Percival Everett: “I would love to write a novel that everyone hates” | fiction

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Percival Everett, 65, is the author of 21 novels, including glypha satire of literary theory, Telephonewhich was released simultaneously in three different versions, and Erasure, about a black author who, angered by expectations of what African-American fiction should look like, adopts a pseudonym to write a parodically gritty (and wildly successful) novel called My Pafology. the New Yorker called Everett “cool, analytical, and decidedly idiosyncratic…he excels in unblinkingly executing extraordinary vanities”. His new book, Treesis a twisted crime novel centered on a series of gruesome and seemingly supernatural murders of white people in modern times. 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 finished the manuscript just before Covid started – I had been working on it for a year – but it was something that was stuck in my head all the time. The core of it was a song: Lyle Lovett, the country singer, took the traditional song Ain’t No More Cane and paired it with another song called Rise Up. I was listening to it before playing tennis one morning and I said to myself, huh, here’s my novel: what if everyone “got up”? It became kind of a zombie idea, but I don’t like zombies, so that became what it became. Although I very rarely say what my novels mean, one thing I believe to be true is that there is a distinction to be made between morality and justice: justice may not always seem moral to us, and that is a scary thought.

How did you choose the often comedic tone of the book?
It would be very easy to write a dark, dense novel about lynching that no one will read; there must be an element of seduction. Humor is a fantastic tool because you can use it to get people to relax and then do whatever you want. The absurdity of inattention to the subject was what drove the comedy, but the novel lives as much about overturning stereotypes as revealing the truth of the lynching. I’m happy to say that I pissed off a lot of people for my stereotypes of white characters. someone in an interview [objected] and my response was, “Well, how does it feel?” When I started the book, I told my wife [the writer Danzy Senna]”I’m not fair to white people,” then I said, well, fuck it: I just went crazy.

In several places the novel provides information for readers unfamiliar with the story. Did you feel it was necessary?

You have to do this: 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 time. I teach a course on film from the American West. Ten years ago, each of my students had seen some Western; now, I don’t think there’s a single student out of the 20 I have who’s ever seen a western. All the cultural mythology that’s crammed into the American West, the things that their parents grew up reading about, isn’t accessible to them, so they’re learning it all over again.

Your satire of the racist expectations of literary culture in
Erasure still speaks forcefully, more than 20 years later, to young black writers like Brandon Taylor, who presented his recent reissue. Is it appalling?
A TV writer I spoke to the other day lamented that the stereotypes I talk about in Erasure is still present in cinema and television: Trees just been optioned, but it’s on race. But there’s a wider range of black experiences reflected in what’s released now. When I published my first novel [1983’s Suder, about a baseball player], I remember an article saying, “Where are the other black writers?” The writers I’m associated with are all 15 years older – John Edgar Wideman, Charles Johnson, Clarence Major – so we were really missing out. Now, when I see the work of writers like Mat Johnson and Victor LaValle, there’s a broader scope. But remember we are talking about literary fiction in the United States of America. If you sell 20,000 books, that’s fantastic; if I was a musician and sold 20,000 units, I would never record again. How you brand the culture [as a writer] is completely different. This is appalling.

Courttia Newland wrote that she had to hunt down your novels, most of which are not published in the UK…
Influx Press has been wonderful in publishing much of my work. My agent told me it was a small press doing good things and that sounded good to me; I love checks as much as anyone, but I prefer books to have a good life. It would have been nice if Influx could have done it Erasure but once Faber [which originally published the novel in the UK in 2003] discovered that there was some interest, they decided to bring it out. It was bad form, because they hadn’t been in contact for 20 years, and then when they saw there was a chance to do something about it, they did it. I wish they’d give away the rights.

What have you read lately?
I always come back to The Path of All Flesh by Samuel Butler, which is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and which I just reread Huck Finn. Chester Himes’ crime novels are excellent. I don’t read a lot of fiction [for pleasure], because I teach it. I have to read it all the time and I’m tired. I just read a fascinating book on the development of the typewriter for the Chinese language, character kingdoms by Jing Tsu, which stresses the importance of not only language but also 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, although we became and continue to be friends; he is still working [at the age of 90] and constantly in motion, I mean intellectually, which is a permanent inspiration for me. Lots of experimental novelists experiment for experiment’s sake, but if it doesn’t add meaning, I have no interest [in it]; the only reason i came to this art form is that i’m interested in playing with how meaning is constructed. My agent told me, “You could make a lot more money if you wrote the same book multiple times.” But I am not capable of it: there are too many [readers] for me to please everyone but myself, even though I would like to write a novel that everyone hates. “Have you read Percival’s new novel?” “Man, I hated that.” “Me too!”

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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