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Interview with Percival Everett

Percival Everett’s new book is an old book. Up to now, only a few (Glyph, Wounded and Erasure) of his more than thirty novels, poetry and stories have been published in the U.K. But, this year London’s Influx Press is issuing I Am Not Sidney Poitier, originally published by Graywolf Press in 2009. The book is the coming-of-age tale of Not Sidney Poitier, who looks like the actor Sidney Poitier and whose life inescapably follows the plots of Sidney Poitier’s cinematic oeuvre, while being not-quite advised by media mogul Ted Turner. Through a hilarious and heart-breaking story of class and race, Everett follows the consequences of the logical principle that from the false premise of identity anything follows.

 

Everett actively eschews genre unless it is to parody it. His topics of interest seem
unbounded, from post-structural theory espoused by a mute toddler (Glyph), to the American West (Half An Inch Of Water) to retellings of classical Greek myths (Zulus and For Her Dark Skin). With books like Erasure and A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid, he is interested not only in stories but in who is allowed to tell them. Telephone, his latest book to be published in the U.S., has three different versions, explicitly challenging the weak assumption that we as readers can ever have the same experience of reading the same book.

 

Percival Everett is a cowboy, and not only because he trains horses. He has the gentleman’s softness I associate with the cowboy uncles I grew up wanting to emulate: self-effacing, gracious, and polite, knowing it is actions that count. With me in London and Everett in California, we were coordinating an interview time as COVID-19 began to make our days strange. When the State of California advised elderly people to stay in their homes, he emailed me to delay our phone call so that he could drop off groceries to his neighbours. By the time we rescheduled we, too, were self-isolating. I had to begin our interview by warning that our earnest literary discussion might be soon interrupted by my children singing ‘my bum bum’ as my wife struggled them into their pyjamas.

 

Q

The White Review

Sorry, its bath time and we have a tiny London flat so you might hear my two daughters in the background.

A

Percival Everett

I dont want to take you from that. Thats good stuff, that only happens for a few years. Do you want to talk in a little while?

Q

The White Review

—  Were in virus lockdown already. My wife tagged in so I could call you, but be warned that in about fifteen minutes there will be tiny screaming nakedness.

A

Percival Everett

—  Well, without the nakedness, you might hear some screaming here too.

Q

The White Review

—  We both have backgrounds in philosophy, were both admirers of Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations. I Am Not Sidney Poitier is about identity and negation. I feel we should start by examining the meaning of what it is we are doing. What function does an interview serve, for the author or for the reader? 

A

Percival Everett

You got me. First of all, anything that a writer says is suspect. The mere fact that I write for a living is ample reason to find me mentally deficient, and therefore anything I say is worthless. The work itself is what speaks. Its a very good question. I suppose its something that generates a greater readership, and allows the art to do what it’s going to do in the world. I guess thats my answer. I dont think that anybodys going to gain anything from learning about me or how I work, but if it increases my readership, even better. If it increases reading at all then its a good thing.

Q

The White Review

—  Have these interviews ever drawn out new understanding for you?

A

Percival Everett

Do you mean like discovering a sibling I never knew I had? That kind of thing? Nothing like that. Look, I think that readers know more about my work than I do. Sometimes people will ask me questions or make assertions, and they’re pretty good. They asked me if that’s what I meant. I say, Oh, sure, but I didn’t. I learn a lot talking about the work, actually. Interviews can sometimes be instructive for me, not about making the work but about what it means.

Q

The White Review

Youve published more than thirty books, spanning story collections, a childrens book, lots of novels, some books of poetry. When you sit down at the desk, do you know what youre after? Or is it during the process of being at the desk that you discover whether youre working on a novel or a story or a poem?

A

Percival Everett

We can take the fact that I write poems off the table right now. I might have published a couple of volumes of poetry, but I’m using my cowboy accent here I ain’t no poet. I want to write a poem. One day, I’ll write a good poem and it’ll be nice. I write poetry to prove I cant write poetry.

Q

The White Review

—  So you see yourself foremost as a novelist?

A

Percival Everett

—  I like novels. I read novels. I think novelistically. I very seldom do short stories. I don’t understand a lot of the contemporary poems I read. I don’t know why they’re considered poems. I like the experimentation of people like Gertrude Stein and Randall Jarrell. I usually start with a title, that I always think of as a working title, something throwaway. I must come up with fifty titles, that’s the really fun part of making a book.

Q

The White Review

Do you enjoy the process of publishing a book?

A

Percival Everett

No, I dont get involved, because usually by the time all that’s happening, I’m working on something else. I don’t care about that book any more at all. I pretty much have always felt this way. With my first book Suder, I disliked the cover and, it’s funny, maybe that’s why I don’t care anymore I disliked the cover so much that I started walking through the offices of Viking looking for whoever designed the cover, with my editor running behind me saying, Its okay. Look.I still think that cover sucks, but who knows what sells books? Its not my job. That’s what they know.

