My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Padgett Powell’s ability to capture regional dialect has led critics to compare him to Twain and Faulkner. Simons Manigault, the protagonist of his award-winning first novel, Edisto, and its sequel, Edisto Revisited (just released by Henry Holt), has been compared to Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield.
This interview was first taken in the winter of 1994, at Kate’s Fish Camp in Gainesville, Florida. Handwritten signs posted on trees read: Bank Fishing $1.00 + Tax. Inside there’s a pool table, bathrooms marked Inboard and Outboard, a huge and dirty sheepdog sprawled on the cracked concrete floor, and a few grizzled regulars nursing beers at the bar. Powell was waiting in one of the five vinyl booths. We subsequently completed the interview one year later on a balmy winter day in my backyard when Edisto Revisited had been completed.
Victoria Hunt It was Barthelme who guided you through Edisto. Was it great, or was it terrifying to have your first novel be so successful?
Padgett Powell First, let me say that I was too cool and cocky and stupid to realize that its reception was an irregularity. I said, “Well, of course.” It’s been the normal reception of my subsequent two books that has reeled me back to the world.
VH But Edisto brought you a lot of good things. You won the Whiting Award, the Rome prize, and it got you your position at the University of Florida, right in your hometown.
PP Which I had the wit to conceal during the job interview. When I came back here, I was taken on a tour of Gainesville, past my grandmother’s house, and my great-grandparents’ house, which is yet called the Padgett House. There’s even a plaque to this effect on the front. I can remember saying, “Oh, look at that nice big house.”
VH You were intentionally trying to mislead them?
PP There’s a bias in academia against hiring from within your own program. A homeboy might fall under that same bias, so I thought it best not to mention that I’d been born four blocks from the university.
VH You’ve mentioned Denis Johnson and Josephine Humphreys as two of your favorite writers. The choice of Josephine Humphreys surprises me, she writes such narrative-driven novels.
PP I’m doing what I’m doing now because I met Donald Barthelme and subsequently lost part of my mind—my original literary mind. Barthelme’s aesthetic, as I grasped it, got me tired of a certain pedestrian storytelling, whether for good or for ill. When you lose some of your mind, you don’t have any trouble with formlessness. It alerted me to an impatience in the absence of surprise. Barthelme was cubism and jazz to my crayons and rock n’ roll—he was after something altogether new on paper, I’m not. I should have included under favorite writers Peter Taylor and William Trevor, whom we can call old-fashioned to the discomfort of no one. They have beginnings, middles, and ends—resolutions. And they are intended to satisfy the reader who looks for the customarily dramatic in a story.
VH You attribute a lot to Barthelme, and yet more than a few critics have commented on Faulkner’s influence in your work. They talk about your ear for regional dialect. Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?
PP Sure, why not?
VH What about a local colorist?
PP What other kind of colorist can one be? Brett Harte is doomed to local, but if you get good enough, like Faulkner, then you’re universal, blah blah blah. Hemingway said, “Some guys paint great big pictures and some guys paint great small pictures.” There’s Tolstoy on one hand and Turgenev on the other. I’ll take Turgenev, too. Call me local.
VH Like a lot of Southerners, you often tackle the subtle, and not so subtle, aspects of race relations in the South. Do you see that as a responsibility of a Southern writer?
PP It’s not a responsibility, nor is it, in my case, what I would call a moral compulsion. It’s just that when I am writing something, sooner or later blacks show up. And it’s arguable that nothing really good is happening until they do. Why that is, I don’t know. But given the time and place that we are in, given the proximity of the races to one another, given our attempts to work things out, and the impossibility as I see it of ever successfully doing so, race has to be on the mind of anybody paying any kind of attention here.
When I went to college, I was singled out by the dean of men to be the only white guy living with a black roommate. My family was too far away from the school for me to go home very often, but his wasn’t. So we went to his neighborhood a lot for entertainment. He took care of me there, which is the generation of certain scenes and sentiments in Edisto. I was a star of sorts, because I was the only white guy, and an innocent one at that, in his black club. And my roommate, Marion Jenkins, was kind of a star, too, because he was in college—his friends at home weren’t—and he was living with a white guy. Hanging with Marion was part of the generation of my character Taurus, though Marion appears in unadulterated form in Edisto as the minor character Jinx and in A Woman Named Drown as the narrator’s sometime sparring partner.
