Home News Percival Everett’s new novel reworks Mark Twain. But ‘James’ has a different...

Percival Everett’s new novel reworks Mark Twain. But ‘James’ has a different mission – The Mercury News


Earlier this month, author Percival Everett put on a tuxedo to attend the Academy Awards with his wife, novelist Danzy Senna.

First-time filmmaker Cord Jefferson, who adapted Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure” to make the film “American Fiction,” won for best adapted screenplay and delivered a rousing acceptance speech that was one of the evening’s highlights.

“I like the film quite a bit, and I appreciate the fact that it is not my novel. Cord Jefferson mined my novel and took what he needed to make his film,” says Everett. “And that’s what he’s supposed to do.”

Just don’t expect to see Everett, who is not known for seeking the spotlight, appearing at the Hollywood event in the future.

“We did go, and there’s no need to ever go again,” he laughs, adding that he had a “fine” time. “The attention to the work is nice, but … it was hard to sit through. But at least in between during the commercial breaks, you can wander outside.”

(L-R) Percival Everett and Danzy Senna attend the 96th Annual Academy Awards on March 10, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by JC Olivera/Getty Images)
(L-R) Percival Everett and Danzy Senna attend the 96th Annual Academy Awards on March 10, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by JC Olivera/Getty Images) 

One of the nation’s most acclaimed novelists as well as the Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California, Everett’s work ethic is legendary: He’s published more than 30 books, and his most recent novels — “Dr. No,” “The Trees,” and “Telephone” — have landed on various shortlists including for the Pulitzer Prize, the Booker Prize, the NBCC Award for Fiction and more. (And he still finds time to paint, fish and play guitar.)

When we meet up on Zoom to discuss his just-published new novel, “James,” Everett is dressed casually and seated in his South Pasadena home office surrounded by books, assorted gear and stringed instruments. In the book, which may be his best yet, the story of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is narrated by the enslaved character Jim rather than Huck Finn.

In Everett’s version, Jim — or as the character writes when he puts pencil to paper, “James” — reveals himself to be a richer, more complex character: He’s a considerate and loving parent, a teacher and thinker, a builder and fixer of most anything and a self-taught reader and writer (through his surreptitious visits to Judge Thatcher’s library). He is also a determined man wary of the ways in which slavery not only robs the enslaved of their physical freedom and personal safety, but also how the barbaric practice aims to stifle intellectual and emotional freedom, too.

Throughout our conversation, Everett provided thoughtful, wryly humorous responses as we discussed the novel, Twain, “The Andy Griffith Show” and more. (And full disclosure: While this was our first-ever conversation, our spouses were once employed at the same college and know each other.)

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Was ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ a book you had strong feelings about? What drew you to writing your own version?

Well, you know, it has an iconic stature in the literary culture. It’s a novel we know even if we don’t know it. I read it as a little kid in an abridged version, which didn’t do anything for me. 

I love Twain. I didn’t like ‘Tom Sawyer’ at all, but I loved ‘Roughing It,’ I loved ‘Life on the Mississippi,’ and there was another one that was just crazy, ‘The Mysterious Stranger,’ that no one talks about, ‘The Diaries of Adam and Eve.’ Hilarious stuff.

And so, much of my humor was shaped by Twain, and then when I was older, I did read the unabridged ‘Huck Finn’ and even as a teenager, the depiction of Jim, naively on my part, is problematic. It’s not until I was a little more mature and understood Twain and his position in the culture that I could understand that depiction. Maybe not excuse it completely, but understand it.

Q. Can you talk a little more about that?

The novel really is America wandering through this landscape, trying to figure itself out. That’s what Huck is. Huck is the quintessential adolescent American. And I don’t mean 12-year-old American; I mean, 12-year-old America, that young country trying to come to grips with race. And so it really is an important text. 

It’s the first novel where it’s about a person who is subjected to slavery and not about slavery. And so with that in my head, I just wondered if anyone had written it from Jim’s point of view. Since then, I found out that there is a short story — I still haven’t seen it – about Jim after the novel. But I was shocked to find out that no one had written one — and then I realized I hadn’t thought of it either, so I couldn’t really blame anybody. 

Q. One of the most striking things about the character Jim is how you evoke his concern for his family, for others, and for Huck.

Even in ‘Huck Finn,’ the only positive father figure — well, maybe Judge Thatcher, peripherally — that Huck has is Jim. I suppose in some readings it can be reduced to ‘companion,’ but the only positive male role model for him is Jim.

Q. People — like Tom Sawyer, Pap or other adults in his life — are often telling Huck things that aren’t true, but Jim, who is narrating and relating his own story, is possibly the only person telling the truth. 

I hadn’t thought about that so much, but I like that take on it. For Jim, there’s something at stake in his being able to explore ideas in a literary way. At the other end of that, for him, is a freedom that he can’t physically enjoy.

Q. Can you talk about the elements you introduced to the story and what you decided to leave out?

Well, since in the novel, Jim and Huck are separated a lot of the time, those were easy. And since it’s from Jim’s point of view, the dangers inherent in any of those scenes where they are together are different, as well as that it’s through the eyes of an adult rather than a child.

This is not a complaint at all about Twain, but I’m thinking less to entertain than I am to interrogate. And so when I have a chance to work with [con men characters] the duke and the dauphin, my mission is different from Twain’s.

Q. Your novel is affecting, harrowing and, it has to be said, often extremely funny. How did you navigate all those elements?

I’m pathologically ironic, and I think any humor that I employ is a result of that irony. I would be a terrible comedian. I’m no good at making up jokes, but just observing an absurd world.

Do you remember “The Andy Griffith Show”? They can wear on you if watch them, but one of the things that I found great about that show — and I found out later that Griffith worked hard on this — is that there’s not a single joke in it. It’s all story-generated — all the humor is story-generated, except for Don Knotts’ physical humor. That was kind of an object lesson to see that.

Q. Jim has hallucinations in which he debates the philosophers Locke and Voltaire. What made you decide to do that?

Well, again, irony: The Declaration of Independence, being penned by the gnostic Thomas Jefferson, a figure of the Enlightenment like Voltaire and Locke who can espouse equality among men but yet find ways to rationalize slavery.

Q. You’ve mentioned that you have a tradition where you will write a book in the place you first started it. Where did you start this book and write it?

I was at the coffee table. Yeah, that’s pretty much where it happened.

Q. Earlier, you said you don’t remember your books, and I wonder if that’s similar to a reader’s experience — how we can be invested in a book only to find later that it’s hard to recall details of what happened in the story. Is that like what you’re describing?I think that’s probably close to it. I know that sometimes when people remind me of things in my novels, it takes me a while to catch up. Sometimes it’ll be vivid, other times it’ll be completely new, and I kind of like that. I especially like when they have ideas about what it means that I never thought of. I immediately take credit for it: “This is a great idea; of course, I meant that.” [laughs]

Q. Is that disorienting?

Oh, no. It’s just fascinating. People see their own worlds; the work doesn’t exist without a reader and meaning can’t happen without a reader. I wasn’t writing it to convince myself of anything. Lord knows why I was writing it, but there it is.

Q. So after you’ve written it, you no longer need to try to control it.

I can’t control it, so why worry about it? I suppose I could go hang out in front of bookstores and explain things to the six people who leave with my book. [laughs]

Q. If you do, please call me. That sounds great.

Anything I say about one of my works can be completely disregarded.

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