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Benjamin Percy

Website: BenjaminPercy.com

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. 

Short story collections

Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press, 2007) 

Longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2008 

Reviewed by Sarah Hilary

Story included in:

Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform (Press 53, 2009) 

Reviewed by Carol Reid

The Language of Elk (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2006) 

Interview with Benjamin Percy

The Short Review: 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?

BP: I’m 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.