Padgett Powell’s insignificance
The power of rhythm
The gentle wildness of buffalo
Padgett Powell has written some of the most lyrical and hilarious stories to emerge from the Southern literary tradition, and his characters are some of its rowdiest and most unforgettable. Powell embraces the stereotypical pickup trucks, cheap booze, and Piggly Wigglys that crowd the genre with an irascible, pessimist’s wit, proving what a wonderful and silly thing it is to be Southern, and, ultimately, human. In a story titled “Typical,” his character John Payne examines the circumstances that led him to realize he is “a piece of shit.” In another, “Scarliotti and the Sinkhole,” a brain-damaged man in a trailer perched atop a sinkhole watches The Andy Griffith Show, avoids his medication, and wonders what life will be like when his trailer finally goes underground (“The sinkhole was the kind of thing he realized that other people had when they had Jesus. He didn’t need Jesus. He had a hole, and it was a purer thing than a man”).
A student of Donald Barthelme, Powell first rose to national attention with his debut novel, Edisto (1984), the story of ten-year-old Simons Manigault and his wild adolescence in coastal South Carolina. It was nominated for the American Book Award for best first novel. Soon after, he began teaching at the University of Florida in his hometown of Gainesville, where he now serves as director of the MFA program. He has written three novels in addition to Edisto—A Woman Named Drown, Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men, Edisto Revisited—as well as two collections of short fiction, Typical and Aliens of Affection.
This conversation took place over a three-month span. Powell preferred that the interview take place via email because, in his words: “I rather despise the phone. Poets like the phone.”
—Brian J. Barr
I. “WHAT IS ONE DOING IN
A CLASSROOM FINALLY BUT
PEDDLING HIS BIASES?”
THE BELIEVER: A line from your short story “Chihuahua” won’t leave my head. Your character says: “A man is supposed to be a kind of diversified portfolio of modest interest in things, none of which is to get out of hand.” Obviously this was meant in jest by you as the writer, considering the character was undergoing psychiatric treatment for “winder-peekin.” But I’m curious—do you feel our society places too much emphasis on turning us into well-rounded people?
PADGETT POWELL: I think the pique I feel hasn’t to do with well-roundedness, per se, which after all might make little Renaissance men of us, or at least a good Boy Scout. “Diversified portfolio” refers more to custodialism in life, which has irked me to no end. We are to be a clan of choosers among our “options,” each of which to greater or lesser degree aggrandizes us into more and more secure positions. I have a number of dubious heroes in my writing who have renounced this custodializing, or who have not had the opportunity to renounce it (Wayne, say). As a result of my own repudiation, I am these days having to ask people the difference between term and universal life insurance, etc.
BLVR: Your characters also seem to be wrangling with their own insignificance in life. Is this a reflection of your own struggle?
PP: No. My insignificance is not to be contested.
BLVR: You were a roofer in Texas for quite a few years before enrolling in the University of Houston. Because roofing is such a blue-collar work environment, did you feel a need to keep it secret from your coworkers that you wanted to write stories for a living?
PP: I did not declare to anyone that I wanted to write any more than one would declare he wants to be President. They of course knew something was wrong with me, but I was usually the boss so not much was made of it.
BLVR: I’m only asking this because I remember working on house-painting crews in Pennsylvania and they’d all laugh and shake their heads when I’d jot down story ideas in a notebook.
PP: I was once caught reading James Dickey when I was not out at the strip club with them and there was some head shaking over this.
BLVR: Do you find any sort of parallel between hard labor and the writing life?
PP: I believed at the time I came out of that (labor) that I would be a better writer for having done it, and for being in physical shape. I still subscribe to this idea. I am suspicious of a soft body.
BLVR: Is there anything about hard labor you miss?
PP: After thirty, working for a living with your body is contraindicated. You always miss being around hard people without imaginary issues.
BLVR: You’ve been employed at the University of Florida for twenty-plus years. In that time, have you developed any sound philosophy on the teaching of writing?
PP: In the beginning one admits he knows not what he is doing and is possibly effective. In the end one gets tired, begins to believe he knows what he is doing, and is not possibly effective. My regular approach these days is usage instruction followed by begging for coherence. If we get past those hurdles, we might look at what I call The Rules, and at Miss O’Connor’s dictum (in a letter to Hawkes): “The higher the fantasy of action, the more precise the writing, and that is the way it ought to be.”
BLVR: The Rules? I’m intrigued…
PP: Rule 1 is The Gosling Rule. The story concerns the first thing the reader sees move. Rule 2 is that the problem, or the apparent and necessarily related problem, must appear soon, in the first paragraph if not the first sentence. Rule 3 is a complex function [wh = f(c1,c2,c3... + e + t)] involving withholding. Rule 4 is the bar test: everything must be said more or less as if you might say it to a stranger in a bar. Rule 5 is the doozie quotient. Rule 7 is the 3 Questions: Did it, could it, should it happen? Before any of these rules apply the writing must place itself unmurkily on the spectrum of credulity.
These rules are not of course actually in this or any other order. Twain’s early count of nineteen rules, some say twenty-two, etc., is a pretty good count that still holds up. Rules beget rules and you need to make sure some of them are sterile or you’ll have overcrowding and chaos in the pen.
BLVR: I’ve always imagined that because your voice is so strong, young writers in the MFA program at U of F find it easy to slip into mimicry, sort of aping your dialogue and characters. Do you see a lot of mini-Padgetts coming through your classroom?
PP: One hopes not. Either it does not happen, or I am blind to it. There was some talk, I think, of Chris Bachelder’s having been after me somewhat; I did not see it. I encouraged him in what he was doing. Perhaps he was. What is one doing in a classroom finally but peddling his biases?
II. “THEM SOUTHERN DOGS
IS HELL, AIN’T THEY?”
BLVR: Since you write largely about the South, were there any writers early on that influenced you in writing about where you’re from?
PP: Yes: I read the celebrity writers of the day like Mailer and Vidal and Capote, and I regard two of those as Southern. Then I graduated to what I thought of as more serious writers, and these were Southern: Faulkner, O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, and [Walker] Percy. I regard those four writers as a family of sorts: Percy is directly out of O’Connor by Faulkner. Then I met Don Barthelme and had to adjust my view some to include him and Beckett and so forth. I think Barthelme is Southern in the extreme—he knows who lost the Civil War and how, for example. Texas is the South, one with its own little secession ongoing.
BLVR: When you say Faulkner, O’Connor, and Percy are “more serious” than Gore Vidal & Co., what distinguishes them for you?
PP: “More serious” will not win friends; arguably Vidal is about as serious as it gets. What I intended to suggest was that I had been drawn to certain writers partly owing to their celebrity: you could see Mailer and Vidal fighting on Dick Cavett.
MAILER: I would not hit anyone here, you’re all too small.
MAILER: Intellectually smaller.
CAVETT: Perhaps you’d like another chair to help contain your giant intellect.
MAILER: I’ll accept the chair if you’ll accept fingerbowls.
CAVETT: Fingerbowls? Fingerbowls. I don’t get that. Does anyone on our team [Vidal and Janet Flanner] want that one?
MAILER: Think about it.
MAILER: Why don’t you just read another question off your list, Cavett?
CAVETT: Why don’t you just fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?
Capote on Carson, I think, telling Jacqueline Susann that she looked like a truck driver in drag, saying elsewhere he was an alcoholic, a drug fiend, a homosexual, and a genius. This looked like fun. Then I discovered there was an off-TV stratum: behind a Mailer was a Bellow, a Roth, and behind Vidal and Capote was a Faulkner and an O’Connor. In a sense I came to think these behind-the-scenes fellows were real writers, or more real, because they were less celebrated; they were harder, quieter, and so forth. It’s just how a boy discovers the terrain. Of course it keeps going: behind all these is Shakespeare, behind him Chaucer, and so forth.
BLVR: It seems that in the world of Southern lit, all writers are direct descendants of Faulkner and O’Connor and, maybe more recently, Barry Hannah. Do you find it stifling that no matter how wildly different a Southern writer’s voice may be, a parallel will always be drawn to the Grandmother and Grandfather of Southern lit?
PP: Not stifling—exhilarating, if one is going to react to the nonsense at all. It’s a good bloodline, and one must be from a bloodline. To paraphrase a dogfighter I know, them Southern dogs is hell, ain’t they?
BLVR: Your prose is also quite dependent on rhythm and your sense of timing very powerful. On top of these writers, are you a fan of music? Does it figure into your work?
PP: Short answer: yes. Who don’t like rhythm? Even the people who can’t catch a beat on the dance floor fancy that they like rhythm and are unpersuaded that they don’t have a clue, which is why they are so dangerous out there.
Long answer: the second live band I heard, in 1966, after a set of pure garbage from some high school boys in a battle of the bands that confirmed everything one’s parents said about the badness of rock and roll, was a band calling itself the 1% with my schoolmates Allen Collins and Bob Burns in it. We were fourteen. They transfixed us, with correct guitar, want of clutter, clean bass, and rhythm. They became Lynyrd Skynyrd. I took Latin at the same time; Latin is rhythm on the page. Latin also teaches you English in a way that you will not learn it otherwise. I kick myself today for never having done a profile of Allen Collins before he died. We were in homeroom in the tenth grade at Nathan Bedford Forrest High and he’d come in dead-tired from playing until three in the morning. They were bar none the best band anybody ever heard. I was up to Virgil at that point. When you went and saw the 1% on Saturday night, about all you could say was “mirabile dictu.”
III. “I JUST NATURALLY GOT TIRED
OR EMPTY OF THE PURELY
BLVR: How long were you writing before Edisto was published? Can you remember some of the things you were working on?
PP: I wrote figments of Edisto in college as early as 1972. Scruff Taurus wrote a column called “Fighting About Writing” in the school newspaper I edited. I did sketches of him beating up members of the English department there, and used them to try to charm the professor I eventually would model the Doctor on. It worked. She said the writing was good. I said the things were a joke, cartoons. She said she knew that but the prose was strong. Here was the birth of the literary mother. She soon found out I had not read Faulkner and, appalled, gave me her copy of Absalom, Absalom! That is the birth of the literarily mothered boy.
This writing and some more that would become the early stuff of Edisto was stolen in a roofing truck in San Antonio around 1976. I envisioned my pages blowing about the desert at Eagle Pass, Texas, where I imagined the truck being taken into Mexico. I think I had about forty pages, the first three chapters of the book, when I met Barthelme in 1981. He said, “You’ve thought about this a bit.” “Yes.” “You’ll settle down. You’re just nervous. Give me all you’ve got.” He was referring to a certain ersatz-Faulkner alignment things had taken. The book was then taking more literally the Doctor’s desire that her son sound like a writer, perhaps specifically like those whose books she had given him.
Simons was in fact named Huck early on.
BLVR: Am I to assume Scruff Taurus was your pseudonym in the college paper? Seems too perfect a name.
PP: I wrote the column and all the other articles in the paper, about ten pseudonyms altogether. Scruff Taurus was the son of Norman Mailer by a black girl from the Carolina coast who could sing jazz—he was, thus, the prototypical White Negro of Mailer’s fevered fancy. This offspring was perhaps suggested by Mailer’s having a white hero not unlike himself in American Dream who was sleeping with a black jazz singer. I was just localizing things a bit, and by having in my mind Mailer as the father I could have the son do some Mailer parody, which I could do. This figure, Taurus, toned down a good deal, was a secure armature to take into Edisto. I had to get Taurus out of the heroic position because he was a cartoon; I replaced him with another cartoon, Simons, but a more cuddly cartoon. The matter of race could be reduced to Simons’s boyish speculations, where it would be safe.
BLVR: Do you feel fiction affords one the opportunity to address race more openly than, perhaps, essays or journalism?
PP: Any address of race is subject to a charge of racism. I suppose fiction affords some sheathing armor, but the bull is coming nonetheless.
BLVR: This college professor you mention, could she be considered your literary mother? Did she mother you, literarily?
PP: She did. She said, “The prose is strong,” she said, “I’ve had intelligent students before, but not brilliant,” and she dropped that Modern Library copy of Absalom, Absalom! in my lap, with her maiden name in the flyleaf. At that moment I had a literary mother and a woman interested in my literariness. It was working. Cf. Faulkner about all writing having to do with getting in someone’s pants.
