Benjamin Percy, author of such highbrow favourites as the excellent story collection Refresh, Refresh, turns to genre in his new book, Red Moon, an edgy, political allegory of sorts in which five per cent of the population carries a virus that can make them werewolves. Or rather, returns to genre. As he outlines here in a discussion of the books that shaped him as a writer, those thrilling stories were his first literary love.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
I grew up on page-turning pop lit. I read westerns, mysteries, fantasy, sci-fi, techno-thrillers, but more than any other genre, horror gripped me in its bony fist. I chewed my way through Poe, Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Robert McCammon, Peter Straub, Anne Rice, Richard Matheson, among others. In college, when I signed up for my first creative writing workshop, when the instructor ran through the syllabus and said no genre fiction would be permitted, I threw up my hand and – in complete earnestness – asked, “But what else is there?”
I was then introduced to Flannery O’Connor, Tim O’Brien, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and for the next few years snorted them, dreamed of them, modelled myself after them, while never forgetting about my love for genre.
Did you imitate any of them?
Of course. In fact, maybe the most valuable class I ever took was Forms of Fiction, in which we would read a different author every week and then write an imitative exercise and stand before the rest of the class and explain every grammatical move, rhetorical effect, and its connection to the source author (the way Faulkner uses prepositional phrases, the way Virginia Woolf employs an em-dash).
Nothing drives me crazy more than beginning writers who approach me and when I ask what they’re reading, they say, “Nothing,” because they don’t want to be influenced. That’s the point. To be influenced. The young painter sets up an easel in the museum before Starry Night not because they want to be Van Gogh, but because they want to experiment with light and texture in the same way – and then later add those tools to their own aesthetic. So when you’re starting off, you play around with the lyricism and magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the elliptical style of Alice Munro and Tim O’Brien, the cold detachment of Paul Bowles – and eventually develop your own voice, after thousands of hours of reading and writing.
What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?
Not reading books is the danger. I encounter so many who want to write, but they only study film and television. There is plenty to learn from Fringe and Mad Men and The Sopranos, but you need to gobble up prose if you want to get the proper nourishment you need at the keyboard.
How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, writes about the 10,000 hours required to master any trade. So it takes 10,000 hours on the baseball field, shagging balls, swinging the bat, just as it takes 10,000 hours at the piano, practising scales, working the pedal. And the same goes for hammering the keyboard as a writer. You put in the time – gobbling up the books of whose example you would like to be worthy – and trying and trying and trying and trying and usually failing to build your own – and eventually you get to a place you can call your own 40 acres of voice, design, perspective.
Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?
Stephen King’s The Stand is an obvious comparison. Red Moon is a supernatural thriller, a sweeping novel that takes place over many years and follows many different characters whose storylines become darkly entangled. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is the less obvious answer, and I list her not only because she writes with propulsive energy and careful carpentry, but because of the political allegory at the heart of this novel and my own.
Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?
Well, there’s commercial influence and then there’s artistic influence. If we’re talking about the latter, I see no writer more often imitated than George Saunders. Karen Russell, too, has rightly captured the imaginations and won over the style of so many. Michael Chabon has been deeply influential as well to a movement I suppose I’m a part of, what I like to call The Avengerization of Literature, the reclamation of the fantastic. Neil Gaiman can seemingly move a mountain with a tweet.
For your new book, Red Moon, were there authors whose work was a particular influence?
These days, I’m most interested in those writers who are neither fish nor fowl – both literary and genre, I guess you could say. They write stories with propulsive plots, but they also write exquisite sentences, three-dimensional characters, subterranean themes, glowing metaphors. I’m talking about writers like Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Dennis Lehane.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
Cormac McCarthy writes with elemental, almost volcanic power. Annie Proulx howls beautifully. Daniel Woodrell writes these meth-fueled, barbed-wire-tangled, whiskey-soaked sentences that swell into the kind of music that make your heart race and your feet stomp. He’s a stylistic genius.
When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?
I always try to be as omnivorous in my reading habits as possible. I’ll read something written now and I’ll read something written 100 years ago. I’ll read across genders, sexualities, cultures, nationalities. I’ll read poetry, a craft book, a memoir, a novel, a short-story collection, a book of reportage. I want to be influenced – to travel to new places, to inhabit new perspectives, to encounter different ways of putting sentences and stories together – or I would never grow as a writer.
This interview has been edited and condensed.