with Benjamin Percy
Percy is the author of two books of stories, Refresh,
Refresh (Graywolf, 2007) and The Language of
Elk (Carnegie Mellon, 2006). His fiction and nonfiction
have been read on National Public Radio, performed at
Symphony Space, and published by Esquire, Men's
Journal, Paris Review, Chicago Tribune,
Glimmer Train, Best American Short Stories,
and many other places. His honors include a Pushcart Prize
and the Plimpton Prize. He teaches writing at the University
of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
According to your website, you've published fiction and
nonfiction in over 30 literary magazines, as well as publishing
in large, general interest magazines such as Equire
and Men's Journal. Plus-and hardly secondary-there
are your two acclaimed books of short fiction, The
Language of Elk and Refresh, Refresh, which
includes your Plimpton Prize winning story. Quite a list
of accomplishments for such a young writer. How did your
first publication come about?
Don't think I take it for granted. I'm just as surprised
as anybody else. Whenever an editor calls to say, "We'd
love to buy this story if it's still available,"
I say, "Thank you," even as I think, "Really?"
It never feels old, the high I get off an acceptance.
And it never fails, the worry that the piece isn't good
enough, even after it's gone through the editorial ringer.
I look back on all my previous work and I cringe. A word-a
sentence-a character-a plot-point. Inevitably, I'm dissatisfied.
I might have thought the story perfect when I wrote it,
but now, months later, years later, I see the warts and
ingrown hairs. So I know now to be hesitant. Even when
I feel I've written a powerful story, I read it over twenty
times, trying to figure out what I'll roll my eyes at
when it finally appears in print.
started submitting to magazines when I was a junior in
college. I had no conception of how difficult it was,
how horrible the odds were. I submitted everything I wrote
to C. Michael Curtis at The Atlantic, and-generous soul
that he is-he always responded. He typed out the rejections
on these tiny sheets of paper, saying things like, "This
is unrepentingly artificial." That's an actual quote.
But he made many encouraging remarks as well, which stoked
the fire and kept me going at the keyboard. I can't imagine
what he thought, reading over the trash I sent him. I
suppose he saw some raw talent or he wouldn't have taken
the time. I certainly feel indebted to him, even though
he's never published anything of mine. So I would submit
to him-to any contest that struck my fancy-to some journal
I happened upon in the bookstore. I ended up published
several times over in the campus literary magazine at
Brown, but it wasn't until the end of my first year of
grad school that I published a piece in a national magazine,
Mississippi Review. I don't cry very often-my
son's birth and the end of Braveheart being a few exceptions-but
I admit to getting a little misty at that moment. And
then a pebble rolled out of the corner of my eye. But
in all seriousness, that acceptance meant a great deal
to me. I saw it as a beginning, an affirmation that I
could actually do this. I remember blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd
and drinking a beer and pacing my living room, thinking,
hey, things might actually work out.
have spoken to a lot of young writers who want desperately
to be published in literary magazines-it seems because
that is where they see and hear about their peers being
published and it is where they are told that they should
be published-and yet they themselves don't read these
magazines. Do you think this is simply because literary
magazines are the only game in town for beginning writers?
heard it before: there are more writers than readers.
Sadly, I've found this to be true. Especially among my
students. They have read nothing except what teachers
have assigned to them. Stories should be like candy to
the beginning writer. You should gobble them up with a
terrible hunger, until your eyes rot, feeling love and
hate and jealousy and resent and awe and contempt for
what they have or have not accomplished. If you're trying
to write short stories, and you're not reading short stories,
you're a fraud. Because writing is born out of constant,
vigilant reading. And you'll find the finest work written
today-work by Rick Bass and Charles D'Ambrosio and Jim
Shepard and so, so many others-in literary journals. I
can't understand submitting to them and not reading them.
I would accuse such a person of not loving writing-but
loving instead the idea of being a writer.
literary magazines are you currently reading?
can only read so many, so I try to spread the love, subscribing
to different magazines in different years. I'll often
paw through copies in the bookstore, and if I see an author
I admire or if I read a story that hooks me, I'll lay
down the cash. I always read the Paris Review,
Zoetrope, Tin House, Missouri Review,
as the work they publish consistently knocks my socks
off. Right now I've got a copy of American Short Fiction
on my desk, and I've been enjoying the hell out of it
in small doses.
Short Fiction is great. Is that the issue with your
story in it?
did read that issue—I read all the literary journals
my work appears in to see who my neighbors are—but
I’m referring to the Fall 07 issue, featuring some
knock-out stories by Naomi Williams and James Scott, among
mention the support you received as a beginning writer
from Atlantic Monthly’s C. Michael Curtis–a
man well-known for his generous responses to submissions
from talented new writers, especially those in writing
programs. Is there any literary magazine experience or
editors that have been helpful? Anything you’ve
been particularly proud of?
Gourevitch and Nat Rich at The Paris Review.
With two of my stories—“Refresh, Refresh”
and “Somebody is Going to Have to Pay for This”—they
removed or rearranged, with surgical precision, the guts,
making forty pages into eighteen pages. And with their
help, the stories became so much more powerful. They have
an uncanny editorial vision and they’re able to
communicate with their authors so respectfully, the conversation
never one-sided, so change becomes possible. I owe them
thing that stands out in your stories is their location,
Oregon, a state fairly untouched by literary fiction–at
least since Raymond Carver died. Charles D’Ambrosio,
a writer who you earlier mentioned, is also known for
setting stories in the Northwest. Similar to your stories,
the landscapes in D’Ambrosio’s stories–whether
Washington, Manhattan, or the Midwest–seems to haunt
the characters. The environment becomes a central element
of the story. This seems even more true in your own work.
Sometimes, such as in your story “The Caves in Oregon,”
the environment becomes dominant, affecting everything
in the piece. Do you think location is particularly important
to you as a writer? Were Carver and D’Ambrosio very
influential to your own writing?
you think of the way Faulkner wrote about the South, or
Hawthorne wrote about New England, I want to carve out
a similar place for myself in the Northwest. So my characters
hike through bone-dry desert flats and raft snake-shaped
rivers and hike across moraines where every step is a
sliding uncertainty. To me, location is a character, a
central character—and the way the sun sets or the
way the wind howls is no different than a gesture or a
facial expression in informing scene. Carver is one of
my favorite writers, but his stories aren’t at all
grounded in landscape. They’re grounded in character.
And he taught me that the type of people I grew up with,
the type of people I’m related to, are very worthy
of fiction. As for D’Ambrosio, I read Dead Fish
Museum for the first time last month and thought
it was a powerful book. I hope to share a beer with him
someday, since—to a certain degree—we’re
partners in crime.
from D’Ambrosio, you also mentioned the writers
Rick Bass and Jim Shepard–all of these men are respected,
well published writers working at the top of their game
(and who all, incidentally, still continue to publish
their work in small literary magazines). Are there any
younger or new writers whose work you have recently been
Anthony Johnston. Patrick Somerville. Nic Pizzolatto.
Karen Russell. Paul Yoon. Kevin Wilson. Scott Snyder.
Owen King. Richard Lange. Laura van den Berg. Kyle Minor.
William Giraldi. Dean Bakopoulos. They’re young
and they’ve got big guns. If you haven’t heard
of them already, you soon will.
seems there are two sort of readers, those who enter a
bookstore and go straight to the magazine stand and those
that go for the bookshelves. Which one are you?
usually browse the New Fiction table first, then head
to the magazine rack, not to check out the latest issue
of Cosmo or Cigar Aficionado, but to
leaf through the literary journals. From there, sometimes
an hour later, I hit the bookshelves.