Richard Powers changed while writing “The Overstory”, his 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
The experience of writing and researching this book, an epic exploring human relationships with trees that came 12 novels and four decades into his life as a writer, set him on a new trajectory both in the style and substance of his work,” Powers said in a recent interview from his home in Tennessee near Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“I knew, in some ways, that I wanted to keep telling this story – I wanted to keep writing fiction that explored people outside of just the human world or in the larger context of the place and neighborhood in which they live,” said Powers, who will discuss his work on Tuesday at the closing event of the Winter Words Author Series presented by the literary nonprofit Aspen Words.
“I didn’t want to go back to the kind of book that I had spent so much of my life writing that I think dominates the world of literary fiction,” Powers, 64, said. “Which is a book that exclusively explored relationships between people. … How can we end this culture that places such an intense emphasis on human exceptionalism?
His response, in part, is “Bewilderment,” published in September.
The new novel begins as the story of a father and his 9-year-old son, who has behavioral issues but also a fierce devotion to the natural world and a commitment to saving it, taking after his late environmental activist mother.
As conflicts at school mount and the pressure to put the boy on medication intensifies, his father – an astrobiologist who searches for life in distant galaxies – sends the boy to begin neurofeedback treatment via a ” empathy” which aims to regulate one’s moods.
As the book unfolds, Powers dissects the emotional and psychological minefield of life in the age of climate change and mass extinction, with the boy, Robbie, expressing outrage and despair. logical to face the current facts.
Robbie’s urgent call to action came to Powers years ago on a hike, the author recalls.
He had studied decoded neurofeedback, a process that sounds like science fiction but is very real, using devices to train the brain to harmonize its own brainwaves.
“I wanted to write a story using this idea of this improved version of this existing technology and create this ’empathy machine’ and build a story around it,” he said.
Powers had no characters in mind until that fateful ride.
“I was hiking in the Smokies one day while working on this book and I had this feeling of this little kid on my back,” he recalled.
The imaginary child, straddling his shoulders, addressed Powers.
“I heard this kid ask me, ‘Are you for real? Is that really? Are adults really letting the twin crises of climate change and species extinction happen? they are, why?
From there, Robbie was born, echoing the climate anxiety and bubbling frustration of environmentally conscious people in the voice of a child who doctors say could be “on the spectrum” (the father of Robbie scoffs at the pseudo-diagnosis: “Everyone living on this Fluke Little Planet was on the spectrum. That’s what a spectrum is.”
“You could write a book with an adult character who feels eco-trauma, but it won’t be as compelling as if you had a child asking those same questions,” Powers said.
The book is grounded in our moment and includes fictional characters on the periphery such as a Trump-style president enacting head-turning environmental policies and a Greta Thunberg-style child climate activist. The book itself acts as a sort of empathy machine, putting the reader in the shoes of the most conscientious citizens of the world and leaving you wondering why you aren’t doing more.
The book won critical acclaim – it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – but also, and more importantly for Powers, it elicited passionate and personal reactions from readers.
“They send letters saying, ‘This is my daughter,’ ‘This is my son,'” he said. “A lot of readers took the book personally at the character level. … It’s really the first time that’s happened to me.
Powers, who has been publishing novels since 1985, has a long-standing reputation for his intricately structured, stylized books and elevated concepts in titles like 2006 National Book Award-winning “The Echo Maker,” about a man who is recovering from a traumatic brain injury who believes his sister is an impostor.
But after “The Overstory,” he was ready to ditch the literary fireworks and aim for a simpler style — something closer to the work of Aspenite James Salter, Powers said.
“I think ‘Bewilderment’ is a book that shows the signs of someone who has long admired a writer like Salter and is trying to become a little more like him,” he said.
More important now than impressing readers with Baroque style, Powers said, is inspiring action in them and perhaps changing the way they live.
“My ideal now is to write a book that engages a person so deeply that when they finish the book, they just don’t want to put up with the things that are wrong in the world,” he said. “They want to change their own history, and they want to change the history of the neighborhood around them.”
This strain of activist fiction is increasingly part of the conversations Aspen Words fosters, as its Aspen Words Literary Prize – since 2018 – annually recognizes works of fiction that address contemporary social issues.
Powers said he was excited to discuss his work and meet readers in Aspen. While “Bewilderment” was released into the pandemic in the fall of 2021 — in a post-vaccine, pre-omicron landscape — it still did few in-person events like this week’s (the event will also air live).
“I think we’ve all moved a bit towards the introverted side of the spectrum, whether we like it or not,” he said of the pandemic’s effect on book tours and public life. . “During these years, we have developed the habit of more productive solitude and less gratuitous social interaction. … I like being among and among people, it’s just that I get my energy from being alone in the woods. And it takes a tremendous amount of energy to get out on the road.
The woods, of course, are an attraction for the Colorado powerhouses. He spent two summers, he said, in Aspen in the early 1980s, when he was dating a musician at the Aspen Music Festival and School.
“I have two really wonderful seasons in my memory,” Powers said, “Hiking in the area and around the Maroon Bells and so on.”
One of the reasons he settled in the Smokies, he said, is that the difference in elevation in the park creates many types of forests to explore.
“A beautiful day is when you can combine sights, sounds and smells into one changing package,” he said of his hiking preferences. There may be fewer tree species and less biodiversity on the surface here in the Rocky Mountains, but Powers said he plans to practice his bird calls on snowy walks in the woods in the middle. aspen and lodgepole pine here (he doesn’t plan to ski).
“We have a few extra days in Aspen,” he said, “and I’m really looking forward to getting out there.”