Interview: Benjamin Percy
The humans in these tales are beaten down by the financial collapse, the threat of disease, the mind-numbing routines of their lives; and the wilderness, kept at bay for so long by our construction and our expansion and our money, has begun to creep in at the edges, swallowing those who are lost and stretching, hungry, toward the center of our world…. [The] beauty redeems the vision of darkness that he offers—held out before us, these words suggest that there is still something worth saving in our broken human existence.
This interview was conducted by CRAFT flash fiction section editor, Tommy Dean, via email. —CRAFT
Benjamin Percy’s new book, Suicide Woods, released in October with Graywolf Press, is a collection of eerie and visceral short stories that walks an electric tightrope of genre and literary fiction to the pulsing phantoms of boogeyman and creatures that stir in our hearts and minds. These stories exhibit Percy’s willingness to pull back the curtain, to show us the underworkings of his own particular Oz. But here there’re no gentle frauds, but monsters both animal and human, and with Percy, it’s often hard to tell the difference between the fantastical and the suburban, both deadly when it comes to confronting them in the shadows. —Tommy Dean
Tommy Dean: Four novels, three short story collections, a book on writing-craft, and numerous comic book series. What’s your strategy for finishing a story, comic, or novel before another idea takes over your writing process?
Benjamin Percy: My schedule is pretty boring and basic. I get the kids on the bus every morning at seven. Then I sit down at the desk and hammer the keyboard until they get home at four. If I’m on a strict deadline, I’ll open up the laptop again after they’re in bed. So my standard is eight to ten hours a day, five days a week. Maybe I’ll spend a few additional hours outlining and editing on the weekends.
I have a closet in my office that is tacked and taped full of ideas and blueprints. I’ll play around with outlines sometimes for years before I actually begin to scratch out the sentences of a novel or a screenplay, so by then the story is often (mostly) formed in my head. That makes the writing process much swifter.
I’m always juggling multiple projects. But I have deadlines. So I can’t not finish something. Or I don’t get paid.
This, of course, wasn’t always the case. I taught for over a decade. I have two kids who are now in the double digits but were once squawling babies and crabby toddlers. So though my schedule is stable now, it used to be completely bananas, and I’d write in snatches whenever I could. When I was a visiting professor at Marquette—a thousand years ago—I used to make a pot of coffee at 11:00 p.m. and write until 3:00 a.m. and then wake up at 9:00 a.m. to prep for my classes. I might have deadlines now, but it used to be the case that I wrote without any certainty that I’d earn anything more than a rejection slip for the effort.
I love what I do. But I also work my ass off at it. Every day, even if I’m stressed out and buried with notes, I’m grateful as hell that this is how I’m able to support my family.
TD: Did you set out to write this collection? When did you know it was a book more than just a mass of stories? Was this process different than when you wrote/collected the stories for The Language of Elk and Refresh, Refresh?
BP: It wasn’t a question of having enough stories. Otherwise I would have published another collection years ago. It was a question of having the right stories. The stories that make Suicide Woods a book instead of just a random heap of fiction. They’re experiments in genre and form, but they’re all united by themes of loneliness, fear, identity, the jarring intersections of civilization and wilderness, man in the wild and the wild in man.
TD: Some of the stories in this collection feel more speculative, more open to fabulist characters. Do you feel yourself leaning toward or being more open to the possibility of allegory? Does our murky present demand less realistic storytelling?
BP: Sometimes it’s more fun and exciting to put a crack in the mirror of reality. And given how divisive and exhausting and bewildering our world feels right now, a speculative story often feels like a necessary escape hatch. If you look at Her Body and Other Parties, at Friday Black, at Suicide Woods, we’re all wrestling with real world issues through a fantastic lens.
TD: I was intrigued by your use of the non-human point of view in “Heart of a Bear.” Did this POV come naturally in the first draft?
BP: I’ve always loved Frankenstein, especially chapters six–eleven. This is when the creature, lost and afraid in the woods, huddles up next to a cabin. Here, hidden behind a woodpile, he spends the winter. He spies on the family that lives there and learns from them human language and customs and love. When he finally introduces himself to them, they reject him. He’s pained and enraged and he destroys them. That’s where the germ of this story came from.
TD: Do you think that readers expect a specific reading experience when they come to your work? Do you consider a certain type of reader while you’re writing?
BP: A few years ago, I published a book of essays titled Thrill Me. It’s all about blurring the lines between literary and genre fiction, writing stories that are both artfully told and compulsively readable. I’m trying to practice what I preach in the stories of Suicide Woods.
I don’t think anyone picks up my work thinking they’re going to encounter a story about someone drinking tea and staring out the window while debating the meaning of life. I’m going to feed you some mayhem.
TD: Does fiction have the power to help us cope or understand tragedy? Is this purely escapism or is there something else going on when we read?
BP: Some people, I’m sure, just want a rabbit hole to escape down, but I think most are seeking something more holistic. I write to entertain, to educate, to provoke thought and action. That’s what I’m after as a reader as well.
TD: The ending line of the story “The Balloon” is “They can find hope.” Do you have hope for our future? Is writing a solace or a shield against the looming terror of climate change or drought? Can we write ourselves out of despair?
BP: I’m kind of grumpy and I write shadow-soaked fiction, but I’m an optimist. How can you not be as a writer? It’s an act of hope to put words on the page—the equivalent of tucking a note into a bottle and tossing it into a midnight sea in the hopes that it find some farther shore. And yes, I constantly worry about the future, but it’s also important to remember that we live in the healthiest, safest, most educated time in human history.
TD: I have to ask about the title of the book Suicide Woods. It’s pretty bleak, and yet I think a recurring theme is that there is some hope even amongst violence, death, fear, and apocalypse. Did you consider another title that might have highlighted the hope from the outset?
BP: The Cold Boy and Heart of a Bear were also on the table as titles for the collection, but they don’t have the same sexiness and atmosphere as Suicide Woods. And hey, there’s a reason the book is being released during the Halloween season. The title says it all: you were warned.
TD: Bears, mudmen, suicide, dystopia, boxing, taxidermy, Batman, Wolverine: is there anything you’re just not interested in writing about? Any topic that’s off-limits?
BP: Not off-limits, but I’m generally bored by the idea of a novel that reads like thinly veiled memoir. I’m not saying others haven’t done this brilliantly—I’m just trying to imagine what that would look like for me. “He walked the dog. He sat in a chair and typed. He drove his daughter to soccer. Then he drove his son to soccer, too. He wondered what he and his wife would watch on Netflix later.”
TD: What will you be looking for when judging the CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest?
BP: Craft is something concrete, and I’ll be looking for that, but I’ll also be hunting for something more ephemeral: heart. That’s what brings the words to life on the page. That’s what moves me to gasp or sob or laugh or leap out of my chair and say, “Holy shit!”
TD: What are you working on now? Will I ever get a sequel to Red Moon?
BP: I’m part of the new dawn of X-Men over at Marvel, so I’m busy writing comics for them. And I’ve got a sci-fi trilogy releasing in 2021 with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt called The Comet Cycle; I’m muscling through the second novel now. As for the sequel to Red Moon, it’s all mapped out, but I don’t have any plans to write it any time soon. I’ve got too many planes on the tarmac waiting to take off.
BENJAMIN PERCY’s most recent collection of short fiction—Suicide Woods—releases this fall with Graywolf Press. He is also the author of four novels, two other story collections, and a book of essays, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. His fiction and nonfiction have been read on NPR and published in GQ, Esquire, Time, Outside, Men’s Journal, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Tin House, Ploughshares, McSweeney’s, and The Paris Review. He writes for Marvel and DC Comics—and his series X-Force launches this fall as part of the new dawn of X-Men. His honors include an NEA fellowship, a Whiting Award, the Plimpton Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, the iHeartRadio Award for Best Scripted Podcast, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories and Best American Comics.
TOMMY DEAN lives in Indiana with his wife and two children. He is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. He is the Flash Fiction Section Editor at CRAFT. He has been previously published in the BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, New World Writing, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash Fiction Review. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. It will also be included in Best Small Fiction 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.