MB: Have you ever heard the song “Ben” by Michael Jackson? If not already, I don’t know that I could recommend it in good faith. At the same time, if anyone could reprise the last line of the song, it’s you, in your voice. (“I’m sure they’d think again if they had a friend like Ben.”)
BP: I love that song so much, not only because of my name, but because it is about a filthy sewer rat. The ethereal flute-like piping of Michael Jackson’s voice is what I wish I sounded like, but I’ve been burdened with a subwoofer that sounds a little like a drunk Darth Vader imitating the ringside monologue of a professional wrestler.
Your sister, also a writer and fellow winner, with you, of an NEA grant, is named Jen. What fresh hell was it like as a kids to be Ben and Jen. Or did you guys find a way to navigate the rhyme?
I went by Dragonslayer and she went by Wahoo the Youngest. Otherwise, no one would have been able to tell us apart, since she looks exactly like me with a blonde wig. And yes, we’re both writers (who started off in the sciences before we decided we preferred an economically dubious profession that consists of making crap up and playing with our imaginary friends).
Your last name is a very literary name, however, I don’t imagine there was a lot of explaining that to the kids you grew up with. Any stories there?
I grew up in the sage flats of Central Oregon. My graduating class in high school consisted of fourteen people. Until I went to college and read the Thanatos Syndrome in class (and then picked up The Moviegoer on my own), I had never heard of Walker Percy. Over the years, maybe one or two people have asked if we’re related, but I think most find it ludicrous to consider even a frayed thread of connection between a denim-clad hack like me and a Southern gentleman of such sparkling literary pedigree.
Henry Hotspur Percy is maybe the most famous of historical Percys. Any relation or kinship with Hotspur?
My family is small, and I haven’t bothered researching my genealogy, so I can’t confirm any of this. But supposedly my great great great grandfather (on my mother’s side) was the sheriff of Deadwood. And supposedly, yes, I am the descendent of Hotspur Percy. Which might explain why my monstrous temper sometimes gets the best of me.
To which Benjamin do you feel most strongly drawn? Walter? Franklin? Button? Or, perhaps, just the hundred dollar bill?
Benjamin Franklin founded our country, played with lightning, fired off one-liners like a howitzer, and, when he suffered from insomnia, read naked in a chair. We have one of these things in common.
I say Benji, you say/do . . . ?
My grandmother is the only person who ever called me that, so unless you’re an elegant old lady who likes soap operas, bon bons, and antiques, better call me Ben. Or I’ll eat you.
About this column: Writers are by definition obsessed with words. And when it comes down to it, unless you’re really plucky, there are two or three words you’re stuck with for life: your name. Every other week I’ll ask a different writer five or so questions on the subject.
This week I talked to Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon (Grand Central/Hachette, 2013), the TNB Book Club’s official selection for May, an IndieNext pick for May, a summer selection of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program, and was listed by Publishers Weekly as one of the most anticipated books of 2013. He is the author of another novel, The Wilding, and two short story collections. His fiction and nonfiction have been published by Esquire (where he is a contributing editor), GQ, Time, Men’s Journal, Outside, the Wall Street Journal, Tin House and Ploughshares. His honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, an NEA fellowship, the Plimpton Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories.