Devil’s Lake


Interview with Benjamin Percy

Q: After the great success of your second short story collection, Refresh, Refresh, readers have been eagerly anticipating your first novel, The Wilding, which will be released in late September by Graywolf Press. What can we look forward to in the new book?

A literary thriller—modeled in part after James Dickey’s Deliverance—about the final weekend before a wilderness area is transformed into a golf course community. Three braided storylines wrestle with pained romantic and familial love, that old father-and-son thing (as Russell Banks once said), the jarring intersections between civilization and wilderness, and the latent animalism within us all. That all sounds pretty fancy, so let me be direct: what you can expect is menace, menace, menace.

Q: In your story “The Killing,” the protagonist watches an episode of The Today Show in which an anthropologist discusses “men and the fine line that separates them from beasts.” He cites a violent time in New York’s history, full of dark men stalking central park “like wolves ranging for food,” and refers to this period as “The Wilding.” Themes of violence and masculinity are prominent throughout the other stories in Refresh, Refresh, as well. Where does your interest in these ideas originate? Is this story’s conception of “Wilding” related to the themes of your novel?

Yes, directly related. All of my characters are wrestling with an inner wildness. Some of them in a subtle way—as a wife considers leaving her suffocating marriage—and some of them obvious—as a wounded soldier home from Iraq dons a hair-suit woven from animals he has trapped and lopes through the forest at night. We all wear our outside faces—but I’m trying to rip off the masks we wear and observe the inside faces. Once you push past the veneer, we’re all a bunch of complicated animals—we’re all hairy on the inside.

Q: In a recent essay you wrote for Poets & Writers, you compared your revision process to rebuilding an old house—even when the structure is sound, you may still need to repair a leaky roof or tear out the squalid wallpaper. In addition to this great metaphor for the writing process, you also describe more concrete changes you undertook in order to get the The Wilding into its final published form, including a viewpoint shift from first to third person, the addition of interlocking plotlines, excising of subplots, and a reworking of the ending. Was it hard to navigate such extensive changes in your manuscript without feeling like you were losing sight of your original artistic vision?

Not at all. My editor made no demands. She made suggestions that helped me transform a shnovel (an extended short story) into an honest-to-goodness novel. So she would offer up some advice and I would disregard some of it, acknowledge the rest of it, and set to work—and she wouldn’t see another draft for a year, before she then offered up a fresh set of revision suggestions. The trust we had in each other made it such a healthy, dynamic editor/author relationship.

Q: >The stories in Refresh, Refresh convey a strong sense of place, particularly in the vivid details and sense of authenticity with which you render the natural landscapes of rural Oregon. Have you found that your physical environment has an effect on your use of setting or other aspects of the writing process? Now that you’ve been living in the Midwest for a while, will we start to see your stories take place in Wisconsin and Iowa?

Setting is character. I emphasize this constantly to my students. The geography, the culture, the history, the myths of a place must rise up and inform the story. When I’m in the imaginative mode, Oregon is the place my mind retreats. I have written the occasional story set in the Midwest and don’t doubt that the longer I live here, the more often that will happen.

Q: A few of the stories in Refresh, Refresh subvert conventional realism—the post-apocalyptic setting of “Meltdown” comes to mind, as does the way that “The Woods” hints at the possible existence of a Sasquatch just beyond the boundaries of the story. On the other hand, a story like “Refresh, Refresh” feels steeped in authenticity and powerful real-world relevance. What is your perspective on the roles played by convention and experimentation in your artistic process?

I am always occupying a gray area, straddling the boundary between literary and genre fiction. “The Caves in Oregon” is a haunted house story. “Crash” is a ghost story. “When the Bear Came” is a monster in the wood story. But I don’t think anyone would immediately recognize them as such. I’m trying to take the tropes, the conventions of genre fiction—and the pressing question of what happens next?—and blend it with the attention to language and characterization you’ll find in literary fiction. In this way, I feel a strong kinship to Dan Chaon, Margaret Atwood, Dan Simmons, Susanna Clarke, Peter Straub, and Michael Chabon, among others.

BENJAMIN PERCY is the author of the novel The Wilding and two books of short stories, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk. Ben’s fiction and nonfiction have been read on National Public Radio, performed at Symphony Space, and published by Esquire, Men’s Journal, Outside, Paris Review, Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, and many other publications. Ben teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, where he lives with his wife and two children. Visit him at: