Traverse City National Writers Series: Benjamin Percy and "Red Moon"

Traverse City National Writers Series: Cymbre Foster, Program and Outreach Manager for Traverse City National Writers Series, interviews Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon.

I’ll admit I was hesitant to read Red Moon, Benjamin’s Percy’s latest novel about werewolves. It’s not that I hate the furry shapeshifters. I actually loved the movie An American Werewolf in London, but frankly I had grown cold toward the supernatural beasts since all of the Twilight hype. But the fact that Percy married the notion of lycans and terrorists was appealing.  I sat down cracked open this werewolf/war epic and was immediately hooked. Percy has indeed created a literary paranormal page-turner that is about so much more than blood and guts. As the LA Times says, it’s where  “Ideology leads to kidnapping, mayhem and mass murder.”

Percy is also the author of The Wilding as well as two critically acclaimed books of short stories, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk.

His fiction and nonfiction have been read on National Public Radio, performed at Symphony Space, and published by Esquire (where he is contributing editor), GQ, Time, Men’s Journal, Outside, The Wall Street Journal and The Paris Review.

Percy will be at the City Opera House in downtown Traverse City on Thursday, Sept 5 to discuss his work and more in a conversation with guest host Jeremy Chamberlain. The event begins at 7:00 p.m., with doors opening at 6:00 p.m. For ticket pricing and information, visit cityoperahouse.org.

Q: I read that you’re one of those people who is driving down the interstate and imagines the water tower on the side of the road comes alive and wreaks all kinds of havoc. The next thing you know you’re going too slow and in the wrong lane.  Have you always had that kind of imagination? How does it help or hinder your writing?

A: I grew up in rural Oregon. Big woods, no neighbors. I survived on imagination. A hollowed-out tree was a portal to another world. A stump was a stage and with a stick I would conduct an invisible orchestra. Birds were spies and chipmunks allies. I left notes for Bigfoot and he left ciphers for me riddled into bark. I fired my slingshot, imagining it a pistol and the shadows enemies lying in wait. And when I wasn’t playing, I was reading books or watching movies. Stories filled my days. Not much has changed, except that I spend my time now at a desk, lost in the wilderness of my mind. This is a gift in every way but one. I can blur away this world and inhabit another so fully that re-entry is sometimes difficult. It’s often best for me to exercise after writing for the day—get the blood flowing, pound asphalt and gulp air—or else I walk around in a bit of a daze, still lost in some story I can’t stop composing.   

Q: You have said that Red Moon was inspired by what scares us. Can you elaborate?

A: Godzilla was born out of post-atomic anxiety. Frankenstein was born out of the Industrial Revolution, the fear of man playing god, the fear of science and technology. The Red Scare and McCarthyism gave rise to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Ever since 9/11, there has been a slew of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives. In the same fashion, I want to take a knife to the nerve of the moment. Right now, this is what we fear most of all. 1) Infection. We are terrified of germs. For proof of this, you need look no farther than the entryway or countertop of any business in America: Purell oozes there in anti-bacterial puddles. And headlines are dominated by every outbreak of swine flu, bird flu, West Nile. 2) Terrorism. Terror owns us, paralyzes us by the millions, as the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing so sadly and recently reminded us. So I braided these two things together—the fear of infection and the fear of terrorism—to write what I suppose you could call a post-9/11 reinvention of the werewolf myth.  

Q: Modern fiction is rife with werewolves. How did you ensure that Red Moon wouldn’t be written off as another shapeshifter cliché?

A: Jekyll and Hyde is the foundational werewolf text. It is a story about the battle between id and ego, the wildness chained inside all of us. I am channeling this, a condition we can all relate to, due to too much to drink, rage or exhaustion or endangerment. But I reinvented the myth by making the story a political allegory (about a segment of the population who are treated as “other”) and by focusing on the slippery science behind infection (making the animal-borne pathogen not so different from Mad Cow or Chronic Wasting Disease—something that makes the situation less supernatural, more believable).

Q: Since Hollywood seems to have a love affair with all things fanged, it seems only natural that Red Moon be adapted to the big screen. Your thoughts?

A: I have some news—big news on this front—but I’m unable to share it for a few more weeks.

Q: The NWS in collaboration with the local school system has developed a creative writing program for high schoolers. We tell them to read, read, read. What other advice would you give aspiring young writers?

A: Read your brains out and write your brains out. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours required to master any trade. The same applies to the keyboard. But along with that communion with the page, you need to get out and get your leg broken, get your heart broken. Go skinny dipping in a reservoir at midnight. Go gut an elk on the side of a mountain in the middle of a snowstorm. Talk to strangers. Visit faraway lands. The more you live, the better your stories will be. There are no prodigies in this field.

Q: We have hosted a writer who works to the heart-pounding rhythm of rock n roll and another who writes in a cupboard so he isn’t distracted.  How do you write? What is the process?

A: I call my office the dungeon. It’s in the basement—with a window that looks out on a forest. I keep the lights dim to encourage a mindset equivalent to dreaming. I generally don’t listen to music, though sometimes I might when pacing around and trying to get in the mood to write a certain scene. I work for six to eight hours a day—pushing words around—and then climb the stairs into sunlight and play pretty ponies with my daughter.

Q: You’ve said that you “gobble up books like candy.” What is on your bedside table these days?

A: I’m reading Daniel Woodrell’s The Maid’s Version. He’s a brilliant prose stylist—and I love the way he plays with time in this novel. I’m studying a number of screenplays, among them JAWS and Chinatown. And I’m about to dive in to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Margaret Atwood’s latest.

Q: I couldn’t help but notice that you must have spent a lot of time researching while writing Red Moon.  What was that like? Were you a regular visitor to the CDC?

A: Every story is a research project. And there was so much in Red Moon I didn’t know. So I talked to soldiers, brewmasters, government agents, politicians, computer techs, and scientists. Scientists especially. I filled up a pile of yellow legal tablets interviewing researchers at Iowa State University and the USDA labs, trying to figure out the slippery science behind infection, mutation, vaccination. I didn’t want to make my lycans full-moon howlers, but a believable horror. David Quammen’s latest nonfiction book, Spillover, is all about animal-borne pathogens and the next pandemic. I wanted a fictional account of the same.

Q: Your sister Jennifer was a Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy here in Northern Michigan. Did you ever visit her there? What do you know of this neck of the woods?

A: I wasn’t able to visit Jen, but I did get to Interlochen a few years ago to meet with the students (who were amazing) and give a reading. I’m pals with Jack Driscoll, too, your neighborhood bard. It’s beautiful country up there. I wish I had more time to explore it and maybe toss a line in the river.

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