Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: "Thrill Me" by Benjamin Percy

Even though most of his books haven’t really resonated with me (although his short story “Refresh, Refresh” is a personal favorite), I have always been fascinated by Benjamin Percy as a literary figure. His drive to break down walls between genre and literary fiction and his seemingly erratic reading interests are inspiring to me and I am sure to many others who encounter him and his work. So it is no surprise that his essay collection Thrill Me, his first nonfiction book, is his best book yet. It is also one of the most pragmatic and humble books on the writing craft to come out in a long time. Through fifteen essays that speak about any number of topics pertaining to the writing (from suspense to violence), we are given an unplugged look into Percy’s writing process: what inspires him, what made him want to write and the things that bug and entice him when it comes to writing and reading. He invites us into his hall of influences which vary from literary writers such as James Baldwin, Cormac McCarthy, Alice Munro and Tobias Wolff, to genre authors like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon to authors such as Flannery O’Conner and Michael Chabon who bridge and sometimes destroy that gap. Since this is an essay collection, I will pick out my favorites of the fifteen presented and discuss them briefly. It starts out swell with the title essay (while the quote is attributed to Barry Hannah, bonus points if you can name the 80’s horror film it CAN be attributed to). Percy talks about his early life, how he was always attracted to scary things and how this led to his wanting to become a writer. It also discusses how his reading life grew from purely genre fiction to literary and how he slowly found out there was very little difference between the two styles of writing. In “Urgency” he speaks about the need to keep some details of a story hidden, amusingly characterized by a joke with a lame punch line that shows that monsters are scarier right before they are revealed (most of the time). “Making the Ordinary Extraordinary” is self-explanatory and uses examples such as George Saunders and Karen Russell to show how common events can become something otherworldly in the hands of a skilled writer. In “Modulation” he takes about the sleight of hand that can be executed by storytellers to get the desired reaction, using a scene from Jaws and the reveal in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as examples of this. “Consider the Orange” speaks to meaningful repetition that is not too obvious but deeply symbolic, it’s title taking from what oranges symbolize in The Godfather. And it ends strongly with “Going the Distance” where he speaks personally about his beginning failures and how the need to move forward is a key to creative success and happiness, with Percy brilliantly using Rocky Balboa as a metaphor for this state of mind. This is an essential book for anyone who sits down in front of a computer and creates new worlds on a regular basis. It is a refreshingly honest take on being a writer that is also very hopeful and optimistic, a sort of rarity nowadays. And that it comes from someone like Percy, whose advice I find more valuable than 99% of people out there, makes it that much more special.  
Rating: 5/5

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