California Book Club: Percival Everett Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of Telephone author Percival Everett's conversation with California Book Club guest host Anita Felicelli and special guest Aimee Bender.

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David L. Ulin: Good evening everybody. Welcome to tonight's edition of the California Book Club. I'm David L. Ulin, the books editor of Alta Journal, and I want to welcome you to tonight's event. We're very excited to have Percival Everett on the Zoom with us this evening to talk about his novel, Telephone. He'll be in conversation with our guest host tonight. John Freeman is not available to host the meeting. But first of all we'll be talking to California Book Club editor Anita Felicelli and our special guest, Aimee Bender. Before we get started, I want to just go through a few things. I know many of you are regulars, so you kind of know the drill, but for those of you who are new to the California Book Club, we couldn't do this without our partners. I'm going to mention them and I'll talk a little bit about what we do.

So I'd like to thank Book Passage, Books Soup, Books Inc. Bookshop, Bookshop West Portal, DIESEL, A Bookstore, Green Apple Books, The Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine, Vromans Bookstore, and ZYZZYVA Magazine. What we do with the California Book Club is basically these are monthly events. In conjunction with the events themselves, we create and curate continuous comment leading up to each book club meeting that is available on the Alta website, and that is always free. If you haven't had a chance to check that out, you should be sure to take a look at the California Book Club materials on the Alta website. You'll find essays from many contributors reflecting on tonight's work. You can also go back into the archive and look at reflections on previous California Book Club books and we have archive video of the shows.

You will find an excerpt of Telephone and more. All of this is also included in the weekly California Book Club newsletter, which is also free. So please sign up if you're interested in helping support the work we do, which in addition to California Book Club, the work that Alta does as well, bringing in depth articles, essays and interviews to you. You can join Alta as a digital member for $3 a month, or there is a sale for California Book Club members for $50. You can get a year of Alta Journal, that's the quarterly print journal as well as a California Book Club Hat and Alta's guide to the best bookstores in the west. Go to alta and you can just follow the prompts there. Please watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this great deal as well.


And I also want to say the email tomorrow will have invitations to issue parties we'll be hosting in San Francisco on May 30th and Culver City on June 22nd. So if you're in either of those two places or plan to be in those places and want to come hear Alta contributors read back to the editors, get a sense of sort of the Alta community, please come. Those are also free to attend. I'm going to get out of the way and let this conversation start. It's a real thrill to welcome my friend and colleague, Percival Everett and Anita Felicelli. Anita, take it away.

Anita Felicelli: Thank you David. Welcome everybody. It's nice to see all the different places that you're from. Studio City, Saratoga, Columbus, Ohio, Providence, Rhode Island. It's great to have you all here. I'm really excited about this evening. I'll be standing in, as David said, in place of our normal host John Freeman. But tonight's guest is one of my longtime favorite novelists, Percival Everett here to talk about his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Telephone. If you've been following along in the California Book Club newsletter that he's incredibly prolific with a career that involves more than 30 books, a significant percentage of which are novels. He made his debut with a baseball novel, Suder, in 1983. Among his other novels are, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, So Much Blue, Erasure, Glyph, The Trees, Dr. No, American Desert. There's a very long list and I encourage you to read all of the books, which I have not quite made it all the way through his very long list.

But he received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critic Circle in 2022. His novel, the Trees was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2022, and Dr. No was a finalist for the last publishing year for the NBCC Fiction Award. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the University of Southern California and I would like to welcome him on now. Hi Percival.

Percival Everett: Hi. It's so nice to be here.

Anita Felicelli: Yeah, it's so nice of you to join us. I'm really thrilled to speak with you about Telephone. It's a really beautiful, beautiful book, a kind of complicated book in the sense that it has three different versions. And today like a maniac, ran around trying to find the third version, which I have not had a chance to look at. So it was like scavenger hunt for Telephone. So this book is about, just the bare outlines for those of you who haven't had a chance to pick it up yet, it's about a geologist, a professor of geology, Zach Wells and his daughter is diagnosed with a serious condition, Batten's disease. The novel has three different versions. There are noticeable differences between versions one and two. I'm not sure about three, but I would love to hear from Percival about this book. I actually haven't seen very many interviews with Percival on this particular one, so I'm excited to hear an origin story. Or did you start with the three different versions or did you start with Zach? Did you start with the character?

Everett: 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, but there is. 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'm always questioned the authority of the artist. And then it occurred to me that since I think that the reader is where the meaning gets made, I should probably question that as well. And so I wanted to write something with three different versions that no one knew about and see what discussion about the work, how that would go when you're talking about a novel with a friend and you start disagreeing about some little thing.

And so I worked on that and who knows where novels come from and I had to find the story. That was an easy idea to come up with. But then I had to find a novel and that's always magic. I don't really understand how it happens, but it does, I guess I started with the main character though.

Felicelli: Yeah. And I think there's so much interiority actually in this novel, which is why I asked you if you had perhaps started with the character because compared to some of your other works, we spend a lot more time in his consciousness and how he's reacting to daily life as opposed to something like I Am Not Sidney Poitier where things are happening, boom, boom, boom. It's a satire, and so there's a lot of things happening that the reader can make meaning of. But actually in Telephone we are spending a lot of time with this particular character and his consciousness and how he chooses to describe the world.

So there are these small differences between one version and another version, but there's also big differences how the book ends. For example, one of the writers who wrote for me on this book was talking about something funny in the ending. And I was like, what? This is not a funny ending at all. There's clearly nothing funny in this ending. How long were you working on this novel? Let's go back a little bit in terms of number of years from conception to it coming out into the world?

Everett: Well, I have to apologize because I honestly forget novels as soon as I'm done with them. And in this case, I've written three novels since Telephone. It's a blur. I don't know how long it took me to write the novel. I'm guessing it took me a couple of years. I remember when novels take a short time. Those I can recall. Glyph, Dr. No, I know how long those novels took. This one and probably because of the mechanics of the stories being different, I'm sure it took two or three years.

Felicelli: I mean, your output is really pretty significant. And I know you have work amnesia, so this is why I'm sort of dancing around your process as well. But do you just disappear? I know you possibly work in your painting studio because you're also a painter. How do you-

Everett: I never write in there? No.

Felicelli: Oh, you don't write in there, you just showed it to us.

Everett: No.

Felicelli: Okay. Where do you write?

Everett: Anywhere except there. In the room I'm sitting in now I repair guitars and write out here. And I have a habit if I start sitting in a place when I begin something and truly begin it, not when I'm thinking about it, but when I write the first sentence and I'm happy and I can move on, I tend to gravitate to that spot. So if I start at the kitchen table, that's kind of where I am. If I start sitting at the sofa, sitting on the sofa at the coffee table, that's where I work. I don't know if it's a superstition, but it's a habit.

Felicelli: Makes sense. Do you find yourself walking around in something of a dream state as you're working on your book in whatever place suits you at that moment or do you come to it with a conscious, I am now going to write sort of a mindset?

Everett: Well, I mean I've been accused of walking around a dream state anyway, so I don't know that it has to do anything to do with work. No, I don't think so. I have a luxury that I can start working immediately. If I sit down to work, I'm working well. I think it must be constitutional because I don't really think about it. I don't have to do any throat clearing. I don't read emails as my friends who write me emails can attest to. I don't really respond rapidly. And so when I sit down, I'm working... So I can work for 20, 30 minutes and I may only write two sentences, but it's two sentences I didn't have before. And sometimes it's two pages, sometimes a lot more. But whatever I can get done in those brief times, and that's from ranching. When I used to train horses, I would always have something to do. So I would work in 20 minute, 30 minute bursts.

Felicelli: Tell me about that. How long were you a rancher for? I feel I've heard a little bit about this, but...

Everett: Well, I trained horses for about 13 years.

Felicelli: Do you still?

Everett: No, no, now I'm being trained by children.

Felicelli: How old are your children?

Everett: 15 and 16.

Felicelli: I'm also being trained, but yeah.

Everett: I don't know if it'll stop. 15 and 16. So we're in the throes of it.

Felicelli: Yeah, that's interesting. And something I wondered about reading this book about a father who's dealing with such a serious issue with his daughter suffering from a fatal neurological disease. What was that like? If you usually have work amnesia, then you go in and then you come out and you're basically a different person when you emerge. But what does that look like in terms of your parenting and then you're also writing about a tremendous grief experience with a child that's suffering from a serious condition?

Everett: Well, I often wonder how the works would develop when kids are involved if I had no had children. As I get older, I feel a lot more tender about stuff. I cry more at movies, that sort of thing. When I'm trying to imagine the story, I'm never, and it's not a defense thing, it's just how I work, I'm never thinking that it's in any way autobiographical. And I don't. And of course, I use my... The only thing I have in this world with my experience, so I have to try on that. My experience of love of children comes from my love of my kids, but it's not them and it's not me. And that allows me to have the distance to probe an area that otherwise might be too terrifying for me.

Felicelli: Yeah, I would think so. That's why I was wondering, because you sitting with three different versions of this, did you start with one version and then change that one version or were you actually writing three very different major scenes? What was the process of that like?

