Everett Wins PEN Literary Award

The USC College professor earns the honor for ‘Wounded,’ his novel exploring racial and sexual intolerance in Wyoming.
By Pamela J. Johnson
Everett has taught at USC College since the fall of 1999.

Photo/Amy Graves
Percival Everett II, USC College professor of English, has won the PEN USA 2006 Literary Award for his 15th novel, “Wounded,” a tale that tackles racial and sexual intolerance in America.

The award is given each year by the PEN American Center, an association of writers working to advance literature, defend free expression and foster international literary fellowship.

Everett received his award and $1,000 cash prize Dec. 12 during a ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The annual awards recognize literary excellence in 10 categories for outstanding works published or produced the previous year by writers west of the Mississippi River. Everett won for best fiction.

“I’m just honored to be considered with the other finalists,” said Everett, referring to Daniel Alarcon, Karen Fisher, Luis Rodriguez and William Vollman.

Judges praised “Wounded” (Greywolf Press, 2005) as a “sophisticated examination of race and sexuality, done with exemplary finesse and lack of pretentiousness.”

“Wounded” tells the story of John Hunt, a widowed Wyoming cowboy who tends to his horses and land with his elderly uncle. But Hunt’s serene existence is threatened when a gay college student is found slain and two bigoted thugs arrive in town. Tension escalates when David, the 20-year-old gay son of an old college roommate, enters the picture and falls in love with Hunt.

Complications intensify when Hunt, who has had a second chance at love with a woman named Morgan, a neighboring rancher, is forced to take action after David goes missing.

When conducting research for his 2003 novel “God’s Country” (Beacon Press), Everett watched and read about 150 westerns to soak up the genre.

“God’s Country” is a farcical western, a parable set in 1871 that included a highly amusing cast of characters. “Wounded” also is set in the west, but that is where the similarities end.

“They both deal with the west and share the same landscape,” said Everett, who worked as a horse trainer for 14 years and held a job as a ranch hand.

“But ‘God’s Country’ is the mythical west, a fabrication of the frontier,” Everett said. “ ‘Wounded’ is a novel about people and a real place.”

Although some critics have attempted to categorize him as a great western novelist, Everett strongly disagreed.

“I’ve never written a western,” he said. “I’ve written novels that happened to be set in the west.”

Other Everett novels include a satire of the publishing industry, a children’s story lampooning counting books, his unique take on the Greek myths of Dionysus and Medea, and a philosophical yarn narrated by a 4-year-old child.

Everett majored in philosophy and biochemistry at the University of Miami but grew disenchanted when he found himself writing mostly dialogue based on hypotheticals. When he discovered the writings of early 20th century analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, he was “seduced.” It was then he realized that “the root for me is matters of language.”

At Brown University, he enrolled in a master’s program in writing and penned his first novel, “Suder (Voices of the South),” (Louisiana State University Press). That novel follows the struggles of Craig Suder, a third baseman for the Seattle Mariners. The book was critically acclaimed when it was published in 1983. Everett was 25.

Born and raised in Columbia, S.C., Everett comes from a family of doctors and dentists. His maternal grandfather, however, was a farmer. Because his father was a voracious reader, he grew up in a home filled with books.

After enrolling at the University of Miami at age 17, he helped put himself through college playing jazz and blues guitar. Later, he taught high school math.

A professor at USC College since the fall of 1999, he teaches in the English department’s graduate program in literature and creative writing. He describes himself as a demanding teacher.

“I’m honest with my students,” he said. “And I’m demanding. But I learn from them as much as they do from me. These kids are smart. They see things that I don’t see. They may have a lack of experience in the art, but they have a very sharp take.”

Everett also has written three collections of short fiction and one volume of poetry. He is a recipient of the Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the PEN/Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature and a New American Writing Award.

He lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife, Danzy Senna, a novelist, and their 3-month-old son, Henry.