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Benjamin Percy, Writer For Marvel And DC Comics, Discusses His New Book, “The Ninth Metal”

Arnab Chakladar
Graywolf Press

Benjamin Percy is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, essays, comics, audio drama and screenplays. He has taught at multiple workshops including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Tin House Writers’ Workshop and the Paris Writing Workshop. He is the winner of two Pushcart Prizes, a Whiting Award and a Plimpton Prize. His newest book, "The Ninth Metal," is the first release in a series called the Comet Cycle. The upcoming books in the series, "The Unfamiliar Garden" and "The Sky Vault," are slated for release in 2022.

Interview Highlights

On shared universes
It’s an age-old sci-fi trope. You have a comet streaking through the solar system. The Earth spins through the debris field. New elements are introduced that upend the laws of geology, biology and physics. They upend the geopolitical theater. What I was trying to do when creating this new dawn of heroes and villains is, in a way, tip my hat to the work I've been doing with DC and Marvel. I’ve been writing for comics since 2014. I’ve written "Batman," "Green Arrow," "Teen Titans," "Nightwing." I now write for Marvel: "Wolverine" and X-Force, as part of the new "Dawn of X." One of the great pleasures of reading comics and writing them is that they are part of a shared universe. What happens in Wonder Woman carries over to Batman, carries over to Superman. There is a ripple effect. Comics often thread together with these giant events. You see these in the films as well. Here is Ironman, Thor, all these different disparate story lines but they converge with the Avengers. This is happening in comics and it also happens in literature. If you look at the work of Louise Erdrich or [William] Faulkner, they have also created their own shared universes. I guess you could say that this project ["The Ninth Metal"] is an amalgamation of my love of these different mediums.

On choosing a setting for "The Ninth Metal"
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. That has been the stage for most of my fiction until now. I lived in Iowa for four years, teaching at Iowa State University and the University of Iowa. I have lived in Minnesota now for close to nine years. I felt as though it took me that long to know the northern Midwest. And by 'know' it, I mean not just the geography but the culture, the history, the politics, the vernacular, the myths of the place. There is nothing worse when you are watching a movie or reading a book and it is about your own backyard and the writer has somehow screwed it up. I wanted to do justice to this arena. I set it in northern Minnesota for a few different reasons. It has become my favorite part of the state, but it has also become one of my favorite corners of the country. It is also a liminal zone. There is this question as to what is the U.S.? What is Canada? What is tribal? What is private property? This used to be in the Iron Range, the steel center of the world. All the iron, the taconite that came out of that place was shipped to steel mills everywhere. It has since experienced, like many parts of the Midwest, economic decline. It is interesting to me to have this place that is struggling and is constantly debating right now what is more important, protection of the wilderness or economic prosperity, as they debate whether to open up copper-nickel mines in the boundary waters and such. I thought, what an interesting place for this meteor shower to hit. Omnimetal, the ninth noble metal has superconductive properties. It absorbs energy on a quantum level. It really changes the game when it comes to the energy sector, the weapons sector and as a result of that, the middle of nowhere becomes the center of everything.

On his vision for publishing
I wanted to be daring not just with the material. I wanted to upend the publishing industry. I was taking a cue from comics. Comics come out as $2.99 floppy issues and later they're collected into a trade paperback that consists of five issues. Then, later on maybe they become a deluxe hardcover and then maybe even later they become an omnibus. That just makes sense to me. You build cheap, wide distribution which creates word of mouth. It has never made sense to me that novels release instead as a hardcover. They could be $36 or $27. They're putting out front sort of an exclusionary collector's item and if I, somebody inside the industry, a giant nerdy reader, sometimes hesitates to pick up the hardcover of something, how do other people feel? So, this is coming out in quick succession as a series of paperbacks that will then later be bound together to an omnibus hardcover with bonus stories and illustrations. So, there is that.

On cycles, not trilogies
There is also the fact that I'm calling it a cycle. I said before I was building a shared universe. The idea is that this world is infinitely generative. I'm contracted for three books, but this could be six books, nine books, twenty books, it all depends on how well it does and how much runway they give me. I hope to be constantly expanding the boundaries of this, that I am not fenced in in any way. It is not a trilogy in other words. I was studying the market and most books experience attrition when they are sequels. They sell fewer copies. What I hope to do is create three books that can be read in any order. You can read book three of "The Comet Cycle" before you read book one. Or you can read book two before both book three and one. They all take place at the exact same time, but they all take place in different parts of the world and consider different impacts that the meteors have had on a national and global stage. There is the Seattle area, which is the wettest part of this country, where new alien plant life is growing. There is some crazy stuff going on in Alaska with mirror matter, dark matter. This opens up some of the multiverse possibilities that I am hinting at.

On blending literary with genre
I grew up reading books about vampires and dragons and robots with laser eyes and barbarians with wooly underpants. That is what made me rip through all of these mass market paperbacks, with embossed titles, turning pages so swiftly they made a breeze on my face. I had no awareness of what made for an exquisite or a clumsy sentence. I just wanted to know what happened next. I found myself taking creative writing classes at the undergraduate and graduate level and being told you can’t write genre. Genre is a dirty word, so is plot. I came to a place where I sort of appreciated those who were neither fish nor fowl, who were both literary and genre. Writers like Margaret Atwood, Susanna Clarke, Kate Atkinson, Octavia Butler and Dennis Lehane. I wanted to write something and hope to write something, even with my comics, that has artistic integrity and is also compulsively readable. I go around and do events at festivals and universities and people are nerding out that I operate in these different mediums. I would say that the tide is shifting.

On the pandemic and how it affected his work on projects and life
We have all gone through this in unique and traumatic ways. I am not going to pretend it was a good thing, but I try to focus on the bright side. I used to be someone who was a road warrior, traveling constantly, and I’ve been able to spend a lot of good, quality time with my family. I also have gotten a lot of work done. Here I am in my cave in the woods. What else am I going to do? You can only play so many games of scrabble. I really hammered the keyboard hard. I hammered until it smoked. I guess it was kind of a medicinal on my part, escape. Escape the news and chaos in the world by just building another world. Digging a rabbit hole I could escape down.

On what's next
Well, I am working on quite a few Hollywood projects right now. I’ve sold a lot to Hollywood, and everything has died in development hell in the past. I am feeling cautiously optimistic on a few of these projects. My fingers are crossed.

Rick Brewer produced this interview for broadcast. Monica Starr adapted this interview for the Web. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk