The 2016 National Book Award winners were announced tonight in New York City. The big prize for Fiction went to Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. The #1 bestseller has drawn praise from both Obama and Oprah, and in his review for our site, Greg Walkin noted how “Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display” throughout:
After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.
The Nonfiction award went to Ibram X. Kendi for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. The Poetry award was won by Daniel Borzutzky for The Performance of Becoming Human. The winners in the Young People’s Literature category were John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell for March: Book Three. See our review of Book One in the series.
In a land where most magazines have the lifespan of a fruit fly, how is it possible for one magazine to survive — and thrive — for 75 years? Janet Hutchings has a theory: “The great power that Frederic Dannay gave this magazine was its variety and its reach.”
Hutchings was referring to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and she was invoking the name of its founding editor, Frederic Dannay, who, along with his cousin Manfred B. Lee, collaborated to produce the short stories and novels of the pseudonymous mystery writer Ellery Queen, selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million books. Hutchings is now the magazine’s editor, and she offered her theory about its longevity at a symposium that launched a delightful new show, “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine 75th Anniversary Exhibition,” which is now at the Butler Library at Columbia University in New York.
The exhibition is a little gold mine for mystery fans in particular and book lovers in general. There are typed manuscript pages by Patricia Highsmith, P.D. James, Isaac Asimov, and others. Sitting there behind glass, they have the look of Scripture. There are letters, photographs, and book and magazine covers, including the inaugural issue of EQMM from the fall of 1941, which featured stories by Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, and, of course, Ellery Queen. The cover illustration of the 75th anniversary issue is by venerable Milton Glaser, whose very first published illustration was a cover for EQMM in 1954. Among its many delights, the anniversary issue features a new story by Joyce Carol Oates, a frequent contributor, and a classic from 1948 by Stanley Ellin, “The Specialty of the House.”
Dannay made no secret during his lifetime that he and his collaborating cousin had their disagreements — “We fight like hell,” was how he put it — and this show offers an amusing glimpse into their creative differences. As a rule, Dannay cooked up the plots, Lee did the storytelling, then Dannay did the editing. When Lee complained about Dannay’s heavy use of the blue pencil, a letter in the exhibition at Columbia reveals Dannay’s indignant reaction: “Do you know that I am considered one of the most perceptive and astute detective-story editors in the business? By everyone but you.” In another letter, Dannay added, “Manny, you are emotionally, physically and mentally incapable of taking criticism.”
For all the friction, the magazine was a smooth-running machine from day one. The inaugural issue sold more than 90,000 copies, and it contained a note from Dannay that expanded on Janet Hutchings’s “variety and reach” recipe for its success: “We propose to give you stories by big-name writers, by lesser known writers, and by unknown writers. But no matter what their source, they will be superior stories.”
True to Dannay’s word, the magazine has published the work of more than 40 Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, countless mid-listers, and more than 800 writers who broke into print in the magazine’s Department of First Stories. The Passport to Crime series has showcased the work of international writers. Jorge Luis Borges was first published in English in the pages of the magazine.
“One of the things about EQMM is that it made a major change in publishing,” Hutchings told me. “The only criterion for inclusion in the magazine was quality. Dannay was determined that the magazine be general — with hard-boiled stories, classic English mysteries, noirs, suspense, cozy mysteries, the work of literary writers. That really hadn’t been done before, and it had the effect of mainstreaming the mystery. Now academics are starting to write articles about this.”
Indeed, EQMM can be seen as a pioneering force in what is now a fact of life in American fiction — the blending of supposedly “high” and “low” literary forms, the blurring of genre boundaries, the growing sense among writers and readers that the old strictures and snobberies hampered free and fruitful cross-pollination. Now, writers of every stripe gleefully plunder one or more genres, stitching together scraps or horror, pulp, crime, fantasy, ghost stories, mysteries, westerns.
In 2011, the literary novelist Colson Whitehead published Zone One, in which a plague has turned most of the world’s population into zombies. A decade earlier, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon’s exuberant mash-up of comic books and high lit, won the Pulitzer Prize. Loren D. Estleman, primarily a writer of crime and western fiction, just published a short story collection called Desperate Detroit that features a western with vampire cowboys. In a related vein, the movie Cowboys & Aliens sets extraterrestrials loose in the Wild West. Elmore Leonard and Stephen King, unapologetic genre writers, both penned well-regarded advice on how to write well. “Nowadays,” Kurt Anderson recently wrote in The New York Times, “esteem isn’t much withheld from people who write thoughtful, first-rate novels that also happen to be page-turners, like [Jonathan Lethem’s] A Gambler’s Anatomy. The boundaries between high and low — or between serious fiction and ‘entertainments,’ in Graham Greene’s binary classification of his work — are no longer prissily enforced. That’s progress.” I agree. All the while, such literary writers as Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, and P.G. Wodehouse have made rich contributions to EQMM. The magazine’s 75th anniversary edition features a story by Charlaine Harris, who, in Hutchings’s estimation, “has done more than any other recent writer to break down the boundaries between mystery and fantasy.” On and on it goes, to the delight of every reader who hates the formulaic and loves unfettered, unpredictable writing.
