder about behavioral patterns and the way that they're passed along from generation to generation. One of the things that scares me about my family is the way that we're all alone. It's a Percy male traitOne of the things that scares me about my family is the way that we're all alone. It's a Percy male trait that you end up in a kind of hermetic existence. You end up not getting close to too many people. My father and my grandfather didn't really have friends. I've made a concerted effort to try to fight against that.

I think you see some of these things at work in the novel, some of these things I'm struggling with myself, the way that there's this Darwinian line-up between Graham, Justin, and Paul — the grandson, father, and grandfather.

Paul, the grandfather, is a menace, and he is constantly bullying his son, and pitting his grandson against his son due to his disappointment in how Justin has turned out. Justin's physically slight. He is a teacher. He doesn't use his hands for a living. He doesn't find himself out in the woods often unless Paul is responsible for dragging him along. So Paul is trying to make another son for himself in Graham.

These issues are especially interesting to me now that I'm a father, and I'm trying to take care as often as I can in the way that I present myself to my son and the way I try to control his behavioral patterns -- because some things are obviously inherited, from big ears to bad tempers. But other things, I know, are ingrained through training.

Jill: The Iraq wars are a focus in this new book obviously, and also in a lot of your stories. What's your experience been with those wars?

Percy: Well, I have friends and family who are in the service, but the initial interest came from reading so many articles about the war, watching so many news programs. In 2005, when I wrote Refresh, Refresh, I had read no fiction about the wars yet.

So I sat down with the express purpose of trying to tackle what was going on over there. But I knew that I couldn't necessarily, with any credibility, write about the streets of Baghdad. So I chose to write about the battleground at home. Even when the war doesn't play a central role in the story, as it does in "Refresh, Refresh" and "Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This" and "Meltdown" and The Wilding, even when the war is only at the margins of the story, I think that it comes back to something that Barry Lopez once said to me: writers are servants of memory.I think that it comes back to something that Barry Lopez once said to me: writers are servants of memory. If you're writing about characters that live in this present world, it seems to me that in some capacity you have to acknowledge the war, even if it's only the state of fearfulness and anxiety that we live in.

Part of writing about the war has to do with the zeitgeist. But another part has to do with the fact that you can pick up a newspaper and see on the front page articles about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, but you see nothing about the war until you flip to page seven. And there it is, in a sidebar column that is overwhelmed by the Younkers underwear ad alongside it.

So I think it's important also to remind people of what's going on, to force them to engage with it. But not in a really overt way, not in a way that says, "Here's how you should feel about the war in Iraq." I'm never trying to write an editorial. I'm never trying to write something with an After-School Special message attached to it. I've always distrusted that kind of partisan fiction. I'm not trying to say war is good or war is bad, but here is war. Here's its effect on us.

Jill: When I talked to Justin Cronin, he said that he writes about war because he hasn't experienced it, because he feels like he's missed sort of a central theater in which basic human questions are worked out, which I thought was an interesting perspective.

Percy: That is interesting. I have a Justin Cronin-y story to tell you, by the way.

Jill: Okay, tell me a Justin Cronin-y story.

Percy: I just got some Justin Cronin news in my life. I was writing this horror novel over the summer. It's a literary-genre-hybrid-mash-up — so no compromises with the language, but it's a horror story.

I started this project before The Passage came out. I had 90 polished pages by the end of the summer, and a 20-page pitch. My agent sent it off after Labor Day. And on Monday, crazily, these huge preempt offers came in. Then it went to auction on Wednesday, and a bidding war ensued for six hours.

Jill: Wow.

Percy: My life has just changed dramatically. Ten years of hard work funneled into a six-hour auction.

Jill: Congratulations. That's excellent news.

Percy: Yes, I'm stoked. I'm going to be with Grand Central/Hachette now. Me and Nicholas Sparks. [Laughter]

Jill: That'll be a very different experience than Graywolf.

Percy: I just put in a leave of absence at the university, and the novel is due next December.

Jill: I'm excited to read it. There are elements of horror in some of your stories, and definitely in The Wilding, too. How do you think about those elements in your work?

Percy: I've always been obsessed with horror. I can remember distinctly when I was in first grade, in the corner of the elementary school's library I pulled off a shelf The Universal Book of Horror, or The Universal Book of Monsters. I was looking through it and stopped on the page that had the shaggy, snarling face of the wolf man on it. I was completely terrified and stayed up most of that night crying.I was completely terrified and stayed up most of that night crying.

But, then next day, I went to school again and took the book off the shelf once more, and that defines my relationship with horror: from a very young age I've been addicted to the genre. And I was reading Stephen King in third grade, sneaking books off my parents' shelf.

Jill: I did that exact same thing.

Percy: I was hanging out with kids just because their parents let them watch R-rated movies, and we'd stay up late watching ridiculously bad horror films from the '80s, and snarfing candy bars. And I read, and I still own, all of the Tales from the Crypt comic books, The Vault of Horror and all of that.

So horror has always been a genre I identify with, but I tend to think of horror on an even larger scale. I think of it as an emotion, and this book [The Wilding] is menace, menace, menace throughout. As in Refresh, Refresh, you can certainly see examples of me acknowledging archetypes, acknowledging the tropes of horror.

If you look at "The Caves in Oregon," it's a haunted-house story, and if you look at "When the Bear Came," it's a monster in the woods story. If you look at "Crash," it's a ghost story. But more of it has to do with this feeling of unease and dread and sometimes explosive terror that informs a lot of my work.

I think that everybody begins with genre. We fall in love with reading because we are obsessed with books that have dragons on the cover, or cowboys, or spies in overcoats, or whatever. I mean I went through a period where I was reading sci-fi novels. I went through another period where I was reading Tony Hillerman mysteries. I went through another period where I was reading Zane Grey novels.

Then I went to school and ended up in creative-writing workshops where genre was forbidden, so I fell away from it for a while. But then I encountered this book by Michael Chabon called Thrilling Tales that McSweeney's Books put out. In the introduction to Thrilling Tales, Chabon talks about how literary fiction is a genre of its own, and it always ends sparkling with epiphanic dew, nothing ever happens in it, etc. And he says that, ideally, what if we straddled the two worlds?

What if we took what's best about literary fiction — the gorgeous sentences, the gorgeous metaphors, the three-dimensional characters — and blended that together with what's best about genre, which is the propulsive quality that it has because it concerns itself primarily with what happens next?

When you take literary fiction and you blend it together with plotted fiction, you have a beautiful thing. You have the work of Margaret Atwood. You have the work of Jonathan Lethem, of Dan Simmons, of Dennis Lehane, and I'm very interested in this sort of hybrid writing.

It's nothing new. I've been reading for years the work of Steven Millhauser, Peter Straub, people who care about craft as much as they do a rip-roaring plot. But it's only recently that it really clicked for me, and I really began to pursue it in a concerted way. Justin Cronin, I think, really paved the way for what I'm hoping to do. He certainly paved the way for the success of the project that I've just sold.

Jill: I noticed at least twice in the stories in Refresh, Refresh that you use an image of reaching through something that seems solid otherwise. One time you're describing Portland and its moisture, and you say something like, it seems as though you could just reach through the sidewalk or the sky and pull out a handful of wriggling worms.it seems as though you could just reach through the sidewalk or the sky and pull out a handful of wriggling worms. It occurred to me that a lot of your work could be said to deal with breaking through the surface of things, beneath this veneer of solidity or civility as though some more real, frequently darker, version of the world is underneath.

Percy: Yes, you certainly see that in the "Caves of Oregon," where a door opens up and a staircase descends, and that's where the relationship between these two people plays out. You see that again with characters like the ones in "Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This." After night falls, they take on a much more foreboding stance as they creep along the streets and peer in windows.

I think that one of the central ideas of The Wilding also comes out of this. There's the face we put on when we're around others, our outside face. And then there's our inside face, the one beneath the masks we wear. If you boil it down to a thesis, it's the idea that when you push back, when you push past the veneer, as you say, we're all hairy on the inside.

Jill: I love the treatment of animals in your work, too, just in general, but especially in The Wilding. There are so many. There are snakes and bats and owls and bears and deer and wolves, to name just a few. I find it interesting that you give animals almost as much pride of place in some of your work as people.

Percy: I'm also very interested in the way that these intersections occur between civilization and wilderness, if you think of the environmental sensibility of the novel. You have this wilderness area that's going to be torn up, and a golf course community built over it.

If you look to stories like "The Colony," which appeared in The Language of Elk, you have a vulture which flaps its way into a grocery store. If you look at the beginning of The Wilding, you have a bear tangled up in a barbed wire fence. If you look at the neighborhoods of Boulder, Colorado, you have cougars lurking about and carrying off toddlers into the trees.

As we continue to develop, as we continue to expand, as we raze forests and lay down concrete, there's going to be a kind of confusion of boundaries that occurs.As we continue to develop, as we continue to expand, as we raze forests and lay down concrete, there's going to be a kind of confusion of boundaries that occurs. That's one of the central concerns of the novel. It's no surprise then that you have animals rising up and sharing the stage with humans, and their characteristics aren't too different.

Jill: I have to ask — do you have a real life bear story?

Percy: I worked in Glacier National Park one summer. I worked sometimes as a waiter, but my primary job there was gardener, which seems like a really bizarre gig, to be a gardener at Many Glacier Lodge. I was not doing a lot during that time: mowing the lawn, watering the geraniums, and otherwise hiding in the gardener's shed, reading or napping.

The rest of the time I spent hitting the trails and camping in the back country. That park is crawling with grizzly bears, and I lived in constant fear of being consumed by one of them. When I first got there, when I got off the train at Glacier, I was told that one of my colleagues, one of the other people hired on for summer work, had just been eaten. And they found his boots with his feet still in them, and a long strip of his vertebrae.

It was a mother with her cubs. Supposedly she now had no fear and even had a taste for human flesh. Later on my roommate was on a hike, and that same bear and her cubs bluff charged my friend for 10 miles.

Can you imagine how terrifying that would be? Ten miles of being chased by grizzlies, chased and paced by them. Those grizzlies were later hunted down and killed. But I would be mowing the lawn, and I would look up at the hillside surrounding the lodge and I could spot sometimes 14 grizzlies, moving among the huckleberry thickets.

I was crossing the parking lot one night moving from the bar to the dormitory, and then this black shape crossed in front of me. I was hiking down trails and a grizzly would shoot across 20 yards ahead of me, moving from one thicket to another. I would be camping, asleep in my tent, when all of a sudden I heard heavy footsteps thudding around my tent. That summer brought out the terror. I had a lot of close calls, and you'll see that emotion on the page.

Jill: Did it ever get less terrifying?

Percy: I kept going for hikes, so I wasn't that scared. But I spent a lot of the hike clapping my hands or singing, as you're supposed to do, because supposedly the bears will amble away if they hear you coming.

Jill: Have you read John Vaillant's book, The Tiger, which came out a couple of months ago?

Percy: No, no, I haven't. I don't know anything about it.

Jill: It's a really well-written nonfiction book about this tiger in the Far East of Russia that killed some people and then both got a taste of human flesh and apparently started stalking particular individuals. It's an amazing story.

Percy: I'll look that up. It sounds right up my alley.

Jill: How do you think about writing on the paragraph level or the sentence level? All week I was making people read that paragraph in "Refresh, Refresh," about picking up older women in bars and taking them home to their waterbeds and stuffed animals, because it's such an amazing paragraph.

Percy: I pay a lot of attention to the line by line. I think of writing as a kind of music, and I read aloud everything that I write. I think I have an ear for just the orchestration of it, and I'm trying to always make the style match the content. In moments where maybe the character is in a fragmented state of mind, I'm trying to have a series of choppy sentences. I'm trying in a moment that is maybe swelling in its power to have a series of long, lyrical sentences.

I'm trying to constantly expand and contract the length of sentences to create a kind of rolling rhythm. This is something that doesn't happen in the first draft. It's something that happens as I continuously run sandpaper over the burrs of an initial rush of writing. It's hard for me to say anything more than that, except that as a teacher, I'm intensely concerned with craft. I don't think ideas can be taught. I don't think that passion can be taught. I don't think that vision be taught.I don't think that passion can be taught. I don't think that vision be taught.

But I know that you can help people understand how to employ the arsenal of tools available to a writer. I've spent a lot of time reading books like Rhetorical Grammar by Martha Kolln, where she talks about grammatical choices and rhetorical effects. I've spent a lot of time outlining the paragraphs and the pages of Denis Johnson, and Tim O'Brien, and Flannery O'Connor, trying to figure out how their work ticks. I'm very strategic and very mathematical in the way that I put together every element of a line, which adds up to every component of the story.

Jill: At the beginning of The Wilding, Justin is thinking about how his relationship with his father has stayed the same, even as Oregon has changed around them. How have you seen Oregon change over the course of your life?

Percy: When I was growing up in Bend, I believe 16,000 or 17,000 people lived there, and now it's 250,000 in the metro area.

Jill: I didn't realize it was that many.

Percy: I go there, and I don't recognize it. I feel like I'm writing historical fiction in some ways. I mean, I understand why people move there. It's a beautiful place. I just wish they wouldn't. [Laughter]

It's become a playground for the rich, central Oregon has, anyway. When I was in Oregon not long ago scouting locations with James Ponsoldt, for the film adaptation of "Refresh, Refresh," he took one look at Bend and said, "No way. We can't set this here." He's looking for something rougher, wilder. We found a version of it in Prineville. Prineville now reminds me more of what Bend was like when I younger.

Jill: Recently you spent the night in a 250 foot tree. How was that?

Percy: It was fun. [Laughter] I got incredibly lucky; the Wall Street Journal called me up and asked if I wanted to do a series of weekend adventure articles. I guess they're starting a new feature in late September, and mine is the kickoff piece. So the idea is get away for two or three days, and see what you can do. It's going to be a thrill.

I climbed a 250 foot, old growth, 500-year-old, tree, one of the biggest, oldest trees in the country, a Douglas fir located outside of Eugene. Ropes were cross-bowed up. I did this with an outfitter, and I summited, I guess you could say. I summited the tree three times. We sent up hammocks, and I spent the night swaying 150 feet in the air, which was a pretty amazing experience.

Jill: What are you reading and enjoying these days?

Percy: I've always got a lot of books in a stack. I don't tend to read one thing at a time, I dip in and out of different stories. So I'm reading Josh Weil's The New Valley, which is a book of novellas that's exceptional. I'm reading Louis Bayard's The Pale Blue Eye, which is historical fiction, and a kind of mystery/thriller as well. It's about Poe.

I'm reading Drood by Dan Simmons, and I'm also reading Dante's The Inferno of Dante. I've been trying lately to read more poetry, so I always keep a book of poems next to my bed, and I try to read one or two poems before I fall asleep. Dante's Inferno, what a way to fall into pleasant dreams.

Jill: Thank you so much, by the way, for signing 1,300 books for our Indiespensable edition.

Percy: Are you kidding me? Thank you so much for making that happen. It's obviously amazing just in terms of the quantity of books, but it's more important to me because it's Powell's. Powell's is the bookstore I grew up with. I'd go there when I was a kid visiting my grandparents in Portland, and I'd stay for six hours, lost in the stacks. So, this is really special, as corny as that sounds.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of... Used Trade Paper $5.50
  2. The Passage
    Used Hardcover $5.50
  3. Deliverance
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  4. The Best American Short Stories... Used Trade Paper $6.50
  5. Refresh, Refresh
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  6. The Wilding
    Used Hardcover $8.50
  7. The Inferno of Dante
    Used Trade Paper $9.95
  8. Drood
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  9. The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $3.50
  10. The New Valley Used Trade Paper $3.50
  11. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical... Used Trade Paper $28.00
  12. The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance...
    Used Hardcover $9.50



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