Monday, 13 December 2010

Padgett Powell

I was asked by Big Issue Scotland to interview an American writer I'd not come across before: Padgett Powell. It was a real treat and very thought provoking. There are themes linking this with my other post of the day. I'll try and tease them out in a future post.

“Could you live on a boat?” “How do you stand in relation to the potato?” “Do you give greeting cards?” A novel made up entirely of random questions? Are you serious?

It does sound mad, like a novelty Christmas gift to be stored ever after in the smallest room in the house, and yet The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? is also a serious work by an undoubtedly gifted writer. Even if, as Padgett Powell is quick to admit, its 164 mesmerising pages stemmed from something as “trivial” as the desire of a middle aged man to get his own back on an ‘irritant’.

Powell, who has been teaching creative writing in Florida, for over twenty years, explains that it was an email from a colleague that made him snap and turned him into a Grand Literary Inquisitor.

“They would go this way,” he drawls in his rich South Carolina accent. “‘Is it time for our esteemed director to have a chat with the Provost about the autonomy of the programme?’ I was the director. ‘Are we remembering what was promised o us last spring by the Dean?’ ‘Are we going to be content to let history repeat itself again?’

“And a typical letter would go on about eight or nine of these questions: directing me, telling me what to do. I started getting mad enough to want to send an answer. I started writing and pretty soon I had 600 of these things, then 6,000. I’d spend an hour or two writing these questions down, and then I’d feel better.”

The result has been extraordinary: a novel that has raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic (though arguably more so over here) and wacky enough to be featured in both The Independent and The Sun. But who is Padgett Powell? It’s a name you think you’ve heard of – but you almost certainly haven’t.

Powell came to prominence in 1984 with his first novel Edisto. Narrated by a precocious 12-year-old it was hailed by one well known critic as “like Catcher in the Rye, only better”. It generated a cult following, was named among the five best novels of the year by Time – and sold a piddling 23,000 copies. About as many copies as Dan Brown sells in one afternoon. Praised he might have been, but he was still flat broke.

Powell’s novels since Edisto became increasingly experimental – at a time when American literature was embracing the idea of “the big story” as practised by the bestselling likes of Chabon, Franzen and Tartt.

Flash forward to 2009 and we find this lauded talent hasn’t had a book out in nearly a decade. Now he is best known for teaching creative writing – he’s also been married and divorced – while his real career, as a writer, is going nowhere. Indeed, the two novels he had finished had not found publishers and he started telling people he’d retired.

Then he got that email and something burst; soon he was venting his spleen, beautifully and emphatically, with question after question of sheer unadulterated grumpiness. He sent it off to The Paris Review, which bought an extract, and found a publisher straight away.

Seemingly random, the effect of the book is to offer a surprisingly consistent character study of the questioner. We learn a surprising amount about his background, his obsessions and desires.

“Yeah, it’s me. Let me use all my French: c’est moi!” Powell says. “There’s no concealment whatsoever. There’s quite a bit of autobiography bobbing along in there. It’s my little life. There are 17 questions on bluejays probably because I’m fond of them. But I said to the editor, if there are 17 make it 13, so I don’t look like a complete idiot.”

When I point out to him that he often comes across as deeply unhappy he concedes that he’s probably just a grumpy old man “about nine tenths of the time.”

So is it a cry for help? You include that phrase in one of the questions.

“Is that there?” he asks, genuinely surprised. “Well it might be. The book [before this one] that was rejected was called Cries For Help, 45 Failed Novels.”

So is it about a frustration, about not being published?

“No,” he chuckles. “It was smart-arsedness: to send a very funny letter back to an irritant. There was nothing high minded about it. Once I got in to writing the questions I suppose something higher minded began to pertain. I got very interested in the idea of the non-sequitur. The overt non-sequitur is what started to be interesting. There are ways there are little connections.”

Bizarrely, Powell insists he’s never read the entire book back, either in the process of writing it or afterwards. He’s “poked about in it” to extract bits for readings, but that’s pretty much it.

And for a man who describes himself as writing ‘high literary elitism so good no one buys it’ he’s surprisingly relaxed about the novelty value of the book.

He laughs: “For all the poo-pooing I’ve done about being an elitist, if you told me that I could have a book on the back of everyone’s toilet, well I’d take that!”

This article appears in Big Issue Scotland Magazine

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