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Iraq: Experiencing the War at Home

Author Benjamin Percy discusses masculinity, fiction writing about Iraq, and how he got into writing to impress a girl.
 
 
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A lot of really glowing things have been said as of late about 28-year-old fiction writer Benjamin Percy. Peter Straub called Percy "one of our most accomplished young writers" and Anthony Doerr described him as "a force." Percy is writing for Esquire. He just got accepted into the Sundance Institute. He won a Pushcart Prize. His second collection of short stories, Refresh, Refresh , has been called "full of bravery and bravado" by none other than Ann Patchett. She goes on: "These stories mark the beginning of what is bound to be a long and brilliant career for Benjamin Percy. Welcome him." OK, or hate him. Just a little bit. You imagine he's already bought his million-dollar brownstone in Brooklyn and made friends with Paul Auster, already drinking microbrews and talking about writing as if it were a religious experience. But you'd be wrong. Perhaps the most exciting thing about this young writer, besides his fierce talent, is that he's still quintessential salt of the earth. Still, for lack of a less cliché way of putting it, in touch with his roots. In fact, the stories in this collection are nothing so much as the surprisingly beautiful and tender roots of a boyhood pulled out, brushed off, and held out as an offering. The title story is named for the insistent fingers of a teenage boy, pressing the refresh button on his computer over and over in hopes that an email will miraculously appear from his father, a reservist in the Iraq war. The reader feels a little like this after turning the last page of these stories; you just want another. Indeed, welcome Ben.

Courtney Martin: Tell me about your background -- geographic, economic, familial.

Benjamin Percy: I spent most of my childhood in Central Oregon, the backdrop of my fiction. Many people know about Bend -- once a mill town, now a ski town, nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, on the edge of a great wash of desert -- having traveled there on vacation for mountain biking or whitewater rafting or skiing. I lived about 10 miles from there, in a small community known as Tumalo. One of my neighbors was a sheep farmer named Ott who killed our dog with a shotgun. Another ran a horse ranch. Another grew alfalfa. Though only a short drive, I lived worlds away from Bend, far from the coffee houses and sushi restaurants and European car dealerships. In many ways my fiction is informed not just by the craggy landscape, but by the ever-growing tension brought on by the Californication of Oregon. My family ended up middle-class, but I spent a lot of my childhood on a lower rung of the ladder. My father was trained as a lawyer but found the life morally objectionable. He went into business for himself -- about 20 times over. He's constantly reinventing himself, sometimes working with Chinese immigrants, sometimes working with gold mines. We joke that he's an international spy, because he wears a lot of black, travels often, owns a sizable arsenal, and never fully explains how he makes a living.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I wasn't one of those people who always wanted to be a writer -- though I'm sure the idea would have been attractive to me had it seemed an option. But growing up, I never met a writer, never heard about anybody even trying to write a book. That wasn't my neighborhood. To pursue writing seemed like something otherworldly, like being an astronaut. I always had a book in hand. English was always my best subject. But, for whatever reason, it struck me as an impractical subject to pursue. Then I met my girlfriend -- now my wife -- when working at Glacier National Park the summer after my freshman year at Brown. She was, she is, drop-dead gorgeous, not to mention five years older than me. So I had to pull out all the stops in pursuing her. After so many lascivious love letters and doe-eyed sonnets, she was mine. But here was the deal: I needed to go into writing. No kidding. It was almost contractual, something I signed in lipstick and saliva. So she gets the credit. I can say with complete certainty that I would have never pursued writing had she not taken me by the throat and said, "You're really good at this, damn it."

Are you someone who thinks about issues of masculinity in a formal way -- i.e., reads theory, engages in discussions on the construction of gender -- or did you stumble on this subject matter organically?

I never even thought about masculinity as a subject, as my subject, until I started getting these kinds of questions during Q&A sessions and during interviews. Which is to say, I stumbled upon it organically. If I read a lot of theory and if I stood behind a podium at a number of conferences -- I think that might hurt my fiction and make it message-driven rather than character-driven. I don't particularly want to intellectualize what is a rather magical, instinctual process for me, as I mine the bedrock of my experiences, of my personality, and lay that gleaming ore on the page. I can bench-press 270 pounds. I like to chop wood. I drink bourbon neat, and I order my steaks rare. I've never used hair gel. I don't like to shop. I could go on. But I'm also very sensitive, with my wife and my son, with my way of seeing the world. I guess that makes me kind of an anomaly, especially in the writing universe, which perhaps explains why I've been able to carve out a place for myself.

You write frequently about intergenerational relationships between men. Why does this kind of relationship interest you so much?

Russell Banks calls it that "old father-and-son thing." The complex relationships that exist between men, fathers, sons, brothers, where so much remains unsaid, where alcohol and hunting trips and holidays can uncork certain feelings that otherwise would have remained bottled-up. My grandfather was a very powerful personality. He would anger easily, dominate every discussion, big-belly everyone around him into a corner where they would listen and nod their heads, by God. My father is also a powerful personality, but he's one of those strong, silent types who communicates in a nonverbal way, by acting, by doing. I'm both of them, and I'm none of them. I'm ultimately fascinated -- I always have been -- by their relationship, and I think it's informed a lot of my fiction.

Did you have a political agenda when writing, or is your goal purely artistic?

I certainly have strong political feelings. But I try not to let them command my fiction. There is a difference between writing about a political issue -- and writing politically -- and I try not to cross that line in the sand. I don't want people to come away from my story as if they've come away from an editorial, with a ready-made message shoved down their throat. An audience should feel betrayed by such fiction, because it's so obviously fraudulent and manipulative, the characters hollow puppets the author crudely shoves his hands into. Part of the goal of Refresh, Refresh was to write a war story that didn't say, war is good, war is bad. I instead wanted to say, this is war. And in doing so, I tried to show both sides. I can't tell you how many emails I've received from people who have read Refresh, Refresh and called me A, a liberal pantywaist, or B, a right-wing nut job. When you piss off everybody, I guess you're doing something right. On the other hand, I've also received emails from soldiers, from vets, from protestors, from politicians, all of them moved by the story for completely different reasons. I think that's because the story takes place in Tumalo, Oregon, but could have taken place anywhere -- because it's about this war, but it could have been about any war -- because it's about Josh and Gordon, but it could have been about those teenagers who live down the street from you.

Do you see yourself as writing as part of a genre -- call it war writers -- along with people like Anthony Swofford or Tim O'Brien, or do you see your work as uniquely about the people back home?

You can write about being a wizard when you've never cast a spell. You can write about being a serial killer when you've never slit a throat. But war requires dog-tag credentials. So when I first set out to write an Iraq story, I didn't think I had the chops to talk about tanks growling through the streets of Bagdad. So, for credibility and for accessibility, I wrote about the battleground at home, something that had been neglected entirely. A few months ago I did a reading with Brian Turner, who served as an infantry leader in Iraq and who wrote a beautifully haunting book of poetry called Here, Bullet . When we were hanging out afterward, he clapped me on the back and said he thought what I was doing was important and he couldn't understand why more people weren't writing about the war. That was a great affirmation for me.

One of the most surprising stories in the collection is "Meltdown," an environmental dystopia with some interesting similarities to the recent blockbuster movie I Am Legend . Why do you think these stories have such charge for people these days? Yeah. I Am Legend . 28 Weeks Later . Cloverfield. All within a few months of each other. The enormous success of The Road (which, for all the Percy hata's out there, hit bookstores two years after I wrote Meltdown). I think it's simple: We're scared. One day everything is fine. The next day the towers fall, and with them our sense of security, our well-being. Even now, so many years later, every time a breaking news bulletin interrupts a sitcom, you lean forward, your heart pounding, wondering, "Is it happening again?" The best horror stories tap into the anxieties of our times, touching that raw nerve, making us jump. And right now it sometimes feels like we're awfully close to the end of the world.

How did you get the idea for the title story, "Refresh, Refresh"?

I wrote the story in 2005. Like everybody else, I was sucking down my daily dose of war coverage. Reading articles, watching the endless stream of sand-and-blood footage. And then it occured to me: I hadn't read one piece of fiction. So I set out to fill that void. In particular, I was inspired by an article about a small town in Ohio. In one ambush, they lost more than a half-dozen men. I grew up in a community of a similar size and wondered what kind of cavity that would leave behind. So I funneled their grief and their frustration and their pride and their love into my backyard.

Is it intended to be an "anti-war" story?

No, though that's the way many people read it. I tried to toe a line, to show both sides. I didn't want to say, war is good or war is bad. Instead, I wanted instead to say, this is war. But people read into it as they wish. One day I'll receive an email from a guy who calls me a bleeding-heart liberal. The next day I'll hear from somebody who thinks I'm a right-wing nut job. If you piss everybody off, I guess you're doing something right.

The book is very dark -- abusive boyfriends, dead brothers, strained marriages. Where do you see the hope in this collection?

"The Caves in Oregon" is a story with a happy ending. In it, I've tried to make new the classic romantic scenario of two people butting heads and finally overcoming their differences. In the end, through violent and then tender catharsis, they are reborn as a couple. The same goes for "The Killing" and "The Woods" and maybe even "When the Bear Came." My characters travel through a long, black tunnel so that the reader can appreciate the final light, even as they blink painfully against it.

Quite a few characters in these stories are dealing with the prospect of birth in one way or another. Why do you repeatedly come back to that plot point?

In March, my son will be two. A lot of these stories were written when my wife and I were talking about getting pregnant, then hitting the bedsprings, then worrying over the pregnancy, and finally hovering over a squalling, red-faced infant. That adds up to the most terrifying and wonderful thing in the world. And, inevitably, what floods your life leaks into your fiction. Cormac McCarthy once said he was only interested in stories concerning death. I can understand this. It's the dark tomorrow that waits for all of us. The inevitable denouement. And birth is the natural partner to death.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body . You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

 
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