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Richard Powers: 2019 National Book Festival

Richard Powers: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Peter Vankevich:
We’re really fortunate to have Richard Powers
here, and Ron Charles from “The Washington Post,”
who tells me that all he does is review
books at “The Washington Post.” So I’m leaving it at that,
Ron, and you can [laughter] — I want to welcome you both
here to our fiction stage.>>Ron Charles: Thank you. Thank you very much. [ Applause ] First, a word of thanks to our
co-chairman of the festival, David Rubenstein, and the other
generous sponsors who’ve made this day possible. If you’d like to add
your financial support, please note the information
in your program. And I want to note that
we’ll have time for questions after this conversation. So if you would please
come to the microphone and wave your hand about — it’s very difficult
for us to see you, but we will call on you. So be thinking of
questions as we’re talking. My guest today is
Richard Powers, a man I’ve admired for years. He’s the author of a
dozen celebrated novels, including “The Echo Maker,”
which won a National Book Award, and his most recent
novel, “The Overstory,” which justifiably won the
Pulitzer Prize in April. [ Applause ] Thank you. Thank you so much
for being here. Genetics, pharmaceuticals,
artificial intelligence, music, photography, botany — I
feel like I’ve learned more about these subjects
from your novels than I ever did in school. How is it you know
so much [laughter]?>>Richard Powers:
I don’t, really. I mean, my problem growing up
was I couldn’t make a choice. You know, I just — I just
found everything interesting, and from year to year, the
interests would change. One year, I was certain I was
going to be an oceanographer, and the next year,
an entomologist. And, you know, I was
just that kind of kid, and when it came going
to college, I just — I became claustrophobic. You know, I had to
declare a major, and I had to say what I was
going to study, you know, for the rest of my life. And whatever door it was that
I was going to open and walk down was going to be
100 doors closing, and I did make a choice. I chose for physics, thinking
that somehow this was, like, a fundamental discipline, and
it might be a way of continuing to get the big picture,
and to — you know, to get an aerial view
of the way that things worked. And I pretty quickly
realized that, as with almost every other
discipline, you know, the farther along you went, the more specialized
you have to get. And I just felt I was in danger
of learning more and more about less and less, until
I knew everything there was about nothing [laughter]. But it was toward the end
of my undergraduate career, and there was some careering
involved at that level — but I stumbled onto the idea of taking writing
seriously as a profession. I had written before
then, but not — not in a concentrated
or a dedicated way. And all of a sudden, this
little bell went off. It’s like, wow, I can
wake up in the morning, and for day after day, for the
period of however long it takes, get a vicarious sense of what
the world looks like to someone who knows that discipline that
is the subject of that book.>>Ron Charles: But
how do you become that expert in those subjects?>>Richard Powers: Deep reading,
and that’s the joy, when — I mean, you are an expert. I’m not an expert. I’m a novelist, but in that
period of time that it takes to write a book, I
can build a sense of the essential bibliography. I can immerse myself in it. I can interview people. I can live as closely to
that culture as possible, and get a little sense
of the road not taken, who I might have been had I
pursued that as a way of life, what the — you know, what’s —
what are the hopes, and fears, and dreams of people
who organize their sense of themselves and
their sense of world around that specialization? And at the end of five
years, when I’m starting to feel claustrophobic
again, I can reinvent myself, and start again in
some other place.>>Ron Charles: How do you know that you are an expert
enough to write the book? How do you know, in a
sense, you’re right? Do you have experts
read your novels over?>>Richard Powers: Sure.>>Ron Charles: You do?>>Richard Powers:
That’s a crucial part, and over the years,
I’ve been saved from some pretty
bonehead errors by people who are really in the field. So there’s — it is a dicey
thing, in some ways, to make — to take that material and say, “It’s not just window
dressing for the story. That is the story.”>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Richard Powers: You
know, and the things that are being contested
are the things that are being contested
in those fields. It’s taking a chance,
and, you know, I’ve not gotten away Scot-free. But, you know, the —
to spend that amount of time doing legwork means you
are in contact with a network of experts who can say,
“Actually, you know, you’re close here,
but this series — this part needs some
serious work.”>>Ron Charles: So you make
some strong demands on yourself as an author, as a researcher,
and you make, I think, strong demands on readers. And I think you make strong
