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An Interview with Benjamin Percy

by Christopher Dickens

Benjamin Percy Benjamin Percy is the author of two books of 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 Esquire, Men's Journal, The Paris Review, Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, Best American Short Stories, and many other places. His honors include a Pushcart Prize and the Plimpton Prize. Percy teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.


Christopher Dickens: At this point, with two collections and several major awards, you've had a lot of success as a short story writer. Is this where you want to be, or do you see yourself more as an emerging novelist?

Benjamin Percy: I'll never stop writing short stories. I feel as though I'm channeling electricity when I write them. But as my attention span lengthens and I look for new challenges, the novel beckons. So I plan to always have a big book in the works, even as I take a break now and then to zap out a short story.

CD: How's work on your new novel, The Wilding, coming along? I know it's not your first novel attempt, so in what ways has this been more of a challenge for you than writing short stories?

BP: This just in: Graywolf has purchased The Wilding. I have a strenuous revision ahead of me—shifting the point of view, adding several subplots—so it won't hit bookstores anytime soon. We're probably looking at a late '09, early '10 release. Graywolf was so good to Refresh, Refresh—and their editorial suggestions are so sharp for the novel—that I couldn't be more excited to continue my relationship with them.

As for the differences between hammering out a novel versus short stories….For me—for anyone, I imagine—there is the fear of commitment. You spend years with this thing—knowing full well it might lose its pulse and crumble to ashes. That's a terrifying prospect. Technically, it's just as difficult to write a great short story—but psychologically, it's so much easier to tackle short fiction, knowing if things don't work out, you've only lost a few weeks.

Really, I suppose you can compare a writer like me to the dude who prefers the intensity of a few one-night stands as opposed to the slow advancement of a serious relationship that may or may not end in a diamond-studded engagement.

CD: Your latest collection, Refresh, Refresh, has some very cohesive father-son/masculine themes running through it. Did you write those themes for the collection, or were these stories you already had that just seemed to work together?

BP: The themes emerge organically as I draft. I never sit down and stroke my chin thoughtfully and say, I think I'll write a story about rediscovering your manhood! Instead, I begin with an image or a character or a setting—and the story grows from there, as a narrative, not as an envelope for some message.

I didn't write the stories in Refresh, Refresh to make a book. I wrote stories as they came to me. Eventually I had a lot of them. I set one next to another, looking at them from various angles, as if rearranging furniture in a room. Sometimes the combinations worked. Sometimes they didn't. Graywolf bought the book before the table of contents was finalized. They helped make the decision on what would stay and what would go.

Quote on image reads: Some people refer to me as a neo-traditionalist. I'm not sure what that means except that I don't write hipster ironic fiction that winks at its reader and calls attention to its machinations. I imagine those kinds of stories are written by people who wear black-framed glasses and watch French films and order salads as their entrée at restaurants, but I can't say for certain.

I'm going through something similar now, in that I have enough stories for another collection, but I'm not sure they work together as a unit.

CD: I've read that you're a big Cormac McCarthy fan. Any thoughts on the Coen brother's adaptation of No Country for Old Men?

BP: I could write a ten-page response to this question. It's better answered over a beer. Suffice it to say it killed me. It really did. And I hope its success will result in more McCarthy brought to the big screen.

CD: What have you been reading lately?

BP: This fall I'll begin teaching in the MFA program at Iowa State. One of my classes is (Re)Writing the West, a reading-as-a-writer class that has a critical and creative component. Should be bad-ass. So anyway, I'm re-reading a lot of books right now, trying to get ready: Annie Proulx's Close Range, Leslie Silko's Ceremony, Hampton Sides' Blood and Thunder, Michael Ondaatje's Collected Works of Billy the Kid, etc.

CD: Are there any recent trends in contemporary literature that particularly annoy or impress you?

BP: Some people refer to me as a neo-traditionalist. I'm not sure what that means except that I don't write hipster ironic fiction that winks at its reader and calls attention to its machinations. I imagine those kinds of stories are written by people who wear black-framed glasses and watch French films and order salads as their entrée at restaurants, but I can't say for certain. I don't engage with a lot of postmodern fiction because it feels cold. It loses touch with character. I read to feel alive twice—and that feeling isn't available when I pick up Pynchon or Barth. I can appreciate it intellectually but not emotionally.

Quote on image reads: I can be a mean son of a bitch or the nicest guy in the world. I'll use the words 'ain't' and 'verisimilitude' in the same sentence. In the same night, I might watch an episode of COPS on FOX and a Poirot mystery on PBS. I don't know. I suppose there's something Jekyll-Hyde about me. But hey, I'm sure my stories annoy plenty of people. I'm not looking to drag anybody's face through a pile of dog shit. In the end, it's good that there's a variety of voices out there. If everyone was writing about barbed wire and whiskey, I'd watch a lot more television.

CD: One of my favorite stories in Refresh, Refresh is "When the Bear Came." There's something mythical and archetypal about that raging bear at the end of the leash (after he is lassoed), and what a resonant book-ending image it is. Can you tell us a bit about how this one came about and evolved?

BP: One summer I worked in Glacier National Park—as the gardener at Many Glacier Lodge. The day I arrived, a ranger told me one of my fellow workers had been eaten. They found his boots with his feet still in them, but nothing else. Over the next few months, when I was mowing the lawn or dead-heading the geraniums, I could peer at the surrounding hillsides and see brown shapes shuffling among the streams and huckleberry thickets. Grizzlies were everywhere—and I had a number of close-calls during hikes and camping trips. That stuck with me, that looming fear. The bear is one of the monsters in my life. So I set out to write a monster story.

CD: You strike me as a man who has lassoed a thing or two yourself. Are you much like the gun-toting, beer-chugging, testosterone-heavy characters you've invented?

BP: In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. I'm very contradictory. Ask me to choose a perfect moment and a number of images will shuffle through my mind: reading a book before a crackling fire, engaging in a hungry round of sex with my wife, or standing hip-deep in a river with a trout at the end of my line. Do I work as a wanky English professor? Yes. Have I ever had my nose broken by a fist? Yes. I like beer just as I like wine. I like a rare steak even as I like Vietnamese spring rolls. I know about art history and mythology but so do I know about identifying animal tracks and chopping wood and all that hairy stuff. I can be a mean son of a bitch or the nicest guy in the world. I'll use the words “ain't" and “verisimilitude" in the same sentence. In the same night, I might watch an episode of COPS on FOX and a Poirot mystery on PBS. I don't know. I suppose there's something Jekyll-Hyde about me.

CD: As a regional writer, do you find that writing about the American Northwest has significantly affected your style and voice? Was there a time when you wrote of other places, and if so, how was your voice different?

Quote on image: I speak with a drawl; I suppose I write with one too

BP: When you're first starting out, you try on a lot of different hats, mimicking the authors you admire, trying to do what certain teachers ask of you. Eventually, through this process of experimentation, you find your voice. Early on, my style fluctuated dramatically. But now, whether I'm writing about the West or the Midwest, I more or less sound the same, with some variation based on point of view. In other words, my voice is not consciously effected by regionalism—but I'm certain how I sound is influenced by where I grew up. I speak with a drawl; I suppose I write with one, too.

CD: "Refresh, Refresh" and another story of yours that originally appeared in The Florida Review, "The Whale," were both inspired, it seems, by real events. Do you take a lot of inspiration from the headlines? Where else do your ideas come from?

BP: I'm a junkie. In a given day, I'll watch the nightly news, listen to NPR, flip through a few magazines, and skim three or four papers online. If I encounter something interesting, I'll create an electronic or paper file. I collect far more than I employ. The article becomes a springboard for a larger egg hunt—usually via Google and the university library's electronic database.

I encounter the news in the same way I go through life: gathering information. I am never not thinking about writing. Every barroom conversation, every walk in the woods, every scarred face and broken-winged bird I weigh in my hand and go hmm, I wonder what I could do with this.