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‘I’d love a scathing review’: novelist Percival Everett on American Fiction and rewriting Huckleberry Finn

‘I’d love a scathing review’: novelist Percival Everett on American Fiction and rewriting Huckleberry Finn

It’s 10am on the morning of the Oscars, and Percival Everett is nowhere to be seen. We’re supposed to be meeting at his neighbourhood coffee shop in leafy South Pasadena, a suburb of Los Angeles, before he makes his way across the city for the ceremony, which begins its long march towards best picture just after lunch.

American Fiction, the film of his novel Erasure, is nominated for best adapted screenplay, up against Barbie, but tipped to win. The hour went forward last night, but surely he knows that? At 10.25am I WhatsApp him, but the message remains unread. Eventually I call. “Yes, this is Percival Everett. We’re meeting in half an hour?” The clocks, Percival, the clocks. “Ah,” he chuckles, “my fault.” He’s there in a couple of minutes, in khaki pants, grey shirt and a baseball cap, looking as if he has nothing much on today – a man not only in his own world, but his own time. When I ask why his phone didn’t update like they all do now, he says he never looks at it, and raises his wrist to flaunt a distinctively analogue watch. Hasn’t he got quite an important date later? “Oh,” he shrugs, “my wife would’ve made sure I got there on time.” That’s the novelist Danzy Senna, with whom he has two sons, aged 17 and 15.

Despite having lived in LA for more than three decades, Everett, 67, who teaches literature at the University of Southern California, doesn’t see being invited to the Oscars as somehow getting the keys to the city. It’s more like “visiting someone’s garden shed”, he says, a little bizarrely. “I’ll feel ‘Oh that’s a nice lawnmower’ and never go back.” I suggest that’s quite a prosaic image for what lots of people consider to be the most glamorous event in the universe. “I guess that betrays my feelings about glamour.”

Not that he’s ostentatiously professorial, his otherwordliness just a different way of showing off. He genuinely doesn’t seem to care: about the red carpet, accolades, critics. “I don’t go online,” he tells me. No social media? No, and no reviews. Is he not curious to see how others interpret his work? “Oh I do read scholarship – I think I learn stuff from that – but reviews I just never have any interest in.” Is it a case of protecting himself from comments that might sow doubt, or sting? “In fact, I might be interested in a really scathing review.” Why? “It might be fun? That’s gonna be kind of crazy, to be upset about a bad review. Like, what else can you expect in the world? Not everybody is gonna like my shirt.”

Acclaim isn’t a big motivator, then – instead he writes when he gets fascinated by something, which has happened often enough to produce 24 dazzlingly different novels, stories of baseball players, ranchers, mathematicians, cops and philosophising babies. And, despite his output, he finds time for plenty of other interests. Painting is the big one, and we stroll the short distance from the cafe to his studio, a windowless room in a basement complex bedecked with frenetic, abstract canvases, half-squeezed tubes of paint and impasto-slathered palettes. He’s also a skilled woodworker (he recently became obsessed with buying and repairing old mandolins), a jazz musician, and a horse and mule trainer. (Everett once told Bookforum that when he was being hired by USC a member of the faculty saw his name and exclaimed: “The last thing we need is another 50-year-old Brit,” only to be told by the receptionist that the newest professor was in fact a “black cowboy”).

American FictionView image in fullscreen

Horses are no longer a part of his life – he combined working on ranches with teaching much earlier in his career – but they taught him some transferable skills. “I don’t get stressed out,” he tells me. “I think that’s from being on horses. You can’t calm down a 1,200-pound animal by getting excited.” That’s handy, because others in his position might be getting a little wound up by their work being judged in the most public way possible in just a few hours time. It’s a big day, no? “I mean, sort of. It’s not my film,” he laughs. “So, I’m excited for the director.”

He means Cord Jefferson, the former journalist who also adapted the novel, and who described showing Everett the movie as “the most frightening screening I did”. The plot differences are relatively minor, though Erasure is more complex, less certain in its conclusions. Both works tell the story of Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, a writer of abstruse fiction who fumes when he finds his retelling of Aeschylus’s The Persians filed under “African American studies” in a bookstore (“The only thing ostensibly African American [about it] was my jacket photograph”). But his commercial fortunes are transformed when he decides to submit a “ghetto” novel, ramping up the stereotypes to an obscene degree that white liberal editors nevertheless find irresistible.

