Keep Hammering: Benjamin Percy’s Advice to Writers

Ruth Joffre

Thrill Me. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2016. 160 pages. $16.00.

Benjamin Percy’s nonfiction is like his fiction: expertly balanced, extensively researched, and written in a vibrant, demanding style that can offer you a flower as easily as punch you in the gut. His latest work, a collection of craft essays entitled Thrill Me, showcases this style, using prose that might best be described as muscular to dissect Percy’s favorite sentences, unpack the symbolism of the oranges that repeatedly appear in The Godfather, and even pinpoint exactly what makes Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo so engrossing. Percy draws on his experiences as a writer and lifelong reader to teach his own readers some of the most important lessons he has learned about writing. These aren’t the more sentimental, impressionistic essays of writers revealing their process or discussing the intrinsic merit of high art; these are the essays of a writer who wants to do away with pretension, to get down to brass tacks and talk about structure and tension and the right way to use a semicolon. Percy doesn’t argue that books deserve a place in the world. He assumes that they do—as, indeed, everyone should.

It becomes clear early on in the collection that Percy’s literary education includes many works that aren’t generally considered “literary” enough to be worth examining. In addition to the fantasy and horror stories Percy read as a child, Percy studies genre fiction, film, and even bestsellers. His analysis of Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo proves especially fruitful. In “Designing Suspense,” Percy writes of reading and rereading the bestseller, taking notes on yellow legal pads, and color-coding various plotlines as they wove through the massive bestseller. What he discovered was that there was always some unresolved tension—some “flaming chainsaw,” as Percy calls it—that the writer has to juggle to keep readers engaged with the story. That chainsaw could be a character, a memory, a plotline—anything, just as long as it swoops down, blazes through the story, then flies into the air again with a great heave from the writer, who must hurry to catch the next chainsaw to keep from getting burned by his own plot.

A less adventurous writer might refer to these “flaming chainsaws” as mere narrative threads, but that would have none of the flair or energy of Percy’s phrase and wouldn’t excite his readers. One gets the sense, as one reads, that Percy writes about such dramatic, dangerous chainsaws as much to keep himself interested as to keep the reader interested. This seems a direct result of the advice Percy got from the great writer Barry Hannah. Upon meeting the older writer at a conference, the young Percy asked what Hannah wanted to read in fiction, and Hannah looked up through a haze of booze and cigar smoke and said simply, “Thrill me.”

In titling his collection after Hannah’s advice, Percy announces to readers that he intends to play on the word “thrill” and examine how writers can thrill their audience with both “literary” and “genre” fiction. Like many writers, including myself, Percy grew up on thrillers and epic fantasy novels filled with trolls and goblins and villains whose evil powers stem from the supernatural. When the professor in Percy’s first creative writing course told the class no genre, Percy was baffled. He asked, “But what else is there?” and learned that there were books out there that didn’t include werewolves and witches—but his love of genre fiction never left him. As it happened, Percy’s development as a writer more or less coincided with the rise of what we now call speculative fiction: a modern label for an old tradition of mixing literary fiction with genre tropes, as can be seen in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Angela Carter, H. G. Wells, and many others who are considered “literary writers,” even though their works often include elements of what would now be considered genre fiction. These distinctions, Percy argues, are often arbitrary, but if people insist on perpetuating them and debating whether literary fiction is better than genre fiction or vice versa, he’s going to fall on the side of they’re both good and they can learn from each other. He proves his point early and then proceeds to expound on all the things he has learned in his lifetime as a reader, drawing on sources as varied as literary fiction, genre fiction, film, and even the Batman playing cards he collected as a boy. Every lesson excites, and every essay in the collection rings with the sentiment: I don’t care if you think it’s art. Here’s what makes it good.

One of the things that makes writing good? Research. Specifically, the kind of research that gives specificity to a character’s home, job, car, illnesses, and manners of speech. In one of his essays, “Get a Job,” Percy argues that work, whether it be long-haul trucking, tanning animal hide, or auditing businesses for the IRS, necessarily affects a character’s life, changing the way they move, introducing them to new jargon, and limiting their free time. A job, Percy argues, requires effort and attention to detail, which in turn requires writers to depict it in exacting terms, using sentiments and terminologies specific to the task at hand. Contrary to the belief of what seems to be many writers, it simply isn’t enough to say that a character is a lawyer. Or a doctor. Or an actor. These are not uniform professions, and the experience of, say, a surgeon with years of experience rolling and unrolling a duodenum has little in common with that of first-year residents who call themselves doctors to pacify patients. Getting these details right—and not overburdening the reader with superfluous information—lends the writer credibility, which gives readers confidence that the author of a work of fiction actually knows what she’s talking about. Specificity is the key to believability, Percy writes, and the best (and most bafflingly overlooked) way to make your writing believable is to do your research.

This emphasis on work ethic isn’t a surprise coming from Percy, who’s one of the hardest-working fiction writers out there. In addition to publishing three novels and two story collections, Percy has sold screenplays to major production companies, written and edited for magazines like Time and Esquire, revitalized DC’s Green Arrow series of comics, and won numerous awards for his fiction, including the Whiting Writers Award, two Pushcart Prizes, the Paris Review’s annual Plimpton Prize, and a prestigious NEA Fellowship. (Keep in mind that Percy is thirty-seven.) His advice to get a job might sound like the words of a gruff, frustrated old man who thinks kids now have it too easy, but actually it’s a great philosophy for young writers to adopt: do your research; treat writing like a profession; do it against all odds. It’s like Percy says: “Keep hammering.” Just keep on writing, regardless of what happens, in spite of the rejection and the failure and the cyclical bouts of depression. Keep writing. It’s this mindset that allows Percy to write at least eight hours a day, approaching writing as a full-time job. It’s this determination that leads him to say I’m going to get you as he imagines chasing after his literary heroes, trying to be as great as them, if not greater. And it’s this stubbornness that led a young Percy to tape every rejection he got on a wall over his desk and use them as fuel for his ambition. Not many people can be this disciplined or this demanding when it comes to writing, but everyone can learn from Percy’s essays and heed his advice.

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