Arts & Culture

The World According to Padgett Powell

The Florida author on championing snakes, noodling for catfish, and his first collection of nonfiction, Indigo

Whether he’s writing a novel, nonfiction, or just telling stories off the cuff, Padgett Powell possesses a voice that is unmistakable. The author of six novels, including You & Me, The Interrogative Mood, and the National Book Awards finalist Edisto, the Gainesville, Florida–based Powell offers up eighteen nonfiction stories from more than four decades in his newest book, Indigo: Arm Wrestling, Snake Saving, and Some Things in Between. The title piece in the collection, “Indigo,” is one Garden & Gun readers might remember. First published in G&G in 2015, it traces Powell’s lifelong quest to see a wild indigo snake—the endangered “gentleman snake” native to the longleaf pine forests and sandhills in Georgia and Florida—and remains a reader (and editor) favorite.

Whatever subject he turns his attention to, Powell is unapologetically Powell, with his characteristic wit, wicked humor, and unerring nose for a good Southern character. Along with the book’s title snake, we meet a seven-hundred-pound, nearly defunct arm wrestler named Cleve Dean on the brink of a comeback, trace Powell’s own childhood in Florida through family photos, and take a meandering dip into New Orleans. We caught up with Powell on how he became an advocate for snakes, writing nonfiction, his very good dog Johnny Hamm, and more.

Why did you choose “Indigo” as the title essay for the collection?

Indigo is a good, strong word, and it behooves one to have a strong word title. We couldn’t call it arm wrestler, you know, or something stupider. So that’s how we come to have a book called Indigo.

Do you still consider yourself a “snake nut?”

I always will be a snake nut. I think many people maybe don’t know how they got to be a snake nut, but I know exactly how I got to be a snake nut. I was walking in the woods with my father at about age five in Tallahassee in approximately 1957, and we came upon a big gray rat snake. I saw this snake, and I suppose the term “freaked out” had not been invented yet. But I invented it then and there, and I completely freaked out and I demanded that he kill the snake.

photo: Courtesy of Padgett Powell
A young Powell holding an indigo snake.

Oh, no. Dark turn.

Oh, this is really dark. My father was a snake man, but at this moment, I don’t know that he’s a snake man. I just know there’s this evil thing on the ground that’s going to kill us if we don’t kill it. And I’m completely unhinged. I’m trying to climb a tree to get away. But instead of picking the snake up and showing me how harmless it was, he put the tip of a shovel handle on its head and then gave the shovel handle a little whack with the palm of his hand and crushed the snake’s head. And it occurred to me that the snake didn’t do a thing to us. It didn’t do anything to us at all. That sunk in, and I at that moment became their advocate. This hysteria I was in, I can’t account for it unless there truly is some kind of innate human fear of a snake. But as soon as that snake was done wrongly like that, the hysteria went away. And I said, “I’m on their side. I’m going to be on their side.”

This is your first collection of nonfiction. What was it like for you to go back through the years and select from some of your earlier material?

Well, it wasn’t that abstruse an activity. The Bermuda thing that’s in there that was done for Garden & Gun was a little broader than the usual travel piece, a non-travel piece. And that New Orleans piece is similar. That was commissioned by the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler. They like to say that they want real writers, not travel writers, and they want real writing, not travel writing. So I took them at their word. But that [editor] got angry, and she said, “I need a total rewrite.” I said, “I’m trying to show people what it’s like to go to New Orleans and be drunk for four days.”

How do you approach writing fiction versus nonfiction? Do you find it easier when you’re, you know, ripping things out of your head versus reporting?

Regrettably, in nonfiction, you can’t rip things out of your head. There are some facts and you have to use them. But you cannot just use facts as you discover them. They have to be manipulated, massaged into something interesting, elegant, smooth. So it’s hard, and I find it exhausting.

More exhausting than fiction?

Totally, totally. Fiction is, as you say, ripping things out of your head. And they’ve been, you know, bubbling in there and storing up and so forth. And there is some anxiety that when ripping things out of your head, they aren’t the right things or they’re insipid things. So there’s some anxiety there, but not the anxiety of recording this fact, gathering this fact, remaining factual unto this fact. You know, you don’t have any of that [in fiction]. Your facts are your facts. You’re making the facts.

Your previous dog, Spode—whom you say you’ve been writing about for twenty-one years—has his own essay. Have you ended up getting another pet?

Yes, I did. I broke down, and in 2015 I tried to go back up the supply chain and find a good pit bull. I went to Huntsville, Texas, and got one, and I have him today. His name is Johnny Hamm. And he’s a good, good dog.

Okay, lightning round. I’m going to ask you two questions from your book The Interrogative Mood [a novel composed entirely of questions]. Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse?

My answer is, I don’t know. I am made so nervous by a horse, I don’t even find out if it’s got a name. I’ve had the usual experiences where they try to kill you in their various ways.

This one is my favorite: Under what circumstances would you noodle for a catfish?

I have a fear of sticking my hand up into the lair of a nutria, and I do not wish to be bitten by a water moccasin. So I would noodle down into the water, but I would not noodle up into the bank, where your nutria, your moccasin, your alligator, for that matter, can be. Yes, I think deep water, where the only fear is drowning, is a piece of cake.