An Interview with Ben and Jen Percy

The authors (and siblings!) discuss their unorthodox upbringing and surprises behind their thrilling books.

The Dark Net is real. An anonymous, often criminal arena that exists in the far reaches of the Web; some use it to manage Bitcoins, pirate movies and music, or traffic in drugs and stolen goods. And now, an ancient darkness is gathering there. This force is threatening to spread virally into the real world unless it can be stopped by a ragtag crew: Hannah, who’s been fitted with the Mirage, a high-tech visual prosthetic to combat her blindness; Lela, a technophobic journalist; Mike, a one-time evangelist who suffers from personal and literal demons; and Derek, a hacker with a cause who believes himself a soldier of the internet. They have no idea what the Dark Net really contains.

A cracked-mirror version of the digital nightmare we already inhabit, The Dark Net is a timely, imaginative techno-thriller about the evil that lurks in real and virtual spaces, and the power of a united few to fight back.

In Demon Camp, Jen Percy delves into the epidemic of suicide among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, men and women with post-traumatic stress disorder who cannot cope with ordinary life in the aftermath of war. Her main subject, Caleb, shepherds damaged veterans to a Christian exorcism camp in Georgia that promises them deliverance from their ghosts. As Percy embeds herself with these soldiers and exorcists, finding beliefs both repellant and magnetic, she enters a fanatical world that’s alternately terrifying and welcoming, and one that few have glimpsed before.

Ben Percy and Jen Percy recently sat with Read It Forward editor Abbe Wright to talk broadly about the interplay of fiction and nonfiction in their writing, what excites them most about the craft and each other’s work, how comics and visual mediums feed their creativity, and the amusing mythology of childhood “roof monsters.”

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Read It Forward: So, Ben Percy and Jen Percy. Do you guys go by rhyming names?

Jen Percy: We prefer the rhyme.

Ben Percy: The literary Bennifer.

RIF: Exactly. So tell us what The Dark Net is all about.

BP:  So, the Dark Net is real. It’s the internet below the internet. I was interested in exploring my own fears of technology and did a lot of research traveling to the Google and Apple campuses, talking to the higher-ups at Verizon, and a few hackers and tech geeks, in order to authenticate what ultimately became a supernatural novel. I guess you could think of it as a cyber-thriller, or as tech-horror. Or like an epic episode of Black Mirror. 

RIF: The Dark Net is scary; a lot of scary stuff goes on there. Did you have to dig around too much in your own research, or did you just hear things?

BP: I never went on the Dark Net because I didn’t want to be on an NSA watch list. But I stood over a few shoulders as others navigated it, and there’s a lot of screenshots online that explain how to navigate it through Tor Browser. I refer to it as the basement, the dungeon of the internet. It’s a Wild West where there are no laws. You have some people down there for innocent purposes, like a college student downloading Jay-Z singles or watching Game of Thrones. But there are also people ordering mail-order drugs or soliciting murder-for-hire situations. And ISIS is down there, and so on.

RIF: Wow. So tell us about Hannah. She’s your heroine, and she’s blind. In what ways does her blindness make her more of an acute observer?

BP: A few things went into the construction of Hannah. A few years ago, my daughter came up to me in the comic book shop with a sour look on her face. I asked what was wrong, and she said, “Where are all the girl heroes?” So I wanted to make Hannah a hero; the crisis is solved because of her. And I was interested in trying to challenge myself and change things up, so I made this an urban novel. I’ve written so many outdoorsy books in the past. I wanted to set it in Portland and have a shadowy, noir quality to the way I was creating that cityscape.

I feel like I’m a very visual writer because I’m as inspired by comics and movies and TV as by literature, and I fall back on that crutch, on vision as the primary sensory experience. So I thought by taking away one of the character’s vision, it would be a cool experiment for me, to try to ramp up other senses as a result.

RIF: You can really tell in your writing. She can hear the bus wheels on the asphalt through a puddle and her ears are pricked up to everything. Your descriptions were incredible and made us feel like we were using our other four senses.

BP: That was from my former life as a nerdy, tweedy professor. One of the exercises I gave was to eliminate a sense and try to heighten others. I was first inspired to do it after reading Anthony Doerr’s The Shell Collector.

RIF: That’s a great inspiration. How does her blindness propel the story?

BP: She’s sort of a Spielbergian character. There’s always that child in a Spielberg movie who ends up having extraordinary courage, or some sort of power that serves as a narrative tool and saves everyone. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t solving her blindness. Even though there’s this device she gets hooked up with called the Mirage—which is kind of like Geordi LaForge’s visor in Star Trek: The Next Generation, on steroids—even though there’s that element, she ultimately transcends even her human form. It sounds horribly cheesy in summary, and I can’t really talk about it without being very spoiler-y, but she basically uploads herself online in a super heroic way.

RIF: You’ve written novels, screenplays, comic books, and a book of essays. Do you have a favorite medium?

BP: I don’t know that I do. Maybe novel writing feels like the ultimate medium. With the exception of my editor and agent, who I have very close relationships with, it’s not as much of a team effort as writing comics, in which you’re relying heavily on the artist—not just the editors—but the artist, letterer, colorist, and the whole corporate monster essentially behind you, helping you tell the story in the best way possible.  And I love that collaboration. But it feels a bit more like I’m playing without a net when I’m writing a novel. It feels like it’s on me.

RIF: Do they inform each other?

BP: I think so. Writing comics has made me a tighter writer. There’s also the story math that informs comics. It’s twenty pages, five to seven scenes, and the A-plot of one issue becomes the B-plot of one issue becomes the A-plot of the other issue, and the C-plot becomes the B-plot, and so on. By page four, you have to have a splash page, a big visual that captures an action set piece, or some emotionally resonant moment. There’s something about that constrictive nature and that form.

Terrance Hayes, the poet, says the difference between free verse and form poetry like a sonnet is like the difference between breakdancing and breakdancing in a straitjacket: it’s awesome if you can breakdance, but it’s badass if you can breakdance in a straitjacket. Comics feels like breakdancing in a straitjacket, and I’ve taken things, like the story mapping and story math, and applied that to blueprinting my novels.

RIF: So in The Dark Net, there’s a gritty journalist, Layla, who’s very tech-averse, and Mike, who suffers from his own demons, and Derek, who thinks of himself as a soldier of the internet. Were you at all inspired by your sister’s book, Demon Camp? There are a few similar threads, from nonfiction to fiction.

BP: Probably. Jen’s totally fearless, badass, and really inspiring. She gets herself into these amazing environments, puts herself at risk, and has these stories that seem beyond belief sometimes. Demon Camp was a disturbing ride for her whole family when we were hearing about what happened as she researched PTSD, but also broke into this cult and got into the demonic mythology they were following. A lot of scary things started to bleed into her life as a result, and I definitely had demons on the brain. There was this bat demon that kept showing up in Jen’s encounters with these people, and wherever Jen would go, there would be bats, bats in her house. Didn’t you find one in a cereal bowl one morning? Like, you went downstairs, and wasn’t there a dead bat in a bowl of milk?

JP: Yeah, that’s accurate. It’s one of those things where you don’t know if it’s a pattern; you’re just beginning to recognize where it’s real. But there were definitely a few moments where I was working on a bat scene, and then a bat came into my room and started circling above my head. Also, in Iowa, there are a lot of bats. And you can’t help but put those together, much like my main character, and try to find a pattern that something’s following you.

RIF: So tell us a little bit about Demon Camp. It’s such an incredible, moving, mind-blowing story. How did you come to it, and what made you realize it needed to be told?

JP: I was mostly interested in what happens to someone’s life when there’s something traumatic in their past, and they can’t escape it. So every moment of their life is sort of a haunted presence, and what that feels like to be around other people who are not in that same reality. A lot of the people I’m attracted to in my work have lived in sort of an unreliable narrative, but that’s their reality, and I’m interested in stepping into that.

I was actually inspired by a newspaper article about a man who shot himself after being haunted by an Iraqi soldier who he’d killed, and talking to the soldier every night to where it really seemed like well-scripted dialogue with this ghost. I was interested to see if a lot of people had this. What’s it like to live that way?

I was looking for someone else who was haunted, and I think I was really attracted to Caleb because he was still being followed around by ghosts, but he was also leading me down a journey where every time I followed him felt like an opening. It was best told in an essayistic form. That way I’m actually not sure as a writer where I’m going and try to make sense of it along the way.

RIF: Your research was so immersive. How long did you spend researching, and how taxing was it?

JP: It took a long time. I was in grad school at the time, so it wasn’t a continual process, but I’d drive down to Georgia on break. There are always two kinds of research for a nonfiction project, if not more, but basically on-the-ground reporting and then going to the library and reading books. I did all the on-the-ground reporting and felt so overwhelmed, like my subject had complete control of me. So it really helped to go back and read about the history of PTSD. But that caused a lot of problems because I didn’t want it to be an academic book at all.

In fact, I wanted to get rid of all of that technical language because that’s the life these people lived. They were rejecting medical terminology and wanted to create their own world instead that made more sense to them, especially since having PTSD in some cultures can be so taboo, particularly for men. I wanted to keep it very pure and look at how these people in this culture were defining trauma from war or their childhoods.

RIF: It reads like a thriller, this fast-paced feeling of, “What is happening?” You’ve written a lot for the New York Times Magazine and the New Republic about soldiers. What is important about telling their stories for this wider audience?

JP: It’s a good question, because in some ways I don’t see the soldiers as being that different from a lot of my other subjects who are not at war. It’s more about people who are lost and trying to find themselves in a different world, and finding information about themselves by going elsewhere.

In terms of themes in my writing, it was a natural progression to talk to veterans and then go to a war zone. I could have so many different answers to this question because it’s hard to explain the desire to go someplace where the threat of death is so imminent. But I was interested in how people are living their everyday lives when there are these huge events going on around them. I think it’s a really interesting place that can reveal flaws in the human condition. I’ve stopped going to war zones recently. That was a past Jen.

BP: We’re all happy about that in the Percy family. I was encouraging Jen, “Can’t you write about pandas?”

JP: Celebrity profiles! It’s interesting to put your own suffering or personal experiences up against something that’s so much larger than yourself, and trying to understand those immense gaps in human experience. It’s something I wanted to confront and make sense of, and I’m still finding them as I go to different subject matters, but that exploration was just life-changing. Having most of my youth take place during the War on Terror, as we call it; it felt like something I wanted to get closer to and understand.

RIF: And have it provide perspective, exactly. What do you love about reporting?

JP: What I love is that I’m usually talking to people who are probably talked about with disparagement from other people, or looked down upon, or dismissed, or maybe not even seen at all. I can go hang out with them and find a communion, and I think that’s the most magical moment about those experiences.

Once you get to that moment where they’re talking to you, you can make them come alive just like in fiction, creating a character on the page full of contradictions and finding some humanity that you can bring out. It’s sort of the same process, but you have to wait for it to happen in front of you. That’s my favorite part about it. Right now I’m writing about Republican Trump-lovers in rural Oregon trying to come to terms with their reality, and it’s been a difficult but still rewarding process. I end up falling in love with them still, even though on other levels there’s a complete clash of civilization, you could say.

RIF: So were you both writers growing up? Two siblings who become writers—was it evident when you were kids?

BP: I don’t think so. Nobody would’ve guessed that. We never announced that was our desire, and we were all obsessive readers. Our parents read constantly. My dad burns through two science fiction novels a week. And we’d make a kind of religious pilgrimage to Powell’s every few months when we visited our grandparents. We’d be hanging out there for hours stocking up.

RIF: That’s a good place to hang out.

BP: We really didn’t have anything in our town except for a really sad Waldenbooks in the really sad mall. I screwed around a bit with writing in high school, but it was never my dream to become a writer. That wasn’t on my radar. I wanted to be Indiana Jones.

RIF: Who doesn’t? So reading was a huge part of your upbringing?

JP: Yeah. A lot of our childhood was spent in isolation in the desert waiting for our imagination to entertain us. We moved around every couple years.

BP: But we were almost always in the country, and we didn’t really have neighbors.

JP: And if we did, we just spied on them. We didn’t interact really.

BP: A lot of time was spent just out of doors on our own, and every single vacation, we never did anything normal. Most kids go to Disney World, right?

JP: We went to the desert, and we were supposed to find rocks and Indian artifacts. That was our job.

BP: Our parents were obsessed with rocks.

JP: That was the only thing they wanted to do. They would sometimes stop on the road and be like, “Identify that plant.” Like, we’re not moving till you know that plant.

BP: So we spent almost all of our time at the back of the pickup stuffed with pickaxes and shovels, and we’d go out and dig up geodes or find fossils. My dad always had this big geological survey map out, and a .357 balanced on the dashboard. We’d go down these roads in the middle of nowhere, and then he’d suddenly slam on the brakes and be like, “We’re here.”

JP: And then he’d give us a whistle in case we got lost.

BP: This is every vacation we ever had.

RIF: Wow. So books were key for exploring other places. Do you read each other’s work before you give it to others?

BP: No, no, no, it’s after every time Jen publishes something. We’ve all been hearing about it, and the whole family is like, “What is it? What happened? What happened to her when she was with that warlord in Afghanistan?”

JP: Once I gave a reading in front of my parents, and they didn’t know I’d gone to Syria.

BP: Yeah, that was awkward. Because my mom would get so nervous with Jen being gone, Jen decided it would be healthier for her not to know. So that was an interesting revelation.

JP: It was my idea from the beginning.

BP: And then we always see the photos. I mean, it’s such a long, complicated process for her to write these stories, so she’ll be like, “Check out this photo of this smuggler I was hanging out with.” We feel like we know the story through anecdotes, and sometimes only a small portion of it can be told in her articles.

RIF: Do you get to read early drafts of novels, or do you wait, Jen?

JP: No, I’ll wait.

RIF: So patient!

JP: Yeah. And then I’ll have to keep up with his pace. I’ll be like, “Wait a minute, didn’t that happen to me?” Our entire childhood was Ben scaring me, hiding under my bed pretending to be a werewolf, or in the closet, or putting troll dolls around my room with death threats in their hands.

BP: We were bored.

JP: So childhood trauma will come back sometimes.

BP: Scaring Jen was entertainment to me. I invented this whole mythology about the roof people: they were lost souls who lived on the roof, and they’re in purgatory. This one time I went out on the roof, and it was night, and Jen was getting into bed. I scratched on the window, and then I raced back to my room and jumped into bed. When she came in I was like, “What?”

JP: I don’t think I slept with the lights off till I was a teenager.

RIF: What’s the thing you admire most about each other’s writing?

BP: Well, I mentioned Jen’s fearlessness before. I guess it was good training, me jumping out of the closet and saying boo all those years ago, because she puts herself in situations that I would never be brave enough to put myself in. And the diligence of her reporting, too; she puts so much work into getting everything right and seeing the whole picture. If I ever write nonfiction, it’s really soft journalism, just saying, “Here’s this anecdote I remember from when I was a kid” or something. The novelistic intensity she brings to her journalism is beyond anything I’d be capable of, and it was so cool to see her win the National Magazine Award this past year.

RIF: Jen, what about you?

JP: You might call me fearless, but definitely always afraid. Let’s see, Ben—there are so many things. He definitely taught me discipline in writing; getting up every day. He used to get up at 5:30.

BP: 4:30.

JP: 4:30, write all day. Always has a new project going. What was that quote about just wanting to go eat ice cream and go to the zoo?

BP: By Harry Cruise, yeah.

JP: It’s a long quote, but basically the world doesn’t want you to write, they want you to go eat ice cream and go to the zoo. It’s sort of a religious devotion to the practice that I observed in Ben, and then I’ve tried to do myself. And his writing, the ability to take really important world events and then take them down to a level that’s exciting. You don’t realize you’re learning about big political events, such as in Red Moon. It’s about so many different factors.

BP: It’s not just about werewolves.

JP: It’s not about werewolves, exactly. The audience you can get by mixing fantasy and politics, it’s amazing, and it feels like something completely new every time I read it. His ability to write about violence is incredible. I’m not surprised at all about the imagination on the page, but it still manages to feel new and shocking every time, to the point where I maybe have to set it down for a second.

BP: You’re one to talk. Lots of poetic violence in your stuff, too.

JP: I mean, even at the beginning, with the maggot baby?

BP: Maggot Baby, I should have made that the title.

JP: It will never leave my mind.

JENNIFER PERCY is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor at the New Republic. She is the author of the nonfiction book Demon Campwhich was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014 and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers PickWinner of a Pushcart Prize, Percy is the recipient of numerous honors, including the National Magazine Award, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Macdowell Colony. Most recently her reporting has taken her to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Japan. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Harper’s, BookForum, the New Republic, Esquire, and elsewhere. 

BENJAMIN PERCY has won a Whiting Award, a Plimpton Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the author of the novels The Dead Lands, Red Moon, and The Wilding, two story collections, and an essay collection, Thrill Me. He also writes the Green Arrow and Teen Titans series for DC Comics. He lives in Minnesota with his family.

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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