A Tale of Two Interviews

Photo of Chris Hardwick

The thing I love about writing music and book reviews is the chance to learn more about the people who I admire. And sometimes that means I get a chance to talk with them, too.

When comedian/nerd Chris Hardwick released The Nerdist Way, his funny mash-up of a life hacking self help book with a biography, I was on board. I was more than on board. I was in the engine throwing coal into the tinderbox.

Well, after reviewing the book, I was able talk with Chris on the phone. Mostly it was fun to geek out with him. The two resulting interviews will appear on Nerd Caliber and Geekadelphia, but I wanted to share a few outtakes that didn’t get into those stories:

Me: How are you doing today?

Chris Hardwick: Good, good. Just sandwiching in a bunch of …I have something immediately after this call. My days now are just conference call, conference call, conference call, meeting, conference call, meeting, podcast, show.

Me: Looks like from the productivity part of your book that you have a way of managing it somehow.

CH: Um, I guess, yeah. It does all seem to be fitting together. I haven’t killed myself yet.

Me: It’s a Wednesday, right?

CH: (Laughs)

Me: In keeping with your Nerdist podcast tradition, I’m writing up this part of our talk.

CH:  Perfect.

The second gets his thoughts on the ruthless slog known as the American commute:

Me: Now some quemments: Your book didn’t talk about traffic, but I’ve seen in the last ten years that a lot of rationale, sensible, kind people turn reckless on the road. What’s the deal? And how can we get to a place when commuting isn’t a kill or be killed proposition?

CH: Teleportation. We have to figure out how to disassemble our molecules and reassemble ourselves at another location instantaneously. Then traffic will no longer be an issue. Until then it’s only going to get worse! I mean the numbers of people are not going down.

Me: But could they just be kinder to other people?

CH: Well, listen, I see driving as a time to get emails and texts done…Oh…I’m kidding. It’s funny because it’s so hard to make jokes in print.

Me: Because you can’t get nuance.

CH: People take what you say at face value.” Wow, how would he say it’s OK to text and email while he’s driving?” “No, it was a joke.” “I don’t know, it’s written there. Looks serious.”

I think people are just more tense. Our minds were really ready for the amount of data that gets thrown at them. The beginning of MTV was the beginning of the short attention span generation. That was 30 years ago. Humanity has had no time to evolve so all of the sudden we went from four channels to hundreds of channels with quick cuts and ads and internet and smart phone everywhere. It’s a lot to deal with. Everyone is overloaded and you take that out on people in traffic. Traffic is like analog message boards. You’re anonymous in traffic, right? You can yell at people. You’ll never see them again. In L.A., sometimes people will shoot you, but other than that, it is pretty safe.

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.

Sarah Rose Etter: The Language of Consumption

A photo of Sarah Rose Etter
Sarah Rose Etter: author of "Tongue Party"

I interviewed Sarah Rose Etter, whose chapbook Tongue Party (Cake Train Press), recently sold out its first printing. Her writing has been described as beautiful, bizarre, and jarring. It is, however, never boring.

I was eager to get more insight on her approach to writing after reading her excellent story “Koala Tide.”

Shawn Proctor: In a recent article, The Atlantic delved into different artists’ process, from first draft to completion. Can you take us through your creative process?

Sarah Rose Etter: I have a hard time talking about process. Many writers have these things they say – and some of them are quite helpful – but they don’t really work for me. I do try to write frequently, I’ve been working hard at that, but it doesn’t really come out the same way as when an idea comes and I chew on it for a while.

When I get an idea, I turned it over in my head and try to look at all sides. Then a first line will come and I stew on that for even longer. And then when the first draft comes out, much of the story has already been shaped in my head. Obviously, there is revising and editing after that, but that’s basically my process.

SP: What element of fiction do you think is your greatest strength?

SRE: I guess tension – building up to something. Or else playing on the physical – sensations, tastes, that kind of thing.

I have a hard time stepping back and finding a strength or saying, “Oh, that really works for me.” You know? I tend to just write what comes and let that exist.

SP: How has attending fiction workshops and graduate creative writing education benefited your work?

SRE: It’s always good to learn the rules before you break them, and grad school was wonderful for that. It’s good to get feedback from people who aren’t familiar with your style, it’s good to be exposed to new things to read and write. It’s good to have people critique your work. All of those things help a writer get better, stronger.

What’s more, I left grad school with a fantastic friendship with Nate Green, who I still share and edit work with. So that was great.

SP: Do you find your work has an overarching theme or artistic goal that connects the stories? If so, how would you describe it?

SRE: I just want what I write to be new and not boring. I want people to be engaged, whether they’re repulsed or horrified or creeped out – I just want them to care about what they’re reading. I’d like my stories to be alive.

As far as theme, I know I was dealing a lot with hunger and language and consumption when I wrote Tongue Party. I wasn’t paying attention to it at the time, but stepping back and looking at the collection, it’s there.

SP: What’s your next project?

SRE: Tongue Party just came out as a Kindle eBook with two bonus stories, so I was spending a lot of time shaping those and fitting them into the collection. Otherwise, I’ve been working on a longer version of the chapbook that hopefully will become some sort of surreal novel. Plus some pieces on Ben Franklin.

SP: Now down to sentence-level issues. What word do you love? What word do you hate?

SRE: I love the word syphilis. That’s one of the softest words in the English language and if you strip the meaning off of it, it’s pretty beautiful.

I hate the word pickle. Probably because I genuinely and deeply despise pickles. God, just typing that word twice pissed me off. Look what you’ve done, Shawn!

The electronic version of Tongue Party is available at Amazon.