An Interview with Percival Everett
Where to begin with a writer like Percival Everett? The author of more than thirty books, primarily novels, he defies easy distillation. An absurdist and a cowboy, a Westerner and an ex-Southerner, a mender of defunct mandolins and a nurse to fallen crows. At sixty-four, he is an accomplished abstract painter and an erstwhile jazz guitarist; he fly-fishes, has spent significant time considering Wittgenstein, and is a father to two adolescent sons.
Everett’s books are similarly slippery and multifarious. They are, by and large, boundless, imaginative, exuberant works full of linguistic glee, formal ingenuity, and metaphysical comedy. But, given a closer look, the individual books elude whatever expectations one might impose on them. Take Erasure (2001), his most often recommended novel, an incendiary send-up of the publishing industry, with an entire race-exploitation novella inside. Or the caper-ish Glyph (1999), which has as its narrator an ornery baby with an IQ of 475, whose talents in philosophy, literature, and math make him a target of psychologist kidnappers who want to dissect him. And then there’s the book-in-verse The Book of Training by Colonel Hap Thompson of Roanoke, VA, 1843, Annotated from the Library of John C. Calhoun (2019), a “text on the training of our black animals” that is as diabolical as its title suggests. Even Telephone (2020), which seems more straightforwardly a Western novel about the desert, immigration, and grief, turns out to be three novels, with different endings and other elements, much to the chagrin of early reviewers who weren’t in on the conceit. (The novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.)
A major theme of Everett’s is place: finding one’s own place, which might be another way of saying getting free, especially when some of those residing in said place don’t quite know what to make of you and, somewhat inevitably, take it upon themselves to remind you, not infrequently with force. The Trees (2021), his latest novel, is set in Money, Mississippi, where there’s been a spate of unsolved murders that have two things in common: their gruesome violence and the presence of a small dead man resembling Emmett Till. Thrown into the mix is a host of characters whose very existence seems to confound the dominant culture. One character, a young academic from the University of Chicago, holds a trio of PhDs in biology, psychobiology, and Eastern philosophy, yet he’s placed in the Department of Ethnic Studies “because they didn’t know where to put him.” He’s there not because of what he does but because of who he’s seen to be.
Which is not to say Everett is writing (or not writing) only about place any more than—as a critic at New York magazine remarked about Erasure—he is “always, in a sense, writing about race, and always not.” (“Have you to this point assumed that I am white?” Glyph’s baby genius asks the reader, a third of the way in. “It is not important unless you want it to be and I will not say more about it.”) I suspect that Everett’s greater project might be about resisting attempts to be pinned down or, even more, refusing this framework to begin with. Not just because it’s wrong, but also because it’s dumb. As well as boring.
I spoke to Percival Everett on four occasions for this interview—twice in April 2020 and twice more in August 2021. A distinguished professor at the University of Southern California, he speaks with a stately, sonorous voice, his inflection at times drawn-out and softly twangy, presumably a result of his South Carolina upbringing and decades spent out west. Known for expressing some prickliness when interviewers harp on the personal or biographical, he is nonetheless a warm conversationalist, quick with self-deprecating jokes and friendly advice, such as how to mend a leaky air mattress (superglue, not patches) and how to train a yappy dog (teach him to bark on command). Our first call took place over Google Hangouts. Behind him were a canvas, a ukulele, and a printer. The painting, with its restless brushwork and expressive yet elusive feel, I thought was likely his own. But it seemed better—somehow apt—not to pry. To just look.
I. “FISHING IS DETECTIVE WORK.”
THE BELIEVER: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I know your time is valuable.
PERCIVAL EVERETT: So you’re a comedian too.
BLVR: [Laughs] Are you joining me live from your writing studio?
PE: No, I work on stringed instruments—I repair mandolins and guitars—and this is what I do in here. I’m taking a break from being a schoolmarm. [Laughs] I’m actually on sabbatical, but my kids are at home.
BLVR: What’s the lesson today?
PE: Get it done. That’s the lesson. So we can all have a weekend.
BLVR: Are there other things you’ve found yourself doing, with the world changing as it has?
PE: Well, I tried running. I can’t play tennis right now, because of the quarantine. You know, I may not contract the virus, but I may suffer physically from lack of exercise.
BLVR: You said you tried running. There’s a past tense there.
PE: Well, I keep trying. If it becomes pleasurable, I will be running.
BLVR: What is it that you find objectionable?
PE: I get bored. I don’t feel like I’m getting better at anything—I know how to run. I suppose runners would correct me and say, Oh, there are different ways of running. It would be more fun if something was chasing me. [Laughs] Or if I were chasing something. But step after step is tough for me.
BLVR: One might think the step-after-step-ness would be the very appeal, given your prodigiousness as a writer.
PE: Oh, I get enough of that in my work. I don’t need to add any more of that.
BLVR: I’m curious to what extent your work is informed by your various pursuits: repairing instruments, playing jazz guitar, fishing, training horses and mules.
PE: Well, it’s all the same. Fishing is detective work. In fly-fishing, you have to read the river, explore your surroundings, see what kinds of insects are there. It’s like the research I do for working on a novel. Training a horse is reading the horse. You know, what’s going to work with this animal? Appreciating the fact that this 1,200-pound thing does not have to do anything I ask it to do. It’s allowing me to do these things. And the same is true of making art. Without some cooperation from the world, I can’t make this stuff. And then the same with the instruments. You know, all these things refine different abilities to appreciate something.
I played guitar for a long time, but it wasn’t until I started repairing instruments that I had a real understanding and appreciation of the construction of guitars and the differences in the woods and the different sounds of old guitars and new guitars—things I wouldn’t have been exposed to enough to see until I was working with them.
BLVR: Speaking of cooperation from the world, is Telephone’s title a reference to the children’s game?
PE: That’s exactly what it’s a reference to. I’ve always been curious about my position as an artist and baffled by people’s deference to the artist when it comes to the meaning, or construction of meaning, that works of art involve themselves in.
There’s no easy way to put this: There are three different versions of this novel. They’re all published identically. And you can’t know which one you’re getting. So in the world, when you pick up Telephone, you could be reading one of three novels. When you’re talking about it with someone, you’ll know you’re talking about the same story. But you’ll get to a place where you disagree. And it’s because I’m interested not in the authority of the artist but in the authority of the reader. I believe all meaning gets made when the reader makes it. It has nothing to do with me. And so this is an experiment, some play with that notion of reader authority. When does a novel stop making meaning? Because you never lose sight of the fact that you’re holding a book in your hand. So that in itself means something. When does this snowball of interpretation and construction ever stop?
BLVR: In the epigraph, you quote Kierkegaard: “My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it—you will regret both.” But then you reference a children’s game in the title. I’m curious how interested you are in mixing these elements of seriousness and play.
PE: I don’t see that as mixing anything. Seriousness without play is just dourness. And real play is always serious. How much does a kid learn in a children’s game? Everything.
BLVR: You’ve said your books sometimes come from a line and that’s the starting point, though it’s not necessarily the first line, and the line doesn’t necessarily remain where it is, or even in the book at all. How did Telephone begin?
PE: I don’t remember. I always, excuse me, suffer from what I call “work amnesia.” I don’t know how these things happen. But the repeated question that people put to me—and to all writers, I’m sure—is one of meaning. You know, “What does this mean?” And my answer is always: “You know better than I do.” And so that generated my mission to underscore that fact: that the reader does know more than I do.
BLVR: You’ve said, “The art is smarter than us.”
PE: It’s gotta be smarter than me. [Laughs]
II. “WHAT AN AWFUL THING TO SAY!”
BLVR: You’ve mentioned how research is a big part of your work. In Watershed, for instance, the main character is a hydrologist, and your research process involved doing fieldwork, reading a bunch of books on that subject, making maps, and then even writing reports on the maps. I’m curious what the research project process was like for The Trees.
PE: It was mostly reading about lynching, you know, as much fun as that was. It was just histories of lynching, theories about lynchings. I have a lynching section in my library now.
BLVR: Whew. Was there anything that surprised you during your reading?
PE: The sheer numbers were surprising, and also not. It’s why I think I took the tack I did. It’s not like I’m trying to say lynching was bad. It’s like slavery novels. None of them are going to change the way I view slavery. Like: Yeah, wow. Slavery actually is bad.
BLVR: You’ve talked about your process, wanting to work out a sort of philosophical problem. Was that also the case with The Trees?
PE: Yeah, at the base of it. I’m not sure what it was anymore. But that’s always what gets me going. What really kicked that novel off was a song. There’s a traditional, anonymously composed song called “Ain’t No More Cane.” Lyle Lovett does a version of that song. And I heard it, and the novel sort of fell into place.
BLVR: [Listens to the song] It’s not what I expected. Though I don’t know what that would have been.
PE: It’s really haunting, isn’t it?
PE: If I were to make a movie of this novel, this would be the song that played over the credits.
BLVR: I think The Trees might be one of your most cinematic books. What’s your relationship to film or TV adaptations of your work?
PE: My little round Italian agent that I had at the beginning of my career, Candida Donadio, said to me, with her voice, which was deeper than mine from whiskey and cigarettes: “Your book is on the shelf.” So if somebody wants to adapt my book, how they interpret, how they do it, might piss me off, but, eh, it’s just kind of interesting. It’s not my book, but it’s something.
BLVR: It’s not a surprise to hear your feelings about this.
PE: It doesn’t mean Tyler Perry could make it.
BLVR: But I could see it being made into—and I apologize for speaking this way—an HBO or A24 thing. With all due respect, I do think people would enjoy it.
PE: What an awful thing to say, James! [Laughs] My god. It’s a pretty straightforward episodic telling, without a lot of wordplay. So it does probably lend itself to a closer rendition of what I have on the page. Whereas it would be difficult to capture The Water Cure or Percival Everett by Virgil Russell.
BLVR: Yeah, I have no idea how Virgil Russell would be made. Maybe David Lynch could have some fun.
PE: I forget who made the wonderful A Cock and Bull Story, the Tristram Shandy film. It captures the spirit of that novel, but like the novel, it does not tell the story of the novel. It’s about someone trying to make a film of the novel.
BLVR: Ah yes, that old ploy—the Adaptation mode. I do feel like that would actually suit the spirit of your books: the meta element, being able to see the scaffolding and the work of creation, the conceptualizing and the frustrations and the limitations—
PE: It would only work with a lot of nudity.
BLVR: It’s too bad Bill Gunn isn’t still making movies.
PE: I don’t know his work at all. Can you give me some titles?
BLVR: I think he’s most famous for his film Ganja and Hess. It’s this trippy vampire movie with male nudity. Spike Lee later remade it as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
PE: Oh, I don’t know Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Of course, I avoid anything with Jesus in the title anyway. You know, I would love to see someone like [Jim] Jarmusch make The Trees. Or who do I like right now? The guy who made Parasite, Bong Joon Ho. He also made Snowpiercer. The payoff at the end was fantastic because it was planted early on.
BLVR: That’s a really interesting combo—I like thinking about you and Bong Joon Ho. He’s an absurdist too.
PE: Do you know I love Korean movies? I know them mostly by title. There are some great ones. One is called Poetry and another one is called The Isle. There really is no dialogue in it. Love, in Between is a great film. And then The Housemaid. It’s from 1960 and then they did a remake. Korean movies tend to go where Hollywood doesn’t. They take one extra step—which is, whoa. And the acting is always so good. In this one, Moebius—I will describe the beginning of Moebius to you. This is the beginning: The father of the family—mother-wife, son—is having an affair. Mother and son discover the affair pretty much at the same time. Angry, the wife, while the father is asleep, attempts to sever his penis from his body with some shears. He fights her off. She runs down the hall, and to get him, she does it to her son.
BLVR: Oh my god!
PE: That’s the beginning.
BLVR: Wow. Did not see that coming.
PE: No one did, apparently! But, yeah, it’s pretty intense.
III. THE TOUGHEST PEOPLE
BLVR: You’ve spoken about how place is essential to your work. I first came to your writing in 2015, when Graywolf posted your story “The Appropriation of Cultures,” following the Charleston massacre. I myself was born and raised in South Carolina.
PE: Oh, were you? Where?
PE: There was a writer I knew, Guy Davenport. He died a number of years ago, but he was a good friend. He was from Anderson.
BLVR: How did he speak of it?
PE: My recollection is he was fond of it. What’s your…?
BLVR: [Laughs] Well, I mean, your story resonates. It depends on who I’m talking to, and what their background is. If I’m there, I can’t speak in the same way. And if I’m not there, I feel self-conscious about performing something for them.
PE: Oh, that’s interesting.
BLVR: Because there are expectations associated with being from the South and being someone who looks like me from the South. There’s that great Flannery O’Connor line: “He never spoke of it without contempt or thought of it without longing.” And actually “The Appropriation of Cultures” made me think about that a lot, the character Daniel’s relationship to “Dixie,” in particular. He finds the song repulsive; it’s something that causes him to be mocked. And yet when he actually spends a moment with it, he finds, almost begrudgingly, that it has something in there for him too. In an early interview, you talked about how there’s a big chunk of you that won’t let go of South Carolina, and how your experiences there inform your vision and the way you think. Is there still a chunk of you that won’t let go of South Carolina?
PE: Um, apparently I haven’t had any problem letting go of South Carolina. [Laughs] But you grow up, and there are difficulties in all places, and you embrace those as part of your learning and growing. I knew my first writer, living in South Carolina—I met James Dickey when I was a teenager. He taught at the university—I met him, as in I spent fifteen minutes one day getting to talk to him. And that meant a lot. But I don’t know if he was a part of that place as much as he happened to be in that place. The physical world of the South, the geography, I remember quite well. Especially someplace like Columbia, a university town, that tends to be different from, say, Anderson, where there are plenty of racists and rednecks. But, as one learns—and I’ve lived everywhere in the US—that’s true of the entire country. [Laughs] It’s not something that, despite movies and popular culture, resides only in the South. I’m reminded of Randy Newman’s song “Rednecks.” And it’s got a great refrain. But the reprise at the end of the song changes the entire meaning of this indictment of the South.
And I’m also a Westerner. I lived in Wyoming. I love the West. One ends up wondering why it is that idiots from other places become symbolic and representative of those places. But, say, Donald Trump doesn’t become representative of New York [laughs], even though he’s from New York. That’s a very strange thing to witness when you’re from a place like South Carolina, where if somebody commits a hate crime, it’s because it’s South Carolina, it’s awful. There could be fifty crimes in Central Park tomorrow, but New Yorkers are not awful. And New Yorkers are not awful, but neither are South Carolinians.
BLVR: You’ve lived in a lot of places—at what point did you arrive at that view? Is that something you were able to recognize even when you were younger? Or did it take witnessing all the “racists and rednecks,” as you put it, in different environments?
PE: I don’t know when it all came together in my thinking. But certainly anyone who’s ever spent time in the South knows there are some distinct groups. I would much rather spend time with Southern liberals than with most other people, even though they have baggage. One example would be Bill Clinton—he’s a perfect example of a Southern liberal. But I don’t know. Geography means so much to me. When I drove west when I was young and I saw the canyonlands, I knew I was a Westerner. This was where I was going to end up. I didn’t know I was going to end up so far west. But the landscape spoke to me. And the West comes with plenty of problems, believe me. There’s plenty of racism on “the frontier.” [Laughs] But, you know, I trained horses for twelve years. I know cowboys. And it’s kind of like Americans—some of them are racist idiots. Some of them are the greatest people you will meet. But Westerners are the most resilient, toughest people I know because of two sort of conflicting elements: they’re remarkably independent and necessarily dependent upon one another.
I’ll give you an example. There was a fire years ago down in the Banning area in California. My place was not in danger. This is back when I had a ranch. But there was an old woman who lived up in the mountains and they had managed to get all her horses off her place. But she refused to leave: there was one more horse. And there’s smoke and flames around and she heard this clanging coming up a mountain. It was this mid-eighties-year-old man in his old pickup towing a one-horse trailer. He drove up there to collect her horse and her and drove back down the mountain. That’s just what it is.
BLVR: That’s a really good example. I’m in New York, and it’s a really strange time here right now. We’re all that woman, in a sense. Or our friends are, our parents, our grandparents. You know, there’s something very cinematic about it, actually.
PE: Well, when you reduce the number of people, that happens. [Laughs] You don’t get those moments in crowd scenes. But it’s also the way people are. We’re facing stuff that people in other parts of the world have had to face a lot. And everybody is tough, when you get right down to it—it’s not where you live. People in Oklahoma City, when the bomb went off, went out there and dug through the rubble to find their friends. People are tough. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be here. It’s nice to have place pride; it’s a wonderful thing. But all of us are dealing with stuff. And I just hate that it hits any place so much harder than other places. And of course, I hope the lesson is taken that this thing can come someplace else next. So I hope you’re being safe. I don’t see any people standing behind you, so I think that’s a good thing. [Laughs]
BLVR: That’s correct. Like many New Yorkers, I have a roster of roommates and everyone fled. Everyone left except my dog here.
PE: Oh, how come I can’t see the dog? Where’s the dog? [Laughs]
BLVR: [Laughs and moves the laptop camera to the dog bed in the middle of the room] He’s an old guy. He has a painfully literary name—Kerouac—and he just turned seventeen.
PE: Hey, buddy. He is old.
BLVR: I know you’ve talked about animals being honest, and how we’re more honest when we’re around animals. I’ll be completely honest: when I was supposed to fly out to LA to get breakfast with you, I wasn’t sure he was going to make it while I was away. I have to care for him—a lot. Somebody remarked that I was like Cinderella, mopping up after him because he’s incontinent. I have all these absorbent pads that I wash all the time. He’s on a host of meds. I never thought I would have to inject him with a syringe filled with painkillers; I never thought I would express his bladder; and this amount of care has been completely transformative. I’m curious whether your experience—for instance, raising horses and mules—has been similar. To have to perform all these unsavory or unpleasant tasks that are actually where the real attention and understanding take place.
PE: Uh, yeah. Some hard decisions that one makes.
Years ago—twenty years ago, longer—I kept some horses in New Mexico. And I had an old horse. She was twenty-seven. Which isn’t terribly old, but it’s pretty old, of course. The vet had come up and she was suffering. And then he went back down; the place where I kept the horses was pretty remote. And her food started coming back through her nose. She was in bad shape. And so I was going to have to put her down.
And so I took her well up the mountain, away from the other two horses, and euthanized her—I, uh, killed her. And came back and the other two horses screamed for two days. They made noises they’d never made before. They hadn’t seen this happen. There is no way they could have known what happened. But they knew what happened.
And then right on the heels of that I went to visit some friends in Wyoming. My friend there, he had just put a horse down too. And we just hugged each other and wept. [Sighs] And, you know, it sounds like a cliché, but they become parts of our lives, just like people. If I had to make a choice, I would always save a person. But I wonder how much of that is because I know I’m supposed to save the person. [Both laugh.] But what you describe you’re doing for your dog is beautiful. And, believe me, your dog knows it.
BLVR: Well, thank you. Sorry—ah. I find myself becoming more emotional during these COVID times.
PE: Oh yeah, it’s hard. Well, you see how fragile it all is. And how arbitrary, especially with something like this. Though now socioeconomics are coming into play and poor people are suffering more than others. But the virus has no predilection.
BLVR: I’ll say this one other thing about my dog, because it relates to something you’ve talked about. So I have to carry him a lot. I take him to the park and he sort of sits and wanders around some and then I carry him back out. And this older man approached me one day and was like, “How long have you been having to do that?” What he was getting at—his interpretation was that my dog didn’t want to move and I wanted him to move. And so I had to pick him up and carry him. And this guy told me, “I think it’s beautiful when they don’t listen to you a little bit.” [Laughs] I wonder if art is maybe like that. Moving outside of our ability to control it, if that is what is beautiful or human about our endeavors and these parts of the world.
PE: Oh, I wouldn’t write if that weren’t true. I cannot control what anything means. I write a novel. I put it out there. It’s out of my hands. Maybe no one will see what I saw when I was making it. That’s OK. I certainly know that many people will not see what I saw. And that many people will see different things from one another. And the thrilling thing about making it is that it generates the meaning it’s going to generate. If somebody says, “Did you mean this?” I always say, “Yes.” But the work does what the work’s going to do.
And just to back up for a second, in the novel I’m working on, Dr. No, I have a character who has a dog with only one leg and who carries the dog everywhere in a BabyBjörn baby carrier. It’s a bulldog. And since the dog cannot walk, the dog craps twice a day: they’re on a schedule; he’s there to clean it up. It’s really strange when you’re telling me this. [Laughs] The dog’s name is Trigo.
BLVR: There’s a 2020 Bookforum interview you did with Greil Marcus that I thought was really interesting.
PE: That’s because Greil’s so damn smart, he just makes everybody around him sound like him.
BLVR: You use the phrase “stealing glimpses” to describe how you think of both fishing and art. Is that similar to how you view your life’s artistic project? That each work—whether it’s a short story, a poem, or even a painting—is one of these stolen glimpses?
PE: Well, see, now you’re being a lot smarter than I am. [Sighs] I don’t know. I’m just a cowboy. I don’t know shit. Eh, I just make this stuff. I know how I feel about it in the world I’m walking around in. But a lot of this just happens when it happens—I forget it almost immediately. If you were to bring up a scene in Telephone and talk to me about it, I might or might not remember it.
About the glimpses of nature: when I was describing them, that is actually something I experienced. If I’m hiking on a trail and I see a river, sometimes it’s just too beautiful and I can’t keep looking, so I have to glance at it and turn away. I have to admit, that happens more with rivers than it does with art. [Both laugh.] But it’s a similar thing.
IV. A BEMUSING ABSENCE
BLVR: Because of my background, people will sometimes project their biases onto my work and have certain stereotypical expectations of what my stories are about. I’ve always admired your approach—or non-approach—to a character’s race, how it sort of rejects playing by these expectations. It subverts them, explodes them, ignores them. And then sometimes in a story, there’ll be a sort of incidental character along the way that the protagonist meets and that responds to the character in a shocking or blunt way. I’m thinking of one scene in Damned If I Do, where there’s a character at a bar who is just minding his own business and a drunk guy comes up to him and is like, “Hey, you’re Black!” and then wants to take a swing at him. In the story up until that point, that hadn’t been an element at all. And then somebody else’s perspective derails everything. I’m curious if you would be willing to speak a bit about that.
PE: Well, I don’t know who got to make up the rules, and that’s the problem I had. [Laughs] And so that’s why I reject rules most of the time. You know, when I was a kid, it seemed that the only time I would ever see people who look like me—or who are the same color as me—in fiction was when they were characters from the inner city or the rural South. Neither of those were my experiences growing up. And so I grew up cognizant of a weird inability of the culture to allow me to exist. So long before I was the writer, I was aware of this, and it was bemusing. When I started writing, much later, I realized that if I didn’t have my character comb his Afro pretty quickly, if I didn’t say he was Black, then that character was assumed to be white. And you can see how wrong that is.
The same thing would happen on the news. Gah, I just remembered this. If there was a news story about a bank robbery, say, if the person who had robbed the bank was Black, they would say it. But if the person was white, they would not. And my parents commented on that all the time, and it was something that was not lost on anyone. This privileging of a mainstream identity, one that doesn’t need to be commented on. So I grew up thinking about it. But I can’t say that my breaking the rules was so much a protest as just a natural response to something that seemed arbitrary, and not only unfair but unseemly. [Laughs] Something stupid people might do.
BLVR: There’s a certain strain of book you’ve produced a couple times. One could maybe call these “long-title books”: A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond as Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid.
PE: Do I have another long-title book?
BLVR: Well, there’s also Colonel Hap Thompson of Roanoke, VA, 1843, Annotated from the Library of John C. Calhoun. How did these two books come to you?
PE: Well, the Strom Thurmond book… actually, I woke up one morning, I just thought, Wow, what if Strom Thurmond wrote a history of African Americans—what would that be? And I was going to write, essentially, his history of African American people. I mentioned this to my friend and colleague James Kincaid, and we thought, Well, maybe we could do this together. It wouldn’t be at all what it is without Jim. He’s hilarious and smart, and I’d never written anything with anyone.
As for The Book of Training, as someone who trains horses and mules, I’ve read thousands of books about training. Well, not thousands; hundreds—uh… six. [Laughs] And I thought, Wow, you know, I’m sure that someplace, some asshole made notes. [Laughs] And so that’s where that book came from. And just like the notes of that particular person, someone read them. And in this case, the someone happened to be John C. Calhoun.
BLVR: I mean, I can see it looped back into Telephone in a way, this idea of one person making notes and another person reading those notes, and that kind of dialogue that unspools. How important is that to you?
