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Percival Everett's 'Telephone' is a choose-your-own-adventure story without the choosing

"Novels are like magic to me. There are 500 blank pages all of a sudden to fill with words. I don't know how that happens."
Image: Percival Everett
Percival Everett, winner of the Lucien Barriere Literary Award for his novel "I Am Not Sidney Poitier" poses on the red carpet before the screening of the movie "Lawless" on Sept. 5, 2012, during the 38th US Film Festival, in the French northwestern sea resort of Deauville.Charly Triballeau / AFP via Getty Images file

If an author had simultaneously published three different versions of his latest novel, you would think it'd be one of the first things that would naturally come up in an interview, but Percival Everett says that he suffers from "work amnesia" and that once he finishes writing a book, he can't quite remember what inspired him to start it or all its details.

That has been the case for the more than 30 novels and short story and poetry collections he has written throughout the decades, and his latest work, "Telephone," is no exception.

"I can't remember the germ of the book except that, like any parent, I've entertained the insecurity of knowing there are things I can't control when it comes to my children," Everett said in an interview. "Novels are like magic to me. There are 500 blank pages all of a sudden to fill with words. I don't know how that happens."

Then, a day later, he sent a even more cryptic message: "I am not good at revealing this yet, but there are three different versions of 'Telephone.' They are published identically and few people know, but there are three versions."

No matter which version of the novel a reader picks up, the basic plot points remain true. "Telephone" is a story about Zach Wells — a geology professor whose life is upended when his daughter is diagnosed with Batten disease, a fatal degenerative disorder — for whom ordering a shirt online becomes a life-changing decision.

When the shirt arrives, he finds a note with the word "Ayúdame" — "help me" in Spanish – inside the package, spurring him to buy more items from the same seller. After discovering similar notes in subsequent packages, he determines that someone associated with this random P.O. box in New Mexico does, in fact, need his assistance. Under the guise of completing academic research, Wells embarks on a mission to rescue a group of kidnapped Mexican women — a plot point inspired by the real-life epidemic of femicides in Ciudad Juárez.

"The awful, chilling killings and disappearances of women in Ciudad Juárez was partly the seed of the novel," Everett said. "We process the stuff that we learn about in the world, and the story of these women has always been one of the stories that always bothered and terrified me."

Why the three different endings, though? Was Everett ambivalent about how the novel should conclude? Everett said the divergent finales and "subtle difference throughout" are "an experiment regarding the authority of the reader as opposed to that of the artist."

This is far from the first time Everett has played experimental games with his readers. By avoiding racial designations and incorporating meta plots in some of his past work, as in his 2011 novel "Erasure" — the story of an English professor who gains acclaim by writing a parody that plays into every stereotype about black communities after being repeatedly instructed that his work on Greek mythology isn't "black enough" — Everett forces readers to probe their own motivations and perspectives when it comes to race, although he says addressing race "is not a particular focus" of his work but rather "a necessary attribute of the world" that he lives in.

"I like to think that I've eradicated the acculturated influences of my reading," Everett said. "Unless there's a reason to specify race in a scene, why should I feel compelled to do so? I don't think I have to have my character cross 125th Street and Lenox Avenue and comb his afro in the first 10 pages. It used to be if I didn't do that, for all intents and purposes, that character's white and I just ignore that."

Everett's work isn't easily categorized, with his writing spanning nearly every conceivable genre, including crime, retellings of Greek mythology and Westerns. The author isn't necessarily tied to place, either, although he remembers reading only books with black protagonists that were mostly set in the "rural South or inner-city North" when he was younger, which wasn't necessarily reflective of his own experience.

"The decisions of publishing didn't allow for the inclusion of the black middle class," Everett said. "I came from a family of doctors. My father, my grandfather, my uncles were all doctors, and there were no novels that represented that world."

He grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, before moving to Florida to study philosophy at the University of Miami. Upon graduation, he began a philosophy degree at the University of Oregon before transferring to a master's program at Brown University, where he wrote his first novel, "Suder," about a professional baseball player dealing with a career slump. He's taught at schools in Kentucky and Indiana and now lives in California, where he is a distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California. His books are inevitably varied given this confluence of experiences and are made even more so by his ready acceptance of others' interpretations of his work.

"That's the exciting part," Everett said. "I wouldn't write at all if people didn't read things that I never imagined. People ask me all the time, 'Did you mean this by this book?' and I always say yes, because that sounds good to me."

When it comes to questions about authorial identity — which seem to have taken center stage in the last several years as the publishing industry takes greater stock of writers' personal brands when commissioning work — Everett isn't too interested in those conversations, preferring instead to write and let live.

"It may sound pretentious, but I just want to make art," said Everett, who has famously kept a relatively low profile, despite being a prolific, award-winning author.

If Everett had it his way, he might have even kept the three different versions of "Telephone," which were released Tuesday, a secret forever or, at least, much longer than he had, but he changed his mind because of the coronavirus. And no, you can't order a specific version of the title online; you get what you get, and no takebacks.