Author Percival Everett grew up in South Carolina and attended the University of Miami as well as the University of Oregon, where he did graduate work in philosophy. He has an MFA in writing from Brown University. He has published fifteen books, including For Her Dark Skin, Zulus, The Weather and The Women Treat Me Fair, Cutting Lisa, Walk Me to the Distance, Suder, The One That Got Away, Watershed, God's Country, Erasure and a story collection, Big Picture. He has taught at Bennington College, The University of Wyoming and the University of California at Riverside and is currently at the University of Southern California. Everett and his wife, Francesca, live in LA as well as a ranch in California and a house on Vancouver Island. He has a novel and a story collection coming out in 2004.
Beacon Press recently published the soft-cover (or trade paper back) editions of God's Country and Watershed. The former is something of a parable set in 1871 that features Curt Marder—an all-around loser—who as the story begins has lost his farm, wife and dog. Marder teams up with legendary tracker Bubba, a black man and also Jake, a recently orphaned child set upon vengeance. Everett's take on the Great American Western includes a highly amusing cast of characters including one George Armstrong Custer.
In Watershed, Robert Hawks, son and grandson of two iconoclastic physicians, is a hydrologist who finds himself entangled in a Native American treaty rights imbroglio as he retreats to the Colorado wilds to fish and escape his relationship with an extremely neurotic woman. Along the way he encounters a midget Native American woman, Louise Yellow Calf, two murdered FBI Agents, a toxic waste dump, a peyote-ingesting religious ceremony, the neurotic woman's ineptly suicidal father and an inebriated female FBI agent. Need I say more?
Robert Birnbaum: Do you care to comment on what kind of crap shoot the publishing business is?
Percival Everett: I have always ignored the business of publishing. A lot of people think I am joking when I say I am process oriented. All I care about is while I am working on something. I really do. I like being paid like anybody else but I have ignored—I don't read reviews. The statements from publishers, when they come, I look at them, but I still don't see them. I just throw them away. (laughs)
RB: Well, strange and fascinating oddities occur at the intersection of art and commerce, I guess. Why is Beacon Press publishing the soft cover edition of two books that you wrote seven or eight years ago?
PE: I can't really say how it happened. I am really happy that it has because it extends the lives of those books. And they weren't picked up for paper after their hardback publication by Graywolf. Part of it is that Graywolf, as great a press as it is—I love being over there—doesn't have the distribution muscle of a lot publishers and probably if it did, it wouldn't be as great as it is. I don't know.
RB: You think there is an inverse relationship there?
PE: (Both laugh) There seems to be, but I haven't looked at it enough to say. Helen Atwan at Beacon read the books and because of their political stance, she thought they would be good books for Beacon. It’s probably better for the books. I didn't get a lot of money from Beacon as if I would have if I was published by Bantam, but logically it makes more sense for the books. And for me, morally, it feels better.
RB: I read something about you in the Guardian in the UK recently. Has Erasure been published in this country?
PE: Yes. In 2001 it was published by the University Press of New England. [It was] Kind of an experiment for them because they do have a fiction imprint called Hardscrabble.
RB: Oh, yes they published WD Wetherell?
PE: Yes, it's always been New England-based writing. But [Erasure] wasn't published by Hardscrabble and it was a departure for them. They treated the book well and it did well and Hyperion published the paperback. In a way the layers of irony with this book are just kind of disgusting. (both laugh)
RB: Do I have this right, Doubleday was launching an Afro-American imprint, Harlem Moon?
PE: It was a nice offer, but I really don't think if they did read it that they understood it all. I was tempted briefly to let them do it so that an imprint could be invalidated by its first publication.
RB: God's Country might have been funnier if some of it didn't ring so true.
PE: But then it might not be funny at all (both laugh). Huck Finn is really funny because it is so sad.
RB: 2 Blowhards, a culturally astute weblog, recently tried to assemble a list of great Western novels. It was interesting to see how many books people were unaware of, including, of course, God's Country. Were you intending to write a Western novel?
PE: I was consciously writing a parody of that form. And in that way, no, it's not a western because I wasn't trying to write an adventure set in the mythic West. I was looking to exploit the fact that there is a mythic West.
RB: It's all myth.
