A werewolf as Oregon’s governor?
That’s just one of the local connections in “Red Moon,” a new novel by Benjamin Percy. It’s set largely in Salem, Portland and Central Oregon.
Percy grew up near Redmond; he returns to Oregon regularly from his Minnesota home. He mines his Oregon memories to create realistic locations for this thriller, which pits lycans (werewolves) against non-lycans. Society still grapples with familiar issues including terrorism, civil rights, racism and the spread of AIDS.
We reached him at home, at the keyboard. Here’s the interview, lightly edited for length and clarity:
Question: Why werewolves?
Answer: (Imagine his growly voice, almost lower than humans can hear) At Crow Elementary, I pulled off the library shelf a book on Universal Studios’ monsters. I flipped through the pages and settled on the image of Lon Chaney Jr. as “The Wolf Man.” I felt enchanted and terrified. Most of my childhood Halloweens, I dressed up as a werewolf. In sixth grade, the final section of my research paper “Werewolf!” relates how I attempted to transform myself in the backyard, beneath a full moon.
Q: How did that go?
A: I guess I’m a little hairier. The red moon was a long time coming.
Another reason (about why werewolves): I was thinking about what we fear right now. There are so many narratives that resonate with people and channel cultural unease: Frankenstein, the red scare, a slew of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives since 9/11. I was trying to fit a knife to the nerve of the moment.
We fear infection — you can look to countertops of any business and see Purel; you can see where any outbreak of disease — West Nile, bird flu — dominates our headlines. Also terrorism and the aftermath of the Boston bombing remind us of that. Werewolves became a convenient metaphor, a representation of “the other.”
Q: I dragged my feet about opening the book because I thought, “It’s just about werewolves.” Do you run into that much?
A: I most often run into: “I didn’t think I would like this book, and it swept me away.”
Q: Then I started reading it and was blown away by the literary quality of the writing. How hard is it for you to meld the two?
A: I grew up on pop lit. I am always concerned first with the question “What happens next?” I have gone through many creative writing workshops and have taught many. I discovered the academy turned its back on what some call genre fiction. In doing so, they have instilled in a generation of writers an appreciation of exquisite language, three-dimensional characters and glowing metaphors but have forgotten that most people read to be swept away.
What I’m trying to do is what Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lehane, Kate Atkinson and Cormac McCarthy have done: to write a carefully constructed narrative, to have an artistic flourish but have a compulsively readable plot at the spine of the story.
Q: The novel starts with a 9/11-type plane crash, only the culprit is a lycan. Have you caught heat for that?
A: Only from frequent fliers. It will never be excerpted in an inflight magazine.
There are connections to 9/11, but the novel has a lot of reverse engineering. It takes us back through history, to the point where the disease originated: in prehistoric times, out of the wolf population, an animal-borne pathogen that mutates to human host. Five percent of the population is infected, and these people are marginalized and forced to take a emotionally deadening drug. There’s nothing new throughout history — the Crusades, the Civil War, the human rights movement; it’s about the human tendency to ostracize the other.
Q: What role does Central Oregon still play in your life?
A: Oregon is such a fragmented landscape geographically — it has desert, rain forest, ocean, alpine and plains. It’s fragmented, too, politically, culturally and economically. For these reasons, it makes an interesting stage for fiction. Also, when that trap door opens in my mind, I return to the place where I grew up. The Northwest remains my muse.
Q: I was impressed that you could write not only about a boy coming of age, but about a girl (Two key characters are Patrick, whose dad is stationed in the lycan republic, and Claire, who flees home after the assassination of her lycan parents)?
A: In creative writing, the longer you live, the greater emotional depth you can bring to the page. Ten years ago, it would have been difficult for me to leap into alternate perspectives.
When someone dies, when you get married, when you are betrayed or betray someone else, when you have a child, move, whatever, when you go through one of those doorways, you open new chambers of your mind, and you can more realistically create a felt experience for your readers.
At this point, I have been married 13 years. I have a young daughter and so many strong women in my life that I felt ready and capable and eager to make them come alive on the page for readers.
Q: How did having an editor from Salem influence the book?
A: Helen (Atsma) has a greater appreciation for Oregon than most New York editors do. For many, the West is a bland or irrelevant space. They are East Coast-centric.
Q: What area of the book required you to learn something entirely new?
A: Every story I write is a research project. I try to be a writer in the trenches. I try to experience everything I can; it will feed into the narrative.
There was so much about “Red Moon” I didn’t know. I had to sit with researchers at a USDA lab, trying to figure out the science behind animal-borne pathogens. I had to spend time on the phone with politicians, brewmasters, military men. I do the best I can to give myself street cred and capture the lingo — all those tiny authenticating details that will make people believe the science behind “Red Moon.” That was the greatest challenge — trying to re-invent the mythology so these lycans are not full-moon howlers but a believable horror.
Q: A frequent theme is fear: When have you most feared for your life?
A: I’ve had a number of occasions where I nearly died (I was a wild child): attempting a back flip while skiing Mount Bachelor; climbing the sides of mountains without ropes; taunting rattlesnakes with sticks; nearly drowning in rivers.
But the time I felt most fear in my life was not when I was in danger, but my son was. As a young child, he had issues with croup. His throat closed up, and he was in ICU four days. That happened several years in a row. Those moments impressed themselves in my consciousness as the most fearful. (His son, 7, is OK now.)
Q: What’s the key message you try to convey to less-experienced writers?
A: Read your brains out and write your brains out to make it as an artist.
Malcolm Gladwell, in “Outliers,” writes that 10,000 hours are required to master any skill. I talk to students about how I used to wake up at 4 a.m. to write. I wrote four failed novels before publishing one. I accumulated hundreds of rejections, so many that I guess my mailman suffered chronic issues from lugging them my way.
When I look back on my peers, at those writing and not writing, the thing that distinguishes us is not talent, it’s grit. Who wants it more? Who is willing to face rejection? Who is willing to give up indulgences, hunch over the keyboard instead? I try to instill in my students a stubborn sensibility, a willingness to go the distance.
Q: What are you reading these days?
A: Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins.” I just picked up Lily Koppel’s “The Astronaut Wives Club.” I tend to dip in and out of books.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: In fall 2014, another book from Grand Central, “The Dead Lands.” It’s a post-apocalyptic reimagination of the Lewis and Clark saga. I’m working on a screenplay for “The Wilding.” I have TV news for “Red Moon” that I can’t share yet.
bcurtin@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6699 or twitter.com/BarbaraCurtin
Find it: Salem Public Library, Book Bin and benjaminpercy.com
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing, 978-1-4555-0166-3
What critics said: Publishers Weekly has named Red Moon one of the most anticipated books of 2013. “Exploring one of the oldest themes in weird fiction — the werewolf — Percy (“The Wilding”) delivers a stunning alternate history epic that transcends its genre trappings to read as a provocative reflection on the contemporary zeitgeist. At a point where many other writers would flinch, Percy follows through on the direst possibilities of his premise, building to a shocking denouement and even more shock climax in the final pages.”