You are here

Richard Powers - Longlist author interview

Richard Powers - Longlist author interview

Our latest interview is with longlisted author Richard Powers about his work and his longlisted book Orfeo

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I have it on good authority that the germane British term is “gobsmacked,” especially since I hadn’t realized Americans were eligible.  The elimination of nationality as a criterion for nomination seems to have made nationality the prize’s hot topic, this time around.  It has been something, to be part of so much speculation about cultural balance of trade.  This is also the first time I’ve ever been nominated for anything that comes with official bookie odds, and that has provoked all kinds of thoughts about literature, value, and return on investment.  But for me, the real joy of the last few days has been hearing from strangers, friends, and lost acquaintances from all over the globe, including folks I haven’t been in touch with for decades.  As prizes go, that one is tough to beat.

What are you working on next?

Every time I finish writing a novel that pleases me, I think I’m going to retire.  That feeling lasts for about three weeks, until the world starts seeming like a code that can only be broken by writing again.  Right now, all stories worth telling to me are ecological.  The trick is finding how to make the non-human as interesting to humans as we are to ourselves.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve become obsessed with trees.  I’m reading everything I can on the subject—a pretty big bibliography!  Donald Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees is a marvelous combination of botanical wisdom and a vanished scientific-literary style.

What is your favourite Man Booker-winning novel?

My brain doesn’t seem tuned to “favorites.”  Prizes can be a frail and ephemeral as the half dozen people who pick them every year, but I was floored to go down the list of past winners and see just how many of them have changed me as a writer and a person.  Pick a favorite from among The Life and Times of Michael K, Oscar and Lucinda, The Sense of an Ending, Midnight’s Children, G, The English Patient, Life of Pi, Remains of the Day…?  I wouldn’t even know what that would mean, to prefer one of these monuments over the other. But the winner that is freshest and fullest for me right now is Byatt’s magisterial Possession, because I recently spent four weeks reading it with a group of big-brained and big-hearted college seniors at Stanford.  Anyone who has despaired about the future of reading and writing in this world of 140-character bursts would have been overjoyed to see a dozen 22-year-olds revel in that long and erudite hymn to writing, sharing private discoveries, passionate attachments, and even group tears!  “Novels have their obligatory tour-de-force, the green-flecked gold omelette aux fines herbes, melting into buttery formlessness and tasting of summer, or the creamy human haunch, firm and warm, curved back to reveal a hot hollow, a crisping hair or two, the glimpsed sex. They do not habitually elaborate on the equally intense pleasure of reading.”  The intensity during those weeks was something to behold.

You once assisted an eminent biochemist in his lab (and Orfeo features bioterrorism) – in what ways are science and fiction analogous?

A good novel and a well-designed experiment are both speculations into meaningful pattern.  Consensual wisdom has it that science is about rigorous patterns “out there” and art about soft patterns “in here.”  But I am increasingly convinced that those two vectors are hopelessly entangled with each other.  Meaning in both science and art depends on a whole lot of active processes trying to unite the beautiful to the true.  And both science and art make their way by lots of good-faith blundering toward the significant.  I like Lewis Thomas’s thoughts on the matter, in his essay “On Matters of Doubt:”

I must try to show that there is in fact a solid middle ground to stand on, a shared common earth beneath the feet of all the humanists and all the scientists, a single underlying view of the world that drives all scholars, whatever their discipline — whether history or structuralist criticism or linguistics or quantum chromodynamics or astrophysics or molecular genetics.  There is, I think, such a shared view of the world.  It is called bewilderment.