People who like my work like my work for all the reasons that I would want them to like it. And the people who don't like it, dislike it for all the reasons I would want them to dislike it.
PE: Yeah, it has nothing to do with any reality. And how that mythology that was invented for the West is really the American story. Not the story itself but the fact that it was needed.
RB: It falls in with a number books that have attempted the same demythification, Berger's Little Big Man…
PE: EL Doctorow's Hard Times…
RB: Pete Dexter's Deadwood.
PE: Oh yeah and didn't Vonnegut have something…he floats around in times so much it's hard to know.
RB: It brings to mind Robert Altman's great film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, one of the first and one of the few films that is an anti-Western besides the film version of Little Big Man…
PE: Those are the only two that try to do it seriously, but of course you have—we don't think of it in this way, Blazing Saddles, may be the best example. Also we have Silverado, which is a fun, silly movie that exploits the genre but really don't have the depth.
RB: In your fifteen books, you have hopped around in terms of subject matter.
PE: And style too. I don't care much to write the same thing again.
RB: So at what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to do something as honorable as writing fiction?
PE: Well, I realized that I wanted to be really rich. (both laugh) That's when I decided. I was actually studying philosophy. I did the kind of philosophy known as Ordinary Language philosophy.
RB: Me too.
PE: Oh yeah. I just became so disenchanted with scholastic philosophy that — I was writing scenes anyway, to have people talk to each other about philosophical concepts.
RB: You were studying philosophy and you became disenchanted and so began dabbling in fiction—would you call it 'dabbling'?
PE: It was dabbling—I have always loved fiction and always read it—I applied to a couple of writing programs and they asked for writing samples and so I wrote a story and that's how it started. I have just been lucky, basically. I always feel kind of guilty about the paying the dues thing that people always talk about, and I suppose I am paying my dues now by having to still do it. But it wasn't so hard to start, for me.
RB: Honestly I could just as easily see you as being embittered. You've published fifteen books, and the way I came across your work was a reference to you in one of my favorite websites, The Minor Fall the Major Lift, mentioning you as an under-appreciated writer. Which is why I asked you about the crapshoot nature of publishing.
PE: I just want to make my art. So far I have been able to do that and live comfortably enough. I don't care about being rich, and I really don't care about the adulation. I just want to be able to buy hay for my horses (chuckles) and now, gasoline. (both laugh)
RB: Have you always been teaching along with writing?
PE: Most of my career I have been teaching and it is necessary now to live the way I have grown accustomed to living. I like teaching. I get paid fairly well to hang out with smart young people. That's hard to complain about.
RB: Not that I am trying to convince you otherwise but I can easily see someone pissing and moaning about the half-empty glass part of your life. Don't you think?
PE: It's just books (both laugh). Who would I rather be? Would I rather be Wittgenstein or …
RB: No, no…would anybody rather be him?
PE: I think the people who like my work like my work for all the reasons that I would want them to like it. And the people who don't like it, dislike it for all the reasons I would want them to dislike it.
RB: What's to dislike? There are people like that?
PE: I'm sure there are. I don't know if they dislike the way I write or the way I make my art as much as they dislike my political stance.
RB: Of course they would have to read you carefully, wouldn't they?
PE: I can pretty much relax that the people who disagree with me are not reading books.
RB: What do you make of a vein of resentment in the culture—who is to say how large it is—towards someone like Toni Morrison? I have read commentary suggesting that publishers promulgating her books privately don't like them…
PE: I don't get it either. Very odd. I'm sure that she could write anything down and get it published because she is going to make somebody some money. It's also obvious that she doesn't do that. There is a lot of room in the world for all sorts of books. I don't know why anybody gets really worked up.
RB: And then there are the attacks on writers like Morrison and Salman Rushdie and DeLillo and now young guys like Franzen and Foer and it strikes me that they are being attacked by people who haven't read them…
PE: It's always easier to condemn something when you haven't read it.
RB: But why get so worked up? On the other hand, maybe it's a good thing that people are passionate about these things.
PE: If that's really what they are passionate about? If somebody is really offended by the artistic sensibility of some writer that would be a great discussion. But if they are simply jealous of that person's success or something personal, I don't get it.
RB: What's your life like? You teach a couple classes a semester?
RB: You write everyday?
