For his twelfth novel, Richard Powers wanted to do something different. This will come as no surprise to his fans: his books explore diverse topics, from neuroscience, to the rise of the modern corporation, to genetics, to music, and more.
But for The Overstory, Powers says, he needed to “unblind” himself.
“When you stand in front of a 1500 year-old redwood, and realize that the mountains had been covered with them, and there are only very small pockets now remaining, it’s tough to turn away from,” he told me. “I simply had to say: I’ve missed a huge part of the story of who we are, and I need to educate myself.”
The Overstory, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize among other honors, follows several individuals who make the same discovery, and change their lives based on what they learn. It invokes myth and storytelling, and embraces an extended timeline to reflect the lifespan not just of its human characters, but of the trees they learn to see.
In early January 2019, I discussed the book with Powers over the phone. We talked about trees, the transformative power of storytelling, and how writers might respond—and stay responsive to—the unique demands of this moment in both human- and tree-time. The following is a transcript of our conversation, with minor editing for clarity.
Charlotte Wyatt: So many of your books explore and integrate science and art, and I’m curious about the treatment of the concept of “progress” in this book—especially with your character Nick’s ancestors written about early in the story, one of whom “succumbs to the disease of improvement.” I love that in the same paragraph, his Kodak No. 2 camera is introduced. And it has a slogan, “You push the button, we do the rest.”
Richard Powers: Right! The by-word of all modernist, individualist techno-sublime fantasies!
CW: Exactly! It read a little to me like a Faustian bargain, especially given how much we see his immigrant ancestors go through, and since so many of your other books—and I’m thinking especially of The Echo Maker and Gain—cast human progress and technology in a sometimes ambivalent light. So I wondered: The Overstory takes that idea quite a bit farther. What made you want to write this book now?
RP: So, it seems as if there are several things on the table. One is the relationship between technology, humanity, the non-human, living world, human destiny within that world, on one hand – but also this question of social time, and the aptness of the novel at this moment in cultural or social history. So let me talk about the first component of the question first, whether and where what you called a “Faustian bargain” comes into play. All of my books have been concerned with exploring this question of human destiny and human transformation, to some degree. Trying to take the human story out of the merely personal, the individual, the local, the domestic, and to place it back into an historical context. The one that asks this question about where are we going, where did we come from? How are we getting there, what do we hope is waiting? I don’t know the answer to the question of what or where the Faustian bargain gets introduced. I don’t think it’s necessarily implicit in the technological transformation of human kind. And for that I think we have to widen our lens a little bit, and remember that to be human is already to have a relationship to technology, and the transformation of the rules of living on earth. It’s one of the distinguishing features of our species, that we manipulate tools and that we create and project our powers with various leveraging devices, that change the terms of time and space for us. And we’ve been doing that from the beginning. In fact, the very most powerful technologies in the human drama are often the earliest ones. When you think of fire, to flint-knapping, all the way down to writing, every one of these technologies is a huge revolution that transforms our own sense of what we’re capable of doing, and what we want to do.
So to tell the human story is to tell the story of an uneasy relationship with legacy, versus desire for future, and more powerful, manipulations. But the point is, the real Faustian bargain, the real villain in the story of human destiny as I’ve identified it in The Overstory is not technology per se but the myth that certain technologies have allowed us to become susceptible to, which is this belief in human exceptionalism. The belief that somehow we will, with the accumulated leverage of all our technologies finally cease to have to live here on earth, within the boundaries of what the planet can supply. And this notion that somehow we have reached the level of technological dominance that leaves us exempt from the reality of biological systems, the reality of climate systems and so forth, that we got seduced into believing in our own omnipotence.
I think that’s the heart of the story—we have had a reciprocal relationship with nature from the beginning, and we have integrated tools into that reciprocal relationship, and we have been ourselves profoundly shaped by the very wildernesses and living systems that we’ve left our mark on. It’s the inseparability of those two things that lie at the heart of my story. Not necessarily the idea that we’re doomed by the first stone that we pick up and attempt to use as a tool.
Are there technologies that lend themselves more to human exceptionalism than others? Yeah, I think there probably are. That’s a deep and complicated question. That’s a question that deserves lots and lots of stories being directed to it.
So on to the second part of your question, which is, why now? That has both a personal component and a public component to it. The personal component is I had simply, after eleven books in a third of a century, I had matured to the point where I was suddenly confronted by my own tree-blindness, my own blindness to the nonhuman. By my own oversight, and the realization this was an essential component, perhaps the essential component, to the story that I was trying to understand and tell about the uneasiness of our situation here on this planet.
