Novelist Clyde Edgerton knows that when it comes to dispositions, truth rivals fiction; real people are as funny, endearing and perplexing as the best fictional ones. His sensitive, fictional portrayal of small-town Southern folk is matched with his avid appreciation for, among other things, the real-life characters in Errol Morris’ documentary Vernon, Florida (1982). He also knows that some guitars—Ry Cooder’s slide and a Gibson named Fred—are as sweet as some of the nicer ‘real’ people can be, too.
Edgerton’s most recent take on what characters people are can be found in his new book, The Bible Salesman (Little, Brown and Company, August 2008), and you get a sampling of what he thinks of people, guitars and yes, chickens, right here, as he chats with PopMatters 20 Questions.
The Bible Salesman
(Little, Brown and Company)
Lunch at the Piccadilly
Walking Across Egypt
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
A children’s book, Love You Forever, by Robert Munsch. I’ve tried to read it several times and cried each time. It’s become a kind of joke around the house. My wife can’t read it without crying, either.
Recently, I was preparing to sing Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind” for a wedding and was unable to get through it without tears. My wife handed me Love You Forever. I read it. I cried. But that cry somehow cured me of crying while singing the song. Go figure.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Jess, in Fred Chappell’s I Am One of Your Forever. He had a great many aunts and uncles as did I, and I loved to hear them tell stories as he did, and he grew up in my state, though in the mountains rather than the piedmont. It’s a marvelous and magical novel in many ways, and deals with war through the death of a loved one in a war.
Come to think of it, if ‘x’ is the number of people who have died in wars, then ‘n’ people have grieved because of it, with ‘n’ being the number of all the people who loved those who died.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Will the Circle Be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band—tied with Live at the Apollo by James Brown, and Bop Til You Drop by Ry Cooder, and Hank Wilson’s Back by Leon Russell. Well, there can’t be a greatest, just as there can’t be a greatest book—because there can’t be a greatest shirt or pair of socks. We have different tastes—and the tastes differ from day-to-day.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars. I can’t deal with the ears in Star Trek. I only saw the first Star Wars movie, and I don’t think I saw an entire Star Trek TV show, and I certainly didn’t see the movie. I like Andy Griffith and Deadwood.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Fried fat back brings back childhood in a good way. It puts me at the dinner table when everything was simpler. Most of my friends these days haven’t eaten it. But that has nothing to do with the brain.
I guess the answer would be plums, because if you were to peal one it would look like a tiny brain, wouldn’t it? Or if you peeled a strawberry it would look very tiny and probably more realistic in terms of color—right after extraction, anyway.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
My garden-fresh tomatoes. This year I have a small garden and it’s started out very well. I once tried to raise two tomato plants and they died in spite of the fact I fertilized them every morning. Duh.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
My fiction ... and decent parenting. I hope people will like my novels after I’m dead. And I hope my children think about me in good ways, by and large.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Thomas Jefferson, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Eudora Welty, Dr. John.
Jefferson’s thoughts about religion inspire me to think freshly about that topic. Wittgenstein, in spite of the fact that he’s always losing me as I read him, had this dare-devil way of thinking about the way language is used, and now and then while I’m reading The Blue and Brown Books, he pulls me into a side room and says listen to this, and I say, “Oh yes, yes. Ah HA.”
Welty inspires me to use the language I grew up with as a tool of power in fiction.
And Dr. John’s mojo is always working when he hits those Professor Longhair licks on the piano. Those sounds bring to me something like what I imagine certain drugs bring to some people.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Ry Cooder’s slide guitar playing in any number of songs, tied with the movie Vernon, Florida, directed by Errol Morris. Though Cooder has moved around and beyond the blues, he has a precision and love of and care for the dusty and the old that makes it all new. And if I’d made Vernon, Florida, then I’d have made lots of other movies like it and I could spend time watching each one once a year and laughing my ass off and marveling at the fact of human beings.
10. Your hidden talents…?
Face memory. I can look at those high school pictures of famous people and name them. Only occasionally does it backfire.
Recently I saw a couple in a café in Wilmington, North Carolina that I just knew I knew in Durham, North Carolina 40 years ago. I confidently approached their table. “You all are from Durham, right?” They looked at me as if I’d stupidly interrupted their dinner. “No.”
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
“Wait.” It’s a sign Walker Percy kept on his desk. I used to have it on my cell phone display. (I haven’t figured how to configure my present more complicated phone.)
Several times I started to call someone out of panic, or paranoia, or anger, saw the display and made the right decision.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
A 1967 Gibson acoustic guitar. A good friend traded several microphones and other equipment for it—a temporary trade, and I’ve had the guitar since. That’s been over ten years ago. Its name is Fred, and it’s sweet.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Levis, if they’re very old.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Director Errol Morris. I have the impression that he’d talk a lot, and I also have the impression that everything he said would be relatively interesting, and I’d want to know all about the filming of Vernon, Florida.
I’d also like to have a meal with Alexander the Great and find out if it were true that he whispered in Bucephalus’ ear.
I’d also like to eat a meal, one at a time, with the people mentioned in Question 8, above, as well as with Harold Bloom and William Faulkner, again not at the same time.
I guess most of all I’d like to have dinner with my parents, who are no longer with us.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Vernon, Florida, while Errol Morris was making the movie Vernon, Florida so I could have talked to the turkey hunter ... or maybe to Macedonia when Alexander was ... or back to the big bang—in either case, for a good show.
But most of all, as I think through this, I’d like to go back to when I was seven and broke my thumb, so that I could memorize the neighborhood as it was then.
Photo by ©Kristina Edgerton
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Spa vacation, or better still: watching chickens. They do most everything humans do, except sin—which is reason to watch humans, anywhere but on TV. Except maybe in documentaries like Vernon, Florida.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
A cigar every other day and eight minutes of yoga every second day or so—while the morning coffee is brewing.
The other essential is putting down words just about every day to remind myself that, though I’ll be history longer than fact, I’m still here.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Country. Most anywhere in Ashe County, North Carolina in the summer because it’s cool up there. You can have a fire in the fireplace on July nights. The roll of the mountains and the pastures make the land as beautiful as any.
Then in the winter I’d like to be back down out of the mountains where it’s warmer but still nippy, so that the fireplace awaits at night.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
I wish you’d chosen different advisors, people more tolerant and patient and wise. I think you gave “cocky” a really bad name.
I wish you’d chosen a different group to listen to. I believe many people needlessly died as a consequence of your decisions. I wish it had not gone so badly.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
A novel about a garage band, 1963—seven white boys try to imitate the words and music on James Brown’s Live at the Apollo album.