With the publication of his second collection of short stories, Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf), Benjamin Percy is becoming something of a small press superstar, lauded by The Paris Review, among others. PW caught up with him on tour to discuss the short fiction scene, small press publishing, and life on the road.
At this point, you’re pretty much a dedicated short story writer, which is kind of a different scene from the one novelists are in…
There’s always that pressure, to write the novel. I felt that the minute I stepped into an MFA program. I felt that when I started talking to different agents. It seems to be a question that’s always on the table. But I really feel like the short story is not the breeding ground. It’s a completely different form. And I think I’m more hard-wired for short stories. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try to take on the novel, I’ve nearly completed one now. But I’ve written two others that failed. So, in my career, even though I’m wed to the short story, even though I feel like I have the potential to be a great short story writer, whereas maybe I’ll only be a good novelist, I want that challenge. The same way when it comes to athletes, depending upon whether you have more red fibers or more white fibers in your musculature, you can run long distance, or you can run a sprint. There are exceptions to this, T.C Boyle. But there are also people like Lee K. Abbott, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver. I don’t want to be one of those people who, you read the novel and it feels like a stretched out short story.
Now you’re touring for your second book of stories. Where have you been and where are you going?
I’ve just been in Chicago, Wisconsin, the Twin Cities, and New York now for two weeks, then I’ll go back to Milwaukee, Oregon, Pittsburgh, and then Boston might be on the horizon. I’ve done several Midwest events in addition to this so it’s been a whirlwind. I’m not going to whine about it. There’s something so gratifying about being able to interact with your audience. Writing is such a lonely pursuit that at last to be able to face my readers, to talk about my work—I can’t really complain about that.
What kind of responses have you been getting at the events?
The standard sort of questions: where do you get your ideas? What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into creative writing? But also more unusual things, like who inspired me when it comes to writing about war? How difficult is it to write about war without editorializing? What sort of responses have I received from military families?
Do the stories you pick to read, and the ones people respond to most, vary by region?
That varies by generation, and also gender. I’ll hear from somebody in the military, I’ll hear from a Nam-vet, I’ll hear from a mother who lost her son.
How is it doing literary fiction with a small press, Graywolf especially, which is known more for poetry? They’ve been pushing to do more fiction lately.
They worked out a million dollar initiative this past year, a successful million dollar initiative, and their goal is to become the next Ecco Press, to take over that middle ground that was lost there. Now you just have big houses and little houses and they have stepped into the middle. So, right now they’ve got William Kittredge’s short stories. They’ve got Ron Carlson and Charles Baxter. They’ve got Percival Everett and Kevin McIlvoy, so their presence in fiction is growing by the day. I feel really fortunate to be part of the pack. And they treat you with such care. They are on the phone with me every day, they are knocking on the doors of magazines and newspapers for interviews, setting up all these readings. I feel like I am a part of a family there.