maybe it's the scowl...or the growl
What I wanted was to back BENJAMIN PERCY into a corner. I wanted to pin him down, poke him around, see just how cranky he could be. Dangerous, I know, but we’re familiars, both raised in the backwoods of the West. We can set traps, skin rabbits, split kindling, shoot beer cans, and drink whiskey ditches with the best of ‘em—or at least I can. But Ben wasn’t taking the bait. For all his bravado, he’s a pretty humble guy. He’s nothing if not disciplined and fanatical in his focus. Maybe that’s why he has come so far, so fast. Born in 1979, Ben was raised in the high desert of Central Oregon and went to private school in the resort community of Sunriver, which is, perhaps, where his bifurcation began. Archeology was his first passion, but while at Brown University, and at the urging of his (now) wife, Lisa, Ben turned his focus to writing. He earned his MFA from Southern Illinois University. He teaches in the MFA program at Iowa State University and in the low-res MFA program at Pacific University. He has also taught as guest faculty at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and regularly lectures at conferences and universities around the country. He is the author of two novels, Red Moon (forthcoming from Grand Central/Hachette in 2013), and The Wilding (Graywolf, 2010), as well as two books of short stories: Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf, 2007) and The Language of Elk (Carnegie Mellon, 2006). His fiction and nonfiction have been read on National Public Radio, performed at Symphony Space, and published in some of the top literary magazines in the country, including Esquire, GQ, Men's Journal, Outside, Paris Review, Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, TIME, and The Wall Street Journal. His honors include the Whiting Award, the Plimpton Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories. His story, "Refresh, Refresh," was adapted into a graphic novel (co-authored by filmmaker James Ponsoldt and illustrated by Eisner-nominated artist Danica Novgorodoff) and published by First Second Books/Macmillan in 2009. Peter Straub calls Ben “one of our most accomplished young writers.” Brady Udall proclaims him “the best new writer to step into the spotlight in years.” Dan Chaon praises his stories as “big-hearted and drunk and dangerous,” and Ann Patchett sees for Ben “a long and brilliant career.” At thirty-three, Ben’s rise from “promising” has turned to“skyrocketing” as he makes his latest move into film. "I think I'm writing…with a mythic voice,” Ben has said. “My stories are about bigfoot and bearded ladies, horse ranches, marijuana colonies and elk-hunting resorts. And I'm writing about all these things with a salty, mystical voice I hope partners the material and the landscape."
Ben granted me a few minutes between the hours of his writing, teaching, touring, fathering…and his own interviews with master authors.
K: First, tell us about your recent interview with John Irving (TIME, April 23). There was some talk of the two of you lifting weights together, taking target practice, maybe even engaging in a hair-suit/hirsute wrestling match. Did it make you cranky to have to trot out your supposed masculinity in exchange for an interview with Mr. Irving?
B: John Irving is one of my literary heroes, so it was beyond surreal to find myself alongside him--hefting large pieces of metal, grappling together on the mats, later bullshitting in the steam room as we worked out the kinks from our time in the gym. He was a true gentleman, even when he kicked my ass. I came away with a paralyzed shoulder and rug burn on my face. He turns seventy this year, but he has the energy and strength of somebody half his age.
K: Your writing is often compared to that of Southern writers who grounded their stories in violence and the grotesque, including James Dickey and Harry Crews—authors whose work I admire. Both men cultivated personae of almost primitive machismo—hard drinking, hard living, physical toughness--and some would say you’re following in those footsteps. I’ve been thinking of Crews’ essay, “The Violence that Finds Us,” in which he writes about his own myth catching up with him when he’s knifed in a bar. How do you keep your public persona and your life as a writer separate?
B: I grew up in the woods. I tore around on dirt bikes, got into fist fights, received a .357 for my sixteenth birthday. I jump out of planes, hang-glide, camp in the backcountry, take on magazine assignments where I drive large trucks around in the mud. But I also have a pretty ordinary counterpoint to that wildness: a wife, two kids,
home repair. A lot of my life is spent reading stories to my daughter or tossing a baseball with my boy or reading the newspaper with my wife on a Sunday morning. That balance is important, keeps me grounded. And then every few weeks I go off and do something insane and return home happily as if I have lanced some boil to release my poisonous core. Nobody has tried to knife me yet. But if they do, I will eat their liver.
K: As “the new master of the American grotesque,” have you ever had an idea for an article, short story, or novel that you really wanted to write but didn’t because you feared that it might be too graphic, vulgar, or exploitive?
B: Mostly I write whatever comes howling out of me, but every now and then my agent--always the first line of defense--will say, "Really, Percy? Let's rethink this." I think I've developed a pretty good radar for how far I can go, how close I can get to the edge of the abyss without falling into it.
K: Every one of your characters (including the animals) in The Wilding is cranky as hell about one thing or another: war, marriage, pending extinction. PW called Justin a “masterwork of pitiable wretchedness.” Paul, the father/grandfather, is crotchety, at least, and at worst, he's a tyrant. Did you base his personality on anyone that you know?
B: As always, some things are true, some things are not. As a writer I'm like a crow gathering up all the shiny objects in the world and weaving them into a gruesome nest. So when I look at Justin or I look at Paul--or when I look at any of my characters--I see physical and emotional characteristics that belong to neighbors, friends, schoolmates, colleagues, family members. But it's never a complete portrait --I'm blending then heaping over the top a healthy serving of imagination.
K: You write fiction, articles, and essays on craft, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you go full-on confessional. Has anyone ever asked you a question about your personal life that really chapped your ass—and what was it?
B: I'm a fiction writer. Magazines keep asking me to write nonfiction, and I do, but I prefer to spend my time making stuff up, playing with my imaginary friends. And you'll notice, if you're a Facebook friend or Twitter follower, that I never post anything about my family and only rarely (and safely) anything about my personal life. I like to keep those fences up, with a few exceptions. It's pretty hard to offend me. Whenever anybody asks a question I don't want to answer, I just give them a circular or digressive response. Like right now.
K: Your life as a professional writer seems defined by a kind urgency, a balls-to-the-wall race toward critical and commercial success. You make of your everyday life—your plan to lose weight and get healthy, your vasectomy—fodder for the magazine mill. Booklist characterized The Wilding as “a bit overambitious,” which I’m guessing you took as a compliment. In a previous interview, addressing the authors you admire most (Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, Rick Bass, Richard Yates), you wrote, “’I'm going to get you,’" I whisper to myself as I follow their tracks in the mud.” My question: Where does that drive come from?
B: Hard to say. But I am obsessed. Writing is an obsession, a mania. I am Ahab chasing the white whale. I regularly spend eight to ten hours at the keyboard. I don't do this to win awards or sell copies at the bookstore, though I'm ofcourse thankful when this happens. I do it because I love the work, what some people would consider the drudgery of putting one word in front of another and building sentences. I'm not a lot of fun for this reason. I presently have no hobbies: I have too many stories to tell, too many books to read, and not enough time for any indulgences beyond coffee and whiskey.
K: Red Moon, a “werewolf novel…made of equal parts supernatural thriller, love story and political allegory,” sold on proposal, picked up a film deal with The Gotham Group, and you’ve just delivered a 640-page draft to your publisher. Do you have a particular fear about critical response to the book that breaks you out in a three a.m. sweat?
B: No fear. I'm writing the same sort of sentences, building the same sorts of characters that you'll see in any of my "literary" fiction. Some people called The Wilding a "literary thriller," and I guess you could say the same of Red Moon. I've never been a fan of the fences people try to build around genre. You've got good writing and you've got bad writing. Doesn't matter if there's a ghost or a robot or a spy or a cowboy in it. Take a look at Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy or Michael Chabon or Ursula K. LeGuin or Justin Cronin--that's the kind of hybrid model to aspire to, with careful craftsmanship and an engine that demands you turn the page.
K: There’s a wild rumor floating around that your editor encouraged you to add Karen’s narrative line to The Wilding in order to introduce a feminine presence into an otherwise very masculine story. Is gender balance something you worry about in your writing? Will there be female werewolves in Red Moon or only girls who fall badly in love with male monsters?
B: That's not true. My editor wanted me to make what was originally more a novella (or shnovel) into a novel. So we brainstormed different ways to make this happen, one of which was to move it from first to third person. In doing so, I was able to open up the narrative and follow multiple points of view. Not only was the narrative made more muscular, but the themes were explored from myriad perspectives. In that initial revision, I built five different plot-lines that were later stripped down to three, among them Karen. Red Moon is a global novel that takes place over several years and follows many, many characters -- but four of them are especially important. Two
of these are female -- and both of them bad-asses. The book is about infectious disease and terrorism, but it is also about identity. Claire is my heroine, the lead at the heart of all the intertwining plotlines. When people asked me early on about gender balance, my response is always, hey, I wrote the stories in The Language of Elk when I was twenty-three, twenty-four. I wrote the stories in Refresh, Refresh in the two years after that. I wrote The Wilding in the two years after that. I'm now thirty-two, and with each book, you see the characters growing up (moving from adolescence to married with children), you see the plots and language grow more sophisticated, and you see a better range of not just young and old, but men and women, and that's because the more any writer lives, the more able he or she is to imagine other lives convincingly.
K: What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve been given, and how did you know?
B: I can't think of any specific piece of lousy advice, but I dealt with a number of instructors who beat the living shit out of me. Said they hated my writing, they hated my stories. And, yes, they used that word, hate. Admittedly, I was pretty awful when I first began taking workshops, and I don't think anybody ever thought, oh, he's going to make it. This never bothered me much. I knew I sucked. And their criticism didn't
discourage me so much as it pushed me to read and study more books so that I could get better. Over time, I've managed to achieve a certain level of non-suckiness through pure stubbornness, doggedness, which I think might be a more important characteristic in a writer than talent.
K: About the corduroy vest….
B: Ahem, that would be a leather and canvas vest. And I think it goes perfectly with my zebra-print thong.
K: Thanks for that, Ben. Stay cranky!