Everett has spoken in the past with frustration about Erasure looming so large in his body of work. Does he still feel that way? “The only thing that ever pissed me off is that everyone agreed with it. No one took issue, or said: ‘It’s not like that.’” Why was that annoying? “I like the blowback. It’s interesting. There’s nothing worse than preaching to the choir, right?” Erasure came out in 2001, but people have taken American Fiction as a satire of modern publishing. Are the double standards he satirised still as pervasive? “There is a much greater range of work [now], and that was what I was addressing. So in some ways, there’s been a lot of change. The problem I had wasn’t with particular works, just with the fact that those were the only ones available.”

On the other hand, the thinking that led to that narrow range still very much exists. “For example, I have a friend, a director, who had some success with a film. And the next call he got was someone wanting him to direct a biopic of George Floyd. Why? Because he’s black.” That could be very irritating, of course. But it could also be a dream project. “Well,” Everett considers the point. “It’s like you’re at the office and they say: ‘We need a black person.’ Why? ‘Well, we need diversity in this room, so would you come in here?’ That’s not why you want to be invited.”

In any case, he isn’t feeling proprietorial about American Fiction: “I view it as a different work,” he tells me, though I get the impression he’s making a statement of artistic fact, rather than attempting to distance himself from the production. “I appreciate it as a different work. In spirit it’s much like the novel, but being a film, it’s not as dark.” It could have been worse: he entirely disowned the TV movie of his second book, Walk Me to the Distance. “I never saw it. I read the script, and I didn’t like it. The changes that they made were so grotesque, there was no way to embrace that at all.”

Regardless, more Everett will be coming soon to a screen near you. In 2022 he published The Trees, a genre-busting comedy about lynching, if you can imagine such a thing – part police procedural, part zombie-horror, part solemn testament to the victims of racial murder. It has been optioned for a possible “limited series” and “people are working on it” but he can’t say any more. While not surprising (the novel was shortlisted for the Booker), it will be interesting to see how a big entertainment company deals with the taboo imagery and extensive gore – “Yeah, well that’s their problem!” he laughs.

Percival Everett.View image in fullscreen

His new novel, James, is at least as likely to pique the interest of producers – partly because it adapts a cornerstone of American culture, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While I’m teasing him about his lack of interest in Hollywood glitz, I ask if there are any writers he would be starstruck by. “[All] dead,” he replies – but offers up Samuel Butler, Chester Himes and, of course, Mark Twain. What would they talk about in any ethereal meeting? “You know, I’ve thought about that,” he says. “I don’t know if we would say much. We’d probably just talk about the landscape or something. I’d just kind of like to hear what he sees.”

In the meantime, Everett has taken the initiative with Twain’s most famous text, which tells the story of 13-year-old Huck as he navigates the Mississippi River accompanied by an enslaved man, Jim. “It’s kind of a cliche to say how important it is to American letters. It’s the first time that a novel tried to deal with the very centre of the American psyche – and that is race.” There were protest novels about slavery before then, he says, but they were narrower, focused on the institution itself. “Huck Finn, picaresque adventures aside, is really about a young American, representing America, trying to navigate this landscape, and understand how someone – his friend, actually the only father figure in the book – is also property.”

“He’s got this moral conundrum: ‘He belongs to someone and I’m doing something illegal by helping him run, but he’s my friend and a person, and he shouldn’t be a slave.’ There’s nothing more American.” Whereas Twain’s focus is tightly on Huck’s moral universe, Everett tells the other half of the story, making Jim the narrator, restoring his full name, James, and turning him into an erudite intellectual. Characteristically, one of the major plot devices is linguistic. The hokey dialect that, in Twain, renders Jim rustic and unthreatening, is revealed as a feint – a survival mechanism that the slaves use to disguise their real capacities in front of white people. One evening, James sits down in his cabin to teach some of the enslaved children a language lesson. “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” he explains, the children chanting: “The better they feel, the safer we are.” He asks a little girl to translate, and is reassured when she produces a sentence in amped-up vernacular: “Da mo’ betta dey feels, da mo’ safer we be.”

Everett’s novels make abundant use of language games, conceits and disquisitions. Erasure contains a passage from Monk’s inpenetrable post-structuralist novel, and snippets of conversations between Wittgenstein and Derrida. This could be off-putting were it not for the fact that they’re often spliced with much more conventional, pacey writing, and many darkly hilarious moments – 2022’s Dr No, for example, mixes head-scratching maths with a lot of wild, Bond-inspired action. James, likewise, combines dreamed visitations from Voltaire and Locke with page-turning jeopardy. Is that kind of juxtaposition a tactic on Everett’s part, a way of licensing the intellectual gymnastics? “I don’t know if I think about it a lot. I think that any kind of intellectual understanding of the world is generated by a physical location in the world.” And by stuff happening? “Yes, by stuff happening.

Percival Everett. JamesView image in fullscreen

It’s why I like teaching – because I get to go out into the world and be reminded that there are other people thinking different thoughts. My inclination is to stay at home and never leave. What would I write if I did that?”

Leave he does, though, and one of his more important outposts is an office in the humanities building of the University of Southern California. Unusually for LA, it’s an easy trip by metro from South Pasadena, which is why a lot of professors choose to live there. The day after the Academy Awards, the campus is glorious, its terracotta tiles and pink-brick modernist halls warming in the sun. Everett is running late, but only by a few minutes. He catches me in the lobby and we walk upstairs to a room with a view of the skyscrapers of downtown and, in the distance, the San Gabriel Mountains. American Fiction won its Oscar, and I ask if he got into the spirit of things. “Oh, that was fine. We had fun going, but we don’t need to go to that again.” No parties, then? “We went to the so-called Governors ball, which is in the ballroom right after the event. We could take it for about 10 minutes and we found a way out.”

If Everett sounds ungrateful, or grumpy, he’s not – though he’s in a little pain because of a bad back. No, he’s quick to smile, generous with his time, and simply “not the most extroverted person in the world”. He suspects that, like several of his characters, he’s “on the spectrum”. Today, we’re surrounded by another typically Everettian assortment – a framed photograph of a beloved mule, lots of books and some awards, including one from the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. “Oxymoronic” he jokes, before explaining that, though he grew up in South Carolina, he was born in the neighbouring state. He got out of the south quickly, moving west after his undergraduate degree. “I don’t want to return and live in the south,” he told one interviewer. “I want to see the sun set on the ocean.” But when I suggest he’s no fan of that part of the world, he demurs. “That’s a little unfair. The American inclination is to find a region and blame it so it doesn’t have to feel bad as a whole. There are lots of good people there, and lots of people I’d rather not spend time with. But that’s true of everywhere.”

My attention is drawn to what looks like an elaborate sewing box. “Oh, it’s a fly tying kit.” Is fishing another one of his things? “Yes.” So you make the flies yourself? “Usually while I’m talking to students.” I find it interesting that he likes to distract part of his brain from the task at hand, and it turns out to be something of a theme. James, he says, was written “on the coffee table with Mission: Impossible going the entire time”. What? “Some network would just play the same episodes over and over. It’s just white noise for me.” We’re talking the original 1960s series, by the way, not the movie. “I don’t remember them from being a kid,” he says, and then, for perhaps the first time, becomes really animated: “but the bongo part of the song is fantastic. And that’s really what got me watching. It’s an OK song but the bongo part of it, the percussive part, is incredible – the counting of it. It’s just completely mesmerising.” I’m amazed he can concentrate, but he says: “I don’t really watch. I just know what’s there. And I look up, and my game would be how quickly could I identify the episode. Just from a shot of a hand or anything.” In fact, it makes the writing easier: “It’s a distraction that allows my mind to run instead of trying to … to figure out the story.”

It remains to be seen whether critics will pick up on any subliminally incorporated plotlines from Mission: Impossible in the new book. The reviews for James, published in the US a few weeks ago, are beginning to trickle in. I mention that the Washington Post seemed to like it. “They also told me there was a New York Times review today,” Everett says, without affect. It’s only afterwards that I take a look: it’s a spectacular rave.

We return, briefly, to that Oscar. “Awards are what they are. They don’t make anything better” – unlike bongos, clearly. Being unimpressed by the event is one thing, but this is going to have a concrete effect on his life. The tour he’s about to embark on – “against my better judgment, 12 cities in 13 days” – will doubtless be sold out. There will be more interest in his work, more sales, more scrutiny. And Erasure will potentially define him far more than it did before. Does he worry, given the sheer variety of his writing, about the gravitational pull of that “African American studies” bookshelf – of, ironically, being reduced to the stereotype of “race writer”? “When people come to the work, they get what the work offers. And however you get them there, it’s OK. I don’t much worry about that. If people read anything, I’m happy. It doesn’t even have to be my work. Because if they just become readers, that’s a much better culture.”

“What is it Walt Whitman says in By Blue Ontario’s Shore?” he continues. “I’m paraphrasing, but since it’s Whitman, it doesn’t matter: if you want a better society, produce better people.” (The phrase in the poem is “Produce great Persons, the rest follows.”)

So how do you produce better people? “By helping make them smarter. Education, so they’re interested in ideas. It’d be great if somehow literary fiction could affect popular culture.” But isn’t that precisely what Erasure has done, via American Fiction? “A little bit,” he concedes. “We’ll see”. And with a bemused and friendly laugh, he’s ready to turn his attention to the next thing.

Source: theguardian.com