Saturday, October 30, 2010

Author Interview w/ Benjamin Percy

I had the pleasure of listening to Benjamin Percy read from his novel The Wilding at the Brooklyn Book Festival this September during the "What Fresh Hell Is This" author panel. Already in the middle of the story when I went see him, his deep, dark voice fit the story so well that I heard it in my head for the remaining days it took me to finish reading!

Author of the short story collections Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk, Winner of the Whiting Award and Plimpton Prize, and Assistant professor in the MFA program at Iowa State University among so many other things, The Wilding is Ben's first novel. His second, Red Moon, should be released sometime late 2012, early 2013.

Ben was wonderful enough to take time out of his very busy schedule to humor us at TNBBC and answer a few questions! Here they are:

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?

Not until I was in my early twenties. It never occurred to me before then. I was working at Glacier National Park at the time—which is where I met my then girlfriend, now wife—and she said to me, after reading all of these horrid love letters and poems I scribbled for her, “You should be a writer.” That’s the first time it ever crossed my mind. No kidding. So it’s all an attempt to impress a pretty girl.

When I attended the “What Fresh Hell is This” panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sept 12th, you mentioned that your father thought your stories were too short, and how that comment was what prompted you to write the full length novel “The Wilding”. How was writing this book different from your previous short story collections?

Well, that was just a passing joke. I’ve been working on novels for years—I’ve written four others that will never see the light of day. I only mentioned the comment my father made because The Wilding began as a short story—called “The Woods,” which was published in Amazing Stories and then collected in my book Refresh, Refresh. I couldn’t get the characters out of my head. So I gave them a larger bit of acreage to roam around on—and the story became first a shnovel, and then later, after severe revision, a novel.

I could write several craft essays on how short stories differ from novels in their composition. I learned so much bullying my way through all of those manuscripts. How the rich, intense language of short fiction will exhaust the reader if used in a novel. How the elliptical way I compose short stories does not create the causal sense of momentum necessary in a novel. Etc.

Describe your book “The Wilding” in 5 words.

I’ll do it in three: Menace, menace, menace.

How long have you been teaching fiction and non fiction to college students?

Since 2001. Almost 10 years.

I understand you were recently wandering around Paris as part of your book tour. What was that experience like?

Yeah, I had a week in Paris and week in Bordeaux, not for my new novel but for my short story collection, Refresh, Refresh, which was translated there and featured at several festivals. I’ve been everywhere in the states—but I’ve never been to continental Europe, so it was amazing, getting introduced to France as a writer. I felt very spoiled and thankful. And, after so many four-hour meals, fat.

As a child, what your favorite book, or type of books?

Like everybody, I grew up on genre. I went through different phases—books with dragons on the cover, ghosts on the cover, cowboys, detectives, spies, robots. Horror, though, was the genre that I kept coming back to—reading my way through all of Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, starting around fifth grade.

What are you reading now?

I usually jump between novels and short story collections, reading both at the same time. Right now I’ve got in hand Marcel Theroux’s Far North and Anthony Doerr’s The Memory Wall, both of them excellent.

During your latest recording on NPR, you spoke about a book you consider your “Guilty Pleasure” – Haunted Wisconsin. Do you really believe in the supernatural? Have you ever experienced anything otherworldly?

I want to believe in ghosts and demons and ghoulies. Because it’s fun to think about. And because that would mean there’s something else—another layer beyond this world. But no, I’ve never experienced anything supernatural (though I’ve heard some convincing yarns). Just last month, in Paris, I was down in the catacombs alone, surrounded by thousands of skeletons and I stood there for several minutes, concentrating, thinking all right, if there’s any place in the world where I might find something otherworldly, it’s here. I actually willed something to come rushing out of the dark. No dice. And then I ascended into the day with corpse mud on my boots and ate a crepe.

When you aren’t writing, I understand you enjoy hiking, canoeing, and fishing. What was the strangest or scariest thing that ever happened during one of your trips?

Oh, I’ve had many tense encounters with moose and grizzlies. I’ve got an essay in the Paris Review that touches on this – called “Me vs. Animals” – if you’re bored and looking for something to read.

So Ben, congratulations on your success in landing a publisher for your newest novel. What can you tell us about it?

Thanks. The novel is called Red Moon—and it’s coming out with Grand Central/Hachette in late 2012, early 2013. It’s the same sort of writing I’m always doing—but the subject is supernatural: a reinvention of the werewolf myth. These past few weeks have been quite the ride—touring through my new publisher’s digs—seeing the novel picked up by all of these foreign territories—having phone conferences with studio execs at Paramount and Lionsgate. Crazy. Can’t tell you how excited and thankful I am.

What is your take on eBooks and eReaders, as both an author and a reader?

I don’t own an e-reader, but I understand why somebody would want one, especially a student or agent or editor or frequent traveler reading so many books in passing, books they might want to discard once finished. I listen to a lot of audio books, when I’m on the road or at the gym, and if I enjoy the book, I buy a physical copy. I hope the same will be true of e-readers—that when somebody encounters a electronic title that really moves them, they’ll invest in a copy for their library.

What books/authors/websites would you recommend to our audience?

So many. So I’ll stick to some new and emerging talents you should keep an eye out for: Alan Heathcock ( ), who has an epic, gripping story collection called VOLT coming out with Graywolf Press in March of 2011; Michael David Lukas ( whose historical novel The Oracle of Stamboul comes out in February 2011 with Harper Collins; and Siobhan Fallon ( ), who has a wonderful book of short stories out in January with Amy Einhorn called You Know When the Men are Gone. Look them up. They’re going to make waves in the coming months.

Many thanks to Benjamin Percy for the awesome opportunity to interview him, and we wish him lots of luck with the new novel!!

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