A literary werewolf novel?

KAREN TAY
Last updated 10:38 28/05/2013

Like the vampires in Justin Cronin's The Passage, the werewolves in Benjamin Percy's Red Moon are never referred to as such. Werewolf novels are few and far between, at least in my limited experience, so it was intriguing to start reading Red Moon, which is being hailed as literary fiction. Again, this is an oddity, because genre and literary fiction don't often mix.

But being a fan of both the fantastical and the luminously strange, the idea of a literary tale about werewolves intrigued me. While there were parts of Red Moon that I felt stretched on a bit and could have done with serious editing, it was overall, an interesting concept and worth giving a shot just for that. Oh, and if you leave a comment below telling me about your favourite werewolf story (it can be a childhood tale, urban myth or an actual novel), you can potentially win a copy of Red Moon! 

Reviewers on Amazon are comparing Red Moon to Max Brooks' World War Z and Justin Cronin's The Passage. Had you read either of these books prior to writing Red Moon? How much do you feel they influenced your writing? benjamin percy
I haven't read World War Z, though I've been meaning to for years. I have read The Passage -and admired it very much, especially the first 90 pages (before the fall). In both cases, you have authors reinventing mythology. Red Moon is, I suppose you could say, a post-9/11 reimagining of the werewolf myth. I never use that term-werewolves -just as Cronin never uses vampires. His are virals, mine are lycans, one small sleight of hand that clues you in to the larger vision of the novel; these are not full-moon howlers, but believable horrors. I spent hours and hours interviewing researchers at the USDA labs and Iowa State University in order to create a "slipper science" behind the animal-borne pathogen (prions, akin to Mad Cow) and its effect on the mind and body.

How do you feel about Red Moon being referred to as  "literary horror" or "literary thriller" or a "literary werewolf novel"?
Oh, I suppose they say that because I write pretty sentences. No, I didn't set out to construct anything except the best possible story; one that paid equal attention to a gripping plot, psychological nuance, artful technique. Sometimes it seems quite accidental what part of the bookshop a novel ends up in-is Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove a "western" or is it "literature"? Does it matter? It's an American masterpiece-that's what it is. I grew up on genre, obsessed with westerns, spy thrillers, mysteries, fantasy novels, horror novels. Especially horror novels, as if caught in some black-watered, bone-strewn whirlpool that still hasn't released me.

I think Red Moon is being labelled "literary" because of your obvious gift with language. Sadly there is still a real divide between what people consider "literary" and what I would classify as intelligent mainstream fiction. What do you think of this divide, and who do you think created it? 
By and large we're talking about phantom barricades. How about let's talk about books that suck and books that kick ass? That makes better sense to me. Look at Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Look at Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island or Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake or Peter Straub's Ghost Story - or any number of other titles - and you'll see books that feature unforgettable characters, subterranean themes, sentences so gorgeous you might cut them out, frame them on the wall. But they never forget about why most people pick up a story-entertainment, escapism -and ultimately the answer to the question what happens next?

I feel that Red Moon is very much a critique of American politics but in an interesting way, in that it doesn't take an obvious side (either for the government, or for the people). How do you feel about the current state of the US? What inspired you to write Red Moon?
Whenever I encounter fiction that editorializes, I feel betrayed, as though the characters are not living, breathing things, but mere puppets that serve as a mouthpiece for the author. I try to raise questions without answering them, and that's hopefully what Red Moon accomplishes, being political without being polemical. I'm holding up a mirror and the mirror has a crack running through it. You might think you recognize certain political figures or cultural debates or international battles or even diseases, but the reflection is warped, the lines are blurred. I'm channelling unease, tangling up all the frayed nerves of the moment. How very zeitgeisty of me.

One way of interpreting the events that unfold in the novel is to see the lycans as being the oppressed - a link could be made between them and Islam, in that the actions of a few radicals hold serious and deadly consequences for the rest of the population. What do you think is the solution to radical ideology? On either side of the scale?
I don't have the answer to that question, I'm afraid. But you'll see in the novel that there are no good guys and bad guys, only the infected and the uninfected. Extremism exists on both sides. And my characters are men and women, young and old, from so many different places and cultures and political leanings, in order to capture the many dark chambers of the human heart and our capability for courage and goodness.

Who are some of the authors who have inspired you?
I'm a strenuous, omnivorous reader, marking up everything I get my hands on in order to figure out how it ticks. Everyone from Flannery O'Connor to Robert R. McCammon, from Ray Bradbury to Alice Munro, I'm in love with. I'm lately in love with George R.R. Martin, along with the rest of the world, for his Song of Fire and Ice series; it's completely swept me away. And I've read very nearly everything by Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, Peter Straub and Cormac McCarthy.

Though people seem to be divided between how to categorise Red Moon, I actually think of it as modern fantasy, similar to some of Neil Gaiman's works - in that you take fantastical characters and place them in a society with issues that mirror our own. Would you agree with that take?  red moon
Certainly. I've always thought some of the most resonant and lasting fantasies somehow target the nerve of the moment. Consider Frankenstein as a prime example of that-the way the creature embodies all the anxieties swirling around the Industrial Revolution, the fear of science and technology, of man playing God. Or the way the Red Scare gave rise to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the fear of communists living secretly among us!). But there are important differences between me and Gaiman. Such as: he has a slinky British accent and I sound like a drunk Darth Vader; he wears black leather jackets and I wear brown leather cowboy boots. But I hear we both throw awesome Halloween parties.

Check out more about Benjamin Percy in this interview here, in particular, note how deep his voice is...a peculiar coincidence?

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