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Benjamin Percy: On Owning His Own Characters

Award-winning novelist Benjamin Percy discusses his desire to build his own universe of characters and writing his new speculative fiction novel, The Unfamiliar Garden.

Benjamin Percy has won a Whiting Award, a Plimpton Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, an NEA fellowship, and the iHeartRadio Award for Best Scripted Podcast. He is the author of the novels The Ninth Metal, The Dark Net, The Dead Lands, Red Moon, and The Wilding, three story collections, and an essay collection, Thrill Me. He also writes Wolverine and X-Force for Marvel Comics. He lives in Minnesota with his family. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Benjamin Percy: On Owning His Own Characters

Benjamin Percy

In this post, Benjamin discusses writing his new speculative fiction novel, The Unfamiliar Garden, how he handled burnout, and more!

Name: Benjamin Percy
Literary agent: Katherine Fausset
Book title: The Unfamiliar Garden
Publisher: Mariner
Expected release date: January 4, 2022
Genre/category: Speculative Fiction
Previous titles: The Ninth Metal, The Dark Net, The Dead Lands, Red Moon, The Wilding, Thrill Me
Elevator pitch for the book: From award-winning author Benjamin Percy comes the second standalone novel in his grippingly original sci-fi series, The Comet Cycle, in which a passing comet has caused irreversible change to the world. This novel focuses on a broken marriage set against the backdrop of a dangerous, invasive species of alien fungi in the Pacific Northwest that threatens to control the lives of humans and animals alike.

Benjamin Percy: On Owning His Own Characters

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What prompted you to write this book?

A few things prompted me to write the Comet Cycle (which The Unfamiliar Garden is part of). The first is the epic sweep of the concept. I’ve been writing for DC and Marvel Comics since 2014, and as much fun as it is to play in that sandbox, those characters don’t belong to me. I wanted to build something equally ambitious—a shared universe—but on my own 1,000 acres.

All of these books stand alone—in the same way that Iron Man and Thor and Spider-Man (and other stories in the Marvel Universe stand alone), but they rub up against each other. There are three books to begin with, but the Cycle could be nine books or it could be 12 books (or more, many more), and I love that sense of intersectional expansiveness.

The second is much more personal. A few years ago—maybe because of politics, age, the start of the pandemic—I felt … more than a little fried. Like I had lost my capacity for awe. Like I had unplugged from the electricity of the world. My father is a hobbyist astronomer, and a lot of my childhood was spent behind a telescope. I started looking to the stars again, and there I rediscovered—no other word for it—wonder.

The Comet Cycle series draws from that feeling. A comet comes streaking through the solar system. The planet spins through the debris field. And we’re introduced to new elements that upend the laws of physics, geology, biology. The geopolitical theater is thrown into chaos. I guess, maybe because I was feeling dissatisfied with the way things were, I wanted to create a new world within this world.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

I put together a giant pitch that included the overall story architecture, 50-page excerpts from each book, and a marketing plan (detailed below). It’s the most ambitious thing I’ve ever taken on, and thankfully my publisher was as geeked about it as I was.

I’m a fast writer, but that’s because I’m a slow planner. I build elaborate outlines and story charts—which hang on my office wall—sometime years ahead of when I actually punch prose into the keyboard.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

Well, we’re taking a whole new approach to publishing with the Comet Cycle. I pitched not just the story, but the marketing platform. I was inspired by my work in comics (I currently write Wolverine, X-Force, and Ghost Rider for Marvel).

For starters, I think that putting out a $37 hardback (and then a year later putting out a paperback) is exclusionary and a terrible way to build word of mouth. Comics move in the opposite direction. They put out cheap floppy issues—which are later collected into a trade paperback—which are later collected into a hardback—which are later collected into a deluxe omnibus.

Movies work in the same way. Buy a ticket for seven bucks now, buy a 30-dollar Director’s cut DVD later. So the books in the Comet Cycle come out as paperbacks first—to help with distribution and hype—and then later they’ll all be collected into a deluxe omnibus with bonus material (such as short stories and illustrations and maybe an author’s note).

Benjamin Percy: On Owning His Own Characters

I also hoped for them to come out in quick succession, as that builds momentum and excitement. Again, a lesson from comics. I have a Wolverine event rolling out this winter, and it’s 10 weekly issues. That energizes people. Whereas a series that rolls out over years … people tend to forget and lose interest. The Unfamiliar Garden comes out sixth months after The Ninth Metal.

So this has all been a publishing experiment.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I knew I wanted to write a he said/she said kind of story. I was inspired by Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and a television program called The Affair. In both examples, you take in different perspectives on the same troubled love. But rather than move toward cleavage, I wanted to begin with something broken and move toward reconciliation. A he/she that eventually becomes a they.

What surprised me is how nicely this ended up tying into fungus and the notion of symbiosis, the thematic unity that emerged as I continued to write.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope they’re thrilled—by the plot, by the language, by the sci-fi concepts, by the mystery and suspense—and I hope they’re moved by this broken family that slowly becomes whole again. I put a lot of heart into this one.

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

Reread. Slowly. If a story moves you, impresses you, return to it. Over and over again. Until you’re emotionally disengaged. Then you can comprehend it technically and look under the hood and identify its component parts.

When I was teaching in an MFA program, this is an assignment I would give my students. Read a story you love five times. The sixth time, map out the narrative, character, and thematic beats. As an exercise, use this as a skeleton/outline for something new.

The students would then have to write an essay explicating, step by step, how the story they had written drew from the original source material.

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