The publication of Cries for Help, Various, marks another curious moment for Padgett Powell in a career that is, admittedly, more curious than most. The Gainesville, Florida–born author is still best known for his critically acclaimed 1984 debut Edisto, which came out when he was 32. Now at 63, a handful of novels and a few collections of short stories later, he describes himself candidly as "unpublishable." It's true that the shape of his writing has only gotten stranger as the words have piled up, moving closer to the style of his early mentor Donald Barthelme. The 2010 critical success of The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, a book composed entirely of questions such as "Are your emotions pure?" and "Is there sand in your craw?", brought new attention to his writing and reignited fans of his earlier work. This new collection of stories—or "failed novels," as Powell calls them—is somehow both grounded and absurd, each one of the stories trying get at that heart of the confusion and sadness at the core of contemporary life and not wasting a lot of time on the kind of fictional niceties expected in a short story.
I recently sat down to speak with Powell in the Flatiron offices of his new publisher, Catapult, where he has found himself as one of the upstart publishing house's two flagship authors. We spoke about Barthelme, the blue indigo snake, and the various mysteries and absurdities he's encountered during his long career dealing with the publishing industry.
VICE: You've said before of your old mentor Barthelme that he grew more towards realism as he got older. You've swung in the opposite direction, which has made you unpublishable. But here you are with a story collection being published?
Padgett Powell: This book was around over ten years ago and no one wanted it. It has an interesting little track record, most of which was concealed from me.
By your agent?
Yeah. My agent said, "Gee, some of the letters are quotable" [Laughs]. And I said, "Well, quote them." A good number of places had a look at it and apparently spoke unfavorably. I don't really want to dwell on all that and raise their hackles. But there are some out there that saw the book three times.
Even your old publishers like FSG and Ecco?
Well, here's the deal: Pat Strachan was my publisher at FSG [Pat Strachan is now the editor-in-chief at Catapult]. So yes/no, or no/yes, to that question. She saw the book some time ago but was unable to take it for reasons of house economic politics and so forth.
So ten years ago, was this the way the book looked? Or has it changed over the years?
Throw out ten stories, put in eight other, or say five and five. Something like that. There's a core there of 35 pieces that have stayed. I wrote some new ones during the ten years after, padded out some of the old ones and probably some of the new ones. At one point it was 45; now it's 44. I used to call it "45 failed novels," but that, I've discovered, makes a publisher nervous.
Sounds like an interesting label to me.
I would've thought so. I thought it would benefit it to put the word novel on there.
God, yeah. Not short stories.
No [laughs]. Sometimes, people, they reject your words. They don't like your shit.
"The more wacky the mode, as Donald Barthelme would put it, the more heartbreak there better be, or you're not going to get away with it." —Padgett Powell
Does your seeing your work as being somewhat unpublishable stem from the creative reception it receives? Critics responded well to The Interrogative Mood, but the followup, You & Me, seemed to befuddle a lot of critics.
Yeah, beginning with the best critic in the world, Dwight Garner.
I felt it was so odd that the Times needed to publish two lukewarm reviews of that book. Do you like that kind of relationship with the critics, riling them up a little bit?
I like an intelligent review, negative or positive. It's better if it's positive. It's not the worst thing in the world if you get an intelligent negative review. A sub-intelligent negative review is the worst thing in the world. A sub-intelligent positive review is a step up. That helps.
I'm not sure if you asked this question, or if I answered it or not, about Don [Barthelme] going to realism and my going to surrealism. At the time that we knew each other, I was fully in the realistic camp, though it would have to be called something like "cuddly realism." I gave that book [Edisto] to Don and he did some editing and he was a very good editor. He said, "We can get this published without any problem. Unless I'm a madman." He also said he regretted he found me "fully formed." And he may have thought that was true at the time and I may have thought it was too, but I didn't think about it too much. But then I more or less immediately said, "I'm done with cuddly realism." Even my next book was realistic, but it wasn't cuddly. So I more or less immediately started paying that price. And then it got, honest to God, it started veering down the spectrum toward that end of things, which is nothing more or less than a fiction whose central thrust is not "these made-up people did these made-up things." That's what people are laboring the word "experimental" over. That's what's got people jittery or nervous or disapproving. And it's been going on a long time.
I thought it was all just made-up people doing made-up things. Until I met Donald Barthelme. I couldn't read that stuff until I met him. I saw that this was a human being made of stuff. I saw a red-blooded "dude" who liked vodka and jazz and women and painting. And yet the thrust was not made-up people doing made-up things.
So that experience grounded your idea of what writing could be, now that you met the flesh-and-blood man who wrote it?
In meeting Don and seeing those stories again and knowing an actual sane person wrote them, not Warhol on acid, I began to see the core of those stories were human beings in some kind of emotional distress.
Just because it was surreal doesn't mean that it has an ironic detachment to it.
In fact, the inverse is more or less the case. The more wacky the mode, as Don would put it, the more heartbreak there better be or you're not going to get away with it.
That's definitely a rule I could see applying to your and Barthelme's work.
