Benjamin Percy is the author of two
books of stories, Refresh,
Refresh and The Language of Elk, and a novel, The Wilding (Graywolf Press, September 28, 2010). His
fiction and nonfiction have been read on National Public Radio, performed at
Symphony Space and published in Esquire, Outside, Men's Journal, the Paris Review, the Wall Street Journal, Tin House, Glimmer Train, Orion,
Ploughshares and many other places. His
honors include the Whiting Writers' Award, the Plimpton Prize, the Pushcart
Prize and inclusion in Best American Short Stories. He lives in Ames, Iowa, with his wife and two children and teaches in the MFA program in creative writing and environment at
Iowa State University.
On your nightstand now:
North by Marcel Theroux--and it's got me wondering whether I should keep a
store of matches, dry goods, water and ammunition in the house. I've always
been a fan of apoc and post-apoc narratives--since I was boy watching the
cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian--and there has been a flood of them since
9/11, in film and lit. Great horror stories often take a knife to cultural
unease, and I think destroying the world has never been more popular because
destroying the world has never seemed more possible.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Hatchet by Gary
Paulson. I loved it for the same reason I loved My Side of the Mountain:
the idea of setting out on my own, testing my mettle, appealed to me
greatly. I lived on 37 acres of land and I would go on long walks and try to
lose myself in the deep woods, sharpening a spear, creating a makeshift camp,
pretending myself into the wilderness.
Your top five authors:
I wish I could double or triple this list, but if I
had to narrow it down to five: Cormac McCarthy, Peter Straub, Rick Bass,
Flannery O'Connor, Daniel Woodrell. They're the writers I keep above my desk,
next to my dictionary. They're the writers I pull down to read and reread their
sentences, hoping to soak up the magic and filter it through my fingertips.
Book you've faked reading:
I've tried three times and every time I end up collapsing in
confusion/exhaustion. I wish I had taken a college course that taught it--I
feel like I need someone, as I go page to page, laying a hand on my shoulder,
whispering in my ear.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red and Michael
Levy's Wisconsin Death Trip.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I love the simple, haunting elegance
of it: the black jacket with a white crow in flight, the lettering like
something from an ancient book of magic. And though I picked it up for the
cover, I fell in love with the story and consider it one of the best novels
written in the past 10 years.
Book that changed your life:
Stephen King's The
Gunslinger. The plot grabbed me by my throat, but Roland was the real
reason the book impacted me so profoundly. Roland of Gilead, the lead
character, the titular gunslinger. This might seem ridiculous to some people--but
I was 13 at the time, changing schools, going through a rough patch. Roland
seemed the ultimate man. He lived by a knight's code of honor. He withstood
pain with gritted teeth. He was disciplined, knowledgeable, strong. He was in
the pursuit of something important--his presence in the world mattered. He was
never the one to start a fight, but always the one left standing. He rarely
spoke, but when he did, his words were wise. Silence, I came to understand, was
knowing when to shut up. I became deeply reticent that summer--and the silence
lasted until I graduated from high school.
Some might have
mistaken it for being shy, but it was something else: I was a strategist,
holding back, judging every word, every action, trying to decide its merit. You
see those kids with the WWJD wristbands? I should have had a special one made--What
would Roland do? I understand that this sounds horribly corny, but it's
true, and back then it mattered to me more than anything in the world. My
grades sharpened. I became painfully serious, my face absent of expression.
Sometimes I would lie in bed and chide myself for something I had said or done
that seemed to me ill-becoming, and it was as though, in the shadows shifting
on my ceiling, the shape of the Gunslinger was taking form.
Favorite line from a book:
man. Just one? I'm thinking of the longing and the gymnastic lyricism of "Lolita,
light of my life, fire of my loins"; the epic sweep of, "The man in
black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed"; the sad,
brutal delivery of "I am an invisible man"; the sprawling arc of "I
am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice--not because of his voice, or
because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the
instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God;
I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."
really, you can't get any better than the moment in Blood Meridian when the Comanches come pounding over the hillside
dressed in the dresses of the brides they've killed, and in response Glanton
can only say, "Oh my god." After I read the passage that follows I
set down the book and knew that I would never be the same as a reader or a
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
grandfather was a Sherlock Holmes fanatic. He had on his desk an oversized
wood-handled magnifying glass, an elaborately carved pipe. He had on his
bookshelves dozens of collected works by Arthur Conan Doyle--illustrated,
annotated. He would read me the stories and we would watch the BBC specials
together. I revisited Holmes recently and found the mysteries spoiled by the
fact that I know how they all turn out. Reading them felt like putting together
an overly familiar jigsaw puzzle. I wish I could hit a button and erase that
part of my brain.