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Pretty Powerful Prose: An Interview With Benjamin Percy



This is a photo caption --photo by John Doe
Benjamin Percy’s Green Arrow is a grittier take on the vigilante hero —image via DC Comics

Benjamin Percy, who’s taught creative writing at both the University of Iowa and Iowa State, is best known as a novelist who defies genre conventions. He is the author of three outstanding novels—The Wilding (Graywolf Press, 2011), Red Moon (Grand Central Publishing, 2014) and the recently released The Dead Lands (Grand Central Publishing, 2015)—as well as the short story collections Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press, 2007) and The Language of Elk (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006).

He recently added comics to his resume, as well.

In late 2014, he was the writer for a two-issue (#35 and #36) arc of Detective Comics entitled Terminal, in which Batman must find a cure for a lethal illness after a plane full of dead people crashes into the terminal at Gotham International Airport. Percy is also the new writer for Green Arrow, taking over the title with issue #41 at the beginning of what DC is calling the DC YOU initiative (a post-New 52 relaunch of new titles and new directions for existing titles). While it’s early in the run—only an eight-page preview and a single full issue have been released so far—Percy’s take on the character seems promising. Issue #41 is part one of a three-part arc called The Night Birds, and it sets up a creepy new foe for Green Arrow.

Already, the author’s literary bent is on display. His 25-year-old Oliver Queen is given to some rather lyrical internal musings. An example from the preview pages:

“At 80, 90, 100 MPH, with the asphalt unspooling beneath me and the wind burning the tears from my eyes, I feel untethered. A stop sign becomes a red smear, a forest a piney sniff, the specifics of the world blurring into forgetfulness. It’s good to be gone sometimes.”

I’m interested in your thoughts on genre. You have a novel featuring werewolves (Red Moon) and another featuring a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark expedition (The Dead Lands). And now comics, as well. What traditions are you working in?

Everybody fusses over labels. Call me whatever you want. I grew up on genre. Western, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, spy, thriller, mystery—whatever—I read it with pleasure, wanting to know what happened next. Then I stepped into my first writing workshop in college and was told this kind of writing was forbidden. I fell in love with literary writers like Sherman Alexie, Tim O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, but I never fell out of love with genre. And I guess my writing is a sort of hybridized beast. I will describe—with pretty sentences—helicopters exploding. I hope for artfulness, but I also hope to bring a propulsive energy to the page. These days I’m most interested in those writers who defy categorization: Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Larry McMurtry, Kelly Link, Cormac McCarthy.

This is a photo caption --photo by John Doe
image via DC Comics

How did your relationship with DC Comics develop?

I was a big fan of Scott Snyder’s (writer on Batman and architect of much of what has been happening in Gotham City for several years) story collection Voodoo Heart and taught a few stories from it in my creative writing workshops. He did the same with my collection Refresh, Refresh. We developed a friendly correspondence. When he started to shift into comics, I followed the transition with interest and bothered him for advice that he generously provided. I sent a few pitches to DC. One of them was Red Moon. It was rejected as a comic, so I wrote it as a novel, which ended up being for the best. Through that submission process, I met Mark Doyle, toured the DC offices and eagerly read everything Vertigo was publishing. A few years and a few pitches later, I got a Batman storyline accepted at Detective Comics, and that served as a kind of industry audition.

This is a photo caption --photo by John Doe
image via DC Comics

What appeals to you about Green Arrow as a character? What can you tells us about your plans for the character?

Patch Zircher (the artist) and I are taking Green Arrow in a new direction. The series will be darker, grittier than it has been in a long time—similar to the aesthetic of Batman or Daredevil. Think of it like True Detective with superheroes. The progressive politics of Green Arrow will also be on display with storylines that provokingly connect to the headline issues of this day.

How did Danica Novgorodoff end up adapting your short story collection Refresh, Refresh as a graphic novel? I love her graphic novel The Undertaking of Lily Chen.

This is how I recall it happening: Danica was at a party with James Ponsoldt. At the time he was adapting my story Refresh, Refresh into a screenplay. His description of the project excited her, so she looked up the story and proposed the graphic novel, which is its own thing, but draws off both the screenplay and the original 40-page version of the story (it was published as an eighteen-pager).

Will you be spending more time in Gotham? Any chance you tackle a longer run on a Bat-book?

I would love to return to Gotham, and though I’m in talks with the editors, we don’t have anything scheduled right now.


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