Down in Greenville, SC at a book trade show in a refurbished convention center I had the opportunity to eat breakfast next to one of my favorite authors and barely mustered a word. It was 7:30 in the morning in a cavernous room with lights that gave us the healthy pallor of a vampire –but the most intimidating factor was the author, Padgett Powell, a National Book Award finalist, was there in promotion of his latest book, The Interrogative Mood, a book made up entirely of questions.
First sentence to last, his book, all ending in a question mark (¡And the Spanish version will have twice as many question marks!). How could I have the gall to ask him a question? I mean, I read the book and really liked it, its rhythms and language stuck like a song in my head—but in this case having read the book caused me to clam up. Even if he didn’t, I’d care if my questions didn’t measure up. So I spent the morning devising statements instead of questions to aim his way mostly inspired by the plate of food in front of me, like “instead of the patty, looks like they opted for the sausage link.” But I never said any of them and left the hall afterward like I’d left the iron in the hotel on.
Lunch that day brought slight redemption, as I had the good fortune to be seated at the same table as key speaker Pete Dexter, who has one up on Padgett Powell on the meaningless leader-board of literary achievement for having actually won a National Book Award. I admit I hadn’t read any of Mr. Dexter (something I quickly remedied with his latest: Spooner, a semi-autobiographical novel which has that perfect ratio of laughter to tears as the best sandwich has the perfect ratio of peanut butter to jelly).
Not only was his speech –a seemingly sloppy, but gilded-tongued bouillabaisse of the day’s events and main players, a pinch of self-deprecation, and summation of his novel – an experience I would have invented the Handicam and YouTube for, he gave me the chance for redemption. He said, “Padgett Powell is one of the greatest writers living today.” Apropos of I don’t know, and probably not an exact quote, and maybe it was just a swatch of a red carpet but I felt invited enough to engage Pete Dexter in a conversation about Padgett Powell. And it was easy, the conversation, probably because I hadn’t yet read Pete Dexter. Turns out they are old friends, but Pete Dexter talked like he was just a big fan, a good reader. It reminded me of the best part of being a bookseller, the chance to talk to people, strangers and friends, about good books and share the passion. And that books are a great way to start a conversation, whether your first line ends in a question mark, period or exclamation point.