BLVR: Could Barthelme be considered your literary father? He played a significant role in the shaping of Edisto, yes?
PP: Barthelme edited the book, cutting for cleanliness and strength. In terms of my overall development as a writer, he lamented that he had found me already “fully formed.” By this he meant that I was, then, formed by my vision of realistic writing as more or less an amalgam of Faulkner and O’Connor and Williams and Percy and, say, Mailer.
I could not at the time make sense of Barthelme and Beckett and so forth. I never would have had I not, in knowing Don personally, seen that he was a red-blooded normal dude, not a wacko that the writing might suggest. Before I met him in fact I anticipated a Warhol kind of beast. He showed up in jeans and a yoked cowboy shirt a little drunk and introducing himself as Don and shaking hands firmly. We had not had a teacher to that point in our tour in Houston who would deign shake hands.
I referred to Don, as did many of the students, as Uncle Don. He did not shape Edisto beyond cleaning up, with considerable deftness, what I gave him. He could have been a professional editor of the highest caliber. He did in fact select the ten non-consecutive chapters that were sent to the New Yorker. They admitted later that they would not have seen that excerpt had they been given the entire book at first.
I assumed some influence from Don along what we’ll call surreal lines only later. Either that or I just naturally got tired or empty of the purely realistic utterance. I’ve swung so far in this direction now that I’m virtually unpublishable. Don himself at this age was swinging back to realism; he was a man of sense.
BLVR: So, are your usual outlets not receptive to your surreal work? Would you say a story like “Manifesto” is exemplary of the direction you’ve swung?
PP: The larger commercial venues do not receive wacky mode. “Manifesto” is about halfway out on the surreal moonshot, I’d say. It’s a dialogue between two men who appear to be one man, for the convenience of smooth flux. That is one of the entertaining things about it, to me—a dialogue that is a monologue. I have thinner and weirder action than that, I’m afraid.
BLVR: What sort of publishing snags have you run into with this kind of work?
PP: Snags? Just, you know, “We pass, we pass, we pass…”
BLVR: I think it’s admirable that you refuse to lasso your creative potential for the simple sake of commercial viability. It seems you just let your writing fly and if that means nobody wants what comes of it, so be it.
PP: Nothing to admire. No sacrifice involved, but rather an enfeeblement that prevents any other kind of writing than that which one does. I used to ask Don why he did not write a blockbuster and cash in, to which he’d say, “Can’t.” I thought he meant can’t violate my pure vision, my self. He meant “can’t,” as hard as that is to believe, given his range (to wit, his satires). By the way, on the subject of his Southernness, folk should have a look at “The Sea of Hesitation.” Only a Southerner at heart knows that much about the Wawer off the top of his head, and can write “Proceed with your evil plan, sumbitch.”
IV. “I TRY TO ASSAULT WHAT PASSES
FOR SOUTHERNNESS IF I CAN”
BLVR: Is it true you view writing as a spoiling of paper? Can you expound?
PP: I take this phrase from Barthelme, who was always two-wording the world. We were, he averred, but spoiling paper. Similarly, once when I asked him if he wasn’t, after eleven books, satisfied, he said, with a little backhanding of the space near him, as if dismissing something, “Oh, I have my… little things.” I was aghast, somewhat. I am not so aghast now, beginning to get it.
BLVR: By “little things,” did Barthelme mean he had only a few things he was satisfied with in his writing? It’s a terrifying thought, if so.
PP: He meant that his things were little things. He was equally dissatisfied by all of them. Here’s the actual conversation:
PP: Are you satisfied?
DB: Of course I’m not satisfied!
PP: You have eleven books—
DB: Oh, I have my [batting them away] little things.
BLVR: When you say you are beginning to get it, are there only a few things you are satisfied with in your past work? Can you single them out?
PP: No, it is not a discriminatory dissatisfaction; it is a realizing that the work is not large.
BLVR: Do you have an approach in creating characters?
PP: No approach. Unless one’s talent is large, characters are a portion or aspect of oneself, a generally inexcusable facet, which is where the mantel of “fiction” comes in handy.