“There’s still some snobbery left in certain areas,” Hutchings said, “but there’s much more openness, and I do think EQMM played a role in that. And still does.”
Don’t take her word for it. Go see “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine’s 75th Anniversary Exhibition” at Columbia. It will be open through Dec. 23.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.
Ninety-Nine Stories of God
The Underground Railroad
Innocents and Others
Here I Am
The Sellout rocketed up our Top Ten this month, jumping from ninth position all the way up to third. In a few weeks, when longtime frontrunners The Sympathizer and Mr. Splitfoot retire to our Hall of Fame, look for Paul Beatty’s satirical novel to lead the pack.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, both Girl through Glass and The Lost Time Accidents graduated this month, opening space for two new entrants on our list: Colson Whitehead’s universally acclaimed The Underground Railroad, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s somewhat less acclaimed Here I Am.
By now, Whitehead’s novel needs no introduction. The #1 bestseller has drawn praise from both Obama and Oprah, and in his review for our site, Greg Walkin noted how “Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display” throughout:
After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.
Yet by contrast, Safran Foer’s Here I Am has drawn a wider spectrum of reviews, ranging from the simply mixed and relatively positive all the way over to Alexander Nazaryan’s Los Angeles Times piece, the thrust of which can be pretty well understood just from its title: “With joyless prose about joyless people, Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’ is kitsch at best.”
Meanwhile, one title — The Nest — dropped from our monthly list, opening a spot for Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. In his review of the work for our site, Ian Maleney wrote that it “rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other,” and noted how “much of the book examines the strange process of alienation anyone might experience as they find themselves with time and space to interrogate their own behavior, private or otherwise.” That sounds appropriate for the start of Autumn, if I say so myself.
Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days opens with differing versions of the same story, told by witnesses and observers, all recounting John Henry’s famous battle with the steam-powered hammer. No story is the same. For men wagering on whether John Henry would defeat the machine, Whitehead writes, “[e]ach wager was a glimpse into the man who made it;” just the same, each story — the details remembered or who won the contest, for example — is a glimpse into the storyteller. The power of the folk hero, it becomes quickly evident, lies not in what actually happened; John Henry Days is not after the real story, but what it means that America keeps telling the story of the black steel-driving man.
With his new novel, Whitehead has picked another well-known story often retold: the secret transportation network of slaves before the Civil War. Frederick Douglass (who famously escaped via a literal railroad) and Harriet Jacobs both wrote popular accounts of their slavery. Slave escapes play a large part in the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, about the same time The Underground Railroad is set. Numerous accounts of slaves and escapes were later collected and preserved by the Works Progress Administration.
Whitehead has said that he relied upon many of these narratives, particularly the Works Progress Administration accounts, in writing The Underground Railroad, and many actual advertisements for catching runaway slaves preface the book’s chapters. But for this story — probably Whitehead’s finest — history is a stepping-stone.
The Underground Railroad’s prologue summarizes the life of Ajarry. Kidnapped from her home, she is transported across the Atlantic. Standing naked on a platform, her breasts are pinched by an agent, who acquires her for $226.00. She’s eventually sold and re-sold, from southern plantation to plantation, bondage to bondage, price rising with each transaction, “appraised and re-appraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale.” She births five children, one of whom, Mabel, survives into adulthood, and has a child of her own, Cora. Ajarry dies in bondage, “[a]s if it could have been anywhere else.”
The bulk of the novel then follows Cora, Ajarry’s granddaughter, a slave by birth on the Randall Plantation in Georgia, owned by the (respectively) cruel and distracted Randall Brothers. Mabel escaped the plantation when Cora was 10 or 11, only leaving her daughter a three-yard plot of okra and yams. As a result, Cora grows up bitter at having been left behind. But she also emerges as clever and conscientious, someone who “cursed herself for her smallmindedness.”
From her early days she suffers greatly, including as a victim of gang rape by her fellow slaves. When she is approached by Caesar, another slave on the plantation, to escape, she is at first reluctant (channeling her grandmother), eventually willing (channeling her mother). During their escape, they spar with and kill a white boy who tries to return them to the plantation, and are relentlessly tracked by Ridgeway, a slavecatcher who had never been able to successfully apprehend Mabel. They flee through South Carolina and beyond. Either outcome seems possible: that Cora will die a slave in the “ruthless mechanism of the world,” like Ajarry, or experience the “eddy of liberation,” like her mother.
By now, if you have read anything about this novel — perhaps that it was on President Obama’s Summer Reading List, or that it has been blessed by Oprah Winfrey, or that it has become a #1 New York Times Bestseller — you know its central conceit. For Cora’s escape, the Underground Railroad is an actual underground network of trains, schedules, handcars with pumps, and tunnels that gradually lead north. Some of the stations are elaborate constructions, with comfortable waiting areas and refreshments, and some are rundown holes with boxcars. The tunnels and conductors are under a repeat threat of discovery. For something fantastic (imagine the engineering feat), not a bit of it is lacking in verisimilitude; it possesses its own history and myth, spliced with just the right amount of mystery.
Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display here. After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.
The Underground Railroad is a more frank confrontation, albeit with a dose of magical realism. As he did in John Henry Days, Whitehead has taken something emblematic of a period in American history and pulled a nifty trick: he has made it simultaneously real and ahistorical. In The Intuitionist, Whitehead freely played with elevators, which obtained the weight of metaphor but not the heft of a symbol. Every American schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad. As Kathryn Schultz recently wrote, the story of the Underground Railroad that Americans know was “not quite wrong, but simplified; not quite a myth, but mythologized.” It assuages the national guilt; it reminds us of the noble struggle for freedom, and not the astounding moral failing that kept such an institution legal for more than a century. (In Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, slavery is often simply, and appropriately, talked of as “the law.”)
When, here, Whitehead revisits the greatest crime in American history, he thus also revisits its greatest attempt at commutation, the “mythologized” Underground Railroad, and all the compromises that made it necessary. As one character says, slavery produced “scars [that] will never fade.” America “[i]s a delusion, too, the grandest one of all,” built on “murder, theft and cruelty” — best personified by a slave boy on the Randall Plantation, who has been taught to memorize the Declaration of Independence but has no grasp of its meaning.
Toward the end of The Underground Railroad, Cora receives some advice. As she rides the railroad, she is instructed thusly: “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” Of course, there is nothing to see from an underground track — only the dim of the subterranean world. Whitehead’s book asks: How can a country ever put such a period behind it? Putting the famous Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill won’t change the fact that American money was used to purchase people. “This isn’t Mississippi in the fifties, J.,” one character in John Henry Days tells the protagonist. “It’s always Mississippi in the fifties,” J. answers.
Besides the underground locomotives, Whitehead has sprinkled other touches of magical realism, or anachronisms, throughout this book, including ghosts, a skyscraper in 1850s South Carolina, and the Museum of Natural Wonders, which, among its exhibits, re-creates anodyne living dioramas of the human trafficking trade. For a time, Cora, believing she has found her freedom in South Carolina, works in the museum, participating in the slave ship display. She quickly finds out that, even in her freedom, “[t]ruth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.” These purposefully absurd sections are perhaps the closest thing to Whitehead’s older work, and his jocular tone; the rest of The Underground Railroad, rather, is sober and measured. “[I]t is a serious subject that didn’t seem to warrant my usual satire and joking,” Whitehead told Vulture.
The ironies are cruel ones, taken from life: the doctors who sterilize black people in South Carolina, where Cora first emerges after her travel on the railroad, and justify the procedure to black women as “a chance for you to take control over your own destiny.” In a one-off chapter, a grave robber reflects on stealing black bodies for the medical schools, observing, based on the obviously identical anatomy between whites and blacks: “In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”
The plotting is deft and sure-handed. But the story slows for poignant moments, like Cora’s frisson when she finally puts on a soft cotton dress in South Carolina. There, she guiltily enjoys one of the keys product that drove the entire system of bondage.
The inventiveness that characterizes elements of his plot extends to his voice in this novel. In interviews he has said it emerged complete from just writing the first section on Ajarry, and the resulting omniscient narrator’s words prove lapidary, perhaps including some of the best writing Whitehead has done. The prose, in short, is spectacular. Few books have demanded so much tabbing, so many bookmarks, and so many marginal notes — so often do crystalline turns of phrase and aphorisms materialize. Take this: “Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close, but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Or this: “In liberty or bondage, the African could not be separated from the American.”
The Underground Railroad is ultimately a story about a motherless girl searching for some kind of protection and love, but often finding only exploitation. It is ruthless in its depiction of the antebellum world, but threads of hope also emerge from the bravery of many characters, and from the feat of the railroad itself: “The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath,” the book goes.
As for Cora, as for America, the scars of slavery won’t fade:
Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible…[S]he realized she banished her mother not from sadness, but rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.
Even if she finds her way out of hell, it’s clear that freedom doesn’t mean heaven. “The Declaration [of Independence] is like a map,” one character tells Cora. “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.”
The literary landscape, high and low, is awash in post-apocalyptic stories these days, particularly stories of a more ambitious sort (take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Edan Lepucki’s California, or Sandra Newman’s new weird and wonderful The Country of Ice Cream Star), a trend that’s easy to attribute to a pervasive sense of dread about the planet’s future among thinking people. Or, in the case of Whitehead’s zombie tale, a dread of the unthinking present. For a smart writer, a ravaged future world also offers something like a perfect literary playground, a cleared field where everything from language to human psychology to social convention can be reconsidered and reframed, critiqued or reimagined.
Poet Quan Barry’s debut novel would not seem to fit into this category, yet it inhabits an eerily similar ruined landscape, which happens to be the history of Vietnam. And if that field of history, viewed from a certain angle, resembles much of the rest of the world and time, Barry might be said to have created a post-apocalyptic present, a fictional world in which it’s possible to see how we always and everywhere are living among humanity’s ruins.
Barry seems especially well suited to the undertaking. Though born in Ho Chi Minh City, she was adopted as an infant and raised in the U.S. (on Boston’s north shore, her biographical materials specify). She is thus both of Vietnam and not, and traveling there as she has done a number of times could be a matter of finding a life that might have been, looking for a haunted past and listening to its ghosts, much as her fey character Rabbit does. On one of her trips, in 2010, Barry first heard the story of a woman named Phan Thi Bich Hang, who is the “official psychic” of Vietnam: “She was bitten by a rabid dog when she was 5 years old. And when she came out of her coma, she could hear the voices of the dead. And the government actually uses her to help them find the remains of soldiers and other people who are historically prominent in Vietnam.”
Hearing this, Barry, who’d been working for a few years on a book about an American nurse during the Vietnam War, thought, “that’s what this novel is supposed to be about,” and started writing She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, which begins with an American woman in present-day Vietnam seeking the mysterious Rabbit, who has lost her official status to a new psychic and is now kept under house arrest. “For Vietnam she gives up everything,” the woman’s guide whispers to her. “She will stay until every little one is heard. The northern and southern dead.”
The war is well underway when we first meet Rabbit, and the world is a dark, dangerous, and chaotic place. “[T]he air hangs fetid with the wet heat that follows the southwest monsoon.” The bridge across the Song Ma River is destroyed. The charred remains of huts dot the shoreline. “The patriarch had gone running back into one of the burning huts to find his granddaughter, the thatched roof like a woman with her hair on fire.” The faraway mountains are hazy with ash, and the night sky rumbles with distant planes. In the confusion of bombings and burning and death, people appear and disappear and nowhere is safe. And this is the shadowy, blasted countryside — often lit only by the flickering blue flames of the spirits of the dead — that Barry’s characters wander.
This, you might say, is a familiar wartime setting — but what makes it something more is the presence of those flickering spirits, the dead whose voices Rabbit hears, whose stories take us far and wide, in time and space, and make of all of Vietnam’s history a vast and troubled grave. And just as Rabbit is lifted, a newborn, out of her mother’s grave (apparently the source of her gift), humanity keeps rising from its own ruins and remains. What’s funny is Barry, in talking about her book, says she wanted to show more of the history and richness of Vietnam. “[W]hen we think of Vietnam here in the United States,” she says, “we think of it as a metaphor. You know, it’s synonymous with the idea of a quagmire.” The history of Vietnam is another quagmire. And upon this sucking, unholy ground a novel is built.
Upon her chthonic emergence, Rabbit becomes part of a makeshift family that roams Vietnam’s countryside during the war and “reunification,” staging an escape by boat that goes spectacularly wrong (even the water is a place of darkness and peril, afloat with human detritus), changing their human and geographic coordinates, giving us the intimate outlines of the view from above: “The population realigning itself because somewhere far away somebody had drawn a line on a map.”
In the death of an old woman along their way, Rabbit is able to hear of the awful French rubber plantations where the woman worked as a girl. In a trip to the forbidden purple city of Hue, the ancient capital, she hears of the horrors of imperial times. In Laos the voices of the Cambodian dead, the northern martyrs, the southern soldiers, the ethnic tribes, and the children overwhelm her. When walking one deathly landscape, Rabbit, we learn, has not thought of “the politics. Which stories the world is eager to bring into the light. Which stories it doesn’t want told.”
It’s probably not surprising that Barry’s first book of poetry, published in 2001, is called Asylum. And it’s probably even less surprising that Asylum harbors so many of humanity’s mistakes and sufferers and sins — the Salem Witch Trials, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Agent Orange’s deformities, the radioactive Bikini Atolls. Her next book, published in 2004, is called Controvertibles. In an interview about She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, Barry said, “I think the thing I’m most interested in is the idea of possibility.” That, to my mind, is the idea that her novel embodies. On this fictional landscape that I’m calling the post-apocalyptic present, where all the depredations of the past spread out like a broken boneyard, the blue lights of the spirit still flicker, and the dead still speak. And most important, someone hears.
If you haven’t heard of Benjamin Percy or his new book, Red Moon — hailed as “an ambitious, epic novel” by Publishers Weekly — chances are good you’ve come across one of his articles or reviews in a myriad of popular magazines. Last year, he spent a few days with John Irving and (literally) wrestled the 70-year-old author of A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules for a profile in Time magazine. Esquire published his compelling, intensely personal essay, “How a Percy Gets Old: Lessons from Four Generations of Men,” earlier this year. And in March, GQ published an article about his experience wearing a pregnancy-simulation suit (called the “Empathy Belly”) designed by Japanese scientists, which led to a strange appearance on the Today show.