This transformation in my own consciousness came about six years ago when I was living in California and acquired a kind of very dramatic confrontation with these enormous trees, 98% of which had been destroyed. When you stand in front of a 1500-year-old redwood, and realize that the mountains had been covered with them, and there are only very small pockets now remaining, it’s tough to turn away from. It’s a kind of “Road to Damascus” moment. I simply had to say: I’ve missed a huge part of the story of who we are, and I need to educate myself. I need to un-blind myself.
So that’s an interesting question of why this book now, as far as my capabilities, in my personal development and growth, as someone who is trying to see what a kind of human exceptionalism and modernism prevented me from seeing.
The question of the social timing is interesting too. I didn’t anticipate when I started this novel, to write this novel five-and-a-half years ago, that my more or less historical drama—this tale of a group of people in the late 90s and early 2000s—would have such resonance for the world the book would be published into.
I didn’t foresee the Trump administration, I didn’t foresee the roll-back of fifty or sixty years of environmental legislation. I didn’t even see at that time this huge aggregation of tree disasters. That now, North America looks like a battle zone on all fronts. The fires, the agricultural deforestations, the devastation by disruptive ecosystems in the form of exotic pests and destructive beetles. All this conjunction of the complete destruction of the arboreal landscape, that’s not something that was in my head six years ago.
But I’ll tell you that I probably could have used another year working on the book and really was reluctant to let it go a couple of years ago, but realized with the complete change of the political climate in the country, I had to get it out there sooner rather than later. I really wanted it to be part of the conversation that it seemed to me was in danger of being completely overwhelmed by this tsunami of political revolution that happened in 2016.
CW: I can only imagine what it has been like for you to see the book go out into this particular moment! On that note, I’m fascinated by how thoroughly the story interweaves with America, with events in American history, especially. I’m not sure how much of that was meant to be foregrounded, but with the call in the book from the radicalized environmentalists, who talk about becoming indigenous again, I wondered how you saw the role of specific place and ecosystems in the book. I’m thinking especially in parts of the United States in and around Houston, where places and environments have changed radically in recent years due to climate change.
RP: It’s a very important question. This notion of place was so central to me as I was working on the book. And I was trying to do two things that sound almost incommensurable: on the one hand, I was trying to move the book around as much as possible, and you’ll see in the book a kind of geographical sweep. Sections that deal with the mid-west, sections that deal with the east, sections that deal with the southeast, and of course this kind of culminating, dramatic showdown that happens in the Pacific Northwest. I really—to the extent that I could, I really wanted to move the book through a lot of different places, even internationally. There is an extended passage where Patricia Westerford goes to Brazil, as part of her seedbank work, and experiences tropical ecosystems, and is overwhelmed by them.
This was important to me because when writers talk about the importance of place, we often talk about it on the microscopic side. The essential way in which the local makes us who we are. And that’s an important thing. I’m living now in the Smokies, where to go over one ridge is to enter into a very different ecosystem, and this understanding of the way in which geography is destiny is an important thing that fiction can reveal, and I do try to intensify a palpable sense of what life is affording. What the local constraints of geography and climate are giving to the affordances of local life. And I do love fiction that does that, and when I was working on this book, I was reading the kinds of people whose work is steeped in the particulars of the living system in a world where the characters unfold. Writers who know the names of the plants and animals of the area where the story unfolds in, and whose geography you can actually experience in a very sensory way.
But there was this other issue at stake too, which is to get beyond the local and show the way in which the vitality of life and especially its larger essence creates hugely diversified and varied challenges and opportunities for understanding ourselves and for living within the nonhuman world. There are at least sixty-thousand species of trees in the world. Perhaps more, depending on how species are counted.
And you know, there are – the differences between what a tree does here and what a tree does in Maine, and what a tree does in Iowa, and what a tree does in Oregon and the Cascades, is important. We don’t want that to drop down into a single reified concept as if trees were one thing.
In fact, one of the startling things I learned while working on the book is that this basic plan of getting up on a wooden trunk, and sticking your solar cells out, and turning sunlight into food, is so powerful and so essential, that it gets developed by natural selection at least six entirely different times. Six completely different coevolutionary events. And that’s important. That’s important for us to understand the relentlessness and the invention and the diversity of nature. To adopt our own vision of the possibilities of human life. Accordingly, we can’t—we can’t continue down this cultural sense that we can create single conditions of comfortable or desirable life that are independent of where we are. It’s crazy.
CW: In similar terms to the way landscapes affect individuals and individual experiences in the book, The Overstory struck me as being just as much about the role of storytelling and its transformative effects on these people. You’ve spoken in other interviews about the different levels of storytelling, in terms of the psychological, and conflicts between people, and then people in conflict, somehow, with the natural world. How did that idea of storytelling as being transformative affect the genesis of the The Overstory?
