I Kept Writing Them: Padgett Powell

I Kept Writing Them: Padgett PowellPadgett Powell has taught writing at UF since 1984. He has published five novels and two collections of short stories–his latest, the novel The Interrogative Mood (Ecco) His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Paris Review, Grand Street, Esquire, The New York Times Book Review and Magazine, and Oxford American; and has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and Best American Sportswriting. The winner of the Prix de Rome and a Whiting Writers Award, he has also taught at the Sewanee Writers Conference, and currently teaches at the Summer Literary Seminars, St. Petersburg, Russia. The New York Times Book Review calls The Interrogative Mood “courageous and entertaining.” Sam Lipsyte calls it “[an] ingenious provocation … another brilliant work of fiction.”

Michael Kimball: I have a question about the first question mark in The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, which is right there in the title. Is it really meant to question whether the book is a novel or is it more of an insistence that this book composed entirely of questions is in fact a novel or is it something else entirely?

Padgett Powell: That question mark is meant to diffuse the kind of irk that results, legitimately, when something that is arguably not a novel is called a novel. I was thinking specifically of Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? It chapped some ass when it was called a novel. I sought not to chap but to still classify the odd document as a novel. What with all the question marks to follow, it seemed like a natural move to let one leak onto the title page.

Kimball: It makes me think, too, of David Markson’s late quartet of novels, one of which is titled, This Is Not A Novel. But now I’m curious: Did you set out to write a novel composed only of questions or did it begin as something else? Also, how did you decide to classify The Interrogative Mood as a novel and did you ever consider classifying it something else?

Powell: It started and remained an answer to certain emails I was getting entirely in the interrogative mood. At no time did I plan a book, at no time did I submit it as a book to a book publisher. Calling a thing a novel helps it have a slim chance of someone’s buying it; it certainly could not be called anything else. Except, well, something like this (from fan mail):

Professor Powell,

Congratulations, your terrific book The Interrogative Mood will be an instant classic but in response to the ‘?’ it might not be a novel. It seems to me that it shows rather than tells issues raised by the philosophy/way of life of Pyrrhonism, in which the problem of the criterion leads to suspension of judgment and skepsis — always searching — which would make it a one-of-a-kind document in philosophy. Whatever it is? Thanks for writing it.

Kimball: If you weren’t planning on The Interrogative Mood being a book and it was never submitted as book, then how did all of those questions accumulate and how did it become a book?

Powell: I kept writing them, having nothing better to do after putting on my pants, depressed. I sent them to The Paris Review. An editor at The Paris Review bought some, quit PR, took a job at Ecco, and called me from there saying they were doing the book. I said, Okay.

Kimball: That is one of the best publication stories that I have ever heard. Also, there was something about the tone of The Interrogative Mood that I hadn’t quite figured out, something that I was fascinated with, something that allowed the narrator to ask questions about a huge range of subjects and also allowed all kinds of non sequiturs that I accepted without question — “depressed” makes that all make sense. Forgive the wind-up and here’s the question: Are you, Padgett Powell, also the narrator of The Interrogative Mood or is the narrator a fictional creation separate from you (or is the narrator maybe a fictional Padgett Powell)?

I Kept Writing Them: Padgett PowellPowell: Dude, c’est moi. It’s always c’est moi. Narrator schmarrator, author schmauthor.

Kimball: OK, let’s go back to something else, the idea of originality. The Interrogative Mood is original, singular. That is what piqued my interest and that is why I kept reading. In fact, as I read deep into the novel, I began to see a double narrative at work. There was one novel, the narrator’s novel, which the reader begins to discern to some extent through the adjectival nature of the questions, the fact that the questions have been chosen to be the particular questions in The Interrogative Mood. The second novel is the reader’s novel, which the reader begins to create by answering the questions. I know there isn’t a question there, but I thought you might want to say something about that.

Powell: I like adjectival nature of the questions but confess I do not know what that means. There is always I suppose a second novel, the reader’s, who is imagining things privately and differently from the way the writer imagined them; in this case though we do have the specific theatre of the answers themselves, which the writer has not imagined for the reader, per se. That is not perhaps the exact correct usage of per se but don’t it look smart?

Kimball: That seems like a good place to end—with you asking a question.

The Believer calls Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, “a curatorial masterpiece.” His three critically acclaimed novels are (or will soon be) translated into many languages. His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Prairie Schooner, Open City, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard) and the documentaries, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).

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