A Way with Words


Novelist Percival Everett, who joined USC’s English department this fall, has a shelf-full of books to his credit.

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A Way with Words: Percival Everett

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• An obese bureaucrat, the last woman capable of bearing a child in a post-apocalyptic age.
• A disillusioned hydrologist swept up in a violent Indian rights movement while fishing in Colorado.
• A 19th-century cowpoke traveling through frontier society.
• An embittered obstetrician vacationing in Oregon.
• Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and pleasure.

What do all these characters have in common?
They are all dramatis personae from the fertile imagination of Percival Everett, who joined USC’s English department faculty this fall, a faculty that includes such luminaries as fellow novelist T. Cora-ghessan Boyle and poets David St. John and Carol Muske-Dukes.

With nine novels and two collections of stories to his credit, Everett has developed a reputation as a wordsmith. One critic describes him as a lyrical writer, whose “stark and sometimes powerful prose” leaves a lasting impression. His 1994 book God’s Country drew measured praise from the New York Times: “[The novel] starts sour, then abruptly turns into Cowpoke Absurdism, ending with an acute hallucination of blood, hate and magic. It’s worth the wait. The novel sears.”
Heartening as such reviews are, they rarely lead to runaway sales. “I’ve never had a bestseller, and I’m not going to have one,” Everett augurs. “I watch our culture, and I see what sells. That’s not what I write. I do make demands on the reader.”
Maybe Everett’s serious writing hasn’t led to a vast audience, but it has brought such prestigious awards as the PEN/Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature (for his 1996 story collection Big Picture) and the New American Writing Award (for his 1990 novel Zulus). He has served as a judge for, among others, the 1997 National Book Award for fiction and the PEN/ Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1991.

Born and raised in Columbia, S.C., Everett spent a childhood “filled with books,” he says. As an undergraduate at the University of Miami, majoring in philosophy and biochemistry, he discovered the writings of early 20th-century analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein held that most philosophical problems were semantic – misunderstandings caused by imprecise language.
“I was seduced completely by Wittgenstein,” Everett says. “He still informs my way of thinking. The root for me is matters of language.”
After Miami, Everett signed up for the graduate writing program at Brown University. His first novel – the widely praised Suder – followed closely upon graduation. A Brown professor sent Everett’s manuscript to an agent, who elicited quick enthusiasm from Viking Press. The book has since been reprinted by the Louisiana State University Press.
Everett began teaching his craft in 1985, as a visiting professor at the University of Kentucky. He has since been on the faculty of Notre Dame and UC Riverside.
Today, he lives with his wife, Francesca Rochberg – a professor of ancient history at UC Riverside – and two step-children on a small farm at the eastern edge of Moreno Valley. In this bucolic setting, Everett writes, or thinks about writing, every day. Consumed as he is with his muse, he has moments of doubt about the future of the novel. “It’s not a terribly old form,” he says. “It’s a little frightening to think that it wasn’t that long ago that it didn’t exist, and there might be a time when it doesn’t exist again.”
This, however, doesn’t deter him. “It makes my job as an artist more challenging,” he says. “If part of the mission of the artist is to expand the thinking of the culture in which he exists, I have my work cut out for me.”

Ed Newton




Books Photography by
Rick Szczechowski

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