Interview: Benjamin Percy (page 2)

Red Moon usContinued from page 1

What is the attraction of Red Moon to someone who’s not necessarily into horror?

I’ve been pleased to hear from so many readers who shy away from horror who say to me they were gripped by this book and couldn’t stop reading it despite wanting to. I’m also very pleased to hear from horror readers who say that they have been fearful and thrilled and provoked by it.

I guess I would fall back on an essay I read recently by Aaron Copeland called ‘How We Listen to Music’.

He distinguishes the three planes of listening: the first plane is the sensuous plane. On that plane, the way most of us listen to music, Norah Jones may be crooning from some coffee house speakers and we feel soothed, or Metallica may be blaring from a car stereo and we feel enraged. Pure sensory experience, emotive.

The next level is the expressive plane, where you try to understand what the musician intended: what does Bob Dylan mean when he says these lyrics?

The next level he calls the sheerly musical plane and is to do with composition. It’s the way that, if you’re a true music nerd, you can comprehend the backbeat, you can identify the key, and comprehend the way the different instruments are coming together. You may even be able to visualise the sheet music.

What I was trying to do with Red Moon was write a thrilling narrative that was also thought-provoking, to write something that could be pure popcorn entertainment, or be a deeply thoughtful literary exercise. I think of a book like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the way that you can read that book and appreciate the story and be emotionally moved, and not realise at all that it’s this grand metaphor for society. That’s OK – you still had an amazing reading experience. Or you can take a microscope to it and figure out all the symbolic layers and all the careful carpentry and appreciate it on that other level as well.

I think what happens with too many writers is that they forget about the reason that we read, and that is: most people read for the sensory experience. They read because they want to know what happens next; because they want to laugh or cry or gasp. I wanted to write that book and straddle two territories at once.

When you’re going down to that carpentry level, which do you concentrate on when you’re writing

It’s a complicated orchestration – I mentioned that ten-foot scroll. I figure out the plot points and the character arcs which I sketch out in pencil because so many things will change.

What I do over the top of that is the equivalent of a seismograph or a cardiogram: a suspenso-meter. I’m sketching out peaks and the valleys to figure out where things are pure excitement and where things are a pause, similar to any symphonic work. I’ll actually move things around if I have too many spikes together along the wall, or I’ll figure out a way to case one of those low moments within a spike – break away and supply some back story in the middle of it.

I’m being very strategic with my sleight of hand: I’m trying to pull off a magic act that will emotionally manipulate you. I guess I’m trying in a very strategic way to make you lean forward instead of lean back.

And that’s before you actually sit down and type ‘Chapter 1’?

Yes, before I sit down – but I change things along the way. Writing would be no fun if there was no act of discovery along the way.

My general feeling about short stories is I’ll know the ending before I begin and everything will be building toward that moment, but with what happens along the way I like to surprise myself. With a novel, particularly a novel that’s so many pages long, I don’t feel comfortable building a cathedral without a set of blueprints.

Barry HannahI think a lot about that. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Southern writer Barry Hannah: he was as famous for his teaching as his writing. He was a bit of a madman. One day a student had written a story for class about a robbery at a convenience store. As the gun was pointed at the clerk, his life flashed before his eyes; he thought about his grandmother, the son he would never have, and he had a bunch of metaphors tangled up in his dreamy state of mind.

Barry Hannah came to class to discuss this story and pulled a gun out and pointed it at the student’s head, and said, ‘What are you thinking about now bright boy?’ Barry Hannah got fired for this – but he had a good point. You’re not thinking about anything when a gun is pointed at your head – you’re thinking there’s a gun pointed at your head, and maybe staring into the black bore of it, and feeling the hot sheet of urine working its way down your thigh. It’s pure physicality: it’s a purely physical moment.

I think what happens too often is that people tangle together the physical beats and the emotional beats, whereas I try to tell a story, have some thoughts about it, tell a story, have some thoughts about it… distinguish those moments of repose and thoughtfulness from the moments of high action, so that prior to some sort of an explosive moment, maybe the stakes are addressed so we can understand how important this moment is. And then after the explosive moment, whether there’s a werewolf tearing apart a plane or a bank heist or whatever else is occurring, the ramifications are realised. But during it, it’s just action.

Which do you find more satisfying to write – action or the ramifications?

It’s easy to get caught up in either one, and to neglect either one. I’ve had moments when I’ve flashed through the moment of physical action and I’ve had to extend those beats; and I’ve had moments where I’ve had to prolong the emotional ramifications.

Too often literary writers focus on what I jokingly refer to with my students as ‘feckless pondering’, the navel-gazing, looking out the window, sipping tea while seeking some epiphantic metaphor in a broiling bank of clouds, rather than the moment when an argument occurred, when a dish was hurled against a wall, when a wife walks out the door and gets in the car and leaves your life forever. Draw that moment out and maybe dash through the ramifications instead of a twenty-page passage where the character’s staring at the tulips stuttering in the wind and debating the meaning of life.

How much do you find working with your pupils exposes you to different ideas which then gives you a different perspective? Or do their errors reinforce how you work yourself?

You can’t teach talent but you can coach somebody along who has talent, in the same way that a coach can improve the defensive stance of a striker, a coach can improve the form of ballet dancers, an instructor can help a painter figure out the way they might use a rough texture or light similar to Van Gogh, or a pianist without somebody standing over their shoulder rapping their knuckles might not learn their scales adequately. I’m there to rap their knuckles, and not just enforce but encourage the truly talented ones. With the others, the job is to make them into careful readers for life.

That’s more what it’s about: teaching people how to read, teaching people to be strenuous readers, and understand that everything is there – at least in the best of stories – for a reason. That careful carpentry, every screw, every bit of piping, every tile is part of this larger mathematical construct!

Of course if you’re really good you can break all those rules: but you’ve got to learn the rules before you can break them.

Red_MoonHBWith Red Moon specifically, is there anything you regret losing from the rewrites and edits?

Every time I’m at a podium reading to an audience, I’m editing as I go along. Why did I use that stupid adjective? Or, that sentence is far too long. Or, I should lose that paragraph altogether…

But surely reading stuff out loud is different?

I read all my stuff out loud when I’m in my office editing it. You catch so many errors that way.

I meant that I only return to my work when I’m reading in front of an audience; otherwise, I write it, it’s edited and then I’m done with it. I’m always dissatisfied, but I think that’s how you have to be as a writer. Otherwise there’s no learning curve: I always want to be chasing something better.

I look back at Red Moon, and I’d change this and this – but my edits were really sharp. The suggestions from Oliver and Helen, my editors, were what made this book so sleek, which is an odd word for a book this big. They helped me cut away the excess.

One of the things that… I don’t know if I regret losing it, but it’s still very alive for me: One of the characters, Neal, the researcher, had his own storyline where he became a sort of Doctor Frankenstein and experimented on the boyfriend of his daughter in order to figure out the vaccine. It was too distracting though.

Could you do it as a short story?

I thought about it, but the way we rearranged things, I think not. I may try to find a way to work that same idea in a different situation into the sequel.

Wolf's HourRobert McCammon was talking recently about the fact that he still has story ideas that he thinks he’s not quite ready to write yet…

I grew up obsessed with his work! The Wolf’s Hour, Swan Song, Stinger, Boy’s Life.

Are there stories or ideas that you think about in the same way?

I do. And I’ll say with Red Moon that there was a time there I didn’t think I was capable of writing a book like this. I wrote four failed novels before publishing one – by failed I mean they weren’t published, but they were important exercises. Invaluable experience getting that writing out of my system, learning from every draft, and I was publishing short stories very successfully. I thought I was going to be a short story writer, good at the sprint, not the marathon. But I needed to grow up and my brain is hardwired differently. My interest in the short form is lacking and I only want to run marathons.

It took me a long time to get to the point where I could write Red Moon. At the same time I’ve got a novel that I don’t know is five novels out or six novels out that is going to be historically layered. There’s a story in the near past, one in the far past, and one in the present, and the intertwining of them all is going to be extremely complicated, and I’m going to have to do an immense amount of historical and medical research to understand the subject matter.

I’ve already started accumulating the books I need to read to understand the subject matter; the next stage is figuring out what I don’t need from this glut of information so I have the information I need to include in the book.

Does that have a fantasy element?

Yes everything I write now is going to be labelled a supernatural thriller.

The single crack in the mirror?

There we go!

Thanks to Lucy Zilberkweit and Kerry Hood for their help in organising this interview

Click here to read our review of Red Moon

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