Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Percival Everett InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Today’s episode is made possible by Northwestern University Press and their new release Thunderclouds in the Forecast, a novel by Clarence Major. This book traverses the linked histories of two friends, one Black, the other White who grew up wards of the state in New York. With spare prose and subtle poignancy, major probes, love, loyalty, and belonging to tell an unforgettable story of life on the brink of sweeping change. Listeners receive a 20% discount on Thunder Clouds in the Forecast or any other title with promo code pod20. This offer is available at nupress.northwestern.edu. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Myriam Chancy’s What Storm, What Thunder, a novel Angie Cruz calls, “A gorgeous and compulsively readable page-turner in the most haunting and stunning prose.” Says Edwidge Danticat, “Lending her voice to ten survivors whose lives were indelibly altered by the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Myriam J. A. Chancy’s sublime choral novel not only describes what it was like for her characters before, during, and after that heartrending day, she also powerfully guides us towards further reflection and healing.” What Storm, What Thunder is out now from Tin House. Today’s episode with Percival Everett is long in the making. Every so often, I reach out to inquire about a writer that seems like a long shot. Given how few audio interviews there are with Percival Everett over the decades and his frequently stated aversion to talking about what his work means or engaging in meaning making around a work of his once it is published, when I approached Graywolf, I was pleasantly surprised he said yes. That yes led to a series of really great happenings over the early summer. My innocent inquiry on Twitter regarding what everyone’s favorite Percival Everett book was, turned into quite a debate with passionate defenses of many very different books by him. The folks at Graywolf themselves debated which of his books from his back catalog to send me. One staff member even slipped into the box a non-Graywolf book, God’s Country, as his favorite. A book I learned later was edited by Graywolf’s Fiona McCrae, pre-Graywolf. That Percival followed her to Graywolf and they’ve both been there ever since. Percival’s two dogs, Harry and Banjo, were in the room, quite well behaved during this conversation but you may once in a while briefly hear the jingle of one or the other’s callers while we talk. Before we begin, I should mention that whether you are a long time listener or a new one, if you’ve been considering becoming a listener-supporter of the show, now would be a particularly good time to do so as we are flush with new gifts to offer beyond the things every supporter gets. Everyone who supports the show gets a resource rich email with each episode where I talk about the preparation I did, what I discovered and point people to both what I’ve referenced in the show, including other interviews, scholarly work, essays, podcasts, and videos and also suggestions of where to go to explore further. Every listener can participate in the collective brainstorm of who we should invite in the future. One of the main reasons Percival Everett is a guest today. But there are a lot of other possible benefits too from the bonus audio archive with extra material from everyone, from Nikky Finney to Natalie Diaz to Ted Chiang to Pádraig Ó Tuama, and the new things, including a poetry consultation with New York Times poetry columnist and writer Lisa Gabbert, asking writerly questions to Poet Kaveh Akbar and receiving a personalized video from him, a wide variety of collectibles sent from Ireland by A Ghost in the Throat author, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, and some great signed book bundles of the novels, memoirs, and anthologies by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. This only scratches the surface but regardless of all of this, perhaps you simply find these conversations useful for your own art making practice or a meaningful way to stay connected to the world of writing and reading, and you want to raise the number of listeners who are also supporters from the 3% to 4% mark, closer to 5%. If you want to learn more, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers to check it all out. In the meantime, here is the much anticipated and much asked for episode with none other than Percival Everett.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest Percival Everett is the author of 21 novels, four short story collections, six collections of poetry, and a children’s book. He is also or has been a horse and mule trainer, a jazz guitarist, a fly fisherman, and a rehabilitator of mandolins. But if you ask him too much or too often, what his books mean, he often just says, “I don’t know. I’m just an old cowboy.” But Percival Everett is not a stereotypical cowboy in that he started his career, studying mathematical logic and philosophy at the University of Miami and the University of Oregon, ultimately switching to fiction writing, transferring into Brown University’s MFA program where he wrote his first novel Suitor, published in 1983. Over the course of the next 40 years, Everett’s novels, novels that explore questions of language, identity form, and genre, novels that have both used and subverted the tropes of everything from Westerns to Greek myths to detective fiction, novels that do this at least in part to look at all that America tries its best to ignore, prompts the New York Times to say, “Everett has cultivated a reputation for his vast, genre-defying and sometimes gleefully unhinged body of work.” Publishers Weekly to add, “Percival’s talent is multifaceted, sparked by a satiric brilliance that could place him alongside Wright and Ellison.” Because his work ranges so widely and wildly, everyone has their favorite Percival Everett novel and no one agrees. His novels include the novel within a novel, Erasure. The novel Glyph, described as having the feverish plot of a thriller and the philosophical depth of a text by Roland Barthes, which stars a precocious baby who reads everything from balzac to semiotics to trashy thrillers. He’s also the author of Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, A history of the African-American people proposed by Strom Thurmond, as told to Percival Everett & James Kincaid and most recently, the finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Telephone, which was released with three different endings with no obvious way to know which version you’d received. Everett has won too many prizes to name but they include the Dos Passos Prize, the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, a Creative Capital Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Unsurprisingly, scholars have taken interest in his work as well; a partnership between US and French scholars to create a place to cultivate critical and cultural engagement with Everett’s work, led to the formation of the Percival Everett International Society to do just that. Percival Everett is also an accomplished abstract painter. A portfolio of his paintings has been published in Callaloo and Chris Abani’s poetry collection There Are No Names For Red, includes paintings by Everett as well. Everett is currently distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California. He’s here today along with The Trees, his latest book from Graywolf. Publishers Weekly says of The Trees, “Everett’s sharp latest (after Telephone) spins a puckish revenge fantasy into dark social satire underpinned by a whodunit.” Book Forum says, “The Trees is a wild book: a gory pulp revenge fantasy and a detective narrative that alternates between deadpan and slapstick modes of satire. The Trees is just as blood-soaked and just as hilarious as Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained, but it comes with more authentic historical weight for being set in a dreamlike counterpresent rather than a cartoonishly counterfactual past.” Porter House Review says, “The Trees weaves tropes of pulp-cop noir with trademark acuity and genre-bending inventiveness to deliver a swift, startlingly expansive take on the legacy of lynching in the American South. Everett is talking with the past in The Trees, but he’s also talking to the present, about the future. To read the book is to be in rare conversation with all three.”
Welcome to Between The Covers, Percival Everett.
Percival Everett: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
DN: Over the years, you’ve cited a very eclectic list of influences and inspirations from Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, Chester Himes, and Jackson Pollock to Antonioni, Laurence Sterne, Lewis Carroll, and Ralph Ellison. I was thinking, before we talk about The Trees, I did want to start in a more abstract and general place with you about your work more broadly, then see if we can connect it to this specific book. One writer you speak about as an influence that I’m particularly curious about is Gertrude Stein because whereas The Trees could be imagined as a strange alchemy between Chester Himes, Groucho Marx, Mark Twain, and Ralph Ellison, no one is going to pick up The Trees and think of Gertrude Stein. Yet in your talk about her, you say the question isn’t how you were influenced by her but how you weren’t influenced by her, and interestingly, she has influenced you regarding plot. Talk to us about Gertrude Stein’s influence in relationship to your novels.
PE: First of all, I admire Stein’s intelligence. I often say of drivers, they’re aggressively ignorant. What I love is that Stein is aggressively intelligent. It’s clear in all of her plays. That’s the most important part of her work for me is it’s just freedom with language at once, having control but understanding that the language can get loose and ought to get loose.
DN: You’ve stressed in talking about her that her writing is not, as some people think, automatic writing. That it’s actually very constructed. You’ve also mentioned that play and structure can have as much meaning for you as story, and content. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
PE: I’ll try. [laughter] Structure and style, I’ll put those two together, are tools. Different stories require different tools to make and to make it efficiently, and have them do their best work. For example, The Trees, it would have made no sense for me to have told that in the same way that I told the story of Percival Everett by Virgil Russell. The dense language, the play that happens outside the story, they would have hurt The Trees to do that. At any point, I have to be willing to allow a story its own style.
DN: In allowing its own style, that becomes part of the meeting.
PE: Yes. You mentioned the horses, it’s like a horse. You don’t ask a horse to do something they cannot do.
DN: Probably even more so a mule.
PE: Yes because if you love the mule, you’ll do what it wants to do. It will never do what you wanted. [laughter]
DN: In many places, you’ve recounted how, when you were studying logic and philosophy, and more specifically Wittgenstein, you were studying something called ordinary language philosophy where you had to write out scenes where people, without using the jargon of philosophy, would nevertheless enact and work out philosophical concepts. That you came to realize that writing fiction was a better vehicle for you to engage with philosophy than philosophy. In that light, you often describe your orientation to a book you’re writing in these terms. For instance, you’ve said you have many long-standing philosophical concerns and that one of them is, “A equals A is not the same as A is A” That this is usually where your novels start. Can you talk to us about this logical distinction as a starting point for a novel?
PE: If I could, I probably wouldn’t write novels. [laughter] The whole question of identity is in this culture, especially for someone who is considered other from the start is a prickly one. But basically, it’s a question of simple A’s. A equals A. There’s one a on the left side of the equal sign and one on the right. They are not the same A’s regardless of their equality. It’s important to note as we expand that metaphor, that equality doesn’t mean the same thing. One of the ways that immediately becomes useful in creating a story in America is when people use the term colorblind. Yes, what does it mean to be colorblind? I am not going to be you but we can be equal. That’s a fairly pedestrian way of taking that notion and taking it to a human foundation or a human place.