Everett: I did write the first one one and then making notes along the way of where I might like to have things be a little different. And then I wrote the other two and I had to essentially write them from beginning to end because just inserting changes didn't feel right to me for one thing and also was cheating the story. So there are little word differences throughout that make the stories mean different things. And actually the endings of two of them are very similar and the third is very, very different. I don't remember any of the endings being funny, but if somebody saw that, I guess it's there.

Felicelli: Yeah, that kind of goes with your reader authority comment. Deference to the reader is one of those things that's interesting from a fact checking perspective because everyone's like, oh, but my version doesn't say that. That's funny. Did you play Telephone as a child? Were you into games as a kid?

Everett: Oh, well, of course, but I don't remember... I remember Telephone just vaguely. It's just like the game Telephone is how I remember it. The title came very late. I don't remember the working titles at all. I just remember that none of them were working. And I was sitting with Ethan Nosowsky from Graywolf and several other Graywolf people, which has been my press for 29, 30 years. Unfortunately I'm leaving them, but they're terrific. And we had a meeting by one of a few times I was in Minnesota about this book and we tossed around titles and it just came to me that we were sitting in the room much like a classroom when I was a kid and I was reminded of that game and it made sense because the novel itself references children's games throughout duck, duck, goose being the very first words of the novel.

Felicelli: Right. So you grew up in South Carolina, am I remembering correctly?

Everett: Yeah, Columbia, South Carolina.

Felicelli: Okay. Can you tell us a little bit about what kind of kid you were? Did you read a lot? What books did you read? I kind of assumed maybe Lewis Carroll because you have this sort of interest in logic and nonsense in that relationship. But

Everett: Yeah, a lot of Lewis Carroll.

Felicelli: Oh, I saw correctly. Good. My authority is good.

Everett: I was reading stuff off my father's shelf that I thought I shouldn't read. And my first memorable reading experience was of human bondage, the mom novel, and I think I was nine and it just felt scandalous because there's a prostitute and a guy with a club foot and it's just crazy. I think I always remember that sort subversive thing of reading. Now I say it all the time, but reading is the most subversive thing we can do. No one knows what's going into us when we're doing it and it's art and especially literature doodles. But one of the lessons of art for me are the effects of Picasso's painting Guernica on the world. And not near everybody has seen Guernica or even then saw it, but the painting effected the world. And so it's that stuff about art that I find just kind of wonderful and fascinating.

Felicelli: You do see novel writing as artistry of a sort?

Everett: Oh, yeah. I mean of the arts, it's perhaps because we deal with language and ideas, the most intellectual of them. And that's not a to disparage anything else. It just is sort of my definition, but maybe not the most emotional. I find that 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 where... An analogy, 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.

Felicelli: Yeah. I was going to, actually, that brings me to one of my questions, which was how do you know when a novel's finished? How did you know when Telephone was done? Do you give it to your editor and then your editor... I know your editor was Fiona McCrae at Graywolf, did you just give it to her and then she tells you, I think you need to work on this more, or is it at this point you had been working together so long that...

Everett: I mean, I've never had that relationship with anyone where someone has actually given me that kind of feedback. We had a great editorial relationship and we knew each other really well. And really from the beginning we just sort of got each other. But the novels end because you can't take it anymore pretty much because they can go on forever. It's like the world, it will go on forever even if your characters die, something goes on. We humans are pretty vain. We talk about the end of the world, but if something happened tomorrow and we're all gone, the world would continue. And that's what story is too.

Felicelli: Yeah. And you started out in mathematical logic, but you ended up in story. Did you, throughout your time as a philosophy person, as a mathematical logic person, were you also reading novels and having these thoughts or is this something like you came away from logic as so many philosophers or starting out philosophers do sort of abandoning it because there's so much circularity and so much... You can't get to any kind of first principle that way.

Everett: I was always a reader and I think that's why I ended up doing fiction as a better way to do philosophy. But I have to admit that when I was doing philosophy, I never thought about fiction. I was still reading, but it wasn't something I put together. Now that I've got some years behind me and I've had a chance to reflect, I realized that I didn't continue to do philosophy not because I decided to write fiction though. I stopped doing it because I was too young at the time. I was immature and thank God, because otherwise I'd still be doing philosophy. And I like making art. Again, I was young and philosophy was just too scholastic for me at the time.

You sort of put your finger on it when you said one goes into study of many things thinking you'll find some kind of truth, but you don't study really anything for truth. You study for the truth of the experience and the truth of the thinking and the kind of philosophy I was doing seemed that to me at the time, somewhat missing the point, being somewhat dishonest about its mission.

Felicelli: Yeah. And at the point, I know you switched over to philosophy of language, so like J.L Austin, and was that speech acts or utterances?

Everett: Well, with Austin it was performative acts and the performative language, and I was fascinated by John Sterling and the idea of speech acts as well. But again, logic never left me. It wasn't logic that I ever abandoned. Actually, that's the one thing that I come back to all the time. Ordinary language philosophy, particularly Wienstein left me finally disillusioned and a little cold. So I still read Austin all the time because he's funny. And as much as I love Wienstein, I always want him to not be the asshole he was. So that's sort of where we are with that stuff.

Felicelli: And you can tell in something like Glyph is so influenced by post-structuralist ideas and...

Everett: Oh yeah, and I grudgingly admit that influence. It's true. Well, I think we're affected by everything we study.

Felicelli: Yeah. So I'd love for you to read a little bit of Telephone if you wouldn't mind for us.

Everett: Well, yeah, I haven't looked at it. Luckily, 10 minutes before I came into this room, I ran back to the house and grabbed a copy because I didn't have one out here. I have no idea what I would read from it, and-

Felicelli: I mean, you just read the first couple of pages because I think that just gives people a flavor of the character.

Everett: That makes it easy.

Duck, duck, goose, people, and by people I mean them, never look for truth, they live with satisfaction. There's nothing worse, certain painful and deadly disease is not withstanding and an unsatisfactory piss poor truth. Whereas... Than an unsatisfactory to piss poor truth. Whereas a satisfactory lie is all too easy to accept, even embrace and get cozy with. There's a bit of all right. Like thoughts they carry with them a dimension of attendant thoughts, so actions have attended actions. With unpredicted unprompted intentions and results, good or bad and things, things themselves have attendant things and unforeseen perspectives and dimensions. An unsatisfactory truth like Banquo's ghosts, such thoughts sit in the king's place, literary illusions being all the rage. Such thoughts it is slavery that inaugurates the path to freedom. I am Zach Wells.

Felicelli: No, that's good. That was good. I think that gives a flavor of the voice and I think the voice carries this particular one a lot, this first person voice. And so...

Everett: I've always seldom write anything but first person.

Felicelli: And they're slightly different. This is a more serious novel, so obviously more serious voice than some of the others, like Erasure or something like that. But I thought we could invite Aimee Bender on. So Aimee is the author of six incredible works of literary fiction. They often have hints of magical realism and surrealism. Her first book was a short story collection published in 1998, The Girl in The Flammable Skirt. Novels include An Invisible Sign of my Own, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and The Butterfly Lampshade. She's also published another collection of short stories, Willful Creatures and The Color Master and a novella The Third Elevator.

So I think her novels are very sensitive and also deal quite a bit with the question of what is reality? How do we match language to reality? Different consciousnesses, I think sort of an interesting thing between the two works, the butterfly lampshade and your work is dealing with these altered spaces of dementia and psychosis are both conditions where language is somewhat lost. So I'm going to bring Aimee on where we're so happy to have you Aimee and I am going to turn off my camera.

Everett: Hi.

Bender: Thank you so much Anita. Hey, Percival, great to see you virtually. It's been fun listening. I have some follow-ups to dive in on, but maybe first I thought... I love the whole thing about the meaning constructed by the reader. I wonder because when they publicized Telephone, did they say there were three versions or was the idea they go out into the world and then the conversations happen sight unseen, but you imagine that kind of tension?

Everett: Well, originally that's how I saw it happening, and I was very excited about that. But then COVID happened and for some reason, and I don't remember the reasoning, the pro people at the press decided to release that information. And I wish I could remember the argument because I think in my heart I felt it was wrong, but I viewed this as a teamwork. The editing on the novel was very difficult because they were three versions and they did lots of work. And Graywolf took a great chance in publishing three versions at that experience. And so I always viewed this as a collaborative effort. So when they suggested that, I said, okay, well, I know how to write. I don't know how to sell them. They must know.

Bender: I mean, I think it'll probably still happen that people will... Because not everyone's going to hear that. So I think it will still happen in these conversations, but it was also... I found it really interesting since I knew to finish the version that I read and was very moved and then felt like it is just a very cool feeling of what did he change? And then I was able to have all three, so then I could look and be like, but I couldn't know all the intricacies that were changed, but I could see some of them. And that actually had its own... It was just a really interesting sense of the pathways our lives can take at any moment. It feels like there's a lot of things in the book about just pivots in a life and how those can change in a fiction writer's narrative too. So I thought it was really powerful actually, even knowing. But it just seems to me like you have two different interesting things happening with storytelling with that.

Everett: Well, thanks. I like hearing that. I have heard stories of a couple... Two or three, I can only remember two right now, of people teaching it in the classroom and not telling the students that they might have a different version. And it did generate just the kind of thing I imagined. And so that unfortunately I wasn't there to see it, but I understand it was interesting.

Bender: Yeah. Would you talk a little more about Graywolf? You were saying it just seems like a significant moment of with Fiona McCray retiring and you worked together through how many books?

Everett: I don't know.

Bender: Over 20.

Everett: I believe 20. Yeah, I think I'm pretty sure it was over 20.

Bender: Yeah. And what? Because it seems like a sort of rare and meaningful writer/editor relationship.

Everett: Well, for me, certainly 29 years is a long time.

Bender: Oh, 29 years, isn't it?

Everett: And it went by fast, sadly. Fiona and I had some great talks about the works. I would say that her influence is significant, but she has a light hand. But she always tells me what she... I still share work with the owner because we're that close and I'm just about ready to forgive her for retiring, but I understand. But I was with her a Faber and followed her to Graywolf, and so that's how I ended up in Graywolf.

Bender: It seems like it's the light hand is part of her influence in that she gave you so much space to write whatever you wanted. Does that sound right?

Everett: Oh, well, just in general, but the Fiona and the press, I don't know any other press that would've allowed me to write something that one might call a Western on the heels of parody of literary theory and then a novel set of antiquity with the Greek god Dionysus. Who else? I can't imagine any other press doing that.

Bender: Yeah, it's thrilling though. I mean, it was very wise on their part, I think because it feels like we get to follow your interests and the way your brain can absorb and think about so many things from so many different angles and so many different tones. It's just one of the thrills of reading your work over the years. I mean, with Telephone specifically, but with any of the books really since the tone's changed or you'll say, this is a Western, or this one we know is going to be really comic, or this one is kind of devastatingly sad. Telephone is really got a lot of grief in it, and I think really powerfully done. Are you aware tonally what's going to come through when you get that first line that you're pleased with that you were talking about?

Everett: I suppose I am, but really the story deserves its own telling. And the thing that interests me about works is that, and what makes it difficult, and I find it the challenge is to become someone else completely. I write in first person because I assume that character while I'm working. And that's the challenge to me. So whereas I'm sure there are these repetitions of language or verbal ticks or literary ticks that I have that some scholar might spot from work to work, I don't see them. And I hope that I actually avoid them, but I'm trying to be the best actor I can be.

Bender: Yeah, I was just going to ask you if it's a little bit like acting.

Everett: It is, without having to put myself out there in front of anyone. So that's...

Bender: I totally relate to that. I think that I really like first person too, and but you get to do it on your own terms time and not have to...

Everett: In my closet.

Bender: Yeah, right. Exactly. I also love what you said about meaning, because I think about that a lot too. I feel like sometimes there really is a pressure for a writer to know what their book is about.

Everett: No writer does, and that's not how art works. If I wrote the book and died, the book would be there. I would not be there for someone to appeal to. And I don't stand outside of bookstores and talk to the five or six people who buy my books and explain to them what the word means.

Bender: But it sounds like not only are you not outside the bookstore, you would not have anything particular to say. You would just be like, it's done. The meaning is inside the act of writing it. You trust that the meaning is there for a reader to...

Everett: And the meaning is in there in the act of reading it as well.

Bender: Yeah.

Everett: The reader is generating as much or more meaning as I have.

Bender: Yeah. That's the sort of beauty of the writer and reader duet. Right?

Everett: I mean, the work wouldn't exist without me, but the meaning that the reader constructs wouldn't exist without the reader. It's an uncompleted circuit.

Bender: Yeah, exactly. So when in class, because we both teach at USC, we've taught at the same place for 20 years, maybe you're longer, but...

Everett: Yeah. Yeah, 23 years.

Bender: And the book, it was fun to see that kind of academic setting and telephone, but in a totally different field. But I guess I do just have a question of when you're teaching a workshop and someone, I don't, how do you address the meaning question and workshop?

Everett: Oh, well, I don't know if that actually comes up. I think I address in the same way that I address it with myself, which is you don't know what it means, and that's the excitement of it. As soon as you think what it means, then you're doomed to write what I used to call the ABC movie of the week. It becomes a message thing. And if you fall for the message, then all you can write is some leveled shallow propaganda piece. We have to admit that we don't know. We just know people.

Bender: Do you ever feel like as you're working that interpretive muscle starts to wonder what it is about or do you feel like it's totally quiet when you're working? Does that make sense?

Everett: Yeah, it makes sense. But I think I have flacid interpretive muscles when I generally... It's the same when I look at paintings, my thought is, wow, I start to think, what does it mean? Then my mind says, Hey, do you like it? And that's what matters.

Bender: I think that's very liberating. I mean, I knew this back, which means my time. I can't ask you about guitar repair, which I really [inaudible]-

Everett: No, don't go!

Bender: I feel like first of all, you're really good at also having these non-verbal things in your life. Here's the writing, so verbal and that yet I find it very soothing to know that you repair guitars and that you're kind of attuned to the animals and the landscape around you, and that just these things that are not about language. So I don't know, I'd love to hear a little bit about guitar repair and where do you get the guitars and how did you learn?

Everett: Oh, I don't get them anymore. Because when I started, I could get a broken guitar for $18, a great instrument, and I would fix it, and I would have a very nice guitar. But I must have hit the zeitgeist because now everybody's buying those broken guitars, and now they cost a lot of money. And also swimming in guitars here. Would you like a guitar, Aimee?

Bender: I would love one, actually.

Everett: I think you've got one. I have too many instruments, and I didn't set out trying to collect them. I just wanted to work with my hands. But I have a metaphor, I think Anita would especially like this instrument right here. That looks like a guitar. I bought it some 35 years ago in a junk shop. It's a terrible instrument. It's got wood that I like, and it's a harmony, which was sort of the poor person's guitar of the front of the century.

This was from the 30s century, my old century. I make that sound... When I say turn of the century, I realize that a lot of people are talking about 2000, no, this is 1930 or earlier, but the instrument had four strings. And so I thought it was a tenor guitar, and I had it for maybe 30 years, and then I thought, I'm going to make it playable. It was just wall art the way it is now. And so I took it apart, and when I took the tuning heads off, there were eight holes instead of four. And so it was not a tenor guitar at all. It's an octave mandolin. And so it masqueraded as something else for half my life, and so that for me is a sort of a metaphor for making novels.

Felicelli: I like it. That's a really good metaphor for making novels.

Everett: Well, you can credit the instrument.

Bender: I'm going to duck out and come back at the end.

Felicelli: That was wonderful. It's so nice to hear in these CDC conversations, sometimes people who have been friends or have known each other for a long time, because you ask a different way about the work than when you're coming to it as just a reader with their readerly authority or critical eye or whatever.

So we had a question prior to the event, and a lot of people had commented on this, so I will ask it, lists contribute to the form of the novel expression of Zach's emotional state and rising tension, what was your process for determining what to feature in the lists, whether found artifacts, paintings, camping gear? This is from Sarah W. And I also think it's kind of interesting because you do have a lot of artifacts you work with. Like with horses, there's a lot of gear. With guitars there's also like some gear involved, right?

Everett: Well, I'm trying to make Zach's world real, like if I think I understand the question, and I'll use the example of the cave that he studies. It doesn't exist. I created it so I could know more about it than anyone else. He's a paleo geologist, and so the bird bones that he finds in the cave really have no significance except for the fact that he's sifting through time and he's sifting through a world in which he is an expert. And it's also a place that carries with it a bad memory, his colleague having been killed in a helicopter accident in the canyon. So the artifacts, the things I fabricate them, I make them up, but I have... It's through my research that I learned what would populate someone's life. And 90% of what I do is research. In fact, I wouldn't write if I couldn't do that. That's why I do it.

Felicelli: So in some sense, there's a documentation quality to your writing in terms of you're doing all these activities like horseback riding and fishing and art and playing music. And I know you have a picture with a crow, so there seems to be some kind of relationship to crows as well. But-

Everett: Oh, that was my crow, and I didn't mean to have a crow, but he fell out of a nest and wouldn't leave.

Felicelli: So you just joined forces with him. What was his name?

Everett: His name was Jim and-

Felicelli: Oh my goodness. Okay. Wow. That book is really vital to you. Huckleberry Finn, right?

Everett: Yeah. The new novel is a retelling of Huck Finn.

Felicelli: And you have a huckleberry, I don't remember what his name is in Telephone, but it's something like Finley Huckster, right?

Everett: Oh, is there? There maybe. I don't-

Felicelli: You don't remember it? Yeah. No, you have it come up a couple of different ways in different books with names and things like that.

Everett: Well, Twain's influenced my sense of humor, perhaps as much as anyone.

Felicelli: Are you allowed to talk about the other book or you couldn't-

Everett: I'm not allowed to talk about it.

Felicelli: Disallowed. Okay. Are you done with the other book.

Everett: It's all done.

Felicelli: Oh wow. Okay. When can we expect that one?

Everett: It comes out in March.

