"Padgett Powell is an extravagantly talented writer," raves The New York Times Book Review
. We also think he's one of the funniest, saddest, and most innovative writers that you might not yet have read. His first novel, Edisto
, was nominated for the National Book Award, and he's also won the Prix de Rome of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Whiting Writers' Award. His 2009 novel, The Interrogative Mood
, is written entirely as a series of questions; his 2012 novel, You and Me
, is a dialogue between two men on a porch about the nature of time, stove-knob burglars, what death means, and whether they should make a liquor store run in jumpsuits stuffed with heating pads.
Powell's absurd and surreal but incisive ruminations and extraordinary facility with language and image are on full display in his new collection of stories, Cries for Help, Various. Kevin Wilson notes, "To read a Padgett Powell story is to ride, and ride well, never quite sure of where you are going, not caring because it is wonderfully captivating. But the real genius is that Powell, in his own way, always leaves you exactly where you need to be." If you aren't yet familiar with the deep peculiar joys of this Southern master, his new collection is an excellent place to begin.
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Padgett Powell: Powell's City of Books is a big city.
Jill Owens: It is a big city, yes. It's a big community online, too.
Powell: It has yet to recognize me as a proper heir.
Jill: [Laughter] There's still time.
Powell: I came out there and did a reading, what, three years ago? And I expected to claim part of my estate then, but no one with any authority met me to tell me where I stood.
Jill: Well, I'll have to remedy that. I'll have one of the Powells talk to you.
Powell: We need to have a discussion. I'm doing my part. I'm producing books; I'm not merely showing them. I'm ground-floor material here.
Jill: All right. I'll support it.
This morning, I read that you said at one point that you had never written a short story, so do you object to the title of this book being Cries for Help, Various: Stories?
Powell: Well, it's not the original subtitle. The original subtitle, which I have discovered made the publisher nervous, was "45 Failed Novels."
I have not ever written a story per se or had that in mind. I've sat down and written with a more or less supportable or insupportable idea or thing to say and it ends. When it's not 200 pages, people want to call it a story. I guess they're entitled to do that. In my view, if it were a supportable idea, it would have gone 200 pages, and it didn't.
Jill: That's why they're failed novels.
Powell: All this is rather pretentious and fey to even talk about, but Flannery O'Connor sat down to write stories. The rest of us, some of us, don't have that kind of wit and genius. We don't do that. We sit down and have some accidents.
Jill: These accidents or failed novels, are they mostly new stories or were they written over a range of time?
Powell: They're not really new. It is a range of time. Some of them go back there a ways. I don't really know how far because I don't have dates on them and then every time you open a file, you get a new closing date and you don't have any idea.
But I would say that probably only five or six of those pieces have been done during the last five or six years. The rest were just stringing along and hanging around. I just kept putting them in a pile.
Jill: How did you end up with Catapult as your publisher? They're a new house, and you're one of their two lead titles this fall.
Powell: Right. The way that happened is this. Pat Strachan, who is their editor in chief — she may well be the only editor, I think. She is my original editor, who bought Edisto back when I was a child and nearly won the National Book Award with it. She was at FS&G, where she constructed the list at FS&G. You've heard of Seamus Heaney?
Jill: Yes, just a bit. [Laughter]
Powell: Derek Walcott?
Powell: Joseph Brodsky?
Powell: Czeslaw Milosz?
Powell: Well, you know what? She signed those people before any of them had a Nobel.
Powell: With her left hand, she'd buy little things like my book and like Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and win National Book Awards.
After doing stuff like that and after being there 17 years beginning as Robert Giroux's assistant, she was passed over for editor in chief and she quit. They didn't expect her to act like a man. I got that out of them — they told me, "We didn't think she'd quit." Well, she did. Anyway, when this fellow, Andy Hunter, who's the publisher, was charged with making the publishing house, he knew who to go hire, and he did.
And because of our long relationship — she probably has done four or five of my books, sometimes as a freelance editor — she knew about the book because she's seen it and had not been able to buy it 10 years ago. That's how that happened. Bless their hearts, they are predicating their success on this book, and I worry for them. You know when you christen a ship with a bottle of champagne that slides down the ramp into the water?
Sometimes they sink.
Jill: That is true.
Powell: They just go down.
Jill: Well, I don't know. On the strength of this book and their other lead title, Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea — which I should say I have not read, though it's getting good reviews — I don't think that they're going to be a sinking ship.
Powell: The other book probably is a solid book. Pat wouldn't be messing with it if it weren't.
Jill: I thought it might be interesting to look at a piece from Cries for Help and follow the thread a little bit of how it came to be. "Mrs. Stamp" was one of my favorite stories in the book because I loved its great images of sittable and unsittable knives, and the tolerance in marble cake, and then the roof lifting off. What came first, and how did you get from one image to another?
