Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |May 28, 2013

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Benjamin Percy

author of Red Moon

Ten Terrifying Questions

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1.    To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born and raised on the West Coast, in Oregon, on twenty-seven acres of big pines, firs. We had a hen house, a vegetable garden, fruit trees. My father hunted all of our meat, so we often ate venison, elk, bear. I had a kind of Huck Finnish freedom to my childhood. I could escape the house early in the morning and return at night without much in the way of supervision. So I spent my days wandering the woods, ducking under fences, firing slingshots, building treehouses and dams. Living a life of the imagination. Which turned out to be good training for the novelist I would become.

2.    What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At twelve, I wanted to be a horror movie director. I obsessively read Fangoria magazine (I even collected the trading cards) and would shoot splatter movies with my friends. At eighteen, I was on my way to becoming an archaeologist. I had gone on several digs and spent one summer scouting and mapping out rock art sites. But I was living in an Indiana Jones fantasy. I was nerdy enough to own a fedora and bullwhip. When I realized there was no lost ark of the covenant waiting for me—no Nazis to do battle with—no beautiful women out in the desert, the fantasy dissolved. At thirty, I wanted to be a novelist, which I was. I am now thirty-four and feel the same: I am doing what I want to do: playing with my imaginary friends all day, building worlds that will transport others, quicken the pulse, make a reader laugh and gasp and lose sleep.

3.    What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

Like every other eighteen-year-old, I believed myself immortal and made many foolish decisions: leaping off bridges, drag-racing on county highways, attempting back flips when skiing, driving with too many beers fizzing in my veins. I am now believe the opposite: my time is running out and I need to crush as much into this short life as I can.

4.    What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

I have watched the film Jaws maybe more than any other. It is the reason I felt nervous, as a child, to swim in the ocean, lakes, even pools. The shark, when finally revealed, looks a bit corny, I know, but for so much of the film we only see the fin cutting the water—and it is the unknown, what hides beneath the surface, that terrifies. I’ve used this trick in my own work innumerable times. But I especially admire the film’s ability to grip and paralyze millions, even now, thirty years later.

The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor. When I was still a student, still trying to pound out a solid narrative, I turned to O’Connor in order to better understand plot and causality. I would read one of her stories five times—and then, the sixth time, when I was emotionally detached and could recognize all the moving parts, I would sketch out its design in a yellow legal tablet. By that I mean, paragraph one, theme introduced through description of weather—or Character A established as jealous via dialogue—that kind of thing. Then I would use that same superstructure and try to write a story of my own that bore no resemblance otherwise to the original. I did this three or four times—and, just like that, I understood the carpentry of storytelling.

Johnny Cash sings to me almost every day. I love how raw and unadorned his music is, how he uses his songs to tell stories, how he makes my heart hurt and my foot tap. Early on, as a writer, I tried so hard to show off. Each of my sentences had to do a triple backflip while juggling chainsaws. I came to realize how masturbatory and distracting that was, how I was better off singing like Cash.

5.    Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

I have always been an obsessive reader. Growing up, I’d devour a book a week. Evenings, my whole family would be sprawled out in the living room, each of us lost in our mass market paperbacks. So I was programmed early on to think of the novel as the ultimate rabbit hole. I love the control of it. I am the director, the actor, the costume designer and lighting technician and makeup artist and special effects programmer and stage designer. I love too that—unlike the farmer, who needs his seed and fertilizer and insecticide and tractor and combine—unlike the chef who needs a restaurant and knives and bell peppers and chicken and cumin and pans—I need nothing except a pen and paper. My job is to let things spill out of the factory of my mind.

6.    Please tell us about your latest novel…

Red Moon is a supernatural thriller. Call it a post-9/11 reinvention of the werewolf myth. My werewolves—or lycans, as I call them—are not full moon howlers but a believable horror. I spent a great deal of time with researchers from the USDA labs and Iowa State University trying to figure out the slippery science behind animal-borne pathogens and vaccination to include in this novel. Prions—the misfolded proteins responsible for Mad Cow and Chronic Wasting disease—leap out of the wolf population and mutate in their human host, targeting the mind, exacerbating rage and sexual impulse. This happened in prehistoric times—and if you fast-forward to today, roughly five percent of the population is infected. They are marginalized, unable to hold certain jobs, forced to take an emotionally deadening drug and succumb to monthly blood tests. Their names are posted on a public registry, similar to a sex offenders’ list, and they are subject to hate crimes. Of course there is an uprising. And a swift government crackdown in response. Readers will find many parallels to our world, as I’m channeling cultural unease.

Click here to buy Red Moon from Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore

7.    What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

I hope it will scare the pants off you, but I also hope it will quicken your pulse with its love story and provoke discussion with its political allegory.

8.    Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Everyone is always trying to put a label on stories. This is a western or a romance or fantasy or literary fiction or whatever. And I feel like genre-tagging has become irrelevant, that these are by and large phantom barricades. Look at the work of Cormac McCarthy andw Margaret Atood, two writers I admire very much, and you’ll see that they are neither fish nor fowl. You can have pretty sentences, glowing metaphors, subterranean themes, three-dimensional characters—and, you know, some helicopters can blow up and the world can end.

9.    Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

I always keep a lot of irons in the fire. Working on multiple projects in multiple genres helps me always feel inspired, never stuck. So I hope to continue to write novels and short stories and essays, while also bridging out into screenplays and comic books.

10.    What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Read your brains out and write your brains out.

Benjamin, thank you for playing.

Click here to buy Red Moon from Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

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