A version of this conversation was broadcast on CBC Radio One’s Writers & Company on February 27, 2022, produced by Sandra Rabinovitch.
Percival Everett is not exactly a cult taste, but for a man who’s published more than thirty books, including twenty-three novels, four short-story collections, six books of poetry, and a title for children, he’s not that widely known. Partly that’s because he’s a master of so many different genres, from crime novels to retellings of Greek myth, from revisionist westerns to absurdist capers, from thriller to farce, and with each one, he breaks with convention: he’ll slip a spoof of post-structuralist theory alongside a chilling depiction of an attack on an abortion clinic, or he’ll unleash a satire of so-called ghetto fiction. As a recent piece in the New Yorker pointed out, Everett is so consistently surprising that his agent once begged him to try repeating himself, advice he studiously ignored.
Percival Everett was born in Georgia in 1956 and grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. He comes from a family of doctors. His father was a dentist. After graduating from the University of Miami, Everett studied the philosophy of language at the University of Oregon before switching to a master’s program in fiction at Brown, where he wrote his first comic novel. It was here that he came under the influence of Robert Coover, a writer known for fabulation and metafiction. Everett himself names Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, as well as Lewis Carroll and Gertrude Stein, among his favourite writers.
But it’s not only his books that are so varied: Everett worked for twelve years training horses and mules; he’s passionate about fly-fishing, woodworking, and repairing musical instruments; he plays jazz guitar and is an accomplished artist. All of this, of course, alongside producing those many books.
His novel, Telephone, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The Trees, an astute critique of white supremacy, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize and the 2023 Dublin Literary Award. Dr. No, published by Graywolf Press in 2022, was named a finalist for the 2023 National Book Critics Circle award for fiction.This year, he also received the Windham-Campbell prize.
Percival Everett is a distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California. He spoke to me from Pasadena.
Eleanor Wachtel: Your novel, The Trees, is edgy, mischievous, and wickedly satirical. You’ve said stories come to you through distraction. How did this one arrive?
Percival Everett: I remember fairly well the beginning of this novel. I was walking to play tennis, and a song popped into my head: Lyle Lovett singing the traditional song “Ain’t No More Cane.” I went back and listened to his version of it, and the idea of the novel fell into place.
Wachtel: What’s the song about? Remind us.
Everett: It’s about lynching. It’s about finding bodies at the end of every turned row. I can’t remember the lyrics to do them justice. I think even Dylan did a cover of this song. There’s one line: “You should have been there in 1910 / They were driving the women like they drive the men,” or “You should have been there in 1904 / You could have found you a dead man at every turned row.” But the singing—especially the gospel singers behind Lovett, plus his voice is really exceptional—made it eerie and moving.
Wachtel: I think Odetta also covered the song. I went back to look at the lyrics and there’s that line, “Why don’t you rise up, you dead men?”
Everett: Yes, exactly.
Wachtel: So where do you go from that song? Where does it take you?
Everett: It was “rise”; you’re right to focus on that line. The first word I wrote was rise. And I didn’t know what I was going to make, but the idea of zombies came into my head. Since I fairly hate anything to do with zombies, I had to create my own version of it.
Wachtel: In the opening chapter of The Trees, you introduce us to this family that could be described as rather coarse, bigoted, maybe not too bright. What should we make of these folks?
Everett: They’re purposely stereotypes. Just, you know, turning the game around a little. Black Americans have had to face stereotypes in popular culture, literature, film, and television, and still do constantly. When I started this novel, I said to my wife, “You know, I’m not being terribly fair in this book.” Then I said, “Well, and I’m not going to be.” And continued.
Wachtel: The family matriarch, Granny Carolyn, or Granny C, as she’s called, is a little deaf and a little bothered about something that happened decades earlier. Her son tells her it’s all done and past, but in the world of your story, the past isn’t exactly done. To quote William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Is that how it usually works?
Everett: To some extent that’s true. The other side of that is you can’t undo anything. It would be nice to believe in karma, but I don’t think the world has given us much reason to think karma actually exists. I think we have all sorts of fantasies about retribution and things coming back around, but it very seldom works out that way.
Wachtel: I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that what happens in the story relates to an event that took place in the town of Money, Mississippi, in 1955: the abduction and brutal murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, who was visiting relatives there. Can you remind us of what happened then?
Everett: The character Wheat Bryant is a descendant, a son of Roy Bryant, who, with his brother Milam, tortured and murdered Emmett Till. Granny C is based on Carolyn Bryant, who was Roy Bryant’s wife. She has since retracted the accusation that the young boy whistled at her. This was apparently enough for Bryant and Milam to take the life of this young man.
Wachtel: The two men who abducted, tortured, and murdered Till were acquitted by an all-white jury. They later admitted to the murder in print. The case captured wide attention and influenced the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. As you were saying, in 2008, Till’s accuser Carolyn Bryant was said to have admitted that she made up her original testimony. And it was just a few years ago that the U.S. government announced it had reopened the investigation, but then nothing came of that. Why?
Everett: One, it’s the American government. Two, to reopen an investigation only goes as far as you have people investigating it. There wasn’t much to investigate, and the truth was already known. And the perpetrators were gone.
Wachtel: By the second chapter of The Trees, something strange is clearly afoot. The descendants of Emmett Till’s killers are found mysteriously murdered, and next to their mutilated corpses there’s the body of a Black man, which later disappears from the morgue—a small Black man with a horribly beaten face, “his neck scarred and seemingly stitched together,” wearing “a dark blue suit,” matching the famous image of Emmett Till in his coffin. As the tension builds and more bodies are discovered, the townsfolk try to make sense of what’s happening, but they don’t seem to get it. Is that the point? That they still don’t get it? That they don’t understand the legacy of hate within their community?
Everett: I think it’s a combination of things. One hopes that part of it is shame. Certainly much of it is ignorance, and the rest is simple denial. But I can’t speak, really, about the actual people in Money, Mississippi, now. The people I’ve created have nothing to do with any real folks, only a type. And I can’t say that anyone there fits this description. I can say that there are people in this world who do.
Wachtel: Philosophical questions often animate your work. You start with a problem, you’ve said. What did you want to work out in this story? What were the philosophical concepts you tried to unpack and interrogate?
Everett: I tend not to talk too much about those things, partly because I get confused by them myself. Often it’s pretty mundane dealings with ideas and logic. In this one, I think, it comes out of something I’ve been working through for a while: the whole idea of what one does, whether it is the right thing, and whether you can live with your choice. It comes out of Kierkegaard: no matter what you do, you will regret it. The idea that these lives were taken and they have no voices has bothered me for so long, so by re-establishing these names as points in history, as persons with agency in our world, I’d like to think that I participated in giving these people one more chance at life.
Wachtel: That Kierkegaard quote, “do it or do not do it—you will regret both,” is also in the epigraph to your previous novel, Telephone, and there’s an implicit hopelessness in it.
Everett: I tend not to be a terribly dour person, and my sense of irony wins out most times. I chose humour as a way to approach this subject, and every time I thought I was writing something funny, I would have a bit of a stabbing feeling. Because it’s not funny.
Wachtel: The townsfolk of Money, Mississippi, within your novel may not get what’s going on, but you make sure that we do with satirical details of Till’s murder. For example, references to catfish that can just be pulled out of the Tallahatchie River, which was how his body was found. Two special detectives arrive from the MBI. I actually had to go back and read that twice to make sure I was getting MBI, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.
Everett: Which exists.
Wachtel: But the very mention of it seems to raise eyebrows, even to the detectives themselves. What’s that about?
Everett: I didn’t know anything about the MBI when I started making the novel. When I found out the name of the agency, how could I not include the MBI? It’s hilarious to see the letters together.
Wachtel: The special detectives are Black, which rubs the locals the wrong way. Ed Morgan, Jim Davis—they have an established, friendly working relationship. Ed notes that “somebody Black had better watch these White folks down here. Because for a lot of these crazy folks, it’s still nineteen fifty.” Is it some kind of ironic joke for you to send these two particular guys to Money, Mississippi?
Everett: I think it’s the kind of ironic event that would probably happen. I’m certain there are some Black members of the MBI. And I’m certain that they’ll have to investigate some things that they probably wish they weren’t investigating. But in my world, of course, they’re the ones who are going to study this situation.
Wachtel: Because they’ll make everybody uncomfortable?
Everett: Because everyone will be uncomfortable. Even they will be uncomfortable.
Wachtel: The dead don’t seem to stay put in this novel. In fact, corpses often show up in your fiction. Why is that?
Everett: I don’t know. I didn’t know that was true, and now I’m scared. Well, in this novel it’s fairly evident to me. I guess we all grapple with the ideas of mortality and death. I never reread my work, so I’ll have to go back looking for corpses.
Wachtel: Why don’t they stay put in this novel?
Everett: Because they have not been put to rest. They should come back in a good world. In a just world, they would come back. And those responsible for their unjust and untimely deaths would pay consequences.
Wachtel: Lynchings of Black people by white mobs were often public events and the subject of souvenir postcards. Why were these images so popular? What do they represent?
Everett: I’m not smart enough to know how anyone can watch a lynching as a sporting event. In the photographs of lynchings—and this is another source of the novel—you look at the smiling faces as they hover over the burned body of a man; I’m thinking particularly of an image from Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919. Looking at the faces, I wondered, fifty years later, when these people are seventy, how do they look at their grandchildren and continue? Do they tell their grandchildren that they were there? Do they tell their grandchildren that they smiled? Do they see anything wrong with the behaviour they exhibited those years ago?
Wachtel: The mutilated corpse of Emmett Till became a powerful symbol of another kind. As you say in The Trees, “The image of the boy in his open casket awakened the nation to the horror of lynching. At least the White nation. The horror that was lynching was called life by Black America.” Can you talk about that image, what it represents?
Everett: First of all, Emmett Till’s mother is, historically, perhaps one of the bravest people to have lived. She was told by I don’t know which agency of the United States government that she would have a closed casket funeral for her son, but she refused. She said the world should see what they did to her son. And that act of bravery, of heroism, made a mark in the world.
Wachtel: There’s still controversy over who “owns” the image of Emmett Till. I’m thinking of the protest when the artist Dana Schutz, who’s white, exhibited her painting of Emmett Till, Open Casket, in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. There were demands it be removed and she destroy it. What do you make of that?
Everett: I find it anti-intellectual and disturbing. There may well be some philosophical difficulty in accepting the use of that idea and image by a white artist. I don’t know. What I do know is the painting begins a conversation. I don’t think art should be censored in that way. The painting was not a work of hate. It might well have been a work of naiveté. It certainly is not a terribly good painting, and I can understand someone being upset by that. But to avoid discussion and move to censoring I find unintelligible.
Wachtel: At one point in The Trees, the two detectives and their associate from the FBI, an African American woman, visit a bar in the town’s Black neighbourhood, and they hear a young woman singing “Strange Fruit.” They know then that something’s going on in the state of Mississippi. What’s the story behind that song?
Everett: It’s a song Billie Holiday was told not to sing, again by some mysterious U.S. government agency. There was a film recently, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, about that song. I can’t remember the name of the song’s composer.
Wachtel: I think it was Abel Meeropol.
Everett: Yes. Not a Black man, a Jewish man. And the song is about, as it says, strange fruit: the strange fruit hanging from trees are the bodies of Black men. And it’s a moving song. How could it not be? But Billie Holiday’s version is remarkable, much like Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” It’s hard to render such horrible things in art, and Holiday managed to do it. It gives us artists some belief that we can affect the world because her singing actually scared a lot of people in this country. It moved a lot of people, but it also scared a lot of people.