BLVR: I’ve been thinking about this business of Southernness. I know of a West Virginia writer, Ann Pancake, who spoke of a “responsibility” she feels in representing “her people” in her fiction. Do you take similar precautions with characters?
PP: I try to assault what passes for Southernness if I can. This puts me a tad outside the good-old-boy network, I like to think. This thinking might be more hopeful than accurate. Actually, the idea of having a position at all with respect to characters or Southernness or to characters and Southernness strikes me as the wrong thing to do. Having a position at all, of any sort, seems contraindicated. I wish it weren’t too late to go to chiropractic school.
BLVR: Yeah, you’re definitely outside the good-old-boy network. Even though I place Aliens of Affection on the same pedestal of short fiction as Airships and Everything That Rises Must Converge, something about you and your work overall does reek of a general outsiderism, as if there is no easy category yet for what you do.
PP: I would never have thought that those two books could be twinned in any way beyond that they are Southern. She was our Hera. Barry Hannah is a full mortal with his ear to the oracle hole in the ground. The ground has a little whiskey moistening it. Barry has to brush this moist dirt from his ear and run home and write down what he’s heard. He is very good at that. I think I inhabit a liquid fey interface between “believing” in the South and making fun of folk who believe. But, as I say, I think it even feyer to ponder one’s position in all this. I pitch for a softball team of grad students tonight. Feeling primed. We are the Sinkholes, which we like to pronounce in the Spanish way.
BLVR: This balance between believing and making fun of those who believe, do you think you’d be able to achieve it if you were living and working in, say, Montana, or some other region of the US?
PP: Well, sure, but it takes time to develop the sense of the local game. It might take a lifetime in fact. I have lived in Montana, by the way, long enough to begin to at least appreciate that it is not Civil War ground. It is the ground of our greatest genocide. What bastards we were. Arguably worse bastards than we were on Civil War ground, but very refreshing to be off Civil War ground and free of that particular debate.
V. “IT IS VERY HARD FOR US
TO COMPREHEND WHAT WE ARE”
BLVR: You’re a big fan of buffalo. Can you tell me how you came to buffalo and why you appreciate them so?
PP: Yes. There were sixty million buffalo on the Plains; some conservative estimates are as low as only thirty million. Apparently you could see herds that went beyond the horizon, the ground appearing to ripple as they moved. We got them down to about three hundred head in one notable last herd that was offered to the US government for sale, which declined. Canada bought it. Canada, to where we’d chased the Nez Percé. Today, there is a federal buffalo reserve outside of Missoula that great fanfare is made of; it is only 1800 acres and it has on it from three hundred to five hundred buffalo. I like them because they seem gently wild, as opposed to violently wild, and they have the huge rump-like hump, the giant head, the eyeball the size of a billiard ball. What is not to like? We killed them all.
And of course the Indians today are still in a world of hurt, where we put them, after killing their meat. It is very hard for us to comprehend what we are. The details of our history are so repellent, once you start to get the fine print, that you fall back dazed and fail to retain what you’ve just read. Chief Joseph alone will appall.
BLVR: Did you only come to love buffalo when you saw one up close in Montana, or was it just a general admiration that came from reading about them or seeing them on television?
PP: I saw one quarantined for brucellosis here on a prairie in Florida about twenty years ago, a big bull that was apparently going to live out his days alone. He was resting on the ground, upright, like a dog. Then in Montana I saw them close enough to almost touch, in Yellowstone, trotting in the snow. You could hide and they’d come by, close. You want to tousle them.
BLVR: Have you ever thought of writing a book of naturalism on the buffalo? Something like Rick Bass’s The Ninemile Wolves? Do you have any interest in nonfiction?
PP: Nonfiction is exhausting. I agreed recently with an agent to consider doing a book on a Shaolin kung fu priest in New York, and got all bothered up in thinking about camping out in NYC for a year and penetrating the wude in a big-time Capotean/Wolfeish way, and never heard back from the agent. So, no. My little piece on the world-champion armwrestler took two months and more work than two books of fiction. But if I could get up with some whoriginal beeves and talk to Ted Turner, I’m there. I want to have a buffalo you can saddle up and ride. I am afraid of horses but I would not be sore afraid of a buffalo. A man with a buffalo would not need anything else.
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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