I do seem preoccupied with racial things. I make comments that are risky. All “racial” utterance in this country today is deemed racist by certain profiteers of political currency, black and white. If you acknowledge difference alone, you’re a racist. Saul Bellow pointed out to me once that I’d be in big trouble if anybody ever read me.
VH Your narrators are often poor, under-educated, hard-drinking, blue-collar males. I assume many of them were the people you met when you were a roofer. But now you’re a tenured professor, working in what some call the ivory tower. Do you ever feel isolated by your academic position?
PP I suppose it’s a bit like going insane. You don’t really have the equipment to register the damage. Outsiders will monitor and measure that for you. I’m not sure that environment—unless it’s cruel and unusual—changes anyone much after you’re five. My character was set by five, six, at the outside. People can live full, productive writing lives in spite of their positions within the university. Take my colleague down the hall, Harry Crews. I don’t think many would regard him an ivory-tower writer. But Harry’s been teaching almost 30 years. Peter Taylor, Robert Stone, Joy Williams—there are a lot of good writers, writers of the world, who get paid regularly by some university. It can be done. It has to be done.
VH All three of your previous books have gotten good reviews. But I was struck by something I read. One critic said that in all your work there seems to be a “mistrust of life.” Do you think that’s true?
PP Life is scary as shit. I see absolutely nothing not scary about life. Nothing.
VH Concerning your outlook on life, in the essay you wrote for A World Unsuspected, at age 35, you called yourself “arbitrary, foolish, with a streak of petulance and defiance, and finally, confident.” Is that still true at 40?
PP Except for the confidence. I’ve entered doubt. Actually, I could change every one of those adjectives: arbitrary to scattered, foolish to loutish, with a streak of trash-talking and belligerence, and finally, doubtful. How’s that?
VH It’s good to know you’re moving on.
PP Laissez les bon temps roulez.
VH In that same essay, you say that you are an assembler of “strange truths into less strange lies.” Do you consider that your job description?
PP That’s what fiction does, I think. There are all kinds of little homilies about what fiction is, does, ought to do. I like the idea that fiction is a license to lie. It takes the mundane and constructs something interesting out of it. Fiction is usually a perversion of what happened into what could happen. Fiction converts ordinary life into hard gossip.
VH In a lot of your writing there seems to be a dis-ease with women.
PP I’ve heard that before.
VH How do you respond do it?
PP My dis-ease probably comes from my attraction. Writers write about the things that make them uncomfortable—hence the eluctable presence of a “problem” in fiction. And the problem is not just anyone’s, in the best of all possible worlds, it’s one the writer knows something about. That may be the first rule of writing.
VH But it sometimes seems that women are peripheral in your work. Sometimes they’re just not there.
PP Not there? They’re always there!
VH But in somewhat of a problematic way. I can’t help thinking of your story “Flood.” The woman is floating down the river while the narrator maintains a fairly banal conversation.
PP But she’s there.
VH Yeah, but she’s dead.
PP He’s in love with her, goddamnit. And the poet mooning along about his wives, alive and dead—it’s a flood of women, that story. World-stoppers, I submit. And you can’t dismiss the two novels before that. Women are the center of interest, the power source. Does that reflect my dis-ease? I don’t know. But I don’t think you can say they’re not there.
VH Maybe I made a poor word choice, maybe dis-ease implies too much.
PP Well, what am I going to say? That I don’t have any dis-ease with women? If I were totally comfortable with women, I’d be gay. I am still exploring the limits of my discomfort.
Saturday, December 16, 1995, Tallahassee: Even for Florida, it’s an exceptionally warm December day. Padgett arrives in a mud-splattered, four-wheel drive Toyota truck. I throw a flowered tablecloth over a metal table in the backyard—”Almost like Paris,” Padgett says—and we begin.
VH Not to bring up a sore subject, but after reading Edisto Revisited I figured out your dis-ease with women. There’s something downright Oedipal about Simons’s relationship with his mother. Does it reflect your feelings about your mother?
PP I don’t want to raise any eyebrows by protesting too much, so let me just say, good God, no!
VH You have to give more than that.
