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Art Makes Us Better: The Millions Interviews Percival Everett


Before I started my Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, I had heard about Percival Everett’s teaching philosophy. Due to the pandemic, my first year at USC was entirely online. Everett Zoomed in to one of my classes from his workshop where he kept his jazz guitars and the tools to fix them. He struck me as both a performer and a repairman. This dual identity perhaps explained his literary mastery: by fixing the issues in the art-making process, he learned the fundamentals of the craft which in turn granted him more freedom in performing in the arts.
After the campus reopened, Everett and I had the following conversation in his office. We talked about his latest novel The Trees, the power of humor, our common misconceptions of realism, and the language in our daily politics. He imagined an alternative reality in which people crave knowledge and wisdom instead of cheap sensations: “What if our heroes on television are not throwing shields at each other? What if they were heroes because they were smarter?” Art, as he inspired me to see, has the potential and capacity to mend the world.
Jianan Qian: Everyone marvels at your many talents: novel writing, abstract painting, training horses, repairing instruments, playing jazz guitar. You once said to James Yeh at the Believer that they are all the same thing. How so?
Percival Everett: Art is art. It’s my attempt to express myself. Even more precisely, it’s my attempt to understand the world. I never think of these things as challenges. You live in the world. You do stuff. What else am I supposed to do with free time? My idea of doing nothing is doing something.
Working with my hands is a great complement to working with my head. I love painting also because it’s physical. I love playing instruments because I’m doing something with my hands while I play. And I’m thinking too. It’s hard when I’m writing. Sometimes I wish I were Chinese because there’s so much art in making the ideograms. It’s fantastic to me how people would display their intellectual prowess with their calligraphy. We don’t have that, though I think at one point script was more important than it is now. Even Roland Barthes goes on and on about the kind of pen he writes with that makes the French have a different relationship to language from the English speakers. There’s this connection to something physical in writing that I wish I had.
JQ: You grew up in South Carolina and spent a lot of time in the American West. How do different places influence your work? 
PE: When I first saw the western landscape, I realized this was my landscape. I feel comfortable on the West. Los Angeles is not representative of what I mean when I say “the West,” though I like the city of Los Angeles far more than any other American city. I love the wide-open, non-populated state of Wyoming. That helped my work because I spent a lot of time by myself. Likewise, I used to spend summers in New Mexico. I would take a horse up into the mountains and use the camp for a few weeks. When you don’t see anyone for a few weeks, two things happen. You really appreciate your solitude; you also really appreciate people. More than place, I used to be around animals. I consider them as a place in a way.
JQ: I wonder if you can talk more about South Carolina? It is representative of the American South and racism. But you also mentioned that the American South is oftentimes the scapegoat of the pervasive racism in this country. 
PE: It’s arguably true that every American work of art is about race, which is sad but also the experience of this American culture. If there’s no race in it, that itself is a comment about omission. I think of the television show Friends. The crazy thing about that show was they lived in New York and there were never any Black people. Finally, after many seasons, they tried to insert a Black character. That’s an industry of omission and that tells us something about how America would like to see itself.

But one thing that white Americans don’t seem to understand is that Black Americans don’t wake up in the morning thinking about being Black. There’s a scene in Chester Himes’s novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go. The main character is having a very nice day. He’s crossing the street and he sees a white man in a car glaring at him. He wasn’t walking around thinking, Here I am, a Black guy in America. He is just a person. But the racial gaze, the stare of white Americans at Black people, is a constant reminder that you don’t belong. That’s not so different from what people experience insidiously and perhaps unconsciously, when they see a television show like Friends with no Black people in it. Where’s the representation of people like me?
JQ: You mentioned every piece of writing is experimental. But it occurs to me that people use the term “experimental writing” to differentiate from “realistic writing.” What is your view on realism? Is it a convention, a restriction, or something else?

PE: First of all, there’s really no such thing as realism, the same way that paintings are never photographs. You can have something that’s representational. Then you’re going to have something that pushes against the representational, or what we think realism is. Take crime novels—crimes never happen in real life the way they have in crime novels. It’s formulaic. It’s completely unreal. This is an abstraction of what we think reality is. If anyone had a real notion of what reality is, we could solve a crime every time it happens. That’s also “a trick of the eye,” to use a term from paintings that are considered painstakingly real. It’s forgetting the fact that we don’t see in three dimensions. We see in two dimensions. Our mind creates that third dimension. That’s what’s interesting about this whole idea of realism. In my mind, my most experimental novel, Wounded, is the one that people might call the most realistic. I can see it’s experimental because I wrote it understanding that there was no such thing as realism.
JQ: Most of the craft advice in today’s writing workshops comes from the tradition of realism. For example, events have to be believable and characters must be complex. What’s your take on craft advice in general?
PE: If you were to find what you consider the most realistic fiction, memorized with a friend a portion of dialogue from that novel, then sat on a bus and acted it out, people would think that you are crazy. It is not realistic fiction. This is the magic of fiction. It seems the same way that you can have on a canvas that looks really three dimensional. It can’t be. Also, if you were to record the most meaningful conversation you’ve ever had with your best friend about something really important to you and wrote it down on paper, it would be the worst dialogue ever written. It’s a trick, recreating illusion. So it isn’t necessarily not realistic. It’s something else that gives us the appearance of realism. Given that, there can’t be any rules. You’ve already started from a place that is unreal.
JQ: I am always captivated by the seemingly effortless humor in your novels. Particularly, in The Trees—a novel that deals with the history of lynching—the humor seems both disarming and offensive. Do you intentionally choose humor as the narrative tone?
PE: I’m a product of reading Mark Twain. I don’t shy away from humor, or maybe a better word for me, irony. In the death camps, people made jokes. Humor is a way people survive. Maybe it’s because if you take irony away from the people, then they really are dead. If you take their ability to step outside of themselves and see the world, then they will not live. When we step outside and see the irony, I think that’s often where hope resides. You realize that as small as it might be, you have some power over yourself, over your world.
JQ: Do you also use irony as a weapon to offend those who deserve to be offended? 
PE: Someone once asked me a question early on about The Trees, “Do you think you are afraid of the white people?” I said no. The depiction of Black people, Chinese people, Latino people in American popular culture has been ugly for a long time. Just to turn it around. Have you ever seen the film Blazing Saddles?
JQ: No, I haven’t.
PE: It’s Mel Brooks’s last Western movie, made back in 1974. It’s much smarter about race than we are now. That is, not to take into account that the film is misogynistic and homophobic—get rid of those things. In the movie, the bad guys want to take the town so the railroad can come through and they can have the money. In order to combat all the bad guys, the townsfolks get the Chinese and Black people working on the railroad to come and join forces with the white people from the town to stop the bad guys.
There’s one line where one of the white guys in the town says, “Okay, [in return] we’ll give the land to the chinks and the niggers but not the Irish.” (Excuse me for quoting the language they used in the movie.) All the Black people and the Chinese say no, no. Then the white guy goes, “Okay, everybody.” In order to thwart the bad guys, they build a replica of their town—only the fronts of the buildings. Everything is a facade and then the bad guys attack the wrong place. To me, what’s wonderful about the movie is that when they do include everybody, it’s not America. You’re invited to build something not real. You’re invited to fight and protect something that doesn’t belong to you.