Q

The White Review

—  What was it about the Suder cover that you didn’t like?

A

Percival Everett

—  I dont recall. Now, it doesnt seem so bad. My taste has either improved or cracked.

Q

The White Review

—  Before I Am Not Sidney Poitier, youve had several other books published in the U.K. I discovered you from the Faber edition of Erasure (2001). How do the conversations around your books differ here compared to the U.S., or other parts of Europe?

A

Percival Everett

—  I find often that there are more conversations around philosophy than morality with European and African audiences. I think in Britain, there’s more of an understanding of racial difference than in France. Sometimes theres a naïveté among French interviewers when they’re talking about my work a naïveté about race in general. When the riots happened in the suburbs of Paris fifteen years ago, a lot of my French friends and colleagues were surprised. I asked, Why are you surprised? Maybe you are surprised because you never leave Paris.In the U.K., I don’t get that.

Q

The White Review

—  Have your own perceptions of I Am Not Sidney Poitier changed since it was first published? 

A

Percival Everett

—  No. I call it the mother bear school of authorship. Once a book turns of age and I kick it out of the den, it’s on its own. Its not that I have no relationship with my books once they are published. Walter Van Tilburg Clark, who wrote great Westerns, said of his work, I love all of my children, geniuses and idiots alike. Thats how I feel about my books. I suppose if I read any of them now, some would work for me, some not. Some were a good experience writing. Some were rougher, which has nothing to do whether they’re any good in the world.

Q

The White Review

—  When I think of your work, I think about the James Baldwin quote, You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world…. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimetre the way people look at reality, then you can change it. Do you recognise that kind of missionary purpose in your own work?

A

Percival Everett

—  No. Its a nice thing to think, and one hopes that one does that. If you’re a millimetre off on your first step, in a while you’re going to be a long way east or west of where you thought you were headed. I don’t have a messiah complex but, at the same time, I think art necessarily has the potential of affecting the world. If I made works that were more commercial, I might not be particularly proud of the products intellectually, but if more people read them that would be a positive thing: more people would be reading. Walt Whitman said in BY BLUE ONTARIO’S SHORE — Im paraphrasing, which doesn’t matter because it’s Walt Whitman — ‘If you want a better society, produce better people.

Q

The White Review

In your novels you use humour and satire to great effect. In I Am Not Sidney Poitier, the character Professor Percival Everett teaches a class in Nonsense. Parody, satire, nonsense in art seem to be struggling to compete with the news cycle. When nonsense has been weaponised, what is the artistic response?

A

Percival Everett

—  It’s a really good question. Its terrifying when you see that to write humour in the last four years has become a regurgitation of reality. When reality becomes absurd, where does the absurdist go? You put it beautifully: nonsense has been weaponised. It always has been with political speech, but in the hands of true idiots, absurdity is not a weapon so much as an attribute. When Donald Trump opens his mouth, he doesn’t have a mission. He might have a destination, but he doesn’t know how we’re going to get there. Thats the absurdity of his speech. The first victim in any kind of war like this is language. The first word that was ever taken from us in this new cycle of bad politics was the word conspiracy. You can’t use it without sounding like a paranoid lunatic. As for the artistic response, its for you to figure it out. There is a risk when the work becomes pedantic or when the artist thinks she or he has a message. I don’t have a message. I’m here to report, but I’m not a reporter. I’m here to create a world. And the viewer or the reader can take whatever they want from that and extrapolate some understanding of their own world. I’m not smart enough to tell anybody how they should process what’s going on.

Q

The White Review

Is that how your books begin for you? Is it the proverbial grit in the shellthat makes the pearl?

A

Percival Everett

Who knows? I start studying something and then I find something and then I do something. It’s a whole bunch of something that I don’t quite understand, and its probably worth not examining too closely. I can’t start a book until I see the shape of it, and I wish I could tell you what I mean by that. And then I can’t do anything until I have a first sentence that I think is the first sentence. How anybody starts out with 500 blank pages and sees them get full of words, there’s a little bit of magic involved. And you don’t want the magician on stage to say, Oh, yeah, here’s the trapdoor.

Q

The White Review

Are there ever specific scenes that you write towards?

A

Percival Everett

—  For I Am Not Sidney Poitier? I don’t know, its that work amnesia thing. I watched all the Sidney Poitier movies forty times until I was sick of them. I had to do that so I could own them and use them. After that, I had a fascination with Poitier as the chosen black actor. Why was he the one who was allowed to be the leading man? There were other actors at the time. Why him? He doesn’t seem to fit the safe bill that America would have had for a black man in those days: tall, dark. Logic would have you think that America would have been more comfortable with Harry Belafonte. Why Poitier? I keep looking for that role that must have catapulted him. When you get right down to it, he wasn’t the best actor in the room. There’s a woodenness to him, but he is a movie star.

Q

The White Review

Do you think there was a moment when somebody said, We’re going with Poitier, and we’re going all the way?

A

Percival Everett

—  If that was going to happen, it would have been with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But I don’t think anyone thought that way. By then he was really marketable, but that begs the question, who is the market buying? I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film version of Robert Penn Warren’s Band of Angels, with Clark Gable, Sidney Poitier and Yvonne De Carlo? Sidney Poitier plays an overseer on a plantation owned by Clark Gable’s character, and there’s a very threatening scene towards the white slave owner and the white slave-owning culture at the end of that film from Poitier, which makes his rise even stranger.

Q

The White Review

A dissonant version of that scene appears in I’m Not Sidney Poitier. I hadnt seen Band of Angels. I had to look it up, because it was hard to believe they would have made such a film it must have been quite transgressive for 1957 White America.

A

Percival Everett

There’s a scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner when he’s in the house of his white girlfriend. The daughter of the maid comes through with a very vivacious and bubbly young black woman and, for a second, Sidney Poitier breaks character and says Whos that?Its glossed over, but its very interesting, because Sidney Poitiers sexuality is taken away from him in these films. One of the weird things about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is the idea of what interest could this 35-year-old world-travelling epidemiologist have for being with this 21-year-old idiot, except for the fact that she’s blonde and white.

Q

The White Review

In several of your novels – A History Of The African-American People (Proposed) By Strom Thurmond As Told To Percival Everett And James Kincaid (A Novel), Percival Everett By Virgil Russell: A Novel, and I Am Not Sidney Poitier – there is a character named Percival Everett. In I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Not Sidney has two father figures, Ted Turner and Percival Everett, the professor at Morehouse College. What is the function of self-representation within your books?

A

Percival Everett

—  In Not Sidney, since I was making fun of everybody else, I figured I should make fun of myself too. Just as babies and drunks can say anything, as soon as I put myself as a character in the book, that character can say anything, because it’s so absurd.

Q

The White Review

—  Was this creation of an explicit Percival Everett character a response to press and readers so often, especially with Erasure, tightly identifying your protagonists with the author?

A

Percival Everett

Hell, I dont know.

Q

The White Review

—  Ted Turner and Professor Everett both advise Not Sidney, and have similar hilarious non-sequitur-filled exchanges with him. Are we meant to understand them as father figures?

A

Percival Everett

—  I assume thats what it is, but if somebody came up with a good argument that showed me that it’s not, Id believe them.

Q

The White Review

—  In Courttia Newlands introduction to I Am Not Sidney Poitier, he talks about finding writers who give you blueprints to construct your own work. Do you have books or pieces of art that showed you new ways to articulate, or formal possibilities that you hadnt thought of? 

A

Percival Everett

—  I like to think I learn from everything I read. I love Tristram Shandy. I can see the influence there. I read Joyce, but I dont recognise the influence of Joyce in my novels. I think its fair to say that the difference is that Im less concerned academically with my wordplay than I am with what meaning it adds to the project. As much as I love wordplay in and of itself, Im seeking to give it a mission. Im not saying anything disparaging about Joyce. We’re trying to do different things. 

Q

The White Review

You’re also a visual artist. Is painting, like poetry, a form you practise but dont include in your identity as an artist?

A

Percival Everett

—  I have painted for longer than I’ve written, and while Ive veered away from it for years at a time, it’s something that I always come back to. I take it seriously, and I like to think that I get better at doing it. Its a different experience, because you’re making just one of something. And, it’s physical. It stands antithetical to what I do when I make fiction. My body is involved; I get sore. My response is more visceral, even more emotional, in the moment. Whereas writing a novel is two or three years of a long intellectual relationship. Ive said this before, it’s like knowingly entering a bad relationship.

Q

The White Review

Is it true you live in a piece of modern art?

A

Percival Everett

—  I briefly did. I called it The Scam. It is a terrible house. To say that it was designed by an artist is another way of saying it was not designed by an architect. It’s on top of a mountain with no view. It’s a horseshoe shape. All glass on the inside of the horseshoe. Not a single window on the outside of the horseshoe. You can’t have any ventilation. That’s not even beginning to describe to you the glass toilet. I don’t mean the toilet itself. The room in which the toilet is situated is all windows from the ceiling to the floor. The only way to get from a bedroom to the little kitchen area is to walk through the toilet.

Q

The White Review

—  How did it affect you creatively?

A

Percival Everett

—  I didn’t affect me too much creatively. I mean, aside from the fact that I found myself pulling up floor tiles and trying to dig a tunnel to escape. We were living in Paris and I rented it sight unseen from our friend who was the divorced spouse of the artist who made it. He had owned some land on top of Mount Washington in Los Angeles and talked the Museum of Contemporary Art into funding his project of building a house up there and then replicating some of the building in the museum, meaning the tilework. It did have some beautiful tiles. At the end of the project, he bought the house for $49,000. So, he got them to pay for building the house, and then he bought it for nothing. But its a terrible house. Just awful. That’s the house that I described in So Much Blue. So, it did affect me creatively. I was so pissed off about the house that I put it in the book.

Q

The White Review

—  Would you describe your work as experimental? Ive read you say that your goal is to write an abstract novel.

A

Percival Everett

—  No. I would like to make an abstract novel, but I don’t know how to do it. Im always trying to do it, but I haven’t done it yet. I think every novel is experimental. The term is vacuous. A literary writer does not know what she or he is doing once started. So, that’s an experiment. If they use the word innovative, that’s even worse. I prefer the word autistic. I think that autism is the next evolutionary step. 

Q

The White Review

—  You talked about failing to make an abstract novel, but a sense of failure is inevitable with a creative work. There’s always some loss in the realisation of potential.

A

Percival Everett

—  I think that’s fair to say.

Q

The White Review

—  Is there a solace in that? 

A

Percival Everett

—  The solace is that that’s what keeps me working. I have a picture of what I want to make. I shouldn’t even say that. I have a concept. I’m looking for the picture, so that I can try to make that thing. And that’s a moving target. I change every day, so that thing is going to change. If I were trying to make, for lack of a better term, perfection, then I would never, never be done. Nothing is perfect. And I wouldn’t want to make anything that is. First of all, it’s not possible. Secondly, who would I be to say that I know that something is perfect? I come off as a know-at-all at times, but I’m not. 

 

I learn from what I make. I try to make it to the end, and it satisfies me at that moment when I’m done. Then the editorial process starts, which is crucial to a book. I’ve been with the same editor for twenty-five years. We know each other. We have good fights, sometimes I’m right, sometimes she’s right. When we’re done, then it’s a book. I’ve been very lucky to have the kind of editor and publisher that encouraged me to write what I wanted to write: a parody of a Western, a take-off of literary criticism, a book that ostensibly is a tale from antiquity. I get to do pretty much what I want to do

Q

The White Review

As you say, everyone changes, and what you both want from fiction must have also changed. Like any long-term relationship, how have you kept what you need from the work complementary?

A

Percival Everett

—  I don’t know. She doesn’t know what I’m going to give her next. She can’t imagine what’s coming. When she does, she makes that dispassionate judgment of whether it’s a work of art that holds together. That’s a really different relationship from the one I have with the work. I don’t see how an editor who works with so many different books could be any different from that. Otherwise, you’d end up being Gordon Lish, making people sound like him.

Q

The White Review

—  Im fascinated by the ability of editors to embody the work like an actor does. 

A

Percival Everett

—  Or a structural engineer, because they’re not making the art. They want it to hold together. 

Q

The White Review

You are a distinguished professor at USC. Did you get anything good from distinguishment? Like better parking?

A

Percival Everett

—  No, nobody gets good parking. I take the train anyway. When the president called me to tell me, I first thought he said extinguish. I said, I knew it was coming.

 

I teach undergraduates and graduates. I prefer to teach undergraduate in classes and the graduate students individually. The undergraduates are wide open, they’ll try anything. They’re not so concerned that they have to make this or their career is over. They’re not thinking that way. That reminds me of why I ever started doing this in the first place. I used to teach at these workshops like Bread Loaf. When I first started, I was jaded in my thinking; I thought I’d just take the pay check. But I realised it was kind of cool that of all the things people can do with two weeks out of their summer, they go and make poems or stories.

Q

The White Review

—  Do you see a difference between your approach to the work and your practice compared to these young undergraduate students? Are their creative dilemmas different from yours? Are they more political?

A

Percival Everett

I don’t know. They’re just trying. They’re exploring. They’re trying to write any kind of story. I don’t expect them to be thinking about the things that keep me up at night. Some just want to write, which is okay by me. You can’t hide from your politics, which is why I tell my students not to try writing a political story. It’ll just be preaching. You can’t hide from yourself, and I make a deal with them. I tell them, you write your five most profound fears down on the piece of paper, give it to me, and go write a story where I can’t find all of them. Then you can have an A for the semester.

Q

The White Review

Maybe I was fishing for a generalisation that doesn’t exist. Writing is writing, generation after generation.
A

Percival Everett

I don’t know if I’m smart enough to even understand that. I’m just an old cowboy.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

 is the co-founder of The Special Relationship and the creative director for ‘Moby-Dick Unabridged‘, a four-day immersive multimedia reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick at the Southbank Centre, involving hundreds of participants. His novel The Shoplifter's Guide to Disability will be published by Canongate in 2021.

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