Esteemed author on writing as obsession


Benjamin Percy will appear at BookCourt on May 7 to celebrate the release of his new novel “Red Moon.” Photo by Jennifer May

Brooklyn Eagle recently featured award-winning author Benjamin Percy, who is coming to Brooklyn tomorrow, May 7, to celebrate the release of his latest novel, a thriller titled “Red Moon” (Grand Central Publishing). The book – which has already received high praise from acclaimed authors and critics – goes on sale on Tuesday, May 7, and that evening Percy will appear at BookCourt in Cobble Hill for a reading, launch party, and book signing.

Set in the American West, “Red Moon” follows complex characters whose disparate lives are intertwined.  Percy weaves in supernatural elements of horror, creating a world in which some are infected with a disease that turns them into lycans (werewolves), while the non-infected population is intent on terminating the lycans.

Percy’s characters include Claire Forrester, a lycan teenager who witness her parents’ murder at the hands of government agents; Patrick Gamble, another teen, who emerges an uninfected hero after surviving a lycan invasion on a plane; and Chase Williams, a possible presidential candidate, who exhibits suspicious behavior.

John Irving has said that “‘Red Moon’ is a serious, politically symbolic novel—a literary novel about lycanthropes. If George Orwell had imagined a future where the werewolf population had grown to the degree that they were colonized and drugged, this terrifying novel might be it.”

In anticipation of the author’s Brooklyn appearance, Brooklyn Eagle spoke to Percy about his fascination with the horror genre. He tells us about the challenges he faces when writing supernatural stories and shares a preview of what he’s working on now.

Have you always had an interest in thrillers and horror stories? If not, was there something in particular that inspired you to write in the horror genre?

I grew up on the genre. As a kid, I ate my way through a mass market paperback a week. Fantasy, sci-fi, westerns, spy thrillers—and horror, especially horror, that dark corner of the bookstore like a swirling vortex of doom I could not escape. I read everything by Peter Straub, Stephen King, Anne Rice, Robert R. McCammon, Shirley Jackson, Dean Koontz. I still have a 6th grade “research” paper (titled “Werewolves!”) that concluded with me trying to transform myself beneath a full moon in my backyard. So yes, “Red Moon” (a post-9/11 reinvention of the werewolf myth) has been a long time coming.

Are there any unique challenges to writing stories that include supernatural elements?

Reimaging a mythology and making it your own, for one. That’s why you never hear the word “vampire” in Justin Cronin’s The Passage or “zombie” in AMC’s The Walking Dead. And believability is of course a challenge. My lycans, as I call them, are not full-moon howlers. It’s more of a Jekyll/Hyde scenario, an unleashed id, and to capture the slippery science behind the infection I spent a lot of time interviewing researchers at universities and the USDA labs about prions (misfolded proteins that are the cause of Mad Cow and Chronic Wasting).

There’s also the question of relevance. How can you make the story new and pertinent? I’m trying to hold up a mirror with a crack running through it. You’ll find in this novel political figures and cultural battles and international conflicts you think you recognize, but they’re warped and blurred versions of contemporary unease.

Would you say that generally your characters arrive first, or do you first come up with a plot?

A little of both. I tear off scrolls of paper to hang from my office wall (actually a closet off my office I call the dark room) and on them I map out the narrative threads and character arcs (in pencil, of course, since so much will change). This usually happens a year (or more) before I actually begin writing, so I have shaped much of the novel in advance. You have to have that balance of narrative propulsion and human urgency to make the reader wonder what happens next?

How do you balance writing and teaching?

There was a time when I was teaching a 4/4 load (with four different preps and thirty students in every writing class) and I calculated that I was grading 2,000 pages a semester or more. I also had an infant son during this time. So I would brew a pot of coffee at 11 p.m., write until 4 a.m., sleep until 9 or 10 a.m., grade, prep, teach, hang out with the family, grade some more, and start the cycle over again. No hobbies. All I did was work. I would have died very quickly if I kept that up.

But the hard work and urgency paid off. I published more and won a few awards and landed a better teaching job. I ended up getting tenure—and quitting—not because I don’t enjoy teaching, not because I don’t think it’s a noble gig, but because I never dreamed of being a teacher: I dreamed of being a writer and teaching was security for my family, a way to pay the bills while I chased down stories and worked on improving my craft. So I’m gratefully in a position now that allows me to hammer the keyboard forty hours a week and teach a few classes here and there. What I’m getting at is this: there was never any balance, there was only the writing. It was my priority and obsession.

Do you have any particular tricks or exercises that you use when you get stuck?

I’m always working on multiple projects at once. So if I’m bored or stuck on a chapter, I’ll mess around with a short story or article or essay or screenplay or comic concept, until the problem clarifies and then I return to the novel with renewed energy.

What are you working on now?

My next novel (after “Red Moon”) is a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga (called “The Dead Lands”). Grand Central/Hachette will be releasing it in the summer of 2014, so I’m polishing up the edits right now. I’m also hammering out a screenplay and articles for Esquire (where I’m a contributing editor). Oh, and then there’s that erotic haiku manuscript…

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Percy’s May 7 book launch party will begin at 7 p.m. BookCourt is located at 163 Court St. in Cobble Hill.

Benjamin Percy has won a Whiting Writers Award, a Plimpton Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the author of the novel The Wilding (Graywolf Press, 2010) and two short story collections, Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press, 2007) and The Language of Elk (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2006; re-released in e-book format by GCP, 2013). His work has appeared in Esquire (where he is a contributing editor), GQ, Time, Men’s Journal, Outside, The Wall Street Journal, The Paris Review, Tin House, and Best American Short Stories.

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