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The Construction of Place: An Interview With Percival Everett


[clock] 17-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 2015

Courtesy of Graywolf Press Percival Everett’s work tackles many terrains, both physical and figurative. He is the author of more than twenty-five books, including novels, short-story collections, poetry collections, a novella, and a children’s book. His latest collection of stories, Half an Inch of Water, is scheduled to be released in September 2015. For this interview, Everett and I met in a café in Los Angeles in 2013 to discuss his work’s regional resonances, as well as its categorization by literary critics and everyday readers. In June 2015, he answered additional questions by e-mail about his forthcoming story collection. 

Everett sets his fiction all over the United States—from the Pacific Northwest (Suder, 1983) tothe rural Southwest (Assumption, 2011); from the deserts and small towns of Wyoming (Wounded, 2005; Half an Inch of Water) to the urban and rural Southeast (I Am Not Sidney Poitier, 2009) and the likewise varied Northeast (Erasure, 2001)—so our discussion of his work as regional is perhaps both appropriate and slightly misleading. As Everett remarks early in this interview, “Any good literature has to be regional, because it has to be set in a place.” It just so happens that his work is set in many different places. His academic career has taken him from the University of Kentucky to the University of Notre Dame, and now he is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California.

Focusing on physical place offers only a partial view of Everett’s storytelling. Much of his work investigates questions of mistaken identity and the struggle to define the one among the many. His recent novel, Percival Everett By Virgil Russell (2013), takes these questions to their extreme, examining familiar themes—love, pain, and guilt—in a narrative that causes readers to wonder whether the story is being told by a father or a son and, further, if the story is about the father or the son.

Our conversation moves around these topics, and we circle back to race—a concept that seems unavoidable for both Everett and his readers. As Everett points out, “[Race] has less to do with my work than it does with the people who are discussing it. And that’s interesting to me. If they are aware of that, then it becomes even more interesting.” His work often strikes a balance between asserting the political urgency of art and refusing to identify its own politics, revealing the complexity of sometimes oversimplified political discourse. Everett evades questions about his own stance or interest in categories like race, letting his work speak for itself. This balance is perhaps best exemplified by his 2004 introduction to The Jefferson Bible in which Everett imagines a conversation between himself and Thomas Jefferson that struggles to mediate between Jefferson’s intellectual contributions to American democracy and the duplicitous racism of Jefferson’s foundational philosophies: “So, I have shamelessly used this opportunity to make some kind of political statement, though even I am at a loss to coherently restate it.” Indeed, Everett’s writing resists obvious political coherence without sacrificing an energetic political edge, embracing the subtle contradictions that others attempt to quietly efface. 

During his thirty-year writing career, Everett has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, and the Dos Passos Prize. In 2014, he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and in 2015 he was awarded a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. “Everett’s serious and realistic books have their covert strain of dark humor,” wrote Madison Smartt Bell of the novel God’s Country, “and here the wit is out in the open, as agile and as cutting as Mark Twain’s.” Few writers can hold up to such a comparison, but the immensely talented and prolific Percival Everett is one who does. 

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Matthew Dischinger: Could we start by talking a bit about regional literature? 

Percival Everett: Sure. Any good literature has to be regional, because it has to be set in a place. Not that that’s the defining feature of it, I don’t think that that’s true. But any novel that thinks it’s not regional, well, then it’s USA Today

Do you think about yourself as a regional writer?

I don’t think about it. Setting is important to me. Place is important. But I don’t write out of any loyalty to a place, I write because that’s where a story happens to be set. I’m writing about places I know. When I write about the contemporary West, those get called westerns, and I don’t know why. They’re not westerns. They’re set in the contemporary West. That’s where they happened to be. 

Do you mean Assumption?

Yes, Assumption or even Watershed. Now, God’s Country is a western because I’m playing with the form of the western. The western, to me, is a very precise genre. Precisely defined. Being placed in the West—I mean, is a movie that’s set in Los Angeles in 1997 a western? The only thing that makes Assumption a western is that it’s set in the West. There’s none of the stuff of westerns in it. I don’t use the term. I’m always curious about terms. 

Speaking of terms, could you talk a bit about your background with Southern literature? 

I don’t know if I think about it a lot, but one of the things that’s hard to deny or miss is that when you start listing important American novelists, that list is really South heavy. And not just the usual suspects, but people you wouldn’t think of. And then you get things that are considered Southern novels, that really aren’t Southern novels, and they’re really awful. It’s a great film—To Kill a Mockingbird—but it’s so poorly written that it’s kind of embarrassing. 

And yet it’s archetypal. 

Yes!

You haven’t mentioned the heavy hitters, and maybe you don’t even have to talk about Welty, Faulkner, O’Connor—

These are writers who’ve had an obvious influence on my own work—probably O’Connor more than Welty. Even Katherine Anne Porter. 

That’s what most people seem to think of as the canon of Southern literature. 

I think that’s probably right. I think of the generations after that, people like Allan Gurganus, Richard Bausch, and even people like Richard Ford. 

Although when Richard Ford talks about himself, he says he is not a Southern writer. 

Right, but no more than I’m a Southern writer. I’m from the South so I get claimed by the South. A lot of my work is set in the West, so I get called a western writer. Most of my books sell in the Northeast. Go figure all that stuff out. 

Do you think these labels still apply?

It’s useful if you’re going to do it in a way to subvert the category or the notion of categories. It’s a vacuous marker to say that someone is a Southern writer. The implication is that their concerns as a writer and a person are going to be different than a person somewhere else. And I don’t think that that’s true. If it’s being used as a marginalizing tool—and often those things are when we call something folk art or when we call something African-American literature—the implication is that there’s a mainstream literature against which you must set these things. 

In an attempt to expand the canon, you just reify the canon and talk about these texts as only interacting from the outside. 

I agree with you. It’s like the New York Times. It’s a regional newspaper, or it should be a regional newspaper. The fact that it is not hurts it as a newspaper. Nobody wants a national newspaper, because you end up with USA Today. The best newspapers are the ones that embrace the place in which they are set and also offer national and international news. The same is true with literature. You can’t write an everyman’s story. You write a particular person’s story who’s from a particular place, who either lives there or is visiting another particular place.

Writing that tries to be representative of everyone is often problematic. 

All it can spawn is intellectual fast food. It’s like the interstate system. Why are so many McDonaldses and Burger Kings on the freeway? Because people want something familiar. Because they’re afraid of a region.

Does the South still operate that way?

We do that to other regions as well. For example, that awful killing in Wyoming—Matthew Shepard. This stuff happens in New York, but no one ever thinks to vilify the city of New York as a homophobic city. But it’s very easy to vilify the entire state of Wyoming as homophobic because of one tragedy. 

Is being read as symptomatic or exemplary maybe a function of being on some kind of periphery? 

Well, the victors get to write history. After the Civil War, the South is behind. Racism didn’t disappear in the North after the war, but you don’t have to feel bad about yourself if someone else is worse. You know, Randy Newman actually has a wonderful song—“Rednecks”—and it’s got a great refrain. I won’t sing it, but I’ll let you go find it. Newman’s a wonderful storyteller. He’s very smart. And he’s a Southerner—a Southern Jew. It’s kind of a weird erasure that we have with Southern intellectuals. People like Fritz Hollings in South Carolina. Southern liberals are pretty good liberals. 

I’ve read about the incident in the South Carolina statehouse in 1989, in which you, protesting the presence of the Confederate flag, walked out of the statehouse after you were asked to speak. 

They asked me if I would address the legislature. I said “yes” but I knew that I wouldn’t, because I knew the flag was in there. So I simply stood up and said, “Because of the symbol of exclusion, I can’t talk to you.” And I sat down.

Did that moment influence your short story about appropriating the Confederate flag, “The Appropriation of Cultures”? 

It’s about symbols, in general. The story is pretty obvious so I won’t mention the story. I will say that I have since changed my mind about the flag. I think it ought to fly over the statehouse. In the same way that if I come to a field and it’s full of land mines, I appreciate a sign that says land mines. 

Do you see the story as a sort of activist approach to social change? 

It’s pretty obvious that if you appropriate something, you can change it. In the same way that once you hear a white car salesman rapping about his new sales, it takes some energy out of the form. 

(Laughs.) I don’t know if you’ve seen that Kanye West was putting the Confederate flag on T-shirts.

Well, you can appropriate the symbol because it has some meaning for you. As a symbol of exclusion, as a symbol of oppression, it works to take it because you’ve had an experience with it. It means something different when I fly it. 

Your novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier also interrogates important American symbols. How do you think Poitier movies get recognized in the novel?

It’s not so much the movies, but the fact that there’s a body of them that have Sidney Poitier—this Acceptable Black Figure. If the movies had been different, it could have been the same novel. I was not interested in Sidney Poitier. I was interested in the name. None of the novel has to do with Sidney Poitier. It has to do with the fact that there existed a character who assumed that place.

What is that place?

The fact that a culture can assign a station of acceptability to one member of a group and feel good about itself. Think of these Republicans that we have now. I can just hear it following these elections, to black America: “But you’ve had your president.” Hopefully it won’t come to that, but it wouldn’t be a remarkable thing for them to say. It’s what we expect from them.

In the same novel, the character Ted Turner talks about reairing Diff’rent Strokes to make the show meaningless through repetition. Is repetition something you try to play with in your own writing?

Yeah. I would say I think about it and play with it, but I would never say any work is meant to do it. I have pretty strict rules about interpreting my own mission or my own works. It’s not my place. I’m a writer. I make novels, and then I stand away and let the novel do the work. What I think it means, what I want it to mean, it’s not only useless, but it’s pointless. It doesn’t affect it. It doesn’t matter.

Does having a character named Percival Everett help cloud authorial intent? 

If you remember the name on the front of the book when you get to it, then it has a dual effect. One is a chilling effect, where it will pull you out of the text. The other is antithetical to that. It brings the text into a circle, into perhaps a reality that you haven’t imagined. And how it works, how effective it is at doing either one, I don’t know. Basically for me it’s just a matter of play. Whatever it does, it does. There are no tricks. You’re holding a book. You’re not going to forget that. You don’t really duck when something falls. It’s not like when people first saw The Great Train Robbery in 1903 and he shoots a pistol at the end at the audience and men fainted and women screamed. It’s not that. It would be great to achieve that. 

In the last scene of the novel, Not Sidney receives an award as Sidney Poitier, and no one can tell that it’s not Sidney Poitier. I think I just got that joke. Do you see the book messing with expectations of readership?

I’m just an old cowboy. Sure. 

Is the issue of explaining oneself to others a theme that you find yourself returning to? Race is often foregrounded this way in critical conversations of your work.

Race surfaces when race surfaces, but the characters don’t define themselves through race any more than I do. That’s a cultural imposition. Skin color is a descriptive attribute that you use when it’s necessary. Somebody’s just taken your wallet and the police are standing there, you say he was six feet tall and had brown skin. That tells them who to look for. Or if he’s five-eleven and had light skin. That’s just logic, a physical description of someone. There’s no race associated with it any more than you can look at someone from across a football field and say, “There’s an African-American man.” No, there’s a brown man. He could be from Guyana. What does it mean? So it’s not a racial description, it’s a physical description.

Half an Inch of Water. By Percival Everett. Graywolf, 2015. 176 p. PB, 6. You say that “race surfaces when race surfaces,” and race rarely surfaces in Half an Inch of Water. In “Little Faith,” the main character’s race comes up in an awkward conversation, and then it doesn’t come up again. Is that a familiar way to write about race—as a thing that frequently comes up in nondramatic ways?

Every story in American literature is arguably about race. The important thing here is that this is not a question that a white writer would be asked.

It seems like your characters are often wrestling with the issue of racial identity versus physical appearance.

It can become a cultural imposition, given the racism of the culture or of other people. But why should it be any more? The presence of a black character in a novel written by a black writer becomes racial, but the presence of a white character in a novel written by a white writer does not. There’s something strange in that logic, and that’s obviously because it’s false. If I write about a black character, that’s nothing to do with race. That’s the color of that character. To assume that it has something to do with race by virtue of that character being black is good old-fashioned American racism.

Is that an experience, maybe without being specific, that you’ve had trying to write and publish novels?

Oh, sure! I have a [black] friend who is a painter, and, when he was in graduate school, if he didn’t put a black person in the painting, that’s all anybody would talk about. “There are no black people in this painting!” And it was a painting of trees!

You’re established at this point as a writer, but is that something you still wrestle with?

Well, I’d be stupid if I thought I was not going to attract attention sprinting through Beverly Hills. And I would be afraid of the way the cops would respond to me. And I’d be afraid for one glaring reason. So I’m not an idiot about it. This is America. This is the world we live in.

Does parody factor in here? Is parody a narrative strategy? How would you describe parody?

It depends on the work. Sometimes it’s a springboard. Sometimes it’s a tick in the novel. It just happens. One thing that’s necessary for it, to do it, is to understand the source of the parody, and to understand it in a way that’s not cartoonish. I teach theory to graduate students, and I teach them to make fun of theory. You can’t do it unless you understand it, and you can’t really understand it unless you give it a chance. 

Do you think your novels work that way?

I think that all works necessarily do that. Just as a reader can’t forget that he or she is reading a novel, I don’t forget that I’m writing one. I tend to be ironic. It’s in my nature. Even though I have things that I believe pretty strongly, I don’t like earnest stories. I like them if the earnestness is actually ironic. 

So what you’re saying is you don’t like Jonathan Franzen.

(Laughs.) Not at all. To paraphrase one of my big influences, Mark Twain: With a little editing, it’s a pamphlet.

It sounds like parody is part of your ethos. 

It could be. I’m not the one to say. I’m more concerned with a couple of philosophical issues, logical ones. One of them is: “A = A” is not the same thing as “A is A.” That’s usually where every novel starts.

Do you think it’s telling that that fundamental equation often gets mapped through race?

See, that has less to do with my work than it does with the people who are discussing it. And that’s interesting to me. If they are aware of that, then it becomes even more interesting. The critical work of any work of art has to understand that the work itself is seldom the only source of the criticism. The criticism necessarily is criticism not only of the work that it portends to be, but also of the mission of the critics. And so, in that way, any work constructs, as another level of art, the critic that is criticizing it. 

I think we just call that academic branding. 

In a way, but it’s only branding if you know you’re doing it. And when you miss the point, that’s what’s kind of wonderful.

“Finding Billy White Feather” [VQR, Spring 2013 issue] is a story in Half an Inch of Water in which identity surfaces, if only as a half-asked question about a character’s race, ethnicity, and even gender. Did that story start with a particular question you have about the way we think about identity?

“Billy White Feather” is about what the reader wants it to be about. That’s none of my business. Everything is about identity. What is not? 

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