Official Benjamin Percy Website

Official Graywolf Press Website

A Review of Percy's Refresh, Refresh (2007)
By Nick Ostdick, Mar 24, 2008

If you ran into Benjamin Percy, you might think that he is an outdoorsy guy. If you read his latest collection of fiction Refresh, Refresh, (Graywolf Press, 2007) you would be almost positive. Author of the previous collection The Language of the Elk (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006), Percy hails from the jagged hills and elevated deserts of Oregon where most of the stories in the collection take place — centering around the town Bend, a home for old, booze soaked loggers, longing misfits, and ordinary people fighting against the class and status of the town while trying to make their way. This setting is crucial to many of the stories, giving the book a kind of backwoods feeling through Percy’s characters that maintains a smart and sophisticated way of storytelling.

The stories in Refresh, Refresh, like the landscapes Percy (pictured right) effortlessly gives life to, are at times gruff and sharp and at once soft and delicate. In the title story “Refresh, Refresh,” for my money the best in the collection — which struck me as odd and refreshing (no pun intended) since more often than not collections hide their gems somewhere in the middle — kids beat up an irritating recruiting officer while their fathers are at war, all the while checking their emails furiously waiting for word on their fathers’ fates. “Refresh, Refresh” is probably the most notable story in the collection as well, originally published in The Paris Review and included in The Best American Short Stories 2006, it earned The Paris Review’s sought after Plimpton Prize.

Other stories in the collection are just as fine. In “The Caves in Oregon” a struggling couple discovers a secret passageway in their basement that leads to a revitalization of their relationship. In “The Killing,” which is a spot-on allusion to Andre Dubus’s “Killings,” a father reconciles two parts of himself: a quiet, contemplative figure for his grandson, and a passionate, impulsive man who kills his daughter’s abusive husband. “Meltdown,” which is perhaps the most interesting story, follows a lone biker in a post-nuclear accident Oregon. While we are solely focused on this biker the entire time, Percy keeps the story out of a corner here with rich description and carefully executed uses of back-story. While the story falls a little flat at the end, Percy’s nerve in taking a chance like this proves worth the risk.

These stories are masculine fiction of the highest order, in the vain of Richard Ford or some of Tobias Wolff’s finest work. While I always seem to shy away from this type of fiction, preferring stories of a much smaller and more quiet class, Percy’s stories hit all the right chords here, taking the actions to just the right spots before backing off and letting at times the smallness and the more interesting aspects of his characters shine through. Refresh, Refresh, while at times a little over the top, lands with both feet on the ground as a very solid collection of stories. His use of imagery and description paints Bend with a combination of long, broad strokes and the finest touches, giving the reader on-the-ground knowledge and visuals. At times a little overindulgent, Percy’s true gift lies here in the concrete, in firmly plopping us in this small town, in these houses, in these painful and utterly intoxicating lives.

An Interview with Benjamin Percy

Percy, who at the time of this interview taught at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, but who will in the fall of 2008 be teaching in the MFA program at Iowa State, recently took some time from his busy schedule to answer a few of our questions.

decomP: Your latest book is Refresh, Refresh. Can you tell me a little about the process of writing the book? What went into it? How long it took? What were some of the highs of writing it and what were some of the lows?

Benjamin Percy: Writing a book of stories isn’t like writing a novel. You don’t do it all at once. So it’s hard to track its evolution. To say, well, I began at this time and ended at this time. You might write thirty stories before you have the right assortment to gather into a book. It can never be a random amalgamation. There must be some unifying principle, usually based on place and theme, sometimes on character. So I have no clue how long the book took me to write. Two years, I guess. But I was writing so many other things during that time, that’s not an accurate representation of the time I spent at the keyboard dedicated to these stories exclusively.

d: On a smaller, story-to story basis, what is your writing process like? What do you have to do to write story from start to finish? What are your little “tricks of the trade,” so to speak.

BP: I try to write at the same time in the same place every day. You must condition your imagination — in a Pavlovian way — to salivate. So I sit down with my cup of coffee at 7 AM and the bell rings and I’m off. I try to always write from start to finish. I’ve found that if I set a story aside and try to come back to it later, the fairy dust has worn off. There’s no energy attached to it anymore.

There are no tricks, really. Planting your ass in a chair every day is about it. And not checking your email, not answering your phone, not getting up for a break when the writing gets difficult. Talent matters. But discipline matters more.

d: To me, a lot of your stories resemble Tobias Wolff’s work. Would you say that’s a fair assessment? Who are your major influences? What do you read when you’re writing?

BP: I’d say that’s a flattering comparison. He’s a grandmaster. I’m a punk. But I’m certainly following his tracks his in the mud. Other influences include Cormac McCarthy, Richard Yates, Daniel Woodrell, and Flannery O’Connor. I don’t read anything in particular when I’m writing — I read everything. I try to expose myself to everything: work written today, work written two hundred years ago, work written by men, work written by women, work concerning Africa and Asia and blah blah blah. If you don’t expose yourself to a variety of voices you’ll never grow as a writer.

d: To me, the book centers around this idea of masculinity and what that means for a number of different characters in the book — what this idea of ‘manliness,’ simplistically, means. In your eyes, what’s the book as a whole about?

BP: Pain.

d: “Refresh, Refresh” is my favorite story in the book, and to me the strongest. Do you have a favorite, one that is closest to your heart?

BP: “Refresh, Refresh” is one of the best stories in the book and I’m certainly appreciative of all the readers who have found me because of it. But I’m not sure if it’s the best in the collection. I’d put the gold medal around the neck of either “The Caves in Oregon” or “Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This,” but the topicality of “R,R” makes it stand out.

d: You have another book of stories as well, published a few years ago called The Language of the Elk. There are very few writers today that limit themselves to just short fiction for numerous reasons. You work the short form so well, and my question is what do you love about short fiction? What aspects of it do you find attractive? Is there a novel on the horizon for you?

BP: I used to sprint in high school. 100-meter dash. The crack of the gun, the wind in your face, the barely realized pain in your legs, the finish line within sight. It’s all about adrenaline. Which suits my high-octane personality.

I just finished a novel a few weeks ago, actually. But in many ways it’s a beefed-up short story since it takes place over a very short period of time. I’ll continue to experiment with the form, but I’ll always be wed to short stories.

d: Lastly, you teach writing as well. What’s the best piece of advice you can offer a creative writing student or anyone who is thinking about writing in general?

BP: Begin with the image. If you think about writing as a subject, most of us are trained — from grammar school through college — to write thoughts. That, after all, is the essence of the essay: here is what I’m thinking. Cerebral writing has a cerebral effect. And I don’t want my audience to sit and ponder their navels. I want them to feel. I want to drag them down the rabbit hole. I want them to be alive twice: once in their world, once in the world of the page. How do I try to accomplish this? Through imagism. Every moment in my stories I can imagine happening as if a film reel is turning slowly in my skull. My job is to replicate that with ink and paper. Which ain’t easy. But you can take a stab at it by constantly orienting your audience, reminding them of that overturned vase here or that breeze coming in the window there. And even more importantly, if I want to convey some idea (despair, joy, etc.) I try to make it visual. Rather than talking about it. If I think about the writers I admire most, I suppose that’s the essence of what they’re doing.

decomP Staff Reviewer Nick Ostdick divides his time between Milwaukee and Chicago. He is the Editor of RAGAD, a literary broadside and online magazine of fiction. His work has appeared widely in such places as Slow Trains, Pindeldyboz, Word Riot, THE2NDHAND, and Letter X. Visit him at his blog.