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September 30, 2010

Book Notes - Benjamin Percy ("The Wilding")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Benjamin Percy's debut novel The Wilding is truly a literary thriller, pitting man against nature as well as man against himself. Gorgeously written, the book is as entertaining as it is unsettling.

The Barnes and Noble Review wrote of the book:

"The Wilding wraps its arms around some big themes: the vanishing wilderness, a dissolving marriage, and the shell-shocked re-adjustment to domestic life after combat. It's a lot to pack into 250 pages, but Percy manages to do it with remarkable ease. His sentences have the simplicity and beauty of Shaker furniture, but he also writes meaty action scenes that never feel like they depart from the book's emotional core. No matter if we're facing danger in the jungles of Manhattan or the deep woods of Oregon, life really boils down to two questions: Will we live? and Will it hurt when I die? Percy takes his characters right up to the edge and forces them to stare, hard, into the maw of the mystery any attempt to answer them reveals"

In his own words, here is Benjamin Percy's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, The Wilding:

I write in silence, but I revise to music. There is something about the zone – that coma-like place I visit when writing first drafts – that requires no distraction, no noise at all except the insectile buzz of my desk lamp. I am gone, completely checked out of this world, my mouth slack, my eyes glazed, and sometimes I rise up from the ether after several hours with five pages in front of me that I haven't written so much as I have dreamed.

But revision is careful carpentry. Revision is where I sand away all the splinters, caulk the cracks, tighten the screws. And I'm in a much different mindset, no longer following my heart but my head. I pace around. I do pushups. I chew on pens. And I listen to music to put me in the mood of a scene.

My debut novel – The Wilding – is a literary thriller that takes place largely in the Oregon wilderness. Here are some of the songs I was tapping my boots to when tapping my fingers across the keyboard.

"Dueling Banjoes" – Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith

This is the fortieth anniversary of Dickey's novel. It is one of the most important books in my library and its themes—about development, the jarring intersections of society and wilderness, the latent animalism within us all—are explored again in my novel, set in the vanishing West and seen through the lens of myriad point of view characters. When writing, I could not help but think of Dickey's ghost perched on my shoulder, and when I wrote a scene in which a wilderness map is laid out on a table, held down by Starbucks cups (a direct nod to the novel), I heard the distant tremble of banjos.

"I Can Hear You Calling in the Air Tonight" – Phil Collins

My first memory of this song, which is one of my unapologetic favorites, comes from a short-lived series on Fox – in the late 80's – called "Werewolf." I recorded the pilot and watched it dozens of times. There is a moment when the hero—who does not yet know he is a werewolf—is wandering through a night club. As the song plays, he shoulders his way through a dancing throb of people, so many of them eyeing him suspiciously. There is something wrong with him, they know. He ends up stumbling out of the club and holding up his palm, which bleeds in the shape of a pentagram. And then he sprouts fur and fangs and eats some people. There is a character in The Wilding—named Brian—who has come back from Iraq with a hole punched through his skull, the result of an IED. The damage to his frontal lobe has left him emotionally damaged. He does not feel so much as he hungers. He has trouble interacting with people, his company best suited for the woods. He begins to trap animals and sews their hides together into a hair-suit that he wears at night. It feels to him like armor—and when he moves through the shadow-soaked woods, negotiating the periphery of Bend, Oregon—he feels so alive, experiencing an almost lycanthropic transformation. During these scenes, I often had this song playing through the caves of my mind, taking me back to that time, so many years ago, when I watched "Werewolf" over and over, obsessed with the show for the supernatural element, yeah, but more so the story of the outsider.

"Braveheart Main Title Score" – James Horner – London Symphony Orchestra

Do not mock me. This movie makes my heart swell (so long as I forget about Mel Gibson's recent descent into freakdom). For whatever reason, maybe the time I spent backpacking in Scotland, I associate misty woods, the mucky roll of the moors, sweeping shots of nature, with the noise of bagpipes. A good chunk of my novel takes place in a wilderness area—called Echo Canyon—in the weekend before construction will begin on a golf course community. As the men zizag their way up hillsides, wade across rivers, tramp through piney forests, I found myself listening to the Braveheart score, which sent my author's gaze taking in the shadowy expanse of this canyon.

Big Man With a Gun - Nine Inch Nails (Downward Spiral)

A grandson, a father, a grandfather. Graham, Justin, and Paul. They are a kind of Darwinian lineup. The grandson so delicate, his eyes studying constantly a book or a video game—the grandfather so enormous and hairy and wild, dominating every conversation, his hands crushing a grip around a fishing rod, a boning knife, a a rifle stock. Caught in the middle is Justin, who—as a teacher who now lives a very domestic life—finds himself torn between the two extremes, his son pitted against him by a grandfather trying to mold a new son more in his own image. The dark, sharp-edged lyrics compellingly wrestle with the violence and the rooster-chested challenges that edge their way between the pained, difficult love existing between these men.

"I and Love and You" – the Avett Brothers

One of my favorite songs from one of my favorite bands. My ears never tire of their rusty voices, their rambling lyrics. They sing here about a pained love—"my hands they shake, my head it spins"—that has lost its course, that is trying to find its way. "Three words that became hard to say—I and love and you." This poignant longing is at the center of my novel, seen the perspectives of three different men, all of them in love and lust with the same woman who eventually settles back into a marriage she at first wanted nothing more than to escape.

"Hurt" – Johnny Cash (cover of NIN)

One of my central characters—Brian—is a wounded soldier home from Iraq. An IED detonated beneath his Humvee and a piece of metal, driven through the air, excised part of his skull and left a spider-shaped lesion on his frontal lobe. He can't feel the way he once did: he acts on animalistic impulse. And he is plagued by migraines that blind him and turn him into a thing half-alive. He is the very definition of hurt.

"I Love the Dead" – Alice Cooper

There is a moment, later in the novel, when Justin realizes he may not make it out of the canyon. His father is missing. His truck is destroyed. Night is falling. And the great shambling presence of a bear lurks at the edges of his vision. He finds himself temporarily unable to act—paralyzed—the walls of the canyon rising all around him and I imagine the steadily darkening woods as a sound-chamber for the wail of this banshee song, mocking his indecision.

Benjamin Percy and The Wilding links:

the author's website

The Adirondack Review review
Barnes and Noble Review review
BookPage review
Boxing the Octopus review
Hayden's Ferry Review Blog review
High Country News review
Miss Emily Reads review
Publishers Weekly review

Bookslut interview with the author
Boxing the Octopus interview with the author
Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
Jacket Copy interview with the author
Keyhole Press interview with the author
Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes interview with the author
New West interview with the author
Publishers Weekly profile of the author
The Source Weekly profile of the author
Sycamore Review interview with the author
Vox Magazine profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists