An Interview with Padgett Powell
Since The Interrogative Mood was a book composed of questions, and the Imperative Mood deals mainly with commands, it gives me a certain amount of smug pleasure to celebrate this epublication with some of Padgett Powell's answers to my questions about his book You and I (now shortlisted for the James Tait Black award).
Padgett Powell is a writer. The New York Times calls him 'a master of voice, a generator of absolutely particular, original, hilarious human sounds'. His first novel Edisto (to be published soon in the UK) was nominated for the US National Book Awards and hailed by Walker Percy as 'truly remarkable'. He teaches writing at the University of Florida.
Questions about You and I
C.D: How much of this book is fiction? Did you, for instance, ever know anyone like Kathy Porter?
P.P: Like any book that’s any good, there are nuggets of the Real within a larger skein of the Not. Kathy Porter happens to be a real adventure; that may even have been her actual name, and I was her little Tarzan. My father had uncles named Cuthbert and Hansford and Jake, but not Studio, and the name was Padgett not Becalmed.
C.D: If you were to equate this book with a form of 2D art, what would it be?
P.P: Well, I guess it would be that early Atari video game Pong or whatever it was called. The little tennis court and the to-and-fro square(?) ball . . .
C.D: Vocabulary seems to me to be an important feature in this book; do you often make up words? Are you particularly proud or pleased with any words you have made up?
P.P: I make up words unwittingly more often that deliberately, out of ignorance--words that I think are words. The deliberate words I have made up are grinnace (embarrassed frozen grin), to demure (to be demure), and gelid to mean not frozen but gelled with cold, like Jell-O. These are now in dictionaries.
C.D: How do you write? Do you plan?
P.P: This I can answer: no plan beyond trying to get the next right word.
C.D: Do you have any literary idols? Do you feel any literary figure has been a particular influence on your work?
P.P: I mimicked Norman Mailer as a late teen. I then saw Faulkner and O’Connor and Tennessee Williams and Walker Percy and formed my idea of fiction. Then I saw Donald Barthelme and another idea of fiction. I have drifted that way.
C.D: Do you find being a teacher of writing influences how you write? If so, how?
P.P: I suspect that not how one writes but what one writes about is the truer function of presuming to teach that which cannot be taught. The Interrogative Mood, for example, would not exist were it not for some annoying emails I received in the schoolhouse. “Is it time for our esteemed director to have a chat with the provost about the autonomy of the program?”
C.D: Would you agree (as you are described in Wikipedia) that you are a writer in the Southern Literary tradition? How would you say living and working in Florida has influenced your work?
P.P: I am in the SLT with the distinction that I like to pretend I make fun of it part of the time. Florida is on the periphery of the “deep south,” a selvage of folk not imminently concerned with the Lost Cause. We are hundreds of miles from where Sherman marched and burned. We are far enough away that we can admit he was a good general. But make no mistake: the South contains the first whipped Americans. It would not be until Vietnam that the rest of America got caught up. Now, with Iraq and Afghanistan, we all comprehend whipped. And we volunteered, as most of the whipped do.
C.D: Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters..etc.)
P.P: Snails should be looked at with an eye toward sexual lubrifiant.
C.D: What is your proudest moment?
P.P: I am a coward, and realizing that is probably the moment in which I might take some pride. But the moment, properly speaking, is a lifetime of inching unto the truth. It is only within the last five years that I have been able to formulate and codify my cowardice.
C.D: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
P.P: See below.
C.D: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
P.P: I told Teresa Austin that I wanted Patsy Bailey, not her, Teresa, as my girlfriend, in the sixth grade. Teresa had been my girlfriend from the fifth grade, and I liked her. Patsy was hot-looking and I did not even know her, let alone like her. The look on Teresa’s face, and her walking away, was the saddest thing I have seen. She had rampant freckles. I miss her to this day. I am 60 and 23/365 years old.
C.D: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
P.P: See above.
C.D: What is happiness?
P.P: Sticking with Teresa.
C.D: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
P.P: Put on pants, make coffee, marvel at how tired I am.