Benjamin Percy is only 32, but he’s already penned a hit novel, with another on the way. Both — The Wilding and The Red Moon — are set to become movies, as is one of his short stories. He’s also an accomplished journalist. His work has appeared in Esquire and the Wall Street Journal, and the April issue of Time will include his profile of his literary hero, John Irving.
When The Inlander caught up with the Oregon-raised author, he had just spent the morning working on yet another book (he can’t tell us much about it, other than that it’s “post-apocalyptic”) and preparing to leave his home in Iowa to begin a trek that will land him at the University of Idaho next week.
In the rumbling growl that’s made him a beloved figure on the reading circuit, the author discussed his career as a teacher, a writer and a guy who still fails from time to time.
INLANDER: Does it feel like this past year has been a whirlwind? Your novels are doing well, but you’re also getting into film, too, right?
PERCY: For Red Moon, the film rights were picked up at the same time the book was picked up, so I’ve been on and off the phone with lots of Hollywood types over the past 12 months or so. I can’t say much about Red Moon, other than that Barry Levy (Vantage Point) has taken on the screenplay. The Wilding, though, that’s been the big excitement lately. Guillermo Arriaga, the guy who wrote Babel and 21 Grams, is directing, and I’m doing the adaptation for him.
It’s remarkable how much you have going on. Do you feel this is the payoff from all those hours hunched over the keyboard?
I think I’ve progressed so much as a writer. I graduated from grad school in 2004 and since then, because of my obsessive work habits, every year I feel like I’ve learned so much and never feel like I’m plateauing. I’ll look back on something I published six months ago and be disgusted by it. But that’s a good thing. … What people, of course, don’t hear about are all the things that I do that don’t work out. People hear about the one that comes through and maybe don’t realize that I’ve been really sweating to make that happen, along with a host of other projects. I wrote four novels that never got published before publishing The Wilding.
You’re a professor of writing at Iowa State and other universities, so is your approach to pass down this crazy work habit to your students?
There are a lot of talented people out there, but a writer makes it based up stubbornness, along with talent. They have to really be hungry for it.
Does it bother you when someone realizes you’re 32 and says that you’re “lucky?”
It’s a natural reaction. Writers are naturally envious, and that can be a good reaction. It keeps you chasing the next big story. I’ve also been unlucky as well — people just don’t hear about that.
Right, it’s probably not a good idea to talk about all your failures in your bio.
[Laughs] Yeah, I could list all the publishers that have rejected me.
April’s Time magazine features your profile of John Irving. How did that come about?
I’ve always been an obsessive fan of his, and Irving was on the cover of Time 30 years ago, and he has a new book coming out. I never take on an assignment that’s not something I’m interested in. Usually it’s something I want to do. If I want to hang glide, I’ll pitch an article and get the hang gliding paid for or, when I needed to get a vasectomy, I pitched an article about that. I’ve always wanted to meet John Irving, so that’s how that came about.
Benjamin Percy • Thu, Feb 16 at 7:30 pm at the University of Idaho’s Menard Law Building • Free, open to the public