Benjamin Percy is the author most recently of the novel Red Moon (out this month in paperback), as well as another novel, The Wilding, and two books of stories, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk. We talked by email and Google Docs throughout last summer and into the fall, while Ben was touring the country (and the world) giving readings from the book in his famous voice, surely the deepest, gravelliest, manliest voice in contemporary literature. We might have done this interview over the telephone, but I'm not fully convinced that modern technology can record him speaking.
I’m curious how you see Red Moon in relation to The Wilding and your other previous books. I don’t want to undersell my high hopes for this novel, because I’ve been looking forward to reading it as long as I’ve known about it, but I feel like what I might have been expecting from Red Moon was “literary horror,” a tag that often suggests mixed results—but now, having read your book, I don’t think that’s what Red Moon is. I was thrilled to discover that this is uncompromisingly a horror novel, with its closest cousins seeming to be the work of writers like Stephen King and Peter Straub, rather than the kinds of writers you’ve been compared to in the past. In other words, so far no one’s comparing Red Moon to James Dickey or Ken Kesey, like they did with The Wilding—for myself, the book I might compare it to first is Robert R. McCammon’s post-apocalyptic Swan Song, which was once one of my favorite novels, in the years when all I read was writers like McCammon and Straub and King. This isn’t about better or worse—I don’t put literary fiction on a pedestal above anything else by default, and most of my favorite books still have their roots in genre of some sort—but this line of thinking has left me wondering about where Red Moon comes from, and what your aims were for it. What were your inspirations for Red Moon? Who wrote the models you’re working from? And do you see this as an evolution of what you were doing as a novelist in The Wilding, with Red Moon falling somewhere on a spectrum with your other works, or is it more a break, a move in another direction?
There was a time, so many years ago, when I read for fun. To get caught up up in a swirling vortex of words that transported me to another world from which I did not want to escape. Somewhere along the way, maybe after one or two or three creative writing workshops, this stopped. Entertainment was no longer a part of reading. Instead I hunted for the crisp sentence, the glowing metaphor. When the setting revealed mood. How the point of view moved from omniscient to limited omniscient. Why the author used the conditional voice or a vertiginous sentence that continued for three pages. Technical marvel. I’m glad this happened. I read so strenuously, fetishizing the smallest grammatical move and rhetorical effect, and in doing so built up my arsenal.
But I was all head, no heart. And bored. A lot of what I was writing—and a lot of what I was reading—bored me. In grad school, I read Thrilling Tales, the anthology edited by Michael Chabon, and his introduction and the stories he selected walloped me, changed me, helped me understand how far I had strayed from my original intentions when I set out to become a writer. Story is boss. Story comes first and technique serves story. More than anything, I want to thrill my reader. I’ll do it in as artful manner possible, but my ultimate goal is simple, pure: get your heart slamming, wiggle you to edge of your seat, make you forget about this world and get caught up in another I built out of ink and paper.
I’ve been in a long boomerang arc, finally cutting back to the kind of story I hoped to write when I walked into my first workshop and found on the syllabus the command: no genre. So yeah, King, Straub, Rice, McCammon. Shirley Jackson. Richard Matheson. We’re haunting the same graveyard.
The “no genre” command is such an infamous and mostly ill-guided piece of advice, isn’t it? Or at least I always think so, at first glance: I absolutely grew up on fantasy and sci-fi and horror myself, and I might never have moved away from them at all if I hadn’t wanted, in my late teens and early twenties, to be taken “seriously’ as an “adult.” So I stopped reading that kind of story, and read a ton of writers who are very important to me, like Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel and so on. But of course I couldn’t write like any of those people, because I haven’t lived like Denis Johnson, and so I wrote a lot of fairly poor unlived knockoffs. Now my work is full of elements of non-realist genres, and it’s simultaneously much more my own, because I’m being truer to who I am, and what moves me. That said, like you, I’m so glad I went away from it for a while first: By giving up all those things, I learned all the technical skills I have now, which I wouldn’t have at all if I hadn’t read so much literary fiction, if I didn’t still predominantly read that. As a teacher, what do you do now? I assume that a professor with a big werewolf book can’t write “no genre” on the syllabus, but how do you get your students who genre-only readers so far to come along with you into literary fiction? Do you teach a blend of Straub and Rice and McCammon alongside “The Things They Carried” and “Rock Springs” and Birds of America? (King’s too easy, right? He’s everyone’s representative from the dark side.)
That’s exactly right. I’m teaching Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. LeGuin alongside Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro. I also talk a lot about genre, the formulas and archetypes and tropes, the way you can revise them, mash them up, make them new. We might look at Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves to see how he wrote a postmodern haunted house story. Or we might look at Angela Carter to see how she reinvents the fairy tale through a feminist lens. Or we might watch clips from Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and compare them to the movies of John Ford to understand how they were in an argumentative conversation with each other, with content and delivery, saying very different things about the West. The ultimate maxim is “make it new.” Write a story that enchants in part by surprising us, giving us a new, upsetting angle of the world.
You and I did a panel together in September at the Kerrytown Book Festival, and a lot of the questions focused on how you planned and then wrote Red Moon. One thing that didn’t come up was the original plan for Red Moon, which was originally supposed to be a trilogy. I’m curious how difficult it was to condense a three-book plan into a single novel. What were the challenges? Is the arc of the novel the same as the trilogy, or did the novel become something else as the master plan changed?
I pitched it as a trilogy and they requested I bundle the stories into one sweeping narrative. I’m very glad it happened that way. Because I’m impatient and breaking up the novel like that would have made the process interminable, year after year after year of toying with the same characters and storyline. And because trilogies generally sell at a decline: the second book sells fewer copies than the second, the third fewer than the second, which translates to a slow whimpering defeat at the keyboard. And because thinking about the story as one novel (instead of many) forced me to stretch myself aesthetically.
When writing The Wilding, my first published novel, I was on crutches. I had written four failed novels and I decided to play up my strengths as a short story writer when making the leap to the long form. Limited location (it takes place mostly in the canyon of a threatened wilderness area), small cast (three point of view characters), small time frame (one weekend, more or less). Red Moon is epic. The cast is enormous—and the story follows them over many years—in locations all over the world. Breaking it up into three books would have felt a lot safer. It was a massive challenge, taking on something so big and trying to make it addictively readable, and the blackening migraines I suffered as a result of it ultimately made me a better writer.
I do break the novel into three parts (that have the same general arcs as the trilogy I planned), but I was much more focused on aiming all storylines toward the final battle, creating something that swelled symphonically.
At Interview, you answered a question about the book’s seeming commentary on current affairs by saying that your intent was “to hold up a mirror with a crack running through it,” and that “Everyone will come away from the novel with a different perception of our world. You'll think you recognize political figures, cultural conflicts, wars, diseases, whatever—but the lines are blurry, and I'm not pointing to any particular thing, or channeling any particular person. It's a novel that takes a knife to the times.” I think that’s a fair way to describe that aspect of the book, and I think that’s one of the things I admire so much about it: It’s a politically aware werewolf novel, maybe the only one of its kind. (The only other one I can think of, oddly, is McCammon’s The Wolf’s Hour, although if I remember right that used WWII more as pure setting than as a stage for political commentary.) What I’m curious about is whether you were worried that the ways in which you mirrored our world would replace the already serious conflicts of our America, rather than reflect them: For instance, a search of the text found that the word “Iraq” never appears, and neither does the “Middle East,” leaving us with a very different American mindset at the start of the book. What’s gained by offering us a Lycan twist on terrorist attacks like 9/11, or by replacing our conflicts in the Middle East—and their frequent focus on our needs for oil—with the Lycan Republic’s uranium reserves? Was there anything you were worried might be lost?
I’ve written about many politically charged topics--including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--through the lens of realism. The danger here is, baggage. Your reader has a gut response to the subject matter, preconceived notions that make it difficult for them to get swept away by the story. They’re always looking for the editorial message, feeling defensive and anxious about how you might manipulate them. My story “Refresh, Refresh” was alternatively interpreted by many as conservative and liberal propaganda.
There’s something freeing, for the reader and the writer, about fantasy. It’s a more exaggerated version of what Tim O’Brien is talking about when he says, “That's what fiction is for. It's for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth.” Speculative fiction gets at the truth when realism isn’t sufficient. The story that takes place in another world—or a skewed version of this one—can have as much (or more) to say about who we are as any realist tale. And you can more comfortably approach difficult subjects, freshly approach tired subjects.
Godzilla channels postatomic anxieties. Frankenstein does the same with the Industrial Revolution. Invasion of the Body Snatchers tips its hat to the Red Scare, McCarthyism. Romero reinvented the zombie in every one of his films to match the tenor of a moment. But only a facile metaphor would be tidy, a perfect replica. And Red Moon is ultimately about the culture of fear we live in.