JQ: Another thing that strikes me about your novels is that the drama keeps escalating. I am thinking of SuderI Am Not Sidney Poitier, and The Trees. Did you worry how you could possibly end the story when the plot seemed to spin out of control? What are your views on how to end a novel?
PE: No story ends. Stories are abandoned. You can always ask the question: what happens next? Even if it’s the story of human history in which everybody dies, what happens to all the other animals? What happens to the planet? There’s always another question. The story will end since we are god in the creation of a work of art. It ends when we say it ends. But that really isn’t the end of a work. If what we have created is a work of art, what is thought after consuming it is the real story. That’s the story that I get to participate in making. Instead of thinking novels as a complete work, I consider them as a springboard for work that happens in the world.
JQ: Do you think it necessary to give a work of art a sense of ending?
PE: I do it, but it’s not necessary. Now you say it, it really makes me not want to do it (laughs). I’m sort of contrary by nature. I read about how they test the ending of a movie by showing it to a small audience before they decide what they are going to do. I’m not sure how true this is. There is a scene in the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Sabotage, where the bus carries a bomb. The tension rises as the bus gets closer to the town where the bomb is supposed to go off. In our understanding of those kinds of scenes, our main characters will resolve the issues eventually. That’s one of the reasons why television shows are so strange to me. When you have a main character who runs into danger, and we feel this, but we know she’s not going to die—she’ll be back next week. But back on the bus scene, that was one of the ending editions that the bomb goes off. Imagine you have an audience sitting in the room, then the bomb goes off, and the tension has nowhere to go. That’s not the ending they use because no one was satisfied. People are satisfied when you get their main character back. They need that safety. In fiction, you don’t have to worry if everybody blows up in the beginning. That’s one thing you’re exploring. When the bomb goes off, you have to resolve, but never to the extent to satisfy your audience. That’s how different films and televisions are from fiction. What we do is even harder.
JQ: Your transition from analytical philosophy to fiction writing is beautiful. I wonder what you think about the role of language in shaping our daily politics and our perception of reality?
PE: Language has suffered in the hands of American politics. Part of it is because we have a political party who would really like an uneducated population. This is why they’re hostile toward higher education and completely anti-intellectual. We have even experienced the death of philosophical ideas.
One of my pet peeves is that the term “to beg the question” has been changed to mean to raise the question. It’s a great philosophical concept which isn’t quite summed up in the notion of assuming that conclusion. As a philosophical notion, begging the question is a way to call out someone who is arguing poorly, someone who is not answering a question by reposing the question in a different way. It used to be a valid complaint about someone’s argument. It was the case in politics when you say, “He’s begging the question” and everyone understood it. No one understands it now. To say to someone that you’re assuming a conclusion doesn’t carry the same weight. Language suffers.
JQ: Do you happen to track the language of the pandemic?
PE: Not really. But I hope someone will write something about it. I’m sure language has suffered throughout and certainly science did too. Science is, in some ways, always shifting, and so paradigm shifts happen. But it’s never, in the strict sense, religious. So all of a sudden we have people who don’t have faith in science. That line of thinking is very strange to me. Why are you talking about faith in science? Sciences are our best attempts to understand things in empirical way. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily correct. But they are our best attempts. We can’t simply decide what’s true or false in the physical world. It doesn’t work that way.
JQ: You reject the notion of writers’ block. How do you keep yourself motivated?
PE: I put my bills on my desk. Just kidding. I do ask myself a question: Do you want to write a book? If I want to write a book, then I write a book. If I go out with a shovel, I ask myself, “Do you want to plant this tree?” If I do, I dig the hole. If I don’t, I go back inside. I don’t have time to stand around there playing the show. If I have a student who wants to write a novel. Then write a novel. If they don’t, then that’s not going to happen. Usually that’s enough motivation for people: Shame.
JQ: In recent years, the world seems crazy—or maybe it’s always been crazy. Many young writers, me included, feel compelled to do something to help change the reality. But instead, we are writing stories that not many people would care. What would you say to people who feel that way?
PE: I think about Picasso’s Guernica. It affected the world. Does it affect the world now? Not really. But it did. Art has that capacity. But you don’t know when that’s going to happen. If we only made art for numbers, we wouldn’t do anything. If you were a farmer, would you stop because you can’t feed everybody? It’s not just because I do it, but I believe that art makes us better. Art makes us think, and that’s the first step to being smarter. If more people consumed art, I think more people would consume all sorts of knowledge. That might be naïve, but I have to believe in it.
I don’t like what I see in the world, and I don’t mean entertainment. There used to be those racks at the supermarket, full of trashy romance books. They no longer exist there now. But I always thought what if there were books about ideas and those were the books that people would pick up as they were checking out of the market. And those were the books that they would read. I am happy when people read anything. But what if those books are not about romance, but about philosophies, about people who care? What if our heroes on television are not throwing shields at each other? What if they were heroes because they were smarter? That would be a very different world. But how do you get an audience to do it? That’s where art comes in. Maybe, maybe we could solve and change.
(The Chinese translation of this interview appeared in the Shanghai Review of Books on May 22, 2022. The interviewer would like to thank Philip Kurian for his generous and thoughtful contribution to the interview.)

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