Percival Everett is one smart dude, much smarter than me. I worried that my interview questions wouldn’t measure up, that he would find my level of inquiry so ordinary that they would fall short of rousing his interest. Instead, I found an open, amiable, attentive individual who paused to consider each of my questions before giving me thoughtful, albeit concise, responses. His love of language is obvious. The words he speaks are as exacting as the words he writes.
Over his prolific career, Everett has averaged a new work of fiction about every eighteen months. As an older aspiring writer, I find this to be as depressing as it is inspiring. Of his over fifteen novels, Erasure, his most lauded, and So Much Blue, his latest, may be the markers by which we can trace his trajectory as a writer. Both explore some of the most daunting philosophical questions of our time—the role of the artist in society, identity, race, and relationships. Everett admits he prefers reading books that challenge him. It stands to reason that his work would do the same for his readers. His thought provoking novels reveal a refreshing, imaginative freedom that reflects his philosophy when it comes to fiction.
Everett says much of his writing is prompted by life questions he wants to examine. In each of his works the question differs, making the nature of his novels distinct in subject and structure, often mixing humor with the absurd. In Erasure (2001), Everett explores how perceived cultural and racial bias can dictate what gets published and what doesn’t, what is valued and what isn’t. One wonders how close it comes to Everett’s own relationship with the publishing industry. The novel also seeks to erase the notion that the black American experience differs from the American experience. He makes the point with all the subtlety of a bullet train hitting a brick wall, forcing us to consider the question from a larger perspective—especially when the narrator, speaking about the dense, intellectually challenging book he’s written and had repeatedly declined by publishers, says, “I was a victim of racism by virtue of my failing to acknowledge racial difference and by failing to have my art be defined as an exercise in racial expression.”
So Much Blue (2017), examines relationships—specifically marriage, secrets, and trauma. The novel weaves three different narratives that culminate when all secrets are revealed and the narrator’s life comes into focus. Here, Everett draws from his talent as a visual artist—his artistic endeavors go well beyond writing—to accurately express the nuances of color and time. His visual imagery establishes mood, and a level of mystery that tends to provoke certain questions:What does it take to sustain a marriage? What is the difference between what may be construed as a lie versus a secret?
Everett says much of his writing is prompted by life questions he wants to examine. In each of his works the question differs, making the nature of his novels distinct in subject and structure, often mixing humor with the absurd. This is not entirely unexpected given that his initial undergraduate and graduate studies were in philosophy, namely logic, which I found fascinating and encouraging, given my own background as an engineer. It is our gain that he decided to write instead; otherwise contemporary literary fiction would be missing an important voice.
It is difficult to capture Everett’s work within a single category. In a seminar at Antioch University he said, “In fiction, there are no rules.” As a fiction writer I found this statement liberating. It was as if I’d been granted permission to let my writing unapologetically move to my own music, my own voice. Everett’s novels, poetry, and short stories all reflect his dismissal of those rules that might otherwise restrain his work. His eloquence, intellect, and style remain constant. His voice and point of view is always firm, confident, and reflective. According to Everett, “Writing is always political.”
Everett’s own trajectory as a writer has managed to avoid the issues that he tries to illuminate in Erasure. Unlike the novel’s main character, Everett is, in fact, a widely respected and accomplished author of literary fiction. His novels offer a broader, more complex view of the African-American experience rather than the narrow, ghettoized version too often considered by the mostly white publishing establishment as the only authentic black experience.
Despite his aversion to social media and self-promotion, his work has been often recognized by a number of awards. Everett is the recipient of the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, the Academy Award in Literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction (Erasure and I Am Not Sidney Poitier:A Novel), the New American Writing Award, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, Winner of the 2010 Believer Book Award for I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Winner of the 29th Dos Passos Prize in 2010, awarded the Phi Kappa Phi Presidential Medallion from the University of Southern California in 2015, and the Creative Capital Award in 2016. In addition, his stories have been included in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Short Stories.
I met Percival Everett on a blustery February morning at a small neighborhood café in South Pasadena. As we shook hands he apologized, and true to his directness, told me that he had only thirty minutes and warned me that he was a tough interview. I suppose it was his way of letting me know he might not be too forthcoming. I’d done enough research that his warnings did not surprise me. In fact, it was that self-effacing quality that interested me in the first place. Modesty would be unbecoming to a man who’d authored so many successful novels, short stories, children’s books, and poetry collections in the span of his thirty-five-year career. I came to this interview as interested in the man as I was in his work.
