THE BENJAMIN PERCY INTERVIEW
Dan & Kate: THRILL ME: ESSAYS ON FICTION just hit shelves October 18, 2016. GREEN ARROW continues to be a hot seller for DC Comics with the REBIRTH issue selling over 100,000 copies! Your novel THE DARK NET is slated for 2017 from Houghton Mifflin. This is an immense output! And with this writing, how do you keep all of your worlds and words in line? How do you make sure Oliver Queen doesn’t end up in a Minnesota Monthly essay?
Benjamin Percy: Some days my brain does feel like it’s getting shredded into confetti. Comics, novels, screenplays, the occasional essay or article or short story or book review. Too many projects and not enough hours in the day. But at the same time: I’m not allowed to whine. I’m incredibly lucky—and I’m having a ridiculous amount of fun.
My superpower is this: deep focus. I’d make a lame addition to the X-Men, but it’s served me well as a writer. I can lose myself in a story and completely detach from reality for many hours at a time. Ideally I’m working on one project for days at a time, but that’s not always possible. If I am jumping from a novel to a screenplay in a single day, then I need a mental reset in between them, so I’ll go for a walk or run a few errands before returning to the keyboard.
Email is my worst enemy. I sometimes get a hundred a day, and many of them will come with subjects lines like “IMPORTANT!!! RESPOND NOW.” I have to approve some copy on the back of a novel or agree to a last-minute interview or approve layouts or proofread a galley – or, or, or. I’m a much better writer when I’m singularly focused, but my inbox is the equivalent of a phone ringing off the hook.
But again, no whining allowed. I said to my wife a few years ago, every time I complain, just punch me in the face. Because I really am lucky as hell to be writing full-time, and I don’t want to ever take that for granted.
D&K: Your success in comics is astounding, and well deserved. Along with GREEN ARROW, you are also writing the new TEEN TITANS book from DC, as well as a just-announced JAMES BOND book from Dynamite Entertainment. What is your relationship with comics, both as a reader and a writer?
BP: I’m as obsessed with movies as I am with novels—and so comics have always felt like the ultimate medium: a hybrid form of storytelling. I love that intersection of textual and visual literacy.
I’m also an art fiend. I took several studio classes in college, along with a History of Art and Architecture. I visit museums as often as I can. Paintings are a source of inspiration and meditation for me. But even though I have some training, I’m not a particularly talented artist. So writing comics is a way of cheating my inadequacies at the easel. I’m able to say, panel by panel, page by page, how I would have made it look (if I actually had that muscle in my brain).
I grew up reading comics—and (aside from a drought in college) never stopped. I’m buying more issues and trades than I can keep up with right now. It’s a childhood dream come true, working on these legendary series.
D&K: Our tireless research (Wikipedia) lists Eugene, Oregon, as your hometown. What brought you to Minnesota and how have you acclimated? Have you had a tater-tot hotdish yet? And is it not the greatest thing ever? (This is actually 4 questions.)
BP: If I have a hometown, it’s Bend, Oregon—but I moved so much growing up, I never had a sense of rootedness. That’s continued into adulthood. Since I graduated high school, I’ve lived in Providence, Rhode Island, Carbondale, Illinois, Galway, Ireland, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Ames, Iowa, and now Northfield, Minnesota. Northfield is the longest I’ve lived anywhere (four and a half years), and we’re dug in. I love it here—in Minnesota—and don’t plan on leaving. I didn’t grow up with “hot dish” or fish fry or prime rib supper clubs or lefsa or cheese curds or even jello, and maybe that’s why I now love all of these things so much.
D&K: With your monthly word output, what does a typical work day look like for Benjamin Percy? What kind of word goals do you set for yourself, and how do you achieve them?
BP: I have no word goals. I have no idea how many words add up to a short story or novel. I have no page goals either. Because I know—as a ruthless reviser—that I’m throwing away as many words/pages as I produce. All I care about is time. I put in forty to (gulp) seventy hours a week. Seventy hours is not sustainable, I know, but every now and then I run into a perfect storm of deadlines and have no choice. Writing comics can be a little like having a gun to your head.
On a normal day, I put the kids on the bus at seven. I brew my coffee and run to my desk and I don’t get up until they get home at 3:30 or 4. Ideally I’m done for the day, but more often than not (these days), I have to open up the laptop again after getting the kids to bed.
D&K: Aside from your novels and comic book work, you also contribute to a number of monthly magazines, such as Esquire and Minnesota Monthly. This is a very cool thing. How did these gigs come about, and does it scratch a different kind of itch for you than your other work?
BP: I’m not a journalist, but I have written for Esquire, Time, Outside, Men’s Journal, GQ, Wall Street Journal (and several others). I love work that takes me away from the desk. GQ sent me to Tokyo. The Wall Street Journal sent me to Jackson Hole to raft the Snake and hang-glide off a mountain. I’ve climbed (and slept in) one of the tallest trees in North America. I’ve visited Napa and wrestled John Irving and “driven” in a driverless car—all for nonfiction assignments. This work always ends up opening my brain to new experiences that eventually feeds into the fiction.
D&K: In the spirit of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and the Bernard Pivot questions asked of every guest, we have our own set of questions we ask of every interviewee.
When did you finally say, “Yeah…I’m gonna write stuff for a living. And it will be AWESOME.”
BP: I took my first creative writing workshop when I was a sophomore in college—and never looked back.
D&K: What was your favorite moment in mystery writing? The moment that when you read it on the page, you smiled and said, “That was so cool!”
BP: My grandfather would read me Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a boy—and I loved piecing together mysteries with him, marveling at the way Conan Doyle puzzled everything together.
D&K: What was the moment that made you say, “Writing books is amazing”?
BP: I think this every day.
D&K: The standard Beatles or Rolling Stones question: Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett?
D&K: Parting thoughts?
BP: The title of my new essay collection is cribbed from Barry Hannah, who gave me the best writing advice of my life: Thrill me.