Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Percival Everett, Professor of Literature at the University of Southern California and author of novels such as Erasure, I Am Not Sidney Poitier and Assumption. Everett, who hails originally from the United States, has relocated with his family to Paris for a year. My current research explores identity in Everett’s writing. Everett’s novels are for the most part satirical; they cover many genres and subject matters – from genius babies to the problems experienced when your mother names you ‘Not’. Everett is also known for his objections to being labelled or pigeon-holed, especially with regards to racial matters. On a whim, I emailed him to ask if he would answer some questions. I did not really expect a reply, but to my surprise, he offered me an interview. The interview took place on 15th November 2012 in a little cafe in the centre of Paris and what follows is an edited transcript of the event. Everett was warm and helpful as we discussed his work over a pot of Earl Grey.
Cruden: First of all, I am very grateful for this interview. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to do this.
Everett: My pleasure. I am flattered that you have chosen my work to write on.
Cruden: In my dissertation, I am concentrating on the theme of identity in your literature. What interests you about that theme?
Everett: Well I think that every work of art is about the theme of identity of some kind and there’s identity of the work itself. So, in that way I’m fascinated by it. I’m also fascinated by it, not only racially, but, I’ve always been fascinated by that thing that is self-identity .But that’s not the same as something being equal to something else.
Cruden: So would you define identity as what distinguishes people rather than what groups them together?
Everett: I’m not sure that identity is chosen… Characteristics are not chosen, traits are not chosen. Identity itself is not only subjected to outside influences. And finally, we are different people in different contexts and circumstances.
Cruden: How much would you say author and creation are connected?
Everett: Well, they are inextricably bound together. That has nothing to do with any meaning that the work makes. The work can’t exist without the creator but of course, it can’t exist without an audience either.
Cruden: Where did you come up with the idea of a character with the first name ‘Not’ [in the novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier]and what were your reasons for choosing this?
Everett: Well it’s not Sidney! [Everett laughs] Nah, I’m just kidding. Um…I don’t know. To me, it’s all magic where novels come from. But the idea of negation and logic are also…You know, there are times in the world where we define things by what they are not. For example, we have the designation ‘non-fiction’…I don’t know what that [term] really means. [However, it might mean]…that you have to know what fiction is before you can understand what non-fiction is… [but] I don’t think that’s true. You can actually understand what that [term “non-fiction”] is before you know what fiction is and that makes fiction a more complicated notion. In America, you often come across on a form the designation ‘non-white’, which is bizarre since no people of colour define themselves as being not white. That’s something that comes from white America trying to understand other people.
Cruden: I’ve come across a quote from the essay “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes that describes literature as “…that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.” Would you agree with this statement or do you have any comments on this?
Everett: It’s very poetic, of course. But, you know, it’s a complex thing creating a work of fiction. You do at once have to lose yourself in the work, especially when you are writing a first person narration. You have to become the character you are creating, but you never stop being yourself and you also can’t hide from yourself – your fears, your desires, your fetishes – they all find their way into the work in some ways. I challenge my writing students by asking them to write down their five most profound fears and I say “If you can write a real story and I can’t find these fears in it, then I will give you an ‘A’ and you don’t have to write anything else.” You know, it’s a stacked bet because they are gonna work so hard trying to write that story that they’ll do as much work as I wanted them to do anyway. And also, they can’t do it!
Cruden: Your novels covers many genres. Why is this?
Everett: I don’t believe in genres. There are some things that are formulaic and then there’s things like detective fiction, science fiction and they are not totally interesting. But then there are books – like in science fiction, Ursula Le Guin – books that push the envelope of that so-called genre. But stories of stories and literary art transcend any notion of genre.
Cruden: Now I know this is a typical question but do you have a main source of inspiration? Where do your ideas come from?
Everett: I have no idea…I just put myself in the work and something happens. It’s not always fast and it’s not always pretty!
Cruden: Would you agree that the idea of double-consciousness ties into your work?
Everett: I don’t know. I think not just double-consciousness but multi-consciousness is a part of living in this world. I think if somebody thinks that they’re the same person with their co-worker as they are with their children, then they are misguided.