demands on the novel form, too. I mean, if you wanted
to write about –>>Richard Powers: I sound like
a very demanding guy [laughter]. For me, you know, I think it’s
— there’s more joy than rigor, if that makes any sense.>>Ron Charles: — oh, sure. That comes across. But if you wanted to
write about neurology, or some other interesting
scientific subject, you could write a
non-fiction book. What is it that draws you to
stories, is what I’m saying. Why encase that scientific
subject in a fictional frame?>>Richard Powers: Yeah,
fair enough, and I have, over the 35 years that I’ve
been writing, from time to time, thought, you know, if it’s that
material that interests me, maybe I should become
a non-fiction writer.>>Ron Charles: I’m glad
you didn’t, but why?>>Richard Powers:
[Laughter] Well, because it’s not just the
material that interests me. It’s the relationship
between the material and its practitioners, the
material and its receivers, the way that that
stuff changes our life at the level of human
experience. So there is no other place
that relates empirical, factual material to
social questions, and political questions, and
to psychological questions, the personal questions. The only place — if you’re
interested in relations between the makers,
the receivers, the thing being made — the
novel’s the place to do it. In fact, I have, over the course
of years, made lots of friends who have gone the
other direction, who have dedicated themselves to discursive writing,
to non-fiction. And they — in their own
fields, they will sometimes say, you know, “Because of the
restrictions, we have to write in a dispassionate way. We have to write in
an impersonal way. We love it when a
novelist takes our field.”>>Ron Charles: I’m sure.>>Richard Powers: Right? “Because this is what
we would love to do. We would love to
show that material, that factual material
not as a series of — as a series of equations, or
measurements, or discoveries. We would love to show it as
the source of possibility, of deep hope, of fear. We would love to show it in all its human
complexity and messiness.” And the novel is the
place to do that. And sometimes, I’ll
— you know, like, I have a sociologist
friend who’s — has an international
reputation, and he says, “We sociologists
really don’t know — you know, we reduce
the variables until it’s manageable
in an academic way.” To understand the true
sociology of these disciplines, let’s look at the artists. Let’s see what they do with it.>>Ron Charles: Interesting.>>Richard Powers:
Because that’s where it becomes a
substance of concern.>>Ron Charles: And
how do you pick — I mean, it’s easy to
refer to your novels by their scientific subjects,
if you’re trying to remember — oh, that’s the novel about
— that’s the novel about — how do you choose
those subjects? Did they choose you? And of course, I
want to ask you, how did you choose trees
for “The Overstory”? But in general, how do
you choose those subjects? How do you say, “This
is the time for a novel about artificial
intelligence,” say?>>Richard Powers: It’s been
different for each book. I mean, my first book
was published in 1985, and I was a kid, you know. I was in my mid-20s, and
this book came out last year. And I’ve got one foot
in the grave now. You know, so it’s been a long — you know, and the way that each
topic presents itself is — has been some unique mix of
serendipity and will on my part.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Richard Powers: But
I’ll tell you one thing that I do think has
happened again and again. While immersed in one subject,
I become very conscious of all the places — all the
questions, all the psychological and social concerns,
and all the material, and scientific discoveries
that I can’t get to from there.>>Ron Charles: Funny.>>Richard Powers: And that —
it’s almost as if the germ plasm for the next book is
always in the previous book.>>Ron Charles: Interesting.>>Richard Powers: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: And how did
you choose trees for this book? Because I’ve been
telling people, “This is the most exciting novel about trees you will
ever read..” [Laughter] But I
totally mean it.>>Richard Powers: [Laughter]
You just reminded me — where did the book begin? So I had a conversation a couple
days ago with a dear friend who was telling me a
kind of shocking story about being the recipient
of a certain kind of racist practice inside
the publishing industry.>>Ron Charles: Geez.>>Richard Powers: And,
you know, I said, “Really? Wow.” And she said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Wow, I — you
know, tell me all about this. You know, tell me
from the beginning.” And she said, “Well, in 1619”
[laughter] — so when you say, “Where did this book
begin,” I want to say, “Well, 400 million years
ago [laughter].” Where it began for me was
in northern California, when I was teaching at Stanford. I had spent many years at
the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois, and had
retired from there, and had gone out west, and really
was starting a new life. I had reached the age of
55 more or less tree-blind. I mean, I –>>Ron Charles: You’d