Well, it's a classroom thing. The only thing I remember from classroom. A piece brought in that was a dialogue. It had some odd elements in it. The dialogue, the thrust of which was not made-up people doing made-up thing. The thrust was made up od people talking in funny ways. After the piece was presented to the class, Don said, "OK, we have wacky mode. What must wacky mode do?" And we all sat there on our hands before he said, "Break their hearts." Class dismissed [laughs]. I could be making that part up, but that's the only part I remember.
Everything I've read about you characterizes you as a Southern writer, but, just as often, you're battling that notion of "Southernness." I didn't really see any of the signifiers of Southernness in this collection. Most of the stories seemed placeless.
Good, that's a compliment. They're there. When that stuff is done, I call it "corn pone." When it's done really earnestly, I call it "mitigated corn pone." I'm the last audience for it, I can't take it. That's what I'm saying inarticulately when I say, "I'm in the club. I'll be in the club." I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. I went to high school with the guys who were in Lynyrd Skynyrd. I'm not going to write about "boots that walk down the hill knowing the way." Unless I can find a way to have some fun with it. I can't abide it. We get a lot of applications at Florida, less now than we used to, but we did get a good bunch for a while when Harry Crews was there. Nothing bleaker than unmitigated corn pone. I guess I have a bad attitude.
You've been doing more journalism lately, like this article about the blue indigo snake. I've also read about your fascination with buffalo. Are you taking up conservation journalism?
No, I wouldn't say that. I was taking up the indigo snake. I thought I would write a book, maybe, about my 50-year quest to find a blue indigo. What you read is chapter one or two, but I haven't pursued it any further just because I'm lazy and so forth. One of the things that's happened is I caught a blue indigo—we were catching them to send to Auburn to lay eggs—and we went out with a party and caught four of the snakes, and I happened to catch one of them myself. That's solo sight and capture, otherwise it doesn't really count. The pro catcher was standing a little bit away, and I said, "Are you looking for a big purple snake?" and he said, "Yeah," and I said, "Well, there's one right there," so he goes, "WHAT THE—." That snake goes to Auburn University with the other girls and dies along with the rest of them en route. That night I was sleeping in the bunkhouse in the same room with the four snakes, and I felt bad for them so I took my snake out and made a movie with her. A video. Then I put her back in, and she went on to her death in the laboratory. When I saw her that day in the cemetery, at that point, I really didn't want to catch her. On the other hand, the wranglers were right there, and it was for a good cause. Anyway, this book is already pretty complicated.
Is this the direction you see yourself going in with your writing?
It's conceivable. I'm not sure if I have any more "made-up people doing made-up things."
Do you feel like you've exhausted the limits of that?
Catapult is such an interesting publisher. You're really one of their flagship authors. Are you hoping this kind of newer imprint born out of the online literary community will introduce you to a younger or more internet-savvy generation?
It might. I could use it. My 30-plus year career of producing books so good no one buys them could use some bottom line. It could use it. Bring it on.
Edisto is still your most well-known novel.
And the money-maker. It was the only one that earned out. Not that it sold a lot.
Do you ever feel misunderstood by the public?
No, I think if you have a really successful book, you've done something wrong. You complain, but you don't complain. I'll take the small solid square of some kind of literary merit surrounded by huge clouds of obscurity.
"You're either going to be an unknown lonely old doofus who shoots himself with a shotgun, or maybe you're going to have a piece of warm embroidery somewhere." —Padgett Powell
You must've been worried there with The Interrogative Mood, it was pretty well received, critically.
Yeah, almost had a breakthrough. A close call. I think I believed for ten days or ten minutes that Interrogative Mood would win a Pulitzer. You can really be possessed by these kinds of things, short-term. You really can. I thought that book was unique and getting really good notice and something could happen. But I came to my senses.
Still it was a little too strange for them. And I couldn't help noticing that the elderly, especially elderly men, are portrayed in this collection as inept monsters who can't help but just be oppressive.
I know I have some portraits in there of creeping senility.
Is that a fear of yours?
Oh, yeah. Those are my ruminations. Losing the wax. Yeah, that's me. Absolutely.
Do you find critics very necessary to the literary world?
Well, everyone's got a right to live. I saw a show, I don't know what it was now, but killing the water moccasins was being championed. And some country guy, who could've been the sort to champion the killing of water moccasins, spoke up and said, "They've got a right to live too." Which they do.
I don't demean the enterprise of criticism. I'm just suggesting that the casual tools of criticism are not what's in this writer's brain and, I suspect, not in a lot of writers' brains. "The hard, brown, nutlike word," to quote Mr. Barthelme. "Some people run to conceits or wisdom, but I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word." I might also say that there is enough aesthetic excitement here to satisfy anyone but a damned fool. That's a closer quote.
Some of the stories move into the heart of the matter so quickly, like they're disposing of the nicety of constructing a believable situation.
There's something wrong with me. I've been trying to read some more supposedly realistic fiction, and I just about can't do it. I read a lot of student-level work, but I must say, even on a graduate level, I don't get tedious earnestness. You can see out there in-between the covers of hardback books that don't have much in the way of novelty.
How do you feel about this elder-statesman occupation?
It feels OK. You're either going to be an unknown lonely old doofus who shoots himself with a shotgun, or maybe you're going to have a piece of warm embroidery somewhere. These people want to knit me an afghan. Bring it on.
Follow Aaron on Twitter.
Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell is available in bookstores and online.