Cruden: I have read a couple of past interviews online…
Everett: And yet you came to interview me anyway! [Everett laughs]
Cruden: You were quoted by Bell in his critique of Erasure as saying- “Monk’s experience is very much my own…though he of course is not me at all.” In another interview in the LA Times, Salter Reynolds quotes you as saying – “I have a feeling about it, but I can’t articulate what it looks like. I begin with a sense of weight. Then I find somebody, and I become that character. I inhabit that character.” Would you say that your creating of these characters is a sort of ventriloquism or puppetry?
Everett: I don’t know. You know, Lawrence Olivier, what he said about acting was that you just pretend. I guess, in a very simple way, you just imagine a world and do that. I suppose the people around me would say it’s more like method acting than anything else. But, I don’t come to the dinner table still being Not Sidney.
Cruden: The three books I am concentrating my dissertation on – Erasure, I Am Not Sidney Poitier and Assumption – all contain main characters who can be described as misfits or outcasts. Would you draw any similarities between the main characters and yourself?
Everett: Yeah for sure but probably every character in that book has something of me seeing as it came out of me. I wish I had a copy of the novel I have coming out in February. The title is Percival Everett by Virgil Russell. I call it pin the tail on the narrator; you don’t know who’s telling the story. But I’ll try and get you a copy.
Cruden: Thank you very much. So, does the idea of misfits interest you?
Everett: I think the idea interests all of us. We read stories because people are fucked up. You know, we don’t want to read about happy, well-adjusted people. We don’t want to read about the man who gets on the bus to work and everything’s just fine.
Cruden: Yes, someone has to die!
Everett: Yeah or say something strange!
Cruden: The disclaimer at the beginning of I Am Not Sidney Poitier says – “All characters depicted in this novel are completely fictitious, regardless of similarities to any extant parties and regardless of shared names. In fact, one might go as far as to say that any shared name is ample evidence that any fictitious character in this novel is NOT in any way a depiction of anyone living, dead, or imagined by anyone other than the author. This qualification applies, equally, to the character whose name is the same as the author’s.” Concerning the disclaimer, how similar would you actually say Professor Everett and yourself are?
Everett: Ah, that’s scary because I think we’re both…you know, I don’t even wanna think about it myself because I think it’s closer to the truth than I imagined!
Cruden: Well, you speak in a lot less riddles, so that’s helpful!
Everett: Yeah well you’ve not spent a lot of time with me!
Cruden: Do you share certain qualities with the character of Professor Percival Everett?
Everett: I guess. Yes…my students probably would say yes.
Cruden: So is it like a parody of yourself?
Everett: Oh it is, yeah.
Cruden: The ending of Assumption came as a shock to me until I began looking back at the little clues that had been sneakily inserted through the 3 murder mysteries. Did you mean to create this effect or are the readers meant to notice the small things that don’t add up upon the first reading?
Everett: Well, I think if you, again, like you say, if you know what’s coming, you see the clues. If you don’t see them, it’s because you have assumptions about the characters because of the positions they hold, about the story because of the kind of story it is, about the story because I’ve written it.
Cruden: Hence the title “Assumption”! Dreams feature throughout both I Am Not Sidney Poitier and Assumption. Why do dreams interest you?
Everett: Well, I’m not so much interested in dreams, as I am in dream narrative. Because when you really tell somebody your dream, as soon as you start talking about it, it stops making any sense. But, in film and in literature, there’s a certain kind of language that we’ve come to recognize as dream language and we recognize those things are dreams. But it’s a complete fabrication; the whole form is a fabrication. Again, because if it was really a dream it would break down, we wouldn’t understand what we were talking about.
Cruden: Yes, with I Am Not Sidney Poitier I got so confused when the narrative kept skipping into Not Sidney’s strange dreams until I realised that the dreams were scenes from Poitier’s films. I’m definitely going to have a look at his films now!
Everett: Yeah, I mean, you’ll have fun with them. I think more so because, well not all of them are great. In fact, I didn’t start this… though I like Sidney Poitier as a figure and what I know of him, I was never a big fan of his acting. He seems sort of wooden to me, not a great actor. A real handsome guy, who’s likeable, but I never quite believed – that’s part of the reason I used him for this, because I never quite believe him. But he’s this icon; he’s this great movie star.
Cruden: I read somewhere that you described him as ‘palatable’ which I thought was a strange choice of word?
Everett: Yeah, and one wonders why. He was a tall, good-looking, dark-skinned man that was accepted [in America]. They were only gonna accept one apparently and he was the one!
Cruden: Thank you very much for your time, it’s been great being able to do this.