36 Finalists Blog: Benjamin Percy

Each day leading up to the 32nd annual Minnesota Book Awards announcement, we’ll be featuring an exclusive interview with one of our 36 finalists.

Interview with Benjamin Percy, author of Suicide Woods, part of the Novel & Short Story category, sponsored by College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University

How does it feel to be a Minnesota Book Award finalist?

It’s always an honor and a thrill, especially given how rich and talented the literary community is here in Minnesota. I of course love the night itself — and seeing all those wonderful nerds coming together to celebrate literature — but I also deeply appreciate the effort libraries and bookstores make to promote the finalists.  

Tell us something about your finalist book that you want readers to know?

My hope, when writing Suicide Woods, was to build a collection of short fiction that was both compulsively readable and artfully told. Every story has a challenge associated with it. “Suspect Zero,” for instance, is at first a familiar mystery (a body is discovered in the opener), but the modular architecture soon makes it unfamiliar. I’m playing with form so that the reader becomes a detective whose theories are challenged and eventually puzzle-pieced together by the non-linear design. Or consider “The Uncharted,” the novella that caps the book; this was a response to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I wanted to write something that channeled the trope of “the terrible place” but filtered it through an unreliable perspective. You never know whether Eleanor or Hill House is responsible for the dark activity taking place in the narrative, and I love that tension. Every one of the stories in the collection is like that: an exploration of character, an exercise in suspense, but also a challenge of craft.

Share something about your writing process and preferences. For instance, where is your favorite place to write?

The former owner of my house was a hobby photographer, and the closet off my office was his dark room. I now use that space as a kind of idea factory. The walls are taped and tacked with story ideas, articles, blueprints for novels and screenplays. I go in there every morning with a steaming cup of coffee and plan for the weeks and months ahead. I write novels, comics, short stories, essays, articles, podcasts, and screenplays — and it’s impossible to keep everything in my head. I’ve found that a visualization of story is essential to my process.

Minnesota has a reputation as a state that values literature and reading. In your experience, what is it about our state that makes it such a welcoming place for writers and book creators?

We’re second only to New York for the literary life. We have killer publishers like Graywolf, Coffee House, Milkweed, and Rain Taxi. We have incredible indie bookstores (that double as community water coolers, like the amazing Content Books here in Northfield). We have The Loft Literary Center, the crown jewel of Minnesota. We have incredible donors and grants that support and value the arts. We have legions of supremely talented writers and writing programs (everything from the U of M to the Hamline to the Mankato MFA program). This is a great place to be a nerd.

What is something you are good at that few people know about?

I can juggle ten flaming chainsaws while wrestling a grizzly bear and baking a tater tot hot dish. (Never trust a fiction writer to give you a straight answer).

What do you love about libraries?

They’re cathedrals built of twenty-six letters.

Benjamin Percy is the author of four novels as well as several collections of short stories and essays. His work has won many awards and has been included in multiple anthologies.