PERHAPS THE ONLY consistent aspect of Percival Everett’s body of work is its unpredictability. In almost 30 books including short stories, novels, and volumes of poetry, Everett’s vast array of topics range from poststructuralist theory to water-boarding under George W. Bush, the publishing industry’s commodification of black pathology to revisions of Euripides. Blending philosophy with satire, his novels are equally likely to center serial killers, hydrologists, or cowboys, as to feature Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida, Strom Thurmond or Ted Turner. Famous for refusing to talk about his work, much of Everett’s fiction pokes fun at academics and publishers. Born in 1956, Everett insists that it makes as much sense to call him an African-American novelist as a California novelist, unsettling common assumptions about appropriate subject or form in Suder (1983), Glyph (1999), Erasure (2001), Wounded (2005), The Water Cure (2007), I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009), Assumption (2011), Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (2013), and the latest, So Much Blue (2017). Fond of fly-fishing and woodworking, he is also an accomplished painter and Distinguished Professor of English at USC. Everett refuses to adhere to rules about race and authenticity, and is equally at home writing harrowing prose and outrageous comedy. Here, he talks about the uses of irony, abstraction, and what it takes to make a work of art.
YOGITA GOYAL: Early on in So Much Blue, the first-person narrator, Kevin Pace, recalls his grandfather asking, “[D]o any roads lead home from irony?” Would you agree that the novel seems like a response to that question, especially in relation to your previous fictions, which don’t always end with returning home from irony?
PERCIVAL EVERETT: The interesting thing about irony for me is that real irony is far more sincere than earnestness. To accept the absurdity of a situation is to accept the humanness of it. Utter sincerity suggests a kind of belief that one knows all there is to know about a given circumstance. That is not to say that one should ever make light of serious and grave and important issues, but that open and genuine intellectual curiosity should never be a casualty in any situation. Irony is not always funny. Humor is not always ironic.
I was intrigued by the fact that the three different narrative strands — the loveless marriage in the suburbs of Rhode Island, an artist’s mid-life fling in Paris, and Americans abroad in a third-world country — come together so seamlessly, despite being written in quite different genres, and set in different regions of the world. The El Salvador plot, especially, focusing on the outbreak of the civil war in 1979 as two young Americans search for a lost brother unfolds in a racy, gritty, surreal fashion, in obvious contrast to the genteel banality of domestic life. Would you say something about the domestic focus in the novel, and if the El Salvador section proposes a critique of the other sections.
I never speak to what my work might mean. If I could, I would write pamphlets instead of novels. And if I offered what the work means, I would be wrong. The work is smarter than I am. Art is smarter than us.
In some ways, the accessibility of the domestic plot feels like somewhat of a trap for the reader. The novel’s epigraph from Diane Arbus — “A picture is a secret about a secret” — provides its structure, as we see a series of secrets being guarded jealously, and gradually revealed. I’m wondering if you could tell us about your choice of epigraph as an indicator of the secrets the novel itself keeps.
I would like to think there is a bit of Arbus in the novel.
The El Salvador section reminded me a bit of Joan Didion’s Salvador. But that clarity of protest about US involvement might be missing, or at least another kind of secret.
I have no desire to offer a political message in a novel. An artist cannot hide from her or his political beliefs; they will be in the work. But to presume that I am smart enough to preach a position runs counter to my artistic sense.
Your novels often feature the figure of the artist, sometimes a writer, sometimes a painter, and it’s often tempting to search for autobiography or for a deliberate metafictional wink. There’s a Professor Percival Everett in I Am Not Sidney Poitier, for example. In So Much Blue, Kevin is a successful artist, who favors abstraction, and is obsessed with colors and dimensions. There are so many ways in which pondering color in American literature is immediately linked to conceptions of race, an automatic linkage that you tend to resist. Blue, the color Kevin can’t paint at all, until his secret painting, could be linked to the horrors he saw in El Salvador, especially cobalt. But it could also just be a color. Is — and I’m thinking of your own work as a painter — an abstractionist aesthetic is deliberately presented here, and how might it relate to the more overt (realist) narrative?
I consider this latest novel to be one of my more experimental works. The meaning of abstraction is pretty abstract. I keep relearning this.
These aspects remind me of recent debates, and quite acrimonious ones, about abstraction and appropriation, especially in reference to Dana Schutz’s abstract painting of Emmett Till, Open Casket (2016). Your short story “The Appropriation of Cultures” quite hilariously suggests the transformation of the Confederate flag into a black power symbol, a different kind of appropriation, and I wanted to get a sense of your thoughts about how this debate is unfolding.
You’ve asked about the Schutz painting. A lynching is as much a part of a white American’s history as it is mine. A white person perhaps cannot understand the fear and sheer rage associated with such an atrocity. But perhaps I cannot appreciate the shame associated with my culture’s action. A terrible American event does not belong to one kind of American. That art addresses atrocities is a good thing.
One of the funniest scenes in I Am Not Sidney Poitier is the revision of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. What do you make of Jordan Peele’s reimagining of that film in Get Out?
I really enjoyed Get Out. It’s a nice and clever piece of work. It was good to see something different.
So much of your work parodies academic norms of interpretation, as well as the racist dynamics of publishing and book selling. In Erasure, you describe the author, Thelonious Monk Ellison, visiting a bookstore, and finding his work not in Contemporary Fiction but in African-American Studies, even when the novel is a reworking of Greek tragedy and has nothing to do with African-American experiences. Does it seem to you that such tendencies to label and box everybody are actually getting worse in these times, and the political urgency of our historical moment is making people more and more intolerant of such subtlety?
Apparently people need categories. I choose to ignore them.
When George W. Bush became president, I believe you bought a house in Canada. How are you living through the Trump regime?
Don’t get me started on Trump. Perhaps the only people dumber than Trump and those close to him are those in Congress who know who and what he is and continue to support him. The old joke comes to me: what is the difference between Trump’s America and a bowl of yogurt? Yogurt has active culture.
You’ve played a lot with genre. I’m thinking of the western as a genre in God’s Country or Wounded and more recently, detective fiction in Assumption. For many writers, there’s a clear distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction. For you, do these received forms seem useful material to play with? And perhaps, are there ways to think of genre fiction beyond readability?
God’s Country is my only “western.” Assumption, Wounded, and Watershed are novels that just happened to be set in the West. I hate that the presence of Native people, mountains, or even a horse causes people to call a work a western. That said, I hate any work that is formulaic, so “genre” fiction is something I do not read. Of course, I find a lot of “literary” work formulaic as well.
Recent debates about creative writing as an institution have dwelled on “MFA vs. NYC” or “MFA vs. POC.” Would you say that Los Angeles as a city has a distinct literary culture, and does it inform your work in any way? Does film as a medium, for instance, shape your writing?
About LA. This is a great place for writers. The history is rich. The place is full of film, TV, and fiction writers. For the most part the writers I have met here actually produce work and seldom spend their time yakking about writing. You can’t really fake a writer’s life in Los Angeles because the city really isn’t very easily impressed, with itself or anybody.
As for MFA degrees: Writers get time to write, but workshops are deadly to imaginations. Art does not happen by committee. I find my graduate students at USC to be some the smartest, most talented young writers I have met. However, I want them to know that making literary art is a solitary endeavor, that even my tastes should not matter to them. They need to be true to their visions.
Who are you reading these days?
I am reading early novels of Louisa May Alcott. Odd, I know. In the middle of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Prowling around the early 19th century.