Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Painfully Masculine: An Interview with Benjamin Percy

I found this interview with Benjamin Percy interesting both for the fact that he is a young short fiction writer (a fading form) and that he is considered a voice of the "new male," which none of us seem to be able to define very easily.

Here is the introduction to the article, followed by a small piece of the interview.

Painfully Masculine: An Interview with Benjamin Percy

[24 April 2008]

With the rise of the metrosexual and the fall of the patriarchal society, some men, lost in a gray zone, compensate by joining Gold’s Gym, screaming at Packers games, and driving big-ass Hummers

by G. Christopher Williams

Benjamin Percy has a very deep voice.

In person, this is one of the things that one notes first about the man. Ironically, such a noticeable mark of masculinity has often been cited by critics who have only met Percy through his fiction.

Percy’s short fiction collected in The Language of Elk (2006), and his newest collection Refresh, Refresh (2007), has provoked interest in the author’s emphasis on maleness and masculinity in American culture. Indeed, PopMatters‘ own Matthew Fiander called Percy’s fiction “almost painfully masculine.”

I sat down with Percy to talk with him about this notion of his presentation of both pain and masculinity as well as some of the other ideas that populate his often brutal, often melancholic visions of contemporary America.

* * * * *

Aside from your interests in nature, your writing has been associated with the concept of the “new masculinity.” I have heard a range of definitions for this concept from an emphasis on more sensitive men to a more hyper-masculine model of “uber” men like those in 300. How do you define this idea? Is the concept of the masculine in need of a revision?
We no longer live in a society that sends its sons into the wilderness to slaughter large beasts to prove they are men. Instead, parents buy their boys a Nintendo and ten, 20, 30 years later they’re still not sure if they’re all grown up. And when they are all grown up and weighed down with responsibility, they aren’t sure where they stand anymore as gender lines continue to blur like wet fingers drawn across newsprint.

You can talk about Mars and Venus ad infinitum, but these days, more often than not, the sole thing that distinguishes a man from a woman is what dangles between your legs. For proof of this, look no further than the Bravo network or GQ magazine or Banana Republic, where men go for their style tips and face creams and hair gels and silken underwear.

Look no further than your local multiplex, where women are taking on roles traditionally reserved for men: Demi Moore as G.I. Jane, Angelina Jolie as Laura Croft, Jennifer Garner as Elektra. With the rise of the metrosexual and the fall of our formerly patriarchal society, you’ve got a lot of men who are lost in a kind of gray zone, trying to find ways to compensate—by joining Gold’s Gym, where we pick up large pieces of metal and put them back down—by screaming a little too loud when the Packers, our modern-day gladiators, score a touchdown—by driving a Hummer that burns 20 gallons a minute.

I could go on, but that’s a healthy enough dose of man talk.

This does bring me back to one of my earlier questions as well, though. Many of your specifically male characters seem driven to violent impulse. How do you view the relationship between masculinity and violence?
Men internalize much of what they feel, much of what they think. And I’m interested in the non-verbal communication that occurs between me—a heavy clap on the back translating to love, a tightened fist and narrowed eyes translating to hate. Many of my stories concern men in pain, and because they don’t know how to talk their way through it, they swing it out of their system. It’s the equivalent of lancing a boil to release the poison building up inside you.

Can you talk about your approach to the process of writing fiction?
I try to write at the same time in the same place every day. You must condition your imagination, in a Pavlovian way, to salivate. My mind is comfortably empty and humming in the morning, so I hunker down with my cup of coffee, and the bell rings, and I’m off.

There are no tricks to what I do, really. Planting my ass in a chair everyday is about it. And not checking my email, not answering my phone, not getting up for a break when the writing gets difficult. Talent matters, but discipline matters more, I’ve discovered.

I always begin with the image. If you think about writing as a subject, most of us are trained, from grammar school through college, to write thoughts. That, after all, is the essence of the essay: here is what I’m thinking. Cerebral writing has a cerebral effect.

And I don’t want my audience to sit and ponder their navels. I want them to feel. I want to drag them down the rabbit hole. I want them to be alive twice: once in their world, once in the world of the page. How do I try to accomplish this? Through imagism. Every moment in my stories I can imagine happening as if a film reel is turning slowly in my skull. My job is to replicate that with ink and paper. Which ain’t easy.

Photo (partial) by Jennifer May
Read the whole interview.

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