PP Okay, let me tell you what happened. When I was 20 years old, the woman who was teaching me sophomore literature discovered (in her living room) that I had not read Faulkner. In horror, she left the room and returned with a copy of Absalom, Absalom, inscribed with her maiden name, and gave it to me. That moment was the birth of the literary mother taking care of the unlettered, untutored son, who I was. There were what you might call Oedipal longings for that woman. Her husband was in the way! To that extent, the portrait of this mother is a maternal and also sexual portrait. But untenable in terms of author and own mother.
VH Has your mother read your books?
VH And she does say, “Everyone’s going to think this is me.”
PP There’s a curious thing that operates in this respect. To the extent that a portrait is negative, no one will identify with it: That is someone else, always. To the extent that one little wrinkle is positive, they identify. Now the woman in question has read these books, and knows that it’s her.
VH You told her?
PP I didn’t have to tell her. I’m still in touch with her. I’m still longing for her. Her old man is still in the way!
VH What were you doing in her living room? Sophomores aren’t allowed in their teacher’s living rooms!
PP Well, I was a protégé. I was a brilliant student. In fact it was her telling me this that helped flood my head with the presumptions that I could write. She was mothering me from the very beginning. She said one night, “Padgett, I’ve had intelligent students, but I’ve never had a brilliant one.” And I said, “Aw, thanks, Ma’am.” But it had its effect, it worked. She was a good mother. A very good mother.
VH And so the family here is a fictitious family?
PP I did spend a summer in bed with my cousin. Although the character in the book is not modeled on my cousin at all. I rather like the woman in the book.
VH You have written hard-tailed, very butch books. This is more soft, more romantic, almost gushing about women. Are you getting soft in your old age?
PP Just lonelier. It’s funny to discover, at age 43, that you can still write, or would write, about being in love.
VH Your character, Simons, takes this Odyssean journey, and certainly the language plays to that: he’s with Taurus going down the River Styx. But later he has an epiphany and says, “The world is anybody’s if you will square off and hit it. This is something I have learned, and I think I have learned it in time. I have learned it, I think, and continue to learn it, I think, from women.” Do you feel like you have learned as much as he has from women? Is that you speaking?
PP There are moments in which you have someone say something that isn’t your sentiment at all, and then there are moments when the sentiments are congruent. And that’s a congruent moment. One of the reasons the qualifier, “I think,” is in that latter sentence twice is because I was trying to get that to be a responsible utterance. So if someone said, “Now, Powell, is that the way you feel about it?” I wanted it cast so that I could say, “Yeah, that’s about the way I feel about it.”
VH So what else have you learned from women?
PP The women that I run with, or want to run with, have a kind of can-do attitude that a lot of men don’t have. Maybe had, sought, petered away as they petered out of adolescence and saw that things weren’t going to work out. Women seem to be putting their purses on their shoulders and wading into the fray and looking for an acceptable win/loss record. And men seem to be ready to sit down and say, “Next season. We lost this one.”
VH Do you have a daughter?
PP I have two.
VH And how old are they?
PP Ten and four.
VH Isn’t it partly being the daddy of girls that makes you feel that way about women?
PP Maybe. Because these little girls do that, square off and hit the world, they’re born doing that. And it’s my personal thesis that boys aren’t born doing that, that’s why you have to take them out to Little League and warp them and school them and steel them with all these ideas about being a man. You don’t need to do that with girls. Girls will naturally do it, if you stay out of their way and don’t impede them and don’t spray perfume on them. Leave them alone. They shake hands, they look people in the eye, they catch a body coming through the rye and they know its intent. Boys, to my mind, comparatively speaking, are totally fucked up.
VH You know Simons seems awfully savvy for a college graduate from Clemson University. He knows so much about love and war and lesbians. How does Simons know so much about that, being from Clemson?
PP Well, you know Simons’s age has always been a lie. Simons wasn’t twelve in the first book and he’s not 20-something in this book; what I try to do in the book, as fuzzily as possible, is make him appear to be near 30, which is one way of excusing some of his alleged savviness. He’s always been impossibly smart, that’s the energy of both of the books, that absurd proposition.
VH If I were to describe you, I would say that you’re a book away from a Good Old Boy. And yet there’s a real hostility about the South in Edisto Revisited. Why is that?
