Percival Everett: Half an Inch of Water
Percival Everett’s latest story collection, Half an Inch of Water (Graywolf Press) introduces the reader to a diverse cast of characters: horse trainers, veterinarians, ranchers, sheriffs, who live and work in the rural American west. Though Everett’s protagonists are not loners per se, the wide open spaces and sparse population of ranching communities in Wyoming and Colorado provide ample opportunity for solitude and reflection between interactions with friends and neighbors.
This landscape, which Everett describes with great affection, dictates the rhythm of his characters’ daily lives and work, though it presents perils for them as well. It also brings them face to face with the uncanny—unexplained moments that force them (and us) to question what is real. Half an Inch of Water offers readers an intimate and nuanced portrait of those who work closely with animals and the land in the rural communities of the west.
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Many of the stories in Half An Inch of Water take place in and around ranches and reservations in Wyoming and Colorado, and the landscape seems almost its own character in some of these tales. You lived and taught in Wyoming for a time, and the book shows a clear affinity for this region and the people who make it their home. Can you tell us a little more about choosing to set these stories in this region as opposed to, say, the ranching communities in California, where you currently reside?
PERCIVAL EVERETT: I am a westerner. I knew it when I first saw this landscape. I like Wyoming very much. It is sparely populated and physically beautiful. I lived for a very brief time on the Wind River Reservation. I learned a lot there. The difference between CA and WY is the number of people. However, even in crowded California one can find wilderness without the company of people. In Wyoming you find working ranches. In California, though there are a few working ranches, you mainly find people who keep horses.
AR: Work is a thread that runs through the collection, and there’s a pleasure in reading about the routines that shape the days of those whose livelihood is tied to animals and the land. These routines require patience, strength, attention to detail, and being at ease with solitude and open spaces. I understand you train horses and mules (or have done so in the past). How does that work dovetail with and influence your writing, both in terms of process and subject matter?
PE: Most of what I know about people I have learned from dealing with animals and people with animals. I like work. I liked training mules and horses, though I no longer do it. I enjoy the problem solving that owning and working a farm brings. It’s a little like making a novel or stories.
AR: There’s a tension in these stories between the rational and the uncanny which remains for the most part unresolved. Your protagonists in this collection are practical-minded folk—not inclined toward the mystical or religious. But many face a singular experience or moment that takes them out of their ordered world, defies easy explanation. These are not moments of epiphany or conversion—life resumes, and the story often ends shortly thereafter, as if inviting the reader to draw our own conclusions about what has transpired. What is the role of the reader for you? Are the endings of these stories an invitation? A challenge?
PE: I don’t know. I just make stories.
AR: One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Finding Billy White Feather.” The narrator becomes obsessed with someone he’s never seen, but who keeps leaving cryptic notes for him. Everyone he meets seems to have a negative impression of Billy, but none of their descriptions even remotely match up. His eye color, race, hair color, size, even his predilection for a certain type of woman, are all very specifically (and contradictorily) described. The story is set in Ethete, Wyoming, which is also the setting for “Graham Greene,” in which another narrator goes on a quest for someone who can’t be found, though for different reasons.
In both stories the more information the narrator gets the less he knows about the person he seeks. Both seem to hinge on the slipperiness of identity and the categories we use to assign it, and both share a setting and a cast of mostly Native American characters (excepting the narrator). I’m curious if they were written around the same time, and what about this town and its inhabitants felt right for these two tales of mis-identification?
PE: Those two stories were not written together and I don’t believe any of the thematic stuff of “Billy White Feather” was in my head when I wrote the second. That said, they obviously deal with some of the same ideas. I don’t bother with that kind of interpretation.
AR: You’ve published close to 30 books, many of them with independent presses, but you seem to have had the most enduring partnership with Graywolf, which has published more than ten of your novels and story collections over the last two decades. Can you talk about how your relationship with Graywolf came about, and why they’ve remained a good home for your work over the years?
PE: I have published with large houses and it was fine, but the conversations were not what I wanted. I am not interested in marketing or business. I make books. Fiona McCrae and Graywolf seem to understand this and are accepting. McCrae and I have been together through twelve books. She gets me, argues with me and occasionally she’s right. The press gives me a lot of room to make what I want.
Purchase a copy of Half an Inch of Water at IndieBound and a portion of the purchase price will support Late Night Library.
Percival Everett is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of nearly thirty books, including Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Assumption, Erasure, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, andGlyph. He is the recipient of the Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the Believer Book Award, and the 2006 PEN USA Center Award for Fiction. He has fly fished the west for over thirty years. He lives in Los Angeles.