Wachtel: Hearing that song, “Strange Fruit,” also triggers a response in the detectives in your novel to the layers of what’s going on around them. As the mysterious murders spread beyond the town, the detectives Jim and Ed pay a visit to an old woman known as Mama Z. She’s reported to be a root doctor, a witch. What powers does she have?
Everett: Mama Z’s power lies simply in her belief that one should not abandon history or abandon those who have died in our history. She’s compiled and maintained a room full of file cabinets that are full of dossiers about every lynching that’s occurred in the United States since 1913, the year her father was lynched. That room is perhaps the centre of whatever house this novel might be. And this novel lives in that room with all those names and all those files.
Wachtel: To write her, and to write this book, you made your own study of lynching. What was that like?
Everett: It was pretty horrible. Even the most casual student of American history sees lynching everywhere. But as I started to read more about it, delve more deeply into it while making this novel, it was the hundred-year anniversary of Red Summer, which was 1919, and it was called that because there were so many racial lynchings in the United States at that time, and not just individual lynchings, and not just several people, and not only Black Americans. But there were also riots in Chicago and in Mississippi. There was mass murder everywhere, and these names were lost. There was a 1919 issue of Crisis magazine devoted to lynching. And you mentioned the photographs and the postcards. There were so many postcards, as you called it, an industry of these things moving through the mail to people. It’s a terrible, scary, embarrassing portion of American history that is not really addressed. It’s not taught in junior high (or middle school, as we call it now). It’s not taught in high schools. But it’s no less important than it ever was, and perhaps more so because it tells us more about ourselves, if we’ve grown some as a culture.
Wachtel: You introduce a young Black academic, Damon Thruff, who’s invited to Money from Chicago to work with Mama Z. And as a satiric comment on academia, he has several Ph.D.’s in different disciplines but has been denied tenure because of his overactive scholarship, and he’s relegated to the ethnic-studies department. But he records the names of all the lynching victims in Mama Z’s files. She has thousands and thousands, and he writes them out by hand. And you did the same?
Everett: I did. I did not do thousands. I did a thousand and some, and it was a moving experience. I did not do the final thing I have him do in the novel: he wrote them all in pencil, as did I, but then he erased them all as if to set them free.
Writing their names made them real to me, all these people. It reminded me that they are not simply records. They were the fathers of someone, the brothers of someone, sons, mothers. And as I was writing the names, many of them are so ordinary, but they’re so individual. And then you come across names that are different, odd, and they’re individuals. And then you come across the names that don’t exist and you have “unidentified male.” And that person is lost.
Wachtel: Because they’ve lost not just their lives, but their names as well.
Wachtel: You created an exhibition of paintings, abstract works, in connection with The Trees, a show called Once Seen. Can you tell me about it? The idea behind it?
Everett: When I was done with the novel, I realized I wasn’t really done with my research. I am a painter, supposedly, so I made a series of works. And I’ve always worked abstractly. What was interesting about these paintings is they address certain shapes in the world, nothing literal, though once the shapes are discerned, you can’t see anything else. And to me that mirrors some experience with the truth of American racial history: once you actually see it, you see it; there’s no turning it into something else—unless one wants to, I suppose. And continuing the metaphor, there are Americans among us who would take the painting and turn it upside down so that it’s something else. And by “painting,” I mean history itself.
Wachtel: They’re very powerful, and you’ve given them names. In your mind, are they specific to particular people?
Everett: They are named for victims of lynchings. But in that way of the dossiers doing their work within the novel, any one of them could have been named after any person who has been lynched. Each one of them stands in for all of them.
Wachtel: Understandably, you don’t want to be described as a Black writer or an African American writer, just as you shrug off various other labels that have been applied to you, such as Southern writer, Western writer, experimental writer, and so on. You’ve resisted, as you put it, “writing Black.” What does that mean?
