Category Archives: Benjamin Percy

Links: The Envelope Please

Anne Trubek, blogging again in her own space, takes on the question of criteria in book awards. Laura Miller adds some comments and fills out her argument more back at Salon.

Bookforum reports that New York Review Books will reprint Renata Adler‘s debut novel, 1976’s Speedboat, and its follow-up, 1983’s Pitch Dark. “And now the big question about the reissues: who will write the introductions?” Bookforum asks. There’s one easy guess.

John Updike‘s homophobia, on display in a review of an Alan Hollinghurst novel, and in a short story, “The Rumor.” I don’t see the suggestion that Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is a concession to critics for lacking more explicit sex. The novel is, among many other things, about the difficulty of speaking openly about homosexuality; I take Hollinghurst’s avoidance of detailed sex scenes as in keeping with the unspeakability he’s tracking through the decades.

Inside the newly published batch of Ernest Hemingway letters.

Richard Locke, whose new study Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels I look forward to diving into, on the evolution of criticism post-internet: “It’s true that over the past few decades the gap between literary creation and literary criticism has grown very wide, but there’s a tradition of informal, essayistic criticism that’s still alive …. Informal, untechnocratic writing about literature (often building on the tradition of the personal essay) is still possible and may be growing.” (The stuff trimmed within the ellipsis is interesting, and I think spot-on, as well.)

If you can find three examples, it’s a trend, so Justin Cronin, Benjamin Percy, and Colson Whitehead prove that literary fiction and genre are merging. (I get the points about commerce the article makes, and the idea that writers are more free now to mine what they read as kids for literary purposes, but I’m not sure Junot Diaz fits into this thesis; having a comic-book geek star in a novel isn’t the same thing as having the prose itself influenced by genre fiction.)

Lev Grossman: “Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

Lynda Barry on the two questions that constantly rattle through the mind of the novelist.

How Death and Venice found its way into Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall and (more problematically) Chad Harbach‘s The Art of Fielding.

Andy Borowitz explains why the Library of America collection of humor writing he edited is light on 19th century fare: “The book is very heavily tilted toward more recent writers because I wanted it to be entertaining to today’s readers. With the exception of Mark Twain, very little humor writing of the nineteenth century resonates today, in my opinion.” This makes sense, though the pedant in me wonders if some of that old-fashioned, now-unfunny humor writing wouldn’t be relevant in a collection from Library of America, which has as much of an archival mission as a populist one. I’d want a sense of what made people laugh out loud in 1880, even if it doesn’t do the same for most readers now.

Michael Oriard, an English professor and former player for the Kansas City Chiefs, considers Peter Gent‘s novel North Dallas Forty (Gent died last month) and how “Gent’s portrait of the relationship between the owners and the owned exaggerated the actual state of affairs in a clarifying way.”

Saul Bellow, in a previously unpublished talk from 1988 on being a Jewish writer, refusing to be told what role he ought to play by any self-declared stakeholder: “If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.”

Q&A: Benjamin Percy

This month Benjamin Percy will publish his debut novel, The Wilding, a wilderness tale inspired by a story in his excellent 2007 collection, Refresh, Refresh. Percy makes his inspirations known from the outset—the novel’s epigraphs come from James Dickey, William Kittredge, and Wallace Stegner—and The Wilding is very much in a tradition of man-versus-nature tales of a few decades back. But it’s Percy’s own story as well, concerned with the effects of the Iraq War and the rapidly commercialized wilderness of his native Oregon. Percy a few questions about the novel via email.

The Wilding is an expansion of one of the best stories in Refresh, Refresh, “The Woods.” How did it evolve from a short story to a novel?

My father once said to me, “You know what’s the problem with your stories? They’re too short.” I laughed it off at first—my father is someone who reads epic sci/fi novels almost exclusively—but a few years later the comment began to make sense. I couldn’t get some of my fiction—including “The Woods”—out of my head. This was a story that had appeared in a magazine, and then my collection Refresh, Refresh, but it didn’t feel finished. So I began to image a larger acreage for the story, more room for the characters to roam around. I raised the stakes, including a troubled marriage and an impressionable young boy into the mix. This was the initial draft, a first-person single-track narrative (that would later become something completely different) about a son, father, and grandson descending into a doomed canyon in the weekend before development began on a golf course community.

The novel isn’t the first time you’ve written about the effects of the Iraq War, but Brian is an Iraq War vet who behaves in a very interesting way, becoming “simply an animal, a complicated animal.” What inspired Brian’s character?

Barry Lopez once said to me, “Writers are servants of memory.” Which I love. Especially in the context of war. I feel it’s essential for contemporary writers to acknowledge Iraq and Afghanistan—even if only marginally (accounting for the culture of fear and paranoia we live in)—making a nod to the cultural moment. But when I think about what Barry said, I think about picking up a newspaper and seeing on the front page a string of headlines about celebrity news—and then flipping to page seven and seeing a buried sidebar about twelve soldiers dying in an ambush. Which pisses me off. By writing about the war, I’m forcing (some) people to acknowledge what they would rather forget, would rather ignore.

The novel is about several characters—their plotlines braided—all struggling with their inner animal. Some of these examples are more subtle—such as with Karen, who is motivated by lust and boredom and claustrophobia to flirt with what exists outside the confines of marriage—and some of the examples are extreme, as is the case with Brian, the wounded soldier returned from Iraq. An IED has left a spider-shaped lesion on his brain. He feels lost among people, his company best suited for the woods. He begins to sew together a hair suit—from the animals he traps—and dons it when he stalks the forest at night. I wanted an almost lycanthropic transformation to take place.

Throughout the novel you’re juggling two goals that in some ways seem to be at cross-purposes. The book is an adventure story, but you’re also spending a lot of time in characters’ heads—Justin is clearly working through a lot of emotional issues that come from being both a father and a son. Can you talk a little bit about what’s involved in making what you’ve called a “literary thriller”—keeping both the “literary” and “thriller” elements in balance?

I grew up on genre. Doesn’t everyone? I went through alternating phases. Books with dragons, books with cowboys, with robots, with vampires, with trenchcoated spies or pipe-smoking detectives on their covers. And then I went to college. And I was forbidden from writing genre stories—and grew enamored with literary fiction writers like Carver and O’Connor and O’Brien and Johnson. It took several years for me to realize that I could do both, a literary genre mashup. This is nothing new. Graham Greene was doing it—and so are writers like Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lehane and Michael Chabon and Dan Simmons. So I’m interested in the ways you can blend the best of both worlds. The rich, evocative language, the three-dimensional characters, etc., of literary fiction—and the propulsive engine of plot in genre fiction. So The Wilding is my attempt at a literary thriller. I hope people will relish the sentences—and I hope people will feel lost in the interior worlds of the characters—just as I hope they’ll feel a breathless wonder for what happens next.

In a recent essay for Poets & Writers, you discuss your experience revising The Wilding (PDF) and other works of yours in response to sometimes very brutal feedback. How do you sustain your motivation in the face of having to tear down and start over so many times? To perhaps put it another way, what was it about the The Wilding that made you commit to that work to an extent that you didn’t with the three failed novels you mention?

Earlier I was talking about the original draft, the single-track, first-person narrative. That’s the draft my agent sent to Graywolf and that’s the draft that sold. But Fiona McCrae, my editor, had some great suggestions. Because the book wasn’t yet a novel—it was a shnovel. An extended short story. She asked that I move it from first to third, and in doing so, with the freedom afforded to the characters, create several interlocking plotlines. This created a greater sense of plot causality—and a grander, richer frame for the themes explored. I spent about a year in revision, handed her the manuscript, which she liked very much, but asked how I felt about cutting some of what was there and adding in a female perspective. I thought it was a smart move, so I set to work again and six months later had the final draft ready.
I’m grateful to Fiona for the direction she gave me, but you should know that it wasn’t a demand—it was a question. And you should know, too, that these were one-time conversations. “How about you creative several plotlines and try to balance them out?” she said, and I said, “Okay,” and a year later handed her a draft with no intermittent discussion. So she gave me a nudge that sent me rushing off into the wilderness only to return a year later, snarled up with burrs and coated in mud, panting.