The following interview is excerpted from our conversation.
Jesus Sierra: You studied Philosophy and minored in Biochemistry. I’m curious about that.
Percival Everett: Well, the philosophy I studied was mathematical logic.
JS: What did you have in mind for a career?
PE: I didn’t. I was just studying. It seems back then, you just went to college and it was what you did.
JS: Why University of Miami?
PE: I wanted to study with a guy named Howas Pospesel, a logician.
JS: And you knew of him before.
PE: Yeah. I have a love-hate relationship with Miami.
JS: Why do you say that?
PE: Because it’s a great city, full of life, with everything that’s wrong with America, right there. The exploitation of people, the disparity of wealth.
JS: How did you end up writing fiction? Were you writing fiction before?
PE: I continued to do philosophy. I graduated from college way too young, so I went on to a PhD Program in Philosophy at the University of Oregon, because I started reading a guy named Wittgenstein. The logic became the philosophy of language, and I just realized that I hated doing philosophy.
JS: Is that much like J.L. Austin? Is that the same kind of thing?
PE: Yeah, well not quite the same but he’s my favorite philosopher.
JS: I love philosophy and have a library of philosophy books of which I’ve read only a few. I’ve got too many books that I’m never going to read.
PE: Hey, that’s the way we will all go.
JS: At what point did you start writing?
PE: It was called ordinary language philosophy. It consisted of creating scenes in which people spoke about philosophical concepts in ordinary discourse as a way to understand what we mean by those philosophical problems. So I was writing scenes and since I was really disenchanted with scholastic philosophy and I was a reader, I just started enjoying writing scenes.
JS: You were asked to write fictional scenes?
PE: Well, you write dialogue. People are talking and it’s supposed to be the way we normally talk. The idea is that philosophers create their own problems by the ability to acknowledge what we already know and by speaking in weird ways instead of using ordinary language.
JS: So you took a liking to that. Is that when you decided to go to Brown University?
JS: At what point did you start training mules? Was that before all this?
PE: Living in Oregon I ended up with some jobs working ranches. Sheep ranches.
JS: Did you work in ranches before?
PE: I’d ridden but I hadn’t work in ranches. As you know, working ranches very seldom involves any riding. But when I ended up at auctions, I met some cattle guys who said they’d give me a summer job. So that’s how I started working ranches.
JS: But how do you train a mule? Is it any harder than training a horse?
PE: In some ways it’s easier because they’re smarter. But because they’re smarter it can be more difficult. You have to be completely consistent because a mule is always thinking. With a mule, if you don’t follow through one time, the mule will remember that one time and say, “do I have to do that?” (laughs)
JS: In Spanish we use the word mule to talk about someone that’s stubborn, because they have that reputation.
PE: They’re stubborn because they think they know better and they won’t get hurt. You can work a horse until he has a heart attack. The mule feels something bad and says:“That’s it, you can hit me with that two by four but the two by four won’t kill me.” (Laughs)
JS: That’s amazing. Now you teach writing. Is there anything from training mules that translates to teaching writers?
PE: It’s a good question.
JS: Well, you train mules. Do you consider teaching as “training” writers?
PE: First of all, mules are much smarter than writers (laughter) so there is that. And you’re working with the whole animal, instead of just the back end (laughs). It’s the consistency. You can do anything with a mule that you can do with a horse, except race. Because no one has figured out a way to explain to the mule why it’s worth doing. It just seems like a way to get hurt so they’re not going to do it.
JS: I see.
PE: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I want to be more like a mule or more like a horse when I go to work. Whether I just want to do whatever the story tells me, or whether I want to think about it first and be a little bit in charge.
JS: I just finished my MFA and frankly I always had my reservations about it just because of the idea of setting boundaries or rules and really wondering what it would do for me. How do you view MFA programs? Are writers born? I’ve gotten older. I’m not a thrill seeker the way I might have been at one point. But I don’t feel any fewer thrills. I understand that those exciting moments in life are closer to home.