Felicelli: Oh, wow. So it's still a little kind of away, so you still have all the publicity stuff to do.

Everett: Yeah, I don't do publicity.

Felicelli: Yeah, no. How did you get away with that? Because you know what? A lot of writers I know are so envious of you staying off of Twitter, not doing your publicizing. We all read with some envy and dismay that Fiona McCrae didn't make you do any of that. So can you talk a little bit about that? Do you even read the responses to your work? Does that interest you?

Everett: No. I'll read scholarship, but I don't read reviews and I don't go online. I'm an old guy and I think for whatever reasons, and I accept them, that's become a part of my shtick. He doesn't do social media, and if you don't do something sort of tenaciously or long enough, it becomes associated with you. I didn't mean to do that, but I also just don't know what I would do on, what are they called? Social platform. What would do? I don't read them. I have no interest in it. What I had for dinner is my business.

Felicelli: Yeah, no, no, but we're all with you. The funny part is that we're all just sitting around in huge envy of you. All the writerly writers I know just don't really want to be there, but are just sort of performing. And it's interesting to get to be from a different time where you didn't really have to do that. So you started out though with larger publishing, right? With Suder?

Everett: Yeah. I was at Viking early on, and that was fine. I liked, my editor, he was a guy named Corley Smith, and I stayed with him for a couple of books, for three books, but then he retired and I didn't like being at Viking because I think at the time they were owned by Mobil Oil or something, and that struck me as bad. But then he went to an imprint at Houghton Mifflin called Ticknor and Fields, which now no longer exists. Ticknor and Fields, had been the oldest publisher in the US and then we reinstated the imprint but still, it was a large house. And then I was fortunate enough to end up with Fiona at Faber, and Graywolf just turned out to be... I love small presses, I guess is arguable that Graywolf is not terribly small, but it is. Its nonprofit. Their mission is artistic in my estimation. And I love that.

And they gave me a lot of freedom, not because they were being deferential to me, but because I think they honestly had work, the work in mind. And that's really refreshing. That said, I'm now at double day, which sounds horrible when I say it, but it's been a really positive experience so far. And everyone's been great. And my editor reminds me of Fiona, and she's been great to work with. So I think all this time I've been happy to be at Graywolf, and I was loyal to Fiona, but it was an organic time for me to move, and I did.

Felicelli: Yeah, that makes sense. Let's bring Aimee back because I do have questions for both of you, sort of general questions. So Aimee, if you want to come back. And I think something that interested me in Telephone, and it interests me in all your books actually, is there's a lot of sleeping and coming in and out of dreams. There's a lot of dream states in your books, and that's something that in a workshop, and I'm sure you've presided over workshops where this topic comes up of whether you can really get away with writing about dreams. And yet you do it really interestingly, and I think Aimee's entire book sometimes have a dreamy quality to them. So I wondered if you could both talk a little bit about dreams and the unconscious and that sort of thing, how it fits your-

Everett: Well, I love the dreamy quality of Aimee's work. I don't blur as Aimee has this way of blurring the lines where people go in and out of dreams, and I wish I could do that. I don't do that to dreams. I'm fascinated by dream language. We talk about dreams and we have devices to show dreams in films, the weighty lines or whatever, but they're never dreams. Dreams are not lucid. It's a trick. We're inviting you into a world where... When you wake up and you start talking about a dream, the beautiful thing about it is it starts to fall apart immediately. But that's not how it happens in fiction. And we have language for four dreams. It was like a dream, as if in a dream in reference to things in real life. But that's not what we're talking about. Aimee, what are you-

Bender: Yeah, I mean, really like how the, and just thinking of Telephone for a moment, those dreams feel like... Also when things are too unbearable to try to process in daylight, they show up. And in that way, I like what you said too, that there's feeling like when we wake up and we can't hold on to a dream, it's like it can't exist in this world, in this realm. There's some other parallel space where things are making sense. And I think I've always back to logic, but I've loved the idea of dream logic, that there is kind of an internal structure of a dream that we can't really write or speak of, but is part of our lives, and that it is a rich material kind of well of stuff, and there's some kind of sense to it, but it's a different sense than the kind of sense we use in our regular lives. It's a different understanding, it's a different processing. So I find that just all really interesting because it's just sort of the world beneath the world.

Everett: And dreams are really the only thing that when you think that cave people were dreaming, that's amazing notion that our dogs dream, but yet we look for meanings in them. And I find that to be a very... I mean there are these dream interpretive books. I remember my mother had one, if you dream about a broken tooth, it means something. Even as a kid, I knew it was bullshit, but I was fascinated by it.

Bender: It's still totally compelling to have a book full of nouns that you could look at and have the noun mean something, even if it actually can't be mapped onto the dream and makes sense. It's still a really great book.

Everett: Or people who say to you, oh, I know what you were thinking. I know what that dream means.

Bender: Right. Impossible. I have a rule for my fiction class, particularly in intro class, that they can't end a story with an alarm clock ringing and the class will laugh and then say like... We'll talk about why not. And they'll just talk about, oh, I guess it would be a cop out because it just says it's all a dream. And then it's kind of fun to then talk about fiction as a dream. So if you put an alarm clock at the end, you're pretending that this isn't a page with a made up story on it already, that we've already been in mutual dream and you don't need to splash water on the reader's face to be like, just so you know, this is a piece of paper and that actually we want to be in that bubble together.

Everett: And that's it. I always wonder how Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge actually works and the-

Bender: Right, right. What is that? Yeah. Yeah.

Everett: I guess when a rope is [inaudible] you're an alarm clock, [inaudible]. It's a different thing.

Bender: Well, and often it'll be like there's one student who wants to subvert the rule and make it work. And I'm like, if you can make that ending work, amazing. And occasionally someone will.

Felicelli: You both write about actually pretty difficult subjects. I mean, at least in some of the books, I think some of the books are a little more emotionally difficult. Joy Richie wanted to know what are the details of your reason for writing this particular book about a daughter? She's struggling with grief herself and she's kind of, I think wants to know more about what was that process of coming to reality in that way in your book, which is really a long dream, how does that fit together? What was your sort of emotional reasons for exploring this particular character and this particular condition and the grief around that? And Aimee, I'd be really interested in that for you for The Butterfly Lampshade or any of your books really. Is there an emotional reason? Because I felt like Telephone is very conceptual, which is why I've been asking you conceptual questions.

Everett: Well, generally, I think it's be fair to say that most of my work tends to be more conceptual because I don't think I'm a natural storyteller, I work really hard to try to make it seem effortless, but some people just can tell stories and I don't think I'm that good at that. I like ideas and I like playing with them. But the whole thing with the daughter, having kids you realize how helpless you are, things can happen. Not even things as like deadly diseases like that. When you're not looking, they can fall and you can't do anything about it. Your kid grows up and he or she is going to have his or her heart broken. You can't stop it. These things happen. But in times where you really can't do anything, how do you survive? And so my character Zach is faced with this, he can't do anything except watch, but he has a need as parents do to help and he needs to help someone. And this is what moves him to do something else.

Felicelli: Yeah, that makes sense. Aimee, did you want to add anything about tapping into your emotional realities in your fiction which-

Bender: I mean, I think ultimately for me, all of fiction is trying to construct a little house that will hold a feeling that I have felt and need to dwell in for some reason. And the house is fiction, but the feeling is real. And it's hard to find sometimes because it's not always clear what route to take. But I think that's the driving force for me is I want there to be some emotion rumbling underneath that I have not fully processed.

Felicelli: And the topic kind of chooses you perhaps to some extent.

Bender: Yeah, completely.

Everett: For sure. Yeah.

Felicelli: Okay. Well this has been really fascinating to me and personally, and I really appreciate you both coming on here to talk about your wonderful books and looking forward to reading your next books. Anxiously awaiting. Awaiting next year then. So thank you, Aimee for coming in and special guest hosting this with me.

Everett: Thank you Anita.

Bender: And really, my pleasure. First of all, always so good to talk to you and Anita, thank you for having me.

Felicelli: Yeah. So thank you. First of all, thank you, Aimee, and thank you everyone for coming to this talk and reading the book and really both their books, I mean, their entire body of work is just so magnificent. You really should go pick them up, at least from the library, if not the bookstore. But bookstore is good too, obviously. And I will now bring back on David Ulin to say some closing remarks.

Ulin: Thank you, Anita. Thanks, first of all. And Aimee, that was brilliant, just moving heady, heartfelt conversation. So much to chew on. So thank you to all three of you, first of all, Aimee and Anita. I do want to remind everybody that this conversation has been recorded and will be available at Next month's book is Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. So please come next month for that discussion. Do not forget the issue parties in San Francisco on May 30th and Culver City on June 22nd, where you'll be able to see it live in-person readings by Alta contributors.

And a reminder too for the sale on Alta membership for California Book Club members at or the $3 digital membership. There will be a two-minute survey at the end of this webinar that will pop up. So please participate in that as soon as we end the event. And take care everybody, be well, stay safe, and we will see you all next month. Have a good night.•

Graywolf Press

Telephone by Percival Everett

Graywolf Press
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