Benjamin Percy's debut short story collection, The Language of Elk, was published in February. Set in the high desert country of central Oregon, where he grew up, his spare, disciplined narratives are populated with broken families, faded football heroes, bearded ladies, Bigfoot and marijuana colonies.
Percy's story "Refresh, Refresh" was first published in The Paris Review, re-published this September in Best American Short Stories 2006 and in 2007 will be published yet again as the title story for his second short-fiction collection. Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint and Letting Loose the Hounds, calls Percy "the best new writer to step into the spotlight in years," and Mike Magnuson, author of Lummox and The Fire Gospels, hails Percy's work as "epic, beautiful, shocking, funny, brutal [and] brilliant."
A recipient of both a Pushcart Prize and a Nelson Algren Award, Percy is a visiting assistant professor of creative writing, composition and literature at Marquette University, and an avid hiker, angler and skier. This past St. Patrick's Day, he became a father. At the Wisconsin Book Festival, Percy is scheduled to read from his work at 6 pm on Sunday, Oct. 22, in Promenade Hall at the Overture Center.
The Daily Page: Many of the short stories you write suggest a basis in personal experience. Have you watched someone put a match to a couch soaked with gasoline? Gone bigfooting? Built a cabin? Fired a potato gun? Do you bear any scars?
Percy: I regularly say to my students, "Everything I tell you is true. Even the stuff I make up." I haven't lost my mother to suicide or cancer, but I know what it means to grieve. I have never been cuckolded by Bigfoot, but I have been betrayed. I have never lusted after a bearded woman, but I have lusted, and I understand how a small element of the grotesque -- a mole on her cheek or gap between her teeth or scar running across her belly -- can somehow make a woman intoxicatingly beautiful.
I think every author does this. In cooking up a stew, they rely on personal experience as a base ingredient, then add a healthy dollop of imagination.
To be more particular, I have indeed doused a couch in gasoline and lit it on fire. Just as I have fired a potato gun and thrown the first punch and fallen off a horse and excavated artifacts from a long-buried Indian village and eaten a rattlesnake that I killed with a 2x4. I live rather quietly now, with my wife and son in Milwaukee, but I have lived wildly. My body is crosshatched with scars and each tells a story about falling out of trees, getting careless with a knife, shattering a lamp, calling a girl with long fingernails fat.
Where did you grow up on central Oregon's high desert plateau? Are we talking Redmond? Bend? A ranch?
I grew up in a small town called Tumalo. Located between Bend and Redmond, it's one of those blink-and-you'll-miss-it type places. My father built our house on four acres of land neighbored by an alfalfa farm, a sheep farm, and a family of Evangelical Christians who called farts "Poofs" and thought I was the devil.
How might you appraise this landscape's influence on your literary perspective and style?
The Cascade Mountains split Oregon like a fence. I grew up in their foothills, right where the pine forests give way to the great wash of desert that is eastern Oregon. Growing up, everywhere I looked something was dying. I can remember a deer caught in a barbed-wire fence, screaming like a woman. A cow with its hoof wedged between two slabs of basalt, trapped and eaten alive by a pack of coyotes. A horse drowned by a flash flood. Even the trees there look half-dead, these stunted junipers with branches that seem to end in sharp fingertips. It was as horrifying as it was beautiful, living there. And all this time the Cascades hung over my life like skyscrapers hang over the lives of others. They were inescapable. Nature was inescapable. Even when walking through the Wal-Mart parking lot, the air smelled like sage, a turkey vulture roosted on top of a pickup.
As a place, it has all the weirdness and complexity of a good character. Which is how I treat it. And also as an extension of the other characters in the story, so that a sky clotted with clouds or a forest that opens like a gaping mouth reflects and influences the plot no differently than a snippet of dialogue or a physical gesture.
How does having one of your stories published in The Paris Review compare to being selected to appear in Best American Short Stories -- and how does either compare with being awarded a Pushcart Prize?
I've had a charmed year. It was last October The Paris Review called, and honestly, I kept expecting them to call back, to revoke their acceptance of the story. After all, I wear denim and flannel. I used to drive a Jeep with no doors. I eat a lot of beef jerky. When I consider the people they've published, I feel like an absolute rube, some guy who snuck in the back door of a high-class cocktail party where everybody is talking about Foucault, eating baby corn, drinking wines I can't pronounce. Same goes for getting into Best American and winning the Pushcart. I never expected these things to happen to me, not thirty years down the line, certainly not now, at this young stage in my career. So I feel grateful and bewildered and unworthy, but damn excited.
You craft exquisite short, declarative sentences. Does this come from reading Hemingway? Is it the influence of a spare landscape? A concession to the space constraints imposed by the short story form?
I spend all day pushing words around in my head. Some sound like singing and some sound like screaming. I write a lot of wrong words before I find the right one. In the end I hope my prose is sharp enough to cut the eye. And yeah, Hemingway taught me the beauty of precision, of cleanliness, of sound. So did Carver. Barry Hannah, too. I read all of my stories aloud, over and over and over, and as I do this, I keep my head cocked, like a mechanic listening to an engine, waiting for the belt to come loose, the carburetor to wheeze.
Why are you attracted to the short story as a vehicle for your writing?
At any given moment I have a six or seven stories in my head, lined up on the tarmac, ready to take flight. Even when writing a novel, as I'm doing now, I'm constantly setting the manuscript aside, distracted as I am by story ideas. I know I must write them at once or the fairy dust will wear off and they'll vanish. Maybe that's why I like short stories so much -- the immediacy of them -- the intensity I experience when writing them. Whereas a novel is plodding, slowly realized, short stories rush out of me like whitewater.
Which is more under-appreciated by the general public: the short story or central Oregon?
Central Oregon has a few too many fans. Most of them Californian. They wear pastel shorts and drive Cadillacs and play golf and mow down forests to build their ridiculously large houses. I wish they'd all develop a severe allergy to sand and sage and get the hell out. The place is losing its craggy soul. But anyway.
I don't know why the short story has fallen out of favor. You'd think -- in this attention-deficit society -- everyone would prefer the form. Sit down in your favorite easy chair and twenty minutes later, wham, you've experienced another life.
Perhaps it has something to do with the plotlessness of the short story. Or the language of them requiring total concentration. Unfortunately, when your average American makes time to read, I think they're generally looking for entertainment above all else.
There are some scary and brutal people and incidents in The Language of Elk, but also bursts of high hilarity. What do you fear? And what was the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
With all the threats of bird flu and jets weighed down with bombs, this is going to sound rather ridiculous, but I'm desperately afraid of sharks. Jaws did that to me. I don't care if the shark looks fake -- it's the most terrifying movie ever made. Even in lakes, I get this panicked feeling, like any minute teeth will clamp around my leg and drag me down into a murky oblivion. At least once a week I sit bolt-upright in bed, having woken from a dream where I'm floating in the middle of the ocean. Dark massive shapes brush past my leg and break the surface of the water. My imagination is obviously on overdrive. I'm the kind of guy who imagines bad things happening in the dark or below the surface of the water -- and perhaps this is why I'm able to write so convincingly about terror. I like to share my poison with others.
As for laughs, my son cracks me up. He's six-months-old now and a total chunk. Swear to God, he knows what funny is. He gets this look in his face, like: I'm going to get you, Daddy. Yesterday, for example, I give him a kiss on the cheek and he decides to reciprocate. He grabs me painfully by the ears, opens his mouth as wide as a fish, and plants this sloppy gummy kiss on my nose.
How do the hiking, canoeing, fishing, skiing and winters in southeastern Wisconsin compare to central Oregon? And which place makes the better beer?
Wisconsin is beautiful, but it's a different kind of beauty than you experience out West. Rather than sharp-toothed mountains interrupting the horizon, you have this enormous sky with pink and purple rafters lancing across it when the sun sets. I love the rows and rows of corn marching off into the distance. The rolling pasture. When hiking in Oregon, down steep canyons and up iceberg-studded mountains and through moss-draped forests, I often felt as if I was battling the land, somehow trying to conquer it. Here, in Kettle Moraine or Kohler State Park, a hike has a more leisurely quality.
I don't mind the winters here. It's then, in the blue depths of December and January, that I write my best stories. The creative juices in me quicken as the sap slows in the trees. Maybe it's the darkness and the quiet, the way the whole world seems to go to sleep, but I don't feel as distracted as I do during the summer. I'm able to approach the keyboard with an almost psychotic single-mindedness.
Wisconsin is one of the only places in the world where it's easier to get a pint of beer than a glass of water. One of the may reasons I love it here. The top shelf of my fridge is weighed down with Spotted Cow, a beer that must have been crafted by God, brewed to bring joy to my mouth. If they're looking for a sponsor, I'll get their label tattooed across my back.
When and where do you prefer to write?
I prefer mornings. My head is empty. I'm not weighed down with the exhaustion of teaching, the anxiety over bills, the conversation I just had with so-and-so. And something has happened during the night, something I can't really explain. I usually go to sleep thinking about what I'll write the next day, puzzling over plot points and lines of dialogue. Somehow these things get unconsciously resolved and I wake up knowing what to do next.
I write in my office, surrounded by books.
What is the single most satisfying phrase or sentence you have written? What did you do in reaction to writing it, and how did it serve the story?
Shit. That's tough. Maybe this one: "We got on our bikes and we drove to Bend and we drove so fast I imagined catching fire, like a meteor, burning up in a flash, howling as my heat consumed me, as we made our way to the Armed Forces Recruiting Station where we would at last answer the fierce alarm of war and put our pens to paper and make our fathers proud." It's the last line of "Refresh, Refresh," the story The Paris Review published, the story that won the Pushcart and will appear in Best American. It's not so much the mechanics of the sentence, it's the spirit of the thing. In this story, more than any other story I've written, each paragraph crashed into the next like so many dominoes, transferring their power, all of them culminating here. I hope it has the effect of a fist to the throat.
In the acknowledgements to The Language of Elk, you thank, among others, your band of "uglies," all of whom have nicknames. What nickname have they bestowed on you?
Do you prefer to be addressed as Ben or Benjamin?
You know me, you call me Ben. But on the page, Percy needs something big and muscular in front of it or it sounds wimpy.
When, where and how did you meet Lisa, and how has she influenced your writing?
I met Lisa in Glacier National Park, so many years ago, in the summer of 1998. We were both working there. At Many Glacier Hotel -- this Swiss-style lodge way up in the mountains -- I was the gardener, she was a waitress. Not only is she drop-dead gorgeous, but she's more than five years older than me. I didn't think I stood a chance.
Then one day I climbed Mt. Grinnell -- no ropes, no gear -- a totally stupid, very reckless thing to do. Somehow I made it up and down without a scratch. By this time it was near dark and I was without a flashlight. So I started the two-mile run back to the hotel. I lasted about a hundred yards before I turned over my ankle on a root. Immediately it swelled up to the size of a softball.
The next day was a Saturday and I knew Lisa always read away her mornings in the lobby. So I dressed up in my best duds and limped over to her couch and plopped down next to her with a pained sigh. That got her.
She's been integral to my development as a writer. When I met her, I had a completely different future in mind: archaeology. She helped me realize my talent as a writer and reassess what was most important to me. I can remember the first day of grad school, when Mike Magnuson told all the first-year students, "You have a better chance making it into the Major League than making it as a writer."
When I repeated this to Lisa, her eyes widened and she gulped hard, but she never lost the faith. Writing is such a lonely pursuit, full of rejection and doubt. To have someone believe in you and encourage you, even during your ugliest moments, means the world.
Is your son's name, Connor, a literary reference or a family name?
Flannery O'Connor is one of my favorite writers. His name comes from hers. What's more, I've got a lot of Irish blood in me and Connor is a good Irish name, especially fitting since he was born on St. Paddy's Day.
When and why did you go to Ireland, and what did you do there?
I received a joint fellowship from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and Northern Ireland University-Galway. For five months, I wrote and I read my brains out. That's it. No teaching responsibilities. Every few weeks we traveled to some corner of the country to explore the castles and cliffs, but otherwise, I was hunched over the keyboard, my fingers happily bleeding.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend, and why might you recommend it?
Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz. Nonfiction. In 1977 the author and her girlfriend decide to bike across America. They start in Oregon and on the third day of pedaling bed down in Cline Falls, a campground only a few miles from where I grew up. Sometime during the night a pickup emerged from the darkness and ran over their tent. A man got out and hacked them up with an axe. They lived. And years later, Jentz returned to Oregon to investigate the unsolved case and in doing so discovered the identity of her attacker. It's one of those fact-stranger-than-fiction stories. And Jentz is the real deal. She can write sentences that make me shake my head with wonder.
Which of the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival do you find most intriguing?
You know, this is really one of the top-dog festivals in the country. The names they attract -- like moths drawn to flame -- are really amazing. I don't know if I can answer that question. George Saunders is one of my literary heroes; I'm so grateful to read with him. Michael Chabon is one of the greatest living writers, a magician of language. Right now I'm writing what I guess you could call a literary horror novel, so I would love to share a beer with Peter Straub. Neil Gaiman. Dan Chaon. The list goes on.
Why do you live where you live?
I live in Wauwatosa, just outside of Milwaukee. I'm here because of a job. I teach writing at Marquette University as a visiting professor. My three-year contract runs out in May, so who knows where I'll end up next. We'd love to stay in Wisconsin. Not only because we have friends and family here, but because the literary scene is so vibrant, the beer so delicious.
Do you have any tattoos?
Yes. Two of them. But like my nickname, they remain a mystery.
[I asked Percy to reconsider this last response. After giving it further thought, he decided against revealing the nickname (for reasons I respect), but agreed to elaborate on his tattoos -- in a way that provides yet more perspective on writing.]
The day I turned 18, I drove with my buddies to the tattoo parlor. I got my shoulder inked with an Ankh, one of those Egyptian crosses that represents the everlasting soul. Corny and stupid, I know. But when you're 18 you do corny, stupid shit. I feel about it as I feel about some of my earlier stories: I see them in print and cringe, wondering, "Did I really write that sentence?" In typical author fashion, I'm thinking about "revising" the tattoo, laying some design over the top of it. Same goes for the one on my back, the Chinese character for "Integrity." The meaning of it, I guess, matters to me, but why the hell did I get it done in Chinese? Stupid. Even though I regret both of them, I'm thinking about getting another: the first line to a short story or book I love. This time, I'll make sure it's written in English.