PE: Well, like any art, you can teach anyone to play all the notes in the saxophone but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be a saxophonist. And you can teach someone how to use language in effective ways but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to have any real talent. But I don’t know that I believe in innate talent. There’d have to be circumstances in place. I mean if you are six feet eight inches tall, you have a better chance of being a basketball player.
JS: Man, I wish I were that tall! I’d have definitely played ball.
PE: Yeah, but then you would have been a liability I combat. (Laughter)
JS: What makes a good writer?
PE: Loving language and story. Caring more about the story than seeing one’s name attached to it.
JS: Are you able to discern that when you read someone else’s writing?
PE: If I start reading a story and I forget the writer, then the writer has achieved something. The idea that when somebody is reading my work they’re thinking about me, would make me feel like a failure. It means that the work is not arresting enough to take them out of this world.
JS: There’s a passage in So Much Blue that I must have read several times. There is a moment when the narrator reflects on his relationship with his wife. It is something that I felt deeply because it helped me better understand a long ago chapter in my life. Sometimes I find that the right language can really help me navigate my own emotions. And it is your language in this case that helped me do so. Thank you.
PE: No, thank you.
JS: I read a lot of Hemingway when I was younger. In fact, he was also an inspiration for me to write. I think, particularly in a Cuban society that I grew up in, what was most admired of him was the whole macho aspect of his persona. Do you think that level of adventure is required of a writer in order to write about a particular place or experience? It seems to me you’ve done a number of things in life. For example in So Much Blue, part of it takes place in Paris, part of it in El Salvador. I have several questions here but do you think that’s necessary, in terms of experiencing life that way in order to have material to write about?
PE: I think it’s a good thing. But it’s certainly not necessary. I’ve gotten older. I’m not a thrill seeker the way I might have been at one point. But I don’t feel any fewer thrills. I understand that those exciting moments in life are closer to home. You don’t have to go very far to find them. There is nothing more exciting to me than things my kids say (laughs). So no, but it does depend on what you want to write. I always encourage undergraduates to take time off before they go to graduate school, because you do have to write about something. And I encourage them to major in something other than creative writing because it’s a non-information major. It’s great for a lot of people but you need to know something about the world. You’re an engineer.
JS: I don’t know about the world there but I do know about buildings.
PE: (laughs) Hey, you were asking about mules and writers. The construction of anything works as a great metaphor for the understanding of story knowledge.
JS: I did my twenty-minute talk on that.
PE: (laughs) There you go.
JS: When you spoke at Antioch University you mentioned that a lot of your work is research. Part of So Much Blue takes place in El Salvador just before the war. Did you actually go there?
PE: A long time ago, yes.
JS: You did? Were you there about that same time?
JS: In the novel the main character actually returns after the war.
PE: I’d gone there several times, but I’ve never gone back. But I’d love to go back.
JS: It’s probably one of the most dangerous countries in the world right now.
PE: Yeah, it is. It got better for a while.
JS: A good friend of mine is writing about El Salvador. His father is one of the last living witnesses to the 1932 massacre there. He’s documenting it all.
PE: That’s fantastic. I’d love to see that.
JS: You also set the story in Paris. You’ve been there.
PE: I can’t write about places I don’t know.
JS: So if I want to write about Pasadena, I’ll need to live here for a while and experience it?First of all, it’s kind of sad that so few people read literary fiction. We don’t teach our people to find challenge entertaining.
PE: If you want to be true, yes. Because you’re messing with people’s stuff. And that’s why I can’t write about anything I don’t know something about. Even then, I try to do it without the appearance that I think I actually know anything. I’m a tourist in this world. Everybody wants to not look like a tourist, but I am a tourist.
JS: It’s what I like about those scenes in El Salvador, it’s two guys that didn’t know where they were and were very much tourists in a way. The point of view truly lent itself to that.
PE: I think the only thing that I’ll cop to being autobiographical is that bus scene trying to get the car past the bus on that little narrow road.
JS: In a book I read recently there is a scene that takes place in the Bay Area, where I live. In that scene the character is trying to find his way back to San Francisco from Palo Alto and he laments that he can’t take BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit], because he has no money but…
PE: BART doesn’t go to Palo Alto (laughs)
JS: Right, it doesn’t. Curiously, this book has gotten some overwhelmingly positive reviews. This leads me to the question, where do you see the state of literary fiction today?
PE: There is a lot of crap. And it’s always been that way. First of all, it’s kind of sad that so few people read literary fiction. We don’t teach our people to find challenge entertaining. I think mostly if we train people in school to find a difficult novel as much fun as watching a movie. Movies are passively received. There is not much time to put into consuming it. It’s an hour and a half. You don’t have to remember to go back to it. And as you’re saying, you don’t have to think hard. I’d love to live in a culture where thinking hard is considered fun.
JS: Well, that’s the idea of television. The idea of ‘I don’t want to think, I just want you to entertain me.’
PE: Even radio must have been better, because then you have to make the images yourself.
JS: Absolutely. When I was going to college I worked as a truck driver for the electric company and I used to listen to “Mystery Radio” every night on the radio while I drove.
PE: Oh you used those tapes?
PE: (laughs) Yeah, that stuff was great.
JS: You conjure the whole thing in your own imagination.
PE: That’s why I didn’t like it when they started making music videos. I refused to watch them, but I like the idea of music making me come up with stuff. They’d come up with all these weird things that music was about. It took all the fun out of it.
JS: I’d like to ask you about the book collaboration you did with Chris Abani, No More Red, a book of poetry around your paintings. How did that collaboration come about?
PE: Oh, oh. They just took pictures of my painting. We didn’t have much to do together.
JS: So he wrote the poems to your paintings. You didn’t do the painting to his poems.
JS: My current mentor is a visual artist as well. I asked him whether he thought his visual work informed his writing or the other way around. If he thought there was any real connection. How to you feel about that?
PE: There is some connection that I can’t articulate. The difference is why I like it. I was a musician before I was either.
JS: What did you play?
PE: Jazz guitar.
JS: Wes Montgomery?
PE: Yeah, I love Wes Montgomery. For me, any kind of art is stimulating. I always think students in our program should have to take a studio art course of some kind.
PE: Yeah. Even music, or sculpture. Anything. One of the reasons I love painting is because it’s physical. Typically, though it’s not a necessary truth. The length of the relationship with the work is shorter.
PE: Yes. In some ways more intense. And there is this element of destruction. If I put blue on a canvas, it’s there. There is no removing it. But if I write in a character I don’t like, I just take it out.
JS: What do you recommend your students to read?
PE: I just ask them to read what they’re interested in. I think they should read stuff that they naturally gravitate to and stuff that they never imagined. There are a bunch of novels that I read every year, or every couple of years. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy: Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Again because it’s so difficult and I just want to get used to the having fun doing it. Samuel Butler’s The Way of all Flesh, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And there, people stall because of the dialect, but then they miss out on all the fun.
JS: That’s interesting you say that. We read The Color Purple, and not being from that time or that part of the country I couldn’t discern the accuracy of the language used in that novel. Whether it was appropriate to that time and place. As a somewhat uninformed reader, I didn’t know.
PE: I grew up where the Civil War started, and I never heard anyone talk like that (laughs).
JS: I’m just skeptical sometimes.
PE: I get it.
JS: You don’t have a lot social media presence. You’re there only because other people comment. When you started writing the Internet wasn’t even around.
PE: I know. In fact I used the Word word processor and a typewriter. I wrote my first five books on a manual typewriter.
JS: Do you still have it?
PE: No. I gave it to a student a long time ago. It was just heavy. I didn’t want it. I said, do you want this? He said yes.
JS: At the Hemingway House in Key West they have his typewriter on display. I imagine writing on that took a lot of perseverance, and alcohol, I guess. I have come to writing later in life. I’ve had a whole other career—
PE: I published my first book when I was twenty-four. My friend Harriett Doerr who’s dead now, published her first book[Stones for Ibarra)] when she was seventy-two. Her first book was a much better book than my first book. So you still have plenty of time.I think it’s a bad neighborhood, the social media thing. It’s one of the problems with the stuff that gets published.
JS: I’m going to aim for that. (Laughter)
PE: Because you just have stuff. You have the luxury of reflection, and we’re smarter.
JS: And we’ve lived a little.
JS: It’s interesting, you talk about experiences, and I haven’t really taken the time to think about it until I started to write again. I’ve written my whole life, but I was just going along, writing in journals, and more personal reflection stuff to sort things out. When I went back to fiction, I realized that I do in fact have a lot of material to draw from. Going back to the Internet question. Knowing what you know now, if you were starting today, would you consider [creating an online presence]? I mean, we’re being told that’s a necessity these days, to have an online presence.