Everett: I haven’t resisted anything. I write people in the world, my people. The characters I know, because of my movement through the world, tend to be Black. They tend to be American and Black. What I resist is the description Black art, Black literature, Black writer. For one important political reason: such a descriptor suggests there is some other kind of art that might be more mainstream or more grounded in the world. If I were to walk into a bookstore and say to the proprietor, “Can you direct me to the white fiction?” that person would be pretty confused, and I think they should be as confused if I were to ask for the Black fiction. That’s my political stance on trying to describe art in any way that marginalizes or ghettoizes the work. And I find that to be true of fiction that’s called women’s fiction. I find it to be true of writing that’s called queer fiction or queer poetry. It’s all art. And either we start talking about all of them individually with these descriptive terms, or we do it with none of them.
Wachtel: As you’ve pointed out, you didn’t come from the rural South or the inner city in the north. Your father was a dentist. You came from a family of doctors. How would you describe your own upbringing?
Everett: I was privileged. I grew up in a family of educated people who took politics seriously and also quite ironically, and my experience isn’t one that’s rare. That’s what I try to communicate, that the range of experience of Black Americans is as wide and expansive as that of any other American. Just recently Mitch McConnell said about the election in 2020 that statistics show Black Americans voted in the same percentage as Americans did. What is one to make of that? He might as well have put the word real in front of Americans.
Wachtel: How can you be a satirist when you have guys like that around?
Everett: It makes it difficult. Trump killed comedy because no one had to write it anymore; all one had to do was read the news.
Wachtel: You’ve taken a satirical approach to the theme of race in some of your best-known works, such as your novel from 2001, Erasure. That one takes a shot at the publishing industry and the media’s embrace of so-called authentic Black writing. When the central character, Monk, concocts a lurid novel mocking the clichés about Black ghetto experience, it becomes a huge commercial and critical success: it is both his dream come true and his worst nightmare, though he writes under a pseudonym. To his horror, his parody is praised as true to life, an important book, magnificently raw and honest. Has this phenomenon continued, do you think? It’s now twenty years later, but do you think it’s still going on?
Everett: It goes on a lot less, but it goes on. I don’t look for instances of it, but there’s always a bit of minstrelsy in the entertainment business. In that novel where I comment about certain kinds of novels, I don’t have a problem with those novels. The problem is that the art the publishing industry chose in many prior years to make available is pretty narrow. Those were the books that shaped the American perception of Black life. The fact that people could even talk about Black life as if that exists, the idea that a book would be about Black life in America any more than a book could be about white life in America, is ridiculous. And that’s what’s wrong with that language. I have no problem with people reading the novels I address in that book. The problem is those are the only novels that were available. And that’s a very pernicious kind of racism.
Wachtel: Your 2009 novel, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, is another book that deals with race in a way that is both playful and pointed. It features a character known as Not Sidney Poitier, who looks exactly like the actor. Since Poitier’s recent death, his obituaries have referred to him as the trail-blazing Hollywood icon. What did you want to say about that in your novel?
Everett: The novel really isn’t about Sidney Poitier at all; it’s about acceptance within the culture. Poitier was a great movie star, and that’s what he was, a great movie star. And he was involved in the civil-rights movement at the time: he was not apolitical. But America chose Sidney Poitier as the acceptable, safe Black leading man. There were no other Black leading men at the time. He was the guest coming to dinner. And what happens in his films, even though he is coming to dinner with the young white daughter of the liberal Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, he’s desexualized, and though race is addressed, it’s cartoonish. In one film he makes, The Defiant Ones, where he is chained together with Tony Curtis, they’re two convicts on the run. There’s one scene where they are on a train, Tony Curtis falls off the train, and probably every Black person in America is thinking, Don’t jump off the train to help him. But it’s an important scene in the film, of course, and he does. And again, the idea of race being something that can be conquered, that racial difference can be conquered, is present in these films. Lilies of the Field, A Patch of Blue—the idea of racial difference is defeated.
Wachtel: Do you have any idea whether the real Sidney Poitier was aware of your novel?
Everett: I tried to get a copy to him. Ted Turner is in the novel too, and I sent a copy to both of them. Well, Sidney Poitier is not in the novel, but I did use his name. But Ted Turner is, as a person. And I haven’t heard from either one of them. And I probably won’t be hearing from Mr. Poitier now at all.
Wachtel: A character named Percival Everett appears in some of your work, and there are also not–Percival Everett characters in your fiction who share some of your interests and pursuits. I wanted to talk about a couple of these as they relate to your writing. You’ve often described yourself as just an old cowboy or an old horseman. Let’s start with that, your love of the West and your experience with horses. Where did that all begin?
Everett: I don’t know where it began because I’m kind of old now. For some twelve years, I did feed all of my money to horses and pretended to train them in California, out in the desert. And those were an important twelve years to me. I think most of what I’ve learned about life and about people has come from my experiences with animals. I have never been betrayed by an animal or had one lie to me. I don’t know if my love of the West grows out of my love of the horse, or whether it’s the other way around, but I do find those relationships really important.
Wachtel: I was reading that you trained not only horses, you trained mules and donkeys, and that got me wondering, how do you train a mule? Aren’t they famously stubborn?
Everett: You can do anything with a mule that you can do with a horse except race, because mules apparently find this a very strange idea. The stubbornness of donkeys and mules are a function of intelligence. They won’t get themselves hurt. You can ride a horse until it has a heart attack and dies. If a mule is working and it feels stressed, it will stop. And you can, I suppose, beat it or whatever you want to do, but the mule recognizes that what you can do to it is not as bad as what will happen otherwise. That gets registered as stubbornness, which in fact is intelligence. Mules are like giant dogs. That’s why I loved working with them even more than horses. And donkeys are frightening. They’re smarter than mules.
Wachtel: Many of your pursuits outside of writing seem both intuitive and exacting, whether it’s working with horses or working with your hands. Your character Monk in Erasure appreciates carpentry because it’s not writing. As he says, “The wood, the feel of it, the smell of it, the weight of it. It was so much more real than words. The wood was so simple. Dammit, a table was a table was a table.” A nod, of course, to one of your favourite writers, Gertrude Stein. Do you like this kind of balance in your life between the physical and the cerebral? Do they feed each other?
Everett: They do. In recent years I’ve been repairing musical instruments. Until just recently, I could find used, broken guitars for virtually nothing and then turn them into nice instruments. The wood is wonderful. The strings are great. Watching an instrument take shape, watching the wood conform to the shape it was in when it was first made. Again, it’s not just hands; it’s using my ears, my eyes. Everything works together. The wood is especially good because it also has these smells. And different woods smell different. I wish I was smart enough to know as much about this as so many people do. It’s all about getting smarter, and I’m a slow learner, so this is good for me.
Wachtel: And fly-fishing is a passion for some of your characters as well as their creator. You’ve compared it to detective work. In what way?
Everett: You arrive streamside, and you judge the conditions. You look at the water, how fast it is, what plants are around, what insects are flying around. You stay in the river and see what’s going on with the stages of the aquatic insects in the area. The detective work is discovering what trout are eating. And then there’s the artistic work of trying to make something that looks real enough that a trout would want to bite it. Of course, the irony is that a hungry trout, not unlike us, will bite anything that lands in the water. Nonetheless, not even catching a fish—which I think is overrated—but just the idea that you’ve tricked a fish into thinking what you’ve made is real is pretty exciting, and that’s not unlike making stories or fiction.
Wachtel: It’s in connection with fishing and other experiences in nature and also with visual art that you’ve talked about stealing glimpses. What’s that about?
Everett: I love rivers and streams, and I often find them too beautiful. So it’s hard for me to look for any prolonged time at a river, some stretches of river. I’ll have to look at it and then look away. And that’s the stealing glimpses part of it. I don’t know whether they contain too much information for me or whether they’re just too beautiful. There are other things in nature like that, but it’s rivers where I first noticed this.
Wachtel: You’ve said reading is a subversive act, and that notion of reading as individual and subversive inspired a new piece of mischief on your part: you published Telephone in three slightly different versions with three different endings. What was the idea behind that? How did you imagine it working?
Everett: Actually, two of the endings are fairly the same. One is different. But the novels are different throughout, very small changes and very large ones depending on which versions you’re comparing. My entire artistic career—as a viewer and as a maker—contains people referring to the authority of the artist, and I wanted to question that, mainly by underscoring the authority of the reader, of the viewer. There is no work until the reader comes to it. And the reader does quite a bit of constructive work, not only in making the story mean something, but in making the story at all. I wouldn’t say that I was trying to have fun. I did want to see what would happen when people started discussing the same novel. You can talk about all three of these and feel confident you’re talking about the same book until you get to certain places, and then your stories will differ. And I was curious about disagreement concerning what a story says.
Wachtel: But unless the reader reads all three books, three different versions, they won’t know. I mean, unless they’re talking to somebody who read a different version, they won’t know.
Everett: Yes. That’s what it was: it was when people talked to each other that I was interested in. I had someone report to me that they had used the novel in a class without telling the students they likely had a different version from some of their classmates. And he said discussions went very well and there were quite a few disagreements. He withheld that information from them to watch the disagreements build. And that’s what I wanted. I just wanted talk about the story. The title Telephone comes from the children’s game of passing information along. Sometimes it’s called “telegraph”—
Wachtel: We used to call it “broken telephone.”
Everett: I hadn’t heard that one—when you whisper something to someone next to you and it moves around the room and it changes.
Wachtel: The first-person narrator of your novel Telephone, Zach Wells, is, like many of your protagonists, somewhat melancholic, self-critical, and obsessive. He’s not a writer or a painter like some of your other characters, but a geologist or paleobiologist whose work focuses on a particular fictional cave on the Colorado River. Do you share his fascination with caves?
Everett: I do. You know, writing fiction is an excuse for study for me. I don’t know a lot about a lot of things, and so I find a subject I like, and I start working, and a number of years ago I started exploring caves for some reason. I was travelling all over the place, to developed and undeveloped caves, thinking I was working on a novel. And a cave does show up in my novel Wounded, but I didn’t need to do any of that research to write that novel, and I didn’t really need to do it for this one either. What I learned when I started exploring the caves was more metaphoric for my working on the novel than it was for the story of the novel. Caves are these dark places we sort of naturally resist, but we’re drawn to them. We want to go into a cave, but it’s too dark. It’s too scary because monsters live in caves; who knows what’s there. And as you go into a cave, you’re crawling into it, and your safety is the light that’s behind you: you know you can go out. And if I start thinking of this as my work, as a novel, I start to understand the pull of the work because there’s what I call a place of interstitial tension, where the light that you see as safety switches places with the darkness, and you don’t want to go toward that light, you want to go deeper into the cave. And you start to learn the cave, become more familiar with it, though the fear of things you can’t see persists. But it’s the not wanting to turn around, that point, that became really interesting to me and has informed my work ever since. It’s been four or five novels since that one, and I think it’s affected the way I move through them.
Wachtel: You said you want to participate in making a different culture through your work. What would that look like?
Everett: I would love to live in a culture where it’s cooler to be smart than tough. Where one works not for money but for a better place. And part of that is simply education, where education actually means education and not vocation. I’m always hurt when I think of people going to school just so they can learn to do a thing, just so they can learn to make money, instead of learning just because it makes us richer inside. I would like to live in a world where readers don’t use the language It’s a hard book or It’s a difficult book in a pejorative way. I would love to think that difficult and entertaining are interchangeable.
Eleanor Wachtel is the host and co-founder of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company, now in its twenty-seventh season. She has also published five books of interviews, most recently The Best of Writers & Company (Biblioasis).