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In conversation with novelist Richard Powers

By Kobo • September 24, 2021Author Interviews

On October 23, Richard Powers will be in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel as part of the Toronto International Festival of Authors: register here

In Bewilderment, Richard Powers, author of The Overstory, introduces readers to a grieving father and son who share a love of learning. The son, Robin faces troubles at school that force his father, Theo to make a difficult decision.

We spoke with the acclaimed novelist about adults' duty of care towards children and the books that fuel his writing.

Bewilderment is concerned with how children get mishandled and pushed aside for adults’ convenience – and it arrives in a world where adults are eager to return to normalcy, despite the inability of young children to be vaccinated against Covid. Are you at all surprised by decisions that have been made in the handling of the pandemic with respect to the care of children? Was there an opportunity where we might have become kinder or more nurturing – but didn’t?

It's sobering to think of just how recently children have been given personhood and legal protection (to the extent that they do enjoy those things in different parts of the world). Consequently, it has been painful but not entirely surprising to see all the ways that children have been held hostage here in the States, during the pandemic. Kindness and nurture were not on the national agenda in 2019, and we are still struggling with them, now. I live in Tennessee, where the top director of the vaccination program, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, was fired for writing a memo suggesting that the state ought to consider what to do with teens who wanted to get vaccinated despite their parents’ ideological objections.

But Bewilderment is concerned with a wider, deeper, and longer crisis in the adult treatment of children. We are destroying our children’s patrimony, and they want answers. Adults are expert at dissembling and looking the other way. Children refuse to do that, especially children like Bewilderment’s passionate pantheist, Robin. We are raising a generation of children homesick for a world that children like Robin will never know. Many of them may never experience a primary forest or see a large wild animal. How can we answer them when they ask why we are letting that happen? What might it do to us adults, to remember what it felt like to see and feel the living world as they do?

I’ve read that Bewilderment was indirectly inspired by Flowers for Algernon, which came to mind for you up on learning of a new neurological therapy. Do you have any sense of other novels from your childhood that still have a silent hold on your imagination?

All the magic of reading is forever indebted to the first stories we come across as children. For me, the Ur-text of my life in literature began with Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon. Draw something and it becomes real? Yes, please! Even as I answer this question, I see what an enormous unconscious influence that book had on the creation of Bewilderment. Another very early influence was the popular non-fiction children’s book, You Will Go to the Moon. While my life turned out otherwise, Bewilderment did let me travel to all kinds of fictional planets.

What are you reading lately?

Lately I’ve been reading several new books that explore the way that social media are changing who we are, how we live, and what businesses do with our personal information. The interaction of deep learning, big data, and targeted marketing is transforming us in ways wilder than I ever imagined when I began writing novels. A few large companies are doing stunning things with our most private data, and I suspect this is just the beginning of wilder things to come. We are going to have to wake up to these new truths and examine the prices we are willing to pay for the convenience that social platforms provide, because right now we are signing over much more than we realize. This isn’t something that any current national Constitution is equipped to deal with. It’s a whole new world.

Is there any intellectual passion you have that hasn’t found its place in your fiction yet?

I’m glad that you’ve chosen to pair those two words, “intellectual passion.” If there is a common thread to the thirteen novels that I’ve written over the course of forty years, it is the inseparability of the things that drive our minds and the things that drive our hearts. The most precise and exacting sciences in the world are infused with emotion, and our baldest hopes and fears turn outwards and look for solutions in the work of our intellect. There is no separate heart and head. It’s all us.

When I was 18, I couldn’t make up my mind about what I wanted to be, and the prospect of closing any possible career door panicked me. Writing became the perfect way of never having to decide, and it has been a joy to spend almost 40 years pursuing vicariously all kinds of ways of engaging the world that I never really got to pursue for real. Every few years, a new imaginary career: It has been a lucky life. Along the way, I’ve discovered the truth of John Muir’s famous saying: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” I don’t know what path I’ll follow next, but as with all my other vicarious roads not taken, I suspect that it, too, will lead everywhere. ◼

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

A heartrending new novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning and #1 New York Times and internationally bestselling author of The Overstory.

The astrobiologist Theo Byrne searches for life throughout the cosmos while singlehandedly raising his unusual nine-year-old son, Robin, following the death of his wife. Robin is funny, loving, and filled with plans. He thinks and feels deeply, and can spend hours painting elaborate pictures of the endangered animals he loves. He is also about to be expelled from third grade for smashing his friend in the face.

What can a father do, when the only solution offered to his troubled son is to put him on psychoactive drugs? What can he say when his boy comes to him wanting an explanation for a world that is clearly in love with its own destruction?

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