My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
I sat down to talk with novelist Percival Everett on the pretext of discussing his new epistolary novel, A History of the African American People [Proposed] by Strom Thurmond as Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid, but truth be told, I was looking for any old reason. You see, Everett has three (that’s right, three) books slated for release this year: the aforementioned History (Akashic), a co-authored satire about the American obsession with celebrity and our political system—and yes, the two grow closer every day—as well as the sycophantic industry that is book publishing; the recently released American Desert(Hyperion), which concerns the misadventures of a college professor who is accidentally killed on his way to commit suicide, and the chaos that ensues after he sits up at his funeral, for all definitive purposes, alive; and a collection of stories, Damned If I Do (Graywolf), probably written just to complete the hat trick. In all, I desperately wanted to have a conversation with Percival that would be recorded for posterity, mainly because Percival Everett is a friggin’ genius. But don’t consider it odd if you’ve never heard of him, for although he’s by no means antisocial (on the contrary, he’s actually quite gregarious and generous with his time, teaching at the University of Southern California during the academic year and at various writing workshops during the summer), Everett actively shies away from the PR machinations and media attention that most other writers seek. And although he has published more than 15 works of well-received fiction (mostly with small presses, for reasons revealed in our conversation), his books are so stylistically varied that attempts to summarize his interests or creative oeuvre prove extremely difficult. In almost every one of his works you peel away one layer of references and meaning only to find another, only to then discover another, only to come upon another, until—well, you get the idea. Welcome, then, to an interview about everything, because in many ways the meaning of everything is the only subject Everett really writes about.
Rone Shavers Would you consider yourself an avant-garde or experimental writer?
Percival Everett I don’t know what avant-garde or experimental means. Every novel is experimental.
RS What do you think you’re bringing to the table in terms of American Arts and Letters? Do you see a purpose to your fiction?
PE Do you see a purpose to art? Of course there is a purpose to art, but do I see a function in my fiction? No. Is it going to feed anybody? No. Hopefully, the world is richer for more art being put into it. That’s what I care about.
RS Do you consider yourself a satirist? I say satire because of such works as A History of the African-American People [Proposed] by Strom Thurmond and Erasure, as well as Glyph. All three books poke fun at one aspect of American society or another. Is it important for you to have humor in your novels?
PE Humor is an interesting thing. It’s hard to do, but it allows you certain strategic advantages. If you can get someone laughing, then you can make them feel like shit a lot more easily. I’m not interested in sentimental stuff; I’m a little too self-conscious to pull it off.
RS I have this theory that Americans can only deal with serious work if it’s funny.
PE Aristophanes gets out a lot of great stuff because he’s funny, whereas you can only read Aeschylus in so many ways. His tragedies are beautiful but they’re limited. Likewise, if you read Kafka and don’t think it’s funny, you’re not reading Kafka very well. (laughter)
RS How do you categorize yourself as a writer? Do you work within the constraints of a particular fiction category? Your works are so all over the map.
PE No, whatever the particular work is, that’s what it is. I don’t put myself in a camp. I want to write what works for the story at hand. I serve the story, basically. I don’t think that as the author I’m terribly important, and I don’t want to be. I want to disappear. If anybody’s thinking about me when they’re reading my work I’ve failed as a writer. The work is supposed to stand by itself. I’m teaching you to fly. When you have to go solo, hey, I’m not there.
RS Does theory influence your work at all?
PE Only insofar as it’s a source. Anytime anybody goes through that much trouble to come up with something nonsensical you have to have fun with it. It’s hilarious stuff. It’s not important that it means anything that takes us somewhere, because its not going to. But the fact that anybody wants to think it is, that’s fascinating.
RS Yet Glyph is influenced by semiotic theory and post-structuralism.
PE Well, I’m making fun of post-structuralism.
RS Even Erasure takes the piss out of theoretical positions, notably Gayatri Spivak’s idea of strategic essentialism. I am wondering if you yourself have a theoretical position that you’re working out.
PE If anybody thinks they’re actually going to delineate the necessary and sufficient conditions for any literary work of art, then they’re greatly mistaken and would probably be better served picking up some other line of work, like computer maintenance. But if you’re out to play with ideas and have some fun with them and admit that that’s what you’re doing, and don’t tell the regents at a university that … . It’s important to watch how ideas work and how they can be manipulated. That’s probably the most important question to me in the world. What can you do with thinking? But to take it seriously, I mean, that’s why the French, Derrida and Barthes, are so much fun. The fucking Americans get so earnest about this stuff that it stops being fun.
RS Well, what about the New Critics and their idea about the absolute autonomy of a work?
PE Oh, they need to take a pill. (laughter) Just chill.
RS But you do have that New Critical approach, especially if you say that the work is the work and that’s all there is.
PE Well I suppose, but I just don’t give a shit about the artist anyway. Why should I? If I find a painting a hundred years from now, and I can’t appreciate it until I find out something about the person who made it, it’s not much of a painting.
RS What would you describe as your aesthetic point of view? Do you have one?
PE What do I like? I like stuff that’s smart, stuff that challenges me and makes me think differently, that introduces me to things I didn’t know before.
RS Give me some examples.
PE Tristram Shandy is probably the best novel ever written. It takes every form of literary discourse of its time and exploits it. Huck Finn is fantastic. Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go is a very sneaky book. And oddly anticipates so much of Invisible Man that it’s frightening.
RS I have a couple of questions about your style.
PE Style schmyle.
RS Your style, or lack thereof. (laughter) Do you have a predominant style?
PE Style is a tool. The work will dictate the style.
RS So you write in a manner that suits the work.
PE The only reason I would want a particular style is so that people could identify every work of mine as mine. There’s nothing at stake for me in having people recognize the work because of stylistic consistency.
RS You tend to blend styles a lot.
PE Well, I play with styles. I think they’re amusing. I think that anybody who thinks they have a style—it’s like watching punk rockers get ready to go out. It must take you two hours to get that look. How many safety pins do you need? To me there’s a wonderful irony in that. To work so hard to dress your work. Send the work out there naked.
RS What’s also interesting to me is the way you use history. Much of your work is dependent on historical events, but then the events tend to be jumbled; it’s not literal history, it’s mixed up. For instance, in Watershed, there is an infamous event from the American Indian Movement, but the novel is set in contemporary times.
PE I create a circumstance that’s similar to the siege at Wounded Knee. It’s interesting that you call it infamous. It’s a little like the American insistence on calling its attacks battles and the enemies’ attacks ambushes or massacres. History is like memories: it is constantly being reconstructed. History doesn’t exist without the lies. We believe in some way that history makes sense, but history is an amorphous, very strange creature that’s constantly changing.
RS Why do you rely on the historical so much?
PE Well, we live in a world. We define ourselves by the times through which we live. Everything is historical. If you read any philosophy now, you can’t help but be historical.
RS Why? I mean, I don’t read philosophy.
PE Can you understand any theory about the narrative of film if you don’t know Aristotle? The answer is no. Everything’s dependent on the work that’s come before it. Our understanding of philosophy is necessarily historical, because otherwise we wouldn’t be addressing anything. The problems of philosophy are historical: What is beautiful? What is a promise? How do we perceive?
RS Perception, and misperception, is a central issue in your work. Take Ralph, for example, the baby genius from Glyph. He’s so brilliant that he refuses to speak. The attempt to understand how people construct meaning leaves him flummoxed. And then there’s Thelonious, the writer in Erasure. He’s the victim of misperception after misperception, until he no longer recognizes himself. And then, of course, there’s Strom Thurmond, from the latest book. He actually becomes convinced he’s the best person capable of writing the history of black people in America.
PE Let me just say that I wish I could’ve made Thurmond up and that he didn’t exist. But sadly, he did exist. I’ve written a lot of books. Some of them are going to be that way, others are all based in contemporary story and don’t do that. I don’t think anyone living in any time cannot be interested in the past and its manipulation.
RS What if someone accused you of trying, in not necessarily a bad way, maybe a clever way, to rewrite African American history?
PE What the hell’s wrong with that? You can write anything you want to. If anybody takes anything they read, history or fiction, as some gospel, then fuck ’em anyway, who cares? The point is, take it and then play with it.
RS Would you say that your work is corrective?
PE I’m not correcting anything. That would mean I know enough to correct. I’m just a dumb writer.
RS Well then, what about a personal history?
PE I don’t write anything autobiographical. I’m private, and I hate this nonfiction shit that’s out in the world. These memoirs. Oh my God! I do not care! I’m sorry you’re dying, but I don’t care.
RS Or that your mom beat you with a two-by-four.
PE And really, if you’re writing memoirs, she ought to beat you with a two-by-four.
RS (laughter) Actually, reading your work, I could begin to trace certain commonalities, especially in terms of family. You don’t want your personal life to be the basis of a novel, but do you think that there are experiences or bits of your history, your family, that inadvertently slip out?
PE Well, I don’t know if it inadvertently slips out. I understand some things, like that of the relationship between the father and Monk in Erasure is a lot like the relationship between this old woman and the main character, David Larson, who ends up living on her ranch in my early novel, Walk Me to the Distance. But Monk’s relationship with his mother in Erasure is nothing like the relationship Suder has with his mother in my first novel. The father in Erasure is a combination of several people.
RS There are certain generalities in your work, to the point where you could say, “Well, maybe it’s drawn from personal experience.”
PE Like what?
RS Let’s just say that the mother figures are not exactly the most stable. (laughter) Like in Suder the mom is—
PE Well, she’s nuts. But she’s the only one who has sense enough to be nuts in the world in which she lives. And in Erasure the mother just has Alzheimer’s.
RS But also, in terms of personal experience coming through, generally your characters are of a particular class. They’re professionals: doctors, hydrologists, baseball players, fiction writers.
PE That’s the world I know. I know artists and I grew up with doctors. My grandfather, father, and uncles were doctors. My sister is a doctor. And I spend a lot of my time with ranchers, hydrologists, and veterinarians. Occasionally someone will say. “That’s not the Black Experience.” And I laugh and say. “I’m black, and that’s my experience.” I know a lot of black people whose experience is that, but it’s not what people want to think is the black experience—they want their black experience to be inner-city and rural south.
RS All that is the preamble to my next question, which is: How important is class to you, especially given that class tends to be conflated with race?
PE I’m a card-carrying member of the ACLU, and I go to the ballet, and I train mules and I write fiction for a living.
RS What does that mean?
PE That’s my point—it means absolutely nothing. People live in the worlds they live in, and they’re interested in the things that interest them. That’s what makes this world fascinating. I really don’t think about class. Everybody should read fiction. I think everybody should read Joyce and Ellison. I don’t think serious fiction is written for a few people. I think we live in a stupid culture that won’t educate its people to read these things. It would be a much more interesting place if it would. And it’s not just that mechanics and plumbers don’t read literary fiction, it’s that doctors and lawyers don’t read literary fiction. It has nothing to do with class, it has to do with an anti-intellectual culture that doesn’t trust art.
RS But are you sure that class doesn’t play a part? I mean, in a lot of your novels there’s a particular break where a character will come out and say. “Oh yeah, by the way, I’m black.”
PE That has nothing to do with class.
RS That’s why I brought up the intersection of race and class. That tension’s always there in your novels. Most of your main characters are black professionals to one degree or another, and there’s always that break in the work, as though to say, “What? I can’t be a professional and African American?” You relate a typical black experience, the black experience that isn’t rural or ghettoized.
PE I don’t think I’m saying that. I don’t understand it. But I guess it’s not typical.
RS Speak on that a bit more.
PE When I grew up, there were three black people on TV, and they were all porters. And so all that talk about the positive black role model that everyone wanted to see made sense because there was no other. In fiction as well. You had the inner-city novel, and the “yessir, boss” role model, and it was not the experience that anybody I knew had. I grew up where the Civil War started, in South Carolina, and I have never in my life heard someone say, “Where fo’ you be going?” (laughter) So Alice Walker can kiss my ass.
RS What does Alice Walker say about the whole thing?
PE One thing she says is that she doesn’t write for people who can read. At least, somebody said she said that, so that might be a big lie, but I would believe it given what I have read.
RS What do you think about the whole Oprah thing?
PE Oprah should stay the fuck out of literature and stop pretending she knows anything about it, in the same way that people should stop giving any credence to book reviews on Amazon.com. And people should get educated so they can read all sorts of things and have their lives and society become richer. Walt Whitman in By Blue Ontario’s Shore writes, “Produce great Persons, the rest follows.” You produce better people by having smarter people.
RS What if someone accused you of being anti-democratic? In the sense of art reaching a mass audience?
PE Give me a fucking break. Art is not democratic. Why should everybody think they can write a novel? Everybody can’t play violin. That doesn’t mean people don’t aspire to do it. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a violin and try to play it. But to think that everybody is going to be good at it, just because they want to—that’s complete idiocy! That’s why George Bush is president. Democracy has its failings, and one of them is that it allows the existence of capitalist rapists like Dick and Dubya. If you want an argument against democracy watch American Idol.
RS I asked you earlier if you consider yourself avant-garde. Have you read William Gass’s essay “The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde”?
RS He lays out three types of avant-garde: the leftist, which ends up being conservative, the rightist, which ends up being reactionary, and a third type that always bites the hand that feeds it. I can see your work fitting in that last category.
PE Anybody who succeeds in this capitalistic culture making serious art isn’t necessarily biting the hand that feeds him. I mean, my God, look at Guernica. That’s a great protest work, a beautiful painting. But it takes its meaning from the ugliness that allows its creation. It achieves its power because it’s produced in a world full of ugliness. That’s the nature of protest. It’s wonderfully ironic, wonderfully weird and finally, absolutely human.
RS What is absolutely human?
PE The fact that the very thing that allows our expression of something is the thing that we hate. But we love the expression of it, so we get something from it. There are some people who wouldn’t be happy if they couldn’t complain. This world is made for them. Social injustice is not going to go away, so if you hate social injustice and love complaining about it, then this is the world for you.
RS (laughter) Do you think your work protests in any way?
PE Well, that’s not for me to say. Of course I have a feeling about it, but the work is out there. If there’s a protest in there that you can find, that’s great.
RS Erasure is a big protest.
PE Oh? (laughter)
RS Yeah, I mean, come on.
PE Glyph is almost a bigger protest than Erasure. Erasure is like describing a rattlesnake’s bite. Am I protesting rattlesnakes?
RS True, although most people would not see the protest in Glyph or commit to that protest.
PE People rally around easy things.
RS And there are some easy things to pick up on in Erasure. Isn’t satire a kind of protest?
PE Not necessarily. I’m making fun of satire as well as satirizing social policies. I mean, I shouldn’t even say this, but I write about satire.
RS So you’re satirizing satire.
PE I hate hearing it back, but in some way, yes, I’m exploiting the form.
RS Gotcha. So then there is a sort of form, or thematic, or style—
PE I’m interested in all sorts of things, and form is one of them. I don’t think meaning exists without form, and certainly form does not exist without meaning. Meaning and story come first. Story is the most important part of fiction. Without it, what’s the point? If all you care about is form, become a critic.
RS Let’s change tracks a little bit. You’re working on your twentieth novel now?
PE It’s around there. I can’t remember.
RS You’ve probably got two more in the hopper. Why are you so damn prolific?
PE It’s my job. I mean, if I were a plumber and I only fixed two toilets a year…(laughter)
RS Has being prolific helped or hindered you?
PE I don’t give a shit as long as I can write what I want to write. I’m not trying to get rich doing this. and I don’t care about how it’s received—I just make novels, that’s my job, that’s what I want to do, that’s what I love to do. I want to train mules, I want to fish and I want to write novels.
RS Earlier we were talking about the two-fisted writer, someone who works on one book while researching another. Do you work on two at a time?
PE I work on several things at once. I don’t sleep a lot.
RS Are you one of those guys who gets an idea, goes to a typewriter and pumps it out?
PE No, I think a long time before I put anything down on paper. I write many drafts and I try to cut as much as I can.
RS Being prolific brings a sense of urgency to your work. For those of us who move rather glacially, is that part of the whole thing? I mean, is there an urgency?
PE No, it just comes when it comes. I live on a ranch, so I have stuff to do all the time. I’m always fixing and building, and I teach. So I sit down when I’m at home, 10 or 15 minutes every couple of hours over the course of the day, and slowly pages accumulate. And I look at what I have and I do it again. I do it over and over.
RS Wow, that’s interesting. So you don’t have a set time. Would you say that you’re disciplined?
PE I can say that I’m disciplined because I do complete works. But if my wife says, “Lets go to the beach,” I’m in the car. It’s never, “No, I have to do this.”
RS I see. I totally had you pegged as one of those, “I have to write for four hours every day.”
PE Oh, no. I’d go crazy. I’ve never done that in my life.
RS The book that you’re working on now, on philosophy—
PE Oh, that’s so unformed I can’t really say anything about that.
RS Do you have anything else coming up?
PE Well, I just finished a naturalistic novel that—
RS See, that’s what I’m talking about, you work too much. This novel is the one starring Percival Everett, more or less, right?
PE I just show up in it. The working title is Wounded. It’s a really naturalistic novel. My interest is in the form of a realistic novel. You have to love the form you’re working in, but I’m seeing what I can do.
RS To tweak it?
PE No. I wouldn’t say that. Like I said before. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as the experimental novel, because all novels are experimental. I mean that to say any time I start a work, I have no idea how to write a novel. My students say, “Can you teach me to write a novel?” and I say, “No. I can talk to you about how novels have been written and what you might do to write your novel, but I cannot tell you how to write a novel.” In that way it is an experiment every time. You can’t show me three novels that you think are great literary works that look alike. Poetry is a lot more formal than fiction; you can talk about a villanelle, a sonnet, a sestina. But if you talk about what a short story is, there are no rules. But we all know. And that makes it very difficult.
RS What is it that we all know? Because I don’t know.
PE That’s the point. We can’t talk about it. But if I gave you some works for a workshop, you might read one and say. “Well, this isn’t a story.” And you’d probably be right, but you’d be hard pressed to explain to me why it’s not.
RS I couldn’t pick a story out of a police lineup.
PE No one could. It’s like Dave Chappelle says: Why do black people like menthol cigarettes? No one knows. (laughter)
RS ‘Cause they good, Percy, they good. (laughter) ’Cause you can get ’em loose. All right, you said you can’t pick out three similar works of fiction—
PE You can’t draw me an archetypal picture of a novel and then go find three great books and have them all look like that picture. I can tell you what makes a romance novel a romance novel, but I can’t tell you what makes Finnegan’s Wake and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the same thing.
RS What if we bring genre fiction into it?
PE Detective novels fit a certain group of rules. If they don’t, then they’re not detective novels. Literary novels don’t have those kinds of rules. That’s not to say one is better than the other, but one does have a set of criteria.
RS Then define literary for me.
PE I can’t. That’s the point. The only way to define literary is that it doesn’t fit into a genre. But I’ll give you the difference between art and commercial work, and this is it: you will never return to a paragraph of John Grisham’s just to read that paragraph. You will return to Moby Dick because you love the language, because there was an experience reading the book that means something. And what makes it that way? It’s art, and you can’t explain it. Something happens to you. The first time you actually see a Jackson Pollock, you will remember that. You see the real thing and you’re like—
PE That’s experiencing the work.
RS You’re talking about the concept of the sublime. Methinks you’re a damn modernist. There’s a sublime moment in a lot of your works: something happens and the character will either have that sublime moment or turn away from it or die or something. What are your ideas on endings?
PE Things don’t end on bombast. You go to war, and it doesn’t end with huge explosions—it ends when you die or when you get to go home. And that’s a quiet personal thing, not something with bands playing and the world being right.
RS Or with you shooting the bad guy.
PE That’s right. It just ends. Every story can keep going. So might as well just stop in an open-ended way.
RS You pull the emergency brake when you end a book.
PE I hope it feels that way, because if you’re really into a world then you don’t want it to stop and anyplace it ends, it has to, in that way. You have to get off at some station. But I want to make novels as short as I can.
PE I love the economy. It’s so easy for me to go on and on, but I don’t like extraneous words. I really believe every word does work. And I don’t want to duplicate effort. I hate repeating myself. I take a certain amount of pride in having the work lean.
RS But you’re tackling really complex stuff in your work. You don’t think you’re giving your ideas short shrift?
PE You know, you don’t have to fill a gallon jug when you give a urine sample. Occam’s Razor is pretty sharp, and it cuts with both edges. The simplest explanation is usually the best, but I don’t seek to explain anything, and I’m not smart enough to have a full discussion. As a fiction writer, I just want to illuminate the fact that there is something to discuss. I’m not a superhero. I’m just the writer.
RS But there are certain books whose length is appropriate. Like Gravity’s Rainbow.
PE If the story that you have is that long, that’s the story you have. Write your story. You don’t start thinking, “I’m going to write a long novel.” You write a novel and it turns out that it’s long.
RS Who are your peers? I don’t mean your contemporaries, but throughout the ages, who would you like to have been your peers? Who would you like to be compared with?
PE Well, I would love people to talk about my work with Sterne and Twain. Cervantes.
RS Who do you like?
PE I like such disparate writers. Gaddis. I love Howard Norman. Madison Bell. I like John Wideman. I’m interested in the boundaries between fiction and fact that he explores and seldom successfully handles, really—but the experiment of it is marvelous.
RS You tend to do a lot of that, too, in certain places.
PE I don’t do the autobiographical deal. I mean, I show up in the Strom Thurmond book, but that’s just a different sort of work.
RS All your stuff is kind of unreliable in that way.
PE Well, the world is unreliable. I’m just trying to give you the real thing.
RS Why do you publish most of your stuff with small presses?
PE I like small presses. They keep you in print longer, they treat you better and they talk about literature instead of money. I don’t need money, so I go with places where literature is important. Plus I love my editor at Graywolf. I’ve been with Fiona McCrae for six books and she’s a terrific editor and I like my relationship with her. I try to keep something with Graywolf even though my next novel and the last two novels didn’t go with them. They’re doing a book of my stories in November. Erasure did well with the University Press of New England, which took a chance with it.
RS It was hilarious seeing your book among titles about reconstructing womanhood in eighteenth-century New Hampshire.
PE I loved it, it’s terrific. All the other houses ran away from it because they were afraid of some backlash. It turned out there was no backlash; everybody got in line. I really wanted to piss somebody off.
RS Well, I think you pissed off Oprah!
PE You can’t piss off illiterate people with a book. And so then the same people who had been afraid of it lined up to see the paperback run. It was stupid.
RS You have the most interesting relationship to publishing of any writer I know. Just in the sense that it all seems to bounce off you.
PE I really don’t care. As long as I’m dealing with people I think are serious, I’m happy.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.