Tooth and Claw Instinct: An Interview with Benjamin Percy

Since his sophomore novel Red Moon, published in May 2013, Benjamin Percy has become a builder of worlds. His first three books—two short story collections and the novel The Wilding—featured more intimate stories, usually about the relationships men have between each other, and to the wilderness. But with Red Moon, Percy brings the beasts center stage. The 800-plus page epic envisions an alternate universe in which werewolves, called lycans, inhabit and have always inhabited the world. And their scent is everywhere, having affected almost every major national and international event in some capacity. In Red Moon’s present-day, Americans live under constant fear of a lycan uprising. The lycans, in the meantime, occupy a spectrum of subcultures. Some willingly comply with the government mandated medication that keeps their urges and transformative abilities in check. Others violently do not.

It’s through the trappings of the monster genre that Percy is also able to draw parallels with many real-world fears and paranoia, from tensions involving race, terrorism, and the threat of contagion and infection.

Percy, who is the writer-in-residence at St. Olaf College and a teacher at the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University, is currently doing a round of edits on his third novel, The Dead Lands, an apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, set for a fall 2014 release. “It’s a world-building opportunity as well,” Percy says. “Like Red Moon, I spent a lot of time in advance sketching out not only characters but also the rules of this new universe in order to make it as realistic as possible.”

—Ryan Joe 

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INTERVIEWER

Is it hard to remember and adhere to those rules given the length of your novels?

PERCY

In the case of Red Moon, it was fairly easy in that I was changing one thing. I was putting a crack in the mirror I’m holding up to this world. The one thing is the infected live among us. The complicated part was making the surreal real. So I sat down with all of these scientists with the USDA labs and researchers from Iowa State University to build up a slippery science behind the animal-borne pathogen. Once I figured that out, filled up dozens of yellow legal tablets with information, I had to do some reverse engineering.

INTERVIEWER

Such as?

PERCY

If this pathogen leapt out of the wolf population in prehistoric times, how has that affected everything else in human history? I make mention in Red Moon of the Crusades, of Westward Expansionism, of World War II, of the Civil Rights Movement. So after that one crack in the mirror, the fissure ran deep.

INTERVIEWER

How do you go about incorporating all of that material into the story?

PERCY

One thing when writing Red Moon was how to incorporate exposition without gumming up the gears of narrative. If you look at historical novels or sci-fi novels, in their effort to explain the rules of this dragonscape or the rules of this far corner of the universe, they pause often and explain maybe the way dragons mate or the way a ship’s warp drive functions. Or whatever. If you’re not careful as an author, these can be digressive flourishes that take away the forward movement of your story. In Red Moon, I tried to crumble up the exposition and sprinkle it throughout so you don’t learn all at once what’s going on in this world.

INTERVIEWER

How do you know, though, which details to include and which details are “digressive flourishes?”

PERCY

Mark Winegardner, the author of The Godfather’s Revenge among others, said the best sort of research you can do when writing a historical novel is look at the magazines and newspapers at the time. Look at the ads. What matters most is you telling us the price of lettuce, you telling us what was playing on the radio, you telling us what people were slicking their hair back with. These authenticating details are all we need to ground us in a different time. Robert Olmstead once said to me it took him six years to write Coal Black Horse, a Civil War novel, and another four years to un-write it. He’d done so much research it got in the way of the story.

When writing Red Moon, I’d built up all this foundational knowledge. Think of this as the Wikipedia stage of writing. I’m inventing histories, politics, all the boring little things that make this [narrative] engine growl to life. And then once I know all of that, I’m able to move forward. And I guess I’m doing my best not to dip into that Wikipedia entry unless necessary.

INTERVIEWER

Red Moon functions as allegory on multiple levels. To what extent was that your intent when you first conceived of the book?

PERCY

This was at the very beginning. I was thinking about fantasy stories that channeled cultural unease when I was brainstorming. I was thinking about how Godzilla for example comes out of post-nuclear anxieties. How Frankenstein was born of the industrial revolution. And when I consider about what we fear right now, I thought about how infections like mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease, West Nile Virus all dominate our headlines whenever there’s an outbreak and how you can’t walk into a business in America without encountering a bottle of Purell on the counter. And I thought too about terrorism. How in post 9/11, we’re a culture of fear.

INTERVIEWER

Do you figure out the characters simultaneously?

PERCY

It happens simultaneously. In the same way I’m figuring out the way this disease functions, I’m figuring out the way my characters function. I sketch them out—quite literally—I draw them out lots of times. Once I figure out what they want, I put imagined obstacles in the way of these desires. And then I build a plot. I figure out these plot points and I figure out the spikes, valleys, the crescendos of the narrative, and where the moments of repose are. I sketch what looks like a cardiogram—I call it a suspense-o-meter—and I do all this in pencil because everything changes.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the benefit you derive from sketching out your story structures?

