Dialogs: Percival Everett Talks About James, His New Book, About American Fiction, and Why He’s Finally Going on Tour

Percival Everett has published 30-some books—mostly novels—over his career, but he has not been a well-known author in the literary zeitgeist. But the LA-based author has a large Chicago fan base and they turned out to hear him Thursday night at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building.

Everett was in conversation with author Gabriel Bump, who asked compelling questions and read a couple of key excerpts from Everett’s new book, James, which takes a modernist spin on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. (To be clear, Everett doesn’t simply retell the story; James is in no way a variation on Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead.) 

The event was co-sponsored by Exile in Bookville, the indie bookstore located on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building. Bookstore co-owner Javier Ramirez welcomed the audience for a 45-minute discussion, followed by a lively Q&A. 

Gabriel Bump, who grew up in the South Shore neighborhood, is author of The New Naturals. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His first novel, Everywhere You Don’t Belong, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2020 and won several awards.  

Bump asked Everett to talk about his publishing history, which has mostly been with small presses; James is published by Doubleday and is his first best seller. Bump noted that James is already in its second printing, after being released March 19.

Everett, who is a Distinguished Professor of English at USC, described how he had published mostly with Gray Wolf Press for 29 years, always working with the same editor. When she retired recently, he moved to Doubleday for this novel. 

Everett noted that he has always refused to tour with new books.

Bump smiled and said, “But now you’re here with me ….”

To which Everett replied, “I have two teenagers ready to go to college now, so I’m touring.”

The kids’ tuition funds may well be bolstered by the fact that their father’s 2001 novel, Erasure, was adapted for American Fiction, the hit film starring Jeffrey Wright, which won an Oscar this year for Best Adapted Screenplay. (Everett hastened to say he had nothing to do with creating the film. “They gave me executive producer credit, which underscores the fact that I had nothing to do with the film.” (And he added that the credit was to some extent in lieu of money.)

Bump commented that Everett’s books are each very different from each other. He asked Everett where he gets his plot and character ideas. “I can’t explain it,” Everett said. ”It’s magic.”

Speaking of his books, Everett commented:

“Many people view Huck Finn as the beginning of American literature. But a book doesn’t mean anything until readers come to it” (and bring their own experience to the reading).

“I view my writing as the Mother Bear school of art. When I’m finished with a book, I send it out into the world and I don’t want it to come back.”

Cord Jefferson, right, writer/director/producer of American Fiction, with actor Jeffrey Wright, left, and Percival Everett, author of the book Erasure upon which the movie is based, at a screening of the film in Beverly Hills, Calif. Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP.

After commenting how fly fishing and its solitude are a great joy, he said, “The books are just work. I would love to write a book that everyone hated.”

Bump asked him about the sense of play in his works. Sometimes it’s word play but generally Everett adds a sense of playfulness to the work. Bump wondered if particular authors inspired Everett in playfulness. Everett responded that some of his inspirations were “Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, Bullwinkle and my father.” 

Are there any underrated authors you would like to see recognized, Bump asked. Everett didn’t answer that directly, but noted that John Coltrane died penniless and Michael Jackson died with millions. But that doesn’t address in any way which of them created better art, he said. 

During the Q&A, it was clear that it was an audience of book nerds—judging by the serious, literary questions asked about Everett’s work and specific books. No one asked, as I would have liked to, whether he identifies with Thelonius Monk Ellison, the author hero of Erasure and the film, American Fiction. Does he go into bookstores to check where his books are shelved? Has he ever been tempted to write a book of pure exploitation, as Ellison does?

James by Percival Everett and The New Naturals by Gabriel Bump are available from the publishers or from your favorite booksellers.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.