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Get to Know Portland Arts & Lectures Author Richard Powers

Single tickets for Richard Powers’ event on April 21st are now available! Click here for more information.

On April 21, Literary Arts will host Richard Powers as the fourth event of our 2021-22 season of Portland Arts & Lectures.

Richard Powers is the author of thirteen novels, including The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Echo Maker, which won the Nation Book Award, and 2021’s Bewilderment, in which he “continues to raise bold questions about the state of our world and the cumulative effects of our mistakes.” (NPR)

Can a powerful story change a reader’s mind?

Powers explores this question, and others, in this Q&A on the occasion of winning the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

I suppose what a novelist really wants to change is not merely a reader’s beliefs about things, but the way that a reader feels and sees and attends to the processes all around her.”

LISTEN: Richard Powers reads an excerpt from The Overstory.

Powers’ research for The Overstory lead him to relocate his home to the Great Smokey Mountains. What’s it like to write books about the environment when you have half a million acres of national park in your back yard?

Powers describes his daily writing practice, and gives advice to writers, in this interview with PBS.

“Be present, practice attention, and the story you are working on will feed on everything in front of you.”

Powers believes good writers are good readers. What’s on his nightstand?

In this list for PBS, Powers recommends twenty-six books about trees that fans of his work will want to explore next.

“Trees and people unfold on such profoundly different scales of times, and forests grow and change even slower than individual trees.”

Interested in more? Below is a bio of Richard Powers’ life and writing career thus far.

Richard Powers was born in 1957 in Evanston, Illinois, the fourth of five children. When Powers was eleven, his father, a high school principal, accepted an appointment with the International School of Bangkok and moved the family to Thailand. Powers describes the five years they lived in Thailand as “eye-opening,” and it was during those years that Powers discovered an affinity for artistic expression. Fueled by unbridled curiosity, he unlocked a sustaining love of music and became an avid reader.

His earliest reading passion was for nonfiction, specifically biographies and science, and as a teenager, he explored futures in paleontology, oceanography, and archaeology. In 1975, he enrolled as a physics major at the University of Illinois. In his first semester at college, an honors professor told him the “perfect place for someone who wanted an aerial view” of the world was in literature and, following that wisdom, Powers changed his course of studies to English and rhetoric. He received his Bachelor’s Degree and went on to complete his Master’s Degree in literature.

After college, Powers worked as a computer programmer and freelance data processor. In his free time, he continued to read voraciously, consuming volumes of history, sociology, political science, and theory, as well as a wide range of novels and poetry. On a pivotal day, he visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and viewed August Sander’s “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance,” a 1914 black-and-white photograph. The image haunted Powers. “All of my previous years’ random reading just consolidated and converged on this one moment, this image, which seemed to me to [be] the birth photograph of the twentieth century.”

Within forty-eight hours, he quit his job and began to work on his first novel, Three Young Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. He thought “I’m going to put everything that I know in this book, because I’m never going to get another shot at this.” But to Powers’s surprise, the book was met with critical success, and his career as a writer was launched.

To date, Powers has published thirteen novels, including The Echo Maker, which won the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was shortlisted for the Book Prize and the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, and was runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. In all of Powers’s works, there is an impassioned drive that can be attributed to what he believes is the novelist’s role. “I suppose what a novelist really wants to change is not merely a reader’s beliefs about things—that job is the specialty of informative nonfiction—but the way that the reader feels and sees and attends to the processes all around her.”

Inspiration for The Overstory came to Powers at the age of fifty-five, on a day spent amongst the redwoods in northern California. “It was just a visceral thing, you know? It was just falling in love with trees. Plain and simple. …I wanted to read everything I could about them. And see every kind of tree that I could within reach of where I was.”

The Overstory, published in 2018, is a stirring work of activism and resistance that is also a brilliant evocation of the natural world. Author Ann Patchett called it “The best novel ever written about trees, and really just one of the best novels, period,” and the Pulitzer Prize Board, upon granting the award to Powers, described The Overstory as “an ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story.”

In 2021, Powers published Bewilderment, a story in which an astrobiologist searches for life throughout the cosmos while raising his unusual nine-year-old son all on his own. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith described Bewilderment as “Extraordinary.…Powers’s insightful, often poetic prose draws us at once more deeply toward the infinitude of the imagination and more vigorously toward the urgencies of the real and familiar stakes rattling our persons and our planet.” The novel was shortlisted for the 2021 Book Prize, and longlisted for the National Book Award and Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

Today, Powers lives in the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee, a short walk from some of the last old-growth forest in the Eastern United States. He spends much of his time in the forest, drawing creative inspiration and comfort from the natural world. “If I start to walk in the woods, I’m usually overcome with ideas. I have to sit down on the trail, with a notebook. I never feel like I’m slogging through my work anymore.”

“Anyone who claims they don’t have time to slow down is deeply deluding herself. If our lives are frantic, relentless, overdrawn, and blunted with distraction, it is not because of material necessity but because we are searching for meaning in the wrong place.”


Single tickets for Richard Powers’ event on April 21st are now available! Click here for more information.

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