Powell: Well, they come in the order you see them. I don't write with a scheme or a plan. I write word to word, so whatever that first sentence is, having said that, one more or less had to say what comes next and next and next. Guilty of no cogitation, or forethought.
Jill: That is impressive.
Powell: Well, no. I'm not sure it is. If I were capable of that kind of thing, I might be making Flannery O'Connor stories, but I'm not. I don't think she had plans either, but she did have a tighter aesthetic set of demands, I think.
Jill: How does revision work for you, then?
Powell: I don't. I don't because of the nature of the composition. If it comes out right, it's right, which is to say, in a sense, if it comes at all, it comes out right. This, too, may be what keeps things lighter, rather than heavier. I shouldn't be confessing all this. [Laughter]
It's topical construction. It's ad hoc.
Jill: In a couple of the stories, you have imagery about the muscles in your brain becoming slack, or losing the ability to make a fist with your head. Are you feeling like that lately?
Powell: Yes, I'm feeling like that. I am. I realize that that motif is rehearsed several times in the book in different places without radical distinction between the rehearsals. It's been pointed out to me, and I've seen it. I'm aware of it, and I've said, "Well, you know what? I don't care. This is something I'm insisting on because it is preoccupying me, and I'm just going to go with it." I am feeling that slackitude in a way that I used to not feel it, or at least wasn't aware of. You know, pretended things were otherwise.
I suppose it's the preliminary chapters to non compos mentis. I don't know.
Jill: I thought it was interesting that you said that because, to me, this collection actually did feel aesthetically tighter than some of your earlier work — not that looseness was a bad thing. How do you think your writing has changed over the years?
Powell: I think probably if what we were talking about was: Are the earlier story collections of a piece as much as this one is? Probably no, because there are fewer pieces in those and they're probably less thematically alike and so forth. This book, paradoxically in its looseness, is tighter because there is a repetition of certain themes and preoccupations that is not in those earlier collections.
But the whole career steady march, from beginning to end, has been a plodding from, let's say, cuddly realism to the surreal end of things.
It's taken me 30 years to articulate this idea, but fiction is of two camps. One is where the central thrust is: these made-up people did these made-up things. On the other end, the central thrust is not: these made-up people did these made-up things. We might have made-up people doing made-up things, but that is not the central thrust. That end of the spectrum is what people want to put the word "experimental" on.
I think that I went steadily from one end to the other, with this oddment, The Interrogative Mood, going past the experimental endpoint, only because it was actually written last, published earlier.
Jill: Then in this book, there are "The Imperative Mood" and "The Indicative Mood."
Powell: Yeah, those were little things that I wrote, probably shortly after The Interrogative Mood, trying to see if some kind of parallel could be done, some kind of parallel fun could be had. Of course, it can't. Not of course, but in the instance of "The Indicative Mood," all books are in the indicative mood, or most are in the indicative mood, so there's nothing new there. It's only in the overt non sequitur that anything new is being done there, which is what The Interrogative Mood is predicated on, not merely being interrogative, but also being overtly non sequitur.
Then I tried it in "The Imperative Mood." That ostensibly had more possibilities because most books are not in the imperative mood. But I found after I did that little piece that it was just a little dark. It wasn't happy. It wasn't fun in a way that "The Interrogative Mood" was extremely fun.
I wrote that over the course of a couple of years. I got up one morning and opened the file and I had 142 pages. I said, "You know, you ought to think about wrapping this up, son." I was sorry to see it go.
Writing an hour of those questions, I felt like I was a frog in the rain or something. I think it was therapy that I didn't have to pay for.
Jill: And that other people now get to enjoy the fruits of.
Powell: Yeah. I had no intention of ever doing anything with it. I was just doing it because it was fun while trying to sell things like the current book, which I didn't want to do by itself. I periodically come across The Interrogative Mood and look at it and say, "I don't know what this is, but it's the best thing I have. This is the best writing I have."
But we shouldn't be saying that either. We're trying to sell this book. Tell the readers, "Strike the above."
Jill: [Laughter] I'll make a little line through it. I do really like the story, "The Imperative Mood." I agree with you that it feels a bit darker than The Interrogative Mood, but I like the phrase "resistant incoherence," which you write that Helen Vendler said about John Ashbery.
Powell: I think that's real, too. I think Vendler did say that. I think it's all true. I read it, and I can't understand what on earth it's really supposed to mean. Resistant incoherence.
I heard Ashbery read one time. I was on a bill with him, strangely enough. We went to a restaurant. The faculty took us to dinner. One of the faculty members came up to him and said, "How you doing, John?" He said, "I'm perfectly smashed, if you must know." He started to get angry. I kind of intervened. I said, "John, he didn't mean anything, he was just asking."
Then we went to read, and I was going to read first, and I said, "John, I'm going to read overlong so that you get angry and it sobers your ass up." He said, "Read as long as you want." So I read and I sat down and he got up and he started reading those resistantly incoherent poems. You know what? They made complete sense.
I sat there trying to figure out why I ever thought they were difficult. It doesn't work if I go and get them right now and I read them. But that night, when he read those things, it was as if it was Virgil. Lucid, amber thought, and prose. I didn't understand it and don't now.
Jill: You were talking earlier about the continuum between cuddly realism and surrealism, or experimentalism.
Powell: Between, say, Tolstoy and Barthelme.
Jill: Yes. Donald Barthelme was a teacher of yours. Is it him that's mentioned in the dedication to Cries for Help, "For Uncle Don and Spode"?
Powell: Yep. That's Uncle Don. That's what some of us called him. He was not a direct force on what I wound up doing. He did say, with respect to realism, he said that he found me regrettably fully formed. He said, "I found you regrettably fully formed." I think he thought that and I think I thought that.
Jill: And you were how old at that point?
Powell: I was in the neighborhood of 30, maybe 29. Somewhere in there. I should have been fully formed, and I would have been, except for the fact that I had never been exposed to that end of the spectrum that he was in. I had attempted to expose myself when he was coming to Houston to be a teacher. I checked out three of his books and tried to read them and couldn't. I could not read Come Back, Dr. Caligari.
I thought, What the fuck is this? And I thought, Oh no. That means that Warhol on acid is coming to be our teacher from New York. We'd had a bad experience already with someone from New York.
I thought we were going to get out of a frying pan and get into the absolute fire when this nutball showed up. The nutball walked in the room on a little vodka tilt and dropped some papers at the head of the room and swung back without breaking stride down the row between the desks and shook our hands before we could get out of our desks, and said, "Don Barthelme." And squeezed. Gave us manly handshakes.
Right away, there was this signal. This is not Warhol on acid. This is a red-blooded man. He was wearing jeans and cowboy boots and a yoke shirt. What's going on here? Then I began to see how you read those stories. They're written by a red-blooded man with generally, in them, a red-blooded man wanting red-blooded things.
The only thing that was going on was he had removed the central thrust. He'd moved it. Picasso was not painting realism. There it was. I think I was embarrassed to have not known about any of this, and I was 30 years old, and so forth. I think it's why I might have been fully formed, but I got fully reformed as a result of this.
Don exerted no pressure on anyone to move on that spectrum. He did nothing of that sort. He said of Edisto that it was splendid. Splendid. I thought he was putting me on, but he wasn't.
Jill: I read Edisto years and years ago. I grew up in South Carolina, and—
Powell: You did? You'll be amused to know that I did my last two years of high school in Florence. That was significant.
Jill: In what way was it significant?
Powell: That's why I'm a writer, basically.
I was so disaffected. I'd been moved around a lot. I think I had something like 17 houses and 11 schools through 12th grade, and those last two years were more or less at the high pitch of adolescence, which is to say hormones.
I couldn't talk a bird out of a tree because I wasn't in a position long enough to talk one out, and I just got really angry. Also, the school there was well behind the school I'd been at in Florida. In Jacksonville, Florida, which is itself a Detroit, a nothing, I had taken three years of Latin, and some education had happened. Then I got there to Florence, and it all stopped. And yet they thought they were the cutting edge.
I got angry, and I wrote an underground newspaper that had a little more going for it, or was a little bit more truculent than the accepted underground newspaper in the high school, which was called The Free Press. That should tell you right there about how innovative it was. [Laughter]
Mine was called Tough Shit, and I was arrested for it.
Jill: You were arrested?
Powell: Yep, for obscenity, and that led directly to a series of events that exposed me to black culture in the low country of South Carolina — things that, had they not happened, I would not have written that book, Edisto. I could not have written that book. It's because I got arrested in Florence.
I had to go down and interview with four senators from the College of Charleston and give an accounting of myself, which I did. They bravely tried not to laugh and giggle in front of me, since this was so grave, what I had done. Then they said, "OK, you can come, and you can keep the big scholarship, and so forth, but of course, nothing like this shall happen again." "Well, yeah, of course, it won't. Blah, blah."
When I get there, I go in the dorm, and there's something like 49 white boys and 3 black boys, and 2 of those are paired up. One's out odd, and he's my roommate. I didn't know these numbers, and I hadn't pondered anything. I just got there, and I have a black roommate.
I'm going across campus about three weeks into the term, when the dean of men, who was one of the senators, steps out and says, "How's it going with Jenkins?" and I said, "Good." He said, "I did that. I didn't want some redneck to beat him up," and I said, "OK, I won't."
That's why I was able to go into a certain bar in Mount Pleasant that I could never have gone into as a white boy by myself, and there's your book.
