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January 3, 2017

Book Notes - Benjamin Percy "Thrill Me"

Thrill Me

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Benjamin Percy's Thrill Me is a scholarly and entertaining treatise on storytelling and fiction writing.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Percy’s essays skillfully dissect the structure, mechanics, and concrete details of what makes good writing sparkle."

In his own words, here is Benjamin Percy's Book Notes music playlist for his book Thrill Me:

1) "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford

I love first drafts. I love to get lost in the imaginative swamp and chase voices and images and dirty up the white space of a fresh document. You know what I don't love? Revision. It's a joyless slog, mechanical and repetitive and wildly frustrating, a left brain imposition on a right brain activity. It's work. Hard work. One of the essays in Thrill Me shares editorial anecdotes (such as that time Esquire made me write 130 pages to get to the final draft of a thirteen-page short story) and techniques I've learned that make the revisionary process a little less painful.  I can't help but hear this song plodding along in the back of my mind when I think about my willingness to ruthlessly slaughter sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, even entire novels...

2) "Five Feet High and Rising" by Johnny Cash

In the essay "Sounds like Writing," I talk about form serving function. I encounter so many stories -- published and unpublished -- in which the author is guilty of showing off. A character could be sipping tea or the mowing the lawn or brushing his teeth -- and the sentences go into lyrical overdrive and stack clauses on top of clauses on top of clauses…to what end? Not every line needs to be the equivalent of a triple backflip. Save the pyrotechnics for the moments that matter. Among other examples, I cite Annie Dillard's An American Childhood. When she writes about jazz, her sentences snap and slam and bop and repeat and slant rhyme. When she writes about running (escaping, as a child, a man whose car she hit with a snowball), the sentences grow long and busy with prepositions so that the readers feels as breathless as she did so long ago. I also break down some songs, including this one by Cash. As the floodwaters rise, the tempo increases and the pitch rises, contributing to the listener's sense of panic.

3) "Thriller" by Michael Jackson

Here's the best writing advice I ever received. In 2003, I was studying with Barry Hannah at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. At the end of the workshop, I asked if he had any parting advice. He thought about it a moment, then licked his lips and said—in that croaky voice of his—"Thrill me!" I think about that every day at the keyboard—and it's the inspiration for the book's title…which this song thrillingly recalls. But the music is also relevant because it's playful and scary, a horror story. The book—especially the title essay—is a kind of manifesto that demands an end to literary snobbishness and charges the gates of genre fiction. My favorite writing is artfully told and compulsively readable.

4) The Rocky Theme Song

Go ahead. Post a one star review of my novel. Complain about my stupid stories or lousy metaphors at AWP. But here's something no one will ever be able to call me on: I work hard. Sometimes fourteen-hours-a-day-at-the-keyboard hard. I wrote four failed novels. I've collected enough rejection letters to wallpaper a house. When my son was an infant and I was teaching a four-four courseload, I used to make a pot of coffee at 11 PM and write until 3 AM, and then wake up at 9 AM to prep and grade. Writing isn't ditch digging, I know, but my success is based less on talent and more on persistence. The final essay in the collection (and the first one I ever published in Poets & Writers)—"Go the Distance"—is about bullheadedness, and what I've learned about writing from Rocky Balboa. It's a good kick in the ass. A reminder that there are a lot of gifted people out there, but not nearly as many with the obsessive grit it takes to make it in any artistic field.

Benjamin Percy and Thrill Me links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Electric Literature review
Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review

The Cap Times interview with the author
Here & Now interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for The Wilding
Powell's Books interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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