PP It’s not the South that I have anything against. It’s a gratuitous pride in place or in history. I don’t know that it’s gratuitous, I just know that the popular kinds of passion for place have never been obtained in me, or they’ve been dashed somehow by other disappointments.
VH And yet, every one of your books shows a certain yearning for a geography.
PP If I’m not mistaken, in Absalom, Absalom, Quentin Compson keeps saying, “I don’t hate it, I don’t hate it, I don’t hate it … ” All of this negative business about the South on Simons’ part is a refracted latter-day comment on that not-hating/hating. How conscious I am of all this, I don’t know. In my own life it boils down to something rather simple. I find, at my age, that buying a plantation of the sort I’ve just driven through to get here is not going to do it.
VH Are you thinking about … buying a plantation?
PP No longer, no. But as a young man, I thought that would do it. A nice, commodious place with beautiful land around, which would somehow put you at ease … fulfill you. And now I think, you’re going to be no more ill at ease in a penthouse. No more ill at ease in south Italy as in south Georgia. That’s all that’s being talked about, I hope.
VH (laughter) The South. Well, you know, Yankees love to hear us talk about the South.
PP And they deserve to hear us talk about it in a confused and mindless way.
VH Why did you decide to write a sequel to Edisto? I mean, certainly one wonders if it was because it was your biggest success?
PP Why does a dog lick himself?
VH Because he can?
PP Because he can. And this was the book that was there. And I wrote it. Uneasy, if not unhappy, with the whole idea of attempting a sequel to anything, let alone to something that has been as successful as Edisto was to a small but very good audience of readers.
VH Did you go back and re-read the first book?
PP No. No.
VH It was just the same voice.
PP If it is the same voice. Obviously, we don’t have the flippancy of the carefree chattering, the funmaking and the excused excesses because now Simons is older, and he’s of a frame of mind that he’s a grown man, and a real man can’t talk that way. But I didn’t go back and look at the book because I had no interest in doing that. That book makes me uncomfortable. The absurdity of its tenets are now too absurd. I was young too and had my way, which I don’t feel I have today. When I began working on that book in that room in which I was given Absalom, Absalom, I couldn’t recognize it as such a bad idea. And maybe it wasn’t. If we went around deeming the preposterous bad, books like Huckleberry Finn would not be penned. They’d be thrown down hard.
VH Talking about the kind of internal critic, how do you get past the first ten pages?
PP I’ve never been comfortable, immediately, with writing that’s any good. The better writing I’ve done has always been the most suspicious. You put it away and you pull it back out whenever, and when and if the emotion then is, “Hmmm! This isn’t so bad … actually, where did this shit come from?”—if you get that emotion, then, it’s a wrap.
VH Given that this is a sequel, and Simons is still so young, might this become a series of Simons books? I see Simons as this cynical and sexual Hardy boy.
PP Yeah, let’s put him somewhere between the Hardy boys and John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom.
VH What else do you want to tell the sophisticated readers of New York?
PP I was once set to go interview a man of whom I’d written who turned out to be a homosexual dogfighter.
VH What? He fights dogs?
PP No. He actually turned out not to be a dogfighter, but a dog breeder, and he also revealed that he was homosexual. And there were more contradictions in this guy’s character. He was not a white man, as I took him to be, but an Indian. So he was not a dogfighter as he had led me to believe, but a dog breeder; he was homosexual, he was an Indian—which is a lot different from a white macho dogfighter.
PP And I was headed off at a preternaturally depressing time of year, right after Christmas, to interview this guy, and he was going to show me, among other things, how to pick up soldiers. I was not looking forward to the grisliness of this scene, which was somewhat reminiscent of the dark half of Blue Velvet. And I told my wife, “I don’t know if I’m up to this.” And she said, “Take your scrotum in hand and go do it.” (laughter) So I went and did it.
VH So you went and picked up a couple of good-looking guys, did you?
PP Well, when that happened, when the subject knelt down and looked through the doorknob hole of the peepshow booth, I remembered I had a tall and yet still fairly cold Budweiser in the van, and I went out there to drink it. I failed as a journalist.
VH There was the joyhole, and there was you, and all you thought of was a Budweiser. (laughter) Now wait a minute. Why are you telling me about this guy who was not a dogfighter, and not a white guy, and not a heterosexual—why are you telling me this?