So it's good to get arrested in high school, trust me.
Jill: That's the moral of that story, obviously.
Powell: I got arrested doing what I was going to do. I wanted to write, and I was taking it very seriously, in a probably imprudent way, but I was. If I was going to do it, I was going to do it right, and getting arrested by toady police is an indication that you're doing it right.
Of course, it wasn't the police that were after me. It was the principal of the high school.
Jill: One southern question I had about the book actually was, how does one freehand grits? Are you just dumping them into the water without measuring?
Powell: Yes. I'll tell you exactly what that means. We were camping on Cumberland Island, and Charlie Geer, who's from Charleston — we had a pot of water on a fire, boiling, and Charlie Geer takes the bag of grits over there, and with his hand, he just unloads a handful of grits into the water.
I was flabbergasted that he didn't have a measure. [Laughter] I actually thought, What? I can cook, and I know that quantities are fungible, and so forth, but it never occurred to me that you didn't have to have your four times your water to grits. Charlie freehanded those grits, and they cooked up just fine without a huge time in which to boil off the extra water or so forth. He just did it, like a drunk.
Jill: That's very liberating.
Powell: You know roughly you're going to put in a fourth of the volume, but nobody's got the balls to do it. [Laughter]
Jill: In the dedication, who is the other teacher you mention, Spode?
Powell: Spode was my bulldog. I've been thinking about him and bulldogs lately, because I have, at long last and with considerable labor and effort, found another one — a well-bred bulldog. That's what Spode was. He was a pit bull, a fighting dog, the real thing. Not the trailer park thing, not the Brooklyn drug pusher thing, but the fighting dog. They're different dogs when they are bred really well for that.
The last thing on their minds, ever, is biting a human, because it's bred out of them, not bred into them. When these dipshits on the street get these dogs, they look for one with a tendency to bite somebody, and they breed it to another one, and then you've got these monsters that are eating children and tearing polyester pantsuits off of women in trailer parks.
That doesn't happen with a real pit bull. It's true that a real pit bull will take that other dog, the pit bull that's taking people's clothes off. He will get that and kill it, but he will never hurt the person whose pantsuit is all messed up. [Laughter]
Anyway, Spode was a good dog, a very handsome dog. He's on a book jacket or two. In fact, I just was able to put him on a book jacket of an ebook at Open Road. I put him on the book jacket of Typical. The title story is about a fighting dog, and dogfighting tangentially, not centrally.
It's appropriate that he's on that jacket. It's odd and weird to put your own dog on a book jacket. I was very happy to be able to do it.
Jill: Which writers are you teaching these days?
Powell: I teach William Trevor.
I'll teach one Flannery O'Connor story, "Greenleaf," because of its whole shape, because of its circularity, that goes from the bull outside the window to the bull goring Mrs. May. Inside that circle are a very nice set of balances. Her two sons versus the two Greenleaf boys, and her herself versus Mrs. Greenleaf, and so forth. It's a very full, full-blown, well-balanced, interesting story.
But Trevor, I teach the whole book. He's my man, for this reason. Every story presents a different narrative scheme. It's as if he's going to do a different scheme every day because he can, and I think if you read 20, 30 of those stories, you know how to write a story, if you can mimic anything at all.
He's also good because while things look a little formal and old-fashioned and adult, he's extremely kinky. He's after some fun things, and kids pick that up. They figure that out. I have them buy his Collected, that big 18-pound book, and we read them, looking at different things, beginning with point of view and so forth, and then move around and look at different things. Mostly structural, strategic things. Not meaning, per se.
I'll have them read a novel by Pete Dexter sometimes because Pete is also a very teaching kind of writer. He's out there very near you.
Jill: Is he in Washington?
Powell: Yep, he's on Whidbey Island. Pete's books are a good thing to have a kid read. If they're in any danger of trying to imitate what they see, that's a good thing for them to try to imitate.
Jill: You had mentioned Powell's and Square Books as two bookstores that you love. I love the Square Books people. I think they're fantastic. They sent me a beautiful and bizarre fox doll when my son was born.
Powell: A fox doll?
Jill: A cloth doll, but with the head of a fox, with suspenders.
Powell: Just three days ago, Saturday, I picked up my fox from the taxidermist. I now have a small female fox mounted on a piece of wormy cypress from the bottom of a river, in my living room. She's gorgeous.
Jill: Where did she come from?
Powell: I picked her up in the middle of a highway about six weeks ago, unhurt looking. Dead, but unhurt, and because she was beautiful and unhurt, I took her right to the taxidermist and said, "Let's mount this thing up," before discovering the outrageous price that they go for now. But I went through with it anyway.
I stuff animals I find; I do roadkill. They're strangely fun to have. They're like easy-to-control pets. [Laughter]
Jill: They don't make a lot of noise.
Powell: They're trained.