RP: When I had my revelatory moment in northern California – and it was just a visceral thing, you know? –it was just falling in love with trees. I mean, plain and simple. Having gotten to the ripe old age of fifty-five without ever really taking them seriously, they suddenly seemed like the most astonishing and beautiful and essential things in the world. It really was a kind of affective transformation. It was just a love affair. I wanted to read everything that I could about them. And see every kind of tree that I could within reach of where I was. And it produced a series of long days when I would just go out into the world with my field guide, and stand in front of an individual tree. And not necessarily to say, What is it? But say, what is it doing? And what is it doing that no other tree is doing? What is it doing that I spent half a century not noticing it doing? And really it was this completely passion-driven and ecstasy-driven adventure. I ended up reading over 120 books about trees. And it was there that I started to begin thinking about stories. Because the more I read about trees, the more I understood their essential and fundamental relationship to all the cultures of the world. And the role that they play not just in the cultural social and industrial development of all the different regions of the world, but the role they played in the imagination and spirit and literature of all the different places.
You mentioned Ovid and how he becomes a recurring motif throughout the course of the book, but he’s not alone. The book is completely peppered with indigenous myths, Golden-age myths, and legends of as many cultures as I could fit in. And it occurred to me, retroactively, after discovering how essential and important trees were to most of the stories told by most of the people in the world throughout most of human history, it became kind of a shock to realize the deficit that happens in western literature in the last two hundred years. And they effectively become exiled, or you know, stage props. At best. And rarely that.
So that, to me, was a kind of a moment as well. When did they disappear from story, and why? What would it take to place them back in center stage? Because as I mentioned, it would have been inconceivable for anybody setting out to tell a story about humans trying to make their way in the world prior to western modernism, inconceivable to try to tell a story without putting the non-human squarely at the center. We have traditionally understood ourselves in terms of what the rest of the living world affords and allows us. So it really became clear to me that this would have to be a recuperative kind of project. It would have to be saying, something has disappeared from western literary fiction that leaves the story incoherent at best. And misleading and trapping at worst.
CW: Have these ideas of storytelling as being transformational--has that affected your sense of the responsibility the writer? Or your responsibility as a writer?
RP: Well—what is the responsibility of the writer? That’s an interesting question. I would say it must have something to do with trying to turn honestly to this question of who do we think we are? And where are we? And how did we get here? So, in some ways, I’ve obliquely answered, in my previous answer: What it did was alert me to that portion of my responsibility that I wasn’t living up to. Mainly, that I was taking seriously the psychological and the social, without taking seriously the inextricable, reciprocal relationship to everything that we call human and everything that we call nonhuman. So really, the responsibility that the book invokes has to do with the recognition that there is no separate thing called humanity. No separate thing called nature. That if we do want to tell stories about ourselves, it’s only going to be as a small component of vastly complicated and webbed-together networks of things we’ve kind of been neglectful of for a long time.
CW: Absolutely. And I saw in other interviews you’ve mentioned writers who foreground that in different ways: Ursula K. Le Guin, and you’ve referred to the Ents from Lord of the Rings, and as a writer myself who likes to move between so-called “genre” and “literary” writing, I was delighted to see you mention your next project might be science fiction.
RP: It seems to want to go there. It’s interesting too, this whole pecking order. If we go into an MFA program, there’s also this understood hierarchy that literary fiction, namely fiction that sees drama primarily psychologically and domestically, is somehow superior to other genres, where say character development or the depth of psychology is less important than larger social structures or the relationship between societies as a whole, and technologies, or non-human societies—why is that? I think it’s because this transformation that we were talking about earlier, this transformation inherent in modernism, actually becomes persuaded, in its full embrace of humanism, that meaning can only be an individual, synthetic, subjective thing.
That’s what we talk about with the modern break, right? And the post-modern break. That somehow, we can no longer believe that meaning is out there. And somehow to be discovered or to be shared, or submitted to. Literary fiction becomes the primary vehicle for the articulation of individualist, human-centric commodity culture. It is the perfect genre for the beliefs in the primacy and centrality of the individual. And that starts 150, 200 years ago. And that’s when the novel really rises to prominence and becomes this central thing.
The use of the novel form to subvert that and to suggest that we may be kidding ourselves when we say that meaning is just a purely private, subjectively created thing, is marvelous. All these writers, all these practitioners in other genres were saying, let’s use this same form that literary fiction says is primarily about understanding individual psychology and just turn it outward. Just throw it outward. And it’s the thing that makes people who are committed to literary fiction so uncomfortable with those other forms. Where is the depth of psychology? Where is the deep character study? How can I take this seriously as an expression of meaning when I don’t see meaning being creative in the way of the individualist world that I embrace?
A lot of that maybe sounds provocative, but I don’t mean it to be. I think literary fiction itself would be richer if it didn’t place all of its efforts in this notion that somehow the only way to reality, or a comprehension of the contingency of reality, is through this dialogical bumping up against private personalities. I think it’s that commitment that has caused the estrangement from the earth and that ultimately has allowed this vast system of externalized destruction that we’re only now starting to come to reckon with—and interestingly, as it becomes clear to us that we’re not in charge and that this whole project of mastering control is completely doomed, and that life is kind of surging back and looking for revenge now, and the whole world is—the conditions of existence are changing rapidly—as that all becomes clear to us, literary fiction is changing. And it becomes more and more acceptable, and even necessary, to throw open that aperture and start doing the things that science fiction never abandoned.
CW: And there seem to be other vehicles too, that seem to be rising – maybe they’re creating their own critical reception. You see these narrative mediums like television and video games and films trying to take some of these questions, and changing perspectives, on as well. I was especially struck by Nilay’s vision towards the end of the book. His “learners” that he sends out into the world? I thought, wow—this almost feels like there’s some momentum—certainly, in this part of the book—suggesting or moving towards a new narrative medium.
RP: I like that reading very much. Interestingly, I’ve had a tremendously gratifying response to the book. It’s amazing at the age of 60, in my twelfth book, to suddenly feel like there’s been an ignition upon publication that really goes into a new territory that I’ve never experienced before with my previous books. One interesting thing is, people have been very moved by the book, and who respond viscerally and affectively to the story of these people who put their lives on the line. Who make this catastrophic decision, perhaps blunder, and then have to live with it for twenty years—these readers are deeply moved by and embrace the traditional gestures of literary fiction, but they’ll sometimes say, “What is Neelay doing in there? I couldn’t fit him into the rest of the story. He doesn’t fit the rest of it.” Or, “What are Ray and Dorothy doing there? I don’t see how they fit back into the story.” That’s fine. Their puzzlement is an indication of a kind of narrative engagement. And it’s not my role as an author, necessarily, to lead them to an explanation of what my intent was in putting that person there. But it is interesting to me to see that portion of the story that’s most deeply interested in trying to understand technology’s role in the integration or disintegration of humans with the rest of the non-human world is what may cause the traditional reader of literary fiction the most problems.
CW: So speaking of the many parts of the book, there’s a piece on LitHub written by Kevin Berger where he reports that you spoke to him about your writing process changing with this book. That earlier in your career, there was an urge to produce a certain amount every day, and to put certain parameters on your process. And that now, there’s maybe more an attitude of being receptive to what comes. But as a writer, reading this book that is enormously well researched and that has such an enormous scope, I wondered if you could elaborate more on how that receptivity operates in crafting such a complex piece of fiction?
RP: We’re always walking under a very fine line. The insider/outsider quality of the writer is a precarious balance. Always. And your question may be just asking about an aspect of that.
To me, when I was younger, and more willing to participate in the individualist, humanist vision, it seemed to me that I must then be either already versed in all the truth that I need to know, or capable of making it for myself in the act of making art. And so while research was always important—and I’ve never written a novel that didn’t require some copious research—the writing process itself, the sensibility, the interactions and the truths I wanted to immerse myself in were primarily private affairs. If you reach a certain age, and you have a certain amount of social interaction and heartbreak and experience in work and love, you can lock yourself in the room and do the Proustian thing and tap into your memory forever. And just try to represent the bewilderment and the pain and the joy of interacting in the social world.
But when you go beyond the social world, when you no longer accept that easy equivalence in the way we human beings say “the real world,” meaning the one we’ve invented and created—when you start challenging that, you’re thrown back on attention and you’re thrown back on presence. And you have to start to acknowledge that you can’t simply produce meaning on your own. If you believe that meaning is out there, then you have to be out there.
I’m so moved by these passages in Thoreau where he says, “My work now is simply making myself ready to what there is.” And if I sit all day in the orchard and listen and smell and look, that is my work. And when he says that, he says, if it should happen to be converted into sentences and paragraphs down the line, so be it. But I can’t make the sentences and paragraphs on my own. I have to rediscover my kinship and the reciprocity of these other forces that I want to live in and among. So it’s not simply a question of saying I’ve learned how not to be anxious of: do I have enough at the end of the day? It also has to do with another kind of humility. I don’t even know what the story is. I can’t make it up by myself. Therefore, I have to put myself in the presence of these other things and just attend long enough to see what’s out there.
Charlotte Wyatt is a third-year MFA student in the University of Houston Creative Writing program. She is the recipient of a 2018 Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize for fiction, and was the 2017-18 Inprint/Creative Writing Program Fellow. She has served as a Fiction Editor for Gulf Coast and has taught fiction in Houston with Inprint, the Boldface Conference, and WITS. Charlotte also serves as the Fiction Director and Director of Admissions for the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference.