Monday, September 14, 2015

Catapult Launches Padgett Powell (and Itself) at Housing Works

By Drew Ciccolo
Housing Works Bookstore Café
New York, NY, Sept. 10, 2015

Padget Powell signing books
If Padgett Powell’s life has been anywhere near as unconventional as his fiction, it follows that he’s probably had his share of outlandish experiences. Elissa Schappell, a fellow author and friend of Powell’s, claims, for instance, that he once wrestled a bear on a dark street in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. Whether this is true or not, Powell, whose career has suffered the vicissitudes that tend to accompany substantial deviation from normality, has accomplished more than most writers could hope for in his thirty-plus years as a literary man. Oddly enough, though, it took the publication of Powell’s ninth book, a story collection called Cries for Help, Various, released this September by Catapult, a new publishing start-up, to occasion his first-ever launch party.

Accordingly, the Cries for Help, Various launch at Housing Works Bookstore Café on Sept. 10 proved to be a special evening for Powell, and like night-wrestling a bear in St. Petersburg, it was anything but dull. A standing-room-only crowd congregated from out of the lower Manhattan drizzle to hear Roy Blount Jr., Rick Moody, Schappell, and Justin Taylor, authors who each know Powell personally, read from his body of work. All things considered, the event turned out to be as much a tribute to Powell and his distinctive talent as it was a book launch. Most people in attendance, including the authors, stayed well into the night, enjoying snacks, wine, and beer, along with each other’s company. Housing Works Bookstore and Café is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, and 100% of its profits go to Housing Works, an organization that advocates and provides services for people affected by homelessness and HIV/AIDS. The event also served as a formal launch for Powell’s publisher, Catapult, co-founded by Elizabeth Koch and Andy Hunter (who is also co-founder of the literary website Electric Literature).

Roy Blount, Jr.
The authors, aside from Powell, read in alphabetical order, so the first to read was Roy Blount, Jr., who had a hard time mounting the stage due to sciatica, which, he said as he got settled in at the microphone, “sounds like an old man’s complaint but hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.” In a thick and somewhat drawling voice, not unlike a more-animated-than-usual Tommy Lee Jones, Blount, Jr. read the last three pages of Powell’s short story “Scarliotti and the Sinkhole.” Collected in Aliens of Affection (1998), the story finds Rod, who calls himself Scarliotti, reluctantly convalescing in his trailer home after having been “clipped in the head by a mirror on a truck pulling a horse trailer” while riding his now-in-need-of-repair Yugoslavian moped. Scarliotti manages to seduce a convenience store clerk, and during some post-coital banter in his trailer, the clerk asks how many women he’s had. “Counting you?” Scarliotti asks her. Here Roy Blount, Jr. stopped reading and pointed out that he felt this was “a really nice question, polite really,” which elicited quite a bit of laughter from the crowd. A few lines later, after Scarliotti laughs himself into a coughing fit (skillfully acted out by Blount, Jr.), he blurts out: “Quailhead.” Blount, Jr. stopped here once again to confess he didn’t know what that meant, garnering more laughter from the now-delighted crowd. “Scarliotti and the Sinkhole” only gets more and more preposterous, and by the time Blount, Jr. left the stage the audience was pretty much punch-drunk.

Rick Moody
Rick Moody, clad in a stylish black button-down shirt with large white polka dots, was the second to read, and his first words upon taking the microphone were: “Well why the fuck do I have to go after that?” Moody read two very short pieces from Powell’s first story collection, Typical (1991), which he edited for Powell back when he worked at Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Powell had included in the collection four short pieces titled after U.S. states: “Texas,” “South Carolina,” “Florida,” and “Kansas.” Moody recalled asking Powell, “Why don’t you do the rest of the states?” To which Powell responded, “I only know those four.” Moody read two of the four, “Texas” and “South Carolina,” in a slow, deliberate, and sometimes almost erotic-sounding voice that made the stories—subjective and unusual takes on their title-states—that much more spellbinding and peculiar.

Elissa Schappell
Next up was Elissa Schappell, who immediately echoed Moody’s “Why the fuck do I have to go after that?” lament. Schappell read from “Trick or Treat,” also from Aliens of Affection, a story about a demented adulterous romance between a twelve-year-old boy and an eccentric woman named Mrs. Hollingsworth, which inspired more laughing fits among the audience members. At one point in the story, Schappell had to start a passage over, and peering out to a dark corner in the back of the room, she joked, “Don’t get mad at me, Padgett.” Though seats were reserved for all the authors, Powell watched and listened to the four authors from a distant, shadowy corner of the room.

The final reader before Powell, Justin Taylor eschewed the “Why the fuck do I have to go after that?” refrain in favor of a simple “Hey.” (Quite a few people said “Hey” back.) He read the beginning of the third of Powell’s six novels, Edisto Revisited (1996), before introducing the man himself. The youngest of the four writers to read, Taylor’s admiration for Powell was palpable as he told the audience how he and a friend used to memorize Powell’s stories and recite them to each other, trading lines back and forth. Taylor studied creative writing under Powell as an undergraduate at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and humbly recalled the first positive feedback Powell wrote on one of his stories, one line at the end: “As a character sketch, this almost works.”

Justin Taylor
After being introduced by Taylor, Powell emerged from his remote spot in the corner to a sustained eruption of applause. Once on stage, it became apparent that Powell had been moved to tears, or as he put it, “gone weepy” and “completely dislocated” by the evening. In a soft voice, he confided to the audience that he hates “taking the podium and thanking people,” but expressed deep gratitude to Pat Strachan, the first editor hired by Catapult, whom he’s worked with since the early eighties. So as not to forget, Powell also quietly noted that he was to introduce the musical act that would follow the reading, singer-songwriter Beth McKee on keyboards and vocals, and her husband Juan Perez on drums. “Juan,” Powell began to riff, “is an illegitimate child of Fidel Castro… he floated over on a log from Cuba… and he’s still going strong and can keep time.” He then went into a brief, somewhat inaudible discussion of the drummer Ginger Baker and illegitimate children, which had the crowd laughing once more, before announcing that Catapult wouldn’t let him subtitle his new collection “45 Failed Novels.” The man was almost as odd as his fiction, a real character, and it would have been a tall order not to be charmed by the whole thing. Still emotional at times, he read three of the shortest pieces from Cries for Help, Various, which he characterized as “either the most failed, or the least failed.”

“Marbles,” the first piece Powell read, is a two-sentence take on the relative value of sanity in the life of a writer:

I am sitting here without my marbles together, envying other people sitting where they are sitting with their marbles together. I have in mind a certain poet in New York, seventy-five or so, in his apartment knowing all that he knows, arranging some lines on paper that advance evidence he knows yet a little more than the prodigious sum we already knew he knew.

“Longing,” the second offering, explores just that, longing:

The kind of exhaustion I am talking about is, simply, or not simply, the broken heart. It makes you long to hold hands with someone you have not hurt who has not hurt you. This longing would be immediately and hotly extant if a dark girl offered you a cup of flan.

In a 2009 interview with MPR News, Powell mentioned an already-completed version of Cries for Help, Various (which also contains plenty of longer, delightfully preposterous narratives), saying at the time that it was “unpublishable,” and that it had “been rejected by about seventeen parties in New York.” Though Powell’s writing is inarguably, and often comically, ingenious, as well as highly enjoyable to read, mainstream success has eluded him for much of his career. He’s been criticized for exalting inventiveness and style at the cost of “perceptive acuity” and the exploration of real meaning. Allegedly, an inability to publish his writing in the 2000s led him to claim for a time, jokingly or otherwise, that he was retired. It was clear that Powell felt some amount of validation at Housing Works Bookstore Café Thursday night. After the reading, while Beth McKee and Juan Perez played music on stage, Powell signed copies of his new collection and took time to chat warmly with anyone who engaged him.

Powell reads
On a more personal note, while I regret not having asked him about the bear in St. Petersburg, this event served for me as a meaningful introduction to Powell and his work. I’d read a handful of his short stories years ago, and had liked them quite a bit, but Cries for Help, Various, along with the evening at Housing Works Bookstore Café, gave me a real appreciation of Powell. Much of his writing is laugh-out-loud funny, and the lack of conformity, along with the careful attention to language present in Cries for Help, Various and in the work read by the guest authors, left me feeling more open to the world at large and the cacophony of magical sorts of voices that can emerge from it.

Here’s a choice line, for example, from “Horses,” the opening story from the new collection:

It’s a Holstein for all I know, and that is one of the galling things about this enterprise, people saying the roan this and the buckskin and the paint and the quarter and the Indian pony and that and this and you have no idea which goddamn horse they are talking about, they are talking about one of fifty things we have here which can get us hung if we are caught, can kill you if you get near one in the wrong way, and can run off and get you beat to shit by the hombres who affect to know how not to have them run away, I have just about had it with this shit, what with most of the crew over there in the 7-Eleven and the Sheriff cruising around out here, around me and the herd and the hot dog wrappers, and the horses are nervous in the wind and the swinging stoplights, and all the fellows with the handlebar mustaches are inside getting coffee, and I’m out here looking like a plebe in a fraternity with fifty stolen monsters I can’t tell apart, and there’s the Sheriff, and we are beyond the day when he can be shot and we go on our way.

You can hear in this sentence the wild lyricism, the alliteration, the disregard for typical sentence length and construction, and the peculiarity of the narrator and his situation. Powell doesn’t seem to be a writer at all prone to compromise, making the narrative voices that populate his fiction all the more unique and, for me, engaging.

If you ever get the opportunity to meet the man, maybe ask him about that bear-wrestling incident. Judging by what I’ve learned about Padgett Powell, the story he’ll tell you, true or not, is likely to be one of a kind.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Liam Callanan Sorts It Out

In the 18th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Liam Callanan, author of Listen (Four Way Books), gets a reality check.

I have never once complained about the writing life, because I have never had a bad writing day. I have never begrudged the cursor blink-blink-blinking out from a blank screen. I have never begrudged the computer letting me spend a day filling that screen without bothering to tell me what I’d written was terrible. I have never begrudged another writer’s success at triumphing over either of these horrors, or over the Times’ best seller lists. I have never nursed a headache brought on by such begrudgements. I have never procrastinated by looking up words I just made up, and that’s because I made up this paragraph, and did so entirely of lies.

I write fiction, I lie, it’s what I do.

And what I do is lead a fortunate life, as a woman two weeks ago reminded me. This is not a lie, and neither this: April is the cruelest month only for lilacs; for writers, especially those who teach, August crueler still; all you’d planned to achieve in that sunny, supposedly empty stretch prior is now called to account. In my case, the tally took place at an outdoor café table in Milwaukee. It was gray, 60 degrees—August can also be a cruel month for Milwaukeeans—and felt colder whenever the wind blew a nearby fountain’s spray across me, colder still as I read the pile of pages before me. Could I have really misspent the summer writing this?
An awful lot of pages

A waitress came with coffee, and returned every so often with more. No one else sat down nearby, a bitter relief. Not only was what I had before me the worst book ever, but I was the worst writer ever. And by extension—worst husband, worst father ever. I hadn’t finished yet—there were an awful lot of awful pages—but it seemed likely I’d prove to be the worst person ever.

Who could argue otherwise? I was lolling about on a Friday morning, drinking coffee that, if I’d had to pay for it out of funds my writing had earned that summer, I could not have afforded.

The waitress disagreed. With all of this, though only the last part explicitly: I did not have to pay. “Working here, I get a free breakfast,” she said. “You can have mine.” I shook my head. She nodded to the pages. “Is it a novel? We were all making guesses. I said, gotta be a novel.” I mumbled something about how probably no one but me would call this mess a ‘novel,’ and that—

She waved a hand. “You’re doing it,” she said, and smiled, and left. I slipped a 400-percent tip under my cup and then I left, too.

When I get together with other writers, over coffee or alcohol or whatever else recent pay will pay for, the talk often turns to how terrible a life this is. How the bad days outnumber the good, how good writing is no longer recognized, how we no longer recognize quite why we ever started doing this. There might be worse jobs, we say—and some are doing those jobs, at least part-time, since so few of us are actually surviving solely as full-time writers—but really, what could be worse?

This: an alternate reality featuring the same morning, same fountain, same me, but only coffee on the table, no pages—because I’d never written them, nor any of the thousands that came before. I saw this the moment the waitress turned away.

I didn’t call her back, so I don’t know why she bought me the coffee, only that she’d said what she said with a curious smile, like she was somehow proud of us both. I don’t know if she thought she was throwing a buck in an open guitar case as the artist huddled with his art, or if she won a bet in back and was paying it forward. I know what it felt like, though, which was, for a change, good.

No lie: Some days, the writing is its own reward. Other days, coffee’s the reward. And once in a great gray while, it’s being reminded that there will be time enough to sort out whether the work’s good or bad. For now, there’s a hot mug, a cold morning, a kind smile, a simple truth: Writing is the gift I get to do, so long as I do it.