Benjamin Percy wrote a novel in grad school, and as he remembers it, the reviews were unanimous. “Panned by students, faculty, agents, and editors alike,” it was one of “four failed novels” he penned at the start of his career. “I have thrown away thousands of pages,” he says. But he’s published thousands, too, and in his new book, he demonstrates he’s one of contemporary fiction’s sharper critical minds, an author with a rare talent for explaining his craft.
Writers, editors and teachers — they’re among the target audience for Percy’s “Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction.” But really, this book will appeal to anyone who’s interested in storytelling. And that’s just about all of us.
The book’s first essay supplies the collection with its title and mission statement, as well as a brief biography of its author.
As a kid in Oregon, Percy read fantasy and horror novels at a breakneck clip: “If it had a dragon on the cover, awesome.” Later, as a student in a creative writing workshop, he “fell in love with writers I hadn’t known existed,” such giants of literary fiction as Alice Munro and James Baldwin. He was in his mid-20s when he discovered “McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales,” an anthology of genre fiction — horror, fantasy, sci-fi and crime stories — by established novelists with highbrow credibility. He was energized: “This was what I wanted to do, this was the kind of writer I hoped to be.”
Much of Percy’s subsequent work — most recently, the 2015 novel “The Dead Lands” — has proudly ignored the lines between genre and literary fiction.
“Thrill Me” is packed with concise, practicable counsel. In “Don’t Look Back,” an essay about how much time authors should devote to developing back stories for their characters, he gives a succinct answer: “None is a good start.” A character worth a reader’s time will reveal her desires and motivations via the “forward movement” of the story — though sometimes useful, backward glances are often unnecessary, he says.
In “Making the Extraordinary Ordinary,” which is about fantasy fiction, he offers an “experiment” for would-be storytellers everywhere: “Try changing one thing. Just one. This is our world except for — . Maybe gravity is increasing incrementally. Maybe it won’t stop raining. … If you limit the change, and if you closely monitor the effects of it, then through this limitation and its accompanying logic system, you increase the likelihood that your audience will willingly suspend its disbelief.” It’s a fascinating insight, useful to writers and instructive to fantasy-fiction readers and moviegoers.
Percy’s wisdom is born of close reading — in these pages, he scrutinizes writers as varied as Flannery O’Connor, Charles Baxter and Ursula K. Le Guin. He’s also adept at harvesting know-how from other areas of pop culture — in Johnny Cash’s “Five Feet High and Rising,” Percy notes, the rising water is echoed by the song’s “rising pitch and rising volume”: “The style replicates the content.”
His most useful advice could apply to almost any profession. “You’ve got to write every day as if you were clocking in for a job. Or if not every day, then damn near it,” he says. “If you’re producing reams of pages, you’ll be less resistant to revision, because you know it won’t be long before another load of timber comes down the road.”
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.
By: Benjamin Percy.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 160 pages, $16.
Event: 7 p.m. Oct. 26, the Loft at Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls. Tickets $10.