DeKALB – Living in DeKalb and graduating from DeKalb High School in 1975 had a profound effect on Richard Powers.
He remembers taking photos of the rural agricultural landscape and being inspired to write poetry.
He credits that spark of imagination and two humanities teachers at DeKalb High, Mary Penson and Joseph Locasio, for inspiring him to become a writer.
Powers has written 12 novels, including “The Gold Bug Variations,” “Galatea 2.2,” “Orfeo” and National Book Award winner “The Echo Maker.”
His most recent novel, “The Overstory,” is a New York Times Bestseller and is one of Washington Post’s and Chicago Tribune’s 10 Best Books of 2018.
On Friday, Sept. 27, Powers will visit the DeKalb Public Library, 309 Oak St. in DeKalb, for an after-hours presentation and meet-and-greet open to the community from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Powers spoke to MidWeek Reporter Katrina Milton about his novels and how nature, from the rural agricultural landscape of DeKalb to the Great Smoky Mountains, inspires him as a writer.
Milton: Are you originally from DeKalb?
Powers: I came to DeKalb just before my junior year of high school, after living in Bangkok, Thailand. After graduating from DeKalb High School [in 1975], I attended the University of Illinois and I did my undergraduate and graduate degrees there. My father passed away when I was in college, but my mother lived in DeKalb for a number of years before moving, so I had a connection to DeKalb from my junior year in high school through my mid-20s.
Milton: How was DeKalb different from other places you had lived?
Powers: I grew up in Chicago and spent a number of years in Thailand. I was always a city guy, moving to DeKalb was my first time living in a smaller town. It was a very intense time for me. Your teenage years, wherever you are, are very formative. I experienced my first real winter in many years. The different size, climate and being surrounded by agriculture were all very intense for me.
Milton: What are some things you remember about living in DeKalb?
Powers: After school every day, my best friend and I would drive around the country surrounding DeKalb and take pictures. I loved the sparseness and openness of the landscape and the changes in the seasons. I started writing poetry at that time. There’s a lot of poetry to be found in the agricultural landscape of rural Illinois. My literary career started in learning how to write poems. I also have to credit two of my high school teachers, Mary Penson and Joseph Locasio, who taught literature and culture courses. Mary Penson taught my junior humanities class and Joseph Locasio taught senior humanities. They were such extraordinary teachers.
Milton: Have you returned to DeKalb recently?
Powers: I have not been back to DeKalb in more than two decades. Once my sisters and mother moved out of the area, I didn’t visit as often, only a couple of times to see friends. Now my family and friends are dispersed throughout the country. I’m excited to visit DeKalb after all these years. … I’m looking forward to the event. It will be a combination event, where I talk about my books and a little bit about myself. I’ll read from “The Overstory,” answer questions, start a conversation with the audience. I’m excited to see where it goes.
Milton: Did you always want to be an author?
Powers: I always thought I’d end up a scientist, then I went to high school and lived in DeKalb, had great literature teachers. I’d say my teachers and the intensity of the landscape put me on a different path. I actually started college wanting to study science, but then I received my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature and now it’s 12 novels later.
Milton: When did you know that writing was what you wanted to do?
Powers: I published my first book in 1985 when I was 28. I started working on it in my early 20s. I knew that writing was what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make a living directly from it, but I wanted to spend as much time as possible writing. Then I received the McArthur Fellowship and prizes for my first novel. I never imagined winning a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award. But I’ve been writing for more than 30 years, I’ve written 12 novels. I was also a professor at the University of Illinois and chair at Stanford. Writing was always what I did all day long and it still is.
Milton: What are your books about?
Powers: Each book has a different subject. My first book is about a photograph taken before World War I in 1914. It’s a historical drama around the photograph that blends fact and fiction together. I’m always trying to find ways to bring different subject matters into the frame of the story, including music, history and technology. “The Overstory” is about ecology and environmental science. Each of my novels is about individual people, their hopes and dreams and fears, and their historical processes shaped by local and global forces.
Milton: Are you working on a new novel?
Powers: I am working on a new novel. I’ve never not had a novel going since grad school at the age of 22. When I’m not writing a book, I write shorter pieces or travel. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling to promote “The Overstory.” It’s been translated into more than 30 languages, and I’ve traveled abroad to promote the book as well. So when I’m not writing, I’m doing some public speaking and events as I travel and sometimes write short stories and magazine pieces.
Milton: How much do you write each day?
Powers: I spend six to seven hours a day writing fiction and three to four hours hiking in the woods. The rest of my time is spent thinking and preparing for tomorrow. … I live in a house on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. I love researching the trees. It is the most biodiverse place in the country and the world outside of the tropics. There are [five different] types of forest in the Great Smoky Mountains and more species of trees than all of northern Europe, from Portugal to the Baltic state.
Milton: What do you like about the mountains and woods?
Powers: I think the best place to get ideas is walking in the woods. I like trying to understand the relationship between humans and the rest of the world, and what better place is there to be than out in nature, the woods? I love discovering the nonhuman world every day.
Milton: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Powers: The best thing for a writer to learn is how to do is be still and pay attention, whether it’s paying attention to the way people talk, behave or treat each other. It’s the quality of stillness and attention that all good stories start from.