That’s a lot of exposure for the author of Refresh, Refresh and The Wilding, two well-received books published by Graywolf Press, and The Language of Elk, his debut story collection originally published by a university press. As of this writing, Red Moon is in the top 20 of several Amazon.com categories, including “Literary Fiction” and “Fantasy,” so that exposure, backed up by a national book tour and Grand Central’s hardworking publicity department, seems to be working.
Percy, whose fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and Best American Short Stories, is among a select group of critically-acclaimed writers — among them Justin Cronin (The Passage) and Colson Whitehead (Zone One) — who are now finding large audiences with horror fiction. He took time at the end of his recent national book tour to answer my questions about this stage in his life as a writer.<
The Millions: Red Moon, like the werewolves at the heart of its story, is a shapeshifting hybrid — a literary horror novel. In what tradition do you place this book?
Benjamin Percy: If people want to call it a literary horror novel, that’s fine. I know it makes them feel better in a neat-freaky sort of way. Like balling their socks and organizing them in a drawer according to color. And I know it’s a talking point, a frame for discussion. But really, people, it doesn’t matter. These are phantom barricades. What is Margaret Atwood? Or Kate Atkinson? Or Cormac McCarthy? You could argue them into several different corners of the bookstore. If I’m going to align myself with anyone, it’s them. And Peter Straub and Dan Chaon and Larry McMurtry and Ursula K. LeGuin and Tom Franklin and Susanna Clarke and anyone else who makes an effort to be both a writer and a storyteller, someone who puts their muscle into artful technique and compulsive readability.
TM: A few prominent literary writers have published horror-related or –themed novels in the last few years. Like them, you received much praise for your earliest work, but this novel will reach the largest audience. Do you worry that readers will tire of the literary crossover novel?
BP: Realism is the trend. That’s what people seem to forget. Look back on the long hoof-marked trail of literature. The beastly majority of stories contain elements of the fantastic. It’s only very recently that realism has become the dominant mode. And that’s changing. Thanks to people like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, who have been cheerleaders for the Avengerization of literature, and thanks to writers like George Saunders and Karen Russell and Kevin Brockemeier and Matt Bell and Kate Bernheimer, who have a kind of hybridized vigor and playfulness to their work that makes them neither fish nor fowl, both literary and genre.
Some people have referred to Red Moon as a departure for me. It’s no departure except stylistically: I have written an epic, sweeping novel (whereas my previous work has been compact). I grew up on genre and even my so-called literary work is plotted and employs the tropes of horror. “Crash” is a ghost story. So is “Unearthed.” “The Caves in Oregon” is a haunted house story. “The Killing” is a pulpy tale of revenge. “When the Bear Came” and “The Woods” are creature-in-the-forest stories. My short story “Refresh, Refresh” was originally a fantasy in which the boys transformed into their fathers by the end. My novel The Wilding originally contained an ending that revealed a supernatural monster. Both were edited into realism.
There is no crossover. Red Moon isn’t some dalliance. This is the kind of book I’ve been working toward writing my whole life and this is the kind of book you’ll be seeing from me from here on out.
TM: You’ve had a lot of new experiences related to the publication of Red Moon — meetings at Amazon headquarters, a trip to the United Kingdom to promote the book, and an appearance at the Texas International Comic Con (Comicpalooza). What has surprised you most about this stage of your career?
BP: I’m in a constant state of surprise. I don’t take anything for granted. In part that’s because of the way I was raised. And in part that’s because I faced a steady stream of rejection for years before finding any sort of success. Every publication, every award, every event is gravy. There is no point in my life when I have thought, “I’ve made it.” I don’t think there ever will be. I’m constantly amazed (and almost embarrassed) by good news. And I’m constantly certain that something terrible will befall me. On a daily basis, I think about back-up jobs. Like, postal carrier. I think that would be a killer job. Just walk around, whistling, tucking letters into mailboxes, thinking up stories. And I might be considering something like this — how I’m going to pay the bills, how I’m going to get my kids through college — right after I walk out of Amazon’s offices or off a stage at Comicpalooza.
Because that’s the way my mind works, I have to remind myself to enjoy the moment. My buddy Jess Walter — novelist and zenmaster — is really good at this. I get on the phone with him and he tells me to chill out, look around, appreciate how the hard work has paid off. And for a few minutes I’m like, “Yeah! You’re right, Jess Walter!” And then I go back to grinding my teeth down to nubs.
TM: Is it true that your agent, Katherine Fausset, sold the novel before it was written? She’s also thanked in the back of your first book, a story collection published by a university press. At what point did you start to work with her? Has working with her affected or influenced how you approach writing fiction?
