Author Benjamin Percy talks about genre, big box stores and more

Categories: Books

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Author Benjamin Percy has his feet in pretty much every pair of shoes on the writing track: he's a novelist, a short story writer and an essayist, he's worked on graphic novels and short films and he teaches on top of all that. Since he's in town tonight at St. Cajetan's Center, we took the opportunity to take with him about writing, his first novel, The Wilding, and what it means to spread yourself out.

Westword: I've noticed you've spread yourself out across a few different areas -- fiction, non-fiction, screenplays, graphic novels and short stories as well as teaching. Do you feel that's just something writers need to do, or do you simply enjoy working in a variety of mediums?
Benjamin Percy: I like to have a lot of irons in the fire. That's one of the reasons I've never had writer's block. If I get sick of my novel, I work on a short story. If I get sick of fiction, I punch out an essay or article. Now I'm working with screenplays and comic concepts as well. There are different conventions for each, but really, it's all prose -- it's all story.

WW: Actually, on the topic of short stories, do you feel there is much of a market for them these days?
BP: Depends on your definition of market. Can you make money off short stories? A little. But most of the big magazines rarely feature fiction anymore. There is a very rich and active readership in the hundreds and hundreds of high quality literary journals. Some of my favorites include Tin House, Missouri Review, Hobart, Southern Review and Ploughshares.

WW: The Wilding seems to toy with some different genres without committing to any of them -- do you feel genre fiction has a place in "literary" fiction?
BP: I'm not too worried about the fences that corral different genres. Good writing is good writing. Doesn't matter if there's a ghost or a robot or a cowboy in it. For proof of this, look no farther than writers like Margaret Atwood, Larry McMurtry, Peter Straub, Michael Chabon, Kelly Link and Dan Chaon. You can call The Wilding a literary thriller -- that sounds about right. I'm a blender of tropes and techniques, my ultimate hope being to punch out pretty sentences, believable characters and an engaging narrative.

WW: What was the experience of collaborating with people for the graphic novel and the screenplays?
BP: I had a blast. James Ponsoldt and I have very similar sensibilities, so whenever I'm going back and forth with him, by phone or email or over a beer at the bar, there's an exciting energy at work. He asked me to help edit the Refresh, Refresh screenplay -- and we've since punched out an original screenplay (that's being shopped right now) called Deadville, as well as a comic series pitch (that we may also develop as a novel or screenplay). He's a great pal and collaborator.

As for the graphic novel, Danica really made Refresh, Refresh her own, building off my short story and the screenplay both. We enjoyed working together so much we're started on a book of fables (each of them illustrated), some of which I've placed in a few different magazines.

WW: You seem to concentrate a lot on nature in your stories, which is a bit different than most modern approaches to storytelling. Is that a purposeful choice, or something that just happens?
BP: We live in a placeless world. Drop me anywhere in the country, I'll show you the same stores, the same cookie-cutter designs in housing developments. And we spend most of our time inside, rushing from our house to our car to our job. But my experience growing up was much different: I was raised on 37 acres of big pines and spend most of my childhood outside, ducking under barbed-wire fences, firing BB guns at jackrabbits, playing in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains. I feel intensely connected to Oregon, where I grew up, and it's the stage of virtually all my fiction.

WW: Where do you think publishing and writing will be in the next 10 years? I only ask because you seem to have latched onto a few different modes of storytelling, so I'd be curious to hear how you envision the future of storytelling.
BP: No crystal ball here, but obviously print is on the decline. I don't own an e-reader, but I know a lot of people who do, and the good news is, they all seem to be buying and reading more titles. The ease of shopping and the low cost of e-books has enabled that. When they come across a story they really love, they buy a hard copy to shelve in their library. I hope that's a trend that continues for the sake of the brick-and-mortar shops I love so much.

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