I started off the latest gathering of the California Book Club by asking author Percival Everett about the origin story of the May selection, Telephone, whose three versions I’d searched for earlier in the day. I found only two. Everett said, “I started with an idea. It would be great if there were actually no third version and I just had you out looking for it.… I’ve always been fascinated when people ask me what a story or a novel means, as if I, as the author, have some kind of special place in making that meaning, when in fact, I think, I have no place in it.… So I’ve always questioned the authority of the artist. And then it occurred to me that since I think the reader is where the meaning gets made, I should probably question that as well.”
He wanted to put three versions out into the world, but not tell anyone he was doing so, and then see what the discussion about the work was and how those conversations between friends would go, what disagreements would be had over little things. “That was an easy idea to come up with,” Everett said. “But then I had to find a novel. That’s always magic. I don’t really understand how it happens.”
I asked how he handled the movement between parenting his own sons and writing Telephone, which is about a father who’s dealing with his daughter suffering from a fatal neurological disease. Everett commented, “Well, you know, I often wonder how the work would develop when kids are involved if I had no children. As I get older, I feel a lot more tender about stuff. I cry more for movies, you know, that sort of thing. When I’m trying to imagine the story, I’m never—and that’s not a defense thing; it’s just how I work—I’m never thinking that it’s in any way autobiographical. Of course…the only thing I have in this world is my experience.” He said his experience with writing about loving children comes from his love of his own kids and explained, “But it’s not them, and it’s not me. That’s what allows me to have the distance to probe an area that otherwise might be too terrifying for me.”
As a child, Everett had been interested in reading the books on his father’s shelf that he thought he wasn’t supposed to read. His first memorable reading experience was Of Human Bondage, the Maugham novel, when he was nine, which he thought was scandalous because there was a prostitute and a guy with a clubfoot. “I think I always remember that subversive thing of reading,” he said. “Now, I say it all the time.… Reading is the most subversive thing we can do. No one knows what’s going into us when we’re doing it.” He said that it’s art and, especially, literature that do this.
I asked whether Everett sees novel-writing as an art form. Everett responded that he thinks of it as an art, even if it’s not the most emotional and, unlike other arts, deals with language or ideas, which are thought of as intellect. He said, “One of the things that’s very rough about writing novels is being stuck in this intellectual space for several years with no relief. I’ve used this metaphor before, and it’s like knowingly entering a bad marriage. In so many ways, it’s exhilarating, and there are lots of highs and lows. But it just won’t go away. And it doesn’t end so much as you have to abandon it.”
When special guest Aimee Bender, the author of six books and, like Everett, a professor at the University of Southern California, joined the conversation, they talked about the range of books he’s published after following his editor, Fiona McCrae, from the publisher Faber & Faber to Graywolf Press. Bender noted that it had been thrilling over the years to see how he could absorb and think about so many things from so many different angles in so many different tones. Bender commented on how she loved Everett’s earlier remark about meaning. She said, “I think about that a lot, too. I feel sometimes there really is a pressure for a writer to know what their book is about.”
Everett noted, “No writer does.” He said that that’s not how art works—if he wrote the book and then died, the book would still be there, but he would not. “I don’t stand outside of bookstores, you know, and talk to the five or six people who buy my books and explain to them what the work means,” Everett said. Rather, he noted, the book is like an uncompleted circuit: “The reader is generating as much or more meaning as I have.”
Bender brought up Everett’s interest in working with things other than language, including guitars. Everett pointed at a guitar on his wall. “I bought it some 35 years ago in a junk shop,” he said. “It’s a terrible instrument. It’s got wood that I like. It’s a Harmony, which was sort of the poor person’s guitar [in the 1930s].” The instrument had four strings, so he thought it was a tenor guitar for 30 years. He decided he would make it playable, but when he opened it up, “there were eight holes instead of four.” He said, “It was not a tenor guitar at all. It’s an octave mandolin. It masqueraded as something else for half of my life.… That, to me, is sort of a metaphor for making novels.”•
Join us on June 15 at 5 p.m., when Charles Yu will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Interior Chinatown. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversation here.