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Benjamin Percy, photo by Katherine Berger.
Benjamin Percy, photo by Katherine Berger.

An Interview with Benjamin Percy

Writer Benjamin Percy, who grew up in central Oregon, has emerged in recent years as one of the top young voices in American fiction. His story “Refresh, Refresh” was featured in the Best American Short Stories 2006, and it serves as the title tale in his second collection, which Graywolf Press published last year. Percy has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and recently accepted a position as a professor in Iowa State’s graduate creative writing program. Although he’s lived outside of Oregon since he was a teenager, Percy sets every story in Refresh, Refresh in his home state, and makes the landscape come alive, enhancing the mystery and brutality of his characters. I recently interviewed Percy via email about his writing, Bigfoot, hunting stories, and his thoughts about the effect waves of California immigrants have had on Bend.

NewWest: Your stories are set in your home state of Oregon, but you live in Wisconsin. Does living far away from where you grew up sharpen your thoughts about your home territory?

Benjamin Percy: I left Oregon at eighteen. Soon after that, my parents moved from Bend to Portland, so I lost my home in more way than one. Maybe this created an exaggerated sense of longing. A framed photo—some two feet across—hangs from the wall in my office. It’s the view from my childhood, from my porch in Central Oregon. The Cascades Mountains, backlit by the sunset, loom over forested hills and desert flats. Even if I didn’t cart this photo around, nailing it to walls in Rhode Island, Illinois, Wisconsin, it would hang from a hook in my head. A part of me still lives there. Maybe that sounds mystical or corny, but it’s true. My memories of the place are so vivid that I can close my eyes—just like that—and find myself transported. I smell sage and juniper. I see a red-tailed hawk. I hear wind whistling through a barbed-wire fence. If I had never moved away—if I had never realized how special the landscape was, how unique my childhood was—would I channel Oregon so vividly into my stories? I don’t know. Somehow, I doubt it.

NW: The Oregon setting plays an important role in most of your stories, and often an active one. It’s usually not just a backdrop, but has a key impact on the plot, such as when it shelters threatening creatures (in “The Woods” and “When The Bear Came”) or when the environment or weather itself is threatening (in “Meltdown” and “The Faulty Builder”) or when it has symbolic importance to the characters (true in a lot of stories, but particularly in “Refresh, Refresh” and “The Caves in Oregon”). Do you consider place to be a character in your stories?

BP: Setting is essential. It is more than a stage—it is a presence, a kind of character. I see no difference in the way a man coughs into his fist and the way a tree bends against a hard wind. They play an equally important role in informing any scene and its mood and meaning.

NW: Your collection includes a great Bigfoot story, “The Woods.” It seems like there should be an anthology of Bigfoot stories by literary writers—such as Ron Carlson’s “Bigfoot Stole My Wife” and “I Am Bigfoot,” and Francine Prose’s novel, Bigfoot Dreams. Do you have any favorite Bigfoot stories? Why do you think the subject of Bigfoot is so appealing to writers? Do you have reason to believe that Bigfoot lives in Oregon?

BP: Check out Tony Early’s “The Cryptozoologist” (originally published in The New Yorker). He’s one of our finest short story writers—and this piece, which concerns the skunk apes of North Carolina, stands out as one of his best.

Bigfoot is part of American mythology—and in Oregon in particular, he is a kind of mascot. Around every corner, you’ll find museums, T-shirts, coffee mugs, and sculptures celebrating his hirsute likeness. I’ve incorporated him into both of my books, sometimes ironically, sometimes literally. And I keep getting emails from cryptozoological societies and honest-to-goodness believers who have read my work and consider it truth. I don’t, of course. But I’m fascinated with the myth, because I grew up surrounded by alleged sightings and campfire stories.

NW: “The Woods” and “Meltdown” share qualities that are found in horror or science fiction. Do you read genre novels and stories? If so, are there certain aspects to these genres that you find useful to import into your “literary” fiction? The suspense, in particular, in “The Woods” is done so well.

BP: I read literary and genre fiction interchangeably. Some of my favorite authors can’t be classified as one or the other: Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy, Ray Bradbury. They honor some conventions from a given genre and reinvent and interrupt others. As I see it, what’s typically wrong with genre is this: cardboard characters and transparent language. And what’s typically wrong with literary fiction is this: nothing happens. Throw out their worst qualities, bind together their best qualities, and you’ve got a recipe for magic.

NW: Most of the stories in “Refresh, Refresh,” feature characters that have served in the military or who are close to those who have. Do you have a military background? Why were you drawn to this subject matter?

