Percival Everett

Percival Everett interview: 'How long did it take to write The Trees? Sixty-three years'

With The Trees shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2022, we spoke to Percival Everett about what ranching taught him about writing, why oppressive regimes want an under-educated populace and why he tries to get people laughing

Read an extract from The Trees here.

Read interviews with more of our longlisted authors here.

Publication date and time: Published

How does it feel to be longlisted for the Booker Prize 2022, and what would winning the Booker mean to you? 

Of course, any consideration for an award feels good and it’s flattering to be put in such good company, but I don’t think any of us write with an award in mind. I know I don’t. No award will make my work better. It will, of course, make it more visible, and that would be great.

What does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts, long pauses, sudden bursts of activity? How long did The Trees take to write?

I write with a pencil. I do not have a schedule. I always play before I work. Yes, to multiple drafts. Perhaps from ranching for so long I have learned to write when I can, and all the time. Twenty minutes here, two hours there. How long did this take me to write? I have two answers: 1) Just more than a year and 2) 63 years. 

You’re one of several writers on the longlist published by small independent publishers – what does that mean to you, and how does it affect you as a writer?

I like independent houses. I never participate in any marketing or business discussions. I simply want to make the next book. 

The Trees by Percival Everett

What was the starting point for The Trees? Was it a slowburn idea or a moment of clarity? What made you want to write this particular book now? 

Again, 63 years of being an American is a pretty slow burn. That said, the sparks of novels are often just that. One day there is no book – and then there is.

Is the ghost of Emmett Till everywhere in recent American history? 

I don’t know what that means. If one wants to use Emmett Till as a symbol, then yes. I prefer to think of him as boy who never got to grow up. There are plenty of ghosts haunting American history.  

The book has been described as zombie horror meets detective story meets slapstick revenge fantasy, with elements of Jonathan Swift and South Park. That’s quite a description – is it fair or accurate? How would you sum it up? 

That’s really a discussion for other people. I don’t have the time or the inclination to describe my own work.

To what extent could the book be described as a homage to Chester Himes? 

I refer to my previous answer. The two detectives are certainly beholden to Chester Himes, but homage is a word that gets easily thrown about.

You’ve said in the past that reading is one of the most subversive acts we can perform. Can you elaborate? 

There’s a reason that oppressive regimes often resort to burning books. No one can control what minds do when reading; it is entirely private. We make of literature what we need to make. This is true of art. This is why the fascist right-wingers are so invested in a populace that is under-educated. For example, the Republican Party of my country would rather instruct someone to be proud that they completed fifth grade than disappointed that they didn’t make it through sixth. This while they thrive on expensive educations from good schools. There is nothing more challenging to an oppressive government than a populace that can read, and therefore think.

Percival Everett

There’s a reason that oppressive regimes often resort to burning books. No one can control what minds do when reading; it’s entirely private.

Considering its subject matter, The Trees is a much funnier book than readers may be expecting. How do you find comedy in such dark material, why is the book’s humour so important, and had you always conceived it as a blackly-comic novel? 

There is, of course, a distinction to be made between irony and humor and absurdity; a distinction that does not make them mutually exclusive. If one can get someone laughing, then one can use that relaxed state to present other things.

You’ve published more than 20 novels, yet many of them are not available in the UK (the Booker is of course awarded to writers of all nationalities, but to works published in English in the UK and Ireland). Has it surprised you that recognition on this side of the Atlantic has taken so long, and do you think that may change now? 

It would be nice to have that change.

Which book or books are you reading at the moment? 

I’m reading Greil Marcus’s More Real Life Rock, Henry Petroski’s history of the pencil, Jing Tsu’s Sound and Script in Chinese Diaspora and Kwame Gyekye’s Essay on African Philosophical Thought.

Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel?

To my dismay, they all seem rather wonderful.

What’s the one book you wish you’d written? 

When I read something I love I’m simply happy it was written. I needn’t be the maker of it. It’s the work that matters. There are plenty of books I wish I was smart enough to write. But all that matters is the existence of the works.

You’ve been described as a writer who is impossible to pigeonhole. What are you working on now and how different from The Trees will it be? 

I don’t describe myself. If someone is trying to describe us, it’s usually for not good reasons. Either we’re missing or we’ve done something. Suffice to say, I’m not a pigeon.

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