A Shared Wilderness: Benjamin and Jennifer Percy

There are two questions I always get – the phrasing changes, but not the meaning – when people hear what my job is.

What are you excited about?

Should I read it?

While I jump first to the titles that I’m reading at that moment, there’s always a shortlist of relatively recent Discover Great New Writers selections that I like to cite as well. Red Moon by Benjamin Percy and Demon Camp by Jennifer Percy have been on that list for a while.  On the surface, they’re wildly different reading experiences — speculative fiction vs. long form reportage — but both push us to look at the society we inhabit, the choices we make, and the fears we face (or conceal).

So here are the siblings Percy on how they became writers, how terror spreads like an infection, why context is king and research matters, and so much more here on the Barnes & Noble Review. ~ Miwa Messer


Benjamin Percy: When people hear that we’re both writers, they tend to puzzle up their faces and say, “That’s cool,” or “That’s strange,” and indeed it is both. They then ask the question I’m asking you now: “How did that happen?” We grew up on twenty-seven acres of big firs outside Eugene — and then a jungly hillside in Oahu — and then a dusty spread of sage and juniper in Central Oregon, always isolated. Our parents are not writers. We never met any writers growing up. We never announced to our third-grade teachers that we would be writers and then scratched out a graphic novel in crayon. Yet here we are, pushing around sentences, playing with our imaginary friends, communing with the keyboard. How did that happen?

Jennifer Percy: We should really come up with an answer to this question, but I don’t know if there is one, besides the family-style marathon readings of Stephen King’s It, or the way we spent hours alone in the desert searching for arrow heads, fearing the ghosts of Indian warriors. The phrases we sometimes hear writers say in response to this question– “because I have to” or “the profession really chose me” or “my childhood was so messed up”– aren’t really satisfying, though they may be true. So, if siblings are writers, I imagine people must assume there’s an answer in our origin–or the possibility of one. It’s convenient, of course, to go back to a single event or circumstance and make that explain and define who you are. It’s a way of mythologizing yourself. It’s like having your own creation myth. But we can’t really ever know. Our childhood, though, does sounds like a creation myth: born in a place between mountain and desert…

But when faced with this question, I often gravitate towards the idea of wilderness, because it is wilderness that we shared. It certainly shaped my relationship to the world. The isolation you mention was grounded in a literal geography, a small place compared to the whole world, but there’s also the geography of the mind, which maybe has to grow larger, more daring, to compete with that physical isolation.

What I could see from my window may have been a small world, but it was also earth and sea and heaven and hell and every imaginable thing in between. It may be telling that my favorite childhood activity was to draw maps of the world and then stare at the blank spaces, thinking about what was going on, the immensity of humanity below.

And even when I moved away from this dusty spread of juniper, and to a city, I carried that world with me. And I imagine I always will. For a while, we both went to a private school in Sunriver, Oregon with about ten kids in each class. (Our parents made us go to private school because once in public school a teacher punched Ben in the face).

Anyway, Ben went to college, and I was entering high school, suddenly the school shut down. My parents sent me to Portland. Aka the big city.  I showed up in a wolf shirt and hiking boots and there all these rich kids snorting coke and driving Mercedes.  I didn’t belong.

I was still that kid in the desert. So, over time, writing became a way to belong to the world, and to be part of the human family.

Ben: To clarify, I did get punched by a teacher, but that was a full year before we transferred schools. I was getting into a lot of trouble back then, stealing baseball cards and comic books and candy, vandalizing houses and school property, getting into fights and burning my way to the bottom of the report card. I was a punk. I wish I could go back in time and kick my own ass. But something happened during that eighth grade summer, when I was in limbo, leaving the one school, signing on to join another. I read Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, the first in the Dark Tower series. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so affected by a book. This might seem corny — because it is corny, and you’re allowed to be corny when you’re fourteen-years-old — but I saw in Roland of Gilead (who is somewhere between a Clint Eastwood cowboy and an Arthurian knight) a version of man that I came to idealize and model myself after. My manner changed instantly. I became withdrawn and slit-eyed, exaggeratedly stoic. And I developed this behavioral code that informed my every move. Some people wear the bracelet on their wrist that reads, “WWJD?” but for me, it was, “What would Roland do?” I started going to the gym every day and committed myself fully to my classes and sports and became (no surprise) virtually friendless. I can’t help but wonder how much a single book changed my life, laid the foundation for what was to come. When you look back, what books rise up as profoundly influential, personally, aesthetically?

