Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Benjamin Percy is the May/June, Minnesota Author in the Spotlight here on Booksnob. I got the chance to ask him some questions about books, the writing life, and of course his latest book (which I love), The Dead Lands.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a novelist, comics writer, and screenwriter. I grew up in Oregon—and the Pacific Northwest is a stage for much of my fiction—but married into the Midwest. The Dead Lands—a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga—is my fifth book. I taught for many years, but now I’m at the keyboard full-time. I write the Green Arrow series for DC Comics. I have a crime show—called Black Gold, set in the North Dakota oil fields—in development with Starz. I also write regularly for Esquire, where I’m a contributing editor.
2. What inspired you to write The Dead Lands?
I grew up in the shadow of Lewis and Clark. Visiting Fort Clatsop. Attending the bicentennial. Reading their journals. I always wanted to write about them—and originally I thought I might attempt to recreate their passage, joined along the way by different friends and family members, and crank out a nonfiction book about modern-day adventure. A publisher made a bid on his, alongside my novel Red Moon. But then I sat down with my wife and we figured out the logistics and cost and time away from home, and she said, very reasonably, “That ain’t happening.” So I decided to make some stuff up instead!
I considered a historical novel, but that’s been done many times, and done well. The post-apocalyptic angle felt fresh and exciting to me. An infant nation, trying to rebuild itself, with untold wonders and horrors awaiting the expedition and different forces vying for control of the country? That’s not so far off from what actually happened, but it’s a new angle that makes their journey relevant and perilous once more.
3. Usually an author puts some of his own life experiences in the book. Did you do that? Do you have anything in common with your characters?
I spend my nights dreaming and my days dreaming with my eyes open. I have a wildly overactive mind. Many fine short stories and novels are thinly veiled memoir, but that doesn’t interest me. If I write about myself, it always feels like a failure of the imagination. Most of the pleasure I take in writing comes from invention, drawing characters and narratives out of the ether.
With that said, there are always glimmers here and there drawn from life. Maybe an image—a barn burning, a tornado unfurling from the sky, a whale cresting near a boat—was inspired by something I actually saw. Or maybe a character has the knock knees of a neighbor, the voice of my grandfather, and the beard of my college roommate, but there’s always a healthy serving of imagination ladled over the top.
4. How many books have you written? Can you tell us why you decided to become a writer?
I’ve published three novels and two books of short stories. I have a craft book—called Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction—coming out in 2016 with Graywolf Press. And another novel—called The Dark Net, which I’m describing as The Exorcist meets The Matrix—coming out in 2017 with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
I’ve always been a narrative junkie. Comics, novels, movies, TV shows—I gobbled up everything as a kid and continue to now. And that obsession has always been balanced: I’m as interested in the emotional impact of a story as I am its architecture and devices.
5. What advice do you give to new writers?
Read your brains out and write your brains out. Malcolm Gladwell talks about how it takes 10,000 hours to even begin to master any trade—that’s absolutely true of writing. There are no prodigies in the field. The more you read, the more you write, the more you live and travel and work different jobs and love and hate different people (and and and), the better you get.
6. Do you like to read? What authors or books influence you?
I read every night. I try to vary my literary diet as much as possible so as not to fall into an aesthetic rut. But some of my favorite authors include Flannery O’Connor, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Donna Tartt, Peter Straub, Daniel Woodrell, Neil Gaiman.
7. How do you carve time out of your busy day to read and write?
I used to have an insane schedule. I would teach all day. Then brew a pot of coffee at 11 PM. Write until 3 or 5 AM. Wake up at nine to begin prepping and grading. Obviously this wasn’t sustainable, but I grinded away for several years in this fashion, securing better teaching jobs with lesser loads. And finally I was able to quit teaching and the writing took over completely.
Now I sit down at 7, write until 3:30. After that, I’m a dad and husband. Eight hours a day—sometimes two more in the evening if I’m under deadline—just like any job, except that I’m playing with my imaginary friends all day, which is pretty cool (and weird).
8. What are some of the issues in The Dead Lands that you hope your readers will interpret as integral to the story?
I could rant about this for some time. How about two quick take-aways, since people are reading this on the Internet and probably want to hurry up and leave this interview to go rearrange their Netflix queue.
First, look at the way I managed the structure. It’s a quest story, sure. And I love quest stories. But the problem is, they’re so often episodic. Huck and Jim go down the river, get off the raft, hijinks ensue. They get back on the raft, go down the river, get off the raft, hijinks ensue. There’s not a strong sense of causality. I combatted this in a number of ways. One was to blend the quest with another type of story I admire very much: the fishbowl scenario. So I’m cutting back and forth—between the expedition and post-apocalyptic St. Louis—usually at moments of great emotional or physical peril (to enhance suspense).
Second, we’re inundated with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives. Maybe there’s a reason for that. California is drying up, knuckling upon itself like a date. A bomb goes off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Ebola rips its way through Sierra Leone. People are rioting in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore. Russia invades Ukraine and dangerously eyes up its neighbors. In these environmentally, culturally, politically dangerous times, the end of the world has never been more popular because the end of the world has never seemed more probable. And though my novel takes place in the future, there are parallels to the contemporary world’s problems.
9. Name one book that you believe is a must read for everyone and tell us why?
The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, the comic series collected into an omnibus that reads like an epic novel. It’s one of the greatest feats of imagination I’ve ever encountered.
10. In one sentence tell readers why they should read The Dead Lands?
Because if you don’t, you will be cursed; a crow will flap to an open window and croak out, “Seven days,” at the end of which time you will die horribly.
You can find Benjamin Percy on his website at http://benjaminpercy.com/