Richard Powers and Forrest Gander Radically Reimagine What a Novel Can Be
Recorded Live at Point Reyes Books for Emergence Magazine
Emergence Magazine is a quarterly online publication exploring the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. As we experience the desecration of our lands and waters, the extinguishing of species, and a loss of sacred connection to the Earth, we look to emerging stories. Each issue explores a theme through innovative digital media, as well as the written and spoken word. The Emergence Magazine podcast features exclusive interviews, narrated essays, stories, and more.
In this vibrant conversation, poet and author Forrest Gander interviews Richard Powers about his acclaimed new novel The Overstory. Recorded during a live event co-presented by Emergence Magazine and Point Reyes Books, the two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors reflect on continuity, kinship, and proximity with the living world. Advocating a radical reimagining of the novel that moves away from the centering of human characters, Powers speaks of a new ethic that includes an understanding that there is no separate thing called us and no other separate thing called wilderness.
From the episode:
Forrest Gander: Ecopoetry is said to be concerned with the reimagined nation of the ethics of our relationship to nature, of which of course we are a part. You’ve radically reimagined the traditional novel centered on human characters. Of course there are a lot of human characters in The Overstory, but you’ve made trees the central ones. And humans are intertwined with trees in every way. Each main character is linked to a specific tree in the same way that the characters in the film adaptation of The English Patient are linked by sound editor Walter Murch and the movie to particular bird calls. Can you talk about how you dealt with the risks of this major adjustment in the modern approach to the novel?
Richard Powers: You know, I kind of had to stumble toward the form that the book finally took. My religious conversion came very late in life. I was 55 years old and pretty much totally tree blind. I had this moment of recognition here in California, in the central peninsula while teaching at Stanford, that I didn’t understand human history. I had written 11 novels over the course of 35 years and the people, the creatures, that were doing the heavy lifting were never mentioned. It was walking in the redwoods above Silicon Valley to escape that incredible go-go culture of the valley and in seeing a 13- or 14,000-year-old redwood and realizing that the Santa Cruz Mountains would have been covered in them until we got to them to build San Francisco and to build Leland Stanford Railroad, and the realization that Silicon Valley was down there inventing the future because of these trees were up here. That’s a radically rethinking. I mean as all good colonial enterprises go, the people who are making it possible are invisible, right? And it was that realization that started me thinking about, first of all, the most urgent thing wasn’t how to get a book out of it, the most urgent thing was how to get a life out of it.
Once I began that task of discrimination and attention and presence, it was overwhelming and the stories just started to pour out to me and I thought, you know what, I’m going to write a novel where all the characters, all the central protagonists, are trees. And there was a challenge associated with that. I mean you know when they live for centuries and they don’t move, it’s hard to make it a page-turner. But that wasn’t actually the reason why I gave that up, because I think someone with sufficient imagination or poetic skill could make that compelling. What made me give it up was the realization that actually I didn’t want to tell a story that was exclusively about trees any more than I wanted to write another novel that was exclusively about people. I mean if the whole point of breaking down human exceptionalism is to say there is no separate thing called us, and no separate thing called wilderness, then I needed a form where these protagonists could be on an equal footing. That required certain inventions and plot points that allow for radical re-focalization.