Jennifer: Well, I didn’t want to be a writer until much later, I wanted to be a scientist, and so I was reading a lot of science books. I actually recall having quite a few non-science books confiscated from me. Mom confiscated The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides because I wasn’t the happiest teenager and she thought I was getting ideas. Then there was the day all my Jack Kerouac went missing. I remember overhearing Mom say something like “this Kerouac character is contaminating my daughter’s mind.” This was probably around the time I told them I wanted to go Iraq and my dad said he would hog-tie me at the airport. After that I bought and read all of Jack Kerouac’s books and I dressed up like a homeless person and hung out with the homeless people downtown, trying to get to know them better. I talked to street kids, too, and people living lives very different from my own. I haven’t reread On the Road since I was a teenager, but thumbing through my old copy I underlined the oft-quoted: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, made to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing..” The impulse must have been there, but perhaps Kerouac made me brave enough to do it– to understand the beauty of it: these lives. The great thing about being a kid and discovering a writer for the first time is that you think there’s this secret communion between you and the author, as if you were the only reader, and the book was written just for you. I remember hearing some classmates talk about Kerouac for the first time, and I felt betrayed. Kerouac and King couldn’t be more different. If King tapped a vein, what preoccupations have flowed from this? What obsessions have you returned to again and again in your work, either intentionally, or that have bubbled up from the unconscious?

Ben: King did for me what I did to you: terrify. There is something about darkness, the cosmic abyss that has always thrilled and enchanted me. I’m afraid you suffered as a result of this. I spent a lot of time torturing you. I would jump out of closets or sneak up behind the couch when you were watching TV and crab my hands into claws and attack you. I would shut off the lights when you were in the bathroom or garage. I invented an elaborate mythology about the Roof People. They were lost souls caught in a kind of purgatory and they lived in the attics and on the roofs of homes like ours. And they hated the living. I would crawl onto the roof to your window, scratch or bang on the glass, then run back to my room and leap onto my bed, so that I was calmly reading a novel when you burst in, wide-eyed. And then there were your troll dolls. You had maybe thirty of them. And I would move them around, so that they’d be waiting for you in a drawer or beneath the sheets or in a cereal box. One time I lined them all up next to your bed and one was holding a note that said, “BAD DREAMS” with the R and the S backwards for trollish authenticity. I was fighting boredom, practicing for a life as a novelist, playing make-believe, getting a thrill out of scaring you. Now you’re the one terrifying people with Demon Camp, but the situation couldn’t be more different. These are real people. And their terror, which became yours, which become the reader’s, is real. Tell everyone about living in kind of nightmare for the years it took to write the book — and the difficult balance of entertaining and disturbing and ultimately using terror to provoke and transform your audience.

Jennifer: Trauma and terror can transfer like an infection. My subject’s terror didn’t take long to find its way inside me. It was the terror of war and dead friends and displacement and ex-wives and roadside America and popcorn shrimp at Wendy’s–all at once. I was opening up to it. But my immune system wasn’t strong. You must have put a little bruise in the part of my brain that lavishes in the cosmic abyss.  In Demon Camp I wanted to infect the reader and so I suppose I decided to serve myself up as some sort of agent between the two. You could also call this empathy. Empathy, unlike sympathy, is an infection. It allows the emotions to transfer.  It’s hard to empathize, or call something empathy, unless you open yourself up to the unknown. What’s more terrifying than the unknown? It might hurt you. I might kill you. Or it might make you stronger. As humans we have a tendency to take extreme situations (poverty, war, genocide) and think: it’s unimaginable, or, it’s outside the realm of ordinary human experience and therefore I’m excluded. This dehumanizes everyone involved.  The attempt to empathize might lead you to parts of hell you didn’t know existed.  But that’s not the scary part. The scary part is that you are there too. You’re like, oh shit, I’m over there by the bones and Plutus is gnawing on my leg. To realize that we are not excluded from such circumstances is the greatest terror. While writing Demon Camp, I wanted the reader to feel the hell my subject had been living. So I got in, but I couldn’t really get out. Bats started attacking me. There were weird unexplainable circumstances that I won’t even get into here. Lots of nightmares. I searched for this darkness but then it also searched for me. The unknown came for me. You’ve called me “a black hole of weirdness.” So there: it knows. It’s a thinking feeling thing in the world. That’s what it felt like to be writing the book anyway.

And just wait, the Roof People and I have been sketching revenge plans for years.

Ben: You spent years building this book — and struggling with the shape of it.  I’m terrified to take on a book-length nonfiction project in part because the research is so intimidating, a rabbit hole you can get lost in…Novel-writing presents this same struggle to a lesser degree. Robert Olmstead told me that it took him six years to write Coal Black Horse, and then four years to UNwrite it. Because he had uncovered so much good stuff about the Civil War, he had trouble deciding what to include, what to leave out, what would make for the cleanest, most impactful story. In your case, I’m not just talking about the mountains of documents you studied, but also the endless parades of people you interviewed, at home and abroad. Demon Camp turns out to be a very precise, contained narrative (but it easily could have been 700 pages long). Tell everybody about the long, arduous process of honing a subject. I saw firsthand how hard you worked on this, so I’m trying to express some big brotherly admiration here.

