Friday, April 1, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Benjamin Percy

Here's a 1/2 Dozen
for novelist and short story writer
Benjamin Percy
who has a cure for rejection
(for the correct mix of prayer, cursing, and whiskey, see below),
some words on indulgence,
some images
that will stick in your head.

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

Music: the Avett Brothers.

Television: The Wire.

Alcohol: Bulleit bourbon.

Writers: the novels of Dan Simmons. Not many people in literaryland know about the guy. But he’s a mass-market phenomenon and a hell of a writer. I really admire the way he reinvents himself with each book. He’ll write a vampire novel—he’ll write a mystery—he’ll write a science fiction novel—he’ll write a historical novel. And they’re all epic in scope and brilliant in their execution. His book The Terror—an intensely researched account (and supernatural revision) of a failed Northwest Passage expedition—is one of my top ten favorite novels of all time.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

Charles Baxter says we write to make sense of the widowed images in our life. The moments you can’t shake. You’re not sure why they’re important—but they’re stuck in your head—so you wrestle with them on the page and eventually pin them, choke meaning out of them through a story or poem.

That’s how it is with so much of my fiction. The image of two boys boxing in their backyard after school in a ring made out of a garden hose laid tip to tip. The image of a door opening into near darkness, a dimly seen steel staircase descending into a lava tube that stretches on for miles. The image of a severed foot floating in a bucket of formaldehyde. The image of a body dragged from a hole in any icy pond. I could go on and on about how so many of my stories are inspired by things I have experienced directly.

The same goes for my novel, The Wilding. The narrative grew out of a single image. A deer tangled like a marionette in a barbed-wire fence. I was twelve at the time. My father called me out of my room. He had a rifle in his hands. He told me to follow him outside. We lived on 37 acres of land, and from the forest behind our house came a banshee wail that we pursued until we found its source. We stood for a long time observing the deer. And then my father handed me the rifle.

That moment has been caught in my mind for twenty years. The entire novel is right there. That old father-and-son thing, as Russell Banks calls it. And the way the deer in the fence becomes a metaphor for something larger—the sometimes jarring boundaries between wilderness and civilization.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

Obsession might be the right word. Or addiction. There are exceptions, but I generally write every day. Even if that only means rereading and tinkering. I go for fourteen pages a week (with a two-page-a-day goal, sometimes accomplishing more, sometimes less). I don’t have any hobbies right now: I have given up all indulgences to write. If I have a spare moment, I’m at the keyboard, and often, if I’m doing something else, caught up in some chore or activity I find tiresome, I’m very aware of the ideas and sentences piling up in my head like a poison I need to expel from my system. I am happiest and feel the most fulfilled and purposeful when working.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Patience is key. Not only because it takes an apprentice writer a long time to mature (there are no prodigies in this field), but because the work habits of a writer, especially a novelist, would strain the overtime budget of a large corporation. Someone who is jealous or resentful of the time you need to spend at the keyboard is someone who believes writing is an indulgence. Writing is not an indulgence. You must give up other indulgences to write.

My wife is wonderfully tolerant. She is, after all, the one who first put it in my head to become a writer. We met each other when working at Glacier National Park one summer. I was the gardener, she was a waitress. I wrote her a series of tawdry poems and she said, “You should be a writer.” It had never occurred to me before then, not once. That fall, I took my first fiction workshop—with Ben Marcus at Brown—and fell in love simultaneously with story and with my then girlfriend, now wife.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Don’t be a wuss. If you’re a wuss, you won’t make it. Writing is about talent, yeah, but there are a lot of talented pricks out there. Just as important—maybe more important—is bullheadedness. The ability to keep hammering when working in obscurity and when faced with rejection. The drive to do better. So that when that form letter comes in the mail, or when that workshop goes horribly wrong, or when that program/fellowship/prize doesn’t select you, you say ten hail Marys, three fuck yous, slam a shot of whiskey and get your ass back in the chair.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I grew up outside—with very little supervision. It was a Huck Finn kind of upbringing in that I’d take off by dawn and come back by dinner, spending most of my day roaming the woods with my dog, bb gun in hand, slingshot in my pocket. I would bang together tree houses and duck under barbed wire fences and build dams in rivers and hunt birds and rabbits. This certainly influenced my love of the outdoors and my treatment of place (the geography, the history, the mythology, the culture of a place) as a character in my work.

And a lot of my time was spent alone, which shaped me into the writer I am today, someone who uses his imagination to fill his day and make his fun.

Benjamin Percy is the author of two novels, Red Moon (forthcoming from Grand Central/Hachette) and The Wilding (Graywolf Press, 2010), as well as two books of short stories, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk. His fiction and nonfiction have been read on National Public Radio and published by Esquire, Outside, Men’s Journal, the Wall Street Journal, the Paris Review, VQR, Ploughshares, and Glimmer Train. His honors include the Whiting Writers Award, the Plimpton Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories. He teaches in the MFA program in creative writing and environment at Iowa State University and at the low-res MFA program at Pacific University.