In either of these cases, whether told through a realist or speculative lens, story comes first. The direct or indirect addressal of any political/cultural subject is secondary to the characters and the rollicking narrative they follow. Just as you can read 1984 or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Handmaid’s Tale with no understanding of their underlying metaphor, and still laugh, weep, gasp, feel satisfied with them as stories, so can you read “Refresh, Refresh” or Red Moon without understanding the hat-tip to the war on terror.
In a recent issue of Conjunctions, China Mieville wrote an essay title “Theses on Monsters,” one of which read, “Monsters demand decoding, but to be worthy of their own monstrosity, they avoid final capitulation to that demand.” That feels obviously true to me—any monster that’s too easily reduced loses its fangs to its allegory. The lycans in Red Moon have a medical origin, in the prion infection, and so exist not so much supernaturally but in the natural world of the book. It’s a fascinating origin story, but did you worry about protecting their mystery from being wiped out by the explanation? How do you ground a monster in the recognizable world without bringing it fully into the daylight, where it might not scare us anymore?
When it comes to allegory, to metaphor, you never want to be too tidy. Take Superman for instance. Was he a product of the Depression, a hero who stuck up for the beleaguered everyman? Or was he the product of two first-generation Americans, the sons of Jewish immigrants who gave us an “alien” who became a model citizen, the ultimate citizen? Or both. There’s room for both. In the same way, in Red Moon, I’m not trying to point to any one disease, or cultural group, or war, or person—I’m writing more generally about the culture of fear that we live in.
Yeah, I dug deep into research, filled up many yellow legal tablets when talking to scientists about infection, mutation, vaccination. Because I wanted to reinvent to werewolf myth, give people a reason to pay attention. As a country, we’re afraid of germs, terrified of infection, and I wanted to take advantage of that mindset when creating a believed horror. So I created physical/biological analogues to explain lycanthropy.
The weirder your subject matter, the more precise you must be to convince the reader of its truth. My hope is that the time I spent in labs, the time I spent talking to people in haz-mat suits, will create more fear than if I wrote about full-moon howlers. David Quamenn wrote a nonfiction book called Spillover about the coming pandemic and how he suspects it will leap out of an animal and mutate in its human host; Red Moon is its fictional cousin.
In your essay “The Slowest Reader” (which I love, and frequently share with my students), you detailed your method of reading to study the architecture of novels, taking apart their construction paragraph by paragraph. What do you think a similar reader might find, if they read Red Moon in the same way?
I used to read at a blur, trying to cram as many stories into my head as possible, and it wasn’t helping me as a writer. I approach the page far more strenuously now. I like to take a long good look under the hood, reading and rereading and rereading short stories and essays and novels, so that I can understand technique.
Someone who broke down Red Moon would notice how I’m always trying to keep the volume jacked-up, the narrative flowing. It’s a study in suspense and momentum. Look at the way I use backstory (rarely, except in very particular ways). Look at the way I scatter the exposition about the lobos disease and lycan history, never wanting to slow things down with a Wikipedia entry. Look at the way I never end a chapter conclusively, always employing white space to enhance dread or mystery. Look at the way I withhold information, scatter clues. Look at the way I create emotional reversals, whenever things are getting too slow or too fast, a moment of repose followed by a pulse-pounding action sequence. Look at the way I juggle trouble, like a bunch of flaming chainsaws, so that a certain struggle might cycle through my hands every twenty or thirty or fifty pages, growing hotter and more perilous every time.
A confession: I hate the “what are you working on next” standard interview closer. But your next novel is titled The Dead Lands, and is described on your website as “a post-apocalyptic reinvention of the Lewis and Clark passage”—which feels like a book I’ve been wanting to read for a very long time without knowing it. Can I bully you into telling me a little more about The Dead Lands, and what we might expect when it releases next year?
Some call the Lewis and Clark passage our national poem. Others call it the greatest adventure story in the history of the country. I grew up in their shadow, visiting Fort Clatsop, attending the bicentennial celebration, reading their journals. I’ve know for a long time I wanted to write about their story (I even debated a nonfiction pitch), before coming up with this idea one day when splitting wood. I dropped the maul and sat on a log and took notes. for thirty minutes before returning to the job I started. It’s a quest story—akin to The Hobbit or The Dark Tower—set in a post-apocalyptic America with ruinous parallels to what’s happening right now politically and environmentally. There’s magic and mutants and romance and dark political dealings as the expedition sets off and attempts to reunite the states.