BP: Katherine sold Red Moon based on seventy pages, accompanied by a twenty-page outline. Same goes for the next novel, The Dead Lands, which releases in June 2014, a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark passage. She’s the perfect combination of tough, smart, witty, and sweet — as an editor, advisor, champion, friend. We began working together in 2004. At the time, I had “sold” my first book on my own to Carnegie Mellon University Press, after soliciting many agents and editors and hearing the same thing from all of them: “Get in touch when you have a novel.” After I signed the contract, I made a ballsy move, posting the deal on Publishers Marketplace, describing it in the most flattering terms possible. My inbox flooded with emails from Warner Brothers, the Paris Review, Albin Michel (who remain my French publisher), and a long list of agents who noticed I wasn’t represented. I was in the fortunate position to get on the phone and talk to all of them before deciding that Katherine was the best match. She’s my first line of defense, the person I send my manuscripts to before they head off into the wild world, and she always has an insightful response, editorial and business savvy.
TM: What is your work day like when you’re at home? Are you able to write while you travel?
BP: On an ideal day, I wake up at six, box up some lunches, ship the kids off to school, then brew a pot of coffee and head downstairs to the cobwebby dungeon where I work. I’ll spend six to eight hours hammering the keyboard and then — come mid-afternoon — I’ll climb out of the dark to play with my kids, hang with my wife, catch up on chores, help cook dinner. When I travel, I’m reading on planes, writing in hotel rooms, which doesn’t suit me, but I make it work. A quiet routine is the best friend of a writer.
TM: Grand Central just reissued your first book, The Language of Elk, as an eBook. What will readers of Red Moon think of that book or Refresh, Refresh, your second story collection?
BP: I wrote the stories in The Language of Elk when I was twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four. This was my time in grad school. Once I “sold” the collection, it took another two years to come out. People might be interested in them archaeologically — to see how far I’ve come stylistically, thematically. Of the stories in there, “Swans” and “Unearthed” are the ones I’m most proud of, but even they make me cringe. I wish I could go back in time and workshop myself violently. But that’s how I am with all of my writing. I’m immediately dissatisfied with it. I’ll edit myself even when standing behind a lectern, reading to a room full of people. I’m glad for that — it means I’m always chasing something better, never plateauing.
TM: Aside from length, what do you perceive to be the essential differences between the short story and novel forms? Do you see yourself continuing to write short stories?
BP: I have another collection ready, but Katherine wants to wait and shop it after I have a few more novels out. I love short stories — writing them, reading them — but over the past few years my mind has rewired and I think almost exclusively in the long form. The differences between novels and short stories are legion, but to break it down as simply and generally as possible: a short story is a stylistically vigorous glimpse of a life.
TM: The Wilding, your first novel, is about a son, father, and grandfather who find trouble during a hunting and fishing trip into the mountains. The role of Karen, the wife/mother back at home, is less important — it’s a subplot. The majority of your short stories are about men or boys. At what point did you decide to make Red Moon’s protagonist a teenage girl?
BP: Red Moon has a huge cast — and I’d say six of them are identifiable as protagonists. They are men and women, young and old, the infected and the uninfected — from all different geographic and cultural and political backgrounds. I wanted these myriad perspectives to tangle together, contradict each other, supply a complicated vision of complicated subjects: xenophobia, terrorism.
With that said, Claire and Miriam are my two favorite characters in the novel. Red Moon has more in common with X-Men than it does Twilight, but I did have Bella in the back of my mind when writing. I’m disturbed by how she — emotionally and physically abused by the man/vampire she falls in love with and sacrifices herself to — became a role model for so many. I’m surrounded by fiercely strong women. My mother is a warrior. My wife is a force, and our daughter is like a miniature version of her. All of my bosses (department chair, editors, agent) are tough as hell, smart as hell. So I was thinking more about them when building the characters of Claire and Miriam, who are stronger than any of the men in the novel.
TM: In an interview several years ago, you mentioned having abandoned earlier novels, but that The Wilding played to your strengths. What do you see as your strengths now?
BP: I didn’t abandon any novels. I completed four — all failures — and buried them. Most writers have a similar arc: you get the bad writing out of your system. Throw away a few thousand pages. The Wilding, my first published novel, was a negotiation between the short and long form — in that it has a small time frame, follows a small cast, takes place on a small stage. It was a gateway to the epic sweep of Red Moon (which is a novel that follows many characters over many years in many different places). I’ve always loved the epic — the immersive reading experience provided by T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Stephen King’s The Stand — and I’m excited to have conquered something of this scope. It’s the same exhausted satisfaction that comes from completing a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. With that said, I know I can do better — and plan to in the next novel.
TM: You’ve published a number of articles about the craft of fiction writing, including several for Poets & Writers, and a craft book, Thrill Me, is on the way. How do you answer critics who say it’s too soon for you to publish a book of writing advice? That it’s too early in your career to assume that role? Stephen King, a writer you admire, had been publishing novels for twenty years before On Writing.
BP: Writing a craft book is such a small pebble tossed in the big lake of letters, I can’t imagine anyone even noticing or caring. Dozens of people will be outraged by the dozens of people who read my writing advice!