PERCY

I’ve always been a bit of a map-maker. I build a constellation of sorts so I always know what my ending is. Maybe I know a few other scenes, then I imagine a shape as to when those stars align. With a short story, I might have one or two or three things in mind, and my arrow hastens toward that final bullseye. For something bigger, like a novel, there’s less room to be impressionistic if you write something plotted. I tend to write out a much more detailed blueprint, but it’s all sketched in pencil because writing is an act of discovery and it’d be no fun if I knew everything. And characters make different decisions than the ones I dictate for them. I’ve always been a plotted writer, despite the literary workshop gauntlet I went through.

INTERVIEWER

The literary workshop gauntlet tends to eschew plot in favor of character and narrative voice. As a younger writer, did you also have an interest in solid story structure?

PERCY

Well I was caught up, as everyone was, in the spell of Alice Munro’s elliptical forms, or Carver’s hard-hitting prose. But I was always aware too of story design. And that’s why I fell in love with Flannery O’Connor. She always had a structure to her stories. And I spent a lot of time early on breaking down her work, reading a story four or five times and when I knew the thing in and out, sketching out its skeleton on a yellow legal tablet and trying to mimic the form, composing a story completely different.

INTERVIEWER

Which O’Connor story in particular?

PERCY

This is over a decade ago. “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is one I take my students through. You can see in the opening paragraph the entire story. You can see the central sin and how the characters will be punished.

INTERVIEWER

In Red Moon, you’re working within the realms of genre fiction, which already has an abundance of clichés. How do you avoid them?

PERCY

I grew up on westerns and I had a mind-bending moment in high school when I watched the Sergio Leone movies, in the way they acknowledged and revised the genre. If you look at The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, that’s a film I show a few clips from in my creative writing workshops, you see in that ultimate moment a few things you think you recognize. Tumbleweeds, wagons, you see a guy with a black hat and a guy with a white hat. You see enormous shots of the landscape that dwarf and call attention to human activity. And then you see at high noon these gunslingers approach each other. You come to expect, in this moment, a shootout to occur. And then something unusual happens: they turn together, walk into the saloon, and gunfire is heard. And a few seconds later, the windows explode. And after a while, another character jumps out onto a horse and gallops away. You go in and find the cowboys from before dead on the floor.

[Watch the scene here.]

What Leone is doing in that opening moment is tipping his hat to John Ford, establishing the rules of the western genre. Then he’s snapping those over his knee like a brittle bone. His west is different from Ford’s west. He’s saying something different about cowboys. His wear brown hats and occupy a gray moral territory. They are an ignoble, rapacious presence in the frontier.

I look to that as a model when thinking about diving into genre and dipping your hat and carving out your own forty acres.

INTERVIEWER

It seemed you accomplished this in part with the detail—both physical and psychological—you used to depict the werewolf transformation.

PERCY

I’ve been obsessed with the werewolf myth my whole life. I’m familiar with all the tropes and mythology, the films and literature. I was thinking of Jekyll and Hyde as the foundational text. My lycans are an example of the unleashed id. We’ve all had our emotions get the best of us due to rage or exhaustion. In that way the transformation was more id over ego, tooth and claw instinct manifested. I wanted to make it as gruesome and painful a process as possible.

INTERVIEWER

You avoid the term “werewolf” throughout Red Moon, calling them “lycans” instead. What was the reasoning behind that?

PERCY

Lycan rolls off the tongue a lot easier. But yes, I wanted to reinvent the world. [Justin] Cronin doesn’t use the word “vampire” [in his novels The Crossing and The Twelve] and [The Walking Dead creator] Robert Kirkman doesn’t use the word “zombie.” It’s just one card trick in a larger magic act, making people see my lycans as believable horror.

INTERVIEWER

You once said writing a “big meaty book” like Red Moon felt like you’d finally chased down a dream that always seemed out of reach. To what extent has reaching that dream changed your conception of yourself as a writer?

PERCY

I’m always chasing something. I’m always trying to get better. If I stand up in front of a roomful of people at the lectern, I’m cutting paragraphs and revising sentences. I’m constantly dissatisfied. Even though I’ve achieved a goal, the learning curve is steep before me and I’m constantly chasing. I’m always thinking about the next project.

INTERVIEWER

You’re almost done with your next book, The Dead Lands. What are you chasing with that one?

PERCY

The Dead Lands is a quest story. And quests are always difficult because they’re episodic. If you think about The Road or Huck Finn or Heart of Darkness, they travel down the road, they travel down the river, and something happens. And you have to fight that and create instead a causal chain. So I’m very aware of ways quest narratives battle against this stagnant narrative flow that sometimes overcomes them.

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