Percival Everett is a titan of contemporary literature. He is the author of twenty-one novels, four short story collections, six collections of poetry, and for good measure, a children’s book. His no-fuss approach to writing and his salient disinterest in fanfare position him as a writer striving to remove himself from the conversation. Everett’s reverence for the absurd, aptitude for biting commentary, and continual reinvention of traditional narrative form have come to define his diverse and prolific body of work. His most recent novel, Telephone, is the latest contribution to a dialogue about the fluidity of art. In July 2020, Everett spoke to Booth from his Los Angeles home and discussed honest art, inequity in publishing, well-meaning racism, and the quest for the novel nobody likes.
Brian Rocha: I want to first ask about your most recent novel, Telephone, which has three different versions masquerading as one. At what point did you decide on that approach?
Percival Everett: At its conception. That was my proposal, to test the limits of a writer’s authority. My point is that the story is finally constructed by the reader, so there is no single reading of any text. These exist as the novel. You get what you get.
BR: What about the reader who is uninitiated to the fact that there are three different versions?
PE: I would hope that it doesn’t matter. You’ll be reading a novel with people moving through space, and you’re going to make your own judgements and create your own meaning. What I’ve always wanted is for people to return to novels the way we return to music and movies. So often someone will read a novel, hand it off to someone, and say, “This is really good. You should read it.” We never give up our music in that way. I want a readership that reads more carefully—not my own work, but in general—and has a willingness to return to work for other layers of meaning.
BR: In the past you’ve pushed the boundaries of the traditional novel, but with Telephone you’re taking it a step further by toying with our concept of a book as a complete and unchangeable work. Is the idea of art having fluidity outside itself something you’ve thought about a lot?
PE: I have, and it’s undeniable and fascinating to me. Without that, I doubt I would continue to make any kind of art. The fact that I can turn a story or a novel loose and have no control over what it means is terrifying and thrilling.
BR: Are there instances that inspired you in other mediums?
PE: I’ll use visual art as an example. With paintings I love, I remember them one way, and then when I see them again, there are things that I didn’t notice or that I misread the first time. That’s always exciting. The work becomes new because I’m different.
BR: You talk a lot about the importance of place in your work. What is the importance of writing from firsthand experience versus secondhand or thirdhand knowledge?
PE: I have a lot of respect for place, whereas experiences—I don’t have to have broken my back to imagine the pain involved. So I can have a character with a broken back. However, places and cultures are more sacred for me. I need to have familiarity with a place before I try to render it. Likewise with other people’s cultures. I wouldn’t dream of trying to create the world of the Roma, say, because everything I know is what I’ve read or heard and therefore would be academic.
BR: Do you feel that lends a certain authenticity?
PE: I suppose that’s accurate, but I resist that word. I think it’s about respect. I’m not trying to be authentic when that’s not really for me to judge.
BR: When people discuss your work, there’s often an attempt to categorize it into a neat box. Is there a specific way you characterize your own work?
PE: I’ve been called a Southern writer, a Western writer, an experimental writer, a mystery writer, and I find it all kind of silly. I write fiction. I don’t write anything autobiographical, though in some of my work the characters are alarmingly similar to me. You write from the world you know. But I don’t exploit the stuff of my own life to create the stories.
BR: As someone who has been publishing for almost forty years, what changes do you feel need to be made to address inequities in publishing, the sort of things you satirize in Erasure?
PE: When I started writing, there weren’t many Black people being published. That has changed, and the novels that are published are less stereotypical and less narrowly defined. When I was a kid and I’d walk into a bookstore, I’d have to search. My world was supposed to be the rural South, the antebellum United States, or the inner city. That was it. I didn’t see my life depicted anyplace. Now there’s a range of experience depicted in novels by African Americans. Are there enough of them? I can’t say. But there are a lot more than there were.
The problem really is that the publishing industry is now purely marketing. It was at one point literary. An editor could say, “I’m going to publish this,” and that would be it. Now it goes through marketing committees. To me this is about art, not about racial equity in publishing. If it were all about art, a lot of those things would take care of themselves, especially if more houses had people of color working as editors. There’s a misconception that Black editors and Black publishers are there to accept Black works. But that’s not the case. They’re there to accept art.
BR: Yet Black editors are often pigeonholed as the go-to for cultivating books by Black writers.
PE: Of course. It’s been the case in academia too. African American history and African American literature have long been the place where universities sought to correct their hiring deficiencies, instead of hiring Black people to teach Shakespeare or modernist literature or other subjects. That’s a function of well-meaning racism, but also racism where people are trying to catch up quickly. Because of this, a generation or two of Black scholars were funneled into subjects where they were seen to be more “authentic.” And that’s not right.
BR: That circles back to publishing with the classification of African American lit. Black writers are all competing for space on that one shelf instead of being marketed as general fiction.
PE: Maybe it could be called American fiction? It’s not just Black artists. Hispanic writers, gay and lesbian writers, they show up in a separate section too. That has a subconscious effect on the artist and the consumer of the art about one’s self-worth.
BR: You have a remarkably consistent turnaround time, having delivered a book nearly every year since the 1980s. What’s your process like, and are there any specific things you can point to as a reason for your steady production over the years?
PE: No, I just work. The only thing I can point to is that I really don’t feel stress. If I wrote a novel and nobody liked it, I would be kind of proud.
BR: Is that what you’re aspiring to?
PE: I might try it. It’s just books. It’s the art I make, the way I understand and participate in the world, but my self-worth is not tied up in whether reviews are good. I don’t read reviews anyway. I just want to make honest art.
BR: Many people would look at how much and how often you write as a benchmark.
PE: None of it matters. People write at different paces. I don’t sleep a lot, and maybe that’s part of it. I’m not racing with anybody, and I don’t think anybody should be racing with me.
BR: I’m interested in this book that nobody likes. Don’t you think it would be impossible to find that book? Someone would like it just to be contrarian, or someone would find something in it to like—such as how unlikeable it is.
PE: Well, that’s the beautiful thing about art. There are people who actually like “4’33,” the John Cage piece. It’s four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. The musician, often a pianist, will step onto the stage, set the timer, and just sit there.
BR: And are you the one person who likes that?
PE: I like it as art, but not as music. I wouldn’t sit there and listen to it on CD.
BR: Reading your books, I feel that you’re constantly evolving and subverting our expectations of what literature is. Do you ever feel pressure to top yourself, either conceptually or narratively?
PE: No, I make each work as it comes. My mission is not to do something that hasn’t been done. I have no interest in that. I’m interested in how meaning gets constructed.
BR: Do you get a sense that your readers expect to be surprised by your work?
PE: I don’t really know, but necessarily some people will think that way. I don’t begrudge them that thinking; I think that way about musicians a lot. The guitarist John McLaughlin, for example. I don’t always love his music, but I love that he’s always changing. Another musician who did this—and it’s not the type of music I listen to—was Prince. He was a remarkable musician, but he wasn’t satisfied with a particular sound. That’s exciting in art.
I serve at the pleasure of the story, whatever’s going to work for not only the story but also the philosophical concepts I’m trying to unpack and interpret and interrogate. That’s where my interest is. I’m not interested in any pyrotechnics. Back to music, I don’t care if a guitarist can play incredibly fast. Finding the notes that surprise me is what’s fantastic.
BR: Is your focus on creating art for art’s sake why you don’t have any interest in reviews or how people receive your work?
PE: Reviews are just selling tools. I have no interest in that. But I’ll read scholarship. When people break down what they see in the work and talk about what the work means—not what I mean, what the work means—I learn a lot. I’m fascinated because so often I will be told things that I never imagined, things that I can’t take credit for. And that’s thrilling. I learn from it and can incorporate it into the way I think about the next work. That’s what art is all about: growth that serves my ability to make the next work.
BR: So when people talk about your work, you want them to remove you from the conversation?
PE: Yes, please. First, there’s no profit in bringing me into it. You’re not going to learn anything more about the work. I have no stake in the work meaning anything in particular. In fact, I know less about the work than a careful reader.
BR: Do you think it’s because you’re too close to it?
PE: It’s just a different relationship. It has a life of its own. It’s going to mean what it means to whoever is reading it.