I’m Looking to Jump Ship Sooner Than I Should: A Conversation with Percival Everett
By Ayize Jama-EverettFebruary 4, 2023
Percival Everett hasn’t stopped writing since his first publication in 1983. The result is over 34 novels, short stories, poetry collections, and paintings. (Yes, he paints as well as trains horses and dogs, fly-fishes, and plays music when he has time.) His work resonates with the confidence of someone unafraid to make mistakes; as a result, he makes few. Named a finalist for the Pulitzer and shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his 2021 novel The Trees, Everett is an accomplished and celebrated creator who retains the composure of a solitary and deferential writer, deeply enmeshed with his craft.
I jumped at the opportunity to speak with another Black male author who has spent more than three decades crafting the weird, the wild, the mundane, and the prosaic into engaging narratives for all to enjoy. We spoke via Zoom, as both our dogs tried to distract us in the background. My first inquiry confirmed that we are not related, though we share a last name.
— Ayize Jama-Everett
AYIZE JAMA-EVERETT: I haven’t read all of your work.
PERCIVAL EVERETT: Well, neither have I, so it’s okay.
Do you remember all of it?
I don’t remember the last one. I remember parts. People ask me about scenes, and I look at them like a deer caught in the headlights — like, what?
You’re also a painter and a musician. How can you tell when something wants to be a song versus a story or a painting?
The last show of paintings was the first time the visual art dovetailed into a conversation. They’re separate. I do them both because they are so different. Writing is so sedentary, and [one develops] such a long relationship with the novel [they’re composing]. The painting is far more physical, more emotional, and has a shorter relationship.
I read So Much Blue (2017), and that seemed to be about a long relationship with one piece of visual art.
If I had a giant studio, I might have that going on. But I have a small studio.
Can you tell what will be a novel or a short story from the beginning?
Writing a novel is like knowingly entering a bad relationship. And the short story happens by noodling around; I give it less attention. This is not to disparage the short story — I’m amazed by people who can write a bunch of short stories. I’d much rather write a book of short stories than a novel, but I think novelistically.
But you’ve got four books of short stories. How did they come about?
They were distractions. Usually, I discover that I have a bunch and put them together. Except for the last collection. I was living in Paris, and I wrote stories about Wyoming. That was fun.
That’s funny because I just finished it in Switzerland.
[Laughs.] It was meant for French-speaking countries.
It’s the first western I’ve read that uses fishing as an entrée to the West.
There’s a history of that: Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It (1976), The River Why (1983) by David James Duncan. But that’s my relationship to the West: fly-fishing and horses.
You said something about the best writing lesson you got from horses in another interview.
All my life lessons come from animals. I trained horses for 12 years. It’s like a novel. One thousand two hundred pounds, and it doesn’t have to do what I want it to do.
What does training horses teach you about writing a novel?
Patience. Not to get stressed out. It never pays to get excited around a half-ton animal. It’s not going to calm the animal down, and it’s not going to do you any good. With novels, it is the same thing. Why get stressed about it? And even after you publish it. What if nobody likes it? What are you going to do? Maybe somebody will enjoy the next one.
Are there any rules that you follow in terms of writing? A road map for success or knowing that the project is going where you want it to go?
No, not really. I try to be honest in terms of my vision. I never think about readers — not to say I don’t want to be read. But there’s no profit in imagining some ideal reader when everyone is different. So, I’m the reader I’m trying to appeal to. Which, sadly, explains my book sales. [Laughs.]
What’s the writing routine, the schedule?
I work all the time but only sometimes. It comes from ranching and training horses. I wake up, feed, fix stuff, write for about 20 minutes, train an animal, fix stuff, and write for 20 minutes. Constitutionally, I’m lucky, because when I sit down, I’m immediately working. I don’t have to clear the deck, and I don’t go online, surf the web, or anything like that. I don’t sleep a lot.
You’ve got this comedic timing where you seem to purposely not land the joke, leaving a kind of menace in some of your humor in the novels. How much of that is the intent, and how much is flow? I’m thinking about The Trees, mostly.
I use humor as a weapon in writing. There is no better way to address serious stuff, especially with Americans, than if you can get them laughing; then you can do shit to them. That’s the function of humor. I have no interest at all in those characters I was writing about in The Trees. [Laughs.]
You were kind of cold to every single white person in that book.