PE: I hate the whole thing. I think it’s a bad neighborhood, the social media thing. It’s one of the problems with the stuff that gets published. People get published because they might have a following on Twitter or whatever. They pitch themselves to a publisher saying, I’ve got twenty thousand followers and that’s a lot of books in literary fiction. Somebody will publish it. They’ve always been around—Vanity Presses—but I’ve heard them advertising on the radio now. Have you heard this?
JS: Yes, I have.
PE: And one of the lines I heard, either a TV ad late at night or on the radio was, it’s not about the quality of the work. It’s about getting published. I even told my son. I can’t remember what it was. Something like, why edit? Or something ridiculous like that.
JS: Your work got published because it was good work and it was worthy of publication. Nowadays, I feel a lot of pressure to get out there on Twitter, Facebook.
PE: It’s like pimping yourself out.
JS: It’s all the self-promotion you have to do.
PE: And it’s so distasteful. I think I just don’t like the idea of it.
JS: What’s a question you hate when you meet people and tell them you’re a writer?
PE: I don’t confess to it a lot. “Are you published?” is one. The thing is, I know great writers who have not been published. And they’re no less writers than I am. And I know some really awful writers who have been.
JS: I know you’re running out of time, so I’ll skip to some key questions I have for you. Who were your mentors?
PE: I have always been completely solitary in my work. Even now I don’t have any readers. It goes from me, to my agent.
JS: Is that a conscious choice?
PE: I think it’s just constitutional. I had a, he wasn’t my professor, but there was a guy named Harvey Castle. He used to be the editor of the Norton Anthology. I never much liked his work and he was a crazy person. And I mean that literally, he’d call me at three in the morning. But there was something about his approach to the world of art. He was a smart guy. Things got crazy when he was around. So maybe Castle was one. And then later, there are friends who are writers, I wouldn’t call them mentors but they do make me more comfortable with my profession. John Wideman and Richard Bausch. But we hardly ever talk about writing.
JS: Whom do you read today? As far as contemporary writers.
PE: I read so many. It’s not fair to say because I hate leaving anybody out. But there are a lot of really great writers. Then there are a lot of others that write okay, but why bother? It’s come to me that if I don’t want to finish something, I won’t finish it because life is too short. If I’m reading something and I like the writing but I don’t want to finish it, then it’s because it’s a weak story. There are a lot of people who can write but they really don’t have much to explore and say. And I’m not terribly interested in that.
JS: I’m the opposite. As an engineer, no matter how much I don’t like something, I grind through it.
PE: And you’re also at a different stage in your career. For you, the construction of the thing is important. I’m stale and cranky by now. And I feel guilty about being that way. I should go back to the way I used to be.
JS: Lastly, you mentioned something in your interview with Bomb Magazine. In it you said you wanted to be compared to Sterne…
PE: Pretty good company.
JS: How do you feel about your writing now? Are you getting there?
PE: Oh no. I’m really flattered that someone might suggest that but no. For one thing, I don’t read my work once I let it go.
JS: But you did say that what prompts you to write is when you are struggling through a philosophical question and you want to explore it through your writing.
JS: So how do you know when it’s done? Is the question answered?
PE: Oh no. No good philosophical question ever gets answered. But it’s fun to play with.
JS: But there has to be a point when you feel the process is complete.
PE: Not complete.
JS: But reaching a conclusion.
PE: I don’t know. Find me on my deathbed and ask me then. Maybe then I’ll know. Yeah, just asking the question is fun.
Jesus Francisco Sierra emigrated from Cuba in 1969 and grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District. He is fascinated by how transitions, both sought and imposed, have the power to either awaken or suppress the spirit. Sierra holds an MFA in fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. His personal essays “How Baseball Saved My Life”and “Soul Music,” which initially appeared in Lunch Ticket, have been anthologized in the recently published Endangered Species, Enduring Values: An Anthology of San Francisco Area Writers of Color. His short stories have been published in the Marathon Literary Review and The Acentos Review. Working out of the San Francisco Writers Grotto, he is working towards completing of a collection of short stories.