Q&A: A Conversation with Percival Everett

Percival Everett’s Telephone is the California Book Club’s May 2023 selection.

percival everett
Dustin Snipes

Percival Everett is uneasy discussing what he does. A 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist for the novel Telephone, he is among the most prolific, and provocative, of contemporary American authors, yet he’s more interested in his readers—how we inhabit (and, in a very real sense, animate) his writing. Among its other benefits, this point of focus allows him a certain equanimity. “I don’t feel stress about work,” he confided recently. “I’m very fortunate in that way. When I sit down to work, I don’t have to do any throat clearing. I just start working. I start where I stopped.” For this reason, perhaps, reading Everett’s novels feels like participating in an ongoing conversation with an acute and inventive observer of the world. Recently, he and I spoke about his writing over Zoom.

This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.

You’ve long insisted that story is made by the reader, as opposed to the writer, that literature is a collaborative art.
Even I, as the writer, am a reader when I go back to the work. It’s always different. When people ask me who’s my audience, I can’t imagine one, since everybody’s different. So my audience has to be myself. I write for myself, knowing that at any given time I’m not the same person that this was created for. The writer who made it is gone and no longer exists. So what it meant to that writer is gone too. The only meaning that’s left is to be made by whoever is reading it at that moment.

Telephone pushes at precisely this sort of porousness because there are three separate versions of the novel.
If it’s crazy to appeal to an artist for the meaning of their work, I thought, What about the audience? Can I challenge the way they’re reading? How? And, of course, the way to do it is to be sure it’s possible for certain readers to see something different from what other readers are seeing. In Telephone, it’s essentially the same story in all three versions. Yet there are some differences, and those small, even tonal, changes do something to the meaning that gets made. Meaning is not only fleeting and shifting but always multiple. There are lots of meanings—layers of meanings—everywhere. You can watch a drug deal and read it from a block away. You notice in the way the dealer touches the buyer that there’s a relationship. Some people would see that, and some people wouldn’t. Some people would see the intimacy but not the deal. This, too, is a form of reading, so the idea of reading, I think, needs to be more expansive. Our reading happens all the time. Think of the ways we talk about football. The quarterback reads the defense. We talk about police reading the behavior of people on the street. That’s the same notion of reading I think we should come to a text with, that we’re entering an environment. We have to be aware of a lot of things, and meaning gets made not only by the movement of characters through space but by the tone that’s employed when they move through space and the sort of psychological and philosophical furniture that inhabits the space through which they move.

Yes, reading as dynamic. Reading as an act.
Reading is not passive. It’s performative. In fact, it is the most subversive thing that we do because no one does it with us.

And no one does it like us either. When I’m reading, I’m having a one-on-one interaction not only with the text but also with the writer…
…and my one-on-one interaction is completely different from anyone else’s, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the writer. In fact, the fascinating part is that it’s an interaction you’re having not only with the writer as that person existed in one moment but also with the writer you’ve created.

Why do you write?
All the work comes differently. I don’t outline; I do it in my head, come up with what I consider sort of a map. I feel the shape of the work, and I wish I could explain what I mean when I say that. But the interesting thing about maps is that a map functions for me as an excuse to get lost. It gives you a certain kind of security that allows you to wander into a place you don’t know. There are all sorts of things that have to be exact for the map to work, one of them being scale. Another is the talent of the person who made the map. But it allows you the freedom to get lost in a territory. Writing books for me is really an excuse to study. I find something, and I start reading, and I get excited. Then I start working. It’s surprising where you end up. You start with something blank, and then there’s something there. But I’m not very good at talking about that stuff.•

Graywolf Press


Graywolf Press Bookshop.org

David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below