Quick Review: THRILL ME by Benjamin Percy (Graywolf Press)

percyb-thrillmeAn excellent writing memoir and book of advice

Anyone familiar with the meteoric rise of Benjamin Percy’s career will surely have noticed a certain shift: After writing two short-story collections and a literary novel, he delivered the werewolf thriller Red Moon and the postapocalyptic epic The Dead Lands. Now, in his first book of nonfiction, Benjamin Percy challenges the notion that literary and genre fiction are somehow mutually exclusive. The title essay is an ode to the kinds of books that make many first love fiction: science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, horror, from J. R. R. Tolkien to Anne Rice, Ursula K. Le Guin to Stephen King. Percy’s own academic experience banished many of these writers in the name of what is “literary” and what is “genre.” Then he discovered Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, and others who employ techniques of genre fiction while remaining literary writers. In fifteen essays on the craft of fiction, Percy looks to disparate sources such as Jaws, Blood Meridian, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to discover how contemporary writers engage issues of plot, suspense, momentum, and the speculative, as well as character, setting, and dialogue. An urgent and entertaining missive on craft, Thrill Me brims with Percy’s distinctive blend of anecdotes, advice, and close reading, all in the service of one dictum: Thrill the reader.

Benjamin Percy is one of my favourite “new” authors. I only discovered his work upon the publication of Red Moon, which gripped me from very early on. Since reading that novel, I’ve read everything of his that I could get my hands on — The Dead Lands, his two-part story for Detective Comics, his ongoing run on Green Arrow, and now Thrill Me. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book, but I came away entertained and inspired.

Right off, one thing becomes very clear: Percy is recounting what has worked for him and his students, but is not pretending to offer a prescription for success and fortune. He is honest about what he likes, what works for him, but also which “rules” he has grown to break. On this latter point, I agree with him entirely that, in order to successfully break the rules, one must know what the rules are that can (or should) be broken — “The truth, of course, is that if you’re good enough, you can do anything.” (So, to refer to today’s earlier review of Zen in the Art of Writing: after you’ve done the work, you can start tearing things down and refashioning them in your preferred orientation.) This book is not only about writing advice, but also Percy’s own reading and writing memoir, which gave it a great personal touch. It reminded me of Stephen King’s On Writing, but far more focused and less technical.

Thrill Me has a lot of great advice, framed in entertaining and attention-grabbing ways. Percy ranges far and wide for examples, and he is ever-generous and enthusiastic about the authors who have influenced him, or shown him new and interesting ways to do things.

One passage that caught my attention:

“Be specific when something is interesting. When something is interesting, you look at it longer. You prolong and amplify… When everything is interesting, nothing is interesting.”

I completely agree with this. Too frequently, in my experience, author’s can become enamoured by their own creations, holding the readers’ hands through their worlds or scenes, bombarding us with excessive description and/or world-building. To be honest, very few writers can pull this off and not bore their readers to death. Epic fantasy is particularly prone to this weakness. He revisits this later in the book:

“… the impulse to explain will insult the reader. That their job — part of the pleasure of reading a story is inference, filling in the blanks and becoming a participant in the narrative, a coauthor.”

Percy’s advice on setting a scene, and that one should “Forget the Reuben. Focus on the ninjas”, was invaluable and clear. As is often the case with me and writing guides/memoirs, inspiration was found in unusual areas and on topics that I hadn’t thought I needed help with.

Thrill Me has helped me with my own writing and writer’s-block, and even offered up some inspiration for overcoming some roadblocks I’ve been experiencing in my own writing (fiction and non-fiction). Very much recommended.

*

Benjamin Percy‘s Thrill Me is published by Graywolf Press, and is available in the UK.

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