PE: I don't write everyday. I have what I call work amnesia. I don't know when I am really writing. I trust myself to be doing it.
RB: You mean that at the end of some period of time you have a book written?
PE: Yeah that's basically how it happens.
RB: So if I asked what you are working on now you would say?
PE: I'm working on something. (both laugh) At some point it makes itself clear what it is, and then I will be really sad for a long time while I finish it.
RB: Why the sadness?
PE: Because that means I have to finish it.
RB: You could write really, really long books and then never get published.
PE: Yeah and that might even be more fun. If my wife says she wants to go out and play and have fun, I'll just leave work immediately.
PE: Yeah, Francesca.
RB: You dedicate all your books to her?
PE: Damn near.
RB: I guess it keeps the peace.
PE: No, she's always surprised that I am doing it. It's because I have been so productive since I have been with her that it really is a sincere thank you.
PE: They're the ones who have to put up with us.
RB: Are you a different person when you are in the middle of writing something?
I like my life, and I think I like it because I don't like so much about the world... And writing is my way of dealing with the stuff that gets me so…there is no profit in being mad anymore. I used to be angry all the time.
PE: I don't think so, but I am the wrong person to ask (both laugh). I try to talk to myself as little as possible. I have periods—I don't get cranky but I suppose I become a little withdrawn or a little distracted.
RB: Is writing hard for you?
PE: I say to Chessie frequently, "Okay this is the last one. I don't want to write anything for a while." And because she knows me, obviously a lot better than I know myself, she can turn to me at any point while we are driving in the car and say, "You're working on something aren't you?" And I won't even know it and when she says it, I will realize it is true.
RB: That's a rare thing isn't it. To have a relationship where you accept that someone knows you better than yourself. We aren't exactly trained for that…
PE: Well, I wasn't trained for it. When someone says enough true things to you, you start to listen.
PE: Yeah, it's always maybe. Other than that—the way I live, I'm spoiled in a way. I teach, but I teach two days a week and the rest of the time I am at home with my wife. She teaches too. We are always home. And we work at the same desk. It’s a big desk, we're there at the same time.
RB: One of those partner's desks, that were used at old law firms.
PE: I'd like to find one but we made a semicircle glass table that sits in front of a window and we sit at either end, angling toward the same spot in the window.
RB: And you have a place in Mississippi?
PE: No, in California.
RB: Why did I think it was in Mississippi?
PE: I was just at a book conference there. Though Morgan Freeman seems to be comfortable in his farm in Mississippi, I don't think that I would be.
RB: It hasn't changed that much…
PE: I guess it has. I don't know if it's a function of his being a millionaire that makes him happy there. I really enjoyed the visit I just paid to Oxford at Square Books. It's a terrific town full of people who love books.
RB: It's also highly gentrified at this point. It's another piece of information that filters into the book press, when book or publishing magazines attend to real estate in Oxford, Mississippi. Apparently people who were raised there can't afford to live there anymore. It's gotten quite expensive. But that bookstore is one of the legendary independents especially now that those kinds of stores assume the mantle of a crusade.
PE: I wish them luck. I have trouble with the chains. I don't mind the business people like Square books or Lemuria and Powell's books where I know that the people who own the bookstores are trying to make money came to it because they loved books, not like the Wal-Mart model of the bookstore.
RB: So you are not under any contractual obligation to write a book, an idea comes to you, you write the book, teach, you have a ranch.
PE: I work a lot—I must because I—I'm always a little ahead of myself. I have a novel that's done and waiting to come out and a book of stories. They are both coming out in 2004. So I don't really feel pressure and neither do my publishers, to want me to write something else.
RB: Having written fifteen books you apparently have the confidence and the work ethic.
PE: However misguided that thinking is…
RB: Who is publishing the novel and the stories?
PE: The novel is being published by Hyperion.
RB: The Disney people.
PE: Yeah, I am trying to come to terms with that…and the stories again from Graywolf. Fiona McCrae, the director of the press, is my editor there and she is the person I think of as my editor. I hope I can always keep a book with them.
RB: Is that the longest-standing editorial relationship you've had?
