Young writers seeking Benjamin Percy’s advice on the craft get blunt counsel: “I tell them that writing is not an indulgence. You give up other indulgences to write.
“You don’t watch that game. You don’t go out to that club. You don’t join that poker game. You say no a lot, but I feel it demands that level of commitment.”
Percy, the strapping writer-in-residence at St. Olaf College with perhaps the longest sideburns in recent memory, delivers this message in a basso voice that mocks the Grand Canyon. When he gives his drink order on airplanes, people swivel. Often, he is inscrutably asked if he is a country singer.
No. Instead, he’s crisscrossing the country on a book tour for “The Dead Lands,” an acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel that re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition, if they had magical powers or battled moon-white mutated bats.
The book is raking in rave reviews, such as this wowser from horror-master Stephen King: “You will not come across a finer work of sustained imagination this year. Good God, what a tale.”
Percy, 36, has laid aside teaching for now, spending eight to 10 hours a day writing in his basement office, knocking off when his kids come home from elementary school. If he’s not writing, he’s reading, or working on a comics story line, or researching for a TV series about the North Dakota oil boom and more. (See accompanying article.)
“It’s a huge struggle for me to slow down,” he said. “I don’t know why I feel such urgency, but it defines my personality.
“If I was a member of the X-Men, my superpower would be deep focus. That’s not the sexiest superpower, but it would serve me well.”
“The Dead Lands” is set in what once was downtown St. Louis, 150 years after a pandemic flu swept Earth. Trying to inoculate the planet, nations began firing nuclear warheads, which only made survival more frightful, with creatures mutated by radiation and skies parched by drought.
In a decimated St. Louis, residents threw up a vast wall of rusted cars and mortar and rebar and created Sanctuary, which has proven barely that.
One day, a strange girl called Gawea emerges from the Dead Lands with news of a green place with fish and apples called Oregon. Lewis Meriwether, a museum curator with odd powers, and Mina Clark, a teenage sentry whose nightly benders dull her rage, improbably join forces to escape Thomas, who rules the Sanctuary with ruthlessness and a secret stash of water.
The premise is audacious — one reason Percy said he lives with an idea in his head for a year before starting to write. That speeds the typing, but also helps him work through every nuance of his plot, sieve every excess action from his narrative and, frankly, make sure that his fantasy makes factual sense.
Then again, the historic Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803 to find a water route across the nation bordered on the fantastical.
“When Thomas Jefferson sent them off, it was like an expedition to the moon,” Percy said. “I mean, they expected to encounter woolly mammoths. So my characters had similar questions: Is the flu still out there? Are there hostile warlords?”
Percy researched relentlessly, so he could weave in more characters based in real life: Aran Burr, playing off the treasonous Aaron Burr of Jefferson’s presidency, or Jon Colter, after the expedition’s own John Colter, often called the first mountain man.
In a small room off Percy’s office, walls are shingled with pages from the New Yorker and Esquire, newspaper articles and maps, photos and pages torn from a yellow legal pad, scribbled with brainstorms. As he thinks, he shifts these ideas, gauging how one looks or sounds or behaves next to another.
“It’s figuring out the beat of the narrative, almost like writing sheet music,” he said. “It’s the orchestration of suspense.”
‘There were only the snakes’
As a kid, Percy hero-worshiped swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones, watching the movies over and over. “I mean, I can quote you every line of dialogue,” he said, sounding sheepish and proud.
For every childhood vacation — “I kid you not, every one” — his family loaded rifles, fishing gear, trowels and pickaxes into the van and headed out from their home in Bend, Ore., rockhounding and researching. Meals were shot, hooked and foraged. Night lights were stars.
“But when I was in college studying and excavating Paiute villages, the dream gradually dissolved,” he said. “There were no Nazis to battle, no rolling boulders. There were only the snakes.”
His existential crisis — “which everyone has in their 20s, right?” — led to a summer job as a gardener in Glacier National Park, “which is a funny thing to be in a national park,” often working within sight of grizzlies. That summer, a bear killed one employee, and another was stalked by a mother and her cub. (In Percy’s first novel, “The Wilding,” published by Graywolf Press in 2010, a bear menaces a father-son hunting trip — which, of course, has other issues.)
He began journaling, but it felt like navel-gazing, so he shifted into storytelling. When Lisa, a waitress at the lodge, said he should become a writer, he decided that was a good idea. He also asked her to marry him, which Lisa considered a good idea.
Fellow author Jess Walter (who spoke at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul this month) met Percy years ago at Pacific University in Oregon “and we just clicked.”
“I appreciate his work ethic and his creative audacity,” said Walter, of Spokane, Wash. “There are a lot of people who can be sort of precious about their work habits, but he just sort of comes to work as a writer, which I think is also connected to his ambition.”
Whether you call it horror or post-apocalyptic or, less generously, zombie lit, Percy embraces the genre, although Walter suggested that the path to literary respect is not exactly lined with champagne flutes.
“I totally understand his sense of being an outsider,” Walter said. “As a novelist, you may feel that there’s some special club, an Updike Club, that you haven’t had access to.
“But one of the great things about Ben is that in the end, he’s found the confidence to write the sort of books he loves.”
‘We’re dug in here’
With degrees in writing from Brown and Southern Illinois universities, Percy quickly earned a following for his writing. He also began teaching at universities in Wisconsin and Iowa.
When their son was born, the Percys started looking for permanence. (They now also have a daughter.) He’ll always love Oregon, noting that “I consider myself a Midwesterner — with a capital W.” But while seeking a town within three hours’ drive of Eau Claire, Wis., where Lisa grew up, they discovered Northfield.
“We’re dug in here,” he said, with season ski passes at Welch Village and trips north of Duluth as often as possible. The pleasant two-story house on a cul-de-sac south of town is modestly furnished, mostly with books, although several expanses of level surface are steepled with Legos.
He’s just finished his latest novel, about the darkness that lives on the Internet. “I call it ‘The Matrix’ meets ‘The Exorcist.’ ”
Just then, Lisa comes in from a morning walk around the wooded streets. Bob, the neighborhood’s opportunistic cat, slips through the open door, to be cuddled a bit before being shooed back out onto the yard, where a soccer net awaits the kids’ return from school.
It’s all so normal, the man-sized bats of the Dead Lands, white as moonlight, so far away.