I wanted to show a change in my psychology and relationship with my subject matter. Present tense gives the reader a sense of immediacy; it allows us to experience the world as it is being perceived at the moment. It is raw and unprocessed information. The moment I arrive to Portal, Georgia, where a great deal more people believe in demons than do not, my ability to process the world at any remove had begun to fail. It’s like the first time you step off a plane in a foreign country. For a while, the country is greater than you. You see everything. Feel everything. It’s too much. You’re a sponge, really. So, I felt consumed by Portal. This shift also represents, on a formal level, what a traumatic memory can do to someone. It can trap them. The immediacy of a traumatic memory is one of its distinguishing traits.
At your last reading, at Boswell Books in Milwaukee, I noticed a Vietnam vet came up to you and whispered, “You looked haunted up there.”
Yes, I remember. He got me worried. In the book my protagonist, Sergeant Daniels, thinks I’m being followed by a giant bat demon (a manifestation of the demon of war). Later I was attacked by a bat, a real one. But, here’s the spooky thing. The night before the reading, in a room at an airport hotel, I had to listen to the exorcism tapes again for an interview. Never listen to the exorcism tapes. I’ve felt bothered ever since.
Can you say more about the demon of war?
According to the logic of those running the exorcism camp, trauma is a doorway through which demons pass. The demon of war is called the Destroyer and manifests itself in a form it deems appropriate for its victim.
It must have distracting having a protagonist that thought you were being followed around by a giant demon.
It was a bit distracting. I wrote a majority of the book in complete isolation in the basement of the Dey House in Iowa City during the months of December and January when the campus was empty and snow piled on the windowsills. I had to hide. I would arrive between four and nine o’clock in the evening and stay until the earliest light of morning.
I didn’t finish until the summer, when I was on vacation in the Wallowa Mountains of Eastern Oregon, an area considered sacred by the Nez Perce. We were on a switchback road, descending into Hells Canyon, in the shadow of the Seven Devils Mountains, and I was typing away. I was nearly done. We were going to take a boat ride on the Snake River and when we loaded inside, the driver took us to a dam, and beside the dam, was a tunnel, and hanging in front of this tunnel was a dead bat. I imagined it was waiting for me. The bat dangled from a fishing line tied to a sign that read: Danger. Keep Out.
But the demons, it’s all a metaphor?
Yes, the demons are mnemic symbols, a way for certain people to talk about trauma. The victims of trauma may not want to tell their story, but trauma finds other modes of expression, and we may not even be aware of them. In the book I give the example of Mercy Short, who witnessed her family’s violent death during the First and Second Indian Wars, and was taken captive to Canada. When she was finally freed, she suffered all the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress, only since it was the 1690s, America determined Mercy’s visions to be demonic in origin, a curse passed on by the afflicted girls of Salem.
JENNIFER PERCY is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received a Truman Capote Fellowship in fiction. She also received an Iowa Arts Fellowship from Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Winner of a Pushcart Prize and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, her work has appeared in a number of magazines, including Harper’s, The New Republic, and The Oxford American. She teaches writing at New York University. She is the author of Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism.
author photo credit: Michael Kreiser