Benjamin Percy, author of The Dead Lands and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!
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IFOA: What inspired you to write your new novel, a post-apocalyptic re-interpretation of the Lewis and Clark expedition?
Benjamin Percy: I grew up in Oregon, and my mother is a hobby historian obsessed with Lewis and Clark. We visited Fort Clatsop so many times we should have had a punch card. We attended the bicentennial and snapped photos in front of the giant covered wagon. We stopped at historical markers and suffered through impromptu lectures on why the expedition was the greatest adventure story in American history. I read their journals, read Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage. I had a deep well of information to draw from, and originally I thought I might hammer out a non-fiction project.
I would recreate their passage—that was the idea—pedaling and paddling and hiking, joined by friends and family. A modern-day adventure. And a reflection on how I grew up, which was rather wild, gifted with a freedom kids don’t have today.
An editor heard about this idea—unofficially, at a bar—and bid on it alongside my novel, Red Moon. I hadn’t up to that point figured out the logistics or really talked it over with my wife. When we crunched the numbers—the time and money it would take—we decided it wasn’t the best choice. My kids were young and I’d have to step away from the teaching position I held at the time.
So I decided to make some stuff up instead.
Historical novels about the Corps of Discovery have been done, and done well, so I decided on a fresh angle. Post-apocalyptic Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark 2.0. Which made the story fresh and perilous once more. Not just a story resigned to the archives of history, but a revisionary future in which our nation hangs in the balance.
IFOA: In the event of an actual apocalypse, what would be in your survival kit?
Percy: I could list off the usual suspects—knife, water filter, plant guide, good boots and socks—but that would be boring. So let’s say trampoline, crayons, kittens, Twinkies and bourbon.
IFOA: Do you see similarities between the current state of America and the one described in The Dead Lands?
Percy: I’m always channeling cultural anxieties in my work. You can read The Dead Lands and get caught up in the thrill ride alone. But if you look deeper, you can see a cracked version of our world. Is it about environmental degradation? The swelling divide between the 1% and the rest of the population? American imperialism? Yes.
IFOA: How has your upbringing in the high desert of Oregon influenced your work?
Percy: I moved around a lot as a kid, but central Oregon is where I lived longest—on several acres of sage and juniper. That kind of isolation was great training ground for a novelist. I had no one to play with, so I read. Several books a week. And when I wasn’t reading—or doing chores—I was caught up in my imagination, dreaming myself into a knight, a jedi, a cowboy, an adventuring archaeologist.
The high desert backdrop has also influenced the stage of my fiction. So much of it takes place out West. That’s the place I know best. The geography, history, politics, culture, myths. Maybe one day I’ll set a novel in the Midwest, but right now I still feel like I have a tourist’s perspective on the region.
IFOA: What was the best piece of writing you read in the past year?
Percy: Tough one. Maybe A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara or Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I’ll also throw out an endorsement for Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, which I’m re-reading. It’s extraordinarily smart, and its analysis and craft lessons apply to every storyteller, every reader and viewer, no matter if they’ve never read a comic in their life.
Benjamin Percy is the author of the novels Red Moon and The Wilding, and two short story collections, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk. His writing has appeared in Esquire, GQ, Time and elsewhere. His honours include the Pushcart Prize, an NEA grant, the Plimpton Prize for Fiction and a Whiting Award. Raised in the high desert of central Oregon, he lives in Minnesota. Percy presents his new thriller, The Dead Lands, a post-apocalyptic re-imagining of the Lewis and Clark saga, in which a super flu and nuclear fallout have made a husk of the world we know.