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Reading Percival Everett

Claude Julien
Anne-Laure Tissut

IV. The Writer's Own Turn

An Interview: May 3rd, 2005

Percival Everett, Alice Mills, Claude Julien et Anne-Laure Tissut

Texte intégral

1Claude Julien: Thank you for agreeing to spend time with us. I have prepared a set of questions in agreement with Alice and Anne-Laure who are of course welcome to bring up other questions of their own on the spur of the moment.

2We would like to start by asking you about your beginnings as a writer, the moment you knew you wanted to be a writer, the moment you knew you were a writer.

3Percival Everett: My move to write fiction was, oddly, a natural one. I was studying philosophy. I was studying Wittgenstein and J. L. Austen but what that work consisted in was the construction of scenes in which people spoke to each other and addressed philosophical issues. So, I was writing scenes, anyway. I wrote a story which I submitted in my application to the writing program at Brown University where I was accepted and where I wrote my first novel. That’s how I moved into fiction. It was kind of an organic move, so I don’t know if I had some actual realization that I was a fiction writer as much as I still saw myself as attempting to address philosophical concerns.

4Anne-Laure Tissut: So Suder, your first novel, was bom of philosophy?

5Percival Everett: Basically, all of my books come out of a desire to explore something about language and how language works, even though I do write stories that deal with other things, maybe.

6Alice Mills: Suder moves from east to west. How do you explain leaving one’s roots?

7Percival Everett: All things move from east to west geographically. The sun does, and so should we. I have frequently come across that situation as a teacher of the American experience. Mark Twain has Huck F inn say he is going to “light out for the Territory” and I see myself following the same path.

8Claude Julien: We next would like to open the field of literary models. What writers, by and large, have been an inspiration to you?

9Percival Everett: There’s a great many. I need really start with Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy, the most important novel to me. For no other reason than his use of every type of literary discourse available to him in his time. And he exploits and comments on that discourse, which, however, remains quite recognizable in a story. The book also has in it that wonderful marbled page, collections of asterisks. And there’s the blank sheet, a page of no words, just color. It’s wonderfully experimental. My sense of humor has been influenced by that novel, and also Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh. And of course Mark Twain. And I love the work of Angela Carter, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison. There are so many contemporary writers I love that I can’t possibly mention them all.

10Claude Julien: We would now like to ask a question about your motives for writing. Where does the urge to write come from? Charles Johnson has answered he writes because writing an idea into existence is the only way to deal with it. Like his mentor, John Gardner, he argues that moral issues pertain to literature, that writing provides a mode of knowledge: a mode of understanding others, and by virtue of that understanding, understanding oneself. Would you place yourself in the same line of thought?

11Percival Everett: I certainly understand that. I don’t want to sound ironic, but I believe personally the opposite. Every time I finish a book, I know less than when I started. I think I know something when I start writing and, as the problems I approach become more complex and interesting I realize that everything I thought I knew was wrong. And that’s the exciting part about writing novels. After eighteen books, I know considerably less than most people. I’m well on my way to knowing nothing, which is my goal, I guess. [General laughter.]

12Claude Julien: I now come to the diversity of your writing that struck me when I discovered your first thirteen books which I read one after the other over a couple of months. Some writers seem to be constantly reworking the same material —which does not mean they are poor writers. On the contrary, inventiveness characterizes your work. I sometimes have the impression you like to go from one challenge to another, in order to explore the possibilities another mode offers. I’m just guessing. What does this diversity bring you?

