Beloved novelist Clyde Edgerton talks with Chapter 16 about the arts of parenting and writing
“All eyes may now seem to be on your wife and her tummy, and nobody’s throwing you any baby showers. Nobody’s even thinking about you, it perhaps seems,” writes Clyde Edgerton. “I’m thinking about you.” Thus begins Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers, a matter-of-fact, wide-ranging, frequently hilarious master class in what fathers can, must, and should do.
No mere advice guide for the early years, Edgerton’s book covers the gamut. It begins with simple strategies on how fathers can best aid their partners (rub her shoulders and feet as often as she’ll let you) and includes practical suggestions on helping children survive the tender years (use a Coleman cooler for a bassinet because rats have less trouble gnawing through wicker than plastic). The book concludes with helpful strategies to ensure that, when your children reach adulthood, they don’t join a nudist-scalp-hunting motorcycle gang.
Edgerton peppers the text with letters written to his own children over the years, a list of fun games to play with small kids, and asides directed at “CODs” (Considerably Older Dads) gleaned from Edgerton’s own experience of becoming a father of young children again some two decades after the birth of his first daughter. While humorous in nature, Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers is imbued with a gifted storyteller’s eye for the small moments that define a parent’s relationship to his child and an earnest understanding of how “listening to and respecting your children is an everlasting, priceless gift to the world.”
In anticipation of his visit to the 2013 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Clyde Edgerton answered questions via email from Chapter 16.
Chapter 16: Along with the wit and humor readers have come to expect from you, there’s a lot of practical advice dispensed in Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers. When you set out to write the book, did you imagine it as more of a collection of comic aphorisms and anecdotes, or as a legitimate self-help book?
Clyde Edgerton: I very quickly, after initially thinking of it as comic, saw the possibility of practical advice to a new parent.
Chapter 16: As you explain in the book’s introduction, there’s a considerable gap between the birth of your first child, now entering her thirties, and your last three, now between six and ten. Between your eldest daughter’s childhood and that of your younger children, what seemed to have changed most about parenting culture, and about your own expectations of fatherhood?
Edgerton: Although it’s a cliché, I guess, what seemed to have changed most about parenting culture is what changed most about culture in general: the inserting of computers into daily life—I’m thinking mostly of screen entertainment and communication. In terms of the rest—expectations of fatherhood—I think I realized the limits of parental influence and therefore backed off a bit in my expectations of what parents can do on their own. I relaxed a little.
Chapter 16: As the child of a COD (Considerably Older Dad), I was touched by the series of asides directed at older fathers, from advice about the arcane vocabulary in Grimms’ Fairy Tales to reflections on the fear older dads feel about the possibility of not being able to shepherd the youngest children to maturity. How have these realities affected and/or enriched your relationship with your own younger children?
Edgerton: My parents were older, too, and that fact gave me a valuable sense of connection to the “distant” past of my family and home community. My being older will I hope do the same for my children.
Chapter 16: One of the more charming aspects of the book is its inclusion of letters written to your very young children. When did you begin this practice? Did you have a sense as you were writing them that these letters might find a larger audience?
Edgerton: When my first daughter was born in 1982 I was writing fiction seriously and keeping a journal. It seemed natural to write letters to her while she was still in the womb. The practice continued with later children. I never thought of a larger audience until I stumbled on the idea to write the Papadaddy book.
Chapter 16: In some ways, this book seems even better suited to those who have been parents for a while. I certainly commiserated with the section titled “TALKING TOYS: SATAN IS REAL AND THESE ARE AMONG HIS GIFTS.” My in-laws give these to my children so regularly that my wife and I are certain the toys are not really intended as gifts for the children but, rather, as a cruel practical joke on us. Is there a particular talking toy that inspired this observation? What is your best recommendation for dealing with the accursed talking toy?
Edgerton: There is a talking toy that inspired my observation but I don’t speak his name in the same way that people from certain tribes don’t speak the name of evil spirits. My best recommendation for dealing with the accursed talking toy is to kill it as best you can.
Chapter 16: Despite the challenges of having small kids around the house again, you have continued to publish novels at a steady pace. How did your second run of fatherhood affect the pragmatics of writing?
Edgerton: Well, I had to think about earning money so I had to keep a day job (teaching), but since I don’t write over two or three hours a day (when I’m working steady on a book), the writing time is still there, though I have to be especially conscious of protecting it, and I often seem to fail.
Chapter 16: You conclude Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers with a poignant reflection on the joy of rediscovering the world through the eyes of your children and on the incredible importance of fatherhood. How does this understanding influence your thoughts about the novelist’s vocation?
Edgerton: Ah, what a fascinating question. Memory makes us human. And memory is the core of family and art. Many of the greatest pleasures and pains of my life have been centered in family. If life is fresh (and sometimes uncertain)—as seen by a child—it’s memorable, and helps assure the existence of art. (I’m not confident about my answer, but I like the question.)
Clyde Edgerton will discuss Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers at The Southern Festival of Books, held in Nashville on October 11-13. All events are free and open to the public.
Published Thursday, 29 August 2013