It’s our turn. I grew up watching those wide-eyed porters in Three Stooges comedy shorts. The other night at 3:00 a.m., they had an Abbott and Costello film on, Africa Screams. I said, “That’s on television!” And any bad feelings I had about publishing The Trees were all gone. Part of the novel is just turning it around.
Are you in conversation with other Afro-surrealists, or are your works like I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009) and The Trees purely solo explorations?
Surrealism is a long-time interest not in real dreaming but in fiction-dreaming. Dreams in fiction, including film, are not real dreams. They’re something else. So, I have a fascination with that. Any magical realism bores me to tears because it lacks irony. I’m just not interested without some hard reality to bounce it off of and to find that irony. What is that work, 100 Years of Boredom? [Laughs.]
But then you’ve got that Kierkegaard quote as an epigraph for Telephone (2020): “[D]o it or do not do it — you will regret both,” which seems like the most unironic epigraph to an adult choose-your-own-adventure book ever.
Yeah, I don’t pay much attention to books after I write them, so …
Can I ask you about movies? Have you seen Nope?
Yup. [Laughs.] Nope. I like Jordan Peele, but he’s got to stop making student films. I loved Get Out. But I’m not a horror genre person. The second one (Us) was a horror film for sure. I don’t know what the third one was. What I didn’t like was trying to include Black history in it. Why did it matter if he were Black or Asian to the aliens? They didn’t care.
What’s the role of race in your work?
It’s a bogus category we’re forced to adopt because people recognize it. And that bogus category has served as an alienating and oppressive element in the lives of a lot of people. I am a member of that group. There isn’t a serious work of American art that, in some way, isn’t about race. And when it’s not, that’s the racial statement. I always use the example of the television show Friends.
And its stunning lack of Blackness.
They mentioned it to them and started bringing some in. Tokens are great because you only need one.
Did you see the Netflix film The Harder They Fall (2021)? It’s a modern all-Black western.
It was an interesting movie, but it could have been a better western.
How does it fail as a western?
Many modern westerns fail at the genre because they try to be true to an American West that never existed. I teach a course on the western, but I teach it as an American artifact, not as works of art and not as history. Westerns were all fantasy. John Wayne actually believed he existed at some point. Even when they had a kernel of truth as a starting point, they never were true. They were always about how America wanted to see itself. In the 1970s and ’80s, they started believing in the earlier westerns and needed to be more faithful to those things.
A lot of westerns were written by people who had never been west. And then there are filmmakers like John Ford. Where do all his characters live? Monument Valley, where no one can survive. I always end my course with Blazing Saddles, because it uses every cliché and then breaks the fourth wall.
How does it feel to show Blazing Saddles in 2022?
I think I’m the only one who can do it at USC. The hardest part is not the racial stuff. It’s so much more intelligent about race than anything we have now because it’s innocent. It was written by Richard Pryor and Mel Brooks, who had no filters. I tell my students, “Listen, you’re going to hear the word ‘nigger’ in here because that’s how Americans talked at the time. If that makes you uncomfortable, then good.” The parts I have to excuse are its misogynistic and homophobic bits. We can’t just dismiss those parts because the creators were blind to those issues themselves. But they’re not racists when making the movie, even though they’re addressing race.
You’re right. You’re probably the only one that can teach that movie today.
Well, it’s mostly because my colleagues are white. Students are looking at me for permission to laugh. And I’m saying, if the shit is funny, laugh.
What’s the unique aspect of your creative writing class, given that you’ve worked in so many genres and forms?
I get people to read and figure out what they’re trying to do. I don’t like the guru model. A student asked, “Do you know how to write a novel?” And I said, “No, I do not.” I have done it, and I will probably do it again, but I don’t know how I’ll do it again. I don’t teach what I do.
So, what do you teach?
I teach the standard workshop because no one has come up with something better. But I can’t stand it. I tell them all, “This will not help you with your writing. You’re just going to become friends.” I teach another course where I tell students to write the most conventional story they can imagine. But then they have to explain why they think it’s conventional. Then I shoot them down because there are no rules about conventions in fiction. Then they take one story they work on all semester and have to figure out another way to tell it. Not as a story or a film. Folks have made Rubik’s Cubes, magazines, and works of art with transparencies. One woman made labels of canned meat to tell a story about canned meat. When they go back to write the story, they know so much more than before, and the story is just there.
I would’ve liked that over the traditional workshop.
Workshop sucks. Art doesn’t happen by committee.
Do you fuck with Afropessimism?
It almost seems like a redundancy. I have to figure out what it is.
Some would reference Frank B. Wilderson III’s work exploring the always-essential, always-undervalued work of African Americans, causing a sense of disregard and malaise about the Black condition in the United States. Almost a sense of hopelessness regarding things ever improving — as I understand it.
I’m glad it has a name, but that’s precisely what Black writers were talking about in the 1960s. That’s nothing new. It would be a complete ignorance of our history not to see the situation as it exists, and it would be a complete betrayal of our loved ones not to address these issues.
Can we talk about your new novel Dr. No (2022) for a second? Did you watch any James Bond films for it? Because, reading it, it felt more like just straight fun.
It came quickly because that voice is the one I’m most comfortable with. I didn’t expect to write it. I was locked in the house during [the pandemic] and figured I might as well write a novel. I only watch Bond films on long plane flights to fall asleep to.
You have this quote: “My goal is to know nothing, and my friends tell me I’m well on my way.” That could have been said by your main character in Dr. No, Wala. Do you have an actual obsession with nothing?
What I love about writing novels is that I think I know something when I start, and by the time I finish, I realize I know less than I did when I started it. But the extrapolation of that is, after you’ve finished writing so many books, you know much less than most people. You might as well embrace it.
When you first started writing, Black misery porn was the fashion. You dodged that bullet. How?
I don’t know. At that time, there weren’t that many Black male writers. There were some before. But because I came along when I did, I got grouped with John Edgar Wideman, Clarence Major, and Charles Johnson, even though I’m 15 years younger than them. That was my cohort. And then, younger writers started showing up, like Mat Johnson, which was great, but at the time, the famous Black writers, because Ishmael Reed wasn’t writing that much, were Alice Walker and Toni Cade Bambara. And those are straightforward, sad sorts of things. But I came up reading Kurt Vonnegut and Ishmael Reed. I wasn’t going to write The Color Purple. My idols were Chester Himes and Tom Pynchon.
Who are your peers today?
Anybody writing? I read a lot but only a little fiction, compared to other things. John Wideman and Robert Coover come to mind.
What are you reading?
Lately, a bunch of books about the Chinese language, though not in Chinese. Histories, though I’m not interested in history per se, more so moments and parts of it. Writing books is just a reason to study. I read a lot of math books before I wrote Dr. No. I read enough to understand it, so it doesn’t sound like I just read it. For my novel Watershed (1996), I did three months of fieldwork with a hydrologist. I don’t remember any hydrology at all. [Laughs.]
You’ve got this ambiguity in a lot of your endings that stands in direct contrast to the definitive way you start every story. How do you know when the story is done?
We abandon stories. They don’t end. So, endings aren’t that important because there’s no such thing. This goes back to the idea that I know less when I end a novel than when I’ve begun.
Have you ever had a hard time abandoning a story?
Sure. And sometimes, I’m looking to jump ship sooner than I should. But writing is just a bunch of decisions you have to make. Back to the Kierkegaard: Do it or don’t. You have to make a decision. No matter what you do, you will have this counterfactual thought about what it would have been if you had done something else.
What’s the marker of success, if not an accomplishment, for you? Optioned for a movie? Nominated for a Pulitzer? Does any of that impact you or the work?
You write a book, and it wins an award. It doesn’t make the work any better. It’s the same book. It gets me some more readers, and that’s a good thing. I write a book hoping to get paid enough to write the next one. I make art; that’s my job. That’s all I care about. I am fortunate; I get paid to do what I would do anyway.
I love the confidence in that statement.
Confidence? I don’t know. I think, What could go wrong? No one is shooting at me.
If they were, would that stop you?
I’d be curious as to why. I can make a bad book. I’m capable of doing it. I’m sure I’ve done it before. But nobody is going to get hurt. I want to be read more, but I recognize that my work can be difficult. I want to live in a culture where people don’t use that term — difficult — for books.
Ayize Jama-Everett is the author of the novels The Liminal People, The Liminal War, and The Entropy of Bones, and of the graphic novel Box of Bones. Originally from New York, he now calls the Bay Area his home.
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