I’ve been teaching writing for over a decade — including time served in MFA programs, among them the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — and I’m a regular on the conference and festival circuit. And people use my Poets & Writers columns regularly in classes, so I guess I must have at least a few nuggets of half-assed wisdom to share.
What distinguishes the book is this: I’m not going through the standard motions, talking about character, setting, point of view, and blah blah blah. I’m looking at genre through a literary lens and focusing especially on how to ramp up suspense and momentum. Hopefully it will be helpful.
TM: Young writers are often told that teaching will take time away from their writing, but it doesn’t seem to have hindered you much.
BP: I’ve had some killer teaching loads. The 4/4, with four different preps a semester. All writing classes of thirty students or more, so that I was grading what amounted to two thousand pages a semester. And doing service. And raising kids. And renovating a house. But if you know me — like, live near me, see me regularly — you know that I’m no fun. All I do is work. I’m obsessed. Writing is my obsession. And when I had those heavy teaching loads, I would sleep four hours a night in order to get the writing done. The writing has always been the priority. Everything else is what I need to do, but writing is what I must do. If you don’t have that mindset, then you’re always going to be prepping class or grading papers before you’re building worlds, pushing sentences around.
TM: You’re adapting The Wilding for the screen, working with producer Shana Eddy and director Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams). To my knowledge, this is your first screenwriting job. How did this opportunity unfold, and what have you learned during the process?
BP: I’ve written a few original screenplays that didn’t go the distance, but taught me quite a lot. But yeah, this is my first job as a screenwriter. If you look at Arriaga’s Twitter bio, you’ll see that he describes himself first as a hunter, then a storyteller. When Shana read about the book, she thought it would match his sensibility.
It’s been fun, getting a second chance on a novel. And playing around with the form. Arriaga always employs a non-linear design and he wants me to do the same. So I’ve rearranged the narrative in a way that contributes to suspense and gives the viewer the sense of being lost in the woods.
TM: The magazine writers I know work hard — they’re word hustlers — but they don’t have major book contracts and movie deals and a university position. Maybe one of those, sometimes two, but not all three. Why do you write for magazines? What do you get out of it?
BP: I’ve never had writer’s block because I keep a lot of irons in the fire. When I get sick of the novel, I write a short story, fiddle with a screenplay or comic script, hammer out a craft essay, pitch an article. Then I return to the novel, which is always my central concern, with renewed energy and a fresh perspective. So there’s that — this compulsion I feel to dabble in all different forms of storytelling — and there’s this: magazine writing is fun. I typically take on some sort of challenge (like, jump out of a plane, raft a river, hang-glide off a mountain, climb a 250-foot old-growth tree and spend the night in it, go on a crazy detox diet in which I drink only water and eat only fruits and veggies for 21 days). Usually it’s something I want to do or need to do, and then I scam an article out of it. When writing fiction, I’m visiting faraway places and meeting new people, but only in my mind. Magazine writing puts me in new and uncomfortable situations, introduces me to interesting people, exposes me to danger—all of which I’ll probably find a way to channel into my fiction as well.
TM: “Refresh, Refresh” was adapted into a graphic novel by the talented Danica Novdorgoff. Do you have plans to write an original graphic novel or comic book series?
BP: I’ve talked to Vertigo [an imprint of DC Comics] several times — we’ll see if something flies there — and I’ve just finished a graphic novel that M.K. Perker will be illustrating.
TM: What would you go back and tell young Ben Percy, the boy just beginning to dream of becoming a writer?
BP: I was going to say something like, “This is going to be a long painful apprenticeship. Be ready to put in your 10,000 hours at the keyboard before you produce anything of note,” or “Read your brains out and write your brains out,” or “If you want to go the distance, you’ll need the right balance of ego and humility,” but I learned all of that without anyone whispering Yoda-esque platitudes in my ear. So I guess I’d say what Jess Walter is always saying to me, “Don’t forget to enjoy yourself.” Not that I’d listen.
In The Passage, Justin Cronin introduced us to a nightmarish dystopia. The Twelve is the second installment of a planned trilogy, so if you haven’t read The Passage then you probably don’t want to read this review, but here’s a quick recap just in case: in the world of The Passage, a virus has been discovered in the Amazon that turns human beings into monsters. These are vampires, but vampires far less human-like than any other variants I’ve seen in the genre. Infection turns them into fanged and clawed creatures with skin like armor, virtually immortal, who live on blood and move with inhuman speed.
The American government decides to experiment and see if they can’t somehow weaponize the discovery, but they need test subjects. Who, they consider, are the most disposable members of our society? Who won’t be missed? Death row inmates without families. Twelve men are carefully selected from death rows around the country. They are offered a choice: they can stay in prison and await their inevitable executions, or they can leave with the mysterious men who’ve arrived to visit them. They’re taken to a top-secret facility in Colorado, injected with various strains of the virus, and studied.