PE: Yeah, we’ve done six books. And we talk about literature and books. That's real different in this industry. (both laugh)
RB: They published a wonderful anthology of essays this Spring called The Next American Essay by John D'Agata. I was talking about Graywolf Press with Fred Busch and he was telling me that they are financially strapped…
PE: It's funny how non-profits are under this pressure to break even whereas regular presses finish in the red all the time. (chuckles)
RB: Accounting sorcery. Can you talk about the yet-to-be-published novel?
PE: I have never been terribly good at talking about books.
PE: It is a novel and it is kind of, maybe it is unnecessary for me to say it but for me it is kind of strange. (both laugh)
RB: When you begin a new work how much of your past books do you carry with you? I was struck by your mention of 'work amnesia'. Do remember or think about your previous writing?
PE: No I don't think about it too much. I recognize it when I see it and to some extent I'll read at readings from things I've written. I have— I don't know if it's a reading disorder— but I can't read line by line. I see the whole page, which is why I read rather rapidly. When I am giving readings I am pretty much reciting what I have just memorized while I have looked at the page. But I don't know it when I am away from the book. My wife seems to remember every word I have ever written because she tells me what I have changed at my readings because I am constantly editing myself. What I actually read is not always on the page. Given any particular day, I like the sound of some words better than others. And, of course, I am a different writer now than when I had written the thing.
RB: One can say that and seems that it should be true but why do you say that?
PE: Hopefully I am smarter. Hopefully I have gotten better. And in between the time I am seeing it and the time I have written it I have probably read about two or three hundred books that make me feel differently about language. Who knows?
RB: Do you read fiction or non fiction?
PE: I just finished judging an award, the PEN/Hemingway, so I just read a couple hundred books.
RB: Did you read all of them? I'm thinking back on the National Book Award brouhaha…
PE: You will have to read my treatment of that in my novel Erasure, I have a little fun. I judged that award a few years ago. It was a good experience, but I do make some fun of it.
RB: Sorry, I sidetracked you.
PE: Yeah, I read not so much—I like reading essays but I have to admit I have never warmed up to—what is called creative non fiction, things that people write a lot. I'm sure it's fine but I can' t…I can't read science fiction and I am sure a lot of it is well written and wonderful. It just doesn't turn me on. But I read a lot of science and philosophy and history, still.
RB: Did you read Wittgenstein's Poker?
PE: No I don't know that one.
RB: It's a book about a legendary confrontation at Cambridge University between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. I have this sense of your life as idyllic. What is it that, excuse this word, that informs what you write about? Movies, do you fish …whittle on your front porch?
PE: I do fish. I have horses so I don't have time to whittle. I like my life and I think I like it because I don't like so much about the world. And I can't divorce myself from it. And writing is my way of dealing with the stuff that gets me so…there is no profit in being mad anymore. I used to be angry all the time.
RB: So that's how we get smarter.
PE: And now I am kind of sad, it's all predictable and maybe I sound cynical saying this, but the outrage gives way to a sort of amused concern. And it’s shocking and I am curious and interested in the fact that it's not shocking—what's shocking is that is not shocking. And what does it mean about people that they have always behaved in a way that doesn't let their behavior surprise us.
RB: When the hostilities began in Iraq many friends and acquaintances, my mother, they were upset—I thought most of my life the world has been in a state of more or less armed conflict. I can't remember a time of peace. I asked, "Why this and not that?" I kept telling people to stop watching television.
PE: Yeah, there's that and there is also this question when I see the Saud family having given $500 million to Al-Qaeda in the past ten years. I don't know how we choose allies and enemies. I don't know how we stood by and watched and said that apartheid in South Africa will change naturally as a matter of course and so there should be no violence there and now we are liberating people who never asked for it.
RB: The stench of untruth is oppressive here. I guess that's why you have a ranch and why I have withdrawn from my formerly urban lifestyle….terrible. This is a lot of weight to carry, such anger. What do you see in your students?
And it’s shocking and I am curious and interested in the fact that it's not shocking—what's shocking is that is not shocking.
PE: I've been impressed with my students at USC. They run counter to every stereotype that's been created for the private university and especially the USC student. At least mine have been engaged with the world and interested and to a one, they participate in some kind program in the community in LA.
RB: Why do you think that is? What's the stereotype —that they are disengaged and only care about careers?
