Iowa State, UI Percy siblings earn National Endowment of the Arts awards

AMES, Iowa -- Brother and sister authors Ben and Jen Percy often tell stories around the family dinner table when they get together back in their native Oregon. The key, according to Ben -- an Iowa State University assistant professor of English and author of the critically acclaimed novel, "The Wilding" (Graywolf Press) -- is "calling" that story idea as his own before his younger sister, a graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, gets dibs.

"Immediately I'll say or she'll say, 'That's mine, and you can't use it,'" said Ben (, who is nearly four years older than his sister.

But the Percy siblings can now share one story that showcases their literary excellence, as each has been awarded a $25,000 Literature Fellowship in Creative Writing (Prose) by the National Endowment for the Arts. They are believed to be the first brother-sister siblings to ever earn these prestigious NEA awards in the same year.

"There are a lot of brother writers out there, and there have been some sister acts as well, but there aren't a lot of brother-sister writing duos," said Ben, who has also been a visiting assistant professor in the University of Iowa's creative writing program this semester. "It's fun to be experiencing this success with her through dual recognition."

"My brother and I have always been there for each other and always fiercely supported each other's literary pursuits -- and so to receive this award in the same year is an exciting way to celebrate our shared love of writing and literature," said Jen, who is now a Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is currently authoring a nonfiction book about post-traumatic stress disorder titled "Demon Camp" (Scribner Publishing).

Hollywood comes calling

The NEA honor caps a big year for Ben, who earlier sold the film rights to the Gotham Group for his next novel, the werewolf thriller "Red Moon," before it was written. He's now completed the novel, which will be published by Grand Central/Hachette in March 2013. And he's just sold the film rights for "The Wilding" -- which has been called a contemporary "Deliverance" by reviewers -- to Mexican screenwriter, director and producer Guillermo Arriaga.

While Barry Levy -- best known as screenwriter of the 2008 film "Vantage Point" -- is authoring the screenplay for "Red Moon," Percy is writing his own film adaptation of "The Wilding."

"We pursued some avenues [for selling the film rights to 'The Wilding'], and I really wanted to hold on to the screenplay rights. I really wanted to write it myself," said Ben, who has also begun work on his next novel, which he calls a post-apocalyptic thriller. "So we held back from a few offers, just because I wanted ownership of that material. And I guess it was the right move because Guillermo came along just three months ago after having read it and said he wanted to pursue the project.

"We've had three telephone conferences where we've brainstormed different ideas -- structural components and different takes on some of the characters," he continued. "And it was just two weeks ago that he said, 'OK, start writing.'"

Percys might have been scientists

All of the recent literary success is still a bit humbling to Ben, who recalls that neither he nor his sister initially set out to be writers.

"We both started off in the sciences -- I was in archaeology and she was doing physics internships. And we both stumbled into these creative writing workshops and ended up changing our course from there," Ben said. "Neither of us grew up encouraged to be writers. Neither of us grew up writing, or ever having the dream to pursue this trade. It just somehow happened that as lifelong readers, we both found a passion later on for creating worlds of our own on a page."

Jen says the NEA award will help her finish research for her nonfiction book. At the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she's working on a collection of short stories.

Ben says he and his sister are now discussing collaboration on a future memoir about their upbringing in the rural "sticks of Oregon." Jen remembers those humble beginnings well.

"We grew up in the middle of nowhere and my brother got his kicks from terrorizing me with stories about werewolves, Big Foot and aliens," she said. "Once I woke up with an army of troll dolls in my room carrying hand-written death notes. We have some hilarious stories that would be enriched by engaging both our perspectives. I'd only worry that we wouldn't finish because we wouldn't be able to stop making each other laugh."

Based on their NEA awards, the Percy name is now growing among serious literary circles.