Until of course the unthinkable happens and the monsters escape, because what else is going to happen in the early pages of a novel with caged monsters, and a hundred years later the North American continent is a desolate wasteland, monsters hiding in the abandoned cities and the last few humans struggling to survive. The Twelve picks up where The Passage left off, with the various survivors of the first book scattered among the continent’s last few settlements, one of the Twelve dead, and the other eleven and their followers having hunted so successfully that they’re running out of people to eat and are beginning to starve to death.
Once again Cronin has superbly handled the difficult task of writing a character-driven adventure story. But whereas The Passage concerned itself primarily with the dynamic of good people struggling to survive a world infested with bad monsters, The Twelve focuses largely on an aspect of the apocalypse that Cronin touched on only lightly in the first installment: the vampires remain terrifying, but they’re arguably less terrifying than the humans who have decided to collaborate with them in order to survive.
A surprise of The Twelve is that Cronin continues to move the narrative back and forth in time, from the shock of the initial outbreak to the depopulated wasteland that exists a century later. This has the dual effect of allowing him to further fill out a rich and complex back-story and also to rather neatly address one of the major criticisms of the first book, which I saw expressed most frequently along the lines of Seriously? We’re supposed to believe that someone thought it was a good idea to turn death-row inmates into immortal blood-sucking monsters?
Personally, I have no problem accepting the notion that any given group of reasonably intelligent people is perfectly capable of collectively coming up with a very, very dumb idea, but Cronin meets it head-on:
So it was that Deputy Director Horace Guilder (were there any actual directors anymore?) had found himself sitting before the Joint Chiefs… to offer his official assessment of the situation in Colorado. (Sorry, we made vampires; it seemed like a good idea at the time.) A full thirty seconds of dumbfounded silence ensued, everyone waiting to see who would speak next.
A century after his extremely awkward meeting with the Joint Chiefs, Guilder has become a hybrid, a creature who maintains human form and will not age so long as he keeps drinking the blood of a vampire’s familiar. He presides over a nightmare city in Iowa, a corporate dictatorship populated by slaves, human collaborators, and a small army of creatures like himself who dress in suits and drink blood.
There are small moments of humor in amidst the horror — as in most corporations, no department is more dreaded than HR — but Cronin’s vision is dark. No dissent is tolerated in Guilder’s city. Uncooperative citizens are fed to the vampires. Public executions aren’t unheard-of. Rapes and beatings abound.
Cronin takes the precaution of starting his books with a fair-sized cast of major characters, so that the population doesn’t thin out too drastically when the body count inevitably starts to rise, but all writers of apocalyptic fiction have to contend with the tension of wanting to depict their fictional worlds as nearly unsurvivable, without killing off too many of their major characters. As one character remarks, it’s a big continent, but once parted, his characters have a way of reuniting against impossible odds, over spans of years and hundreds of miles. He is at ease in the realm of improbable coincidences.
The prose of The Twelve is somewhat uneven. The impression is of a fine writer working with an enormous amount of plot under a very tight deadline. There are moments when the prose is strictly utilitarian, other times when it slips into sentimentality. A summer day on the prairies is described as “hot-hot-hot.” But there are moments of sheer beauty, as in the last moments before a man, a mechanic who’s secretly a poet, sets himself on fire to avoid being taken up: “This ravishing world,” he thinks, in the last few heartbeats before he flicks the lighter, “this ravishing world…”
These are anxious times we live in, and new apocalypse novels appear with every publishing season. A few years back there was The Road and now the end of the world as we know it recurs again and again, from Cronin’s planned trilogy to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One to Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars to Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles.
Cronin’s books, for all their brutality, have an ethereal quality that most other apocalypse books I’ve read lack. He has created a dark and brutal world, but his monsters are linked by dreams. The Twelve dream of their terrible crimes, and their multitudes of descendants dream the dreams of the Twelve.
Amy, a girl from the first book who remains (barely) human but who carries a modified version of the virus in her blood, has always been able to speak with vampires. She thinks of them as the dreaming ones. The multitudes of lost souls transformed into monsters are intelligent and vicious in the manner of any expert predator, but also they are lost. When she’s near them she hears their constant question in her head, who am I who am I who am I? In The Passage she kneels before a man who’s just been killed by them:
It came to her that the man’s name had been Willem. And the ones who had done it to Willem were sorry, so sorry, and she rose and said to them, It’s all right, go now and do not do this again if you can help it, but she knew they could not. They could not help it because of the Twelve who filled their minds with their terrible dreams of blood and no answer to the question but this:
I am Babcock.
I am Morrison.
I am Chavez.
I am Baffes-Turrell-Winston-Sosa-Echols-Lambright-Martinez-Reinhardt-Carter.
Cronin’s vampires are not individuals in any meaningful sense. They move in pods, they dream the dreams of their masters, and they don’t know who they were before they ceased to be human. The only names that fill their drifting thoughts are the names of the Twelve. The idea of the hive mind isn’t new, but the Borg never dreamed like this. The great mass of vampires are unspeakable, but in a strange way not entirely unsympathetic. Cronin’s skill as a storyteller keeps us immersed in their strange long dream.