Join author, educator, and learner, Annmarie Kelly as she laughs, cries, and kvetches with the writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, and wanderers who inspire all of us to reach beyond our divisions and discover what it means to be wild, precious, and brave.
Ben Percy writes novels, and comic books, and podcasts, and television, and movies, and short stories, and more. He joins us today to talk about “juggling all those flaming chainsaws.” In this episode, Ben and Annmarie discuss Wolverine, sharks, and “cussedness,” how to be stubborn in the face of rejection, and what it takes to pursue the writing life.
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Annmarie Kelly: Wild Precious Life is brought to you in part by Content Bookstore located in the heart of historic Northfield, Minnesota, the content shop is bright, warm, and welcoming to readers of all ages, interests, and walks of life. Drop by or shop online at contentbookstore.com. And we're brought to you by the Ashland University Low-res MFA, where our accomplished faculty help you find your voice and complete your degree at your own pace, expand your writing practice, and refine your craft within the supportive community of Ashland University's Master of Fine Arts and Creative Writing. Learn more and enroll today at ashland.edu. Have you noticed how we put people in boxes? We categorize them. We have codes, sometimes written, but often unwritten that allow us to decide how or what a person stands for or is. The football player doesn't write love poetry. The student who's brilliant at AP Physics couldn't also be a cheerleader or a bowling instructor or work at a nursing home.
Annmarie Kelly: We figure folks stay in their lane. Sometimes our categories can be useful. We may assume right about somebody's politics or their commitment to organic farming. But speaking with today's guest, I thought about how this categorization often makes us miss out. Writer Ben Percy writes comic books and science fiction novels, but he also writes love letters and admires feminist short stories, and has written some of the most beautiful reflections on marriage and parenting that I've ever read. He dresses like a lumberjack, sounds like Wolverine, and he's passionate about funding for the arts and about his kids having more strong female role models to look up to in books and movies. Plus, he's wicked smart. I am so thankful for our conversation.
Annmarie Kelly: Let me tell you more about Ben. Benjamin Percy is the author of six novels, three short story collections, and a book of essays. His fiction and non-fiction had been read on National Public Radio, performed at Symphony Space and published by Esquire, GQ, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Tin House, and More. He writes comics for Marvel, DC and Dynamite, and is known for his work on X-Force, Batman, Wolverine, Green Arrow, and more. He co-wrote the feature film Summering, which recently made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. His audio series, Wolverine: The Long Night won the iHeartRadio Award for best scripted podcast, and his honors include an NEA Fellowship, a Whiting Award, two push cart prizes and inclusion in the Best American Short Stories. Ben lives in Minnesota with his family.
Annmarie Kelly: Ben Percy, welcome to Wild Precious Life.
Ben Percy: Thank you for having me on.
Annmarie Kelly: I'm glad you're here. We frequently welcome creative folks to the show to talk about their most recent project, a book, a play, a film. However, since you and I met in July and scheduled this interview a few weeks ago, I feel like your most recent project pile is ever changing. You work in film and television and podcasts and comic books and novels, and that's just the stuff I know about. So rather than only singing your praises for any one of these items, I thought today's conversation could be about the biz, if that's okay with you.
Ben Percy: Yeah, let's talk about all of it.
Annmarie Kelly: Yeah. Let's take a look at the opportunities and costs of the writing life. So why don't we just start with your story. Was 10 year old or 15 year old Ben Percy always hell bent on becoming a writer?
Ben Percy: No, not at all. But I grew up a voracious reader. Almost every night when my family was not watching Star Trek: The Next Generation or Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, we were sprawled out in the living room reading together, and my mom was probably reading a historical novel, and my dad was probably reading a science fiction novel, and my sister was probably gobbling up a book on physics, while I was reading a fantasy or horror novel in all likelihood. And that's what I specialized in, was those mass market paperbacks with emboss titles. If they had a skeleton or a dragon on the cover, all the better. And we used to make a pilgrimage, a few times a year to Powell's books.
Annmarie Kelly: Amazing store.
Ben Percy: I moved around quite a bit as a kid, but one constant is that my grandparents were in Portland. So we'd go up and over the Cascade Mountains and we'd visit my grandparents, but we would also stop by Powell's. And Powell's is a holy site. It takes up an entire city block in downtown Portland and is home to not thousands, millions of books. And I would build a dark tower of paperbacks whenever I visited to ration out over the months to come. And so I spent a lot of time in make believe. I spent a lot of time living in other worlds and growing up in a rural area sometimes that was my sort of rabbit hole survival outlet. So living this imaginary life, I guess it was no surprise that I had an imaginary profession in my mind. I wanted to become Indiana Jones. I actually went on several archeological digs in high school.
Ben Percy: I joined up as high schooler with the University of Oregon to excavate a [inaudible 00:05:50] village in the Christmas Valley region of Oregon. I worked with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry scouting out rock art sites. I applied to college with the idea that I would pursue an anthropology major and just eventually that dream sort of dissolved. I realized that Indiana Jones was that... Promise of it was not true despite the fact that I had a fedora in a bull whip that I would snap Coke cans off a fence post with. I had kind of an existential crisis when I went to college, I realized that what I had been planning on doing, I wasn't actually going to be doing. And I thought about dropping out for a while and there were a few different things contributing to that decision, but I kind of had an existential crisis.
Ben Percy: I retreated to the wilderness. I worked for Glacier National Park, and during this time I was keeping a journal for the first time. When I had approached my college counselor, he was one of the professors who had failed me that first semester. I went to Brown. So I went from rural Oregon, a graduating class of 14 students to the urban East Coast, Ivy League, and was not prepared. Wasn't prepared academically, I wasn't prepared emotionally, total culture shock. Anyways, I was on accurate academic probation my first semester in part because I just signed up for all these ridiculous classes like digital security when I didn't even know how to code computers. And so that guy was, that professor was my counselor. And when I asked him what I should do, he's like, "well, some people just... They aren't cut out for college". So as I walked out of his office, he called out to me and he said, "It's really weird that you're doing so poorly because you wrote the best application essay I've ever read".
Annmarie Kelly: Wow.
Ben Percy: And so he did a disservice to me by being a total jerk. But he also, that final comment of his is stuck with me. And so I started thinking about writing and I started keeping that journal and I started writing snippets of fiction and poetry and songs and love letters, poems, because there was somebody at Glacier National Park, I was the gardener there, which I know is a weird thing to be at National Park.
Annmarie Kelly: They have a gardener there?
Ben Percy: Gardener at many Glacier. And at that lodge there was a waitress who I took a fancy to. And anyways, I was writing her all these love letters and such. And one day we were watching the Sunset over the Rockies and she was like, "You should be a writer". And I was like, "Okay". And eventually I married her.
Annmarie Kelly: I love it.
Ben Percy: And I was in creative writing classrooms thereafter my first workshops and just like, there was no question in my mind, I was all in from that first semester, all in.
Annmarie Kelly: I should have opened with a confession, which is that I did not read comic books growing up except for maybe one that I got in a dusty box of cereal, like a Veronica, an Archie comic, that kind of thing. [inaudible 00:08:50]. Yeah. I've heard talk before about those spinner racks at the end of the grocery store aisle where you found your comic books. And I think there was also another rack nearby there. Girls could read comic books and can read comic books in 100%. But I don't feel like... You and I are about the same age. I don't feel like growing up, that was the spinner rack that I was directed to. I was reading the Sweet Valley High, I'm getting book number one and seven, and my girlfriend's going to get eight and four, and we're going to trade across and fold down the dirty pages of the VC Andrews books. I'm sometimes alarmed to think about the things I read.
Ben Percy: Yeah, I read that stuff. I read that stuff too.
Annmarie Kelly: I mentioned this because we came up through these traditions, but when I got to college, I didn't know there were different kinds of writing. I thought books were books, kind of like you're describing. I'd never occurred to me that we weren't going to learn Tom Clancy at a college. Did you learn to read a writer before you were a writer? I'm hearing the names of the folks you read, and I remember those were in the syllabus in my class in syllabi and the classes I took as well. But when did you make a shift between reading like the reader you were and reading like the writer you became?
Ben Percy: It was almost instantly when I stepped into that first creative writing classroom that I began to engage strenuously with style and map out just paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, the way in which scenes were rolling out, the way in which emotions were conveyed. My pages looked encased in barbed wire, everything that I read. And I was a notoriously slow reader as a result because I would read a story, then I would reread it, then I would reread it again. I'd just be literally mapping out things on a macro and micro level. That was just a bit of engineering that entered my life as soon as I realized I wanted to figure out what was going on underneath the hood of all these stories to make them affect me emotionally.
Annmarie Kelly: I think I've heard you talk about that as sort of a left brain thinking exercise applied to an endeavor that we often think about as being right brain, that I'm just going to sit down and whatever comes, comes.
Ben Percy: Being pragmatic and a dreamer at the same time. Sometimes when I'm caught up in the flow of the story, I'm not thinking about that stuff. Maybe it's ingrained in me instinctually at this point, but it's certainly something that I think about when rereading and when editing. So in retrospect, or it's also another thing that I think about when preplanning material. So I'm thinking about all those algorithms, I guess you could say, that inform the what sometimes feels like the dream of storytelling.
Annmarie Kelly: Yeah. How do you plan a story? If we were going to write a story right now, how would you do it?
Ben Percy: So with short stories, I tend to be more impressionistic, allow myself to improvise, because a short story is a few days of work to get the first draft out. And if I have to start over, no big deal. But a novel is years of work. So I've written four failed novels. I wrote four failed novels before publishing one. I think most writers say the same thing, and everybody's got stuff in the drawer that didn't work out. And so the first novel that I actually published was one that I had mapped out, and that was because, well, two things informed that decision. One, when I was in grad school, I realized I was having some trouble with something I feel like is one of my stronger points now, and that's plot. So I took a short story writer who I thought was excellent at plot, and that's Flannery O'Connor.
Ben Percy: And I read and I read and I read and I read her short stories over and over and over again so that I was emotionally detached from them. And then I would map them out paragraph by paragraph. I would make a blueprint and I would write a story based on that blueprint that bore no resemblance to the original. For example, if in paragraph one, character A is introduced via dialogue as jealous and spiteful, I would try to introduce in my first paragraph a character and reveal their inner weakness that would be central to the story via dialogue.
Ben Percy: Or if in the second paragraph, the setting implied the tone, the thematics of the story, maybe she was describing a neighborhood that was ruined. I would describe something like a mountain line or something that implied revenge or grief or whatever. So I would just sort figure out what the cues were that added up to the mechanics of plot. I did that on three different stories and it just clicked. And I was like, I get it now. So anyways, I realized here I am, four novels deep, I failed on all of them, and I had to teach a novel writing course. This is at UW Stevens Point where I was teaching at the time.
Annmarie Kelly: They asked you to teach a novel writing course, but you hadn't published a novel yet.
Ben Percy: Teach a novel writing course, but I haven't published a novel. I felt like a fraud. And so I did the same thing that I did in grad school. I was like, All right, I'm going to take all these novels I really admire and I'm going to reread them and reread them and reread them. I'm going to map them all out. So I did that and I taught the class on different types, forms of novels. I don't think it's any coincidence that very same semester I sold my first novel, The Wilding to Graywolf Press, and thereafter, I just feel like I have to have an outline out of superstition. It's sort of like dumbo's magic feather. Dumbo can fly.
Annmarie Kelly: The one that makes him fly?
Ben Percy: He thinks it does. He doesn't actually...
Annmarie Kelly: Oh, but it doesn't, that's right. That's right.
Ben Percy: So the outline sort of feel like that. And I'll usually start outlining a year to two years in advance of writing a novel. I also want to have, I don't refer to them as so much as blueprints, as constellations, because I don't know everything that happens, but I know the brightest stars. And if you think about a constellation and the brightest stars, there's the vacancy of space between them and we fill in with our imagination how those stars become a scorpion in the sky or whatever, or a bowman.
Ben Percy: So in the same way I know, okay, this is going to be my midpoint reversal, this is going to be my rock bottom moment. This will be a climactic moment towards the end. Here's the moment that triggers the character's investment in the story, blah, blah, blah. I'll know those bright one, but then it's no fun if you know everything. I want to give my self room to make some shit up along the way. So that's usually how I approach novels. Comics are very much the same and very different at the same time. By that I mean, I have to outline because you don't work for Marvel and not tell them what you're going to do.
Annmarie Kelly: I think a lot of writers really kind of buck up against the idea of constraints. You hear that, Oh, I can't be bogged down. But I heard Shonda Rhimes of Shondaland fame talk once about what it was like to write for network television, where there were just some unsayable words. You couldn't say, you had some constraints, you had time constraints, you had to have room for commercials, that sometimes those constraints actually forced her to be more creative than just having a wide open prairie in front of you.
Ben Percy: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. Terrance Hayes, when he is talking about poetry, he talks about the difference between free verse poetry and form poetry, form poetry being a villain now, or a sonnet or a cistina. He says the difference between free verse and form poetry is the difference between break dancing and break dancing in a straight jacket. And it's cool if you can break dance, but it's badass if you can break dance in a straight jacket. And comics writing or TV writing or film writing is break dancing in a straight jacket. You have constraints in a screenplay. By page 15 you need to have the inciting incident, by page 25 you need to have the doorway moment that bridges the gap between act one and act two. And it can seem conforming. But the thing that I always tell literary writers, because they're the ones who get all grumpy about this, in particular, when I visit campuses or when I teach at festivals, residencies or whatever, they're always, oh, [inaudible 00:16:56], I shall not ever use a constraint.
Ben Percy: And I'm like, Well, dude, look at yourself, you are essentially built of the same stuff. The general arrangement of organs and bones are roughly the same between you and Cher and Tiger Woods and your mail carrier, Susie or whatever else, and yet we're all so different and you have these bones, in other words, these structural bones that generally speaking, make up a story, whether it's a novel, whether it's a screenplay, obviously there are differences, but the differences are more subtle than people might expect. And if you know those standards, then you're free to break them as well or to reinvent them. I mean, Picasso did not begin his life as an artist drawing cubist, painting cubist. He started drawing realism, painting realism, and then made that leap. And it was only because he had those fundamentals in mind that he was able to be taken seriously as somebody who was groundbreaking.
Annmarie Kelly: You got to learn the rules before you break them, they always say. I love to start sentences with And and But, but I still have to remember the nun who told me not to do that.
Ben Percy: Oh yeah, I had some bad experiences with nun too.
Annmarie Kelly: Who hasn't? So then what's your big break? So we left you in a field with the girl you wanted to marry, and then there's a novel. Is the novel Your big break? You were teaching novel writing before that. When you look back on the jump from Guy who writes sentences that nobody reads but me to working writer, what was a break in there?
Ben Percy: So I started off publishing in journals and does anybody read even the most famous of journals? I don't know, I'm not sure. But I work my way up to places like the Paris Review. I worked my way up to glossy magazines like Esquire. I later became a contributing editor at Esquire and GQ and Time. And so everything was incremental and in the same way I published a book of short stories with the University Press. That was my first book. Then I published a book of short stories with a small press, Graywolf. Then I published a novel with a small press Graywolf. Then things started to heat up. Everything's incremental. And I got to a point where I had pitched a comic series to Vertigo and it was Vertigo, if you don't know, it's like the HBO of comics, it doesn't exist anymore.
Ben Percy: I pitched this sturdy issue comic series to Vertigo. And it was a horror series. And they're like, "Dude, this is cool, but you've never written a comic before. We're not going to hire you to write a 30 issue original series, but stay in touch". Anyways, my agent was like, "This idea is really cool. What if we do as a novel instead?" So I reframed it, I wrote out about 70 pages of it. I included that outline and sold it and sold it for a considerable amount of money so that I was able to then take a step back from teaching. And I enjoy teaching. It makes me feel like I'm earning my oxygen.
Ben Percy: But anyways, I was able to go full time with the keyboard and I still teach in that. I'll teach at a writer's conference every now and then. That makes me of feel like I'm tap back in to whatever I've been missing. But yeah, Red Moon was my big break and I don't just write novels. The way that I make a living as a writer is I write comics, as you mentioned before, I write for TV. That's how I get my health insurance, or movies and yeah, I'm a hustler.
Annmarie Kelly: I think I heard you say once that, success, at least for you, has almost always risen out of failure. Do you still believe that?
Ben Percy: Success has almost always come out of failure. Rejected from DC, rejected from Vertigo. There's sort of a bivalent success story there. And then I kept submitting, kept submitting, kept submitting, kept submitting. I think I submitted 47 pitches to DC. So from 2009, that's when I started, 2009, all the way to 2014. 2014 is when I finally got a yes. And that yes was for Detective Comics was for Batman. So a super auspicious way to debut. But what people don't know is that I had failed all that time before. And what they also didn't know and what DC did not know is that Batman story that I wrote, which kicked off my career at comics, that Batman story was a failed Hollywood script.
Ben Percy: So I had sent the script all over Hollywood, every studio had passed and then DC was finally like, "Okay, okay, stop bothering us so much Ben Percy, we have a two issue opening for Batman. What do you got?" And I was like, I took that screenplay, which I really loved and believed in. It was just ridiculously expensive. It would've cost like 400 million to make. And I Didn't think about, oh, maybe my first screenplay should be something that cost somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million to 5 million. It's like, oh no, here's this 500 million blockbuster.
Annmarie Kelly: We're going to blow up the Empire State Building and then we're going to crash... Too expensive.
Ben Percy: But comics, your special effects budget is unlimited. So I took the idea, I pulled the main character out, I put Bruce Wayne in and boom, sold it. And soon enough I've got a Green Arrow gig, writing Green Arrow for 52 issues. I've got Teen Titans, blah, blah, blah. The idea is that you're going to encounter wreckage in your career constantly if you're in the arts, are you able to recognize the turn, that can lead you to success that comes out of it?
Annmarie Kelly: So I hear you're handling of failure seems to be repurposing, shifting. Maybe this 40 book series is actually a novella that you are believing in the material enough to keep sending it out there perhaps in a different form.
Ben Percy: Constantly. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is wasted. I'm always finding repurposing things and it's sheer cussedness too. If I have a super power, it's like being cussed.
Annmarie Kelly: That's a Midwestern grandfather term if I've ever heard it. So those doubt arrows don't pierce your thick skull.
Ben Percy: No, of course, [inaudible 00:23:32], I get really angry or I get sad. But then even though I am a dark hearted guy that I write really weird Stephen King ish stuff, I'm a very optimistic person. And that's just lucky for me to have that sort of brain chemistry. So I'm always thinking like, okay, there's a way to make this work. How do we do this? And so that has come in very handy in an industry that is really defined by failure, defined by the word no.
Annmarie Kelly: You've probably been told no more than you've been told yes.
Ben Percy: My career is defined by the word no, but you got to have cussedness.
Annmarie Kelly: Yeah. People wouldn't probably know that looking at you, right? There's a pile of comic books and novels and other things next to your name. But for every one of those there's 10, 20, 50 no's.
Annmarie Kelly: Hey, you also wrote something about, that you've thrown away hundreds or even thousands of pages and sometimes you need to throw pages away and sometimes you need to keep them. How do you know which page is which? When to throw it away and when to keep it? Sounds like a line from the Gambler. When do I hold it and when do I fold it.
Ben Percy: I talk about the Gambler a lot. It's one of my favorite songs. I feel like everything you need to know, everything you need to know about a career in creative writing is in that song. Especially if you're working across different mediums. Yeah, the thing is, it doesn't really matter if you throw something away, even if you think it's brilliant, because there's always more timber coming down the trail.
Annmarie Kelly: I love the idea, you call it a cemetery folder and patch. It has something like that when she writes too. What's a cemetery folder?
Ben Percy: I don't really use this anymore, but it used to be a good practice for me because it allowed me to throw things away psychologically. So if I had a novel that I was working on, I would have a folder in that novel called the cemetery. And in it I would put all the things that I was cutting and I'd organize them into different tombstones, I guess you could say, within the folder. I'd organize them into documents like lost characters, descriptions of nature, dialogue scenes, blah, blah blah, whatever.
Ben Percy: And it just felt good to have a place for it because once you started saving multiple drafts, whatever was in draft, 13 versus 30, like that stuff, you're not going to find it again. But having a place for it, like a compost heap, a cemetery, whatever you want to call it, is psychologically freeing. And sometimes when I would start a new project, I would go through the cemetery and sort of revisit some of those old pals and be like, That was a pretty good description of a mountain. I'm going to use that, plug it into the next book. But then it probably end up in the next cemetery as well.
Annmarie Kelly: I like that idea. It does give you permission to let go and be less precious about what it is you've written. Can we talk for a moment about Jaws?
Ben Percy: Sure.
Annmarie Kelly: So I've attended lots of writers talks. I'm kind of a junkie. I'm a sucker for listening to a creative person talk about how they create. But you are the first person who's ever convinced me that the key to plotting a successful novel might just lay in making a study of Jaws. The book that was later turned into a movie that terrified beach going children like myself everywhere. Will you sell me on the merits of Jaws?
Ben Percy: Yeah, I love that movie. I've seen it countless... When I say countless times, it's true. Multiple times a year I watch it and I just think it's brilliant. I think it's a perfect movie. I think it's a kind of a lousy book. That's one of the few cases where you can say definitively the movie is world's better than the novel. Think about the stakes of a character, the stakes of a situation. You have in Jaws, the character of Chief Brody played by Roy Scheider. He's our main character. I mean, in a way it becomes an ensemble by the end that really focuses on these three dudes in the ocean. But if you think about him as the main character, you've got familial stakes, right? He is in the novel and in the film completely dedicated to his kids and these categories of bleed together.
Ben Percy: But tied into that are the professional stakes and the financial stakes of the situation. He is new to Amity Island as the chief of police, and he is immediately in danger of losing his job and upsetting his family's life as a result. And potentially they're going to be bereft because of this. He's also in familial sense, terrified for his children because on several occasions they're scared just about what's going on, but also in danger. There's that one scene where his boys in the harbor sailing about, and while everybody else is distracted on the shore because somebody has been pulling a prank, the person had the fake shark's head attached to theirs and they were snorkeling around and everybody leapt out of the water and went crazy as a result. No attention was paid to the harbor where his son was. And the real shark went in there in the meantime and almost killed him.
Annmarie Kelly: I know.
Ben Percy: He's got familiar stakes. He's also got marital stakes, romantic stakes because in the book, his wife is actually having an affair. His wife has an affair with the Richard Dreyfuss character, with Hooper, which makes their time on the ocean even more tense. But with that, those romantic stakes are like gendered stakes, if you think about it in sort of traditional archetypes. This guy is trying to reclaim his masculinity by slaying a giant white penis and he's trying to best the others on the boat as well.\.
Ben Percy: And there's political stakes. Here's this Mayor who's like pressuring the chief of police hard. We have to open these beaches because Amity island financial stakes makes all of its money during the tourist season. If we can't have people going in the water, nobody's going to come. We're going to be broke and I'm probably going to get booted from office. So anyways, you see all these different stakes. I've laid out six of them already and they all are sort of cycled through the story almost at 10 page intervals, you'll focus on one thing, you'll focus on the next thing, you'll focus on the next thing. And it just cycles through them in almost cylindrical way, so that you're constantly anxious about one thing or the other until at the very end they all converge in this moment of climactic action.
Annmarie Kelly: Yeah. I've been seeing it a whole different way since I first heard you talk about Jaws and the notion that what you think it's a book about a guy chasing a shark and you forget all the other crud that he had to deal with in order to even be on that boat terrified chasing that shark.
Ben Percy: Yeah. I've been talking about midpoint reversals too, one other little nugget from Jaws, like midpoint reversal in the story is where your character has a plan and the plan doesn't work, the plan fails. And that's the midpoint reversals when the plan shifts, the midpoint reversal is almost always accompanied by a change in scenery as well. In Jaws, they're trying all these different things like shut down the beaches or send out people into the harbor, into the ocean to hunt the shark and let's bait the shark. Let's toss dynamite in the water, let's post lifeguards, let's da, da, da. None of it works. So what has to happen, Chief Brody, who critically is afraid of water, so he has to face his worst weakness, has to go out on the ship with Richard Dreyfuss, Hooper and with Robert Shaw plays Captain Quint, right? There's that change in scenery that accompanies the exact center point of the film.
Annmarie Kelly: Yeah. No, I can't get Jaws and these shifts out of my head for how a story has shaped, It's been blowing my mind ever since then.
Ben Percy: Everything you need to know about fiction is in Jaws.
Annmarie Kelly: So I've lived a lot of places, so I've been in a number of book clubs and I will say suburban women do not read enough sci-fi, I'm just going to say that. Ladies, I don't think we're doing our part. There's plenty of women who read them, but the book clubs I've been in, we're not reading enough sci-fi. And I'm just going to put this out there that I came to the Comet cycle books, this trilogy that I think could be, as I've heard you talk about, might could be dozens of books, but I bought them as an early Christmas present for my husband. I bought the first two and then I ended up reading them myself. And there was certainly science and meteors and mysteries.
Annmarie Kelly: But I think what I love most about your sci-fi novels is the humanity. I expected monsters and sure they're there, but you're writing about the trials and tribulations of parents and children and people striking out on their own to make their way in the world. And it was just so beautifully recognizably human to me. Not to diss other genre writers, but do you think that sometimes they forget that alien outer space robot monster books also need to be human?
Ben Percy: At the end of the day, if there's not a human heart beating at the center of your story, nobody's going to care. So it has to be sort of like character first, no matter how high concept your idea, it has to be character first.
Annmarie Kelly: Yeah. I mean, in The Unfamiliar Garden, there really are mushrooms from outer space. But what I'm attracted to is the fact that you wrote something beautiful about what it was like for Nora and Jack to rely on one another in the early days of raising a child and that... Gorgeous.
Ben Percy: The thing and the other thing, right? That's this really simple way to put it. But yes, you've got alien fungus, great, but here's a story that's broken down sort of like Fates and Furies, if you know the Lauren Groff novel, where it's like him-her, him-her story. So it's in his perspective, it's in her perspective, it's in his perspective, it's in hers perspective. They're divided. They're divided we learned because they lost their child on the night that the meteor shower happened, they lost their kid and they're already having some difficulties and that cleavage between them just broke them wide apart.
Ben Percy: But now, he is a university professor, he's a biologist, he's a mycologist, and there's a new fungus that's popping up that he's researching. And then here you have his ex-wife Nora, and she's a police detective in Seattle and she's investigating a series of murders and they're going to be brought together first professionally and then emotionally again. And then there's the possibility that arises that their daughter is actually still alive and all these things result in, by the end of the novel, a convergence of point of view where it's no longer he said-she said, he said-she said, but it's they. At the end of the book, it's a they, it's a collective perspective. And as a result of that union, I wanted to have as a sort of thematic backdrop to fungus itself, which is a symbiotic organism.
Annmarie Kelly: Yeah. It's bananas how good you are at this man. These were supposed to be Christmas presents for my husband, but I started flipping through. I'm like, well, let me just sit down with this. And then before I know it, I've read the whole book. So husband, I'm still going to wrap it and give it to you, but it's just the pages are riffled.
Ben Percy: Too bad for you, husband.
Annmarie Kelly: Oh, I could talk books with you all day, but I'm going to wrap because we always do a few things at the end here. So I like to end with icebreakers. Think of this is like, I don't know, seventh grade camp. So this first part is just multiple choice, just pick one. Okay. Dogs or cats?
Ben Percy: Dogs.
Annmarie Kelly: Coffee or tea?
Ben Percy: Coffee.
Annmarie Kelly: Mountains or beach?
Ben Percy: That's tough, but mountains.
Annmarie Kelly: Batman or Wolverine?
Ben Percy: Oh, Wolverine. But Batman's still awesome.
Annmarie Kelly: Lord of the Rings or Big Trouble in Little China.
Ben Percy: Oh, you're killing me. I can extensively quote both, I guess I'll go LOTR, just because it's a more expansive universe.
Annmarie Kelly: I'll give you that. You were one of the first people I've ever seen to write about Big Trouble in Little China, which played a formative part in my younger years. Just that whole watch and stuff you probably shouldn't have.
Ben Percy: It's that [inaudible 00:35:43] Pork Chop Express coming to you on a dark and stormy night.
Annmarie Kelly: Oh, love it. Oh, okay. Let's see. Are you an early bird or a night owl?
Ben Percy: Neither. I wake up at seven, I go to bed at 11.
Annmarie Kelly: Just a regular person in the middle there.
Ben Percy: Right in the middle.
Annmarie Kelly: This is a bit of [inaudible 00:36:04] question. Which do you favor more? The word growl or the word squelch?
Ben Percy: I guess I'm naturally inclined to growl.
Annmarie Kelly: Although, I do like to hear you say the word squelch.
Ben Percy: Squelch.
Annmarie Kelly: That word works for me [inaudible 00:36:23]. Yeah. It works in a number of... Just when you're looking for a word, just squelch. I don't have a low enough voice. You do.
Ben Percy: Squelch.
Annmarie Kelly: Are you a risk taker or the person who always knows where the band-aids are?
Ben Percy: Risk taker. Pragmatic risk taker. I mean, you can't be a full-time writer and not be a risk taker.
Annmarie Kelly: Oh, this is a fill in the blank now here. If I wasn't working as a writer, I would be a...
Ben Percy: Pixar villain.
Annmarie Kelly: The voice of or actually live in the cartoons of?
Ben Percy: Both, method acting.
Annmarie Kelly: Yeah, I would've put you on a stage. I still would, but that's where I would... When I listened to the Wolverine Podcast...
Ben Percy: I'm coming for you [inaudible 00:37:08].
Annmarie Kelly: When I listened to the Wolverine Podcast for just a moment before I heard credits, I wondered if you would be in there, somewhere. I was listening for your voice
Ben Percy: A few cameos, but then they thought you sound too weird. People would be like, what the hell was that? I can't just be like a guy at a bar, I feel like a monster.
Annmarie Kelly: I'll still keep listening for you. All right, this is another fill in the blank. What is something quirky that people don't know about you? A like, a love, a pet peeve. Your imagination's all on the page. I'm trying to think what we wouldn't know about you, the guy.
Ben Percy: Yeah. I'm unloading it constantly. I don't know what you wouldn't know. I'm a pretty boring person. I just work.
Annmarie Kelly: Well, that in itself is actually kind of interesting.
Ben Percy: Well, here's something weird... I mean, people would know this if they've actually read through my backstory, but one of the tallest trees in North America is located just outside of Eugene, Oregon. And for an assignment I climbed to the very top of it. I had to cross bow up to the first branch, which was several hundred feet up. And then I climbed it with a guy to accompany me. And then I spent the night in the tree in a hammock. So 250 feet.
Annmarie Kelly: What? Why did you do that?
Ben Percy: For an article.
Annmarie Kelly: I don't think I read that one in my research. I'm going to look for that one.
Ben Percy: Wall Street Journal. Yeah.
Annmarie Kelly: Was it terrifying? Did you sleep at all?
Ben Percy: I'm not afraid of heights, at all. I slept at 250 feet, so... You look over the hammock, it's a long way down. At one point I woke up in the middle of the night and there was just an owl staring at me on the branch.
Annmarie Kelly: Woo-hoo. That's bananas.
Ben Percy: No mosquitoes at 250 feet.
Annmarie Kelly: I guess not. Hey, what do you love about where you live?
Ben Percy: Minnesota is green. When I say that, you look at a map and there's a lot of public land as opposed to when I was living in Iowa, it's almost all private land. So there's a lot of public land, there's a lot of forest to explore. It's also an interesting sort of eco tone, meaning there's a three different ecosystems that converge here. You've got the deciduous forest, you've got boreal forest, and then you've got plains. The northern section is the most interesting, probably because I grew up in Oregon, prefer evergreen forest, but that's also where Lake Superior is, which is an inland sea. It's the greatest freshwater source in the world.
Ben Percy: And so I love all those things when it comes to the natural geography about the place. I'm also a winter guy and there's no better winter than Minnesota's, but it also is just a very progressive state that also believes in artists. And it has the number one arts funding of any state, I believe it's second only to New York for publishing. We have Graywolf, Milkweed, Rain Taxi, Coffee House Press. We have the Loft Literary Center, dozens of indie bookstores. There's great theaters, there's great music venues. So it's a pretty awesome place to live actually,
Annmarie Kelly: That is one of the best answers I've ever heard from Minnesota. I've only talked to one other Minnesotan, but she's probably my other... Like you guys should be on billboards and there's a whole campaign, I think for Minnesota.
Ben Percy: No, Minnesota Tourism. We don't want them.
Annmarie Kelly: I was about to say though, because that was my next thing is I don't think Minnesota wants us to know it's there.
Ben Percy: Bunch of damn Californians moving out here trying to steal our water.
Annmarie Kelly: You guys have enough of it. What are some of your favorite books?
Ben Percy: Well, this is a question that could go on forever too, but I'm kind of obsessed with Cormac McCarthy, very excited about his two new books launching this Fall, The Road. It's probably the scariest novel I've ever read. Maybe because I read it for the first time anyway right after my son was born and it just hit a nerve.
Annmarie Kelly: It hits different when you're a parent, that's for sure. That book sure does.
Ben Percy: Yeah. No, I truly physically affected me reading it. And I love Shirley Jackson. She's one of my high priest, high priestesses. What she does for the horror genre is imbued with that literary sensibility. Like that deep characterization in that filigreed language. I love writers like Neil Gaiman and Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin for the way in which they write about fantasy and sort of transgressive fantasy. And also just their literary technique is something to marvel over, you could pluck any sentence out of any one of their stories and frame it and hang it on the wall and invite your neighbors over and say, "Look at that sentence". And they'd say, "Damn". So those are just a few writers who I think are amazing.
Annmarie Kelly: How about some favorite movies?
Ben Percy: Again, I could just keep going, but Rocky, obviously for spiritual reasons. Jaws, Godfather, John Carpenter's The Thing. You mentioned Big Trouble in Little China earlier. John Carpenter is kind of one of my heroes. Recent movies, I'm big into the Art House Horror coming out right now, including Midsommar and Hereditary, Get Out and such. Horror movies are probably where I'm always going to lean first. But I love crime movies as well. Like No Country for Old Men, so another Cormac McCarthy [inaudible 00:42:25].
Annmarie Kelly: Yeah, there's a theme here. All right, last two. Favorite ice cream?
Ben Percy: I don't like dessert.
Annmarie Kelly: What? That's an excellent answer.
Ben Percy: I would take meat over to any kind of dessert.
Annmarie Kelly: So I'm going to just write down meat for that answer. Favorite ice cream? I'm going to write down meat. I love that so much. All right, last one. If we were to take a picture of you really happy and doing something you love, what would we see?
Ben Percy: Oh, I'd probably be hanging out on the North shore of Lake Superior with my family, staring out at the water, going on a hike, something like that. Or I'd be seated in the center seat, middle row of a movie theater with my family and a big bucket of popcorn and icy Coke.
Annmarie Kelly: Ah, I've been missing movies lately to get back there. Okay, that's excellent. Ben Percy, thank you for joining us today. You've said that storytellers should give into whimsy and that writing is an act of empathy. Thank you for bringing so much of your wisdom and whimsy here today and for giving us some empathy that in the world of starving artists, pedaling our books from the trunks of our cars, there is in fact a writing life out there, a career a person can pursue.
Annmarie Kelly: For folks listening, you can pick up Ben Percy's novels, including The Ninth Medal, The Unfamiliar Garden, those are the first two books in his comet series. When's the third coming out?
Ben Percy: I'm doing the edits right now, so it should be nine months ish.
Annmarie Kelly: Nine months, man. All right. Well get the first two at an indie store near you. And there's lots actually, The Dark Net, and there are many others. Aspiring writers, you can grab his craft book, Thrill Me, comic book readers, you can grab the X-Men and I mean everything. Film Watchers, podcast listeners, whatever your medium, Wolverine, type Benjamin Percy into the search bar, and you will be regaled.
Annmarie Kelly: To everyone listening, We're wishing you love and light wherever this day takes you. Be good to yourself, be good to one another, and we'll see you again soon on this wild and precious journey.
Annmarie Kelly: Wild Precious Life is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to executive producers Gerardo Orlando and Michael [inaudible 00:44:48]. Producers Sarah [inaudible 00:44:51] and audio engineer Ian Douglas. Be sure to subscribe and follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.