Oct/Nov 2005

Mules, Men, and Barthes

Percival Everett Talks with Bookforum

Kera Bolonik


Percival Everett is one of America's most imaginative and industrious contemporary fiction writers, publishing fourteen novels (and three story collections) in as many years. But his devotion to craft is matched only by his aversion to the business of publishing. This has earned Everett a cult following, praise from his peers and critics, innumerable awards, including the PEN/Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature, the New American Writing Award, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award. The recognition hasn't deterred his satiric impulse. Everett ridicules the publishing industry's tendency to ghettoize and fetishize writers of color in his novel Erasure (2001), when an obscure black experimental novelist named Thelonious "Monk" Ellison hits it big with My Pafology, a pseudonymous parody of a best-selling memoir, We's Lives in Da Ghetto, written by an Oberlin graduate. Indeed, the joke proves not far off the mark: When Doubleday launched its African American imprint, Harlem Moon, the publisher made him an offer for the paperback reprint rights for Erasure. The irony and money were both tempting, but Everett turned Doubleday down. Since the beginning of his career, he has almost exclusively published with independent presses. As a result, Everett has been able to be as audacious, inventive, sardonic, and honest as he wants to be, as evident in such literary endeavors as God's Country (1994), a hilarious Western picaresque; Frenzy (1997), a lyrical venture that turns Greek mythology on its ear, featuring Dionysos; and Glyph (1999), an academic satire about a baby with an IQ of 475.

Wounded is far more somber, a novel that returns Everett to his favorite landscape both on and off the page: the beautiful western desert of Wyoming. In it we meet a middle-aged widower named John Hunt, who is a black horse trainer sharing his ranch with his septuagenarian uncle Gus in Highland, a small rural town near Laramie. Their white and Native American neighbors revere the two African-American men as integral members of the community. But John and Gus haven't witnessed discrimination in their home until a gay University of Wyoming student is brutally murdered and John's new ranch hand is arrested for the crime. The national media descend on Highland, putting the town under the microscope, and the events that follow threaten John's safety and that of everyone dear to him.

Everett was visiting the East Coast from his home near Los Angeles and came to the Bookforum office to speak with me in mid-June. Raised in South Carolina and educated on both coasts, Everett has been teaching American studies and critical theory in the English Department at the University of Southern California since 1998. Though he is too modest to elaborate on such things, I did gently press Everett into revealing the ways in which his versatility extends beyond his pages: On the ranch he shares with his wife, Chessie, he trains mules, and at one time, horses. He also shyly admitted to being an accomplished jazz guitarist, fly fisherman, wood-carver, and painter, and has studied biology and philosophy. With interests this plentiful and a literary palate as broad as Everett's, it's little wonder that he flinches at the mere notion of being pigeonholed.—KERA BOLONIK

BOOKFORUM: Wounded opens with the savage murder of a gay University of Wyoming student. You taught at the University in the '90s. Were you inspired by the Matthew Shepard case?

PERCIVAL EVERETT: In part, though I'd already returned to University of California at Riverside, where I was on faculty. Interestingly, aside from its physical beauty, Wyoming is probably the one place in the United States where I feel the most comfortable. I never felt the kind of racism I have on the East Coast. I was living on the One River reservation at the time. Shepard's murder was an unfortunate crime committed by a couple of aboriginals of the area, but it's hardly an indictment of the place. The media deals with these crimes in such a strange way, as if these things only happen in rural areas or small towns, implying intolerance is simply the way of life in these places. Brutal crimes happen all over the country. Ours is an intolerant culture.

BF: John, the enigmatic protagonist of the novel, is a horse trainer; it's a perfect career choice because he's an expert at reining in his emotions, especially rage, desire, and sorrow. I've read that you were a ranch hand as a young man.

PE: Yes, and I spend a lot of time with horses. I've trained them. But for the past few years, I've lived on my ranch with mules, training them.

BF: I didn't know you could train a mule. What does it take?

PE: Patience. [laughs] They're very smart, and any second they think they're smarter than you, all is lost, and unfortunately, they are smarter than I am. Seriously, you can train them to do anything but race. They have to have a reason to do something. Mules don't see much sense in running in a circle, so they just run in all directions.

BF: When John is riding a horse he's training, he lets his mind wander, and when anxious thoughts emerge, the horse responds. Does a rider really have to have a clear conscience before mounting a horse?

PE: Horses can tell when you are nervous. They can read people pretty well. I had to train myself to not react around them because they'd react to me. John has to control his anxiety. The horse he's riding in that scene, Felony, is an extremely exaggerated case, of course. [laughs]

BF: One quibble I have with Wounded, however, is that all of the gay men in the novel—David, Wallace, the dead college kid—are represented as physically defenseless. They need a burly straight man to come to the rescue.

PE: I don't view these characters as representative of any group. They're individuals. The gay men I have in this novel are young and naive, so I only meant it as a function of youth, not of their sexuality. Since there are no other gay people in the novel, I can see why it would appear that way. I recount a story that happened to me in a bar in Erasure, where this redneck came in and started harassing a gay couple. In the novel, Monk interferes and a fight ensues, and then the two gay men get up and they're these huge, muscular men and they're laughing at the scene. In life, I ended up sitting down and having a meal with them. The irony of it was wonderful.

BF: Had you ever considered toughening one of the gay men in Wounded, maybe making David a little more thuggish? We see a very sick old man like Uncle Gus with more physical strength and defensive know-how than David or Wallace. Were you worried about portraying a gay man as emasculated?

PE: No. I really wasn't attempting to offer a political perspective as much as to tell the story with these particular characters. David is a gentle person. He suffers from a kind of estrangement from his father that makes this gentle person suffer the way any of us would. I don't see him as representative of anything except himself. Gus, on the other hand, is more experienced. He's perceptive. He's someone I aspire to be.

BF: Gus and John make good parents to David. John would even seem to have a womb, of sorts: that cave he likes to explore. It's the site of epiphanies, intimate encounters, rejuvenation. It's there that he makes love for the first time after his wife's death six years earlier. He also brings David into the cave to save him from life-threatening frostbite. The cave conjures all sorts of psychoanalytic implications here.

PE: Caves really are fantastic. They're physically beautiful, they're dark—you can't see anything in them. I went through lots of caves when I was writing this book. I didn't know why I was studying caves, initially. But as I went through them, I became interested in that threshold where the cave stops being a place to get out of the weather and starts being, well, a cave—that tension between safety and fear and the unknown. I understand being safe and I understand being afraid, but it's that gray area between them that the cave offers, and the more familiar you become with the cave, the deeper that zone goes, but it's still there.

BF: I was struck by the fact that John and Howard had been college friends. The two couldn't be more different: John studied art history and collects art; Howard majored in business and became a tax attorney living in Chicago, choosing big cities and the corporate animal. John prefers big skies and real animals. Is he disillusioned with the capitalist world, or is he just a modest guy?

PE: The thing about rural people and ranchers that urbanites don't recognize is that many ranchers are quite cultured. Living away from cities doesn't diminish one's interest in the arts, and life in general. Maybe it's because I live on a ranch, but to me John isn't so extraordinary in that way. I think it's fair to say of John that he simply wants that life. He's not going at it as a negative reaction to the world, but as a positive attraction to one.

BF: You have almost exclusively published with small independent presses on principle. Are they better publishers?

PE: In my entire publishing career, I have been looking for a great editorial relationship, and I found it with Fiona McCrae at the Graywolf Press. She's like my Maxwell Perkins. I followed her from Faber and Faber. I love everything about Graywolf—we've done seven books together; I even love my copy editor. And Fiona and I have developed a strong bond—we don't always agree, and we each seem to get our way a fair share of the time, but I always trust her. And Graywolf lets me do pretty much what I want to do knowing that I'm not going to make a whole lot of money. I never think about the marketing. I just want to make my art; that's what makes me happy. I feel very fortunate just to be able to work. I do have a very hard time going out there and doing publicity, but lately I have done a lot more interviews and publicity. Well, more than I used to.

BF: You've earned many awards and garnered a lot of praise from your peers and critics. A few years ago, you were offered a rather ironic opportunity to help inaugurate Doubleday's African American imprint, Harlem Moon. They wanted to reprint the paperback of Erasure. Now, that's funny.

PE: Yeah, they offered me more money than I'd ever been offered in my career. But I couldn't do that to my book, even though I was tempted by the idea of invalidating the imprint with this particular book. [laughs] I couldn't bring myself to do it.

BF: Each of your fourteen novels is different from the next. Which, if any, was the hardest to write?

PE: They're all hard in different ways. I should say that none of them is easy to write. I think Glyph was probably the easiest novel for me to write because it was closest to my heart and my sense of humor. I had so much fun rereading Roland Barthes's S/Z and parodying it in Erasure. It might have been the most fun writing in the past few years. Frenzy may have been the hardest. That was my novel about Dionysos, and the language is so different than my language.

BF: You're a graduate of Brown's writing program, and you have taught creative writing for a number of years. What are your thoughts about these programs?

PE: I have mixed feelings about them. I don't think that they ever really hurt anybody. I think that if you're going to write, you're going to write. But a lot of the work seems derivative to me. Everybody is worried about getting published instead of worrying about making art.

BF: Last year you published A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond as Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid (2004), in an epistolary format—what was it like to collaborate with another writer like James Kincaid, who is a literary theorist?

PE: It was a very different kind of book. We actually approached it with the same seriousness we approach all of our other work. I came up with the idea. I just kind of woke up with the title one morning. The epistolary part came more out of Jim's head than mine. But the concept for the book came from me.

BF: So, how did you set up the collaboration?

PE: It was a division of labor. Jim wrote many of the letters and I wrote a few, and I wrote all of the interactions with Strom Thurmond and the contracts—all the prose parts. So we just divided it up. Jim writes fiction, as well. He's probably my closest friend in Los Angeles. It was fun for us. There's no point in doing anything unless it's fun.

BF: You've sent up academe and publishing, using satire as a way to examine, among other things, race relations in American culture. How do you manage to keep satire engaging, funny, and relevant without veering into the didactic realm?

PE: I think the way to make satire easy is to keep as close to the truth as possible. We choose things because they bug us, and they bug us because of the way they really are, and when you really start to examine theses things, they're just funny.

One of the most ironic things about some of my satire is that I'm fairly earnest about it. There's a lot of irony in the fact that I take the things I'm talking about seriously. I actually like literary theory, for example, so to write my novel Glyph, I had to believe I understood enough of it to write about it, and to make fun of it. I found that I had to respect it. It doesn't mean I agree with it. I just think that it's funny.

BF: So, you train mules. You write an average of a book a year. I've also read that you are a fly fisherman, a musician, a painter.

PE: I used to be a musician in college. I played jazz guitar.

BF: Did you study painting?

PE: No, not formally. I look at a lot of paintings. I paint in oil.

BF: You're a Renaissance man of the American West. And you balance all of that with a full-time teaching job at the University of Southern California. That's a lot.

PE: It sounds like a lot more than it is. I teach two classes a semester, writing and theory.

BF: It can be hard to teach and write at the same time. How about for you?

PE: It can be exhausting. Luckily I have good students who want to work and read. Of course not all of the work is good, but working with them is exciting. I get paid relatively well. It's intellectually stimulating. I think it helps my work, ultimately. I never felt rushed about work; I don't feel pressured to make art. At the same time, I don't have a guru mentality. I don't want to teach people to write the way I write.

BF: Have you had the gratification of seeing your former students' work hit the bookstore shelves?

PE: Yeah. Chris Abani was one of my students, and his novel, GraceLand, did extremely well.

BF: I'll say. It was selected for the Today Show Book Club back in January. Well deserved, too. It's an incredibly good novel.

PE: I just read the manuscript for Abani's new novel, and I liked it quite a bit. I also really like the work of Emily Raboteau, who was a student of mine. It is satisfying seeing their work. In a way, it's more satisfying than seeing my own.

Advertisement