An Interview with Benjamin Percy
If you're the gambling type, now's a good time to put some serious money down on Benjamin Percy. His second collection of short stories, Refresh, Refresh, just released from Graywolf, though the book's release is mostly an exclamation mark after other accolades. The title story alone made some huge rounds: it was selected for the first ever George Plimpton Prize by, of course, the Paris Review; it got some fine praise from Ann Patchett in last year's Best American Short Stories; it won a Pushcart Prize. After hearing all that, it's fair to ask if the rest of the stories can stand up to that incredibly accomplished single story.
The great news is that the rest of the stories hold up fine. Percy's stories are vivid glimpses of people in (usually) heavy duty situations, the sort where single decisions mean the difference between something like salvation and something like its opposite. His writing is both generous and hard-edged, so stark at times to feel nearly carved. Most movingly, the moments of grace Percy's characters face never feel forced -- their redemption is true, earned, and often wonderfully moving. Though the story "Refresh, Refresh," is the marquee name of this whole collection, I'd vote for "The Caves in Oregon," the collection's second story, as one of the most moving, tough stories I've read since Tobias Wolff was hitting nothing but home runs (The Night in Question, anyone?).
Mr. Percy answered all these questions graciously and quickly by e-mail over the course of the summer, though there were sometimes long pauses between questions and answers as both parties involved were on the move -- Mr. Percy to a new house in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, where he teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Steven's Point.
As generally as possible, what are some influences on you (and I'm talking both within writing and way way beyond it: food, bike rides, whatever, along with books and movies and authors and whatever else)?
I'm influenced -- primarily -- by a troubled mind. Sometime during my childhood, maybe when I fell from my treehouse and split open my head on a rock, some wires in my brain crossed and fused together. I can never turn my imagination off. I can never not live in two worlds at once. This is why I'm a dangerous driver. Roaring down the freeway, I'll eye up a many-legged water tower rising from the nearby woods. It looks like some sort of otherwordly spider. In my mind it comes to life, crashing through the trees, toward the freeway, wobbling on its long metal legs and baring its long metal fangs, seeking me out. All of sudden the guy next to me -- the one driving the Kermit-green Prius -- is laying on his horn and I realize I'm straddling two lanes while going 40 mph. Part of me is always pulling up a chair at the big black desk of my imagination. I don't know how my wife tolerates it.
And then there are the authors I admire most. Cormac McCarthy. Daniel Woodrell. Rick Bass. Richard Yates. Those guys. And others. I read their work with an ecstatic kind of jealousy; I'm nodding my head and I'm taking crazy notes and I'm feeling the need to attack the keyboard... and at the same time, I can't help but want to give them the single-finger salute, because they're worlds better than me. Knowing this doesn't daunt me. It inspires me. "I'm going to get you," I whisper to myself as I follow their tracks in the mud.
Some writers go for walks when they're trying to work something out in their head. I go to the gym. Sometimes you need to get away from the keyboard and feel the blood flowing through your stiff limbs before the next idea comes hurtling toward you. So I pick up large pieces of metal and put them back down again. The mindless repetition is calming. The sweat gets the poisons out. No doubt everybody at the Y thinks I'm a madman, as I run my hands through my hair and talk to myself and take out a pen to scrawl something on the back of my hand so that by the time I get home again my skin appears covered in stitching.
Okay, as far as influential writers: A friend and I were talking about masculine fiction recently (he’s a huge Thom Jones fan), and talking about whether it’s even a category, and if so, what people are part of it, if it’s got relevance, etc. Your stories are overtly masculine (not a criticism, I don’t think), and I’m curious if you feel part of some larger contingency of writers who are working some of the same territory. Feel free to lambast the question if you’d like, by the way.
I try to expose myself to as many writers as possible. I'll pick up Annie Proulx this week, Herman Melville the next. I'll read poetry by Mary Oliver. I'll read a biography about Custer. I'll read work from Russia, from China, Brazil, and Canada. I'll read a book published 300 years ago and I'll read a book published last week. I try to maintain a healthy diet, to learn as much as possible, to see the world from as many different angles as possible. Otherwise I'd never grow as a writer or a person. With that said, the books that make me clench my fist and grit my teeth -- that really knock me flat -- tend to be operating in the masculine tradition. Those guys I listed above. Elwood Reid. Tobias Wolff. Tim O'Brien. If writers are readers moved to emulation, it makes sense that I'm following their tracks in the mud. Am I consciously trying to join some boys' club? No. I'm telling stories. But because of who I am -- a kind of brutal/sensitive guy -- I guess I align mentally and aesthetically with them. So I won't knock the question -- because I think men (in general) write very differently than women -- but I will say that I seem to have as many female readers as men, so I'm not writing exclusive fiction. Instead (I hope) I'm bringing to the page greater insight into how the male mind operates, which a female readership actually might enjoy for reasons literary and anthropological.
I don't even know how to ask this question, but it's about place. Specifically, all the stories are incredibly grounded in their location. I'm from the midwest, Minnesota, and knowing you're in Wisconsin makes me wonder how much the midwest is affecting you as well. Also: Is Oregon just a default setting? Craig Finn, the lead singer of The Hold Steady, has said he set all his songs in Minneapolis/St. Paul just because Rock and Roll's a young thing, and the Twin Cities were where he spent his young years. Discuss any/all of this as much or as little as you'd like.
Flannery O'Connor is often quoted for saying, "Anyone who survives a southern childhood has enough material to last a lifetime." I feel the same way, though the backyard of my childhood was crowded with mountains and pines, not swamps and cypresses. Perhaps because fantasy informs our youth -- as we built castles out of boxes and threw pinecone grenades and pretended ourselves into CIA assassins -- our imagination travels there first -- to the trapdoor with oiled hinges. For me, that leads to Oregon. Place is integral to all my work. Essentially it serves as a character whose dialogue is heard in wind and thunder, whose features are seen in rock and soil. Will I always write stories with Oregon as my primary canvas? I can't say for sure. I can say that I've hammered out a few stories set in Wisconsin. And they've all done very well -- published in The Chicago Tribune, Minnesota Monthly, and Esquire -- which has helped me understand that the Pacific Northwest isn't my magic feather. Really, with the exception of the mountains, I see Oregon and Wisconsin as close cousins. There are similar tensions between the rural and urban population -- there is a similar sense of wildness that informs the Northwoods -- so maybe I'll eventually accept one backyard over another and become a card-carrying MidWESTERN writer.
I'm curious, just because we've begun with a little bit about "The Caves in Oregon," about the role of redemption and, especially in that story, a sense of hope. I don't want to go too far either way (in how I read them), but I'm curious about your take on something that might (really lazily) be considered a positive/upbeat story. Is there something stronger and tougher, maybe even more real, in a story without an obviously positive ending? Is this stuff you even think of?
When writing, I never think of endings in that way, as happy or sad, light or dark. When somebody -- usually my father -- reads one of my stories and says, "Wow. That was a really depressing way to end it," I'm always a little surprised. I carefully consider the narrative arc and the character arc -- the way they intertwine in the final paragraphs -- but I don't take into account whether I want to uplift or smackdown my audience. For me, it's more organic. I see the ending as inevitable, the moment I've been working toward since the first line, the only way the door can close. Whether that door is painted pink or red or black depends on the rest of the carpentry.
I tend to have a darker sensibility, but I wrote "The Caves in Oregon" during a very happy (though stressful) time -- soon after my son was born. Perhaps that determined the redemptive moment: my desire to see everything work out for the best. Certainly that informed other things my life. Normally I'm a horror movie fanatic, but during those first few months of fatherhood, I found myself turned off by violence. They say estrogen levels surge in new fathers. Seems a likely diagnosis, since I went through a rather warm-and-fuzzy period. But it was only a temporary lapse. I'm back to being a guy with hair on his knuckles and blood on his lips.
Just because you talked so much about working with/around a (seemingly) overbearingly active imagination, do you feel like there’s a lot of space between your writing and your life? Does your life suffer when writing’s not going well, or do you just dust yourself off and start another story?
