An Interview with Benjamin Percy

Photo of Benjamin Percy
Benjamin Percy, author of Refresh, Refresh and The Wilding

Peter Straub called him one of our most accomplished younger writers. His short fiction, said Ann Patchett, marks the beginning of a long and brilliant writing career.

Benjamin Percy, author of two novels, Red Moon (forthcoming from Grand Central / Hachette in 2012), The Wilding (Graywolf, 2010), and two books of short stories, Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf, 2007) and The Language of Elk (Carnegie Mellon, 2006), first caught my attention when his short story “Refresh, Refresh” appeared in Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Anthology then was read on NPR’s Selected Shorts.

His stories will grip you from the start. They pulse with violence and danger. They also surprise with tenderness and humor. The ideal Percy reading experience is in the dark, just a single light on the page, the sounds of the wilderness filtering through a nearby window. It’s meant to be terrifying. It’s meant to chase away sleep.

(I interviewed Benjamin Percy via email shortly after writing a review of The Wilding for CultureMob.)

Shawn Proctor: You mention in an article on writing that creating short fiction is very different than creating novels. How did crafting The Wilding differ from the process that resulted in your short stories, like “Refresh, Refresh”?

Benjamin Percy: I could go on for a long time about the differences between writing novels and short stories. I’m speaking generally, of course, but their construction varies re: compression (the time span of a short story is typically a glimpse into a life in crisis and often what is left out is as important as what is included), the intensity of language (the typically rich, dense, challenging sentences of a short story would exhaust a reader after 200 pages), with structure (short stories tend to be more impressionistic, novels more causal), with plotting (with few exceptions, novels must have a plotted engine), and blah blah blah. I essentially teach a course on this same subject, so to cram a semester’s worth of information into a paragraph is impossible. Suffice it to say the difference is more than length — and it took me four failed manuscripts to comprehend the complex machinery of novel-writing.

SP: The Wilding contains parts of two short stories which appeared in your previous collection Refresh, Refresh. Why did you choose to incorporate these, especially “The Woods,” into your novel?

BP: My father, after finishing my first short story collection, said, “You know what’s wrong with your stories? They’re too short.” I found this amusing at the time, but years later, it made a kind of sense to me, when I kept thinking about the characters in “The Woods,” wondering what they were up to. So I gave them a little more acreage to roam around on and a 15-page story became a 150-page shnovel. I had a lot of editing and world-building yet to do — to make the manuscript into a full realized, multi-faceted novel — but that’s where it began. And I think this is true for many writers. You explore something in the short form, and then wonder, could I keep going? Am I excited enough about these characters and is there enough dramatic possibility here to endure a novel’s sweep?

SP: Several of your short stories and The Wilding use bears as an element. Is there an experience that instilled a fascination of bears in you?

BP: I’ve had too many to list. It began in high school. One of my high school teachers had been attacked by a grizzly. She tried to climb a tree and the bear caught her by the leg and chewed off all the meat on her calf. Whenever she would turn around to scribble on the chalkboard, I would simply stare at her gummy bone of a leg with wonder. Later, when working at Glacier National Park, I would run into grizzlies every day — blasting across the trail in front of me, huffing outside my tent in the back country, shambling across a nighttime parking lot. One of my colleagues there was eaten — and then my roommate was stalked for ten miles by the same mother and cubs. So I have a lot of terror in the well to draw a bucket from…

SP: Many of your stories settle between genres, like literary fiction, science fiction, and horror. The Wilding, for example, has great character moments, but the menace in the woods with Seth and the bear becomes as tense as any horror or survival thriller. Is it a conscious choice to avoid easy categorization or a natural offshoot of the stories you tend to write?

BP: I want to write pretty sentences. I want to build three-dimensional characters. I want to polish my metaphors until they glow. I want to mine the subterranean themes beneath the surface of the narrative. But I also want the reader to wonder, sometimes desperately, what happens next?

SP: And one fun question that I always have a curiosity about with other writers — can you describe the place where you write? And do you normally write in that place or does it change often?

BP: Ideally, I’m writing in the same place at the same time every day. When I’m in a normalized routine, I tend to be most productive and generate the most striking material. But hey, I’ve got two kids, I travel constantly, so that’s impossible. I’ve learned to make do. I might be in my office at the university (which looks out over the central quad and which is crammed with bookshelves and which I keep dark except for a table lamp) or I might be at the airport or in a hotel or at my kitchen table communing with the glow of my laptop.

Thanks to Ben for chatting with me. To learn more about his fiction, visit his home page BenPercy.com.

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