PP Because that was the situation where my wife said, “Take yourself by the scrotum and go do it. Go get this story. It will not depress you beyond measure. Just square off and hit the road.”
VH I see. You seem like you feel lucky to have her.
PP I am.
VH You are getting softer and more romantic in your old age. You hit 40 and got all gushy. I met you right at 39, and you still had that hard tail thing going on.
PP You’re looking at a white-knuckled abstainer. On the million-dollar plan.
VH What’s that?
PP I can’t have another drop to drink until I make one million dollars by writing.
PP The day I assumed this position, which was some two years ago, I made fifteen hundred dollars selling a story to Harper’s. There wasn’t a beer in sight in Atlanta on July 21st, 19-whenever that was, that was worth fifteen hundred dollars.
VH So what happens when you make a million, you start drinking again?
PP I have every right to.
VH It’s money-motivated abstention? It’s not about your health?
PP No. Health is not enough.
VH It’s not enough?
PP No. Nor is vanity, nor is insupportable behavior to those who like you, once loved you—none of that is sufficient. It took something absolutely absurd. Not only will I never make a million dollars by writing, if I were to make a million dollars writing, the writing would be worthless. The whole thing is fraught with holes. Yet, it takes something large to argue you out of a habit that large.
VH Let me ask you something since you brought it up. Usually when people drink, something critical happens to make them stop drinking.
PP One thing?
VH No, of course not one thing. But there’s that one climactic event, when they say: I can’t keep doing this. Did you have that?
PP No. It was an aggregate moment of some insupportable behavior, strung over time. I reached the point where the logic of drinking said: Be drunk all the time. The work of sobering up looked absurd. Desperate. Just pointless. You’ve gone to all this trouble to get really drunk, now why dig your way out of it? And deal with the tremors, and fear, and depression, to get back up on the other side, and go around making all the apologies? Why do that if this is where you want to be? I’d reached that point, and I didn’t think I could support, among other things, a two-year-old and an eight-year old that way. These women who have taught me to square off and hit it, I wasn’t going to be able to provide with the means of squaring off and hitting. And you’ve got to understand, that within a month or two, a couple of accidents happened, and that beer would have cost fifteen thousand dollars.
VH What do you mean?
PP I sold some papers and some writing, and in several months, the fifteen hundred dollars which was already a pricey beer had increased to fifteen thousand, twenty-five thousand dollars.
VH ‘Cause when you drink you don’t write?
PP Oh yes, I wrote. I wrote much more. I wrote better. I didn’t write drunk—no one writes drunk who’s any good. But you go do a good morning’s work, and at eleven thirty—whenever you get that beer out of the refrigerator—you reward yourself, and shake your head at your genius, or go sit in the woods with your whiskey and shoot squirrels, as I understand Faulkner did. That’s where the booze comes in, it takes you off duty. It lets you punch off the clock. Otherwise, you’re at work all day. Hemingway has disquisitions on this, getting your head running on a different plane after a day of using it writing.
VH So what do you do now? Some sort of aerobics?
PP I don’t do anything now. I’m a little bit awash. That reward system has not been replaced by anything. Narcotics are too hard to come by. I just do testosterone now. There’s this notion that writers become drunks. That’s not the case at all. Drunks become writers. In being a drunk, you’ve betrayed a predisposition to entertain failure on a daily if not momentary basis, which is what you do when you write. So the specter of all these drunk writers is to be regarded as a yardful of writing drunks.
VH Say you make the million dollars, Edisto Revisited hits the stands in the spring, and all of a sudden, it’s like how many books can you sign in a minute and the ladies are waving placards, waiting overnight to hear you read, Hollywood’s beating at the door, the incestuous cousin surfaces … So what happens then?
PP I’ve got a friend in West Virginia, a boozist shotist who also had to quit. I call him, and I tell him to expect a delivery to his basement from the local distiller. I tell him to throw all the car keys in the pond, and rip the phone off the wall, and I will be there.
VH What about the wife and kids, can you leave ’em a note?
PP Leave ’em a trust fund.
V. Hunt is the author of the novel Cutting Pictures to Fit. She is a Kingsbury Creative Writing Fellow at Florida State University.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.