Interview: Benjamin Percy

Red_MoonHBBenjamin Percy’s novel Red Moon is far more than just a werewolf story: it’s a complex alternate world tale that may make you look at aspects of contemporary society in a new way. The Oregon native, who combines teaching with a successful literary career as a short story writer and novelist, describes himself as a “sideburned growly author” recently visited London to promote the book, and sat down with Paul Simpson to look at all things lupine…



From where did the initial idea of writing Red Moon develop? Were the parallels in the book your starting point, or did you want to write about werewolves?

Werewolves and I go a long way back. I remember the first time I met the Wolfman: it was in kindergarten, at Crow Elementary School in Western Oregon. I pulled off the shelf the Universal Studios Book of Monsters and I rifled through it until I came to Lon Chaney Junior. That photo of him with his shag carpeting fur, and his hoggish nose and his ridiculous pompadour completely enchanted me, and I ended up not sleeping that night and crying out for my mother. But the very next day at school I went straight to the library and got hold of that book.

I soon began to obsess over the creature, dressing up for Halloween as a werewolf, reading as many books as I could get my paws on on the subject. For sixth grade, I wrote a research paper called Werewolves! It had a table of contents five pages long, and the final section was ‘The Ceremony of the Wolf’. I actually followed this instruction in this ancient manuscript that I found in the library, and under a full moon in my back yard attempted to transform myself! As to whether or not the ceremony was successful – don’t hang around me on a full moon!

ChaneyYou used to have a very high voice…

Until that day! It’s a perfect metaphor, actually, since that was the gateway to adolescence.

Red Moon has been a long time coming but when I sat down to write it, I was thinking about horror novels more generally, and the way that some of the most resonant and lasting horror stories seem to have targeted cultural unease in some capacity.

Frankenstein is a prime example of that, the way that the Creature embodies all the anxieties born out of the Industrial Revolution – the fear of science and technology, the fear of Man playing God. If you look at Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, it runs parallel to the Red Scare – the fear that Communists live among us. Look at The Dead Zone by Stephen King, and you see the Cold War anxieties running throughout it. Look at the slew of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives that have come since 9/11.

So when I sat down to write Red Moon, I was thinking about that, and thinking about what we fear right now. We fear infection – especially in the States, Germ X oozes from every counter top and storefront. If you look at every outbreak of swine flu, or bird flu, or Mad Cow, or West Nile, it dominates our headlines, paralyses the whole country. We also fear, in tandem with that, terrorism, and I’m afraid these last few weeks have been an unfortunate reminder of that.

So I braided those two things together, and felt that the werewolf myth was the best way for me to approach it, having always wanted to write a werewolf story. The two things seemed to suit each other.

One monster you didn’t mention at all in that list was vampires, and a lot of novels about them are about infections; did you ever consider using vampires?

I’ve always preferred the werewolf myth. I love a good vampire story but I’m drawn to the unleashed id that is embodied in the werewolf.

I think everybody can relate to the werewolf myth because the way that we all –  due to rage or exhaustion, drugs, drink – have gone off the leash and come to regret our behaviour the next morning. That’s why Jekyll & Hyde has such staying power; that’s why the Incredible Hulk is such a sympathetic anti-hero. I was drawn to it for those reasons, as well as my love of the beast. The idea we all of this fanged, furred, clawed creature crouched inside of us waiting to get out.

You’ve created a detailed backstory for the world of Red Moon and the origins of lycanthropy. How much did you have to work out before you wrote the novel, or was it something that came organically in the same way that it’s parcelled out to the reader?

Before I write any novel, I sketch it out in my office, sometimes a year in advance. My children have an art easel, and I tear off about ten feet or so, and tape it to the wall. I map out character arcs and plot points. Part of that was coming to understand the mythology, which in an alternate history, world-building situation like this is essential.

But the thing that sometimes bothers me about fantasy novels, or historical novels even, and in sci-fi, is that the abundance of exposition gums up the narrative, and it feels almost encyclopaedic. I wanted to create a novel that was big, that was epic, that was sweeping, but I wanted the chapters to fire like a Gatling gun. I wanted it to be an addictive, propulsive reading experience, so I knew that I couldn’t glut the reader with exposition.

So when I had this map on the wall, I tried to strategize where I would put chunks of this exposition; I wanted to make sure they were spread throughout the entire book so there were a lot of unanswered questions. That information would be withheld and doled out at certain junctures.

Presumably we’ll find out more in the sequel which I hope there will be?

I hope there is too – I’ve begun to map it out. I’m trying to work out how to talk about a sequel without giving a lot of spoilers about Red Moon. There are several twists at the end of Red Moon, and several more twists to come in what I imagine will be the sequel. I’m probably two books away from writing that sequel, in that I have The Deadliners coming out next June, and then another book which I’ve begun work on which I hope will soon follow. Then I hope to return to Red Moon, in the same way, I guess, that Stephen King came back to the Dark Tower series. I don’t want to be leashed to one world: I wanted to create as many universes as I could.

Will Red Moon be like your version of the Dark Tower – all your stories are linked?

No, I only meant the Dark Tower in terms of returning to it. I want to create whirling galaxies. I can see me getting cutesy on occasion, and having the odd nod here and there but I want a clear delineation between the rules of one world and the rules of another.

The way I tend to operate is I change one thing, and put a crack in the mirror – it’s this world, but there are lycans among us. The next book, it’s a similar sort of thing. I think it’s a lot easier for people to slip through that one crack, rather than multiple fissures which complicate the image. That’s how I’m operating right now but I might change my mind.

Ben PercyDo you set your stories in Oregon because you know it so well?

I think most people use as their imaginative stage the place where they feel most rooted, their own forty acres, the place they know better than anywhere else. I grew up in rural Oregon; I had a very Huck Finnish childhood. I was free to race away in the morning and come back for dinner without much in the way of supervision. As a result, the world was like a playground, and I guess it’s strange to say this as a novelist now, but that was my most imaginative time then. Ducking under barbed wire fences, firing off slingshots at jack rabbits and building forts in the woods and dams in the stream. I didn’t have much in the way of neighbours except for the occasional pal who I’d visit, so I was on my own.

I think that was a training ground and when I open up the trap door now at my desk, that’s where I fall, back to that Neverland.

What aspects do you feel you’ve lost being grown up? What pens you in now?

Well I do spend the entire day playing with my imaginary friends so my imagination is certainly running wild, but there’s less freedom to it. There’s less digression to it. It’s always purposeful now, a big chess game, or a jigsaw puzzle that I’m constantly trying to fit together. Before, in a free associative way, I’d be chasing a butterfly one moment and then ducking into the henhouse the next and imagining them as dragons, then wandering into the woods believing it to be a maze, and then cowering from the howls of coyotes I heard in the distance, then pretending to join their pack, or whatever else…

Click here for part 2


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