Iowa State English professor Benjamin Percy earns rave reviews as a rising literary star

AMES, Iowa -- Benjamin Percy has one of his short stories, "Refresh, Refresh," being filmed this spring after winning the Lynn Auerbach award from the Sundance Institute's Screenwriters Lab. He's been on the phone the last two weeks with executives from Paramount and Lionsgate studios about his future novel - a supernatural thriller called "Red Moon." And his agent is negotiating with film producers about his debut novel, "The Wilding" (Graywolf Press), which was released in late September.

Meanwhile Percy (, an Iowa State University assistant professor of English, has been juggling teaching with travel related to an aggressive national tour to promote "The Wilding," a tragic wilderness tale set in Percy's native central Oregon. The book has already won rave reviews from The Boston Globe, Men's Journal, Esquire, Outside magazine, Barnes & Noble and Booklist magazine -- with the prestigious starred review in Publisher's Weekly saying, "It's as close as you can get to a contemporary "Deliverance."

That comparison was particularly poignant for Percy, who modeled his novel after "Deliverance," the famed 1970 novel by James Dickey.

"It's ["Deliverance"] one of the great American novels," said Percy, who won the Whiting Writer's Award in 2008. "I'm wrestling with some of the same themes regarding man in the wild and the wild in man, the jarring intersections between civilization and wilderness. I'm tipping my hat to Dickey. Fitting, given that this is the 40th anniversary of 'Deliverance.'"

A rising literary star at just 31

Dickey's novel is actually nine years older than Percy, who at the tender age of 31 has blossomed into a rising literary star since publishing his first collection of short stories, "The Language of Elk," in 2006. The setting for those stories and most of Percy's work is also the mountainous Oregon landscape at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains where he grew up.

That was the setting for Percy's 2006 short story, "The Woods," which he considers to be where his work on "The Wilding" began.

"I kept thinking about the characters [in 'The Woods'] and I ended up giving them a little more acreage to roam around on [in the novel]," Percy said. "This became a shnovel -- you know, more than a short story and less than a novel. My editor at Graywolf bought it as is, but with some concessions, of course. She said, 'Let's consider a move from first person to third.' That afforded freedom to the characters and allowed me to have these variant subplots braided together and coming to a head at once."

Percy worked another year-and-a-half to come up with the novel's final draft, which reflects upon the contemporary nature vs. civilization struggle of his central Oregon home.

"It takes place in central Oregon and all of the plots are set in motion by the development of a luxury golf course community over a wilderness area," Percy said. "In Oregon, development is out of control -- especially during the time that this is set, the boom years of a few years ago when central Oregon became a playground for the rich.

"All of the characters, as the title suggests, are struggling with wildness in some way," he continued. "Sometimes it takes a more subtle turn, such as with Karen, who is departing the confines of a bad marriage, pursuing an affair. And sometimes the wildness is more exaggerated, such as with Brian, a brain-damaged war vet back from Iraq who ends up spiraling out of control."

The third storyline, which was the original impetus for the novel, involves three generations of men descending into a doomed canyon for one final hunting trip before construction begins. Like Dickey, Percy's writing tends to be dark.

See Percy read from his novel, "The Wilding," during a public reading in the Community Room of the Ames Public Library on Monday, Nov. 8.

"I tend to write fiction that shines a lantern into the dark corners of the human mind," Percy said. "I don't write romantic comedies."

A "Red Moon" rising

He sees his next novel, "Red Moon," being in the mold of famed American horror author Stephen King. The book -- which Percy calls a reinvention of the werewolf myth -- will be published by Grand Central/Hachette in late 2012. It, too, will be set in the wilderness.

And that's where Percy would prefer to be. That's why he feels at home on the faculty of ISU's Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and environment program, the nation's first to now have its own nature preserve.

"I'm an outdoorsman and I think my work reflects the focus of our program," said Percy, who also is an outdoor adventure writer for The Wall Street Journal.

At the rate he's going, Percy is emerging from the literary wilderness and may soon receive the red carpet treatment at a Hollywood film premier of one of his stories.