Novelist Richard Powers wants his books to change your life
Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning author closes 2022 Winter Words series on Tuesday
Who: Richard Powers
Where: Winter Words, Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, March 29, 6 p.m.
How much: $25/in-person; $12/virtual
More info: aspenwords.org
Richard Powers was changed by writing “The Overstory,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2018 novel.
The experience of writing and researching that book, an epic exploring human relationships with trees that came 12 novels and four decades into his writing life, has 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 that story — I wanted to keep writing fiction that explored people outside of the mere human world or in the broader context of the place and the neighborhood that they live in,” said Powers, who will discuss his work 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 a lot of my life writing and that I think that 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 emphasizes human exceptionalism so intensely?”
His answer, 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 problems but also a fierce devotion to the natural world and commitment to saving it, taking after his late environmental activist mother.
As conflicts at school mount, and pressure to place the boy on medication intensifies, his father — an astrobiologist who searches for life in distant galaxies — sends the boy to begin neurofeedback treatment through an “empathy machine” that aims to regulate his 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, voicing the logical outrage and despair of facing the current facts.
Robbie’s urgent call to action came to Powers years ago on a hike, the author recalled.
He had been studying decoded neurofeedback, a process that sounds like the stuff of science fiction but is quite real, using devices to train the brain to harmonize its own brain waves.
“I wanted to write a story using this idea of this enhanced version of this existing technology and create this ‘empathy machine’ and build a story around that,” he said.
Powers didn’t have characters in mind until that fateful hike.
“I was hiking in the Smokies one day while working on this book and I had this sense of this little kid on my back,” he recalled.
The imaginary child, riding his shoulders, spoke to Powers.
“I heard this kid asking me, ‘Are you for real? Is this really happening? Are adults really allowing the double crises of climate change and species extinction to happen? And if they are, why?’”
From that, Robbie was born, echoing the climate anxiety and seething frustration of environmentally minded people in the voice of a kid who doctors have suggested may be “on the spectrum” (Robbie’s father scoffs at the pseudo-diagnosis: “Everyone alive 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 nearly as compelling as if you have a child asking those same questions,” Powers said.
The book is grounded in our moment and includes on the periphery fictional figures such as a Trump-like president enacting head-spinning environmental policies and a Greta Thunberg-styled child climate activist. The book itself acts as something like the empathy machine, placing the reader in the shoes of the most conscientious of global citizens and leaving you asking why you are not doing more.
The book received acclaim from critics — it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize — but also, and more importantly to Powers, it elicited passionate and personal reactions from readers.
“They send letters saying, ‘This is my daughter,’ ‘This is my son,’” he said. “A large number of readers have been taking the book personally from the level of character. … It’s really the first time that that’s happened for me.”
Powers, publishing novels since 1985, has a long-earned reputation for stylized prose and complexly structured books and high concepts in titles like the 2006 National Book Award-winning “The Echo Maker,” about a man recovering from a traumatic brain injury who believes his sister is an impostor.
But after “The Overstory” he was ready to leave the literary fireworks behind 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 trying to become a little bit more like him,” he said.
More important now than wow-ing readers with baroque style, Powers said, is inspiring action in them and maybe changing the way they live.
“My ideal now is to write a book that so deeply engages a person that when they finish the book, they don’t want to merely put up with the things that are wrong in the world,” he said. ”They want to change their own story, and they want to change the story of the neighborhood around them.”
That activist strain of fiction has increasingly been a part of the conversations that Aspen Words fosters, as its Aspen Words Literary Prize — since 2018 — has annually recognized works of fiction that address contemporary social issues.
Powers said he is excited to discuss his work and meet readers in Aspen. As “Bewilderment” was released into the pandemic in fall 2021 — into a post-vaccine, pre-omicron surge landscape — he has still done few in-person events like this week’s here (the event will also be live-streamed).
“I think we all moved a bit toward the introvert side of the spectrum whether we wanted to or not,” he said of the pandemic’s effect on book tours and public life. “During those years, we’ve developed the habit of more productive solitude and less gratuitous social interaction. … I love being in and among people, it’s just that I get my energy from being in the woods alone. And it takes a tremendous amount of energy to go out on the road.”
The woods, of course, are an attraction for Powers in Colorado. 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 forth.”
One of the reasons he settled in the Smokies, he said, is that the altitude difference in the park creates many different kinds of forests to explore.
“A great day is when you can combine sights and sounds and smells in one changing package,” he said of his hiking preferences. There may be fewer species of trees and less biodiversity on the surface here in the Rocky Mountains, but Powers said he has been anticipating practicing his birdcalls on snowy walks in the woods amid the aspens and lodgepole pines here (he’s not planning to ski).
“We have a couple of extra days in Aspen,” he said, “and I’m really looking forward to getting out.”
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Snowboarder Jess Kimura, subject of the award-winning documentary “Learning to Drown,” will be on-hand for a Q-and-A at 5Point film screenings in early June.