The other day, when driving along the Interstate, I saw a pickup engulfed in flames. Next to it stood a man in combat boots, jean shorts, and a white T-shirt. He was laughing. I see something like that and file it away. Maybe a week from now, maybe three years from now, it ends up in a story. The same goes for everything in my life. My grandfather dies. My wife and I get into a red-faced argument. My kid eats a spider. Each event adds a new wrinkle to my brain. In all likelihood I'll return to that wrinkle and gouge it out with my fingernail and flick it onto the page. This is not to say that everything in my fiction is a translation of my life. But I think experience is the bedrock of imagination. And though I've never had writer's block, I have had moments of high despair, usually in the form of rejection. I sit on the couch and work my way through a bourbon and mutter the most profane curses you could possibly imagine. Then I make sad eyes at my wife so that she'll rub my back and nibble my ear and tell me how cool I am. After that I'll feel better and get back to work.
Are you specifically a short story writer, or will you (would you like to) write a novel at some point? Do you feel like you should write a novel? Along these lines, what do you think of the short story’s place in literature right now (I know that’s sort of a silly question, but seeing as academics/MFA programs are so focused on short stories, I’m curious).
I wrote a novel a few years back. It didn't work out, but I cannibalized the remains and made a lot of short stories out of it, so no regrets. I'm nearly finished with another novel -- called The Wilding. Hopefully this one will go the distance. I tried to play to my strengths. It concerns a small cast of characters -- in (essentially) one location -- over three days. I don't know that I'll ever be able to write a sprawling Dickensian novel. I'm just not wired that way. Look at George Saunders. Lee K. Abbot. Alice Munro. When it comes to short stories, they carry the biggest guns in the business. But all of them have expressed their reluctance -- even their fear -- to take on the novel. A sprinter can't always run a competitive marathon. A marathon runner can't always run a competitive sprint. One is not training ground for the other. You've got a certain configuration of red fibers and white fibers that determines which race will earn you the gold medal.
Can you talk a little about teaching in general? Do you enjoy it, or is it something to just pay the bills, keep body and spirit together? What’re the difference between your responsibilities as a teacher and as a writer?
Yeah, teaching is a hell of a lot of fun. It's more, much more, than just a way to pay the bills. It's a way to earn my oxygen, to give back and make a difference and all that happy crappy. But in all seriousness, I feel so lucky to find myself in a room full of people who care deeply about telling stories, about the power and wizardry of manipulating 26 letters. There's nothing worse than a professor who whines, sneering their lip and sighing as they tell you they can't find the time to write, not with all these papers to grade and blah blah blah. Give me a fucking break. You've got a month off at Christmas -- three months off in the summer. What other job gives you that? What other job encourages you to write and celebrates your writing? I don't know if it's because so many of these limp noodle-types came from upper-middle class backgrounds, but they seem to have an unrealistic vision of their importance and what the world owes them. Sling some hash for eight hours -- work a register for eight hours -- plow a field for eight hours -- we'll see how much energy you have left at the end of the day. But I digress. I know how instrumental my professors were in lighting the way. I hope to do the same for others. And on a very selfish note, I seem to experience a lot of my biggest breakthroughs in my writing when I'm teaching. It forces you to see with such depth, to articulate exactly how you feel about a certain passage or character, so that you develop a new way of seeing and suddenly your own work appears as if through a fresh lens.
What’s the view out your window?
I just moved into a house -- my first house -- in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. We're in a wooded area, surrounded by pines and spruce and poplar that whisper when the wind rises and shelter the deer that come trampling through my yard every morning. This is what I see from my living room window. But when it's time to write, I descend into the basement -- to the room at the end of the hall -- where the walls are crowded with bookshelves and a small recessed window permits only a little light. Out of it I can see the knotty roots of a nearby pine. It's better this way, with my desk against a wall, so that I'm not distracted by the sunlight or some squirrel doing squirrelly things. There's just me and the keyboard holding congress in this shadowy den.