PE: Uh, I don’t know. Must be important—I spent all that time making this three-version book. I wrote The Book of Training while I was working on this book, so that’s probably something I was working through and did unconsciously. But that’s not unusual for me. Often there is a cluster of books that deal with some of the same things. And those things don’t really disappear until I’m done with them. And then the next cluster will be different. The idea of immortality shows up in Frenzy and then in American Desert. Things like that, where they just sort of back up to each other. So I think you’re right to see that. How much I can say about it? Well, not much, apparently.
BLVR: Well, also, it’s antithetical to your position that it’s more about what we the readers see.
PE: You mean my desire to not reveal how dumb I really am?
BLVR: [Laughs] You’re too modest.
PE: I have every right to be. [Laughs]
BLVR: Returning to Telephone, I’m curious how you arrived at that form.
PE: Well, in the three books, it takes me a while to work through things. And it becomes a problem of sense and reference. You know Frege’s puzzle: There’s the morning star, the evening star, and Venus. They’re all the same thing, but they’re different things. With Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, the entire driving principle behind that was my trying to understand Frege.
BLVR: How important is framing to your work? Creating the right frame—how conscious is that for you?
PE: That kind of implies I know what I’m doing. I have an idea and I do the best I can. And the right frame—I don’t know; it’s the one I choose. When you go to the framing store and you have something matted, it’s very likely you come home and say, God, I wish I had added that on a different color mat.
BLVR: Do you ever feel buyer’s remorse when you’re making a book or upon finishing a book? Of not having chosen the best mat?
PE: No. Because the thing about that mat is that someone else will like it. Or, for someone else, it will have meaning. And, again, I can’t control what meaning I made. I may think it’s the wrong mat; I may not like the mat I’ve chosen. But it has nothing to do with whether I think it’s the right mat. Likewise, you don’t know what a work of art is capable of until you give it a chance to do something. Does that mean I don’t try to make the best book I can make? Well, of course not. As far as I can see, I try to make it what I want it to be. But then it’s out of my hands. And that’s a very scary thing.
But, again, that’s the only thing that keeps me working. And who am I to say what it really means? What kind of vanity would have to be present for me to say, you know, You’re wrong? [Laughs] It’s like perfectionists. People say, I’m a perfectionist. I say, Well, I’m glad you know what perfection is. That must be a great place to stand. Because I don’t. And it’s a moving target, anyway.
V. “SOMEONE WILL ENJOY THIS—BUT PROBABLY NOT ME.”
BLVR: Jim Kincaid says hello, by the way. He spoke very fondly of you. One interesting thing he mentioned was how you took in “wounded and discarded animals,” was the way he phrased it. I’m curious to know if you still do that.
PE: Well, I no longer live on the ranch. So the opportunity to do that is diminished. If an animal wanders into my path and needs help, I will help it. [Laughs] But on the ranch, crows are always falling out of trees. And, unfortunately, I developed a reputation in the community. And so people would bring me, um, ducks and I’d say, “I don’t want your duck.”
BLVR: I had experience with taking in a duck once and we got rid of it very quickly.
PE: Oh, they’re opinionated.
BLVR: It was a vociferous duck. Anthony Stewart of the Percival Everett International Society also says hello. When I asked him about your work, he said, “If his writing is about anything, it’s about how complicated the world is, how complicated people are, in a different way how complicated Black people are. Some of the books are set up based on this idea that Black people are at least as complicated as white people are. But a lot of American art seems to overlook that simple fact. What I say to people is that he writes about the experience of being Black, but he does not write about the experience of being Black as a problem to be solved or a condition to be endured.” Would you agree with his assessment?
PE: Well, always agree with experts. Sure. I think that’s right. I don’t go to work thinking that, but it’s probably true.
BLVR: In earlier interviews, the subject of Erasure and protest comes up. And you seemed to bristle a bit when one interviewer suggested that Erasure was, quote, “a big protest.” You offered Glyph as an example of “almost a bigger protest.” How does The Trees compare? You said that Erasure was like describing a rattlesnake bite. Is The Trees any nearer to the bite itself? Or, put another way, how allergic do you feel to the term protest being attached to The Trees in particular?
PE: Well, the term protest novel seems to be one that people reserve for Black writers. And any novel worth its salt is a protest novel. But my only designated protest is The Water Cure, which was aimed directly at the Bush administration. The others are simply true stories. If a true story is a protest novel, then, yeah, sure. That’s my only problem with that designation.
BLVR: The Trees is populated with characters who are seen by the institutions that employ them as out of place in some ways—their very existence confounds their employers’ expectations and ability to accommodate them. The hyper-rangy professor Damon Nathan Thruff, who is, nonetheless, placed in the Department of Ethnic Studies. Ed and Jim, MBI [Mississippi Bureau of Investigation] special detectives, who are usually paired because they’re both viewed as difficult to work with. And there’s the FBI agent Herberta Hind, who asks, “Don’t you think there should be some of us in places like the FBI, Congress, the CIA?” What it is about place, or maybe being seen as out of place, that you felt compelled to write about in the novel?
PE: I don’t know if I was thinking that way so much as creating engaging folks. I like that Herberta, the FBI woman, is highly skilled, yet she’s been sent to Money [Mississippi] just because she is Black. And the irony of the two MBI guys being sent there too, where Emmett Till was in fact lynched. But I wouldn’t put too much into trying to figure me out in those regards.
BLVR: Fair enough. I guess I just thought about what Jim had said about how the two of you went to bookstores and you would look to see where they put your books, and sometimes they would have them in “African American Fiction.”
PE: Even worse is when it’s “African American Studies.”
BLVR: Yes. But, back to the subject of place, I was wondering if it could be seen as a through line. A character who is seen as out of place by everyone else, that their very existence is confounding expectations. And it’s a position I think a lot of readers probably do actually identify with, whether they’re a guy whose parents are from Taiwan and who grew up in upstate South Carolina, or, you know, some other person who felt maybe like a bit of a misfit wherever they lived, whether it was Wyoming or the Upper West Side.
PE: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know what to add to that. You said it pretty clearly. We are who we are. Except when we’re not.
BLVR: [Laughs] So, moving forward, I know you’ve got Dr. No slated for 2022.
BLVR: Have you already completed the 2023 book as well?
PE: Well, no. Publishers have this two- or three-year rule. But obviously Graywolf has sort of given in, because now I have had three books in a row—a book a year—and I think they have a three-year policy. I don’t know how long I can abuse that. So it feels like anything I write is a posthumous adventure. Someone will enjoy this—but probably not me. And so it makes working kind of strange. Because I didn’t need to write Dr. No—it was being locked in the house, and all of sudden, there it was.
BLVR: Was the research process different for that one because of the nature of quarantine?
PE: Well, I did nothing.
BLVR: So that was the research?
PE: I wanted to see what it was like to do absolutely nothing, so I wrote that. That book, very much like Glyph, is so close to the way I actually talk and think. It just kind of came out. I had to refresh myself on some notions about math and arithmetic. But otherwise, I was just having a good time. [Laughs] Doing what I do best.
BLVR: Which is nothing.
BLVR: I mean, to be an expert at nothing is something.
PE: Or hardly anything.
BLVR: Well, it’s not nothing, either.
BLVR: Well, the theme of this upcoming issue that the interview will be a part of is “attention”—
PE: You mean my lack of ability to pay attention?
BLVR: Oh, no. I don’t think that’s true, do you? You’ve got so many books and so many pursuits, but you complete the books and you complete the paintings.
PE: Well, yeah. It’s what we do. Everybody does what they do. I’ll tell you, if I could have the effect… Do you know Carhenge?
BLVR: I don’t believe so.
PE: Look up Carhenge. I’m sure it’s online now. I was driving to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and I turned north out of Alliance, Nebraska, and looked to the east. There, I saw these cars half-buried in the ground, all pink and gray. I pulled over. It was a replica of Stonehenge, made out of cars. I had never heard of it; there was no sign, nothing. There it was. And I was so impressed, just so blown away by this. Because somebody had a tractor, and somebody had derelict cars, and what they did was they spent a whole lot of time making a sculpture. And it affected me. Did it mean anything like, oh, it changed my life? No. But it was art. And it was in the middle of no place. It didn’t have a name on it, either. But it was there, doing work in the world. And it was a meaningful experience for me. If I could ever have that effect on somebody, that would be great.