The Art of Staying Out of the Way
A Conversation with Jen Percy
Jennifer Percy grew up in rural Oregon. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, the Indiana Review, AGNI, and Best Women's Travel Writing, among others, and has been featured on National Public Radio and BBC’s World News. Percy has won a number of awards for her writing, including scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the first place award in American Short Fiction's Story Contest, and multiple academic fellowships. She was a Writer-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy in 2012. She was a Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and received an Iowa Arts Fellowship from the Nonfiction Writing program. Her first book, Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, was published by Scribner in 2014.
On February 2, 2014, Director of Creative Writing David Griffith sat down to talk with Jen about her debut book, Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism.
David Griffith: I was curious, at what point did you feel finished with Demon Camp? I know you’ve said it was a difficult book to write. Did you just hit a wall with it or was it the editor saying “no, no, no, you’re done” or how did that happen? How did you know you were finished with the book?
Jen Percy: Well in my case, it was actually quite late so the editor was putting a lot of pressure on me to get it in, in a way that was faster than I was comfortable with so first he actually made me come to Scribner, (Publishing House) put me in a room, set the manuscript in front of me and said “this is the last time you get to look at it.”
DG: Oh no! That sounds like some KGB kind of stuff.
JP: Exactly! They said, “do you need anything, Starbucks? Because you’re not leaving!” I wanted to bring it home with me and be like “yeah, I’ll get it to you tomorrow!” and then three weeks later…(laughter). So I stayed there all day, from 11 at night until 8 in the morning. I flipped through [the manuscript] page by page. It didn’t feel done but I’m glad that pressure was there, because I think—especially for my first book—there’s this sort of inability to let go; maybe that’s true for every book—I don’t know—but I felt especially attached to the the process since it felt, almost, that I had never completed something that large. And it almost seemed like an impossible task to ask of me and then psychologically to know how to deal with that. But, I think part of me was just sort of delaying the process (laughs).
DG: I know that you didn’t come across Caleb right away, you came across the story of a soldier who thought he was being haunted by this Iraqi man that he killed, right?
JP: Right, yeah.
DG: So at what point did you come to understand that Caleb was going to be the main story that you would follow? That that was the thread that you were going to follow for the book?
JP: I knew right away when I met Celeb that I wanted to follow him. Well, maybe not right away but right when he started talking about demons. And I had actually contacted Brian Rand, that’s the name of the soldier who claimed to be haunted by the Iraqi man. I had actually met his sister before I met Caleb. So he was sort of an extra person to meet, but once I talked to Caleb I felt that he was the ideal subject.
DG: You were in the nonfiction MFA program at the University of Iowa when you started writing this book. How did that environment influence the creation of the book?
JP: It gave me an environment where my whole life was suddenly devoted to reading, writing, thinking about writing, talking about writing. And so, naturally, it gave me a sort of a pull and a space to begin engaging with a larger project. It didn’t necessarily grow out of an assignment or a need to fulfil any requirements for the workshop itself, but it did nurture the kind of environment where a book could be created whereas before Iowa it was, you know, a 9-5 job, the kind of situation where I wasn’t exposed to the kind of nonfiction I would eventually be writing. So Iowa created a space to help grow the book. And, actually, I kept [the book] very distant from the classwork I was doing—from the workshop—because I didn’t want people reading it, I didn’t want people to be talking about it, or workshopping it. So I submitted it for my thesis—but I didn’t ever workshop it publicly.
DG: That’s interesting—I can understand that impulse to not want it to be out there. I often wonder how many good ideas were killed by workshops.
JP: I think [workshop commentary] sort of gets in your head, and I was worried someone would say something that would ruin it.
DG: I imagine people are doing a vast array of things in Iowa’s program—personal essay, memoir, lyric essay, immersion, etc.
JP: Iowa—I think—more than any other program nurtures diversity. John D'Agata is there and his anthologies The Lost Origins of the Essay, and The Next American Essay have created a whole new terrain and way of thinking about genre. I mean, you could consider almost anything nonfiction and bring it into the workshop.
DG: Did you have any models in mind when you began Demon Camp, like Truman Capote...?
JP: I did, actually. Capote was a big influence.
DG: What is it about Capote? Was there something that you liked about his work stylistically-speaking, or was it something about his concept that someone could take all this raw material that comes from reportage, research, and write it in this dramatic, novelistic way that seems seamless?
JP: I think what I liked about In Cold Blood is that basically right at the beginning, even throughout the whole story, we know what’s happened. So it’s not really about an unsolved murder. It’s an experience. Experience is a word I kept going back to—experiential nonfiction, which is kind of like immersion journalism, where you follow your subject as close as you can and try to get at their psyche—that’s what compelled me.
DG: Going along with that, did you know from the very beginning that the “I” was going to be necessary, that you were going to be a part of the story?
JP: Sort of. I changed my mind a lot. It’s hard to say, hard to track any consistent thinking. I think when I go back to my original thoughts about it, it was actually going to be all first person and a bunch of different stories about veterans, almost like a collage. So that’s where it originated. I think I was a little bit adverse to using “I” because the reader’s loyalty should be with Caleb and the veterans. So was constantly concerned I was getting in the way.
DG: Do you feel that you have an obligation to tell the truth? I mean, would you define “truth” as “facts and facts alone?”
JP: Well, I think that’s a basic challenge to writing nonfiction. You’re using the information, facts, what’s available to you, the experience, whether that’s memory or something more concrete as a sort of draft. The fundamental challenge is to make art from what’s available to you and changing that in a way is something you shouldn’t get away with.
DG: And you like that challenge? That obstacle to try to craft art from this raw material?
JP: I do. It can be messy but it’s the facts. Otherwise I think you should make the decision to go Fiction or for something long. If something’s long enough, reality will seem interesting.
DG: Was there any particular section of the book you had a really hard time writing because of anxiety or because of the kind of memories that it held for you?
JP: Every part was difficult. But I think the hardest part was actually the structure and then to break that down, the moving from this ordinary world: Caleb going to war, coming home, and then suddenly crazy land. We’re in this place that I didn’t even believe existed—portals, exorcisms...I was trying to understand how that makes sense and trying to write about these people in a way that still would give a sense of generosity and attendance to reality, to affirm that maybe this isn’t some sort of metaphor for the trauma they went through; that there’s something in the language or the terminology of demon possession that can help us understand Caleb and this place. I wanted to make it feel like I wasn’t just writing about these people and exploiting them.
DG: Had structure been something you thought about a lot, played around a lot with, or was it something that you were teaching yourself as you were writing?
JP: The structure didn’t actually start coming into existence until January of last year, so a year before it came out, basically. And it’s usually the book’s supposed to be done a year before they come out so this was really pushing it. That winter in Iowa every night I went to the Writer’s Workshop house. I had a key and we’re not supposed to have keys, but some students get a hold of them, so I’d go to the basement and there would be some other students there and we’d write all night. That was the only place I could figure out how to put these parts together—it was the middle of winter. That’s when I took the whole narrative, the third person bits about Caleb’s life and put them towards the prologue. The complication of having all those things happening [to Caleb] at once was too much for the reader. But that’s also the reason I wrote the prologue, summing up the whole story in a couple pages basically before we even got into it.
The other thing about the structure is that I’m trying to talk about PTSD in a way that rejects the language of psychology, the language surrounding PTSD. It’s a language that cloaks issues, like, “We know you have PTSD, so now we can ignore you because we know what’s going on.” A lot of people who are suffering aren’t really interested in that language anyways, so I’m trying to communicate this mode of being and suffering without using that language. I actually wrote a whole chapter that was a history of PTSD, but my friend read it and said “get rid of it.” So I had to take pieces of that [chapter] I thought were most relevant and scatter them throughout the book.
DG: I, for one, would have loved to have read that chapter, but that’s just the kind of reader I am.
JP: Yeah. It was hard. It was a 50/50 thing with readers.
DG: I can understand the decision, for sure. The narrative momentum of the book is so strong that if you put in chapters that read more like Achilles in Vietnam [by Jonathan Shay] where there are these sections that are thick and really jargon-heavy, it kills the story. I mean, it doesn’t bother me, but I know from a marketplace standpoint that that can be the kiss of death sometimes.
JP: That’s for sure.
DG: Jen, thanks so much for you time. I really, really appreciate it.
JP: You’re welcome.