Jennifer: Much of the initial writing for the book happened while I was still doing the research. I’d come home full of stories and I’d have to write to empty myself. But I wasn’t thinking about structure, at least not on the level of a book-length narrative—I was just capturing the experience and the emotions. I ended up with a collage of sorts–all these parts and no clue how to put them together.  I began with a few questions but then the questions multiplied. When I began the process of fine tuning and creating narrative, one thing you realize is that details are missing. So you thought you were done, but you have go back in the field or back to your notes or you have to pick up the phone. Usually it’s just a sentence or a detail as banal as someone’s hair color. But you think, this sentence really needs another beat and if I just had his hair color then it would be a really fine sentence.  Writing nonfiction is a continuously interrupted dream. Sometimes you don’t have the information you want. So then you have to figure out how to make the narrative work without it, anyway. It’s maddening. You have to deal with huge gaps. A lot of nonfiction writing is managing the unknown, and instead of trying to get around the gap, I try to look at the gap as an opportunity. Why don’t any of my subjects have this answer? Why is this thread of narrative missing from the conversation? I could probably write a book just about the challenges and questions that came up while writing this book, but here are a few of them: What is the role of “I”? How much contextual information do I need to include about PTSD despite that the way the book resists a traditional narrative of PTSD? Do I tell the whole story of the book first?  How do I write about characters with humanity and love when these people, simply by speaking, seem to implicate and stereotype themselves? How do I write a book when the focus is on one man’s perspective but that is also about a highly political and public event? How do I call the mother of the dead son? How do I write about people that have died? Do I let the reader know that I grew up in a town of 500 people, in an impoverished area of the country, and that most of my friends lived in a trailer? (This question did not occur to me until I moved to NYC). The questions go on. But then on top of that, I spent a whole year just doing legal edits, which because of the sensitive material of my book, took some time. This ranged from questions of heresy to more complex questions such as: Could this information potentially harm the subject even if the subject willfully gave me permission to publish the information? So you are sitting there and all this questions are buzzing in your head and you’re kind of like, okay, I’m just going to describe this horse in the field and then go eat a sandwich. On top of that, there was the issue of emotion: I would write about certain stories and I’d get very scared or I’d start crying. Mostly because I had a lot of conversations on tape and I’d have to listen to these tapes over and over again. Then Caleb would call me and remind me that demons were trying to stop me from writing the book and that I was being followed by this thing he called the Destroyer.  I wrote a lot of the book with my back to the wall.

So one day I was in the Dey House in Iowa City panicking and my good friend Kyle Minor came up to me and asked what was wrong. I said I didn’t know where to begin the book. He said let’s go to the computer lab and talk about it. I showed him my first paragraph and he said yeah this isn’t going to work. He said two words: no context. It was just a big scene about dead puppies that I thought was pretty cool and devastating that and worked as an amplifying metaphor. He told me to close my eyes and narrate the whole book for him from beginning to end. The most important parts. I thought this was weird but I did it anyway. I shut my eyes and started talking and because I wasn’t thinking much about any of the questions or about being fancy or smart; and because I was just telling a story, what came out, almost word for word, is the current prologue of my book. And it’s one of my favorite parts. It was like we tapped into that primal storytelling part of myself that had finally been released from the tyranny of the computer. Then Kyle recommended I write down all the important scenes on index cards and put them in order. I’d seen writers do this before but I had never been compelled do it.  I spent the whole night making index cards and there were so many they took over the entire basement of the Dey House. The whole thing clicked. It was all there. I could see my book. I could literally take a photo of it.  I know when I started writing and talking to editors at publishing houses that I was intimidated by them. I referred to them simply as “New York.” It was never my editor calling, but the entity of New York. I don’t feel that way now, but sometimes it’s good, if you are feeling that way, just to chat with friends and to have an ordinary lunch time conversation about the work. Anyway, I ended up thinking the Dey House was pretty good luck and so I spent the next few months there working from 3 PM to 6AM. There were others that worked all night too and we sort of became this weird nocturnal group of MFA students who just desperately needed silence and space. One guy slept in the Dey House elevator and wrote stories about space cows. For most of January– winter break–I was alone, and to write Demon Camp alone in a dimly lit basement of an old creaky Victorian house while snow crawled up the windows was a bit ominous, but it also felt absolutely right. There were so many creepy events that happened while writing the book: the endless bat attacks being one of them. The day I finished the book, we were in Oregon, and took a family boat trip down the Snake River and saw a dead bat hanging from a finishing line in front of a big dark tunnel and the sign above the bat said: Do Not Enter. Probably a good sign to keep in mind for the future.

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.