The Quintessential Padgett Powell at Powell’s
What can I say? Padgett Powell totally lived up to his reputation at his Powell’s reading the other night displaying a heavy dose of dry wit, and sharing all sorts of dark matter about writing, publishing, and life in general. In his opening remarks before reading from his new book, You & Me, he was self-deprecating, amusing, and feisty. At the signing table afterwards, he was extremely warm and gracious.
Poor Powell had come to Powell’s hoping to see his name on the marquee, but by the time he arrived they had taken it down. He said he “was crushed.” He prefaced his reading by saying:
“This is not a book tour reading. The publisher did not send me here. I came on my own. I’m here only because of the inanity of Powell reading at Powell’s, and on my nickel. I have never read from this book. I have no idea how to read from this book. I have not practiced at home. I don’t know how to read. I don’t know what to read…the book took a heavy hit today in the New York Times Daily Review, and I’m more disoriented than I would be otherwise. It was the second bad review the New York Times felt compelled to deliver.”
By the way, Powell said that the book is titled You & I in England where it was first published. Both this title and the American title come from a line in the book where one of the guys says to the other one, “Are you essentially alone? Yes. It’s you and me. You and I. God.” Apparently, the British editor liked You & I, but the American editor, who subsequently bought the book, wanted You & Me, thinking You & I was “too formal for Americans.”
Powell described the book as “two guys talking. You won’t be able to tell the difference, but it doesn’t really matter, because they’re not really different. They’re the same guy conveniently agreeing with the other.”
This is a little taste of what he talked about during the Q&A:
This book was given to my American editor, and he didn’t want the book. My agent sent the book to my publisher in England who bought the book in 10 minutes. So it came out in England first. After it had been bought by the publisher in England in 10 minutes, the American publisher bought the book.
The beginning of the book starts with this passage:
Somewhere between Bakersfield, California, and Jacksonville, Florida–we think spiritually nearer the former and geographically nearer the latter–two weirdly agreeable dudes are on a porch in a not upscale neighborhood, apparently within walking distance of a liquor store, talking a lot. It’s all they have. Things disturb them. Some things do not.
Why did you choose Bakersfield, California?
I’ve never been to Bakersfield, which is probably apparent. I was aware of Bakersfield as a child as where Frank Gifford came from. It has existed, therefore, in my mind as a magical terrain. Everything subsequent that I have ever managed to find out about Bakersfield has been somewhat negative, or a lot negative. The other geographical pole that the book offers is Jacksonville where I grew up. I do know Jacksonville. In my mind, very loosely, I think of Bakersfield somewhat as Jacksonville, on certain socio-economic strata.
What do you think about the comparisons being made to Waiting for Godot?
Oh, that’s fluff. It has nothing to do with Godot. I read Godot when I was 18 years old, and forgot it, and moved on.
These pictures, number one, are very flattering. They make me look handsome. The guy who took the pictures took a lot of pictures and they saw these two as a diptych, as it were, and they thought two pictures suggest the two guys, so it’s very loosely thematically connected.
Do you like to write non-fiction?
Well, no not really, because I’m lazy and I find that kind of writing extremely difficult compared to writing fiction. Consequently, I don’t do much of it. When I do it, it wears me out. I wrote a nice piece on the late Cleve Dean, the undisputed arm wrestling champ of the world. I worked on that piece for two months which included going to Georgia and finding him. It was a 50-page manuscript, which ultimately was a successful document that was published by Harpers, and put in George Plimpton’s Best Sportswriting of the Year. I felt that I had done the work required of two books of fiction. So the answer is I’m too lazy to do a book of non-fiction. That’s all there is to it.
Why are you opposed to memoirs?
If George Patton’s gonna write one, I’m going to pay attention. If Ty Cobb’s gonna write one, I’m going to go pay attention. But when someone who is young and hasn’t done anything writes one, I don’t get it. That’s not to say there can’t be some kind of magical accident and some good books being written, but I’m not compelled to go and find out.
Describe your current writing style.
I moved down the spectrum from realism to the other end. It’s the end that’s called experimental. What it really means is that the central thrust of the writing is not that this happened, that these people did this. The central thrust of the writing is something other than that.
Padgett Powell is the author of five novels, including The Interrogative Mood and Edisto, which was nominated for the National Book Award. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Little Star, and The Paris Review. He has received a Whiting Writers’ Award and the Rome Fellowship in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Gainesville, Florida, where he teaches writing and serves as the director of the MFA program at the University of Florida.