Author Percival Everett reimagines ‘Huckleberry Finn’ in his new novel

James by Everett Percival cover
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
James by Everett Percival cover
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Author Percival Everett reimagines ‘Huckleberry Finn’ in his new novel

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Percival Everett has authored more than 30 books, including Erasure, which inspired the Oscar-winning 2023 movie adaptation, American Fiction.

Erasure and American Fiction tell the story of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a frustrated author and professor who doesn’t want to compromise his artistic standards but needs money to take care of his mother, who has dementia. Ellison therefore writes a “bad” book as a joke — and it ends up being a bestseller.

American Fiction was nominated for five Oscars and won for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Now Everett is out with a new novel, James, which reimagines Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn.

Everett recently sat down with WBEZ’s Reset to discuss the significance of language in shaping enslaved individuals’ experiences and why it’s important for creative works to explore such themes.

More than 20 years after Erasure came out, how would you say the book industry has changed or stayed the same?

We have a great number of fine writers of color working now, representing a much vaster, greater range of experience of African Americans — so it’s much better. That said, there is the insidious racism that crops up about what gets published and what gets filmed.

Is it getting harder or easier for you to get published?

I was very lucky; I was with an editor for 29 years at Graywolf Press, where I wouldn’t say that I was given complete carte blanche, but I was certainly allowed to experiment pretty widely.

What ironies do you see play out in your own work and how you’re received in the larger world?

The presence of [Black] book sections is of course problematic. It’s a cannibalization of art and literature. But I never make any apologies for writing about the Black experience, about Black people, because that’s what I know. I don’t expect John Grisham to write anything other than stories about white people, so why would anyone expect anything different from me? It’s only the range of stories that I’m concerned with.

James is an audacious endeavor to reimagine a classic. What was it about Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that you thought needed a reimagining?

[James] was not an expression of any kind of dissatisfaction with Huckleberry Finn. It’s a book about adolescent white youth moving through the American landscape. He comes to represent a young America moving through itself, dealing with in literature for the first time that the most defining feature of America is race. But what Twain was not equipped to do — and it was not his mission to do — was to tell the story from the enslaved man’s point of view.

James and other slaves put on a dialect when talking to white folk and among each other they talk in standard English. I saw the scenes as the original code switching. How did you come up with that as a storyline?

That’s not hard because that’s what people do. People find a way to communicate with each other so that their oppressors will know what they’re saying. That’s very true to all humans, whether it’s language, signs, but they find a way to communicate privately.

There’s a scene where James is in a minstrel show and he tells someone else who’s Black, “Do they know we’re making fun of them?” It’s an irony that comes through with the story.

I tend to be pathologically ironic, and I think it’s true of Twain himself; his humor resides in irony, and I always liked that. So that’s a feature of Twain’s writing that I’ve learned.

Even though humor leaps through the pages, the novel is still about slavery. How do you balance irony with satire and horror?

I’m glad to hear that I did. I think one has to remember that irony and the honest truth are inextricably bound together. It really can’t have irony without an appreciation of what is hard, true and tragic in life — so that really wasn’t so difficult. It is rather easy sometimes to slip into the phone or radio or slapstick, and I certainly resist that.

What is the line between humor and buffoonery? When you’re writing, when do you know you might be crossing the line into that territory?

When the tragedy of the situation is lost. But interestingly, the more tragic, the more frightening the material, the more you can push it.

You said Huckleberry Finn was Mark Twain using this adolescent to come to grips about what was happening in America. What would you say James is coming to grips with? What is his journey in America during this time?

That’s the confirmation of [the main character’s] own agency. Through language, through books and through writing, he is seeking to establish himself in this landscape. It’s not so much that he wants to be seen, but he wants to see.

A lot of people may not know you also paint. Can you talk about that artistic practice?

I’ve been painting longer than I’ve been writing, but the past few years starting to paint more … it’s a very different practice in that it’s not as intellectual for me. I don’t have to live in my head for two or three years to make a painting. The work is more emotional and it’s physical.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities editor. You can follow her on X at @natalieymoore. Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Lynnea Domienik is a producer for WBEZ’s Reset.