13Percival Everett: I love to study. There’s so much I don’t know anything about that any time I get an opportunity to study and learn something, I will. For instance, the main character in Watershed is a hydrologist. When I wrote that novel, I read twenty-five or so books on geomorphology and hydrology and actually went out in the field in the company of a hydrologist. Not simply so I could learn about hydrology and sediment movement through watersheds, but so I could learn to think and talk like someone who does that for a living. My aim was to have Robert Hawks come across in the novel not as if I had studied hydrology to write a story, but realistically. The same is true of the Greek stories of Medea and Dionysos. The exciting part is that I was attracted to the stories. Those two books, though similar, come from different places, different needs. The Medea novel comes out of my long-standing dissatisfaction with the slant of the existing story —that the excuse for her killing her children was that this woman had gone mad. That seemed too simple. There are all sorts of other tracks. She is a hero in my estimation, and my story came out of that kernel of dissatisfaction. The Dionysos novel proceeds from a desire to understand some notion of deity. I read many translations of the Bacchae but couldn’t own the material. So, I read more translations and finally did my own. It was awful, a terrible result, but it gave me entry into that material and I finally possessed it in such a way that I could use it. The first version of the first half of the novel was in verse, which was truly poor, but, again, just that stuff helped me to control the material. I get to study something with every novel and that’s what I like.

14Anne-Laure Tissut: At the beginning of Erasure, Monk speaks about his books that are on the wrong shelves in book stores. Does that refer to For Her Dark Skin and Frenzy, or is it personal?

  • 1 Editor’s note: Both Monk and Percival Everett also enjoy manual work and are happy with wood and to (...)

15Percival Everett: It is personal. But, despite the glaring similarity1 between that character and myself, he’s not me. It’s not an autobiographical novel. My experience of having novels that have nothing to do with African-American literature falters with the Medea novel whose character is black. But finding For Her Dark Skin and Frenzy in a section marked “African-American studies” seems wrong-headed and runs counter to my work. Someone interested in Greek mythology might not think to look for those books into the African-American section, and someone interested in African-American studies probably is not so interested in Greek mythology. Anyway, it’s a loss of sales to me! [Laughter.] Besides the fact that it’s culturally offensive.

16Claude Julien: You have brought up your desire to learn and to protest as motives for writing the Greek novels. Can you describe moments when you realize an event, or an idea, can develop into a story?

  • 2 Editor’s note: American Desert came out the same year as A History of African American People... wh (...)

17Percival Everett: I wish I could because then I would do it more often. I do not know. It is magic, a wonderful thing. Those moments come differently with every book. Sometimes, I’ll hear a story and tell it to myself over and over until I can change it enough so that it becomes mine. With my latest novel, American Desert,2 I knew I wanted to write a novel. I mean I felt something was brewing inside me. I was driving back to my ranch in the desert and noticed an exit sign to “Theodore Street”. That name struck me. I pulled off and the novel fell into place with Theodore Street for its main character. I cannot say why but I do not question such things. I just did as I was told: went home and started working.

18Claude Julien: So, that’s where the name “Theodore Street” comes from! I had built up an onomastic game opposing this character’s first name, “Gift of God” in Greek, to the banality of his last name, “Street”. It appears I was in a blind alley.

19Percival Everett: That’s fun. That’s what literature can do for you.

20Claude Julien: The three of us have a hunch how one can proceed from writing Cutting Lisa to writing Zulus (at least from a very loose thematic standpoint: the body, motherhood). But how one proceeds from Suder to Walk Me to the Distance is an evolution we cannot begin to fathom. Can you help?

21Percival Everett: Those two novels are really different, but there are ways in which they are similar. Both characters are looking for a sense of familial integrity, dealing with the feeling of alienation within the culture. And, finally, both move from the South to the West. They are similar in those ways, but are totally different as persons.

  • 3 Written damnedifido on the cover page.

22Claude Julien: We would now like to come to satire and humor. The Playboy Magazine blurb on the back cover of Damned if i do3 praises your “sharp satirical voice only predictable in its provocation.” I suppose they may have had a story like “The Appropriation of Cultures” or the earlier God’s Country in mind... Satire is present, but I also feel, side by side with it, a sense of fairness to your characters. A French word comes to me, tendresse.

23Would such words as kindness or considerateness do in English? As if satire was aimed at society at large, not individuals.

24Percival Everett: I have never been interested in building straw men simply to knock them over, though, of course, I do introduce in my fiction ideas or persons I disagree with. But I don’t approach fiction, or, more generally, writing with the notion that I know what’s true and right. I raise questions. That’s what I’m smart enough to do, and the fact I write fiction for a living is more than ample evidence that I’m mentally deficient. [General laughter.] So, you can’t take what I say, but I can ask questions and that’s what I do in fiction. Kindness? I don’t know if it’s kindness, but I try to be fair since I’m not trying to say that I’m right. And I find it interesting to try to approach or represent people I would not care for in real life. It’s a real challenge for a writer to take a character she or he dislikes —even despises— and be able to occupy that character’s space in a way that’s fair and allows the reader to understand why that person can think that way. I’m interested in that aspect of my work.

25Alice Mills: Does that apply to Strom Thurmond?

26Percival Everett: Well, maybe especially to Strom Thurmond. [General laughter.] You know, I read a lot about Thurmond before writing A History of African-American People... and finally determined he probably never was really an evil man, though the results of his actions often were. Interestingly —though I am not saying it really means much— there’s no instance (at least that. I know of) of his being recorded or marked as having used the word “nigger”, and I suspect he wouldn’t have. I don’t see him as hating black people. He just liked white people a lot more than he liked blacks. [General laughter.]

27Claude Julien: Our next question has to do with textual genetics. I have often wondered how you moved from one slice of life in a story to another level in a novel, and back to the same character in yet another story. What I have in mind is “Still Hunting” that developed into the Reskin episodes in Watershed while Robert Hawks resurfaces later in “Alluvial Deposits” —all three of them in different locations. I am interested in this kind of recurrence, another instance being the cousinship between The Body of Martin Aguilera and “Warm and Nicely Buried”. What made you discover the potential in “Still Hunting” with respect to Watershed? What made you decide there was potential for another story in Robert Hawks as a person and a hydrologist in a different setting?

  • 4 Editor’s note: another echo links the story “Age Would Be That Does” and the novel Glyph. The two r (...)

28Percival Everett: The true answer is I don’t know. The answer that makes sense in an interview [laughter] is that so much came with the first story that I knew I wanted to use it again at some point. So, to me, “Still Hunting” was more or less a note. It was a story, but also a mental note. Then the Robert Hawks character came after considering, not the present story of his life, but the past events that went on with his father and his grandfather in South Carolina. And then he reappears in the story “Alluvial Deposits” because I find it interesting to have what I consider ghostly echoes of characters popping up throughout my work.4 I never really wanted to say this but I will: I don’t consider any work singularly. I think I am writing an entire body of work, as diverse as its pieces are. I see it as one very long work that will finally make sense together. So, I hope all these things tally with each other and that the ghostly echoes I’m referring to —this recurrence of characters and situations is finally a function of playfulness rather than an obsession with a particular person, a particular idea or a particular kind of relationship.

29Claude Julien: The Robert Hawks in “Alluvial Deposits” is different from that in Watershed. On the one hand he comes to the story without a past, as you said, and, on the other, he is not as racially militant and relies on the help of the local police.

30Percival Everett: Well, his past doesn’t come into play. Just as race does not explicitly surface in every story, which does not mean it isn’t there. Robert’s blackness —if that nameless character is Robert— is not visible in “Still Hunting”. He turns militant more or less by accident in Watershed and is more subdued in “Alluvial Deposits”.

31Claude Julien: Let us turn to another aspect of your career. When I attended the last session of your creative writing workshop at College Station, your students described you as a “slave driver” —obviously meant as a compliment. [General laughter.] What does teaching creative writing bring you as a person and as a writer?

32Percival Everett: I get paid relatively well to hang out with smart young people and there’s absolutely no reason for me to complain about that. Of all the things these kids want to do, they want to make art. Most of what they produce is not very good. But that’s O.K. They want to make art and that’s absolutely wonderful. Even though their compositions are seldom outstanding, I like to sit with these bright young people and talk about their work. I learn a lot from them. I’m privileged. I learn as much from them as they learn from me. But I don’t care about the students’ work as stories, I care about them as writers. Stories are mere tissue.

33Alice Mills: Creative writing is not taught here. What would you tell French students interested in enrolling in such a class? Could you describe your teaching practice?

34Percival Everett: I would first tell them I’m lucky because my students want to be in the class. We have classes that are required and my colleagues and I engage in this kind of torture. But my creative writing students want to be tortured and I appreciate that because making art is not easy. I have my students first relax in the beginning workshop, and I tell them they must realize they are all going to be treated equally badly, that it is going to be a painful but enjoyable experience they are going to appreciate for the rest of their lives. Then we launch into the class. My advice to everybody is to read... and then read some more. And to love literature. If they don’t, they might as well leave the room. There is not a lot of variety to the exercise itself. The class consists in teaching by immersion. They write something and we talk about it. If they have an idea for a story, they go ahead and see how it works out and hand it in. Then, we talk, dissect the text and I try to help. Writing... Rewriting... The process is repetitious.

35Claude Julien: I would like to go back upon your earlier definition of stories as “tissue”. I have in mind Gilles Deleuze’s theory that writing is not an end in itself because it is anything but personal. Deleuze seems to invite readers of fiction not to think in terms of themes, but of an activity where fluxes fuse with other fluxes. If that is the case, what can —what does— literature do for the writer, apart from providing an opportunity to learn? Must readers dispense with what Michel Foucault calls the “authorial function” —readers looking for themes in order to build their fantasies of who the writer is into meaning?

36Percival Everett: If the reader is reading to uncover some meaning about me, then there is little hope. We read because we love language. We learn about ourselves by the way we understand the working of language, the nature of meaning, the importance of making meaning.

37Anne-Laure Tissut: A question comes to me on the topic of art and politics. Your novels can be anything but militant and the narrator in Erasure refuses to write the epic novel of the ghetto or indulge in racial protest. Still, race is an important factor in his life. So, where do you stand between the militant novel and the exclusively aesthetic one? Could you enlarge upon the interaction between art and politics?

38Percival Everett: All my novels are subversive and militant, but none is social protest. The notion of a novel of the ghetto is a construction of white America. Publishing is an industry controlled by white America. You can easily pigeonhole or categorize a people and control the perception of others. In fact, it’s amazing how often people are going to see themselves as fitting this or that category, this or that description. So, Erasure for example is, I think, quite important in that it rebels against the established practice of pigeonholing the black experience. Black people in America are as diverse as white people. They live in each and every part of the country; they practice different religions, or none at all. I didn’t have a cliché religions upbringing because my grandfather was an atheist, my father is —was— an agnostic and I what I call an “apath”. I simply don’t care. And so, I don’t fit the stereotype of the black American church-going gospel-singing person. And I think this stereotyping is unfair. I have never heard anyone ask a white American, and certainly not personally, “Who is your leader?” —but they will ask blacks that all the time. Truthfully. And we are all supposed to say the same thing, “Jessie Jackson” (laughter). It’s not a fair question to start with. So, I see art as being far more political than so-called political discussion.

  • 5 Editor’s note: incidentally, Van Go Jenkins’s hectic flight ends in the Moreno Valley post office i (...)

39Claude Julien: I would now like to bring other forms of art into the discussion. I was privileged to visit you in Moreno Valley5 where I was introduced to another aspect of your creative life: painting. What does painting bring you? And why did you choose not to draw the illustrations for The One That Got Away yourself?

40Percival Everett: I’ll address the part about the children’s book first. I personally can’t stand any kind of representation in visual art. I produce nonrepresentational paintings. My drawings for that book would have been meaningless to a seven-year old. I’m not an illustrator. I paint because I love spreading color and not because I’m attempting to construct an identifiable scene. And that brings me to why I do paint. The relationship with visual art is a more immediate visceral, emotional one. When I look at a canvas and start spreading paint on it, it’s physical. There it is in front of me and it’s exciting in a very different way than writing. Starting a novel is like entering a bad marriage. No matter what I do, it’s going to end badly, to be full of emotional ups and downs. It’s going to alienate me and I’m going to be alienated from anyone I know, family, friends —and it’s going to last a lot longer then I want it to. The relationship is shorter with a painting. Though it’s thoroughly emotional, too, and fraught with ups and downs, it’s not that long year-after-year intellectual connection with things that wakes you up, saying “I have to think about this again.” With a painting it’s something more —I guess immediacy is the term that comes to mind.

41Claude Julien: Going back to collaboration between artists, how did the idea for A History of the African-American people... burgeon into your mind? We are asking that because such collaboration is rather unusual...

42Percival Everett: I wrote that book with James Kincaid, a Victorianist in the same English Department as myself. I sat up one morning in bed and this title came to me: “A History of the African-American People by Strom Thurmond”. My first thought was to write a parody of an actual history text. I mentioned this to Jim and was just sort of playing with the idea when Jim asked “Can we write it together?” I answered “Sure” and we started. We did not write what I thought we would. It organically became this epistolary thing, letters going back and forth. Jim is a work maniac. [The interviewers laugh.] Yes, I know. [Laughter.] I must elaborate on that. He’s a raving maniac who writes in long hand with his left and is typing with his right. And so he was going, having lots of fun and growing wild, and it was really hard to keep up with him. So, we sort of split the labor. We came up with this book which only by the longest stretch of anyone’s imagination is actually a novel, but it was a lot of fun for us.

43Anne-Laure Tissut: Allow me to be provocative. What about your collaboration with Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison in Erasure?

44Percival Everett: Oh! Well... I turned a deaf ear to their complaints. [General laughter.] I was probably somewhat unfair to Wright in the way I exploited Native Son when creating the novel within the novel; and perhaps to some extent probably paid too much tribute to Ellison. But I don’t think so. I love Invisible Man. Though, interestingly, my tribute to Invisible Man is supplanted by my tribute to Chester Himes’s novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. My references to Himes are scattered throughout the book in a lot more subtle way. That’s my quiet tribute to Himes who, I suspect, would have liked that sort of thing.

45Claude Julien: We also thought we would ask you to name your favorite among your own books.

46Percival Everett: I love all of my children. Idiots and geniuses alike, I don’t think I hold one over another. Perhaps Glyph is my favorite, only because it was the easiest for me to write as it is closest to my own voice. I didn’t have a lot to do to change the rhythm of the thinking, which, I know, is terrifying to Anne-Laure who is starting on the translation.

47Claude Julien: You turn Roland Barthes into a ladies’ man in Glyph. (Being a Frenchman... the stereotype says he should be —just as a black man must be a natural born dancer.) Then there is the hilarious pastiche of S/Z in Erasure. Is this satire, or celebration?

48Percival Everett: I only made him a ladies’ man because it is a citable preference. I love Barthes. The S/Z pastiche I intended more as a comment on the way Americans, and perhaps the British, apprehend his work. When you put Barthes in the hands of Americans it all of a sudden becomes very earnest. They miss the playfulness of it all while I think it’s a lot of fun —and Barthes must have been enjoying himself too. The ideas are important and sometimes completely nonsensical, but that’s what’s amusing. So, as I’m making fun of that character I create, Barthes, I believe I’m also making satire —though not necessarily of Roland Barthes himself. There’s more than just one level to satire. In Erasure, I’m certainly satirizing the publishing industry and a certain kind of novel, but I’m also making fun of myself and the entire endeavor of making a novel.

49Claude Julien: Derrida appears briefly in Glyph. Are you going to put more French theoreticians in a future book?

50Percival Everett: So weird that you should mention that! I’ve been reading nothing but Lacan’s work for the past year. Reading all the Seminars again has been a lot of fun. Derrida does show up in Glyph. But that character is actually reappearing in a novel I have sort of started. He is writing this novel, a history of western philosophy starting with the Greeks, that has several narrative threads. Right now I’m on the Italians, but he will go all the way up to, at least, the Enlightenment. And, in there, I hope he gets into an argument with Lacan about what in the world he is doing. Not about philosophy itself, but about what it means, what he finds himself figuring. This is part of the landscape.

51Claude Julien: we also thought we would ask you a question about the outdoors, only occasionally dangerous for your characters and in many cases a refuge from society where they can be safe in the company of animals.

52Percival Everett: I won’t say anything about my need to go outside. I’m very lucky these animals allow me to live with them, and I simply love the outdoors. I couldn’t live and write if I didn’t spend a lot of time outside, on the streams and in the desert. Animals teach me patience. I don’t have a schedule while I work. I don’t wake up and write for three hours, and then do something else and come back to my desk. I’ve never done that. I get up, mend fences and feed the horses, move a lot of manure. What working with the animals allows me is this opportunity to trust myself. As I realize they trust me, then I can trust myself. I know that I’ll get the work done. I don’t get excited about it. I don’t get nervous, I don’t become anxious about work. I just do it. I guess that’s what I get from them.

53Alice Mills: A lot of your characters have a passion for trout fishing. Does fishing have anything to do with patience?

54Percival Everett: It does, but, more than anything, you need a reason to stand out in the middle of an ice-cold stream with waders on. Fishing seems to be the best reason. Fishing requires patience but also an understanding that it is not only about catching the fish. It’s about putting yourself in the place where you can catch a fish. It’s about loving the place that will allow you to catch a fish. And there’s a lot of detective work involved in fly-fishing. The first thing you have to do when you show up on a stream is to read the river to find out where trout are likely to be, and which kind of insect to select. Is it an insect in its larvae or adult stage? An aquatic, or a terrestrial one. All that is rather tentative stuff when you realize that in some places a hungry trout will bite on anything. It doesn’t matter whether you have the right insect. It’s only a desire to somehow recreate those elements of nature that come together in that one place at that time of day.

55Claude Julien: Am I right to say you seem to go fishing on your own? Many of your characters have a fishing partner (I am referring to Warren Fragua, a recurrent character in your fiction located in New Mexico) — except Robert Hawks who had rather be on his own.

56Percival Everett: I never noticed that.

57Claude Julien: Maybe I am too curious.

58Percival Everett: Is that possible?

59Claude Julien: One last question, maybe. I don’t know about my two colleagues, but when I read American Desert I thought it could make a wonderful scenario for a movie. Has it occurred to you, or had you rather be in the same anti-Hollywood league as Rowley in “True Romance”?

60Percival Everett: That’s a bad neighborhood I don’t feel like going in. If someone wants to make a movie of it... great... send me the check... But I don’t care about it. If they make it, then I can buy more hay for the horses. Otherwise, just leave me alone. There is no artistic interest in it. I don’t anticipate this kind of thing. I don’t desire it.

61Claude Julien: It has happened once, has it not?

62Percival Everett: That was a terrible experience. My novel Walk Me to the Distance was made into a film whose title I won’t tell you because you might happen upon it. Even if you read my novel and then watch that film, you will not recognize it. Let’s not talk about it.

63Claude Julien: I agree that movie is poor compared to a book I find deeply moving... So, unless Anne-Laure or Alice has another question to ask, let us close this pleasant and instructive time together. We are glad more fiction is being composed to find its way to the printing press. Thank you very much for your time.


1 Editor’s note: Both Monk and Percival Everett also enjoy manual work and are happy with wood and tools on their work benches.

2 Editor’s note: American Desert came out the same year as A History of African American People... which has been followed by Wounded.

3 Written damnedifido on the cover page.

4 Editor’s note: another echo links the story “Age Would Be That Does” and the novel Glyph. The two rather helpless old men in the story are Rosendo Lapuente and Mauricio Rocha. The audacious characters that organize baby Ralph’s escape in the novel are named Mauricio Lapuente and Rosenda Paz, his wife.

5 Editor’s note: incidentally, Van Go Jenkins’s hectic flight ends in the Moreno Valley post office in Erasure.


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