seen trees.>>Richard Powers:
— I loved them. I thought they were
beautiful, but, you know, I couldn’t tell an elm
from an ash, you know, and there were a lot
of maples out there. You know, and everything
was kind of maple, you know [laughter]. And it was going out west. And Stanford — you know, Stanford’s an extraordinary
campus. I mean, they just have —
it’s almost like an arboretum, being on campus, so you can’t
not notice these bizarre, unique, distinctive
creatures that you — you know, that I had never
come face-to-face with. So you’re always a bit
more alert to something that you haven’t normalized,
but it was really going up into the Santa Cruz
Mountains above Silicon Valley, and walking in those redwoods.>>Ron Charles: I just
saw those this summer.>>Richard Powers:
It’s incredible.>>Ron Charles: It’s amazing.>>Richard Powers:
Where were you?>>Ron Charles: Mirror Woods.>>Richard Powers: Oh,
yeah, Mirror — sure.>>Ron Charles: Unbelievable.>>Richard Powers: Yeah. I mean, it — I’m not proud
to say that the creature that woke me up was a redwood, because it doesn’t take
a particularly sensitive soul [laughter]. You know, when the thing is 30
feet across and 300 feet high, you’re going to notice it. And, you know [laughter] —
and as old as Jesus, you know, and it — you start
thinking about time, and life on an entirely
different scale. And that’s why so much
of the book has to do with these last remnant stands. I mean, to look at a tree like
that, and to think of the role that it played in
American history, and to see its grandeur, and
just to be totally humbled by something on that
scale, on both the physical and the temporal scale,
and then to learn that 98% of the redwood forests were cut. And that even when
there was only — you know, you see
the figures varying. Like 2 to 5% of original,
you know, primary redwood forests
remaining — that they were still being
cut into the 21st century. They’re being cut
now, right, old ones. But to think that
so little remained, and yet, it wasn’t enough. I mean, you don’t have to look
far for a drama, you know. That’s a story, and it’s a story
that opens up onto, you know, anything you wanted
to open it up onto.>>Ron Charles: It’s an
incredibly complex system of people in this novel, all
different kinds of people over several hundred years,
many different occupations. Which came first? Did the trees come first, and then you invented the
people into that forest?>>Richard Powers: I
absolutely had a road to Damascus moment there. You know, I — the
scales fell off my eyes. I said, “I’m sharing the
planet with something that I’ve absolutely
taken for granted. I need to meet the neighbors.” So it was the obsession with
trees first, and the people, the cast of characters came
on board fast and slow. But in the wake of my
realizing that I needed — I needed to tell a story that
would convey those two things — how I could be so utterly
oblivious to something so essential to us, and that —
one, and then two, what it feels like to turn that corner, and to see that you’ve
missed the story. And there’s another way
of thinking about us, what we’re doing here. There’s another way of
thinking about non-humans, and what our relationship
to them should be. And so, the humans that came
long in the wake, as it were, you know, all had a little
bit of that conversion moment.>>Ron Charles: Yes. Sometimes dramatic,
sometimes subtle.>>Richard Powers: Right. It’s a story about what
the world would look like if you could wake from this
dream that we’ve interpolated so deeply we don’t even
realize there’s an alternative. What would the world look
like if you didn’t believe that meaning was an individual,
private, synthetic thing that you were responsible for, and that disappeared
when you disappeared? What if meaning were out
there, you know, and what if — what if meaning consisted
of extending the same kind of sanctity to the four billion
years of life that isn’t us, that we extend to ourselves? And the characters are hybrids,
as always, with novelists, composites of people that I
know, people who I read about, people who were created out
of more or less whole cloth, but they — the drama
of the book — I mean, there’s a
MacGuffin, right? I mean, there’s a manifest
drama, which is, are we going to lose the last
2% of this, or not? And what is it like
when a person decides — you know, an apolitical
person decides, hey, I’m going to put my life on
the line, because suddenly, this is as important
to me as anything. So that’s a manifest drama, but
the latent drama is the drama of self-transformation. What happens when you realize
you’ve been completely co-opted into a culture that says,
“Hey, you’re on your own. You know, make it for yourself,
and do it through commodities. That’s the only currency
we have for you.”>>Ron Charles: And what is it like to realize you’re
a secondary character, and not the protagonist
of this planet?>>Richard Powers:
Yeah, that’s right. That the earth’s
story is not about us.>>Ron Charles: Right,
it’s about these ancient –>>Richard Powers: Yeah,
huge — it’s about a very, very long journey that
has happened to branch and ramify far beyond
our comprehension.>>Ron Charles: — were
