A Brief But Spectacular take on turning COVID-19 grief into action
‘The Overstory’ author Richard Powers answers your questions
John Yang: Next: Now Read This, our monthly book club partnership with The New York Times.
Our current selection takes us into the natural world through fiction.
Jeffrey Brown is back with that, part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: One review called "The Overstory" the most exciting novel about trees you will ever read.
Well, it is about trees, but, perhaps more, it's about people from different walks of life who become aware of their place in the natural world, see its destruction, and begin to take action to defend against it.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize.
Author Richard Powers is here to answer questions from me and our readers. And thank you very much for doing this with us.
Richard Powers: Oh, it's a great pleasure to be here.
Jeffrey Brown: Let's let those in -- everyone else, readers and non-readers here.
I said it's an interesting mix of trees. It's about people. What were you after? What's the story?
Richard Powers: I wanted, I guess, to recover a lost kind of drama that's fallen out of literary fiction.
We're very good at telling psychological stories, conflicts inside individual people. We're also really good at telling sociological or political stories, conflicts between two people, where both sides are equally defensible, or equally admirable somehow, but not compatible.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Richard Powers: We have, more or less in recent years in the West, forgotten about a third kind of drama, which is, we human beings may want something that the rest of the living world is at best indifferent to and may be hostile toward or at least incompatible with.
I wanted to tell a story that brought people and non-humans back together into the same negotiating space.
Jeffrey Brown: That's very interesting, sitting on a news program, where we're talking about these things a lot.
Richard Powers: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: But you wanted to bring it into the world of fiction.
Richard Powers: Yes, to create a novel that is vocalized through people, but also has non-humans as central protagonists in the dramatic story, but they're not there just for window dressing. They are what's at stake.
So, we like to think about people and nature as two separate things. This book is precisely a book that challenges that notion of human separatism.
Jeffrey Brown: All right, so we meet a number of people along the way with their own stories, and then they -- you slowly bring them together.
Many of our readers wondered about the mix of fact and fiction and the level of research, because we learn a lot about the life of trees here.
Molly McLaskey: Would you comment on the mingling of factual tree science or the history of tree-saving activism that informed the development of the characters in this utterly surprising and impactful story?
Richard Powers: What a lovely question.
Whatever I present in the book as scientific fact was, to the best of my ability at the time of publication, verifiable, consensually repeated and agreed upon.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Richard Powers: So I didn't play fast and loose with any of these extraordinary discoveries about trees that have been made over the last three or four decades, the fact that trees communicate to each other above the -- over the air with chemical signals warning about predation and sharing an immune system, if you will.
I was absolutely astonished, while researching this book, to discover how little primary forest, old growth forest, in the United States is left. The number is somewhere between 2 and 5 percent of these forests that were supposed to be inexhaustible.
And that's basically the heart and soul of this story, the attempt to stave that last little irreplaceable bit of national patrimony that we have been losing so rapidly.
Jeffrey Brown: I want to go to our next question from a viewer, because it goes to this experience.
Mary Aumack: Did you have any idea how much this book could change the reader's perception and emotion relative to trees?
Richard Powers: I have never experienced anything like this.
Jeffrey Brown: The reaction?
Richard Powers: Yes.
And I felt close to the story, and the subject matter really lifted me up. But to go to these events and come face to face with people who, you know, will stay until all hours of the night in order to tell me a personal story from their childhood or from their adulthood, and to obviously do so with great emotion., it's very unusual for me to come away from an event like this and not have experienced some deep linkage with people who have responded to the subject of the story in a deeply emotional way.
Jeffrey Brown: Part of that response -- and it also came out with our readers -- is as a call to action, right, because that's part of -- a big part of the story of the novel.
So let's look at that, one more question here.
Chau Wu: Does the world need to take more immediate and drastic actions toward climate change? And what can we as citizens do?
Richard Powers: You know, we are living at an extraordinary moment.
The deep -- the outpouring of emotion that people have toward this subject matter, any book that attempts to bring in that question of what we're doing to the living world is triggering sympathetic grief in people, terror, fear of what's happening.
Jeffrey Brown: I want to ask you one more personal question, because you told me before we started that you had moved because of this book.
Richard Powers: Yes. The book moved me across the country. I was...
Jeffrey Brown: Yes, to the Great Smoky Mountains?
Richard Powers: Yes, I was living and working in Silicon Valley. I was teaching at Stanford University when I got the idea for the book.
As I was reading about how little old growth forest was left, I kept reading that, if you wanted to see what an eastern broadleaf deciduous forest looked like before Europeans came, that you have to go to the Smokies, because that's one of the last large contiguous chunks of old growth.
And I went there about four years ago strictly as a research outing. And walking up from a regrowth forest into the old growth, it was that moment in "Wizard of Oz" where it changes from black and white to color.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes. Yes. Yes. Right.
Richard Powers: Everything was different.
And I thought, here is it. Here's what my country looked like. And it was such an overpowering, such a visceral feeling, the look of it, the smell of it, the sound of it, that, eight months later, after this little research trip, I was still thinking about the place.
And I bought a house there, and I moved. And I have been living there ever since.
Jeffrey Brown: Wow. That's a personal reaction to your own book, huh?
Richard Powers: Yes. Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: All right, we're going to leave it there.
And we will have more available later on our Now Read This Facebook page.
For now, Richard Powers, thank you so much for this.
Richard Powers: I'm very grateful.
Jeffrey Brown: And on to our next book for December.
She is the stuff of ancient Greek myth, a witch in Homer's Odyssey, but in a new novel by Madeline Miller, Circe tells her own story, one that has been embraced by readers and critics alike. And we're delighted to make it our December pick.
As always, you can read along, join in discussions with others, and get insight from the author herself. It's all on our Facebook page for Now Read This, our book club partnership with The New York Times.