Art Talk with NEA Lit Fellows Benjamin Percy and Jennifer Percy
Benjamin Percy and his sister and fellow writer Jennifer Percy. Photo by William J. Adams
“The writer’s life is spent alone---at the desk---the missives we write equivalent to notes in a bottle tossed into a midnight sea.” --- Benjamin Percy
Not only does writing apparently run in the blood for Benjamin Percy and his younger sister Jennifer, but so does winning NEA Literature Fellowships. The duo were among the 40 creative writers to receive the awards this past November, and have the distinction of being the first siblings to win the award in the same year. Jennifer, whose work appeared in the Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 from Traveler's Tales, is currently a Truman Capote Fellow in the Iowa Writers' Workshop and an Iowa Arts Fellow in the Nonfiction Writing program. Benjamin, a Whiting Award winner, teaches in the MFA programs at Iowa State University and Pacific University, and has previously published two collections of short fiction. His novel The Wilding was published by Graywolf Press in 2010, and a new book, Red Moon, is forthcoming from Grand Central/Hachette. We spoke with the siblings via e-mail about the writer's life, the impact of place on their writing, and how they've influenced each other.
NEA: What’s your version of the artist’s life?
BENJAMIN PERCY: I am obsessed. This obsession drives me to gobble up books as though they were candy---drives me to spend eight hours a day at the keyboard, to turn down social engagements, give up on hobbies---and to constantly mine the world for material to bring to the page.
JENNIFER PERCY: I just finished reading Walker Percy’s [no relation] The Moviegoer, and I became intrigued by what the protagonist Binx calls “the search,” or a striving toward authenticity. “The search,” Binx says, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life….To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is despair.” At the time, Percy was reading Heidegger, who says in Introduction to Metaphysics that the origin of philosophy lies in experiencing the question. I think that’s a great phrase, “experiencing the question.” It means one is always in a state of bewilderment---always asking more questions than answering them, embracing mystery, and wading through discomfort. It’s counterintuitive, but I think that it is in this realm of discomfort that we end up finding the most clarity.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience/ engagement with the arts?
BENJAMIN: I grew up in a family of readers. Most nights, we’d end up in the living room, our faces shoved in books, occasionally reading passages aloud. But that’s a more generalized memory. Freshman year of high school, I played the role of Clive in Five Finger Exercise, and I remember, after so many rehearsals, feeling infected by the dysfunction of the family---and feeling a strange power, after the curtain fell, after we stripped our costumes and smeared away our makeup, when I noticed a couple remained in the darkened auditorium, still and quiet and staring at the stage as though paralyzed by the production.
JENNIFER: When I was a kid, every year my family drove to a three-million-year-old dried lake bed we called Great Bear. My parents would give my brother and me a time when we had to meet back at the truck and everyone would head off in separate directions. I’d walk as far as I could into the lake and find the bent arm of a juniper tree to sit on. It was at these moments that I was completely alone; the white, cracked earth stretching out to the end of the horizon as if it contained the whole world. I’d watch the frost from last night’s cold glint in the valley, the antelopes wandering in groups from the shade of one tree to the next. That’s pretty much it---appreciating this overwhelming beauty and understanding that I’m part of something greater than myself.
Jennifer and Benjamin Percy circa 1986. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Percy
NEA: What’s been your most significant arts experience to date?
BENJAMIN: A few years ago, the actor Ted Marcoux read one of my stories---“Refresh, Refresh”---aloud at Symphony Space in New York. I was in the audience, and I could feel my heartbeat in my fingertips through the whole experience. I was able to spy on people, hear them laugh and gasp, watch them shiver and go tense. At one moment, toward the end, a woman in front of me clapped her hands over her ears and huddled down in a ball. The writer’s life is spent alone---at the desk---the missives we write equivalent to notes in a bottle tossed into a midnight sea. This was the first time I really felt the impact of one of those bottles reaching a farther shore.
JENNIFER: I found an internship advertised on the internet to live and study the “natural world” in Russia for three months---everything but airfare included. I applied and I was accepted. Three Americans and two Russians showed up in St. Petersburg along with me. One American ran away, explaining that she only wanted to be in the program for the visa and that she wanted to become a Russian puppeteer instead. After a week, a woman named Olga put the rest of us on a train heading north for the woods above the Arctic Circle. This sounds like the beginning of a clever (or not so clever) kidnapping---but it wasn’t. We hung out with these mysterious Chechnyan soldiers on nature reserves. It was light all day and there was always vodka and saunas and tea and stories about wild boars, big as men. The experience was confusing, horrifying, and wonderful. When I returned to America, I sat down and wrote about it for weeks on end. I couldn’t stop. I’d never really done any creative writing prior to that trip. The writing I produced won me a scholarship to Bread Loaf, and this is where I found “my tribe.” I dropped my physics major and switched to English. It’s all quite random. But again, I didn’t have a lot of conventional arts experiences as a child, and so I’m putting more weight on the experiences that drove me to art.
NEA: What decision has most impacted your artistic career?
BENJAMIN: I made the decision, about halfway through college, to give up on archaeology and geology, which I had been hell-bent on pursuing since middle school, and put all of my energy into writing. This was at the behest of my then-girlfriend, now wife, who---after reading my many lascivious love letters---said, “You should be a writer.” I said okay.
JENNIFER: Well, I didn’t decide to pursue writing as a career until I was around twenty-three (I dabbled in publishing for a while after college), and I’d say that the time I spent before making that decision (traveling, working odd jobs, enduring bad relationships) trying to figure out what I didn’t want to do with my life, gave me significant fodder to work with. So, in some ways the lack of decision was an important one. But, on a more practical note, deciding to do an MFA has had the most traceable influence on my career. I’m still in an MFA program, so I don’t have much else to draw on, but without this time and space to write, I would have never taken the risks I have taken, including taking on the extensive research required to begin my book. I also would not have been given the opportunity to teach. I fell in love with teaching.
NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community?
BENJAMIN: The artist does not give a community answers, but raises questions, and in doing so forces people to reflect, engage, empathize, escape.
JENNIFER: Artists need to make themselves accessible---as people. Artists need to try to be normal people, real people and, by doing so, they can help extinguish the romantic notion of talent and the fantasies of genius that deemphasize the role of hard work. Art too, even if it’s not something one pursues as a career, should be something everyone engages with on a daily basis. For this reason, the artist needs to advocate art as an essential part of any liberal arts education. Art teaches one to think more complexly about the world and it’s this complexity of thinking that builds greater opportunities for empathy.
NEA: What do you think is the responsibility of the community to the artist?
BENJAMIN: Life can blur by---meaning can escape us---and we need the artist the way we need a mirror, even one with many fissures running through it, to ascertain our gaze.
JENNIFER: I think societies have a tendency towards deception and mythology, and are inclined to embrace language that is both delusory and insincere. The artist is sifting through this detritus, finding clarity. And we need to occasionally take moments from our daily lives and gaze head-on at whatever treasure the artist has pulled from the rubble---whether or not this provides a moment horrifying comprehension or intense comfort.
NEA: How does the idea of “place” work for you in your writing? What about the influence on your writing of the physical place in which you grew up?
BENJAMIN: Oregon is such a fractured landscape. Geographically---with so many environments smashed together, coast and rain forest and mountains and desert and plains. Politically---with the blue pockets of Eugene and Portland dominating the vote of an otherwise red state. Economically. Which makes a great stage for drama. Oregon---the geography, the culture, the history, the myths---will always be a character in my work.
JENNIFER: I’m writing about a guy named Wildman who runs a Civil War surplus in Kennesaw, Georgia. He has long gray hair, wears cut-off jean shorts, carries two loaded pistols, and believes he is a reincarnation of Stonewall Jackson. When I told him I was from Iowa he said, “Is that near Georgia?” Turns out he grew up 13 miles down the road and he considered that a long way away. He’d never left the state. All over the U.S. there are people like Wildman, people who isolate themselves and through that isolation are able to create a false sense of control over their lives by limiting what they do and do not know. There’s something beautiful to me about his retreat from the world, about the way he carved out a space for himself, picking and choosing whatever he wanted to be included, carving his own landscape---in a way preferring to dream instead of to live. I often find myself writing about people who create imaginary worlds for themselves, and who use the landscape as a way to retreat from whatever it is they are trying to escape.
Unlike my brother, I moved from rural Oregon to Portland when I was fifteen and that move was rather traumatic---I think I lived in four different houses during those four years. A lot of my writing is about displacement. My stories and essays take place in Hawaii, Russia, Iraq, Germany, Brazil, Serbia, Italy, Washington, DC, Georgia, North Carolina---I’m all over the map.
NEA: Benjamin, why fiction?
BENJAMIN: Because sometimes emotional truth is more striking and engaging than literal truth. But I write a great deal of nonfiction for magazines, and enjoy leaping back and forth between the genres.
NEA: Jennifer, why nonfiction? Do you ever write fiction, and if so, when and why?
JENNIFER: I have this bag in my room under my bed---I just call it “the bag”---and when I get ready to go on a trip I pull it out. Inside I have camo pants, a hat that says REBEL on it in gold letters, a pair of aviator sunglasses, a mesh shirt a Russian soldier gave to me, a sweater from a truck stop in Missouri with a picture of an elk moaning Bible words, and these underwear you’re supposed to be able to wear for a long time without washing. Every time I go on a trip, I collect something and put it in the bag. I tend to travel to odd places, visiting subcultures and talking to people a lot of people wouldn’t talk to. The bag serves as a little history of my travels and is testament to why I began writing nonfiction---I like to get out and get my hands dirty.
When I decided to apply for MFA programs, I was forced to choose between fiction and nonfiction (there are no MFAs in “prose,” though I believe there should be). When I arrived to Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, I discovered I had a very limited understanding of nonfiction. I’m so grateful to the program for exposing me to new forms and refreshing my notion of the genre. We always joke that nonfiction has an anxiety disorder: “no we don’t write journalism, we write creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction.” The terms “fiction” and “poetry” never need to be qualified. Creative nonfiction writers, on the other hand, fear where their books will end up in the bookstore: Cooking? Gardening? Nature? Psychology? Self Help? (Dear God, no!). It’s rare to find a bookstore with an “essay” section or a “literary nonfiction” section. Anyway, the program encourages a broad reading of the essay and hopes to carve out new space for it by elevating the essay to the level of art. In John D’Agata’s The Lost Origins of the Essay, he writes: “My point is that the essay exists. And it seems, in fact, to have always existed. But even now, five thousand years since the earliest essay appeared...essayists who are trying to offer more than information are still not being recognized as practitioners of the form.” I love the indeterminancy of the genre---it is always surprising me and challenging the way I think about the world. But, despite all that, I felt that so many things I wanted to write about could only be expressed as fiction. The subject chooses the genre—---not the other way around. So, yes, I write fiction---I’m currently in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
NEA: In which ways, if any, have you been influenced by each other artistically?
BENJAMIN: Often, when I’m reading her work, or when we’re telling stories, I see something I recognize, something I’ve forgotten---and all of a sudden a trapdoor opens in my head and I’ve fallen into someplace that otherwise would have been lost. And I’m constantly impressed and inspired by her bravery in life and on the page.
JENNIFER: When I was eight or nine, I began a short story about a dog. He was in love with a beautiful young cat and very tortured by his feelings, of which he could tell no one, not even the hamster. I showed the story to my brother. “What do you think?” I said. He read the story and threw it on the ground. “You did not properly introduce the character of the dog,” he said.
So my brother is pretty much a badass.
I came upon writing on my own, but when Ben read my early work he was nothing but enthusiastic and encouraging. I don’t know if I would have continued on this path without him or if I would have ended up in a lab studying moon rocks. He’s always been incredibly supportive and a huge inspiration.
NEA: How do you expect the NEA grant to impact your writing life?
BENJAMIN: I’m deeply grateful for this grant, and I can’t tell you how special it was to win the same year as my sister. Whenever anybody asks me what I want for my birthday or Christmas, I always say, “Time.” And that’s what you’ve given me, given us: the gift of writing time. Thank you.
JENNIFER: I’m still a graduate student and though I’ve sold rights to Scribner for my nonfiction book, it’s not out yet. So, in many, ways I feel that I haven’t “come out” as a writer. I think it is incredibly exciting that this is an award judged blindly by a panel of writers based on the manuscript alone. It is not one of those awards given to the people with the most awards. I see a lot of writers around Iowa City desperately trying to move from one reading to the next in an attempt to brush shoulders with the next famous writer. And though networking is important, in the end, it should always come down to the work at hand. The writing should always speak for itself. There are so many writers on the list of current and past NEA winners that I admire, and it’s such an honor to be celebrated alongside them.
I probably don’t even need to talk about the money---every one knows that writers rarely have any---but I’m so grateful to the NEA that I will mention it. When I began my book, all the trips I took to the South---all my research---went on a credit card. Every time there was a break in the academic calendar, I took another trip and conducted more interviews. I wracked up over ten grand in debt just beginning this book. I guess I just hoped for the best—---and it’s a good thing I took that risk because it paid off.
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