***This is my final article for the magazine writing class I took this semester.***
We don’t often hear the word genius anymore without a certain degree of sarcasm attached to it. Yet hardly anyone writes or speaks about novelist Richard Powers without using the word.
Since the publication of his first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, in 1985, Powers has been widely regarded as one of the most important contemporary American novelists. His debut received a Rosenthal Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a Special Citation from the PEN Hemingway Awards and was selected as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Powers published his second novel, Prisoner’s Dilemma, in 1988 and a year later was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, which is often called the genius grant.
Of his subsequent six novels, five were named New York Times Notable Books and four were finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His 1991 novel The Gold Bug Variations was Time magazine book of the year. In 1999, Esquire selected him as one of their five “Writers of the Decade.”
Powers’ novels are books of big ideas. They weave threads of science, philosophy, art, music and history, among other subjects, into complex tapestries of narrative. They deal with themes as varied as corporate greed, genetics, computer science and racial identity.
“I see myself as trying to create a book that combines my metic and realistic fiction … with a separate, call it Postmodern, call it metafictional, but a kind of work that’s more interested in style, structure; art that is aware it’s art,” he says.
Powers is the kind of figure that would intimidate most colleagues. But those in the English department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Powers has worked since 1992, don’t see it that way.
“Normally you would suspect it would be a horrendous situation,” says Mike Madonick, professor of creative writing at Illinois.
“You’d think that, God, who needs this huge figure around to make us feel more like morons,” he adds, displaying the brash and self-deprecating sense of humor that has made him incredibly popular with students, “but in his case it’s not like that at all. He’s one of the most generous people that I know and he’s genuinely generous.”
Bruce Michelson, director of the Campus Honors Program and professor of English, agrees.
“One of the things that really distinguishes him from zillions of second-raters is his genuine modesty,” says Michelson, who first met Powers when the novelist was an undergraduate at Illinois. “In other words, there are no pretenses to him at all.”
Though they speak volumes about his generosity and genuinity, his colleagues are just as quick to acknowledge the genius that is so often attributed to Powers.
“Every book of his is an all-out, intellectual swan dive for him into a whole new thing. I think he really, in some ways, looks at each novel that he writes as a chance to experience an entirely new reality,” says Michelson.
“I don’t know too many other novelists out there who take those kinds of chances or wonder, ‘what is it like to look at the world from the point of view of a reconstructive surgeon in east L.A. (in Operation Wandering Soul) or a computer engineer in the Beckman center inventing virtual reality (in Galatea 2.2) or a guy trapped in an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist cell in Beirut (in Plowing the Dark)?’
“It takes work to read a Rick Powers novel, particularly some of the bigger ones, says Michelson. “But it’s in some ways awe inspiring to see how much is there. We need artists with that kind of courage.”
Madonick echoes these sentiments.
“I think when you read his books you believe in the beauty of ideas,” he says. “It feels as if almost anything can happen.”
In the mid ‘80s Powers was working as computer programmer in Boston, but didn’t see himself doing that forever. He was looking for a way to integrate his other interests into his life.
One day at the Museum of Fine Art, he saw an August Sander photograph of three farmers walking through a field headed to a dance. The next day he quit his job to begin work on his first novel.
“I’ve always been interested in a lot of different things and it’s always been hard for me to close the door on one of those,” says Powers, who earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in literature from Illinois. “My temperament is a generalist’s temperament.”
While so many other fields require intense specialization in order to succeed, writing allows Powers to explore a world of possibilities and gives him a fresh start every few years.
“There’s a kind of pleasure in saying, ‘I never became a biologist, but I can spend three years writing about the life of a biologist,’” he says. “I can get a little sense of the road not taken.”
Powers has spent the last few years researching biological intelligences and cognitive neuroscience from his office in the Beckman Institute, the interdisciplinary research center at Illinois that inspired his novel Galatea 2.2.
This work was done in preparation for his ninth novel. Currently in its fifth draft, the book is slated for publication in the fall of 2006.
Powers says it deals with the transitory nature of self-identity. It tells the story of a man who suffers from Capgras syndrome, a rare but well-documented neurological disorder that causes sufferers to think that those close to them have been replaced by doubles.
“It’s a way into thinking about how we create a sense of self,” he explains. “It’s a story. It’s a narrative that’s constantly changing.”
The book also deals with themes of ecology and our connective balance with other living things. It attempts to negotiate the balance between what our brains do make us different and what we share with them.
“This will be another huge one,” says Michelson, who has discussed the issues of migration present in the new book with Powers over the past few years.
“It will be not just sandhill cranes, but diasporas and intellectual migrations and everything else. It will be another one of these seam ripping kind of books with everything in it.”
The intense research that preceded the writing of this book is typical of Powers’ creative process. He usually begins researching the main subjects involved in each book six to ten months before beginning the manuscript. During this time he also tends to write sketches, outlines and character profiles. The research often continues after the book is complete.
While this is his general approach, the actual process has varied from book to book.
“The formal designs have been so different that the creative process has been different,” he says.
Powers likes to work for long, uninterrupted periods of time and needs to hear the text aloud.
Throughout the research and writing process he continues talking to people, interviewing and keeping oral histories. While many people consider writing to be a solitary endeavor, Powers sees it as a collective process that incorporates a lot of secondhand experience, a kind of ventriloquist act.
“Fiction is an attempt to say, ‘what would the world look like from someone else’s point of view,’” he says. “You have to go out and solicit the help of people who see the world from those vantage points.”
Madonick feels that this attention to the people involved in his novels is what is truly important about Powers’ creative process.
“There is an intense element of research that’s involved but the research isn’t just book learning,” he says. “It’s a research that has to do with understanding aspects of personality and character and experience.
“He’s doing what any novelist is supposed to do, record characteristics. And personalities end up getting formed as a result of those characteristics that are there, those details that are there.”
In the current landscape of the American novel, there aren’t many people doing what Powers does.
“I think there are other people who would be on the same shelf in a thematically organized bookstore with him,” says Michelson, “but I don’t think right now, and this is may be local boosterism, I don’t think there’s anybody in his league.”
Madonick views Powers’ place in contemporary fiction in a similar light.
“I think people are trying to imitate him right now and I think that’s almost not possible,” he says.
“I think one of the things about him is that he’s not going to sit in one place very long, so he’ll be hard to imitate. He’s expanding his range, which is also admirable. He has a very clear audience out there but he’s pushing. He’s pushing against the confines of that audience.”
It’s yet another testament to his modesty and generosity that Powers speaks as highly of his contemporaries as his colleagues and admirers do of him.
“It’s a pretty amazing time in American letters, actually,” he says. “Anything you can perceive of, someone is doing.”
When asked which writers’ work he particularly enjoys, he immediately mentions the playwright Tom Stoppard. He then pulls out his tablet PC to look at what he’s been reading recently and lists off writers including Tom Leclair, Jeffery Eugenides and Philip Roth.
He describes Roth’s work as inconceivable and says, “Every book that he turns out is incredibly minutely realized.
“My experience reading my contemporaries is really more admiration than anything else,” he says.
When his ninth novel is published in the fall, it will almost certainly win acclaim that meets or exceeds that of his previous eight books. It will be another tome of big ideas that expands the way we look at the world and the ways in which we perceive ourselves as human being.
“I think we come to read somebody, say religiously, because they’re growing with us. They’re not fixed,” says Madonick.
“They’re constantly showing us something different. There are all kinds of reasons … he’s tremendously lyrical or poetic at times in his work, the ideas are beautiful, some of the characters are stunningly depicted, but finally I think it’s that there’s no arrogance there.”
Powers has his own explanation of what drives him to success.
“I like to see the world as an intersection of two or more stories that don’t fit together or don’t realize that they fit,” he says.