BP: I have family and friends who served, but I don’t have a military background otherwise. Fiction engages with and deepens the mystery of life; our engagement with Iraq is one of the great mysteries of my life, of this time. It occupies the headlines of every newspaper and radio program—it’s at the center of all political debate. I feel like it would be unnatural for me not to write about war.

NW: I noticed that there is a mention or depiction of blood in every one of these stories. Was that deliberate?

BP: My characters are often male and often in pain. They don’t know how to talk, to explain away their feelings. So they often engage in non-verbal communication, sometimes by gutting a deer violently, sometimes by shattering a glass in their hand. The manifestation of blood, whether by fist or knife or bullet, is often therapeutic or metaphoric.

NW: I recently reviewed Rick Bass’s last collection of stories, and I wrote, “Bass can describe the gutting of a carcass as well as any writer working today.” I think I have to add you to his company in that distinction, as you expertly describe the cleaning of several animals in “Refresh, Refresh.” Do you have any favorite works of literature that involve hunting?

BP: You already mentioned the man, Rick Bass. Damn, can he turn a sentence. And he writes in an almost elegiac way of nature. Otherwise, James Dickey’s Deliverance, Tobias Wolff’s “Hunters in the Snow,” so many of Hemingway’s stories.

NW: California serves as the whipping boy in Refresh, Refresh—many characters blame the state for unpleasant changes. Do you share your characters’ antipathy for California?

BP: I don’t dislike the state. I dislike the people who leave the state and set up shop in Oregon, bringing with them their pastel shorts and too tan skin and gleaming golf clubs. They’re parasitic. They sell their coastal homes for several million, then come to Oregon to retire, making it into their playground. Consider Bend. When I lived there, the population clocked in at 16,000. Now, ten years later, the population is 70,000, many of them Californians. They raze forests and lay down golf courses and build up these faux-rustic iron-and-timber homes with antler chandeliers in the foyer and boot-shaped mugs in their kitchen cabinets and $1,000 Pendleton blankets draped over their $10,000 leather couches set before their river-rock fireplaces. They plunk down a Starbucks, a sushi restaurant, a Saab dealer, and before you know it, property taxes are through the roof and everybody who originally lived in the community has to move out because they can no longer afford it. Damn it.

NW: The story “Refresh, Refresh” won so many awards and brought your work to the attention of a wider audience. Do you consider it your best or favorite story, and did you sense it was special when you finished writing it?

BP: I put everything I had into that story, and when I finished it, I felt spent. I didn’t write for a few days afterwards and wondered if that was it, if that was all I had inside me. Then the well filled up again and I got back to work. But yeah, it felt special, as it came out in two-week rush, like whitewater. But I’ve written several stories that felt that way – among them “Somebody is Going to Have to Pay for This”—and you can never tell how they’re going to be received until you shove them in a corked bottle and send them off into the midnight sea and wait for a response.

NW: Did you collaborate at all in the film adaptation of “Refresh, Refresh”? How is that progressing now?

BP: Yes, though James Ponsoldt (the writer/director) has done the lion’s share of the work. He would write an act and email it to me. I would then offer up extensive comments and he would either reject or accept them and edit the screenplay accordingly. It was completely egoless on my part: the story belonged to him and I was excited to see how he made it his own. He’s such a talented artist—the project couldn’t be in better hands. Once we plowed through all three acts, James began drafting. And this is when the Sundance Institute got involved, so I wasn’t the only one giving him feedback anymore. He now had all sorts of advisors throwing their two cents his way. It ended up winning the Lynn Auerbach Award from Sundance and was one of three U.S. finalists for the Sundance/NHK Filmmakers Award. The writer’s strike threw a wrench into our plans for a while, but now Forensic Films and Chill Entertainment are partnering in the production effort. We hope to start filming this summer. We’ll see. Fingers crossed.

NW: What else are you working on now?

BP: Esquire commissioned me to write a short story for their May issue. The title is “April 20th, 2008” and it will hit newsstands on approximately the same day. If you get on Wikipedia and poke around, you’ll discover that on April 20th—and in the days leading up to it—you have all sorts of notable horrors. Waco. Virginia Tech. Oklahoma City. Hitler’s birth. Columbine. The list goes on. So Esquire asked me to write a story that read like today’s news, but also incorporated the larger mythology of the date. I worked intensely with the editors, crafting a dozen drafts in a short period of time. What a rush, the deadline, the intensity of the revision. I’m proud of, and disturbed by, the result. So I’m writing regularly for them, fiction and nonfiction. I’m grateful as hell for their support and encouragement.

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