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An Interview with Richard Powers

The brilliant and talented author Richard Powers attempts to avoid flying, so during his yearly visit to his mother in Arizona, he typically drives overnight from his home in central Illinois.

Seven years ago, while driving through central Nebraska close to sundown, Powers was captivated by a vast number of sandhill cranes, standing at three feet tall, scattered all over a barren field next to Interstate 80.

He recalls feeling as though he was hallucinating from highway hypnosis and almost driving off the road.

This year’s National Book Award winner, The Echo Maker, follows the story of Mark Schluter, a 27-year-old meatpacker who crashes his truck off a Nebraskan country road and into a ditch by the Platte River.

After a two-week coma, Mark is diagnosed with Capgras syndrome, a rare neurological disorder. He believes that his sister Karin is an impostor, and is only convinced that she is who she says she is when the renowned neurologist and best-selling author Gerald Weber visits in order to examine him.

As Mark’s condition improves, Weber begins to unravel.

The book is a blend of philosophy and emotion that dives into the deep mysteries of the brain, and its author, the 49-year-old Richard Powers, is as adept at exploring the nuances of neuroscience as he is with molecular biology (The Gold Bug Variations), artificial intelligence (Galatea 2.2), and virtual reality (Plowing the Dark).

In the summer of 1998, I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Powers at a bookstore in Oak Park, Illinois – Ernest Hemingway’s hometown and the birthplace of Powers himself. He was on the tour of his first book, Gain, and did not do much press or give many interviews for his first five novels.

After the release of his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, he moved to the Netherlands to write his next two books, and then wrote his fourth book while in residence at the University of Cambridge.

I wasn’t sure what I expected when I met him, but I was pleasantly surprised to find him as a well-dressed and amiable person who spoke in the same beautiful and intricate way he wrote his prose.

Rick is currently teaching at his alma mater, the University of Illinois. His new marriage and the university’s location in Champaign-Urbana has kept him from touring in support of _The Echo Maker, _hence the interview was conducted almost solely through email, one question at a time, beginning in July. This approach seems fitting, as Powers wrote the book on a tablet PC with voice recognition technology. He noted that it gave him “the freedom to be completely disembodied when I’m writing, to feel as if I’m in a pure compositional state.”

–Alec Michod’s words

The idea that one must fight for what they want is a notion that cannot be ignored. Taking action to achieve desired results is a must, as simply hoping for the best will not lead to the attainment of aspirations.

When I read The Echo Maker, the initial observation I made was that it contains a lot of detailed neuroscience, while the text itself never appeared cluttered by the science. How did you manage to keep the book from being stuffed with your entire research?

I’m very pleased to hear that you perceived The Echo Maker to have a fusion of intellect and emotion since it is focused on the intuitive and emotional basis of cognition.

Generally, it is thought that novels of ideas and of character are completely different, but I have always believed that all novels are both, and some, like mine, try to demonstrate the relationship between thought and feeling.

All of us have numerous desires, some of which are disorderly and some orderly, and the desire for knowledge is as strong as any other human craving.

Even the most passionate desires have their own internal structure. Our theories about the world are emotionally meaningful to us, and expressing an idea is a way of showing character.

All of my works have sought to bridge together the past and the present, reality and fiction, induction and instinct, and essay and tale. I have endeavored to mix these various elements in diverse approaches.

The Gold Bug Variations has themes of pattern-creation and disruption, and is a book of highly organized concepts, though enlivened by sexual passion. On the other hand, The Time of Our Singing, which delves into issues of race, cultural belonging, and individual selfhood, is more driven by characters and plot, though held up by a musical framework.

I had a new approach to storytelling with The Echo Maker, as the plot revolved around a 27-year-old slaughterhouse worker who falls into a realm of doubles, fraudulence, and alienation.

As the tale progressed, I had to illustrate the new advances in neuroscience about how the brain works. Even more importantly, the story needed to be set within the vortex of what Antonio Damasio dubs “the feeling of what happens”. To accomplish this, I had to explore the complex network of primal procedures that consciousness is based on.

My plan was to make the book itself a complex web, incorporating all kinds of theories about the self–from advanced neuroscience to traditional beliefs–as an important part of each character’s means of coping with life and protecting their own fragile sense of identity.

Therefore, the extensive, strange and alarming neurological data I had collected over a couple of years became a springboard to explore the protagonists’ personal wishes, fears and convictions.

Neurology set the scene for the story’s action, supplied material reasons and informed the characters’ comprehension of their dilemmas.

Nonetheless, neurology is only the beginning of the various storylines that intertwine in the broader narrative. Much of the rest of the tale (like most of the brain) is hidden.

The most challenging aspect of composing this book was coming up with the right solution to incorporate it.

According to neuroscience, it requires a hundred billion connected cells to create a comprehensible account of the world. Neuroscience also reveals that a wide range of processes, like sensing, feeling, thinking, and perceiving, are all interconnected in a huge, never-ending narrative.

The brain is essentially a story-telling machine and consciousness is the story itself. Our neurons enable us to form who we are. Consequently, any novel about this topic had to find a way to fit this understanding into a self-narrating system.

In the first year of writing this book, I read extensively on neural impairment and deficit, delving into details of neuronal and synaptic chemistry and speculating on integrated consciousness. I was also exploring case histories.

At the same time, I was honing a deeply intuitive understanding of my central characters. During the second year, I composed the scenes and plot, while continuing to read the neurological material in a more focused way, tailored to my characters and their actions.

The research continued through the following eighteen months of revision. By this point, I was reading the science not only for accuracy, but for the sheer enjoyment of it.

While I was searching, I eventually stumbled upon a structure that encapsulated all of the operations in the brain’s narrative creation.

Mark Schluter experiences a mishap that leads to his cognitive functioning being disconnected from his emotional intelligence.

As Dr. Gerald Weber, the cognitive neurologist who is examining Mark, begins to detect things with his emotional intelligence that his cognitive processes had been blocking from him. In the end, the science is blended into the stories the characters ardently spin about themselves and each other…

BLVR: In The Echo Maker, the cranes are a major presence, not only in the lives of the characters, but also in the structure of the story. Could you explain why you were so drawn to the Nebraska cranes? Is there a connection between them and the field of neuropsychology?

RP: I have always been fascinated by the way cognition functions, and the Ojibwa-Anishinabees call sandhill cranes “echo makers”. Seven years ago, when I was driving from Illinois to Arizona to visit my mother, I was stunned to see them in a seemingly barren field alongside Interstate 80. I was so surprised that I almost drove off the road because I couldn’t distinguish a sandhill from a stork until that moment.

The scene was absolutely captivating, due in part to not recognizing what I was perceiving and partly from being surrounded by a scene so ancient. They had the appearance of an archaic relic, something totally unaltered by human history.

I stopped at Kearney, the next town, and got a hotel room right by the interstate. After some inquiries,

I found out that 500,000 birds–which was 80 percent of all the cranes migrating in North America–would flock to this small part of the Platte River in March, like clockwork, on a journey that could take them thousands of miles.

I rose before dawn the following morning to observe the morning ceremony–the avian town dispersing for their day of foraging. The experience was profoundly moving: these large birds were dancing and singing in a huge and strange, yet knowingly communal, behavior.

I started to read up on birds and took in the vast and captivating writings of authors like Peter Matthiessen, Aldo Leopold, and the well-known Ancient Greeks. I discovered that cranes are faithful to their partners, willing to risk their lives for their offspring, and know how to fly across entire continents with the help of particular local markers.

They generally don’t mingle with one another, apart from this yearly event. To witness them, I traveled to the Jasper-Pulaski preserve in Indiana and Wisconsin, where the greater sandhills take a break before flying south. Everywhere I went after that, from Central Europe to Japan, I found depictions of cranes.

The cranes that I observed seemed to take on a human-like quality, yet still retain a certain unfamiliarity that I had never experienced before. This sparked a realization that I had heard about in different folk literatures about how cranes and people could interchange. It was not until I had heard about Capgras Syndrome that I began to comprehend the concept of familiarity, and strangeness, and how it all connected to the book I was creating.

At that point, I had become a casual birdwatcher, teaching myself the fundamentals of identification and penning a life list. I was starting to look at other species in a totally new way and beginning to notice creatures that had been largely invisible to me.

Coincidentally, as I read more about contemporary brain research, I discovered how intelligent birds really are. It turns out that scientists had been underestimating birds’ intelligence for a long time, partially because their cerebral cortexes are on the small side. But birds use an alternate area of their brains as the seat of their intelligence and the brain-to-body ratio of the most intelligent birds is comparable to that of higher primates.

Birds possess complex social behavior and can tell the difference in their clans and pecking orders. Predators can even cooperate with each other. Birds can even be deliberately deceptive—they are smart enough to be able to lie. Recent studies of bird calls hint at something similar to a grammatical structure.

Alex, the famous blue parrot, appears to be able to make basic but meaningful and relevant phrases.

There is an astonishing video on the web of a New Caledonian crow named Betty, who fabricates a hook by bending a straight wire and subsequently uses it to lift a cup of food out of a hole. This is true tool-making, something once thought to be a trait of primates only.

We are living alongside creatures who possess an intelligence that is unusual for us to comprehend.

Remarkably, their minds are still connected to ours. I found an interesting parallel between this and our disconnection from our subconscious. The town I chose as the setting for the story, a place known for the yearly gathering of birds, provided me with a platform to explore neurological and environmental aspects.

BLVR: Landscape has a major presence in The Echo Maker–perhaps more than in any of your other novels with the exception of Gain.

It is not only about “this little town in the middle of nowhere” and its surroundings–not just the Nebraskan prairie–but, more prominently, the flawed labyrinth of consciousness where Mark, Karin, and Dr. Weber are all depicted. Could you explain the role of “place”–be it the Midwest or the medial cortex–in your work, particularly in this book?

RP: Place was more significant to me than before in this story. I think you’ve accurately identified why: the book is about memory and recognition, which are both related to the brain’s spatial capabilities.

The hippocampus, which has the responsibility of creating new recollections, seems to have evolved because of the need to master place. Animals that have to travel the most also have the best memory.

To give an example, Clark’s nutcrackers, which have highly developed hippocampi, can recall more than five thousand places where they had hidden seeds the year before. So, the next time you can’t find your car keys, remember this.

Neuroscientists have put forth the suggestion that the hippocampus may have developed originally to process spatial relations, termed as a “spatial cognition machine.” Our capacity to store and recall memories, and the ability to build stories and a sense of self, could be a result of orientation.

People often use mnemonic devices to remember things by placing them in an imaginary “memory walk.” It is possible that social intelligence – the ability to comprehend complex interpersonal connections

– is related to our spatial sense. Even the language we use to describe social situations is spatial, such as “in and out,” “up and down,” “center and marginalize.”

Similarly, words used to explain the components of storytelling are often spatial, for example, exposition, situation, plot, reverse, and arrival.

The story of Capgras starts with a place: Kearney, Nebraska, located near the geographic middle of the United States, a spot far off the beaten path.

It is also situated at a crossroads of two migratory routes: the historical American east-to-west paths like the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, Pony Express, transcontinental railroad, Lincoln Highway, and Interstate 80, and the Central Flyway, a continent-sized hourglass traversed by hundreds of millions of birds, with its narrow waist falling along sixty miles of the Platte.

Mark Schluter and his sister Karin have been greatly influenced by their hometown of thirty thousand people. Karin has devoted her life to fleeing it.

Dr. Gerald Weber, a cognitive neurologist from New York, visits the town to examine Mark, ultimately perceiving the Great American Desert as a reflection of his own post-9/11 alienation. In the same place, the various creatures’ journeys of navigating north and south according to the shifting seasons intersect with the presence of people–the animal unlike anything else.

When writing this book, I found myself working in a more visual fashion than usual. I had a wonderful experience revisiting the terrain of central Nebraska and then inhabiting it in my imagination. To get a better understanding of the story, I even began sketching scenes and mapping out the locales. To make sense of the mysterious elements of the plot, I had to figure out the local and specific occurrences that happened in time and space, something that was completely new for me.

Location could be a major factor in shaping destiny, but Kearney and the Platte, just like anywhere else on the planet, have been completely altered by broadband and its network of data. This book looks into this transformation, considering the complete unfamiliarity of place in the age of the digital.

Additionally, the narrative covers the underlying ecological issue of who has rights to the lengthy river that runs through three dry states. What occurs when remote upstream consumption of water affects life downstream? Who receives access to the restricted stream? Do other living things deserve a portion?

I found that the prairie-crossroads setting in the book symbolically illustrated the temporary, spread-out, ad-libbed, even imaginary character of the self. If space is the platform for memory, and if memory is the basis for our narrative self-formation, we must exist in some junction between the inside and outside, some passageway between the place we create and the place that creates us. That’s why I journeyed to this crossroads, the empty, remote middle of the Great American Desert.

BLVR: I’m curious about the position of the novelist in the post-9/11 “Great American Desert”–where does the “gap between inside and outside” appear to the novelist? In particular, I’m considering the figure of Dr. Gerald Weber, who experiences drastic changes upon tending to Mark.

There is a massive enigma here–perhaps even the puzzle of the whole book–and I’m inquiring if it has more to do with the meaning of being a writer than it may appear at first.

RP suggests that Weber is similar to Sacks and other renowned authors of narrative neuropsychology in his attempt to detect the same type of sympathetic insight that is found in fiction.

