Padgett Powell’s new novel, The Interrogative Mood, contains 164 pages of questions. The New York Times Book Review has this to say about it: “Powell’s new book is a remarkable collection of philosophical inquiries, stimulating either/ors and good-faith attempts to measure the gap between where we are as a species and where we belong . . . a fearless meditation on the sublime and the trivial, a hydra-headed reflection of life as it is experienced and of thought as it is felt. . . . The Interrogative Mood demands to be read deliberately, for it is courageous and entertaining and interested in the essential mysteries of self and society.”
At Waccamaw, we are interested in mystery and courageousness and books that ask a lot of questions. Since Padgett Powell has asked his readers so many questions, I decided to interview him by making statements.
Jason Ockert: According to the book jacket on The Interrogative Mood, you are “fascinated by what it feels like to walk through everyday life, to hear the swing and snap of American talk . . .”
Padgett Powell: When well meaning people write stuff like this for you, you are prudent to allow it lest you have to write worse yourself.
JO: While you never give your narrator a name in the book, you have a name for him in your head.
PP: C’est moi.
JO: Many of the questions from The Interrogative Mood come from personal experiences. You have, for instance, contentedly tended to a wounded blue jay.
PP: Contentedly, I don’t know. He died shortly after I surrendered him (and visitation rights, and rights to him if he survived) to a wild-animal shelter. I will think twice before surrendering another.
JO: The protagonist wants answers to all of these questions for a reason. He is going to do something with this data.
PP: He toys with the idea of CIA profiles and such, yours and his.
JO: I’d recommend reading The Interrogative Mood sequentially, from the beginning, rather than flipping through.
PP: I would too.
JO: Speaking in terms of narrative structure, mood is important (it’s in the title of your book). So is character. So is voice/style. Setting, plot, and motivation, one could argue, are neglected.
PP: Ca roule ma poule. I have herewith exhausted mon francais.
JO: The format of this interview may come across as gimmicky to some readers. That word, “gimmicky,” has been leveled at your book.
PP: More often, oddly, that it is not as gimmicky as it ought to be.
JO: Your protagonist in The Interrogative Mood has more panache than other characters you’ve created. Say, Rod/Scarliotti, for instance. I have a hard time picturing Rod/Scarliotti sitting on the lip of a bathtub trimming his toenails, but I can see your man in The Interrogative Mood snipping away, no problem.
PP: The improbable thing about Scarliotti is his getting laid and his speech at the end, neither of which he could have done in Real Life, where I found him (head wound, moped, Daddy, and all). Trim his nails? I’m sure he could if it occurred to him.
JO: You prefer the company of dogs to people.
PP: Indubitably, if the dogs are properly trained. I am a Koehlerist. See William Koehler, Guard Dog Training.
JO: The litany of question-asking in your book emboldens the reader’s narcissism. “We” are important enough to be interrogated.
PP: This too could be addressed by Mr. Koehler’s book. A dog feels important when he is dealt with properly and given a task to do. While we are in this neighborhood, we should recall Ms. Von Blixen’s advice, “Take pride in your dogs. Do not let them get fat.”
JO: Writers covet tidbits.
PP: Indians loved crowbars. This is not my sentence but one of Ian Frazier’s in Great Plains. After a reader has fun with Frazier he should proceed to Joseph Mitchell, the grandaddy source.
JO: If you weren’t a writer/professor, you’d still be a roofer.
PP: Would but it could be. In troth, by thirty I was already softening and had found out how to be in the grocery store getting beer by 9:30am.
JO: You write in a tree house.
PP: I do not, but it was so averred once by a well meaning boy who had a job in journalism. I did write IM in a high-rise apt., in fact in two, moving from the 10th floor to the 12th as I wrote it. I saw eagles and a marvelous set of hurricanes from that aerie.
JO: As a teacher of fiction you are not paralyzed by fear concerning the future of letters.
PP: Who is?
JO: It matters where you are from as a writer. You are from Gainesville, Florida.
PP: Born but not raised here in 1952. By age eight I was living in the orange groves around Orlando, which is all Orlando was. By 14 I was seeing the One Percent play in Jacksonville. By 20 the One Percent was Lynyrd Skynyrd—boys I went to school with were millionaires and I was a college sophomore.
JO: The Derridian term “différance,” in which words fail to capture meaning and can only be defined in relation to additional words, from which they differ—should be applied to The Interrogative Mood.
JO: You once claimed that “you oughtn’t try to be a writer if you can’t sit down at a bar and talk to a drunk without him getting up and walking away.”
PP: This is a bloviation of the Bar Test: what you say in writing you should be able to say to a stranger in a bar. If you say, in a bar, The child proceeded into the dark, cold house and soon would see his mother’s cold, lifeless body in a red transport of life in the bathtub, and do not signal to everyone within earshot that it is okay to laugh, you fail the Bar Test.
JO: I’ve read this about you, from The New York Times Book Review, “Mr. Powell is like a fabulous guest at a dinner party.”
PP: That’s Scott Spencer, a good writer, and he goes on in that instance to say better things than you have quoted so far. Readers should see Mr. Spencer’s book about traveling around the world looking for sex.
JO: A friend of mine and I once solicited your advice concerning the filching of a gigantic plastic figurine (an eight-foot tall freckled, grinning boy in a blue cap and wearing overalls) affixed to the roof of a vacated Skeeters restaurant. You suggested we get a clipboard and act like we know what we are doing.
PP: Get a clipboard and a truck, inquire inside about any leaks they might have, mount your ladder in broad view but out of traffic, detach the figure and lower him into the truck, and I’d say don’t spend more than 15 minutes at this and do not let anyone in the business inside think that this roofing service will cost them anything directly. The “owner of the building” has sent you. Just to be safe, take the figure to someone’s property with whom you are not altogether happy rather than to your own property.