portrait Benjamin Percy

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 163 ~ December, 2010

Benjamin Percy is the author of the recently published novel, The Wilding (Graywolf, 2010), and two collections of short stories, Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf, 2007) and The Language of Elk (Carnegie Mellon, 2006).

Percy’s short story, “Refresh, Refresh,” was first published in The Paris Review, winning a Pushcart Prize for 2006.  The story was also included in Best American Short Stories 2006.  In 2007, Percy was awarded the annual Plimpton Prize by The Paris Review, and in 2008, he was one of the winners of the Whiting Writers’ Award, given annually by The Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation.

His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous magazines and literal journals, including Esquire, Glimmer Train, Salt Hill Journal, The Cream City Review, Chicago Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal, to name some.

Benjamin Percy

Percy currently teaches creative writing, both fiction and nonfiction, in the MFA program at Iowa State University.  He is also a faculty member at the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University.

He lives in Ames, Iowa, with his wife and two children.


Derek Alger: Childhood’s usually a good place to start.

Benjamin Percy: I was born in Eugene, Oregon, where I lived on forty acres of land, a hobby farm surrounded by forest. I spent much of my time unsupervised, exploring the woods, building forts, throwing pine cones for my German shepherd Heidi to fetch, collecting eggs from the hen house. I was Huckleberry Finn, barefooted, slingshot and knife in my pocket. It’s not a life available to many now, when everything is fenced in, cushioned, helmeted, safety belted. Kids have every minute of their day planned out for them. I was free to roam, to make my own fun, to ignore a bleeding knee, and I’m grateful for that.

DA: You also had a brief pitstop living in Hawaii.

BP: Yeah, lived there for three years. Oahu. View of Coconut Island, where Gilligan’s Island was filmed. I was young — first grade through third — but I can remember it vividly. Pulling guavas right off the branch. Killing centipedes the size of my arm. Opening presents on Christmas and going to the beach. Swinging from the vines on banyan trees. I’ve tried to write about it a few times, but it all has the hazy quality of a dream. There’s too much I don’t know about the flora, the geography and geology, the culture and history.

We were there because my father couldn’t stand being a lawyer, so he became an entrepreneur in the early eighties — and his first venture was a microscope company in Hawaii. He ended up stepping away from it after a few years and we moved back to Oregon — this time to central Oregon, which is where I spent most of my childhood and where most of my fiction takes place.

DA: Is it safe to say your father was big influence on you?

BP: We both value our independence. I despise being told what to do, feeling disrespected. I could never throw on a suit and tie every day, eat shit, put my sweat into somebody else’s profit and agenda. He’s the same way: that’s why he’s worked for himself the past thirty years. I essentially do the same. I’m at the keyboard, building worlds, or I’m in the classroom, trying to share what I’ve learned with others who have the same hunger.

He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met—but he’s also eerily quiet. He has no words. He mutes the television during commercials. He won’t listen to the radio in the car. I think this is why he loves the woods so much, the silence of them. I’m a lot louder than he is — as a writer, you’ve got to have a lot of words—but noise bothers me. That’s why cities make me so jumpy. That’s why I don’t put batteries in toys given to my children that beep and tweedle and hum. That’s why I don’t go to concerts. That’s why I write with the door closed in complete silence for seven-hour stretches.

My father can build a house—he can take apart an engine—he can gut an elk. But he can also negotiate an international conference call. And I admire that about him— and emulate it, too — his well-roundedness — his education grounded by his practicality and ability to work with his hands, to know the names of things (tools, rocks, edible plants), in a world that no longer requires it.

DA: You’ve just come out with a gripping novel, The Wilding, which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly about a father and son and grandfather on a hunting trip.

BP: The novel took a long time to write — I put so much sweat and carpentry into its revision — so to get the nod from places like PW and Boston Globe and Orion and NY Times and NPR meant the world.

It began as a short story – called “The Woods” – that I wrote back in 2005, 2006. And I kept thinking about those characters, wondering what had happened to them. So I gave them a little more acreage to roam around on, which resulted in a 150-page shnovel. Not a short story, not a novel. Originally it was a supernatural story, but my agent helped me realize the faults of that angle, so I shifted it to the realist mode and then shipped it off to my editor at Graywolf. She dug it, and offered on it, but with some concessions. She wondered what would happen if I switched the narrative from first person to third—and in doing so created several interlocking subplots that came to a head at once. This was the shove I needed, the way to make the manuscript more muscular and complicated, a novel. It took me another year and a half to get the novel to its final draft.

The central storyline concerns three generations of men who descend into a canyon for one final hunting trip the weekend before construction is to begin on a golf course community. There are several satellite narratives surrounding theirs —all of them involving the obsession, being hunted vs. being the hunter, man in the wild and the wild in man, and the jarring intersections between civilization and wilderness.

DA: Your first interest was archeology before finding your true calling as a writer.

BP: I idealized Indiana Jones as a kid. Wore a fedora, a leather jacket, carried around a pouch in which I carried a knife, stones, bones.  I subscribed to Archaeology magazine. And later on in high school I spent two summers on digs with the University of Oregon and Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. The fantasy began to wear off, as I spent so many days scraping through the soil, in 100-degree heat, discovering nothing more exciting than a seed cache, a bone chip. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, when I entered Brown, but I figured it wouldn’t be anthro, my proposed major.

