Benjamin Percy has a very deep voice.
In person, this is one of the things that one notes first about the man. Ironically, such a noticeable mark of masculinity has often been cited by critics who have only met Percy through his fiction.
The Language of Elk
(Carnegie-Mellon University Press)
Percy’s short fiction collected in The Language of Elk (2006), and his newest collection Refresh, Refresh (2007), has provoked interest in the author’s emphasis on maleness and masculinity in American culture. Indeed, PopMatters’ own Matthew Fiander called Percy’s fiction “almost painfully masculine.”
I sat down with Percy to talk with him about this notion of his presentation of both pain and masculinity as well as some of the other ideas that populate his often brutal, often melancholic visions of contemporary America.
For those unfamiliar with your stories, could you briefly talk about your own approach to fiction?
Most of the stories are what I consider a “literary genre.” Let me explain. A lot of contemporary “literary” fiction is full of gorgeous metaphors, gorgeous language, with so many stories ending sparkling with epiphanic dew. And along the way, sadly, not much happens. It’s as though authors have lost touch with what made them fall in love with reading: plot, story. And I think there’s something healthy about getting in touch with this again. So I’ll take a haunted house story or a Western or a tale of revenge and reinvent it through a literary lens, honoring some of the archetypes and conventions, breaking others over my knee, in an effort to make the reader feel at once moved and entertained.
Could you give an example or two of how one goes about “reinventing a genre” through a literary lens?
I said a moment ago how literary fiction has lost touch with plot. Well, genre fiction too often loses touch with artful language, vivid characterization, the careful carpentry that should go into crafting a story. No matter how much imagination the author puts into the magic or the technology or the action of their story, if I don’t believe fully in the characters and if I’m not moved to scissor out the occasional sentence and frame it on the wall, I end the book with a shrug. The work I enjoy most fuses the best qualities in each. Look at Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chabon, and Margaret Atwood as prime examples.
Are there any genres that you would like to continue this reinvention process with?
Right now I’m reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Back in middle school, I was a fantasy geek and chewed my way eagerly through every book in the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms series. And then, just like that, my interest in elves and dwarves vanished. But reading her work, I feel the fairy dust stirring inside me again. Her novel is this lovely combination of Tolkien and Austen—and the language is so striking and elegant. She’s making me think less about magic wands and more about the possibilities of a character having a primal connection and control over the earth.
Hmmm… that’s funny because I was going to ask you: what do you have against nature? Okay, I don’t really mean that the way that it sounds. Frequently, though, in your stories, characters seem to displace their anger on nature. Could you talk about how you view the relationship between humanity, violence, and nature?
If you look at the work of Stephen Crane or James Dickey, you see the hostility and indifference of the universe, the animalism that resides within all of us. Katrina showed us that all it takes is a moment—take away the laws, throw us into danger—and we’re that close to wildness, only one step removed from wolves ranging the woods.
With this in mind, there’s often a close partnership between my characters and the woods they hike through and the animals they hunt. But the process of creating these situations is as much organic as it is intellectual: I grew up in a still-wild place, the boondocks of Oregon, and in writing about my backyard, I’ll naturally call attention to a landscape that both dwarfs and calls attention to human activity.
Your interest in nature strikes me as somewhat unusual in contemporary writing and culture. With the dominance of technology in late 20th and 21st century culture there seems to be a focus on urban landscapes and issues more so than natural ones. How do you feel about nature’s place in contemporary media?
Most of us are far-removed from nature, surrounded as we are by concrete and neon, but I feel more comfortable standing knee-deep in a river than lounging in a La-Z-Boy. When I was a kid, I lived in the woods. My parents never took me to New York or Orlando. Every vacation, my mother would pack a cooler and my father would throw some picks and shovels and trowels into the back of our pickup and we would drive to Christmas Valley or the Ochocos or the Malheur Preserve, some isolated region where we would camp and pull fossils and gems from the ground. So again, I’m mining the past. And I think I’ll do that now in response to your question.
Bend, Oregon used to be a mill town. When I grew up there the population clocked in at 16,000. Now—no kidding—70,000 people live there, most of them Californians. So this place once known for its leathery skin and big belt buckles now finds itself overwhelmed with microbreweries and sushi restaurants and Saab dealers. Developers razed forests and replaced them with golf course communities whose greens are lined by enormous iron-and-timber cabins. Inside them you’ll find antler chandeliers, elk-skin sofas, bear-imprinted mugs. Those cabins, I think, are the perfect contemporary representation of nature, as we think of it romantically but prefer it contained and artificial.
Nature as a hyperreal display maybe? So, how do you define the value of nature or its relationship to humanity in general?
When you get right down to it, we’re all a bunch of complicated ants.
Aside from your interests in nature, your writing has been associated with the concept of the “new masculinity.” I have heard a range of definitions for this concept from an emphasis on more sensitive men to a more hyper-masculine model of “uber” men like those in 300. How do you define this idea? Is the concept of the masculine in need of a revision?
We no longer live in a society that sends its sons into the wilderness to slaughter large beasts to prove they are men. Instead, parents buy their boys a Nintendo and ten, 20, 30 years later they’re still not sure if they’re all grown up. And when they are all grown up and weighed down with responsibility, they aren’t sure where they stand anymore as gender lines continue to blur like wet fingers drawn across newsprint.
You can talk about Mars and Venus ad infinitum, but these days, more often than not, the sole thing that distinguishes a man from a woman is what dangles between your legs. For proof of this, look no further than the Bravo network or GQ magazine or Banana Republic, where men go for their style tips and face creams and hair gels and silken underwear.
Look no further than your local multiplex, where women are taking on roles traditionally reserved for men: Demi Moore as G.I. Jane, Angelina Jolie as Laura Croft, Jennifer Garner as Elektra. With the rise of the metrosexual and the fall of our formerly patriarchal society, you’ve got a lot of men who are lost in a kind of gray zone, trying to find ways to compensate—by joining Gold’s Gym, where we pick up large pieces of metal and put them back down—by screaming a little too loud when the Packers, our modern-day gladiators, score a touchdown—by driving a Hummer that burns 20 gallons a minute.
I could go on, but that’s a healthy enough dose of man talk.
This does bring me back to one of my earlier questions as well, though. Many of your specifically male characters seem driven to violent impulse. How do you view the relationship between masculinity and violence?
Men internalize much of what they feel, much of what they think. And I’m interested in the non-verbal communication that occurs between me—a heavy clap on the back translating to love, a tightened fist and narrowed eyes translating to hate. Many of my stories concern men in pain, and because they don’t know how to talk their way through it, they swing it out of their system. It’s the equivalent of lancing a boil to release the poison building up inside you.
Can you talk about your approach to the process of writing fiction?
I try to write at the same time in the same place every day. You must condition your imagination, in a Pavlovian way, to salivate. My mind is comfortably empty and humming in the morning, so I hunker down with my cup of coffee, and the bell rings, and I’m off.
There are no tricks to what I do, really. Planting my ass in a chair everyday is about it. And not checking my email, not answering my phone, not getting up for a break when the writing gets difficult. Talent matters, but discipline matters more, I’ve discovered.
I always begin with the image. If you think about writing as a subject, most of us are trained, from grammar school through college, to write thoughts. That, after all, is the essence of the essay: here is what I’m thinking. Cerebral writing has a cerebral effect.
And I don’t want my audience to sit and ponder their navels. I want them to feel. I want to drag them down the rabbit hole. I want them to be alive twice: once in their world, once in the world of the page. How do I try to accomplish this? Through imagism. Every moment in my stories I can imagine happening as if a film reel is turning slowly in my skull. My job is to replicate that with ink and paper. Which ain’t easy.
Photo (partial) by Jennifer May