For Prolific Author Percival Everett, The Wilderness Is A Place Of Clarity

For Prolific Author Percival Everett, The Wilderness Is A Place Of Clarity

1:38pm Oct 07, 2015
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Courtesy of Graywolf Press
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  • Percival Everett is an English professor at the University of Southern California. His books include Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Assumption, I Am Not Sidney Poitier and Erasure.

    Percival Everett is an English professor at the University of Southern California. His books include Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Assumption, I Am Not Sidney Poitier and Erasure.

    Courtesy of Graywolf Press

Writer Percival Everett is a man of the West: the region, for him, is a place of calm and comfort, danger and extremes. His new collection of short stories, Half an Inch of Water, is set largely in Wyoming, where Everett lived for a time and which he says might be his favorite state. ("It's so sparsely populated," he says as praise.)

But the prolific author wrote his new book far away from that iconic landscape.

"I wrote these while I was in Paris," Everett tells NPR's Arun Rath. "I was living in Paris, and for some reason I started writing ranch stories.

"It makes perfect sense," he jokes.

Everett lives in Los Angeles now, but he says he still finds time to go to the wilderness for clarity.

"As much as I can. I have children now so I can't go out the way I used to," Evrerett says. "But yes, it's the best place for me to work."

To hear their full conversation, including excerpts from the book, click the audio link above.


Interview Highlights

On his characters' interactions with animals

I think most of what I know about people comes from what I know about animals. I've been fortunate enough to live with horses and mules for a large segment of my life and the wonderful thing about them is that they're honest, I've never been betrayed by a horse or lied to by a mule, or even insulted by a dog. And then people behave differently around their animals than they do without them. They become, I think, somewhat more honest.

On diversity in the Western genre and in the real-life West

I'm writing the West that exists. You have to remember that Westerns are complete mythology. If you talk about the historic West, a third of the cowboys were black. The railroad was built by the Irish and the Chinese ... and black workers. All of this supported by women, all the time, and yet you can find any number of Westerns that have no women in them.

On the idea of the outdoors as inherently dangerous

If you watch movies made in Hollywood, the outdoors is a frightening place, you know. It's 'cause all of these movies are written by people who live in cities. I just find the wilderness to be the safest place. Again, animals are — grizzly bears notwithstanding — are fairly predictable. I understand them. I know that this is their space, and so ... the movement of animals at night is not nearly as frightening as hearing human voices in the night while in the wilderness.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Percival Everett is a man of the West. The landscape comes alive in his writing.

PERCIVAL EVERETT: (Reading) A spring-fed creek ran through the ranch. So even in the harshest summer weeks, there was a narrow lane of willows and green grass. Moose and elk browsed and left deep tracks in the muddy banks.

RATH: Everett has written dozens of works in all kinds of genres. His latest, titled "Half An Inch Of Water," is a series of interconnected short stories. When we sat down, I asked him to read the opening lines where he introduces us to a man who has been shaped by the ranchland.

EVERETT: (Reading) ...Love of the spread had been rubbed into him like so much salve, a barrier against whatever was out there in the world; a layer of peace. His mother held him close, not wanting to lose her only remaining family, but let the ranch, the land shape him.

RATH: The man in this opening story is a veterinarian. The ways people reveal themselves when interacting with animals is a theme Everett returns to again and again.

EVERETT: I think most of what I know about people comes from what I know about animals. I've been fortunate enough to live with horses and mules for a large segment of my life. And the wonderful thing about them is they're honest. You know, I've never been betrayed by a horse or lied to by a mule or even insulted by a dog.

(LAUGHTER)

EVERETT: And people behave differently around about their animals than they do without them. They become, I think, somewhat more honest.

RATH: One of the things that is exciting about this collection of stories - this notion of the Western character, you know, the lone, independent figure person on the ranch or in the wilderness or wherever - usually - or always that figure is, like, it's the Marlboro man. It's a cowboy. It's a white cowboy. And the people in this collection of stories, they're Native American. They're both genders. They're mixed race. It's a different kind of side of the West than we're typically presented with.

EVERETT: Well, I'm writing the West that exists. You have to remember that Westerns are complete mythology. If you talk about historic West, a third of the cowboys were black. The railroad was built by the Irish and the Chinese, more or less, and black workers and all of this supported by women all the time. And yet, you can find any number of Westerns that have no women in them. This is why they shoot each other a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

EVERETT: So yeah, I'm just trying to...

RATH: That's why they're so ornery.

EVERETT: Yeah, no doubts. I don't make Westerns. I make stories and novels about people who lived in the contemporary West.

RATH: Well, I'm curious. What were the things that draw this book together? They're set in Wyoming and in and around an Indian reservation. Is that how you grew up?

EVERETT: No, but I was fortunate enough to live in Wyoming, the Wind River Reservation, and I like it there. Wyoming might be my favorite state. You know, it's so sparsely populated. I wrote these while I was in Paris. I was living in Paris, and for some reason, I started writing ranch stories. It makes perfect sense.

RATH: (Laughter). Tracking comes up in this book - people who know how to follow animal tracks, follow signs. How did you learn to track? It's not a skill most people in Los Angeles have so (laughter).

EVERETT: You'd be surprised.

(LAUGHTER)

EVERETT: Well, even as a kid, I grew up in a city, Columbia, S.C., but I could go to a river. And I then started tracking animals with my guides to animal scat and footprints. It's just something I've tried to keep up with. I spend a lot of time in the wilderness, though.

RATH: There are people that go into the woods, the desert, wilderness intentionally for a kind of clarity. There's a beautiful story in here about an adolescent boy. He's about 14 years old. And he wants to go off and go into the woods.

EVERETT: Oh, yes.

RATH: But his parents just think that means that he's suicidal.

EVERETT: You know, if you watch movies made in Hollywood, the outdoors is a frightening place. You know, it's 'cause all of these movies are written by people who live in cities.

(LAUGHTER)

EVERETT: I just find the wilderness to be the safest place. Again, animals are -grizzly bears notwithstanding - are fairly predictable. I understand them. I know that this is their space. The movement of animals at night and stuff isn't frightening; not nearly as frightening as hearing human voices in the night while in the wilderness.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: Do you go off into the wilderness for clarity or inspiration?

EVERETT: Oh, as much as I can. I have children now so I can't go out the way I used to. But yes, it's the best place for me to work, actually.

RATH: Writer Percival Everett. His new book "Half An Inch Of Water" is in stores right now. It's been a great pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

EVERETT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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