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.

4 thoughts on “Q&A: Benjamin Percy

  1. I am not sure that I can agree with the notion that genre and literature can be mixed.

    For example, The Road seems like a science fiction novel, but it really isn’t because it has nothing to do with any science, and all great science fiction depends on the imaginative extrapolation of some scientific theory or fact. Simply borrowing a trope from a genre, “man and boy wade through the soot of an annihilated landscape”* does not make a book part of that genre.

    Science fiction is primarily about the impact of scientific ideas on man and human society while literature is primarily about–well, who knows? It depends on the critic you ask. But there is really no way to write a literary science fiction novel, however, if you wish to stay true to both conventions of thinking and seeing the world. McCarthy’s book is consequently a “post-apocalyptic fantasy for people who don’t read fantasy.”


  2. This — might — be true if the literary novel were restricted to psychological realism (Henry James, etc.) — but it isn’t. Samuel R. Delany, Dan Simmons, Greg Egan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Karen Joy Fowler, Jonathan Lethem, William Gibson, Elizabeth Hand, and Jonathan Carroll are all writers of literary sf and fantasy. Those are just some names on my nearby shelves; I’m sure there are plenty of others. Literary novelist Rick Moody recently wrote a novella, “The Albertine Notebooks,” that is one of the best sf works of the last 10 years. (His new novel is sf as well, tho’ I haven’t read it yet.)

    That said, working in sf is tough for literary writers, because some don’t know the genre’s history and thus attempt to re-invent the wheel. Philip Roth and Paul Theroux come to mind.

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