#92 Benjamin Percy
Ben Percy began writing with a love of (fictional) wooly underpants.
I knew I had to have Ben Percy on the show because I kept mentioning his book, Thrill Me, and its argument that genre fiction and literary fiction have a lot to learn from each other. Ben and I talk about how he began to study writing with a great love of fantasy and science fiction only to be told he wasn't allowed to write either in his degree program. As he studied literary fiction, he fell in love with character development and wanted more from the people he read about in books.
But he still wanted to read about adventures and exciting things happening in his stories. So a thought began to grow: what if the best parts of genre fiction – the wooly underpants and the chases and the racing plot– were combined with the best parts of literary fiction – the love of language and the deeply developed characters? Ben has spent his writing life since trying to find out how to write from the best parts of all fiction. This conversation was equal parts hilarious and inspiring, an ideal combination in my mind. Also, Ben has one of the greatest voices for podcasting I have yet encountered. It's a true shame that he didn't enjoy recording the audio version of one of his books... enjoy this voice on this show - you may not get it anywhere else... happy listening.
Discussed in Episode 92 with Ben Percy
Author of 4 novels (The Dark Net, Red Moon, Deadlands, & The Wilding), 2 collections of short stories (The Language of Elk & Refresh Refresh), and a collection of essays on fiction (Thrill Me).
In 2014 started writing for DC Comics writing for Batman.
His book Refresh Refresh was included in the list of 100 Best American Short Stories
“I was going to keep hammering home the same points over and over.” On correcting students on proper writing.
Says one of the most cardinal sins of writing is when people get stuck in the interior world of the character and forget they have to move the character forward
“I am the principal victim of these faults and working through my own trajectory and was able to articulate my own feelings about fiction.” On being able to teach students genre fiction
Was told genre fiction was not allowed and was lesser than literary fiction
“You forget in a way that people read for escapism... It is possible to write something that is both compulsively readable and artfully told.” On writers being caught up on the analytical experience when reading.
The trap of a lot of MFA programs is that they forget that most readers are looking to be transported by more than language and metaphors. And there is a way to straddle both worlds.
[These other writers] are always thinking of pressing the story forward and the mechanics of plot while also writing sentences that make knees melt. That kind of writing doesn’t always come with the first draft, and sometimes not even in the final draft.
“When I sit down at the keyboard I am generally polishing what I wrote the day before so hopefully by the time I hand it to my editor, it’s as good as I can make it. It’s been turned over, over, and over again and polished like a stone in the river.” On editing until you can be proud of what you wrote.
“I’m always looking to break my brain and I’m always looking for tricks. If I read a scene that makes me feel afraid or emotionally devastated or breathless, I’ll typically pause and reflect and then go back and read it again.” On learning how to write from reading.
“It’s really easy to flatline.” On not wanting to write the same book over and over again.
How can you bring that level of social observation and class into a completely different genre?
“I have always been interested by fantasy stories that are bound to the moment.” On where the idea of The Dark Net came from.
In order to learn more about the cyber lifestyle, he proposed an article to GQ about testing out the newest technology. He didn't actually like all of the items he received.
Every time you’re clicking the keyboard that information is feeding into an algorithm, sometimes used for commercial reasons and sometimes used for more nefarious reasons.
Benjamin saw parallels to demonic possession and to fairy tales when thinking of the idea for The Dark Net.
“There is so much that we don’t understand.” On how people use stories to explain experiences.
“This new digital wilderness, this new black forest, has risen up all around us and [The Dark Net] was an attempt to make sense of it.”
Someday we may ask, "How did this happen?" when thinking of how technology has taken over. Well, everybody asked for it.
“The robots don’t need to kick down the door, they are already here inside of us.” On the advancement of technology.
Our phones are like a prosthetic cerebrum.
The psychological reliance on social media is leading to mental collapse. It is ruining our ability to achieve deep focus. Most of the great works of art and achievement was made in isolation.
He has been trying to isolate habits to be able to stay focused and better able to lose yourself. Being able to lose yourself is where the most inspiration can happen. There are many habits that are so technologically connected that they take away time to write or even think about writing.
So much work can be done when taking time away from the keyboard and digesting your thoughts and pushing around ideas for the plot.
The first novel he read was The Hobbit at 13 or 14. But he can remember every comic that he ever read.
Reading the comics was a formative experience for him and he was enchanted by the narrative and could understand how stories were being broken down.
Benjamin always wanted to write comics but took a long time to break in. Then he was able to debut with Batman in Fall 2014 and by January was writing for Green Arrow. From there he wrote Teen Titans and James Bond.
He had other published books before Red Moon but feels like Red Moon was his real breakout piece.
Comics have consumed a lot of his time and has helped him create new muscle groups in his imagination that didn’t have before.
Writing comics has helped him learn things that have made him a better novelist.
With comics, there are restrictions to be able to get a worthwhile story out there. With novels, the rules are not always followed and there’s not a page limit.
The right page turn in comics need to end in a mystery to keep readers going and that’s how chapters in novels should work as well.
Plot mechanics are so much more explicit in comics than in novels and has helped him in writing plots for novels.
“[It is] the antidote to the hermetic lifestyle of a novelist.” On writing comics.