Benjamin Percy was raised in the high desert
of Central Oregon. His stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, the Chicago
Tribune, Best American Short Stories and many other
publications. The Paris
Review awarded their Plimpton Prize to his story, Refresh, Refresh.
He is the author of another collection of stories, The Language of Elk.
He teaches writing on the MFA program at Iowa State University. He won a 2008 Whiting Writers Award.
Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press,
for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2008
Story included in:
Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform (Press 53,
Reviewed by Carol Reid
The Language of Elk (Carnegie-Mellon
with Benjamin Percy
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Benjamin Percy: Hard
to say. The table of contents is in no way chronological: I didn’t
finish one story and begin another until I had a tidy little book. At
any given moment, I have a half-dozen story ideas shelved in my mind. I
always choose to write the one that glows brightest. The story might be
ill-suited for a collection, but that doesn’t give me pause: I know I
need to pursue it before it loses its electrical charge. To finish a
story takes me anywhere from a week to a month. (This does not account
for the revisions that inevitably come from my agent and editor’s
comments.) And after two or three years of work, I might have several
hundred pages of published/publishable material, but no book. Over
time, certain stories present themselves—through recurring characters,
landscapes, themes—and I realize that set alongside each other they
match up. That’s how it was with both Refresh, Refresh
and The Language of Elk.
TSR: How did
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
BP: In this market,
you need to come out swinging, especially with short story collections.
If you don’t knock flat a reader—or a reviewer—with the very first
story, they’ll likely set you aside and turn to something else. So the
strongest story (or maybe I should say the most celebrated story) gets
the first slot. Aside from that, I tried to space out similarities. I
have, for instance, two stories that concern miscarriages and damaged
marriages; I kept them far from each other. They couldn’t be more
different in their tone and plotting, but still, as next-door neighbors
I’m sure they would have felt too familiar.
TSR: What does the word "story"
mean to you?
BP:That’s a question
that’s easy to ask and difficult to answer without sounding like a
pretentious wanker. I’ll say what I hope to find in fiction. On a very
basic level, a story must make me wonder what happens next. I want to
hunch forward, rather than lean back, when reading. I want to be
thrilled. The characters should not feel like papery husks; I want to
believe in them fully and feel invested in their lives. And I wish to
be subtly awed by the language; a story betrays itself when the writer
shoulders his way into the narrative as maestro, showing off his
rhetorical pyrotechnics, masturbating all over the page.
TSR: Do you
have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
supposed to give that pat answer here, saying me, saying my wife or my
mom or my English teacher from 7th grade, Mrs. Zeiganhagen. I don’t
have a person or a gender or a nationality or anything like that in
mind when writing. I’m casting a spell to the wind and hoping somebody
feels the magic coursing through them.
TSR: Is there
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection,
anything at all?
BP: Yes. If you
were naked—in a 12x12x12 steel cage—what is the largest animal you
think you could do battle with and kill?
TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your books?
BP: When someone
tells me they’ve read my books and enjoyed them, I always feel
somewhere between startled and elated. Writing is a solitary pursuit
after all. I spend most of my time sitting in my boxer shorts, slurping
cold coffee, staring at a computer screen, muttering to myself. That
this time—this intensely intimate time—is eventually broadcast never
ceases to surprise me. I spend all these hours bent over a keyboard,
holding congress with my mind, and yes, I’m hoping for publication, but
even if a short story (or even a novel) isn’t published, the experience
of completing it still feels personally, mystically rewarding. So when
my fiction makes it through the transom—and finds its way to
publication—I of course feel deeply grateful, knowing how ugly the odds
are, knowing how lucky I am. I hope that feeling never goes away.
TSR: What are
you working on now?
BP: I’m chipping
away at the revision of my novel, The
Wilding. Graywolf Press will publish it in late 2009,
early 2010—and right now I’m in the middle of a major renovation,
changing the point of view from first to third and crafting several
subplots to weave in and out of the main narrative. I’m also working on
my house—ripping down walls and building them back up—and I’m finding
the two pursuits have a lot in common.
TSR: What are
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
BP: The Lives of Rocks by Rick Bass, The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day, and In the Devil’s Territory by Kyle Minor, all of them well worth your dollar.