James Dickey’s Deliverance seems to have been strong influence on this novel, and William Kittredge has blurbed it, so in a way The Wilding harks back to a very masculine, 70s man-versus-wilderness kind of fiction. Were there particular inspirations you drew from while working on this novel? Are there current writers using that theme today that you look to, or is there something inherently nostalgic about writing this kind of novel today?

This is the 40th anniversary of Deliverance. It’s one of the most important books in my library—a novel I’ve read several times, a novel I often pull off the shelf to paw through and admire. The Wilding is its canonical cousin, I guess you could say. I’m deliberately tipping my hat to Dickey—as you’ll notice in the epigraph and in scenes like the one where the men lay down Starbucks cups over a Forest Service map—even as I’m trying to write my own story, revisiting some of Dickey’s themes (from development, to the jarring intersection of wilderness and society, to the latent animalism within us all) in a contemporary context, set in the vanishing West and seen through a myriad of point of view character.

There’s some talk that regional fiction is dead—D.G. Myers, for instance, recently wrote that writing about place “has yielded to the national network of writers’ workshops” and that writers are now more likely to jump from locale to locale in their fiction instead of concentrating on what William Faulkner called a “little postage stamp of native soil.” Your fiction is obviously very Oregon-centric, but you’re also removed from it now that you’re at Iowa State University. What’s your take on the survival of regional literature, and how do you feel writing workshops are affecting the form?

I think most people are placeless now. You could put a blindfold on me, drop me anywhere in the country, and I’d probably have a hard time telling you where I was. The stores are all the same—the housing developments are all the same—and people live most of their lives indoors. But I come from such a rich, unique place—Central Oregon—where sageflats run up against a jagged range of mountains, where coyotes howl and bulls low and elk bugle. And though I now live far from the mountains, I find myself returning to Oregon constantly on the page. Partly out of nostalgia (my parents moved to Portland as soon as I graduated from high school). And partly because one’s childhood provides a lifetime’s supply of stories. We’re at our most imaginative as children, and when that dreaming door of my mind opens up, the hallway beyond it leads me to the dry canyons and piney woods and rushing mountain streams that I explored growing up.

I try to encourage my students to write about their own backyard. To look to the geography, the culture, the history, the mythology of the place—and treat it as a stage. And a character.

Links: Comment Thread

“Book reviews as extensions of the book: a review = a room with a door leading to the book. Perhaps some book reviews have multiple doors, one leading to the book, another leading to another review or to an interview with the author, a blog post about the book, an advertisement on a website or in a magazine, a phone conversation, a gchat, a video. The point is their interconnectivity.”

Andrew Seal adds his thoughts on Benjamin Kunkel‘s essay on the past decade in American fiction. Seal calls out a few blind spots in Kunkel’s argument, particularly the growing “internationalism or transnationalism of the American novel.”

Jane Smiley: “I know there are writers who don’t find their work easy or pleasant, but I do.”

Wendy Lesser, who’s written an excellent book on rereading, on rereading The Bostonians.

Lydia Davis is working on a new collection of stories, inspired in part by her recent work translating Madame Bovary.

What Mark Twain ate in the Northwest.

The World Socialist Web Site posits that Tobias Wolff‘s stories admirably connect personal lives and the larger social degradations of the Cold War era—unlike, I suppose, dirty realists and other contemporary American fiction writers, who just make up characters who get drunk and fight in motels.

Couples is a funny thing, a bodice-ripper with a sense of entitlement.”

Benjamin Percy hasn’t been to central Oregon since he graduated from high school there in 1997, but he’s committed to setting his fiction there.

Was Herman Melville‘s poem “Monody” an elegy for Nathaniel Hawthorne or not?

How giving away 150,000 copies of The Great Gatsby to soldiers during World War II may have cemented its reputation. (via)

Rosencrans Baldwin on his freelance writing gig for an upscale lifestyle magazine: “I did a back page humor column, and they wanted ‘luxury humor.’ I’m like, ‘What is luxury humor?’ They said, you know, jokes about chateaus and wineries and Greek islands. But it paid really well. I just thought: If I have to make knock-knock jokes about Merlot, I can do that.”

Links: Bright-Sided

Drew Johnson‘s spirited defense of O. Henry on the hundredth anniversary of his death: “[I]t’s worth remembering that this is a register with which all writers have terrible difficulty. For all the contempt lavished on stories which crudely bring on the tears, my nagging sense is that the skills to traverse the terrain of ‘The Last Leaf’ or ‘Magi’ are widely lacking—and so we hide behind the ‘happiness shows white on the page’ excuses. It’s hard to think of happy stories.”

Falling hard for the hero of A Confederacy of Dunces.

E.L. Doctorow on how Ragtime might resemble a rag: “In the way it plays off personal lives against historical forces, you could make the claim, I suppose, that the historical forces are the basic stride or the inevitable irrepressible beat, and the attempt to escape history is the syncopated right hand.”

Peter Matthiessen recalls visiting Prague in 1948.

What’s killing fiction? MFA programs? Publishing house editors? Anybody willing to step up and blame readers?

Benjamin Percy recalls his early admiration for Stephen King‘s The Gunslinger.

Richard Price‘s novel Lush Life has inspired a series of art exhibits on the Lower East Side.

“Grocery store owners, it seems, have more dignity, more potential for sympathy, and more substance, than politicians, at least if you’re an up and coming novelist.

Jeffrey Eugenides
isn’t very excited about the upcoming film version of his short story “Baster.”

Any appropriate name for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is going to have a Don DeLillo-like affect.

Writing about American sports fiction, Benjamin Markovitz notes that “[John] Updike probably chose basketball for Rabbit because it’s less Waspy than tennis or golf. Even so, the class lines in American sports are not fixed. Basketball is played by inner-city blacks and rural whites. American football grew up on the playing fields of east coast prep schools, but early on it also became a way out of poverty for the working classes.” This may explain why fiction writers find sports so useful for their purposes—and why the Great American Lacrosse Novel will probably never be written.

Brady Udall
on researching his new novel, The Lonely Polygamist: “I figured I’d meet a lot of megalomaniacal men with their shirts buttoned up to their necks, and their meek, cow-eyed wives (the ones with the pioneer dresses and weird hair-dos). I have to say I was almost disappointed when these people turned out to be nice, everyday, regular folks, hardly distinguishable from the rest of the populace.”

I’m mindful of the fact that all the writers mentioned in this links post are men. I don’t think all of them are purveyors of manfiction, though. On a related note: Are female authors in movies always broken/weepy types?

Carpetbagging

New West interviews Benjamin Percy, author of the story collection Refresh, Refresh. Percy’s stories are largely set in Oregon, and he tees off on Californians invading his turf, in much the same way California gets invaded by the rest of the country:

I don’t dislike [California]. I dislike the people who leave the state and set up shop in Oregon, bringing with them their pastel shorts and too tan skin and gleaming golf clubs. They’re parasitic. They sell their coastal homes for several million, then come to Oregon to retire, making it into their playground. Consider Bend. When I lived there, the population clocked in at 16,000. Now, ten years later, the population is 70,000, many of them Californians. They raze forests and lay down golf courses and build up these faux-rustic iron-and-timber homes with antler chandeliers in the foyer and boot-shaped mugs in their kitchen cabinets and $1,000 Pendleton blankets draped over their $10,000 leather couches set before their river-rock fireplaces. They plunk down a Starbucks, a sushi restaurant, a Saab dealer, and before you know it, property taxes are through the roof and everybody who originally lived in the community has to move out because they can no longer afford it. Damn it.