PE: The stereotype for USC at one point might have been deserved—a very expensive private university…
RB: A football school…
PE: I guess it was at one point. And fortunately the football team became really bad and that always helps a university. Then the university, a number of years before I arrived made a concerted effort to change its student body. To find better students and what I can see is they have succeeded. I never thought I would like an institution where I taught but…the university embraces that it is set in downtown LA, surrounded by what is considered a bad neighborhood. It doesn't run from that. In fact it had a chance to move a number of years ago to some beautiful suburban setting and it didn't. It's a Los Angeles university. We have this program for kids in the neighborhood, they are spotted in middle school and if they stay with this program and are admitted to USC, they go for free. We just graduated our first student in English, three years ago. It's fantastic— a $30,000 a year education that these kids get.
RB: Times four.
PE: I'm proud of the institution.
RB: Where is your ranch in California?
PE: We are about 60 miles east of Los Angeles in between Palm Springs and LA. But we live part of the time on Vancouver Island. Though we have this little farm, we still have neighbors. I like people just fine, but in Canada we are stuck in the woods and it's nice. Do you fly fish?
PE: We have a mile of the Salmon River on our property. So if you want to fly fish you are welcome to join us.
RB: Thanks, my dog has made me more of a nature person. Anyway, how do you plug into the informational shit stream? TV?
PE: No, but I read the papers. I never thought I would say that Internet is good but because of the Internet—I used to go to the library every week and read all the papers and now I read all the papers on line.
PE: Where did the resistance to the Internet come from?
PE: Out of habit. And also it’s really bad for my students. There is so much bad information and unless you come to it—this might sound elitist—with an education you don't know enough to edit and judge what you are getting. At least even though there are a lot of bad publications what you are getting has been vetted by someone.
PE: That's true. It's been the case that you can find anything to support what you believe in the worlds. You have to read between the lines with everything and that's what a college education is for.
RB: I thought a college education was supposed to get you a job?
PE: Luckily, I don't think that's why my students are there. I never went to college for that reason.
RB: This is a vital issue for me because my young son will be of college age in 2016 and I have my doubts about what the real value of a college education will be. As opposed to some training in how to view the world intelligently and critically and, dare I say, skeptically.
PE: I think it still will be the case that real advances in our culture will come from people with education. A lot of people will make a lot of money finding out a way to sell us a different kind of deodorant and that's always been the case. But how our art changes and how medicine changes will still be by people who have some investment in the world beyond themselves.
RB: Maybe I am double-talking here because I don't want to denigrate the idea of the university.
PE: I understood what you were saying.
RB: I'm wrestling with the notion that a degree conveys and the process is anything other than some rote automatic thing.
PE: That's the bad part. The equating of the degree with the meal ticket that universities have to resist. The universities are feeling a pressure to sell themselves as places that will get their students the best jobs.
RB: What are you teaching?
PE: I teach some lit courses and mostly fiction writing. And I teach theory for writers.
RB: And why are people taking writing courses.
PE: That's a good question. I am always baffled by that. I don't know why people want to be writers. For a lot of people it's because they love books—for some people. For quite a few it's because they have this romantic notion of —and I have no idea where it comes from—
RB: If I walked into a class and you were my teacher, I'd say, "Great." I'd like to have your sense of ease and your accomplishments. You are a wonderful paradigm for being a writer.
PE: Well, because of that I have been contemplating becoming an alcoholic (both laugh) so I can do my students a favor and steer them away.
RB: Do your students want to change the world?
PE: I wish they did. But honestly can't say to them that I want to change the world anymore. When I started writing I did it because I wanted to make art and now I understand that art and politics are inextricably bound and that you can affect the world in really small ways and hope that something good happens. But I never have a message and I try to teach them to not have a message but it's hard to do that while at the same time trying to teach them that part of the reason they are writing is to participate in the world.
RB: That would be a subtle thing. Preachy books don't deliver.
PE: Yeah, and they can't.
RB: I had asked before about the body of your work and somewhere here in our talk I got a sense of the mystery of your creative process.
PE: To some extent. I like the magic of it. I don't know where the stories come from. People will say, "Why did that occur to you?" And I have no good answer. For them or myself. And in that way it is mysterious. That's why I really love it. There is a magic associated with it. And by now—my students ask, "Can you teach me to write a novel?" I say "No, because I don't know how to write a novel." And I don't. I know that I have written them. And from all appearances, I will do it again. But I have no idea.
RB: Do you outline?
PE: Every thing comes differently. Every book has its own life. That's what I mean when I say I have no idea when I start. Interestingly the first thing that occurs though I can't explain it all. I see the shape of the book.
RB: As a geometric form or as a shadow?
PE: In a way, that's really easy— it’s going to be rectangular (laughs) but I see what the words will look like on the page and kind of the negative space they will be in. That sort of thing.
RB: How do you know when you are done?
PE: You can work it forever. I think it’s done when the changes you are making don't make it ostensibly better. When you can step back and say I've changed that but nothing really has changed.
RB: How many drafts.
I learn a lot writing. And with every book I learn more about how little I know. So by now at the end of fifteen books I know a lot less than almost anybody.
PE: Typically a lot of drafts. But most of the work is the research and my thinking. For God's Country I must have watched and read 150 Westerns so I could soak up the genre. It was not something I was into.
RB: Most Westerns were pretty hokey.
PE: I taught a film course in the Western not too long ago. A movie like The Searchers with John Wayne— growing up I hated John Wayne. John Wayne is great and The Searchers is an incredibly sick movie. From the opening scene in Monument Valley and the beautiful part is what's being sold. Anyone who knows that region knows you can't live there (both laugh). And there's this house…
RB: Jonathan Raban wrote a whole book [Badlands] about the people who were euchred by the railroads to come out to the Upper Plains. I don't know many times you used this joke but it cracked me up every time people would commiserate about Curt Marder's [God's Country] dead dog.
PE: Part of that is about how much I love dogs but the other part is you can kill the entire Confederate army in a movie and nobody blinks but Old Yella, everybody cries.
RB: You don't tour much do you?
PE: For a long time I was a problem for publishers because I just wouldn't do stuff. I wouldn't go places and do stuff. And then with Erasure, I needed a new roof on my house in Canada (both laugh) so I thought I am going to try.
RB: The practical side.
PE: Erasure has done fairly well, I got the roof, and there was nothing left after that but it’s better to be dry and poor then rich and wet.
RB: Do you take a longer view of your life?
PE: I have a few ideas. I paint as well. I'd really rather be painting.
RB: Were you born in this century. Oil paints, fly-fishing—do you write with a computer.
PE: I write long hand actually. I used a typewriter for my first five books—a manual typewriter.
RB: Do you still have it?
PE: I gave it to a student. It was collecting dust in my studio and there was this student who I liked very much, he was admiring it. So I said, "Would you like that?" And he got all excited and so I gave it to him.
RB: I love typewriters and I think they are beautiful.
PE: And they have that—computers have too, on the hard drive—but I always loved the idea that all my words were on the ribbon.
RB: Let's see, you'd rather paint but you are going to continue to write because when it comes down to it, it's in your blood?
PE: I guess. I always avoided that kind of talk. But unfortunately it's probably true.
RB: If you had only written three of four books I wouldn't have said that.
PE: I'm going to do it until I get it right, basically. (laughs) I learn a lot writing. And with every book I learn more about how little I know. So by now at the end of fifteen books I know a lot less than almost anybody. (laughs)
RB: Think about what you won't know when you have written thirty.
PE: My goal is to know nothing.
RB: A Zen approach to fiction. Do you associate with writers?
PE: I think it's always healthy to avoid a room full of writers. A lot of my friends are writers and we don't talk about writing. I like the way writers see the world. That doesn't mean I always agree.
RB: I agree with you. That's why I like to talk to writers. Mostly because there is an effort to individuate, to think originally. It's not like trying to say what everyone else is saying.
PE: That's right. Writers like disagreeing with each other.
RB: Unless you are in a religious cult or a right-wing namecaller, why surround yourself with people who think the same way?
PE: Unfortunately people who might be considered progressive and lefty usually have a somewhat artistic sensibility and don't like to repeat themselves.
RB: Yeah, so they are not able to become practitioners of the Big Lie technique. That's pretty savvy. In order to brainwash people you have to keep repeating the same message over and over. I'd like to think that progressives also have more respect for other humans. Getting back to this idea of how to mitigate the anger we feel, we have to find something that…
PE: It's like what you said earlier, there were no good old days.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing