Books

Benjamin Percy talks crime thriller, 'Suicide Woods' and writing for Marvel and DC

Benjamin Percy will read from his new book, “Suicide Woods,” at a book reading Friday at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City. (Arnab Chakladar)
Benjamin Percy will read from his new book, “Suicide Woods,” at a book reading Friday at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City. (Arnab Chakladar)
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When it comes to storytelling, Benjamin Percy is a jack-of-all-trades. He’s a novelist, a comics writer, a podcast scripter, and an essayist. His new book, “Suicide Woods,” marks his return to the short story collection.

Percy also is author of the werewolf novel “Red Moon,” the post-apocalyptic Lewis-and-Clark saga “The Dead Lands,” the paranormal/internet thriller “The Dark Net,” the “Green Arrow,” “Teen Titans,” and James Bond comic book series, and a book on writing, “Thrill Me.” He lives in Minnesota.

In this e-interview, Percy, who has taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is returning to Iowa City to read at Prairie Lights on Nov. 8, discusses his love of short stories, his work on stories involving some of the most iconic superheroes, the sci-fi cycle on the horizon and more.

Q: “Suicide Woods” is your third short story collection, but your first in quite some time. What brought you back to the form? Was it challenge to work short again after a number of novels, or does a sort of writer’s muscle memory kick in?

A: These stories were written over the past 10 years or so. I love short fiction — as a reader, as a writer — and I tend to write four or five a year, when “vacationing” from whatever novel is consuming the majority of my time at the desk. There’s an urgency to the form — they’re a sprint compared to the plodding, marathonic quality of novels — and I think that energy crackles off the page. I love too the way their brevity allows me to be much more experimental stylistically and topically.

Q: The stories in the collection are dark, but there is also a touch of whimsy in several of them (I’m thinking of “Heart of a Bear” and “The Balloon” in particular — and even the title story). As you’re plotting a story, is the humor (macabre though it may be) in your mind from the start or does it arise in the writing? How do you find the right balance?

A: Humor is a necessary pressure gauge when writing horror. The tonal variance is essential to making the audience feel off-kilter and more vulnerable. Consider the scene in “Jaws” when the men are in the belly of the ship, telling jokes and drinking whiskey and swapping scar stories. When Captain Quint starts in on his monologue — about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis — it’s terrifying precisely because we were giggling a moment before. This move is the equivalent of giving your audience a tickle and then slugging them in the stomach. I use it often.

If you’ve met me in life — or if you follow me online — you know that I’m also kind of a jokey guy. So it’s natural for me to sneak humor into any situation.

Q: I’ve been struck by your frequent and powerful use of the natural world as protagonist, antagonist, and/or challenge to be overcome since reading “The Wilding” years ago. It has always seemed to me to be more than a simple “man vs. nature” approach to storytelling, and I wonder how you think about the wilder aspects of nature as setting and/or character.

A: I grew up wilder than most, I guess you could say. My parents are beyond outdoorsy — nature is their religion. My mother is a botanist and worked for the Forest Service. My father is an obsessive rockhound and fossil-hunter, and he’s spent more time in the field than most geologists and paleontologists. So I didn’t just live the woods (our house was hidden away on 27 wooded acres), I vacationed there too. Every weekend, we’d fill up the bed of the truck with fishing rods, camping gear, rifles, pickaxes, shovels, and then blaze off to some dry canyon or mountainside that offered the promise of petrified wood or elk or trout. The console would have a geological survey on it weighed down by a .357.

So it’s imprinted on me. The awe and wonder of the wilderness. But also its terrible beauty and many dangers.

I still live in the woods now, and my desk looks out the window at a hardwood forest in Minnesota. That’s the stage for my imagination.

Q: You’ve been very busy over on the superhero side of things (I’m a big fan of the Wolverine podcast and my 14-year-old and I love your Green Arrow run). What do you like about working with existing characters with long back stories and what are your strategies for bringing something both fresh and true to a character’s history to the page (or podcast)? And what’s next for your superhero work?

A: Ah, thanks so much. Writing for Marvel and DC is — cheesy as it sounds — a childhood dream come true. Writing legacy characters is tricky. You want to honor their history, but you also don’t want to simply recycle what’s come before. Readers are looking for elasticity when it comes to Batman, Wolverine, the Teen Titans. They want a creator to put their own unique mark on the series. These heroes (and villains) mean a great deal to the fans — and they’ll (loudly) let you know if you’ve done them wrong online. It’s a high-pressure gig, but fun as hell.

I’m part of the new Dawn of X-Men at Marvel, so people can check out my run on X-Force starting this November — and then I’m writing Wolverine, my favorite character, starting in February. SNIKT!

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Q: My understanding is that there is a sci-fi trilogy on the way. What can you tell me about that? What other projects do you have in the hopper at the moment?

A: It’s a trilogy to start with, but my hope is that it grows into something much larger. That’s why we’re calling it the Comet Cycle. It launches in 2021 with a novel titled “The Ninth Metal,” which takes place in northern Minnesota and which is both a family crime saga and a sci-fi thriller.

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