Kevin Powers in conversation with Alex Clark
Kevin Powers joins The Bath Festival on its final day, May 27, when he’ll be in conversation with novelist Lisa Halliday. Powers’ first novel, The Yellow Birds, reflected on the author’s experiences as a serving soldier in Iraq, and won numerous awards, including The Guardian First Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award. His new novel, A Shout in the Ruins, is set in Powers’ native Virginia and moves between the era of slavery and the American Civil War and the 20th century. Ahead of his appearance, Powers chatted to Artistic Director Alex Clark.
Have you ever been to Bath before?
I never have – I’m really looking forward to it.
A Shout in the Ruins, your second novel, has been six years in the writing. That sounds serious!
Yes! Not every single day, 24 hours a day – I had a book of poetry that came out a few years back too – but in terms of the gestation and the actual writing of it, it’s something that I’ve been working on for a while.
It’s very different to your debut novel, The Yellow Birds, which was set in Iraq during the war in which you served. How did this one come into being?
It started with where I grew up, in and around Richmond, Virginia. So an awareness of the history, and to a certain degree the tragedy of the history, is something that’s been with me since my early schooldays. One of the by-products of having gone to war myself is that it really re-oriented my thinking on violence as a larger subject, violence as something that not only affects individuals but communities, and not only in the immediacy of when the violence is happening but as the consequences of that violence ripple out through subsequent generations. I wanted to find a way to write about it that was different from the way it’s presented in history books.
What can a novel do that a history book can’t?
One of the great things about reading a work of fiction is that it allows a reader, if done well, to get a sense of what it was like for that history to be a thing that people actually lived in.
Are the characters based in real life?
The major event in the book – the burning of the plantation house – is very loosely inspired by a historical murder that occurred literally hundreds of yards from the house I grew up in. It loomed large in my childhood memory – it was a landmark of my childhood, and so I took the story of that historical murder, and I departed from the details of it, but as a way of building a story that would allow me to examine all of the people who would have orbited a place like that.
There must be a very particular atmosphere to Virginia that sets it apart from other places in the United States. The history must feel very present.
It does. Obviously it shares a lot of characteristics with other places, especially in the South, but one of the interesting things about Virginia is it speaks not only to the legacy of slavery and the Civil War but the very beginnings of the origins of the United States in the colonial period. Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America, and that’s 90 miles from the place I’m writing about. Everything that’s good about America started in Virginia, but a lot of the evils that we’re collectively trying to deal with as a country also started at the exact same time.
Dealing with that legacy seems to be at a very heightened stage in America right now. Does it feel like that to you?
It does. One part of it is that for a really long time, the vast majority of the public wasn’t required to think deeply about the issues. They could just get on with their lives, and put the rose-coloured glasses on. The reality is that these problems have always been there; the difference is that now we’re collectively all forced to think about them. I think it’s a sign of progress in and of itself. The tension is certainly higher and feels more immediate, but I think it would have to get to that point for any real progress to be made. It wouldn’t be made comfortable.
Racial tension, and the apparent resurgence of the far-right, are very much to the fore. How do you think it will affect readings of your book?
The narrative that’s being pushed by the far-right is not a new one. It’s quite old. Even in the early 20th-century, the legacy of slavery and the real causes of the Civil War were being twisted into something else. There was a whole narrative of the Civil War being a gallant failure – and I think that’s what people are attaching themselves to.
I enter into a piece of writing because I have questions that are pressing. But I do think there’s a responsibility as a writer to tell the truth forcefully and to remind people who might be swayed still that the truth can be very uncomfortable, but it’s far preferable to come to understand an uncomfortable truth than it is to fall in love with a comforting lie. And that’s what the far-right is doing – they’re offering a comforting lie.
It’s not an easy time to live through…
I think we’re being tested. And in a lot of ways, that was what the Civil War was about. Our country made claims in our founding documents about what the purpose was, what our ideals were, what kind of country we were aiming to be, and the Civil War tested those claims. And I think those claims are being tested again, which is as it should be. We in the States have fundamental beliefs about freedom, and many citizens are saying those freedoms aren’t as available to them as they are to some other people.
Your life as an author must be very different from life as a soldier?
It is. I don’t have a hard time being grateful. I try to put the work in, but the fact that readers have enjoyed my books and connected with them, it’s really quite remarkable.
Tickets are still available for the event on the 27 May – more information on the event and tickets can be found here . Alternatively, you can call Bath Box Office on 01225 463362 to book your tickets.