DN: You’ve talked about something similar to A equals A versus A is A in your book Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, which is divided into three sections. One named after the evening star, one after the morning star, and one after the planet Venus. All of which are the same thing, the same celestial body but are also very different things. You’ve said that this is what drives your work, this notion of logic and identity. I don’t know if this is a very easy question or a hard one but thinking of Gertrude Stein and how play, and structure can create meaning as much as story and thinking of this distinction, and logic between three ways of seeing the same thing that in each iteration is also a different thing, I was hoping you could take us into The Trees and how these influences are manifest there because on the one hand, while I totally get that you are more compelled by language, logic, and play than plot, I think you also frequently and regularly undersell your abilities as a storyteller. Not only is Erasure a formal marvel but both the novel within the novel, written in an entirely different syntax than the novel as a whole and the novel as a whole, succeed on the level of storytelling. Here with The Trees, we have a possibly supernatural mystery and political thriller that is both comic, vengeful, and abounds in plot. Where do you see Stein and A equals A come to play or serve as a generative place when it comes to the latest novel by you?
PE: In order to apply it in some way, I have to forget that I’m working unconsciously most of the time. When I go to work, I stop thinking about the philosophical things that drive me. I don’t want them to show up. Though as you talked about Frege’s Puzzle of Sense and reference, the morning star, evening star, and Venus, I realized that even then, I had been working on my novel Telephone with the three versions, which are the same novel. But with The Trees, I would say that I’m the last person to ask how these things tie together. Again, the fairly obvious place is in the listing of names. The list could be in any order. The names carry no significantly different weight. It would change nothing to invert the list completely and turn it inside out. Those names are all equal but they are not all the same. Each one has an individual, significant, and important life of its own.
DN: Let’s take a little side step from the book for a second before we go into the actual story because you mentioned that you’re the last person to ask. I know this is an important notion for you that the reader constructs the meaning of the books and that the author may be the last person to ask about the meaning of the book but tell us a little bit about being a teacher in this regard because I know you said that you don’t believe in craft. Also, I think you’ve taught a class, maybe it was a bread loaf called anti-craft. How do you position yourself as somebody, because I can imagine somebody not believing in craft as the writer but then how do you position yourself in a writing class? What would an anti-craft class look like?
PE: First of all, we can cover all the issues of craft pretty quickly. Setting, where does it happen? There you go. [laughter] Character, who does it happen to? They’ve got to say something to each other, so that covers dialogue. My job when I go into the classroom is to disabuse my students of the belief that there is a right way to do it. Unlike many forms of poetry where there’s all sorts of rules, there are none in fiction. We can sit down and try to follow those Draconian laws of making a villanelle. If we get one wrong, someone will say, “That’s not a villanelle.” I will give you 12 pages of fiction. I don’t care what we find wrong. I have no way to tell you that this is not a story. I can tell you it’s not a very good story but I can’t tell you that it’s not a story. In that way, fiction, contrary intuition is far looser in a way than poetry. Also, I believe that the attention to particular words, individual words should be as stringent and fiction as it is in poetry. That allows the fiction to achieve as much meaning as it can but not the meaning I insist on because that would be insane but some meaning. [laughter]
DN: Would the notion of an anti-craft workshop be one that removes the guard rails of what somebody’s preconceived notion of what fiction is?
PE: Yes. It’s short. [laughter]
DN: The Trees, speaking of setting, takes place in the town in Mississippi where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 but it takes place in contemporary times, and instead white people are being murdered. Discovered alongside the white bodies, there’s always a black body wrapped in barbed wire, just like Emmett Till was but strangely not bleeding and in his outstretched hand are the testicles of the white person just killed.
PE: It sounds bad when you say it.
DN: [laughs] It does sound bad. Not bad as in poorly written but a terrible scenario. Every time this black body is brought to the morgue, it mysteriously disappears. At the next murder of the next white person, it is found there again with yet another pair of white testicles in its hand. A lot of people have compared this element of the book to some of Tarantino’s films, particularly my favorite, Inglourious Basterds, which similarly inverts the world so that the Jews are bringing down vengeance on the Nazis. In other places, in other books, and in other interviews, you’ve very much tried to dispel reductive stereotypes about the South, particularly because they are often used by Northerners to not look at themselves. For instance, you say you grew up in the South, yet you don’t have a “Southern accent” or that contrary to stereotype, your great-grandfather was a Texan-Jew who married a former slave or that when it comes to segregation, the most segregated cities are in the North. I looked this up and currently four of the top five most segregated cities are Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Newark. That even though you grew up in the South, the only time you’ve been called the n-word is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But in this book, it seems like instead of complicating or troubling the stereotype of the white Southerner, you amplify it. I love when Scott Simon on NPR asked you, if you were stereotyping your Southern bigots when you described them as, “Smelling of sh*t Aqua Velva and pimento cheese.” But thinking now again of A equals A not being the same as A is A but not in terms of math and logic but in terms of identity, talk to us about this decision here in The Trees to amplify, and caricature.
PE: One reason I did it is because of this American impulse to scapegoat other parts of the country for bad behavior. I just wanted to see whether the reception of the book would have people underscore the fact that these characters are Southern rather than American. As the novel progresses, we understand that the crimes have happened all over the United States. In fact, I just read recently that the only recorded lynching in Canada, the only one, it was 1884, a native man named Louie Sam. He was lynched by an American mob. They crossed the border to get him.
PE: This is an American. There were obviously lynchings in Europe, then in the British Isles. But it’s really an American thing, not a Southern American thing. I wasn’t looking to be fair in this novel at all to anyone.
DN: When you say you were curious whether people would underscore the Southerness, do you feel like that has happened, that people are pointing out the Southerness?
PE: Yeah. I don’t read reviews generally but someone called attention to New York Times Review, which said, “New Southern fiction.” I found that remarkable. This is an American story. To say that it’s Southern is to make it less American and to station somebody below someone else.
DN: It’s a way to avoid self-examination too.
PE: Of course, it is.
DN: We have a lot of fun with names in the book and it feels like it is an extension of the way the book is very black, and white, I mean with pun intended, the characters from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the FBI who come to Money, Mississippi to investigate the crimes, most of them are black and have pretty normal names like Jim Davis, and Ed Morgan and the white characters have names like Delroy Digby, Hickory Spit, Red Jetty, Junior Junior, Braden Brady, and my favorite one, the governor of South Carolina, Pinch Wheyface. But when I think of naming, classification, and identity, things that you’re engaging with in many of your books, how even when you wrote books yourself about Greek mythology, you would still find them in African-American studies section of the bookstore simply because you were a black writer or reviewers who even when your book wasn’t about race would need to end the review with a, “By the way, the author is black.” Or the ways you explore the literary marketplace, one that remains overwhelmingly controlled by white publishers and editors who consider only certain types of books by black people as marketable, you give them and you also mock this book in the novel, the Erasure with the novel within the novel. You’ve talked about how, at least with Erasure, this was at least partially inspired by how you think Richard Wright crassly was giving the white marketplace what it most wanted to read about black people. I guess my question is whether you think nuance as a writing strategy on the one hand, for instance, giving us black protagonists that don’t fit the stereotype, whether they are abstract painters or philosophers or scientists and on the other hand, using an exaggerated lack of nuance where in The Trees, the only characters who are competent, self-reflective, and kind are the black characters, if perhaps both strategies really point at the same problem, if writing a book that is very black and white in this way is just another approach to investigating the same trap of identity, I guess I was curious if you could just talk about naming in that light.
PE: The naming is just that I’m having fun. I hope the names do some work but I’ve got to have some fun too. My favorite name is Red Jetty.
DN: Red Jetty.
PE: Yes, Jetty being a neck. That set everything off, then the names just started rolling to me. I’m glad you like Pinch Wheyface.
DN: Yes. I think Pinch Wheyface is a high point in the nomenclature. But do you have a sense of this polarization, it seems like a very conscious polarization of the way you characterize along the lines of race in the book? It seems very intentional.
PE: It is. I’ll give you a very brief example of what can happen to a black person in this culture. I’ll give you two examples. The first one is from Chester Himes’ novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go where our main character is crossing the street, having a pleasant day and a white man in a car stopped at a light, stares at him with this deep-seated hatred that can only be because he’s black. He’s there and reminds him of the world he lives in. That one glare ruins his day. He’s been otherwise happy. Likewise, I was once walking through an antique mall off the side, taking a road trip and went into one, and came around the corner. It was a beautiful day. I was having a nice time. As I came around the corner, there was a huge pyramid of Aunt Jemima cookie jars set next to these offensive sculptures of black boys, eating watermelon. I was slapped in the face by this American. This is in Niles, Michigan. [laughs] By the fact that this is where I live, white people don’t experience that in this culture. This is my version of that.
DN: Could we hear a little bit of the prose? I was thinking we could read the one long paragraph that opens Chapter 95.
PE: Okay, cool.
[Percival Everett reads a short excerpt from The Trees]
DN: We’ve been listening to Percival Everett read a short excerpt from The Trees. I just really love that section. [laughs] When I think of two people you frequently mention, Mark Twain and Groucho Marx, I can certainly see the connection with Twain and how he confronts the least funny things with humor, and Groucho Marx with his delight in word play. But when I think of the question, how are you making me laugh in a book about lynchings, I also think of Mel Brooks who doesn’t shy away from doing comedy about the Spanish inquisition or the holocaust or any number of things. I read that you actually teach Blazing Saddles in your class and that your students look to you for permission to laugh, particularly I’m imagining because of the very liberal use of the n-word in the movie. I wondered if you could talk about why this is a teachable movie for you and if there are any lessons about humor that overlap with how you engage with humor in The Trees.
PE: I suppose it’s the same burlesque humor. Speaking technically about humor, that’s the style. Blazing Saddles is so smart about race. In the early 70s, we were smarter about race than we are now. It is surprising. Most of that script was written by Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks together can only be funny. Certainly with Pryor, it can only be sad and serious. Humor is fascinating to me because no matter what we do, we can laugh. It’s a weird human thing that even comes out in an untrue way in most films. When we see several people and someone is killed among the group, and 20 seconds later, they survived something horrific and they’re laughing, it obviously will never happen that way but it’s in our collective consciousness that it should. Anytime you talk about humor, it stops being funny. Maybe that should be my next mission, is to write a book about humor that’s funny. [laughter] I doubt I can do it but the great part about humor is once you have someone laughing, you can do other things to them, even something as bizarre in our culture as having someone think.
DN: When you say that we understood race better in the 70s than now, I guess I wanted to ask about your students uneasiness and whether you saw it as a good thing, a sign of progress around our sensitivity to others or do you think that the movie’s careening past, all notions of propriety is in and of itself something of value, and something that has been lost because of that over cautiousness let’s say?
PE: The interesting thing about that film is it never gives anyone permission to behave as a racist. It reveals our racism in a way that we can all see and recognize, then become comfortable with. Not that it’s right but that it’s wrong. No one sees the villains in Blazing Saddles, and says, “Oh, I want to be like him.” [laughs] That’s not what happens. It’s a very strange thing. Our culture decides to be afraid of a word instead of a concept. My students are afraid of the word nigger. I’m not afraid of the word nigger. I’m afraid of the person who uses it in a certain way. I don’t understand why mere substitution changes that. If I get pulled over and I’ll change everything, I’ll be pulled over at night by a state trooper in New Hampshire—which we used to call the Mississippi of the North—and he says, “What are you doing here n-word?” I would be, if not more, at least just as frightened as if he had said nigger. If I called someone an n-word, why should they be less offended? It’s that I’ve called someone that. Why should I be afraid of saying a word? Why should professors be afraid of using a word if they’re illustrating historically what that word does? People who want to ban the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of the presence of that word are either—we have a few choices here—but one of them is they’re really afraid to look at themselves. They’re afraid to look at each other. The villain becomes language.
DN: I don’t know if this relates but all of these questions about race, types, and symbols makes me think of your short story, The Appropriation of Cultures, where the black characters in the story appropriate the confederate flag as a black power symbol and they fly it everywhere. It also makes me think about the time you were asked to address the South Carolina state government at the state capitol on the subject of art where you said you began to talk and to tell them that you were there to speak about art but that art, and politics were inextricably bound together and that the flag as a symbol of exclusion was unacceptable, then you walked out. But you’ve since said that you actually don’t want people to stop flying the flag. That the flag tells us very loud and very clearly who the people flying it are. Somehow, this feels connected to this Blazing Saddles question of whether it should be said invisible and if not saying it but still thinking it is better or not. But I’m also curious if you feel that same way now, now that the ugliest of the American id is flying the flag, defending the statues shamelessly, being completely transparent about who they are in the public square.
PE: The example I always use is when I come to a minefield, I really appreciate a big sign on the edge of it that says, “Mines.”
DN: [laughs] Yes. The reason I ask if your feelings about the flag have changed, once again, is because Trump is in the book as a character. I want to talk about him but similarly to The Trees as a whole, I want to step back first and ask a question more abstractly about nonsense. The more exuberant unbridled aspects of your and Brooks work, the thread that runs through it, which feels like a dionysian linguistic zaniness isn’t itself nonsensical in your work but sometimes, it’s working against sense or good sense. I know you’re also interested in actual nonsense. That nonsense is part of what attracts you to Gertrude Stein and to Lewis Carroll. You even have a character in I Am Not Sidney Poitier named Percival Everett who teaches a course called The Philosophy of Nonsense. I’ve only had one guest in the 11 years I’ve been doing this, who I’ve had a conversation about nonsense with and that was with the writer Jesse Ball. In an essay of his, he said, “There’s a misunderstanding about what nonsensical things are – the idea that they’re just funny, and that’s the beginning and the end of it. Nonsense is not ‘not sense’ – it operates at the edge of sense. It teems with sense – at the same time, it resists any kind of universal understanding.” I wondered if you agree with Jesse Ball here and also whether you feel like nonsense bears any relationship to a book like The Trees.
PE: I do agree with his statement about nonsense. Nonsense reveals more about us than it does about itself. Nonsense has to adhere more rigidly to the rules of syntax than sense does in order to operate. We’re tricked into believing that there is sense there. That’s a lot like fly fishing. When you really look at some of the flies, they don’t look anything like the aquatic insects. In fact, some of them are funny when you look at them but when seen from under the water, in the context with the rules in place, with the stream running, with the light reflecting off the water, it looks like it should be tasty. The same with nonsense. It sounds like it should make sense, so we search for the sense. What I love is there’s no sense to be found but we continue looking for it. I think that’s a great exercise for any human being. There’s a distinction to be made between nonsense and gibberish. If I just pound on the keyboard of my typewriter, whatever you call these machines now, that’s gibberish. Those are just letters. They don’t mean anything. Nonsense does mean something. Just that no one can say what it means. I love that idea.
DN: As an aside around that, I was curious if you were ever attracted to the writers in the Oulipo movement, not only because they are playful and sometimes nonsensical but also when they were founded, it was half writers, half logicians, and mathematicians. Are you attracted to that at all, to Oulipian techniques or constraints as a way to generate?
PE: Sometimes. There is a difference in just having fun and the employment of nonsense in a way to have an effect. I’m more interested in the latter.
DN: Let’s take this question of nonsense and bring it around to Trump. Many of your bios in your books have been moderately informative in the past. Your poetry collections even say that you’ve been a fly fisherman for 30 years but recently, with this book, your bio in some places is two lines, “Percival Everett is author to more than 30 books. He voted for Joe Biden.” Your interviewer in The White Review asked you a really great question that connects us to Trump. “When nonsense has been weaponized, what is the artistic response?” In other words, if the culture celebrates ignorance, creates and lives within fake realities with fake news sources, if the language has devolved into a parody of itself and reality is itself exaggerated, absurd, and surreal, what happens to satire?
PE: I have to make a distinction here between the difference between nonsense and the absence of sense. When we were dealing with the language around Trump and whatever Trumpism is, I’ve never heard any tenets of Trumpism. No one ever asked someone, “What is Trumpism?” There’s no answer to that except the very sad one, is that there’s no attempt to make meaning. There is an attempt to scam, to delude, to hide the absence of meaning with an absence of sincerity. The scariest part of this is that I saw in a photograph the other day, someone had a picture of, maybe this is perfect, Jesus with Donald Trump. If religion is that important to you, this is on the side of a van, if religion is that important to you that you have Jesus on your van, will you associate your god with someone who behaves in this way in the world? That makes no sense to me. That’s not nonsense. That’s an absence of sense.
DN: It’s a bad juxtaposition to put a Trump speech in the Jabberwocky together.
PE: No because it required work to make Jabberwocky. [laughs] It required imagination to make Jabberwocky. It wasn’t an attempt to say nothing. It was an attempt to say something that would make people look for something.
DN: That seems a super vital distinction. I want to move us to a significant and countervailing aspect of the book, one that many have called elegiac in tone and that is the story and activities of the 105 year old root doctor Mama Z. But before we do, as a transition, I just want to read something from the Porter House Review by Sam Downs that connects these two elements, the comic in burlesque and the elegiac in serious. He said, “At the heart of The Trees is an elegant sleight of hand. Appearing at first dedicated to the tropes implied by its thriller billing and familiar caricature of the white rural south, the novel swiftly departs from the constraints of genre to suggest that Everett’s portrayal of the rural White South is less exaggerated than it initially seems. In short order, the ostensibly comically drawn Reverend Doctor Fondle and Deputy Delroy Digby reveal themselves to be both ignoramuses and genuine, everyday perpetrators of racial violence. The hapless remains of the local branch of the Klan is nonetheless reinvigorated when white bodies start piling up. It sinks in quickly that the residents of Money don’t need any authorial assistance in presenting themselves as the kind of caricatures populating conventional narratives. In what came, for this reader, as a rush of recognition, not unlike spotting an animal hidden in plain sight, the seemingly exaggerated gestures of genre reveal themselves to be less a part of the lens mechanics of The Trees as features of the environment being photographed. White Money, in other words, is a cliche of its own making.” I guess I had a similar experience to Sam. I even thought at the beginning that Money, Mississippi was a made-up name as part of your caricature at first but not only is it a real town where Emmett Till was murdered. You suggest the town is wrapped up in its own caricature when you say, “The town is named in the persistent tradition of irony…with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becom[ing] slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going anywhere.” I was hoping maybe you could just introduce us a little bit to the character of Mama Z who embodies this other part of the book, a book that feels quite far from satire. Can you speak to us about this 105 year old root doctor and your inspirations for her?
PE: She is a 105 year old black woman whose own father was lynched. She’s not based on any particular person but an amalgam of many people who lived through the years where that was a significant fear when one went out outside. But what she has done in the novel is she has compiled dossier on every lynching in the United States. She has a room filled with file cabinets, filled with dossiers and each one has a name. That’s what was important to me.
DN: In compiling the names of everyone who has been lynched since the day she was born, she has file cabinet after file cabinet and invites a professor to come down, and look through it and he starts writing out the names by hand, one by one and you’ve said that you did the same.
DN: The longest chapter in The Trees is just this list of names. Not comprehensive but even the list is 10 pages long that you include in The Trees, it reminded me a little bit of the ending of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. When I interviewed her in 2014 with the first edition, there were just a handful of names, at the end, of unarmed black people who had been killed by the police but with each edition, she added the names of other people who’d been killed since the previous edition, so much so that it felt like it was overtaking the proportions of the other chapters in the book. Similarly here, it feels like it’s an extremely powerful chapter, just with these names abandoning the narrative. We’ve been talking about naming, stereotyping, and identity but it feels like this is a different type of naming. I was wondering if you could both speak to what this naming means to you and also what the process of going through that process that the professor does of writing down the names for you was like.
PE: With each name, it’s become someone. That name becomes that person. This comes from an experience I had at the Vietnam Memorial in DC, which is a very affecting monument. As I walked down into it, there were lots of people there looking at all the names and I heard a woman say to someone, not with any particular grief or anything, she said, “I found him.” She was looking for their loved one. Not, “I found his name,” not “There it is” but “I found him.” That moved me as much as the mind in itself and that stayed with me. That’s what behind names, is we are our names.
DN: Let’s spend a minute archiving in relation to the book. You’ve made it clear that you aren’t a big fan of book reviews, that you don’t read them often, and that you aren’t a big fan of interviews such as the one we’re doing but that you’re interested in the scholarship about your work. I read an interesting piece of scholarship called, There is No Magic Here: Saidiya Hartman, Percival Everett’s Zulus, and Slavery’s Archives that suggested that what Saidiya Hartman’s non-fiction does around the archive can also be found predating her in your novel Zulus. They quote from Hartman’s the positions of the unthought where she says, “What I was trying to do as a cultural historian was to narrate a certain impossibility, to illuminate those practices that speak to the limits of the most available narratives to explain the position of the enslaved. On one hand, the slave is the foundation of the national order, and, on the other, the slave occupies the position of the unthought. So what does it mean to try to bring that position into view without making it a locus of positive value, or without trying to fill in the void?” Somehow, that felt connected to me to the naming in the book also. But also when I abstract this notion of the unthought from its context and political situation, I also think of you saying that Stein focuses on not content and not feeling, and thus the intellectual pursuit of art making. But I was curious if this quote from Hartman about the archive sparks any thoughts in you.
PE: Certainly. One of the things that gets taken away from slaves right away is their humanity by being renamed. I’ve often thought about Ellis Island in that way. We perhaps give people a gift of a home but to take their names is to pay a price as one enters this American experience. All I can say is that it makes sense to me. I think that’s probably true basically. What would be interesting would be to explore different cultures, thinking about names, which I haven’t done but as we sit here speaking, that’s what occurs to me. There are even the actual citizens of this continent who often have naming ceremonies, which we don’t have. I suppose even in Christianity, the christenings are perhaps naming ceremonies. Not everyone practices that. I’d be interested in that. Again, I know nothing about it but the history of this, what it means.
DN: It feels like with Mama Z’s archive, the one that she’s assembled of all the lynchings and unarmed killings since she was born 105 years previously is where the black and white binary breaks down in the book. The names of the lynched are predominantly black people who’ve been lynched but they also include Matthew Shepard, Leo Frank, and a large number of Chinese names. In particular, Chinese and Chinese-American workers who were lynched in America, these victims figure prominently in the book ultimately. It drove me to do research to learn about the Chinese massacre of 1871 when a mob of White and Hispanic people entered Los Angeles Chinatown, and murdered 19 Chinese immigrants, 15 who were lynched, which some have described as the largest mass lynching. But like with Emmett Till where even though the acquitted murderers of Till confessed that they did it in a magazine interview within a year of the murder, they weren’t retried due to rules of double jeopardy. The eight people who were convicted in the Chinese massacre were freed on technicalities. My research as a reader made me wonder about your research as a writer. You said that one of the things that you most like about a new novel is that you get to study new things. New things that have included geomorphology, hydrology, watershed, and watching and re-watching all the films of Sidney Poitier. What were the new things here that you were studying or how did the research look like for you specific to The Trees?
PE: Mainly, it was reading about lynchings and books about lynching. There are quite a few of them, and what gets called the lynching, the language, I haven’t read anything about that but that’s what I came to 1921, there was a the race riot. This was a massacre in Greenwood Oklahoma, was a mass lynching. A lynching is simply a mob. A mob can be one person, killing someone outside the law.
DN: Were the lynchings of the Chinese-American workers, was that something you discovered along the way or something that you had always been aware of?
PE: I read about it some time ago and also the Rock Springs, Wyoming, lynching of I can’t remember how many Chinese workers. There were some lynchings of Italian men. I think a couple of Italian names show up on the list. I’ve forgotten now. Because I don’t read Pulp Fiction very much, I read and watched a bunch of police procedurals because I didn’t really have the language for it, so I did that. That might have been the hardest part of all of this. I don’t much like police procedurals but I did watch them.
DN: Did any stand out for you?
PE: It’s not really a police procedural but one old television show that has stayed with me and did not inform the novel but it’s become my relaxation is the old Perry Mason. It’s always the same form, yet the stories are all different. I can tell you what is going to happen but I will watch all of them.
DN: It’s got a good hook.
DN: You’ve said you would like to be able to write an abstract book without knowing exactly what that would be like but as you mentioned before we started today, you’ve painted some abstract paintings that are in relationship to The Trees. I think your opening in LA is happening in a gallery tonight. Maybe as a substitute for writing an abstract novel for now, tell us how these paintings relate to The Trees for you. What about the paintings connects to the book?
PE: The title of the entire show is Once Seen. Actually, the catalog is a 1921 issue of The Crisis magazine, the NAACP magazine. 1919 was called Red Summer because there were so many lynchings. This issue of The Crisis devoted to lynching seemed to be a perfect vehicle for my paintings. My paintings replace many of the photographs that were in the magazine. Again, the title of the show is Once Seen. It’s a very sad thing for me. Once you see what it is a painting of, you can’t unsee it. That’s what I hope happens with the novel though I don’t have great expectations for my country. Once you see the history of lynching, how can you unsee it again? But we’ve been presented with the history of lynching millions of times, slapped in the face with it. A friend from another country, shocked, that I was concerned about lynching. His thinking being this is something that happened long ago. I had to disabuse him of this idea by showing him names from last year.
DN: As we come to a close, I want to return to something else that Jesse Ball said that I loved. He said something which he attributed to the Russian writer, Daniel Harms. Harms said, “A poem, if thrown at a pane of glass, should break the glass.” Ball interprets this line for himself as the effect being the crucial thing. Ball says, “That’s the approach I try to take, not to be vain with the success of the writing as writing but rather its effect.” In that realm, you’ve talked a lot about how you feel like the reader, not the writer, is the one who constructs the meaning of the book and you go farther, and say “The writer,” as you said earlier in this interview, “is the worst person to ask what a work means.” You go even farther and said in an interview in France with Claude Julien, “Every time I finish a book, I know less than when I started. I think I know something when I start writing and, as the problems I approach become more complex and interesting I realize that everything I thought I knew was wrong. After eighteen books, I know considerably less than most people. I’m well on my way to knowing nothing, which is my goal, I guess.” But you’ve also said that the ending of The Trees, the way it ends for you is a call to arms for the reader. That perhaps you’re throwing this book at a pane of glass, hoping the glass will break. That maybe even if you have no control over the reader in his or her meaning making around the novel, your life, and the life of the novel of now parted ways, that it’s up to us now to make it what it will be and that—I know you’re allergic to this—maybe you have this desired effect in mind. Is that fair to say that the call to arms at the end or what you’ve called that, maybe the throwing of the poem at the glass?
PE: I suppose we’re always doing that but again, I can’t control anything that happens once the words are let go. I can’t stand at bookstores and tell everybody as they leave, the dozens of people that might buy my book, what it means, what it should mean. In fact, if it was going to mean exactly what I think it means, I probably wouldn’t write because there’s no adventure in that. The adventure is the fact that sometimes, the poem will break the glass and sometimes, it won’t. That’s the real thing I want to understand. The clear fact that I choose to write fiction to make a living is ample evidence that I’m mentally deficient and that you shouldn’t listen to anything about the world I say. [laughter] On the other hand, I have a way of seeing the world that might change the way someone views it or calcify. Who knows? That’s thrilling.
DN: Thank you for being here today, Percival.
PE: Thank you. It’s a nice talk.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Percival Everett about his latest book from Graywolf, The Trees. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
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