Benjamin Percy said it was the best advice of his life. Percy took a writing workshop with the author Barry Hannah, and on the last day of class, asked Hannah for any parting words of wisdom.
"Thrill me," Hannah responded.
Percy liked that so much he made it the title of his new book of essays about writing. Percy, who lived in Milwaukee and Stevens Point but has since left the state, has thrilled readers over the years, both with his novels ("Red Moon," "The Dead Lands") and writing for comic books like "Green Arrow" and the forthcoming "James Bond," which will be released in 2017.
But "Thrill Me" isn't just about writing nail-biting thrillers. Percy's passionate, funny and plainspoken essays make the case for any storytelling that keeps the reader turning pages. Percy looks under the hood of his favorite short stories, novels and movies to show how they work, giving lessons on how to keep people hooked.
Percy will be at the Wisconsin Book Festival at 3 p.m Saturday at A Room of One's Own bookstore, 315 W. Gorham St. He talked about his work in an email interview.
Tell me about your time living in Wisconsin. Where were you as a writer while you were here? What’s it like to come back for the Wisconsin Book Festival?
I lived in Milwaukee for three years — teaching as a visiting professor at Marquette University — and then in Stevens Point for another year after that, teaching at UW-SP. But even though I've moved away since (first to Iowa, then to Minnesota), Wisconsin remains my state-in-law. I married into it. My wife is from a dairy farm family based out of Eau Claire, so I'm hanging out in your piney woods and drinking your Spotted Cow and cheering on your Packers regularly.
I had been writing for years — before living in Wisconsin — but I think the polka and cheese must have had some magical properties, because after moving in, I immediately sold my first book. And yes, I was a regular at the book festival, so I'm thrilled to be back.
My wife and kids are coming with me, and in addition to enjoying the festival, we'll be wandering the farmers' market and — of course — hitting up The Old Fashioned for some brats and cheese curds.
“Thrill Me” reminded me of Stephen King’s “On Writing” in that it’s both a useful handbook for writers and a look under the hood for avid readers. What were you goals in writing these essays? Who was the reader you had in mind?
This book came out of 10 years of teaching. It's (mostly) everything I know about writing. A storytelling toolbox. Many of its essays began as craft lectures given at universities or conferences, only to later show up in Poets & Writers magazine or the AWP Chronicle. In the book, I'm not simply regurgitating the usual craft techniques (here's how to characterize, here's why setting is important, etc); I'm filling a vacuum.
"Plot" is a dirty word in most creative writing classrooms — and I think that's simply because most people have no idea how to build a causal structure, so they're defensively dismissive. Many of the essays not only unpack different structural devices, but also focus on techniques of suspense and momentum. I'm drawing from a wide variety of sources — literary short stories, blockbuster movies, superhero comic books, music — in an effort to shrug off the snobbishness that plagues academia and get back in touch with the reason people reach for a novel or binge Netflix: they want to figure out what happens next.
The book is for other writers, for teachers, for editors — sure — but really it's for anyone who's interested in story.
The essays are entertaining reads in and of themselves, providing a great reading (and watching) list for the reader. Why was it important for you to refer to your favorite authors and stories?
You can tell how passionate I am about storytelling when you observe me unpacking and analyzing a novel or poem or film that I'm in love with; I hope that excitement is infectious; I hope your fingers feel a little electrical zap with every turn of the page. The book is crammed with examples that showcase the techniques I'm trying to celebrate, and I want people to set down "Thrill Me" eager to write and live up to the example of the stories they admire most.
Do you think we’re seeing a resurgence in an appreciation for the power of storytelling in contemporary literature?
The rise of the MFA program resulted in a circling of the wagons. Among the establishment, literary realism has been the dominant mode of the past few decades. In every workshop I took — as an undergrad, a grad student, a student at a writers' conference — I was told genre was forbidden.
That's changing. Because of writers like Michael Chabon, Susanna Clarke, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Brian Evenson, Jonathan Lethem, Kevin Brockmeier, and so many others who aren't easily categorize-able and who write compulsively readable stories that also happen to feature pretty sentences. They take the best of so-called literary and so-called genre fiction and channel it onto the page.
At the risk of sounding like a nerdy fussbudget, clearly genre fiction is being taken seriously in the last few years in a way it wasn’t before. Why do you think that is? And does it matter?
Taxonomy is irrelevant. What is Cormac McCarthy? "The Road" is post-apocalyptic. "All the Pretty Horses" is a western. "Child of God" is horror. "No Country for Old Men" is crime. "Suttree" is literature. Who cares. They're phantom barricades. If we're going to obsess over what something is or isn't, I suggest a new organizational system: books that suck and books that don't suck. Tell the best story possible in the best way possible. That's the message behind the title of my book: "Thrill Me."
Your writing has always been entertaining and riveting, but there seems to be a clear shift in your work over the years toward more “overt” genre writing. Would you agree with that — if so, was that a deliberate evolution on your part, and why?
I don't know if that's true or not. I'm just unloading what's in my brain. If you look at my first two short story collections — which were referred to as "literary" — they feature pieces about a haunted house, a monster in the woods, a revenge killing and a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The only change is this: I'm getting better. Or maybe I should say, I'm getting less sucky. So I'm writing fat thriller novels and working in TV and scripting comics. There's only so much you can crush into a short story — and now that I have alternate mediums and more narrative real estate to explore, my work has responsively become louder and bigger.
What’s it like to write comic books? Is it like screenwriting? Do you work closely with the artists as you’re working, or do they come in after the scripts are done? How has your comic book work affected how you write novels and short stories?
It's a collaborative effort. I'm working closely with my editor, artist, colorer, and letterer, as we try to tell the best story we can. I love that — the way we're all trying to make each other better. I also love the sprint of writing for comics: pushing out issue after issue after issue. I hammer out something this month, and it will be in a store three months later, sometimes with an audience of 100,000 readers or more. That's energizing. So is the passion of the fans (who will tell you if they love what you're doing as loudly as they will tell you they hate what you're doing).
But I approach it as if I were an aggressive screenwriter. Colorfully detailing every panel and explaining the layout of each page. While giving the artist the freedom to channel their own vision of the material.
You’ve written Green Arrow for a while and will be taking on James Bond (!) in 2017. As a writer, what’s it like to be given the keys to such beloved, established characters?
A childhood dream come true.