I worked for Glacier National Park the summer after my freshman year. This was where I met my then girlfriend, now my wife, Lisa. I was the gardener at Many Glacier Lodge — she was a waitress — and we had ourselves some summer loving. During this time I was writing her these awful love poems and love letters—and she said, “You should be a writer.” Which had never occurred to me. When I went back to school in the fall, she followed me to Rhode Island, where we shacked up and I started taking creative writing courses and fell deeply in love with her and the short story. So I am her monster.

DA: And then straight from Brown and a degree in writing, you were off for an MFA at Southern Illinois University.

BP: If my wife is the only reason I became a writer, Brady Udall is the only reason I chased an MFA. I read his collection, Letting Loose the Hounds, as an undergrad, and damn, I had never been so taken by a writer before. He was from the West —he had a dark sensibility laced with humor — and I kept thinking, as I ate up his stories, this is what I want to do. I dropped him an email and he kindly responded. I learned he was teaching at Southern Illinois — learned about the MFA (which I had never heard of) — and went there to study under him. Not to become a professor. To write a book.

I didn’t have a literary background. Growing up, I always had a book in my hand, but it usually had a dragon or a cowboy or a ghost or a spy or a detective on the cover. So I had a lot of catching up to do. And I had very little understanding of craft. My classmates were worlds ahead of me. And I knew this. So I busted my ass, reading and writing my brains out. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to hammer every morning— and would work sometimes until 3 in the afternoon. I read my way through a hundred books in a year. I read craft books and scribbled notes all over them. I submitted widely and stubbornly. And it paid off.

DA: You experienced a desperate moment which fortunately turned out well.

BP: My final year of grad school, I applied to over seventy teaching gigs. And had no bites. Two days before I graduated, Marquette University offered me a visiting professorship. Three-year gig. I remember the chair of the department asking me if I knew how to teach technical writing, and I lied through my teeth, saying, “Oh yeah— sure, sure — no problem.” I was their jerk of all trades, teaching everything from comp, to tech writing, to creative writing, to American lit, to honors seminars. And I was happy to do it — thrilled to have a job.

DA:You gained valuable teaching experience at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

BP: I loved it there. Cool colleagues. Beautiful area. Good beer. Cheese never far from the hand.  But it was a killer teaching load. 4/4. Which means four classes a semester, all of them writing courses. Two creative writing workshops, two comp classes. About thirty students in each. Which translates to thousands of pages of grading. It wasn’t ditch-digging, but it was hard work. And I was staying up until 3 a.m. to write, sometimes waking up at 6 a.m. the next morning to grade.

DA: Your first collection of stories, The Language of the Elk, included many written while you were in graduate school.

BP: Those were all stories that I punched out in grad school. The stories concern bigfoot and bearded ladies, horse ranches, marijuana colonies, elk-hunting resorts. All of them take place in Central Oregon, where I grew up and where nature exists as a source of wonder and a force to be conquered. This is the same stage for Refresh, Refresh, my second collection of stories that dropped in 2007.

DA: Now you’ve found a home at Iowa State University.

BP: I had the gig at UW-Stevens Point for a year — and during that time the position at Iowa State opened up.  They invited me to apply, and thankfully, I landed the gig, which allowed me to work with grad students, upped my pay, and reduced my teaching load so that I had more time to write. It’s been an amazing experience, my only complaint being the Iowa landscape, which I find less than inspiring.

When I’m not overwhelmed by grading, teaching helps my writing. Helps me clarify ideas I’m struggling with — helps me read a story with depth and figure out how its wiring and plumbing fit together — helps me feed off the energy of a room, remember how I felt back then, when these twenty-six letters at our disposal felt like the most important invention in the world.

DA: You are also teaching in the low residency MFA program at Pacific University.

BP: Fall of 2009, I was starting to feel the financial pinch, so put out some feelers with the low-res programs, seeing if they had any openings. Pacific University wrote back and said hell yeah. They were my top choice—due to their Oregon campus and their all-star faculty, which includes so many bad-asses, including Pete Fromm, Pam Houston, Judy Blunt, and Brady Udall, among others—so I was thrilled to join the gang.

Twice a year, for two weeks in January, two weeks in June, I travel to Oregon for a series of intensive workshops, lectures, panels. And then the rest of the semester is spent in one-on-one correspondence with students. These are people who have jobs, families. Who might be thirty or might be sixty. Who might be a doctor or might work for a factory. And who might be having the more ideal graduate school experience (compared to the traditional programs).

So many students in traditional programs give up after they graduate. I think that’s because they’ve been in a bubble for so long, and when they realize the rest of the world doesn’t care about writing, they lose their heart. Low-res students, though, are learning to write around their life, which is better training in the long-run. I also really enjoy the one-on-one mentorship — as opposed to the semester-long workshop, which can be very tiresome and burdened by politics and the misleading influence of twelve people with very different (and often questionable) opinions.

DA: You’ve also added screenplay writing to your list of interests.

BP: James Ponsoldt (whose Off the Black starred Nick Nolte and Timothy Hutton) adapted my story “Refresh, Refresh” into a screenplay that went on to win the Lynn Aurbach Award from the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab. James was very generous—sending me acts of the screenplay to begin with — and later on, drafts — and asking for my feedback. In helping with the editing, I figured out the form. James and I are co-authoring several scripts together right now — we make a good team.

The film is supposed to shoot in the spring (but who knows, there might be a delay or two), and James has invited me to join him on the set, which will be a surreal experience.