Author Interview: Benjamin Percy and The Dead Lands

May 15, 2015

Benjamin Percy’s newest novel The Dead Lands, out last month from Grand Central Publishing, reimagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in a post-apocalyptic world. Mutant animals roam a barren countryside, water is scarce, and resources are low. An outpost in St. Louis referred to as The Sanctuary is home to a group of survivors who leave the safety of the walled city in hopes of a better future. We sat down with Percy to talk about The Dead Lands and the end of the world. It was the perfect way to conclude our look at the apocalypse in fiction and to honor a kick-ass novel, as Short Story Month continues.

deadlands coverTo begin, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed The Dead Lands. Where did the idea for this book come from? Was the reimagining of Lewis and Clark’s journey there from the beginning or did it come later?

Thanks for reading. Glad you dug it. My mother is a hobby historian and she is obsessed (I’m not exaggerating when I use the word) with Lewis and Clark. So I grew up visiting Fort Clatsop so often that I could have been a historical reenactor. We attended the bicentennial with great fanfare. On weekend adventures — hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, rockhounding — we’d often stop at some historical marker and she’d tell us stories about the expedition.

I always wanted to write about them. Initially I thought I’d recreate their passage and take different friends and family members along for different legs of the journey, and a publisher caught wind of this and tried to bid on it alongside my novel Red Moon. But my wife and I then sat down and figured out the logistics of such an undertaking and she very reasonably said, “That ain’t happening.” So I decided to make some stuff up instead!

A historical novel would have been fun, but there are many already on the shelf. But post-apocalyptic Lewis and Clark — that was a fresh angle — and a way to make the story feel new and relevant and perilous once more.

Oregon appears time and time again in your writing. Was it fun to imagine the state as a post-apocalyptic oasis?

I live in Minnesota now, but I grew up in Oregon and know its geography, history, culture, politics and myths better than anywhere else. That’s why so many of my books are set there, and yeah, it’s always a pleasure to write about, because that way I maintain a kind of dual citizenship: I’m straddling two environments daily. But the Oregon tourism bureau might not be thrilled about this, because I’ve done terrible things to the Pacific Northwest in my fiction.

But this book has geographic scope, since it reaches from St. Louis to the supposed oasis of the Pacific (insert sinister laughter here — since the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow might actually be full of ash and bone).

How did the Lewis and Clark expedition inspire elements of The Dead Lands that aren’t so obvious?

No one should go to the book for a history lesson. You can read the novel without any knowledge of the expedition whatsoever. But if you do know a thing or two, there are many Easter eggs.

I’ve taken liberties with the characters. Lewis was a studious, solitary man in life, but I’ve ramped that up here to make him even more hermetic and genius and bothered by paralyzing depressive episodes. Clark is a woman, and a rogue, a Kirk to Lewis’s Spock, because everyone loves an odd couple. I could keep going — but I don’t want to spoil too much. Suffice it to say that Arron Burr is an American villain, one so many love to hate, a strong advocate of slavery who conspired to make the Louisiana Purchase a separate republic. So I’m playing off that. The general take is this: here you have an infant nation, a new America, and this expedition might be the thing that determines its future.

In addition to a super-flu, The Dead Lands America has been impacted by nuclear war. Exposure to radiation serves as the origin for some strange mutations: sand wolves, large albino bats, and even some extra sensory perception in the characters. It’s a strangely practical explanation for the surreal, which is a large source of conflict in the novel. I’m curious: did you search for a way to explain these mutations or did the idea of a nuclear fallout come first?

First off, I prefer to think of them as human-sized albino bats, thank you very much. “Large” just doesn’t cut it when you hope to make people pee their pants.

The novel is chunked up into sections, each with their own epigraph. The first comes from Neil Gaiman: “All stories are in conversation with other stories.” Now I have a long ranting explanation for this — that involves all the stories I’m swirling together here, most notably the journals of Lewis and Clark — but for now, suffice it to say that we’re all nearing a state of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fatigue. Everyone is overly familiar with the way the world ends. The Dead Lands takes advantage of this. There is a super flu, of course, and there is a nuclear apocalypse, of course. This is merely my key in the door, the gateway into my story. The way the world ends is mostly irrelevant. I’m concerned with the way the world is reborn. And its rebirth is marred by desertification, radiation, new technologies, warring politics . . . and, wait a sec, that sounds a lot like the contemporary US!

Your characters have a lot to contend with in terms of the fallout, but sun exposure, cancer, lack of water, and an oppressive political system are all chief concerns. You write: “One percent of the population controls everything. One percent. That’s how it is here. That’s how it is here. That’s how it was all over the world.” That reality isn’t so otherworldly at all. In what ways do you see the reality in your book reflecting today’s political and social issues?

Speculative fiction is known to offer up a cracked-mirror version of reality. Frankenstein came out of the Industrial Revolution and the creature embodies all those fears involving man playing God, the fear of technology. Look at Invasion of the Body Snatchers and McCarthyism or Godzilla and post-atomic anxiety. Or, or, or. I’m always trying to do this — take a knife to the nerve of the moment.

There has certainly been an uptick in post-apocalyptic literature lately, though for someone whose previous novel was about werewolves, it doesn’t seem you’re concerned about trends. What do you take into consideration when you’re working on a new idea? Do you think about trends? Worry about them?

Will this be fun to write? That’s what I wonder. The keyboard is my zoo, my circus, my waterpark, my candy store, my haunted house — I’m so excited to write every day, and I hope that energy carries onto the page.

But I also think about what will resonate. Red Moon — my previous novel — was a post-9/11-reinvention of the werewolf myth. I was tapping into our fear of terrorism and our fear of disease, splicing those anxieties together.

As for The Dead Lands, look at the newspapers. You’ll see that California is going dry, knuckling up like a date. People are protesting in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore. A young man is on trial for setting off a bomb at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. People are getting beheaded in Mexico. People are getting beheaded in Syria. Over four million turkeys are dead of bird flu in Minnesota. Presidential hopefuls — some of whom are extremists — are saying hateful things. I could go on. But in these environmentally, politically, culturally dangerous times, the end of the world has never seemed more probable, which is maybe why the end of the world has never been so popular in lit, film, TV, comics.

Have you read any of the other recent epidemic post-apocalyptic novels? Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, or Laura van den Berg’s Find Me all come to mind.

I have read the Dog Stars, which I enjoyed very much. And The Road of course. I love The Stand, Swan Song, Riddley Walker, Oryx and Crake, a Canticle for Liebowitz, Fiskadoro, the Book of Revelations, The Walking Dead.

I have not read Station Eleven yet, though I own it. Only because I expect it will make feel crummy about my own book. I love Mandel’s other novels and I’ll give this one a shot in a few years, when I have more distance from The Dead Lands.

In many ways, The Dead Lands is more of an expedition story than it is strictly post apocalyptic; yet in many post-apocalyptic novels characters embark on a journey. Do you think “road trips” are becoming part of a formula for these stories?

That’s the certainly case with The Dog Stars, The Road, Swan Song, and The Stand, among others. But is this really a formula of post-apocalyptic fiction? John Gardner says there are only two types of stories: stranger comes into town or the character goes on a quest. So I guess there’s a fifty/fifty chance you’re going to end up on the trail even if you’re writing about kittens or wizards.

I love quest stories. But they’re problematic because they’re so often episodic. Huck and Jim go down the river, they get off the raft, hijinks ensue. They get back on the raft, go down the river, get off the raft, hijinks ensue. There’s not a strong sense of propulsion. I was trying to antidote this in The Dead Lands with a number of different structural decisions, among them cutting back to The Sanctuary, post-apocalyptic St. Louis. Though they leave the city, its story doesn’t end.

I found The Dead Lands so refreshing in terms of its readability. You’ve stated before that you grew up on genre fiction. For you, must a good book always entertain on the plot level?

That’s the kind of book I want to write. And that’s maybe my favorite type of book to read. But I don’t want to put up fences. I mean, To the Lighthouse is a beautiful, brilliant novel, and nothing happens. They never even get to the freaking lighthouse.

I try to read as widely as I can — across genres, cultures, genders, religions, ethnicities, histories, styles — even if I’m not totally in love with the work. Otherwise, I’ll plateau. I won’t learn and grow.

Lastly, what’s next for you?  

I tend to have a lot of irons in the fire. My next novel, The Dark Net, which is kind of The Exorcist-meets-The Matrix kind of thing, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017 (I’m following Helen Atsma there from Grand Central).

I’ve got a craft book — about suspense and momentum in fiction — called Thrill Me that Graywolf Press will publish in fall 2016.

I’m also writing for the Green Arrow series (at DC Comics), teamed with artist Patrick Zircher. And I’m messing around with load of film and TV projects, among them a show called Black Gold that I sold to Starz. It’s a modern-day western, I guess you could say, a contemporary Deadwood set in the North Dakota oil fields.

 Interviewed by Kim Winternheimer

percy photoBenjamin Percy is also the author of  Red Moon, and The Wilding, as well as two books of short stories, Refresh, Refresh, and The Language of Elk. His fiction and nonfiction have been read on National Public Radio, performed at Symphony Space, and published by Esquire (where he is a contributing editor), The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and Tin House. His honors include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Whiting Writers’ Award, two Pushcart Prizes, the Plimpton Prize, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories and Best American Comics.


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