Benjamin Percy’s stunning work of flash fiction called “Revival” appeared in the seventh issue of Memorious. At the time, his second collection of short stories was due out, after his first outstanding collection, The Language of Elk. In the decade since, Percy’s gone on to publish three novels—The Wilding, Red Moon, and The Dead Lands—with a fourth on the way (The Dark Net), and he’s worked on a slew of screenwriting projects, as well as the current DC Comics titles, Green Arrow and Teen Titans. Steeped in both the literary tradition as well as the language of film, Percy is known for his suspenseful plots, his action-packed set-pieces, and his sharply precise style, which is why Graywolf Press was eager to publish a collection of his essays on craft and technique. Released last October, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction has received wide acclaim and is already on the list of numerous fiction workshop syllabi. In support of the book’s release, Percy was excellent enough to answer our questions about the text for his second appearance in our “Fiction Spotlight” series.
Graywolf has been a big supporter of your work for years, and you’ve published both Refresh, Refresh and The Wilding with them. How did you develop this project for a craft book on fiction?
I’m a regular at the Tin House Writers’ Workshop—and I used to teach in the low-res MFA program at Pacific University—at which I always gave an hour-long craft lecture. It became my standard to polish these lectures into essays that were then published by Kevin Larimer in Poets & Writers magazine.
I was gratified to hear from people who tore the craft essays out, photocopied them, taught them in creative writing workshops. It wasn’t my intention to write a book. I was just refining my own thoughts on fiction and sharing my half-assed wisdom with whoever would listen. But then Jeff Shotts at Graywolf approached me about the possibility of collecting the essays into a single volume.
So I worked with Shotts and Steve Woodward [Graywolf’s associate editor] on expanding some of the essays, merging others, building a toolbox of storytelling devices themed around suspense and momentum, the borderlands of genre and literary fiction.
One of my favorite quotes from Thrill Me comes from the essay, “Get a Job:” “Every story I write is a research project.” You go on to discuss various modes and methods of research you’ve had to do in order to figure out a draft’s details and mood more precisely. That said, can you give an example of some research you’ve had to perform in preparation for your next novel, The Dark Net? What would you say was a detail within the research that surprised you or changed a misconception you had?
Thanks. That was one of my favorite essays to write.
For The Dark Net—which comes out this summer—I read articles, watched documentaries. But the most helpful research came from speaking to people involved with digital security. Every tech expert I talked to—over a year ago, when researching the novel—warned me about China and Russia.
Employees at Google, Apple, Verizon, and a half-dozen hacker nerds I can’t name—they all said to wait and watch. A major attack was coming. They were certain. Not a breach, not an intrusion, as people might expect. Because the Chinese and Russians were ALREADY inside the walls of our government. The question was, what did they plan to do with the information they already had access to…
…and then came the US election and the headlines we’re enduring right now. Early investigations seem to indicate that Russian involvement with US politics could be the biggest political scandal since Watergate.
You’ve talked elsewhere that you shape your fiction around the juxtaposition of images and events until they work together, even going so far as to use the cork board and the old developer’s closet in your house as a sort of diorama of story. How does this process differ than, say, structuring a comics storyline in Green Arrow and Teen Titans, or building a TV pilot like Black Gold?
I use the same process, no matter the medium. My office closet is papered with story maps and character charts and lists of ideas. I need a visualization because I can’t keep it all in my head. I’m religious about outlining before I set out to write. The only difference is structure considerations.
If I’m working on comics, for instance, I need to keep in mind the twenty-page format, which generally equals five to seven scenes, two “splash” images, a B storyline, and a dominant action set-piece.
In your essay on modulation, you mention that you’re “bad about favorites” since you have so many of them, but if you had to pinpoint a craft book that was most influential on your own understanding of writing, which one would you pick? What’s a particular lesson you learned from it that stays with you today?
Like I said, I’m bad with favorites. Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext is brilliant. So is Stephen King’s On Writing. But books like Syd Field’s Screenplay and Robert McKee’s Story might have changed me more than any other. Because they gave me a language and vision for structure and causality that I wasn’t getting from any creative writing workshop, where “plot” was considered such a dirty word.
Who are some writers and artists you’ve recently encountered—in fiction, comics, or elsewhere—that are taking plot, structure, and suspense in new directions?
Check out Tom King’s The Vision (with artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta) and Sheriff of Babylon (with Mitch Gerads). He’s very particular about the paneling of his comics. I’m especially interested in his use of cyclical/repetitive designs and language.
I love the three-part design of the film Moonlight. And the fragmented mosaic featured in books by Terry Tempest Williams and Nick Flynn.
Along those same lines, which author (or director or playwright, etc.) do you wish more students of writing were reading these days? What should they be picking up from that person in terms of craft?
I could list off fifty names here, but instead I’ll say that everyone should read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. It’s so smart and witty and a perfect example of form serving function. It changed the way I watched movies and read everything from comics to novels to essays to poems.
Last but not least: in “Feckless Pondering,” you recall the legend of Barry Hannah pulling a gun on a workshop student in order to prove the point about immediate danger and introspection within a scene. From your time as an instructor, what’s a specific workshop moment you want to be known for decades later—legend, truth, or somewhere in between?
Any class I teach, I want to leave people jacked up about fiction and excited to get to the keyboard. I’m becoming more and more hermitic and am not really interested in a reputation outside of my fiction, so I’ll settle for, “He was mostly helpful and not an asshole.”
Interviewer Barrett Bowlin is a contributing editor for Memorious. Recent stories and essays of his can be found in places like Ninth Letter, Hobart, The Rumpus, Mid-American Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Bayou, which awarded him last year’s James Knudsen Prize in Fiction. He teaches film and literature classes at Binghamton University, and he writes inappropriate things on Twitter (@barrettbowlin).
For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.