An Interview with
Percival Everetts Erasure is an over-the-top masterpiece, says Publishers Weekly, while Booklist calls it a scathingly funny look at racism and the book buisness: editors, publishers, readers and writers alike.
The settings for your novels have ranged from ancient Greece to the nineteenth century American west to contemporary academia, just to name a few. Why such variety? Is it important to you as a writer? What are the rewards of such diversity for you? What are the challenges?
I wish I could say I know from where stories come. If I knew I might go there more often. Though my novels vary greatly in setting, I believe there are some repeating themes, some available to the reader, some not. I get bored easily, especially with myself, and I hate repetition and so my work ranges as widely as it does.
Specifically, what sort of research do you do for each book?
I spend more time researching than writing. I love research and it never stops. Reading, as with many writers, is what usually leads me to my characters and stories. My characters force research. For example, the main character in my novel Watershed is a hydrologist. I knew nothing of hydrology, but I needed him to have a job that put him in touch with his landscape and water being so important in the west. I wanted to think like a hydrologist, so I had to attempt to internalize some of the knowledge he would possess. I read and studied a couple of dozen books on hydrology and geomorphology, then created a fictitious landscape for the character to know. I drew topographical maps of this place and wrote hydrologic reports about the watershed, of which one appears in the novel.
The reader is tempted to see something of the author mirrored in the protagonist of Erasure: an African American writer of literary, "experimental" novels (even the subjects of the novels are similar). To what degree is Monk's character (if not his circumstances) rooted in your own experience? Have you yourself encountered the criticism of not being "black enough" as a writer?
Monk's experience is very much my own, though he of course is not me at all. Yes, I have been hit with the "not black enough" complaint, but always from white editors and critics. I find that curious.
Like your protagonist Monk, you are frequently labeled as a "literary" and even as an "experimental" writer. To what degree to you embrace such labels? To what degree do they reflect, or at least suggest, your actual aspirations as a writer? To what degree do you reject them or find them limiting?
What about the label "African American writer"? What sort of expectations or assumptions have you found go along with this tag? Are they different for black and non-black readers?
I am a writer. I am a man. I am black man in this culture. Of course my experience as a black man in America influences my art; it influences the way I drive down the street. But certainly John Updike's work is influenced by his being white in America, but we never really discuss that. I think readers, black and white, are sophisticated enough to be engaged by a range of black experience, informed by economic situation, religion (or lack thereof) or geography, just as one accepts a range of so-called white experience.
As a novel about race and publishing, Erasure arrives at an opportune moment: there have been a number of stories recently in the media (three or four in the New York Times alone) about black writers, readers, and the growing market for African American books. Do you think there is truly something new here? Or is it merely ever-changing literary fashion?
I don't know.
Both the frame story in Erasure and the novel-within-the-novel take note of the effect of television talk shows on American popular culture. Is this an issue that concerns you? Do you feel that talk show television has had a negative effect on American public discourse?
Talk shows are not the work of the devil. They are the work of greedy, stupid people. That's too easy. There is a lot to dislike about most talk shows and little to admire, but I don't find them all that important one way or another. They do serve as a window to the basement of our culture, putting on display the more disgusting human traits and behaviors. But that stuff is out there; what better place for it than TV.
You are a teacher in addition to being a writer. How do those two roles intersect? What about your own life as a writer? Do you write every day? How do you pick your subjects (especially given the diversity of your books)?
I enjoy teaching. I get paid to discuss subjects I love with bright young people. How can I complain about that?
Do I write everyday? No. I read everyday. I think everyday. I tend to my horses everyday. I talk to my wife all day long every day. I write when I think I might understand something. Ironically, I spend less time writing now, but get more done.