Richard Powers recently got some of the best news a writer can receive.
Last Monday, Powers’ agent gave him a call, and he learned he’d won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Overstory. The book follows nine very different protagonists across various timelines as they become invested and reinvested in the life of the natural world and more particularly, in trees.
Tonight, Powers will headline the final evening of Inprint’s 2018-2019 Margarett Root Brown Reading Series with fellow author and longtime friend Tayari Jones. We caught up with Powers fresh off his Pulitzer win to talk trees, revising in writing and in life, and why there’s no future for us unless we change.
First of all, congratulations!
Thank you so much. I have to say—my little hideout in the woods has definitely heated up a bit in the last couple of days.
Can you talk me through what the past few days have been like?
The prize was announced Monday afternoon, and I had no idea that was the day they were announcing the Pulitzers. About two minutes after the awards were announced, I got a call from my agent, slightly bewildered. She asked me, “Have you heard anything about who won the Pulitzer?” (Laughs.) And I said no, and then all of a sudden it was quite clear: 50 emails all hit at once, interview requests started to come in. And then the rest of that day, and all day yesterday, and all day today—up until this call—I’ve been just digging out time to answer all of the wonderful congratulations that have been flowing in. I’m caught up to about 2 p.m. yesterday on the email thread. (Laughs.)
I think it’s probably the best thing about getting a prize like that—it puts you back in touch with people from every chapter of your life: friends, acquaintances who you’ve lost touch with. It’s what you’re supposed to see as your life is ending—your entire life flashing before your eyes in a compressed period of time. It’s really been great.
You have nine central characters in The Overstory, all of whom are crucial. How did you figure out that these were the people you wanted to follow?
It was a long process, and there were many false trails along the way. A book is a strange mixture of planning and serendipity, or I should say, top-down planning and bottom-up revision. Especially with a long book, and a complicated one. There were characters that I started off with that didn’t make the final cut; there were characters who entered into the process after two years or more. So what looks like a really careful and clear plan now, in retrospect, was really just plunging into the tangled forest and hoping that there was a trail there somewhere. Walking through the forest makes the trail, and that’s exactly how it happened with this book, just through revision after revision.
I really do enjoy a messy process. I do enjoy revision as a way of discovering what it is that we’re really after. This book took close to six years to make. The beauty of it is during those six years, I could educate myself. When I started the book, I was completely tree-blind. I couldn’t tell the most basic kinds of trees apart from each other. I didn’t know what an elm looked like, or an ash. By the end I had read 120 books about trees, and I’m still reading books about trees now. I just feel like the act of learning how to see and learning how to take non-human creatures seriously was, for me, a transformative thing in my art, but more importantly, my life. The book moved me to another place in the country, it changed the way I spend my days—where I live and how I live—and it changed the way that I think about and see the world. That kind of discovery that revision represents—leaving yourself open to thinking about characters and plot—is also about leaving yourself open to becoming a different person in your own story, the story of your own life.
I think the book is going to do that for a lot of people.
It’s the most satisfying response for me. The book’s been out for about a year, and when I get letters from readers saying, “I’m walking down my own street, in my own neighborhood, and seeing things I’ve walked past for 25 years, and I’m just now noticing for the first time the amazing things they’re doing.” That’s about the best thing I could ask for.
In one of the book’s early chapters you give us the line, “As certain as weather is coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change. There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking.” What’s something that you feel like you used to know for a fact that has changed for you?
Oh, that’s a great question. (Laughs.) Maybe the most important thing that changed in me while writing this book was this belief that we have somehow completed the mastery or the conquest of nature, and this sense that somehow our technologies have left us in a place where we made our own rules. I didn’t even realize that I believed that or thought that was a fact. And it took this long process of telling the story to see how colonized I was by that idea, and to give it up and realize it’s not true now, it’s never been true, and that that belief itself is what’s causing this cataclysmic revenge of the living world against us now.
It’s not only that we haven’t won this battle against nature, but nature is about to hand us our hindquarters on a platter. We are just now realizing how misguided we’ve been, to think that we are something exceptional and apart from the rest of creation.
It makes me think of the ending of the book: it’s kind of dire, but still optimistic. It feels like we’re too late sometimes, but we still have to do something.
It’s interesting to try to address this question of hope inside the story and to acknowledge the full truth of the whirlwind that we’ve sown and are now reaping, but also to say there is a reason for continuing. I do not have hope that we can survive in our current form. There’s no way that this capitalist, individualist, human exceptionalist, commodity culture can go on. We’ve settled on a style of life that requires infinite growth in a finite growing medium. It doesn’t take much reflection to see that that’s not possible. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no hope for the possibility of human beings to become something else and to become something that finds meaning in rehabilitating the world and living inside the world rather than apart from it. That is something we can hope for, work for, and find meaning in.
Finally, quite a few of the characters use tree names as code names for themselves. What would your tree code name be?
(Laughs.) I’d pick the pawpaw. I talk about it in Patricia’s chapter with her father when he very excitedly introduces her to this strange, rather homely tree that produces this odd-looking fruit. It just looks like a blackened pickle, but tastes like butterscotch pudding. This tree is remarkable in so many ways. It can grow in the shade. Here’s a food tree that can grow underneath other trees or in the shadows of buildings. The fact that it’s so odd-looking, so resourceful, and that it produces such a magical-tasting fruit making it a winning combination in my eyes.
April 22. Tayari Jones/Richard Powers, Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. Tickets $5. Stude Concert Hall, Rice University, 6100 Main St. More information at inprinthouston.org.