there characters you cut?>>Richard Powers: Sure, yeah. In the — I don’t mourn them,
because when [laughter] — I mean, nine characters is a lot
of characters to keep track of.>>Ron Charles: And to
develop their back stories.>>Richard Powers: Yeah, and to actually have
as real protagonists. When there was something really,
really wonderful in a character that had to go, because
I had nine others, I could find a way [laughter] of bringing it back
into their life.>>Ron Charles: She
would get his dog.>>Richard Powers: That’s
right, yeah [laughter].>>Ron Charles: Was
there some — can you tell us about one of
the characters that we all know from the book that was
particularly surprising to you, or was exciting to develop?>>Richard Powers: They all had
a real pleasure, and, you know, the — it — there’s
a little bit of multiple personality
disorder, I think, in a lot of fiction writers. I certainly have it. I mean, I talked earlier
about this pleasure of vicariously being
able to pretend to be in a certain career for five
years, and then change careers, and it’s the same
with personalities. I mean, you write a book for
the sheer delight of trying to empathize with somebody
who’s so distinctly not-you, and that was especially
fun in this book. The character who
I really got a kick out of was Douglas Pavlicek. He’s kind of a bumbling,
working-class guy. You know, he’s a vet,
big, big-hearted guy, but he’s a little clueless.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Richard Powers: And that
was just so fun for me, to wake up every morning and
be that person, you know, and just try to make him
as vulnerable as possible.>>Ron Charles: Can
we talk about the — your working structure for this? I mean, was it like
Carrie Matheson’s [assumed spelling] office? Was it — you’ve got
these nine characters, and all their stories. And when you start the
book, as you’ll experience, or you remember, you think
it might be a collection of short stories. It’s not obvious — wasn’t obvious to me how
these people would relate to one another, but
then, slowly, as several reviewers
noted, they all kind of start to branch together. How do you keep track of it? Is your office just
covered in Post-It notes?>>Richard Powers:
You know, it’s a — it’s funny that you would
mention that structure, because that didn’t
come to me early on. That was really a
way downstream –>>Ron Charles: You’re kidding.>>Richard Powers: — no. See, when you have
nine characters, it’s like now you have to
build a very complicated story in a way that the reader is, you
know, going to be able to get through exposition, get
into the rising action, get to the climax
while keeping track of all these various people. And I’m thinking,
how do you do that? Because I’ve never tried
anything anywhere near as close to that big a canvas. And I thought, well, let me — you know, I tried to think
of it very different ways. I’ll do it — geographical
province didn’t make any sense at all. Chronologically — you know,
people have a sense of time, and as these characters come
in, they’ll keep track of the –>>Ron Charles: Tree book
does — brilliantly –>>Richard Powers: Yeah — so let me just set that
up as the backbone, and then I’ll get my — you know, my ribs on
there as they come in. I went back to read
that, you know, after I completed that draft. I couldn’t keep track of
the characters [laughter]. I mean, it’s — you know,
there’s just too much time, too many different people doing
too many different things. So I thought, here’s
what I’ll do. I’ll gather them
together unto themselves, and I’ll write each one with
its own — all the back stories, so that a reader can
actually live long enough with each character to
say, “Ah, I’m in that world as its own micro-drama.”>>Ron Charles: — yes.>>Richard Powers: And
then, that felt really good. The problem with that
structure, of course — it’s a really odd one
for a novel, you know. You’re supposed to get
your exposition underway as quickly as possible.>>Ron Charles: Yes, and yours
goes on — what, 120 pages?>>Richard Powers: Yeah, and I
— there were plenty of readers who said, “Hey, I
bought a novel. This is nine different
short stories. You know, what’s with this?” You know, on the other hand, once I had all those
different stories, and I knew they were
going to converge, because I already
had written the draft where the chronology brings —
you know, brings them together. So I thought, now I’ve
got these back stories, and they’re all going to
grow into this central trunk. But they’re my roots, and if I
just call that section “Roots,” you know, and I say — it’s a little bit like
saying, “Patience. This is more Mahler
than Chopin, you know. It’s going to take
a while, you know.” It’s a redwood, right? So if you can get through those
roots, and into that trunk, then all of a sudden, it becomes
a different kind of book.>>Ron Charles: That
puts the demand on you to write nine compelling
short stories.>>Richard Powers: Which — you know, I’m not a
short story writer. I’ve written them over the
years as occasional pieces.>>Ron Charles: Those
pieces are all great.>>Richard Powers:
Well, bless you. He does get a kickback. You know that [laughter]. No, and it was nice, to
