Benjamin Percy

NEA Literature Fellow
Benjamin Percy

Photo by Jennifer May

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Ben Percy: She does not know what's happening outside right this minute, as a small brigade of vehicles, the armored vans, the black sedans with government plates, appear at the end of her block with their headlights off. She lives in a wooded neighborhood, each house set back on a half-acre lot. There are not streetlights, no sidewalk. <music fades> The vehicles purr to a stop. Their doors swing open but do not close. Any noise that might bring Claire to the window, the stomp of boots along the asphalt, the clatter of assault rifles and ammunition clips, is muffled by the steady snowfall, a white shroud thrown over the night. She doesn't know about the tall man in the black suit and black necktie, his skull as hairless as a stone, who stands next to his black Lincoln Town Car. She doesn't know that he has his hands tucked into his pockets or that the snow is melting against his scalp and dripping down his face, or that he is smiling slightly. She doesn't know that her father and mother are sitting at the kitchen table, drinking their way through a bottle of Merlot, not holding but squeezing each other's hands in reassurance as they watch CNN, the coverage of what the president called "a coordinated terror attack directed at the heart of America."  So she does not know that. When the front door kicks open, splintering along its hinges, her father is holding the remote in his hand, a long, black remote that could be mistaken for a weapon. She does not know that he stands up so suddenly his chair tips over and clatters to the floor. That he screams, "No," and holds up his hand, the hand gripping the remote, and points it at the men as they come rushing through the entryway. The dark rectangle of night, with snow fluttering around them like damp, shredded paper. She only knows when she hears the crash, the screams, the rattle of gunfire, that she must run.

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Jo Reed: That was Benjamin Percy, reading from his novel "Red Moon."  Welcome to "Art Works," the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works  I'm your host, Josephine Reed. Ben Percy is living a writer's dream. <music fades> He's a prize-winning author who's published two collections of short stories. He's an editor at Esquire Magazine, and writes for other first-rate publications. His first novel, "The Wilding," was very well received, and is slated to be made into a movie, with Ben writing the screenplay. His second and current novel, "Red Moon," has been acclaimed by critics and readers alike, although many wonder exactly how to characterize it. "Red Moon" begins like a coming of age story. A teenaged boy sent across country to live with his mother when his father goes to war. A high school junior sits at her desk looking at college applications, eager to get away from the confines of parents and home. It sounds so familiar. But Percy has given us an alternative universe inhabited by humans and werewolves. The werewolves came into being through an infection or prion, and they're capable of passing that infection to humans by biting them. The werewolves are treated as second-class citizens and viewed with suspicion. They are forbidden to transform and medicated to suppress their Lupin urges. The extremists among them react to the oppression with acts of terrorism. Again, elements that are very familiar to us and yet are not. "Red Moon" is a hybrid of fantasy, horror and allegory--written with an almost poetic attention to detail. And it forces the reader to ask, "What makes us human?"  I spoke with Ben Percy earlier this week and I asked him what inspired "Red Moon."

Ben Percy: Some of my favorite fantasy stories, some of the most resonant fantasy stories, channel cultural unease. And when I sat down a few years ago to build this plot, I was thinking about that. I was thinking about what we fear right now. And we fear two things. We fear infection, and you need only look to the entryway of any business in America or the countertop in any business of America to see the Purell oozing from it as evidence of that. And we fear too, terrorism, as the aftermath of the Boston bombing marathon so sadly reminded us. So terrorism and infection. I braided these two things together and took a knife to the nerve of the moment. Just as, say, Godzilla channeled cultural unease in the post-atomic era, or "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" channeled the Red Scare. Or Frankenstein channeled anxiety swirling around the Industrial Revolution, the fear of man playing God, the fear of science and technology. So in this alternate universe, everything is the same, in "Red Moon," except for one thing. And that is that the infected live among us. And this began in Prehistoric times, when an animal-borne pathogen that is the equivalent of chronic wasting disease or mad cow disease, leaps out of the wolf population and mutates in its human host. If you fast forward to today, roughly five percent of the population is infected, and they have, throughout time, been marginalized and treated as the other. So this disease targets the mind, and they are particularly vulnerable to rage and sexual impulse, a heightening of the adrenal glands. And as a result of this, they are part of a public registry equivalent to a sex offenders list. They are unable to hold certain jobs. They have been subjected to genocide throughout history, and been pushed to the corner throughout history, and now in this time, there is, of course, an uprising. And in response to this uprising, a swift government response, which makes this I guess you could say a post-9/11 reinvention of the werewolf myth.

Jo Reed: Why werewolves?  I'd like you to talk specifically about why it mutated into werewolves in your novel.

Ben Percy: Well, I have always been fascinated with the myth of the werewolf. I have, I guess you could say, a history with the werewolf. And I can remember the time when I was in kindergarten and pulled off the library shelf the Universal Studios book of monsters, and paused on the page with Lon Chaney, Junior, as the Wolf Man, with his ridiculous, hoggish nose and pompadour and shag carpeting hair. You know, I was enchanted and I was terrified, and I didn't sleep that night. And the next day I came back to the library and I pulled the book off the shelf again. And later on in sixth grade, I still have this artifact. I wrote a paper, a research paper, called "Werewolves!" with an exclamation mark. That's how excited I was about the subject matter. And it had a table of contents that was only five pages long, and the final subsection was called "The Ceremony of the Wolf."  And in that section, I attempted to transform myself in my backyard beneath a full moon. And I received a B-minus on this paper, which is one of the--

Jo Reed: A B-minus?

Ben Percy: Which is one of the many reasons it feels so good to hold the book in my hand today and say, "In your face, Mrs. Zegenhagen."

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Ben Percy: So I have this background, but I'm also interested just in the way that the wolf, the werewolf myth, is how we can all relate to it. How we all, due to rage or exhaustion, too much to drink, drugs, have been pushed into the abyss and we have lost all inhibitions. And this happens sometimes when the shades, you know, the shades are down. When we remember that time when we were all wolves ranging the woods so long ago. So I'm tapping into that in the same way that Jekyll and Hyde did, in the same way that the Incredible Hulk does. You know, it's the idea of the unleashed id, the wildness barely changed inside of all of us.

Jo Reed: Why do you think there is such a focus on this in popular culture?  Do you see a relationship between the werewolf and the vampire, which, obviously through the "Twilight" series, but then also this plethora of zombie novels?

Ben Percy: Well, I think the vampire has always been most popular because the vampire is aspirational in a way that the zombie and werewolf are not. People like the idea of being able to live forever, even if it comes with corpse-y breath. And people like the idea of the sort of sexiness surrounding the vampire myth where if you look back to Dracula, the original production, and you have that woman in a nightgown with an open window sort of staring off into the night with a come hither look on her face, and then when Dracula finds her in her room, she arches her back and gasps in an almost orgasmic manner. And vampires have always appealed to us for those reasons and more. But the zombie and the werewolf I guess are a little less aspirational. Nobody wants to be hairier. Nobody wants to be rotten and staggering. But it seems like the werewolf and the zombie, especially if you look maybe at the zombie in George Romero's work, the zombie is oftentimes metaphoric, allegorical. Look at the way the "Night of the Living Dead" taps into the Civil Rights Movement, look at the way that "Dawn of the Dead" taps into the rise of consumerism in the ‘80s. Look at the way that "Day of the Dead" taps into Cold War anxieties, and you'll see that. So I guess the larger point is that oftentimes through fantasy we have a mirror held up to society, a mirror with a crack running through it. We're able to see ourselves and sometimes it's easier to see ourselves and to approach difficult subjects through fantasy, through the haze of fantasy. Whereas anything that might deal with, say, the war in Iraq, or any hot-button topic, say, like racism or capital punishment or whatever. If you approach this directly, there's always that worry about it being polemical. And there's always that baggage that the audience carries with them where they're unable to sort of believe in the characters because they're so worried about the author using them as sort of sock puppets for their own beliefs.

Jo Reed: In your previous book, "The Wilding," it very much focuses on men, three generations of men. In this book you have a very wide cast of characters with women carrying much more prominent roles. I would say two of the protagonists are women. Talk about that decision to write from that point of view.

Ben Percy: I guess it just has to go along with growing up. I'm 34 years old now. I wrote "Red Moon" when I was 31 and 32. And as you progress through life, and as you travel, as you have children, as you're divorced or married, as you're betrayed or betray others, as you're fired from a job, every time you go through something grand and emotional, every time you go through something that's full of despair, every time you uproot your life and move to a new place, every time you go through something jarring you're like a snake shedding its skin and you become more empathetic and you become, as a result of this, a better writer. And if you look at creative writing, there's no such thing as a prodigy in this field, in the same way that there are in other artistic disciplines. The more you live, the better you are, and the better I am at being able to write from different points of view. Whether that's across gender lines or cultural lines, religious lines, sexual orientation, whatever. So if you look at my next book, the book coming down the transom in 2014, I'm doing something even more complicated with the points of view.

Jo Reed: You have so many different points of view in this book. I stopped counting after about seven or eight.

Ben Percy: I've always wanted to write that, you know, that big, epic book. But if you look at "Red Moon," it's kind of you're getting three for one in many ways. Because I proposed this as a trilogy, and they asked me to compose it as a sweeping novel that took place over many years and followed many different characters. So it's divided up Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. You get the trilogy all lashed together with one cover.

Jo Reed: Was it fun to write?

Ben Percy: Was a blast. I'd do this stuff for free. Yeah. I'm spending 8 to 10 hours a day at the keyboard sometimes, but my only complaint is that my rear end gets a little sore. I'm always, I'm always having fun when I sit down to write.

Jo Reed: Were there some characters that were easier to write than others in this book?

Ben Percy: Well, I guess you could say that from a psychological point of view. It's difficult to inhabit those roles that are a little darker. But I always have my daughter waiting for me upstairs when I climb up from the basement, from my black hole where I write, and play pretty ponies with her to antidote that.

Jo Reed: <laughs> So you really do write in a lair.

Ben Percy: I do. Yeah. I have this, I have a room in the basement, and the prior owner of the house was a photographer and the closet in my office, he uses a darkroom. And if you go into the darkroom now, I use it where, this is the place where, I compose all of my ideas. Because I usually start thinking about a book about a year in advance of actually writing it. And so I rip off these 10-foot scrolls from my kids' Melissa & Doug art easel and I hang them from the wall and I start to sketch out characters and sketch out plot. And I also hang up their images that I might've harvested from my own camera or from magazines and calendars and I tack up there on the wall too articles ripped from newspapers and magazines, and it really looks like a serial killer's den, I'm afraid. And I go in there into my darkroom with the red light glowing and I stand there every morning and sort of get in touch with these ideas that I'm nurturing.

Jo Reed: There's also a lot of science in "Red Moon."  Did you do research, a bunch of research for this book?

Ben Percy: Every book is a research project for me, every story's a research project. So if I'm writing about a taxidermist, for instance, as I did with one story, I'll spend about a week in a taxidermy studio eavesdropping on people and sniffing the formaldehyde and clacking the glass eyeballs around in my palm and stroking the polyurethane forms. And I did the same thing with "Red Moon," because there were so many things I did not know about this book. I did not. I had to interview brewmasters, I had to interview pilots, I had to interview government agents and politicians. And I spent a lot of time with soldiers as well, and was able to steal from one his Marine Corps guidebooks that was very helpful, especially when it came to insider lingo and figuring out battle patterns. But the greatest challenge of all was the medical terminology, the slippery science behind these prions. That animal-borne pathogen that is the basis of lobos, the disease that is the heart of this novel. And I sat down with researchers at the USDA labs and I sat down with researchers at Iowa State University and I filled up maybe 12 yellow legal tablets.

Jo Reed: What surprised you the most?

Ben Percy: Well, how much they don't know about prions in particular. And how so many of the scientists said that that would be the best route to approach this infection through. And how scared these researchers are as well. How they believe that in an instant something could shift, something could mutate, and wipe out hundreds of thousands of people.

Jo Reed: Oh, let's talk about the whole notion of genre and literary fiction. First of all, what is literary fiction to you?

Ben Percy: Literary fiction is a genre of its own. It has become such, anyway. And sometimes, if we're sort of exaggerating things here, you know, you can exaggerate the archetypes of sci-fi and the formulas of sci-fi in the same way that you can exaggerate the archetypes, the beats, of literary fiction. And let's say that the worst of literary fiction is this. Somebody drinks some tea, looks out the window at a roiling bank of clouds, and has an epiphany. In other words, nothing happens. But there are a lot of pretty sentences. And glowing metaphors. And subterranean themes. And that's the best of literary fiction, in that it has that interiority and that careful carpentry, that depth. So if you look at the worst of, say, sci-fi or fantasy or mystery or horror or whatever, you can be accusatory there as well. You can say that the language is pedestrian. You can say that the characters are recycled and one-dimensional. You can say that it's plot-driven and essentially disregards any sort of interiority or wrestling with any themes or something more profound. So really though, these things are phantom barricades, and if you just think about the best of writing and the worst of writing, you might look to Margaret Atwood, or you might look to Dennis Lehane, or you might look to Cormac McCarthy. You could put, Cormac McCarthy, you could put him in crime. You could put him in horror. Or you could put him in sci-fi. You could put him in literature as well. You could put him in western. And the same goes for Margaret Atwood. If you look at content alone, she's all over the place. Or Richard Matheson or Ray Bradbury, or Shirley Jackson.

Jo Reed: Or Joyce Carol Oates.

Ben Percy: Or Joyce Carol Oates.

Jo Reed: Who literally is all over the place.

Ben Percy: Great example. So it's a matter of artistic quality and paying attention to what happens next. That's what matters most to me. Like somebody who can tell a ripping good yarn and do it with artistry. And I think that that's what literary fiction, if you're talking about the worst of literary fiction, sometimes disregards. And that is it forgets that we want to turn pages so swiftly they make a breeze on our face. It forgets sometimes that something needs to happen. It forgets the importance of story. And, of course, style should serve story. Style should accompany story. And that's what the worst of genre fiction is forgetting as well.

Jo Reed: Do you think the snootiness about genre literature is, I don't know, losing some of its steam?

Ben Percy: I do think that. I mean, it still exists. It probably always will exist. But we live in a time where writers like Michael Chabon, Chabon, not sure how to pronounce his last name, the author of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," he has become a fantastic cheerleader, and so has Jonathan Lethem and a few others. A cheerleader for what I guess you could call the avengerization of literature.

Jo Reed: Tell me what you mean by that?

Ben Percy: Well, just the idea that you can write about an exploding helicopter and do so with a bunch of pretty sentences, and that's okay.

Jo Reed: I see. Okay.

Ben Percy: You know, and the idea of work being taught in the classroom is more permissible these days. Work, work that might be labeled genre, is more permissible these days than it was maybe a decade ago when I was taking creative writing workshops. I walked into my first creative writing workshop having read genre almost exclusively my whole life. And on the first day of that class when the professor went over the syllabus, he said, "No genre," and I threw up my hand and I asked him what he meant. And he said, "No trolls, no robots, no vampires."  And I threw up my hand again and asked, very earnestly, "What else is there?"

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Ben Percy: And that sort of snobbishness, I think that it's getting shrugged aside.

Jo Reed: It's kind of self-defeating, isn't it?  I mean, the point is we want people to read. That's why people write.

Ben Percy: Right.

Jo Reed: That's why people publish. And it's almost like… And maybe it is an issue of creative writing finding such a cozy home in the academy of often within academic writing, the inaccessibility is a mark of its merit.

Ben Percy: Sure. And the idea of realism as the standard, which really I feel like that rise began in the 1960s with the advent of the MFA program, and now this widesped proliferation of MFA programs, the idea that realism is the standard, when really realism is the trend if you look at the long hoof mark trail of literature. Realism is the trend. And fantasy has always been with us.

Jo Reed: Now, how did you end up in a creative writing workshop?  What drew you to writing?

Ben Percy: Well, I'd always been a crazy reader eating my way through several books a week as a kid. And so many evenings were spent sprawled out on the living room floor with the rest of my family, pawing through books. But it didn't really occur to me that I could become a writer. It seemed something otherworldly. I grew up in a rural section of Oregon and never met a writer until I was in college. You know, I did dash off a few short stories. I did dash off the occasional poem. And I was actually writing some poems for my then-girlfriend, now wife, in the summer of 1998 when I was working at Glacier National Park. I was a gardener at the Many Glacier Lodge and my wife was a waitress there. And it was a summer romance that went the distance. And I was writing her these poems and I was writing her these letters, and she said, "You should be a writer."  And I said, "Okay."  And so that next fall signed up for my first creative writing workshop.

Jo Reed: And did you find creative writing workshops helpful for you?

Ben Percy: I did in that I had an audience. I don't know that I had encouragement, but I had an audience. And I was also exposed then to all of these writers that I didn't know, these great writers, I didn't know existed. I had never heard of. This is very sad to say, but I'd never heard of Raymond Carver. I'd never heard of Flannery O'Connor. I had never heard of Margaret Atwood or Joyce Carol Oates, or Alice Monroe. And I fell in love with their writing. And I fell in love with the possibility of mimicking them, of trying to engage in this larger conversation with them.

Jo Reed: Do you remember the first piece you had published?

Ben Percy: Well, there's the work that you publish in your undergrad literary magazine, and then there's the work you publish for a national audience. And I do, I do remember very well, the first time I had an acceptance for a story from the Mississippi Review. And I have to say that that moment for me-- I was in grad school at the time and I had been rejected hundreds of times already from many journalism magazines-- that moment was probably like… that's the height, heightened moment, of my artistic life. <laughs> That's the moment that I'll always be chasing like a first high or something like that. I was so, so grateful. I'm not one to cry, but I think a pebble fell out of my eye then. And <laughs> with gratitude.

Jo Reed: You began as a short story writer. The novel, "The Wilding," is your first published one. Now comes "Red Moon," which as we said, is an epic. Other than length, talk about the differences between writing a short story and a novel.

Ben Percy: It took me a long time to figure that out. And I wrote four failed novels before publishing "The Wilding."  And one of the things that I was doing wrong when writing novels was treating chapters like short stories. By that I mean I would introduce a problem and resolve a problem within those 15 pages or 20 pages. And what you're supposed to do with a novel, with its chapters, is equivalent to what you're supposed to do, this sounds very crass, I know, but what you're supposed to do with a television show and commercial breaks. In that you introduce problems that are not resolved until many pages later, and you are constantly withholding information. You are constantly leaving your audience in suspense so that they want to race forward and feel satisfied by some trouble. And so what I started to do was to map out novels in the same way that I mapped out short stories so long ago when I was first beginning. You know, I would sit down with a yellow legal tablet and I would map out a Flannery O'Connor story after reading it five times so that I could really comprehend the mechanics of it. And so I started doing that with novels as well. And I was teaching a novel writing class at the time, so I felt very insecure having never published one, but teaching others how to write one. So I started breaking down novels into their component parts and figuring out how the chapters worked, and the standard chapter works a little bit like this. Like if you're talking about "The Island of Doctor Moreau," here's a guy on a boat and then a storm comes swirling in and chops up the water. End of chapter. And the next chapter the ship is sank and he's floating in the water clutching some debris. And the storm has passed. And there's another ship on the horizon that may rescue him. End of chapter. Next chapter he's in the belly of the ship and he's feverish and he wanders up to the deck and he discovers that the people who have rescued him are mutants, half animal, half human. End of chapter. And again, that's a very simplified version of what's going on when you're novel writing. Throwing up a flaming chainsaw and not, you know, you're juggling maybe six of them and you toss one up and you don't catch it until 30 pages later. And it also has to do with language. I mean, the short story, there's a sort of a really muscular, sometimes exhausting use of language that can't always hold up over the course of 350 pages, 400 pages, or your audience's eyeballs and brain will begin to throb with exhaustion, so… And there's more to it than that, but those are two principle things that I couldn't quite figure out when I was first starting.

Jo Reed: You're also writing the screenplay, or wrote the screenplay, for "Red Moon"; is that correct?

Ben Percy: I am writing the screenplay for "The Wilding," and I am writing the screenplay for the "Red Moon" as well.

Jo Reed: I just wanted to talk about throwing writing a screenplay into the mix, how that shifts. What kind of writing is that?

Ben Percy: Well, it's very formulaic in that a certain thing has to happen on page 15 and another thing has to happen on page 25. And there are three acts, and the characters are always desiring something in every scene that pushes the story forward. And there's a clear sense of emotional arc. I could go on for quite some time about the prescriptive qualities. But it's sort of a great thing to figure out as a novelist, because you can borrow some of those techniques and add to them interiority and a flourish of language and create a tighter structure for novels that, you know, novelists tend to write sort of these baggy monsters and you can kind of tame them if you understand how a screenplay works, and why it works so well. It's a fun exercise, because it's all exterior as well. And so much of novel writing, short story writing, is getting into people's heads. But unless you fall into that cardinal sin of voiceover, you're not permitted to do so. So it's all from the outside. And that can help me out as a novelist as well in figuring out maybe it isn't always necessary to leap into somebody's mind and give us their history and talk about how they, when they, found vegetarianism and when their heart was broken and all that sort of stuff. Like how can you capture that just in a physical gesture, what's going on inside of someone?  I have a lot of fun with screenplays, and I like being able to jump genres. I like being able to go from writing a novel to writing a short story to writing a craft article to writing an essay to writing a screenplay in that it keeps things fresh at the keyboard. Keeps me always excited.

Jo Reed: It's been a good year for you. You were awarded an NEA fellowship, and your sister was awarded one this year as well.

Ben Percy: Yeah. I was so pleased to hear that she had won as well. And we also both made it into the Pushcart Prize anthology together, and it's been a lot of fun to see her career starting to boom and her first book. It's called "Demon Camp," it's nonfiction. Comes out in 2014 with Simon and Schuster. So it's kind of a weird thing that there's two writers in the family.

Jo Reed: Now, tell me about the fellowship and what did that enable you to do or what is it enabling you to do?

Ben Percy: Well, the fellowship was a total surprise and a great gift in that it has allowed me to focus more full-time on my writing. And with health insurance and with kids, it's harder and harder to go on your own as a writer. So the fellowship from the NEA enabled me to teach a few less classes and to fill up those hours instead with research and with some time at the keyboard. And I've been able to build this new novel, "The Dead Lands," which is a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga. And I've been able too, to work on this craft book called "Thrill Me," that's going to be coming out with Graywolf Press in 2015. And I've been able to pursue my responsibilities as a contributing editor Esquire. I've been able to do all of these things in part thanks to the NEA.

Jo Reed: And you're coming to the National Book Festival. You've read at book festivals in the past. Do you like the festival experience?

Ben Percy: I love the festival experience and that you have a gathering of like-minded people. And it's infectious. Everybody believes that these 26 letters at our disposal are the most important invention in the world. And you'll have a poet on one stage and a nonfiction writer on another and a fiction writer on another and a playwright on another and they're all, through their different genres, trying to better understand the human heart and trying to thrill the audience, and I'm really looking forward to making my way down to D.C. this fall.

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Jo Reed: That was author Ben Percy. Yes. There is an audio book of "Red Moon." And yes. Ben is the narrator. You can hear Ben read from and talk about "Red Moon" at the NEA's Poetry & Prose Pavilion at the National Book Festival, September 21st and 22nd. For more information about the festival, go to arts.gov and click on News. You've been listening to "Art Works," produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. Excerpt from "Some Are More Equal," by Paul Rucker and Hans Tueber, from the CD Oil, used courtesy of Paul Rucker. Excerpt from "Desolation," from the album Metascapes. Performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions. The "Art Works" podcast is posted every Thursday at arts.gov. You can subscribe to "Art Works" at iTunes U. Just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the "Art Works" blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. <music fades>

In his current novel, Red Moon, Ben Percy serves up a hybrid of horror and literature to tell a story about our lives today. [35:10]