Interviews : Issue One

Interview with Benjamin Percy

by Posted on February 1st, 2008 at 12:50 am

Ben Percy

Benjamin Percy is the author of two books of stories, Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf, 2007) and The Language of Elk (Carnegie Mellon, 2006). His fiction and nonfiction have been read on National Public Radio, performed at Symphony Space, and published by Esquire, Men’s Journal, Paris Review, Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, Best American Short Stories, and many other places. His honors include a Pushcart Prize and the Plimpton Prize. He teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Luna Park: According to your website, you’ve published fiction and nonfiction in over 30 literary magazines, as well as publishing in large, general interest magazines such as Equire and Men’s Journal. Plus-and hardly secondary-there are your two acclaimed books of short fiction, The Language of Elk and Refresh, Refresh, which includes your Plimpton Prize winning story. Quite a list of accomplishments for such a young writer. How did your first publication come about?

Benjamin Percy: Don’t think I take it for granted. I’m just as surprised as anybody else. Whenever an editor calls to say, “We’d love to buy this story if it’s still available,” I say, “Thank you,” even as I think, “Really?” It never feels old, the high I get off an acceptance. And it never fails, the worry that the piece isn’t good enough, even after it’s gone through the editorial ringer. I look back on all my previous work and I cringe. A word-a sentence-a character-a plot-point. Inevitably, I’m dissatisfied. I might have thought the story perfect when I wrote it, but now, months later, years later, I see the warts and ingrown hairs. So I know now to be hesitant. Even when I feel I’ve written a powerful story, I read it over twenty times, trying to figure out what I’ll roll my eyes at when it finally appears in print.

I started submitting to magazines when I was a junior in college. I had no conception of how difficult it was, how horrible the odds were. I submitted everything I wrote to C. Michael Curtis at The Atlantic, and-generous soul that he is-he always responded. He typed out the rejections on these tiny sheets of paper, saying things like, “This is unrepentingly artificial.” That’s an actual quote. But he made many encouraging remarks as well, which stoked the fire and kept me going at the keyboard. I can’t imagine what he thought, reading over the trash I sent him. I suppose he saw some raw talent or he wouldn’t have taken the time. I certainly feel indebted to him, even though he’s never published anything of mine. So I would submit to him-to any contest that struck my fancy-to some journal I happened upon in the bookstore. I ended up published several times over in the campus literary magazine at Brown, but it wasn’t until the end of my first year of grad school that I published a piece in a national magazine, Mississippi Review. I don’t cry very often-my son’s birth and the end of Braveheart being a few exceptions-but I admit to getting a little misty at that moment. And then a pebble rolled out of the corner of my eye. But in all seriousness, that acceptance meant a great deal to me. I saw it as a beginning, an affirmation that I could actually do this. I remember blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd and drinking a beer and pacing my living room, thinking, hey, things might actually work out.

LP: I have spoken to a lot of young writers who want desperately to be published in literary magazines-it seems because that is where they see and hear about their peers being published and it is where they are told that they should be published-and yet they themselves don’t read these magazines. Do you think this is simply because literary magazines are the only game in town for beginning writers?

Percy: You’ve heard it before: there are more writers than readers. Sadly, I’ve found this to be true. Especially among my students. They have read nothing except what teachers have assigned to them. Stories should be like candy to the beginning writer. You should gobble them up with a terrible hunger, until your eyes rot, feeling love and hate and jealousy and resent and awe and contempt for what they have or have not accomplished. If you’re trying to write short stories, and you’re not reading short stories, you’re a fraud. Because writing is born out of constant, vigilant reading. And you’ll find the finest work written today-work by Rick Bass and Charles D’Ambrosio and Jim Shepard and so, so many others-in literary journals. I can’t understand submitting to them and not reading them. I would accuse such a person of not loving writing-but loving instead the idea of being a writer.

LP: What literary magazines are you currently reading?

Percy: I can only read so many, so I try to spread the love, subscribing to different magazines in different years. I’ll often paw through copies in the bookstore, and if I see an author I admire or if I read a story that hooks me, I’ll lay down the cash. I always read the Paris Review, Zoetrope, Tin House, Missouri Review, as the work they publish consistently knocks my socks off. Right now I’ve got a copy of American Short Fiction on my desk, and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of it in small doses.

LP: American Short Fiction is great. Is that the issue with your story in it?

Percy: I did read that issue—I read all the literary journals my work appears in to see who my neighbors are—but I’m referring to the Fall 07 issue, featuring some knock-out stories by Naomi Williams and James Scott, among others.

LP: You mention the support you received as a beginning writer from Atlantic Monthly’s C. Michael Curtis–a man well-known for his generous responses to submissions from talented new writers, especially those in writing programs. Is there any literary magazine experience or editors that have been helpful? Anything you’ve been particularly proud of?

Percy: Philip Gourevitch and Nat Rich at The Paris Review. With two of my stories—“Refresh, Refresh” and “Somebody is Going to Have to Pay for This”—they removed or rearranged, with surgical precision, the guts, making forty pages into eighteen pages. And with their help, the stories became so much more powerful. They have an uncanny editorial vision and they’re able to communicate with their authors so respectfully, the conversation never one-sided, so change becomes possible. I owe them the world.

LP: One thing that stands out in your stories is their location, Oregon, a state fairly untouched by literary fiction–at least since Raymond Carver died. Charles D’Ambrosio, a writer who you earlier mentioned, is also known for setting stories in the Northwest. Similar to your stories, the landscapes in D’Ambrosio’s stories–whether Washington, Manhattan, or the Midwest–seems to haunt the characters. The environment becomes a central element of the story. This seems even more true in your own work. Sometimes, such as in your story “The Caves in Oregon,” the environment becomes dominant, affecting everything in the piece. Do you think location is particularly important to you as a writer? Were Carver and D’Ambrosio very influential to your own writing?

Percy: If you think of the way Faulkner wrote about the South, or Hawthorne wrote about New England, I want to carve out a similar place for myself in the Northwest. So my characters hike through bone-dry desert flats and raft snake-shaped rivers and hike across moraines where every step is a sliding uncertainty. To me, location is a character, a central character—and the way the sun sets or the way the wind howls is no different than a gesture or a facial expression in informing scene. Carver is one of my favorite writers, but his stories aren’t at all grounded in landscape. They’re grounded in character. And he taught me that the type of people I grew up with, the type of people I’m related to, are very worthy of fiction. As for D’Ambrosio, I read Dead Fish Museum for the first time last month and thought it was a powerful book. I hope to share a beer with him someday, since—to a certain degree—we’re partners in crime.

LP: Aside from D’Ambrosio, you also mentioned the writers Rick Bass and Jim Shepard–all of these men are respected, well published writers working at the top of their game (and who all, incidentally, still continue to publish their work in small literary magazines). Are there any younger or new writers whose work you have recently been impressed by?

Percy: Bret Anthony Johnston. Patrick Somerville. Nic Pizzolatto. Karen Russell. Paul Yoon. Kevin Wilson. Scott Snyder. Owen King. Richard Lange. Laura van den Berg. Kyle Minor. William Giraldi. Dean Bakopoulos. They’re young and they’ve got big guns. If you haven’t heard of them already, you soon will.

LP: It seems there are two sort of readers, those who enter a bookstore and go straight to the magazine stand and those that go for the bookshelves. Which one are you?

Percy: I usually browse the New Fiction table first, then head to the magazine rack, not to check out the latest issue of Cosmo or Cigar Aficionado, but to leaf through the literary journals. From there, sometimes an hour later, I hit the bookshelves.