try to learn how to do that in my late 50s, you know, and just understand
— it’s harder.>>Ron Charles: I’m sure.>>Richard Powers: It’s –>>Ron Charles: If you haven’t
been doing it your whole life, yeah.>>Richard Powers: —
there’s the challenge of concision, right? In a novel — and
I’m a prolix — I’m a little bit on
the verbose side. And, you know, I love the
luxury of taking 100 pages to get your main
character in the door. Well, in a short story,
you don’t have that luxury. Every single word
counts, and as a result, the amount of revision involved to get everything perfectly
paced — it’s a lot harder, a lot — you know,
lot more demanding.>>Ron Charles: I’ll bet. Let’s talk about Patty. Well, you can tell
us about Patty.>>Richard Powers:
Patricia Westerford.>>Ron Charles: Patty
Westerford. Was her issue based on
anyone in particular?>>Richard Powers: She
is, and she’s based on real-world figures — I
mean, professional figures, as well as personal figures.>>Ron Charles: Oh, okay.>>Richard Powers: Yeah. She’s kind of the heart
and soul of the book.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Richard Powers: As a — she’s
born with a hearing impairment, which, as almost very
frequently happens, means that she also has
a speech impediment. And it isolates her,
and it sets her apart from her peers at school. And she’s taken under
the wing by her father, who is an agricultural
extension agent, and he teaches her about plants. And all of a sudden,
she comes home. Here’s a world that
you don’t have to hear. Here’s a world where you can
dial your attention down, and be present to them
in the most visceral way. And it predisposes
her to thinking about the communication
between plants.>>Ron Charles: Yes. Trees are social.>>Richard Powers: Right.>>Ron Charles: Is
this true, by the way?>>Richard Powers: You
know, what’s beautiful about her story —
what I find most moving about the Patricia
Westerford story is, insofar as she is based
on historical figures, the answer to the question
inside that discipline at the time that she was
a girl, and at the time that she was going to
college, would be no.>>Ron Charles: People
thought it was crazy.>>Richard Powers: Plants —
right, it’s an eccentric — it’s absurd to think
that there’s any kind of complexity going
on there at all. What you see is what’s
happening.>>Ron Charles: Right?>>Richard Powers: And it’s only
been in the last few decades that this whole astonishing
social, reciprocal, connected life of plants
has become verified, and repeatedly demonstrated
not just — I mean, she’s one
of the first — you know, I base her on these
early pioneers who were willing to risk their professions
to say, “Look, there’s more happening
here than we realize.” And she’s one of the first
generation who’s saying, “They’re actually sending
out chemicals over the air.”>>Ron Charles: Communicating
in a –>>Richard Powers: Yeah, “so
that if one tree gets attacked by insects” — we knew
that the trees make their own insecticides. So we knew that, you know, as soon as one tree
was compromised, it would start to fight back. What we didn’t know is,
simultaneously sending out an over-the-air pheromone that other trees nearby are
receiving, and they start to preemptively produce
their own insecticides, so that they’re in place for
the attack before the attack hits them. Trees are sharing
— it’s not a — well, it’s a little
bit of a stretch, but they’re sharing
something that looks a lot like a common immune system.>>Ron Charles: — right.>>Richard Powers:
That’s just the start. I mean, so she publishes
that data. She gets ridiculed by the
old white men gatekeepers of the field, you know, who
think this is preposterous — as, you know, the research
was rejected initially, historically. So she’s humiliated, and
drops out of the field, and has to start life
again on her own. But she’s also there
for the vanguard of the almost-more-stunning
discoveries having to do with subterranean communication, that trees are connected
underground by fungal filaments, by miles and miles of
fungal filaments that are in symbiotic relationship with
trees multiply on this network. Suzanne Simard, who’s
actually — whose research was instrumental
in my telling the story of Patricia Westerford — she calls it the
wood-wide web [laughter]. The trees are supplying
the fungus — since fungi don’t
photosynthesize, they don’t — they can’t make their
own sugars, right? They get those sugars and other
hydrocarbons from the trees. In return, they’re
doing things underground to extract secondary metabolites
that they send up to the tree. So that, in itself, is
incredibly cool, right, the fact that an individual
tree and a fungus are in a symbiotic relationship, you
know, producing the essentials that the other can’t produce.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Richard Powers: Now, put
a Douglas fir at one end of that fungus, and a
birch at the other end, and have two trees of different
species that are helping to nurture each other, and feed
each other, and transfer — and that’s mind-blowing.>>Ron Charles: And this is not
just some fictional metaphor.>>Richard Powers: Something
