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April 17, 2009

Ben Percy

English assistant professor Ben Percy experienced tremendous writing success in the past year, earning the prestigious Whiting Writer's Award, penning his first novel and helping his second collection of short stories, Refresh, Refresh, get to the big screen. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Amid soaring success, writer keeps his feet on the ground

by Laura Engelson, LAS Public Relations

In just under a year, Ben Percy has won a prestigious writing award, written his first novel and experienced the thrill of watching one of his works make its way to the big screen. For a young writer, any one of these accomplishments would be noteworthy, but Percy, assistant professor of English, is nowhere near stopping this great ride.

The road to becoming a writer was not a straight one for Percy. Although he always had a book in his hands growing up, and English was his best subject in his rural, central Oregon school, Percy said a career as a writer at the time seemed "other worldly" to a child growing up among loggers and ranchers.

Percy started his undergraduate studies as an anthropology and archaeology major at Brown University, but a summer job at Glacier National Park became the starting point for his writing career. There he met his wife, "a blue-eyed Wisconsin girl" working as a waitress, who encouraged Percy to pursue writing after she read the poems and love letters he wrote to her while they dated.

His first collection of short stories, The Language of Elk (2006), is set in the mountainous Oregon landscape of Percy's upbringing. Alfalfa fields and the foothills of the Cascade Mountains provide the settings for much of his work.

"The backdrop of childhood is often the place you go to when imagination takes over," Percy said. "When I descend into that dream at the keyboard, I see pine trees and mountains, and I smell sagebrush and juniper."

Hello, Hollywood

His second collection of short stories, Refresh, Refresh (2007), caught the eye of a film writer and director in a bookstore. James Ponsoldt contacted Percy about adapting the stories into a screenplay at the Sundance Institute's Screenwriters Lab later that year. Ponsoldt's effort landed him the institute's 2007 Lynn Auerbach fellowship to further develop the script.

Filming of Refresh, Refresh is to begin in late spring, and Percy and Ponsoldt recently visited possible settings in central Oregon. Percy's involvement in the movie may not only be behind the scenes.

"The director also promised me a cameo," he said. The film is expected to be unveiled at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Onward and upward

Percy's exceptional writing also is noticed in the literary field. Last fall, a phone call in his Ross Hall office took him by surprise.

"A voice said, 'This is the Whiting Foundation. Do you know what we do?'" Percy recalled. Any writer is familiar with the Whiting Writer's Award, Percy said, in which an anonymous selection committee recognizes 10 young writers for their extraordinary talent and promise. The award is one of the most coveted prizes for up-and-coming writers.

As one of those 10 writers chosen in 2008, Percy is in the company of such notable authors as Michael Cunningham and Tobias Wolff, recipients of the Whiting Writer's Award before they became best-selling authors.

The $50,000 award came at an ideal time, Percy said, after moving twice in one year and with a second child on the way. He also noted that the award brings with it some pressure for future work.

"There is a lot of confidence attached to that award," he said. "If anything, the success has made me work harder."

Percy said he is taking extra care to polish his latest work, which will be released late this year. The Wilding is Percy's first novel and involves several interwoven storylines. The topic is expansionism as it relates to both war and the industrialization of the West.

Juggling genres

An editor at Esquire magazine also noticed Percy's work. In 2006, Percy received what at first appeared to be an Esquire subscription request. Upon opening the envelope a few days later, he found an invitation from the new fiction editor to write a story for the publication. Percy was one of 12 authors published in that invite edition, and was asked to write fiction and nonfiction for Esquire on a regular basis.

But his projects do not stop there. Percy has outlined his first screenplay, is working with the Refresh, Refresh movie director on a possible TV series idea, and has his third collection of short stories in mind. Another of Percy's goals is to "pick the lock of The New Yorker."

"I like experimenting with different genres," he said. "I always keep a notepad with me. Even when I'm watching a movie or reading the newspaper, I'll be jotting down ideas for several projects I have brewing in my head."

In addition to his writing, Percy teaches undergraduate workshops in fiction and nonfiction creative writing and graduate courses in creative writing and environment.

Percy arrived at Iowa State last fall. He said the English department's creative writing program was a big pull for him. Percy said he tries to teach his students to:

  • Find confidence in their voice
  • Look closer at the world around them in order to better understand the human condition

With the accomplishments of recent years, he's grateful for his success. He said it's easy to stay humble with a 2-year-old child and a wife who keep his perspective in check.

"I might come home from a reading, in which I've received rounds of applause and signed scores of books, and then I find myself washing dishes, changing diapers, and playing with toy trucks and trains," he said. "The balance of these two worlds makes me happy and thankful. Life is good."


"I might come home from a reading, in which I've received rounds of applause and signed scores of books, and then I find myself washing dishes, changing diapers, and playing with toy trucks and trains. The balance of these two worlds makes me happy and thankful. Life is good."

Ben Percy, English assistant professor