I just found (via wood s lot) a wonderful interview with one of my favorite novelists, Richard Powers, but when I realized the interview was from 1999 I thought “I must have linked to it before and just forgotten about it.” When I checked, though, I discovered to my horror that I’ve never even mentioned Powers on LH. So it’s high time I informed you all that the man’s combination of intelligence, wide knowledge, and brilliant writing is unparalleled, and you should all run out and start reading him right away. The book that made me a believer was Galatea 2.2 (which begins “It was like so, but wasn’t”), but you could perfectly well start with his first, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. Here’s a quote from the interview to give you an idea of his approach to writing:
My idea is that successful writing advances as its own, complex, living hierarchy, one that mirrors the kind of complex hierarchy that we living beings are. We exist at the cellular level or even the nucleic or chemical level, at the level of organs and systems, at the level of the complete organism, and at the social level. All of these different levels have their analogies in a good story, levels from diction on up to meaning, and in a good story, all these levels advance simultaneously, in concert. We may not even be aware of these phenomena as we read, but in great fiction, all the parts and subassemblies of creation are integral and mutually supporting. You could look at a sentence of a well-made story and see it as a fractal microcosm of the entire workings of the story. You can hear in the syntax, or in the diction of a sentence, the sensibility that drives voice, and the voice that drives character, and the character that drives drama. Again, a good story exemplifies a continuum, both discrete and continuous, and it works because all of its levels participate in a negotiated conversation with one another….
The novelist’s job is to say what it means to be alive. I don’t think there are any wrong ways of doing that; I think there are wrong ways of not doing that, of avoiding it, but I think there’s nothing that you could throw into that hopper that would be irrelevant. The more you can treat—providing you can continue to synthesize it into something that’s both intellectually and emotionally engaging—the better. Right now a lot of fiction restricts itself totally to dramatic revelation, raising a lot of proscriptions about the way that fiction can and can’t function. The direct introduction of discursive material has been considered anathema for a long time. I’ve been trying in different ways to violate that prohibition from my first book on. True, you can get more emotive power over your reader by dramatic revelation than by discursive narrative. But you can get more connection with discursive narrative! The real secret is to triangulate between these two modes, getting to places that neither technique could reach in isolation. Because that’s how the human organism works. We employ all sorts of intelligences, from low-level bodily intuitions to high-level, syllogistic rationalism. It’s not a question of which way of knowing the world is the right one.
I was struck by the fact that Powers, like myself, spent time in Thailand as a kid, though he was there a decade later and thus saw Bangkok as “a capital for American servicemen on R & R” rather than the quiet little city laced with canals that I remember.
Incidentally, wood s lot is full of good stuff today, including various links celebrating May and Giuseppe Ungaretti (“Translating Ungaretti“) and a new online magazine called Otoliths that looks worth investigating.