that Powers make up — no. No, this is fact.>>Ron Charles: So
this isn’t, in a sense, a novel about how ridiculous
ideas eventually become accepted –>>Richard Powers: It is.>>Ron Charles: —
through a painful process for the people that raise them.>>Richard Powers:
It is also a novel about how an established
scientific and cultural set of beliefs — in fact,
cultural beliefs that spin off of erroneous scientific
beliefs –>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Richard Powers: — can be profoundly
challenged and upended. So this whole notion that
we have, that when you look at a forest, you’re looking at
absolute competition, you know, everybody just trying to throw
shade on everybody else –>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Richard Powers: — right?>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Richard Powers:
And, you know, that it’s just nature’s
red, and tooth, and claw — this is actually green, right? And for every act
of competition, there are many acts
of cooperation. That’s a profound, philosophical
shift, and it’s one that has a bearing on what we
were talking about earlier, which is — this is a book about
how personal meaning is a bill of goods you’ve been sold. Right?>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Richard Powers: There’s
a line in — that — in the Patricia Westerford
section, “There are no individual
trees in a forest. Everything in the
forest is the forest.”>>Ron Charles: It’s connected.>>Richard Powers: Starting to
sound a little bit like Medicare for all, but [laughter]
it’s out there.>>Ron Charles: Well, it’s not
— it is one of the great — one of the greatest
environmental novels ever written, but it’s not just about the destruction
of the environment. It’s about how we
are conditioned to ignore that destruction.>>Richard Powers: That’s right.>>Ron Charles: And one
of your characters even — a psychiatrist, psychologist — sort of starts to
investigate it. How is it that we
are possible — that we are able to ignore
our own imperiled state?>>Richard Powers: Yeah. Yeah. And in fact,
more than ignore.>>Ron Charles: [Laughter] Deny.>>Richard Powers: Right, and
see the conquest and control of nature as somehow
in our interest –>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Richard Powers: — which
it can never be, right, because of the dense, dense,
reciprocal interdependence of living things, right? So in — to think somehow — you know, here’s a nice
way into that question. The word for ecology,
the word ecology, and the word economics share the
same Greek root, and it’s a word that means housekeeping, right? Now, you — we have spent
our lives hearing people say, “Such-and-such a move to
protect the environment is not economic.”>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Richard Powers: If
we’re living in a world that says economy and ecology
are two different things, we’re not going to be
here for very long.>>Ron Charles: No. The person that climbs a
tree and lives up there for three years to save
it is clearly crazy.>>P; Yeah [laughter].>>Ron Charles: But the person
who ignores the destruction of the forest is somehow
just a businessman.>>Richard Powers: That’s right.>>Ron Charles: That’s what
your novel turns on its head.>>Richard Powers:
Until the bill comes in.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Richard Powers: And the bill
is coming in now, and, you know, one of the astonishing things —
oh, 10 minutes, so we’re going to go to audience in a bit. But one of the astonishing
things about writing the book for me is to — is how sensitive
I became to news every day.>>Ron Charles: And the way
it shapes our understanding of what’s happening.>>Richard Powers: Every day, and what we’re missing
every day. And even when we try — you
know, now we have — we have — the Amazon is on fire.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Richard Powers: And it’s
not on fire by accident. It’s not on fire by
weather conditions. It’s Bolsonaro putting
out the word that this is economically
desirable, to burn this down.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Richard Powers: Right? So — and it’s also — and
it’s also those of us who say, you know, I need meat
with every meal, right, because 80% of deforestation as pasture is agricultural
practice.>>Ron Charles: I
want to ask you about your own moral reasoning. If the planet is imperiled, what kind of action
is immoral to save it?>>Richard Powers: I’ll
tell you something, Ron. That’s what novelists
have to write about. It’s a complex — as rich, and
complex, and rewarding a set of dramatic questions, and
as hard to answer as anything that we’ve devoted
literary fiction to. Why aren’t we — why don’t — we’re doing that book
after book after book. You know, that — we need to
bring that back into the stories that we’re telling about
ourselves, because we’ve been on this misguided thing, that
somehow we are autonomous. And we can tell a story about
us that has — you know, that — where these moral questions
aren’t a part of the texture.>>Ron Charles: I could
talk to you all day, but [laughter] there
must be questions. You will have to
raise your hands and wave them for us to see you. Yes, sir?>>Yes, hi. I really enjoyed your book. I assume that you
talked with experts. You referred to a
couple of them. What was the best and
worst advice you got from the scientists in
how to shape your book?>>Richard Powers: The
best advice is embroidered into every page of the book. You know, it was — there’s
so much there that I owe to the people in the
field, and to make — to make their fieldwork
actually not just color, right, not just background, but
to say that’s the drama. That’s the story. That’s what they gave me. The worst advice —
[laughter] I don’t know. The worst advice was, you
know, now that you’ve — now that you’ve taken the six
years to do this, you know, how would you — you know, how
would you like to do it again on my particular
research [laughter]? I would be delighted, but
life is short [laughter].>>Ron Charles: Yes, I see
people waving their hands.>>So, two questions. Do you envision yourself
being claustrophobic by trees and moving on at
this five-year mark, or do you see yourself
continuing to be perhaps an
environmental activist? And then, the second question
is, any advice for those of us who are thinking about going
up and chaining ourselves to a tree at — National Park?>>Richard Powers: Yeah. I — I would love
to make the case that environmental activism is
a big tent, and that I think of myself as one
now, that it’s not — it’s not a separable thing,
to write a work of art with those concerns, or to
chain yourself to a tree. And that’s why, you know,
when people read the book, and they’re moved by it, and
they say, “You’ve made me want to join this transformation. How do I do that?” And they say, “You know,
you’ve changed the way that I look at things. I walk down my street
differently. I’m passing — you know,
these trees that I’ve passed for 15 years, I’m suddenly
looking at in a different way.” And I’m saying, well, then, you’re already —
you’re already on. You’re already in. And now, you’re — the change in your attitude is
going to be infectious. So I — you know, I think
there are lots of — there are lots of ways to act, and there are lots
of ways to change. As to your first question of
do — am I claustrophobic now? You know, you look at that — you look at the 12 books
that Ron talked about, and it’s like very rarely did I
ever get to the end of the book when I wasn’t ready to start
a new project, or a new field, and to go into something
very, very different. This is the first time ever
where I just want to stay. This book changed my life. It moved me to the
place where I now live. It moved me cross-country
to the Smoky Mountains, and I’ve been living
there now for four years because of the research
that I did for the book. And my day is profoundly
different. I live differently now because
I live in a place where I — you know, I can be present,
and learn something every day, and be a student every day. It’s a challenge to
figure out how to broaden that first attempt, to say
there is a story bigger than us and it involves the non-humans. Now, to say yes, but the books
can look as varied as, you know, the difference between
Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy, you know. It’s not repeating
the same book. It’s finding another book that
can do that same kind of work. That’s what I’m working on now.>>There’s a question
here, please.>>How did you research
the commitment and the violence
of the protesters? And we talked about the
fact that they spent a year up in a tree, and then
the horrible events that happened after. But how did you research that?>>Richard Powers: There’s a
very beautiful bibliography for the real-world practitioners who have been committing
their lives not just in the last three decades,
but for long periods. And they’ve taken
different paths, and they’ve left different
records and different legacies. But they have told their own
stories in a variety of ways. I mean, you mentioned the —
you know, living up in the top of the redwood, and
the most famous — you know, a lot of
you will know the book by Julia Butterfly Hill, “Luna,”
about her experiences living at the top of a redwood
for a protract — a much longer period of
time than she signed on for. But I also talked, you
know, face-to-face, which is a different thing. Because passion can
come across on the page, but they’re more interested in telling you the rich
complexities of the actions, what happened when, and
the tactics that they used, and the ones that worked,
and the ones that failed. But face-to-face,
you actually feel it. You feel the embodiment of
urgency that I tried to put into the individual
characters in my story. That was an indispensable
part of getting the story.>>I guess the police
reaction was also — the police reaction
was also a part of my question, the
violence that –>>Richard Powers: Yeah. You know, there were people
who questioned a pretty graphic and grizzly scene in the book,
where the protesters had — you know, they had what they
called the Bear’s Claw — Bear’s Claws, was it? The iron pipes that had the
carabineers inside the pipe, and they would affix their
arms inside the pipes so that they could not
be cut apart, right? And they — and they staged a
protest where they made a ring of people using this
technique, and in that scene, the police come by
and put the capsicum in the eyes of the protesters. And there were readers who
said, “You went overboard there. That’s too much. You know, it was too violent. It was not going to
happen in America.” I transcribed that scene
from a YouTube video.>>Ron Charles: Geez.>>Richard Powers: Yeah. So it’s all there. It’s just a question of
looking at it, you know.>>We have another
question here.>>Ron Charles: Yes?>>Hi. One of my favorite
writers about trees next to you is David Haskell –>>Richard Powers: Oh, you
know, what a wonderful writer.>>– particularly his
book “Song of Trees.”>>Richard Powers: A
very important book to me as I did my research.>>That was my question,
about its influence on you.>>Richard Powers: Yeah. Unfortunately, the
— you know, the — that book came out
toward the tail end. It was the previous book,
“The Forest Unseen,” that really was a
deep influence. “The Song of Trees” was moving
and beautiful, but too late to do much difference to
what I was working on. But it’s now influencing
the book I’m working on at present — a
magnificent writer.>>And another question here.>>Ron Charles: Yes?>>One thing I noticed while
reading this incredible book was the theme of parenting,
either wanting to be a parent, or sort of falling
into parenthood, or choosing not to be a parent. And I’m really curious about
your thoughts on that theme. Thanks.>>Richard Powers: Yeah. And as — I think throughout
the course of the book, there’s a suggestion
that there is — and this is an unfamiliar
theme in literature, that the relationship between
parent and child is so fraught, and so intractable,
and so unsolvable that we carry the scars of that
relationship throughout our whole lives. And that it can cause people
to make a decision not to have children of their own,
but the book itself, I think, tries to link up that
drama, the familial drama, the generational family
story to this bigger sense of the family of living things. And that people who make that choice are not necessarily
betraying the cause of life. If our only sense of making a — giving a lasting legacy
to the future has to do with this very limited sense
of identifying with something that shares half
your genome, right, then we’re also in
trouble, right? If we can’t empathize, and
if we can’t extend empathy, and if we can’t nurture,
and be nurtured by things that go beyond us, the
way that this Douglas fir and birch are connected
underground, and feeding and nurturing each
other, then we’re — you know, then we’re not
long for the world either. So that small family question
about the influence of mothers and fathers on their
children gets subsumed into this other question
of the much larger sense of familial kinship that
we need to learn again. You know, much of
humanity knew big kinship for much of human history. It’s only recently
that we’ve collapsed into a very narrow
sense of kinship. And I think one thing that
literature can do is widen that sense of who’s kin.>>Ron Charles: Are
you optimistic that we’re going to make it?>>Richard Powers: Make what?>>Ron Charles: Survive –>>Richard Powers: I –>>Ron Charles: —
in organized society.>>Richard Powers: — so, no. I’m not –>>Ron Charles: What
you’re saying –>>Richard Powers: —
I am not hopeful –>>Ron Charles: —
you’re not hopeful?>>Richard Powers: — for
society organized this way. You know, and that’s a —
that was a big change for me. When people say,
“Are you hopeful?” They say, “Am I going to
get over the finish line, you know, with all my stuff? You know, or is capitalism
going to get over the finish line
with all its stuff?” And I just don’t — I don’t
think the transformation that we need can be made
within the forms of meaning and social purpose that
we currently live under. The real question is —
I mean, it’s just — I — you have to give up hope for a
while to see the truth of that. This small, incremental
thing, you know — like, well, let’s keep — let’s keep our basic economic
principles, but try to — you know, try to limit the
damage to three degree — you know, it’s a fool’s game.>>Ron Charles: Giving up
Ziploc bags will not be enough?>>Richard Powers: No. What has to happen
is we have to say, “The thing that I was
looking for in living the way that is clearly untenable
can be found somewhere else.” If we were a society who
said the rehabilitation of the earth was as gratifying
to us, and as essential to us, and as rewarding to us as
the accumulation of property, we might have a chance. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: Getting
to that change would be an extraordinarily violent
revolution.>>Richard Powers: The only
way we’re ever going to get through that revolution quickly
enough to make it non-violent is through our — I
sincerely believe it. If our stories change,
we’re going to change. If they don’t, then it is going
to be an absolute catastrophe.>>Ron Charles: This is such a
profound and important novel, and it’s such a pleasure
to talk to you. I’m so glad you were able –>>Richard Powers: Thank you. [ Applause ]

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