Percival Everett: ‘I’d love to write a novel everyone hated’ | fiction

Percival Everett, 65, is the author of 21 novels, including glypha satire on literary theory, Telephonewhich was published simultaneously in three different versions, and erasure, about a black author who, angered by expectations of what African American fiction ought to look like, adopts a pseudonym to write a parodically gritty (and wildly successful) novel called My Pafology. the new yorker has called Everett “cool, analytical and resolutely idiosyncratic… he excels at the unblinking execution of extraordinary conceits.” His new book of him, The Treesis a twisted detective novel centered on a spate of grisly, seemingly supernatural murders of white people in modern-day Mississippi. He spoke from Los Angeles, where he teaches at the University of Southern California.

What led you to write a novel about lynching?
I completed the manuscript right before Covid started – I’d been working on it for a year – but it was something that had been on my mind all the time. The kernel of it was a song: Lyle Lovett, the country singer, covered the traditional song Ain’t No More Cane and coupled it with another song called Rise Up. I was listening to it before I played tennis one morning and I thought, huh, there’s my novel: what if everyone did “rise up”? It became a kind of a zombie idea, but I don’t like zombies so it morphed into what it became. While I very seldom say what any of my novels mean, one thing I think is true is that there’s a distinction to be made between morality and justice: justice might not always feel moral to us, and that’s a scary thought.

How did you settle on the book’s frequently comic tone?
It would be very easy to write a dark, dense novel about lynching that no one will read; there has to be an element of seduction. Humor is a fantastic tool because you can use it to get people to relax and then do anything you want to them. The absurdity of the inattention to the subject was the driving force of the comedy, but the novel lives as much in turning around stereotypes as it does in revealing the truth of lynching. I’m happy to say I’ve pissed off a lot of people for my stereotyping of the white characters. Someone in an interview [objected] and my response was: “Good, how does it feel?” When I started the book, I said to my wife [the writer Danzy Senna]“I’m not being fair to white people”, and then I said, well, fuck it: I just went wild.

At several points the novel provides information for readers unfamiliar with the history. Did you feel that it was necessary?

One has to do that: America has a great talent for hiding its own transgressions. Likewise, my students have very little knowledge of the war in Vietnam; if I talk to them about it, I have to unpack the codes of the period. I teach a course on the film of the American west. Ten years ago every one of my students had seen a western of some kind; now I don’t think there’s a single student among the 20 I have who’s ever seen a western. All the cultural mythology that’s packed into the American west, the stuff their parents grew up reading, isn’t available to them, so they’re learning it anew.

Your satire of literary culture’s racist expectations in
erasure still speaks strongly, more than 20 years on, to young black writers such as Brandon Taylor, who introduced its recent reissue. Is that dismaying?
A television writer I spoke to the other day was lamenting the fact that the stereotyping I talk about in erasure is still present in film and television: The Trees has just been optioned, but it’s about race. But there is a wider range of black experience reflected in what’s published now. When I published my first novel [1983’s Suder, about a baseball player], I remember an article saying: “Where are the other black male writers?” The writers I get associated with are all 15 years older – John Edgar Wideman, Charles Johnson, Clarence Major – so there really was a death of us. Now, when I see the work of writers like Mat Johnson and Victor LaValle, there’s a wider scope. But remember we’re talking about literary fiction in the United States of America. If you sell 20,000 books, it’s fantastic; if I were a musician and I sold 20,000 units, I’d never record again. How you mark the culture [as a writer] is completely different. That’s fainting.

Courttia Newland has written of having to hunt down your novels, most of which aren’t published in the UK…
Influx Press has been great about putting out a lot of my work. My agent said they’re a small press doing good things and that sounded good to me; I like a check as much as anyone, but I’d rather the books have a good life. It would’ve been nice if Influx could have done erasure but once Faber [which originally published the novel in the UK in 2003] found out there was any kind of interest, they decided to bring it out again. That was poor form, because they hadn’t been in touch for 20 years, and then when they saw there was a chance to do something with it, they did. I wish they’d turned over the rights.

What have you been reading lately?
I always go back to The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler, which is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and I’ve just reread Huck Finn. Chester Himes’s detective novels are great. I don’t read a lot of fiction [for pleasure], because I teach it. I have to read it all the time and I get tired. I just read a fascinating book about the development of the typewriter for the Chinese language, Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu, which underscores the importance not just of language but communication, and written communication.

You met the experimental writer Robert Coover at Brown University in the 80s. Was he an influence?
I never studied with him, though we became friends, and continue to be; he’s still working [at the age of 90] and constantly moving, I mean intellectually, which is an ongoing inspiration to me. A lot of experimental novelists experiment for the sake of experimentation, but if it doesn’t add meaning, I have no interest [in it]; the only reason I come to this art form is because I’m interested in playing with how meaning gets constructed. My agent said: “You could make a lot more money if you just write the same book a couple of times.” But I’m not capable of that: there are too many [readers] for me to please anyone but myself, although I’d love to write a novel everyone hated. “Did you read Percival’s new novel?” “Man, I hated it.” “Me too!”

The Trees by Percival Everett is published by Influx Press (£9.99). To support the Guardian and observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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