He believes that the brain’s ability to create a sense of unity from its distributed, separate components is represented in the form of stories. Moreover, these shared tales are the only way to move away from the limitations of the self.

According to RP, traditional medicine is dependent on hearing out patient histories, which is why any attempt to grasp the damaged mind normally leans towards methods of traditional storytelling. Neurological case studies are located in a middle area between scientific description and creative art, which is similar to the narrated self’s position.

Gerald Weber, while examining a brain-injured patient named Mark who suffers from anosognosia, is confronted with a situation in which his own work is being scrutinized by the public who think he has failed to display the compassion he has always claimed to have. As Weber tries to understand Mark without turning him into a story, he finds himself asking a frightening question: if Mark feels the same within himself despite all outward evidence to the contrary, how can Weber trust his own internal sense of decency and consistency when others are judging him?

When an individual is able to take off the rose-colored glasses that shield them from recognizing their own weaknesses, they can no longer use their own power to recover a sense of balance. Weber, after much effort to understand the perspectives of others, ultimately accepted the idea of viewing himself objectively.

The result has been as disorienting as Mark’s neurological damage. Empathy has an infinite capacity.

Reading and writing novels typically revolves around a concept of estranging kinship. We use these books to escape our own lives and become someone else; fiction offers an alternate point of view. It is through this alternate perspective that we can recognize our own world. It is a disorienting experience, but we can find comfort in the fact that the journey is controllable and we can return to our own lives when the book ends.

The pioneering neuropsychologist A. R. Luria wrote that “To find the soul it is necessary to lose it.” To understand someone else’s story, we must first lose our own.

A hypothesis concerning Capgras is that a gap exists between high-level cognitive identification and low-level emotional validation: The person appears and speaks and acts like my sister, but I’m not receiving the same feeling of closeness that I get from her. (This might explain why those impacted by the condition can’t affirm only those who they anticipate a strong bond with.) By looking after Mark, Weber encounters the same alienating separation. To put it another way, it can be said that he contracts contagious Capgras.

It appears that alienation has become the new standard in terrorized America. After the 2000 election, the Patriot Act, the detainee bill, Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib, narratives, both public and private, are trying their best to maintain America’s unity, integrity, and cohesiveness.

Despite all this, the pattern of life here remains familiar. But for many, the place doesn’t seem to be the same anymore.

In my opinion, what is currently seen as evil could be defined as the intentional demolition of the capacity to sympathize. This is due to the fact that evil is the inability to identify with others.

In this age of increasing self-righteousness and growing wickedness, I’m not sure what part a novelist might have. Crafting stories to mirror reality must now be done with improvisation, provisional concepts and confusion. But when I come across a powerful and skillful work of fiction, it has the ability to transform my mind. Stepping into the shoes of another’s story is the only way to free us from our certainties.

BLVR: What prompts you to publish stories as novels, as opposed to essay collections or memoirs? Is there a reason why you have yet to release a nonfiction book? What do you think fiction provides that other forms of writing can’t?

Throughout my writing career, I have published a small collection of nonfiction shorter pieces, plus a trilogy of Borges-style fictitious essays.

Despite the fact that my work is easily accessible in both digital and print formats, consolidating them into a single volume would be unnecessary. I have an idea for a contribution to Norton’s Great Discoveries series that I would like to finish before I pass away.

Additionally, I have various ideas for book-length musings, such as an aesthetic and narratological exploration of computer coding. However, my drive to write fiction has been consistently stronger than the impulse to tackle these nonfiction projects. As for memoir, that would require more creativity than I am capable of!

Recent advances in neuroscience have provided evidence for the existence of brain circuits populated with “mirror neurons.” These neurons are activated both when an individual performs an action, and when they observe someone else performing the same action. Other experiments have shown that doing and imagining have similar effects on the body, such as an increase in blood flow in the primary visual cortex when a person imagines a scene, or an increase in heart rate when a person visualizes running.

Even without physically performing the same exercises, imagining exercise can yield two thirds of the muscle strength gained by actually exercising.

It is clear that fiction has a greater importance than previously thought, and natural selection must have favored this kind of storytelling since it has some survival value. Life is a complex and dangerous endeavor, and fiction allows us to safely experience thrilling and threatening situations with no risk, only experience.

Our craving for fiction reveals a yearning for types of understanding that nonfiction cannot easily access. Nonfiction can make claims; fiction can demonstrate those who make claims, and also show what happens when these claims fail.

Fiction is capable of highlighting and contextualizing different outlooks, pitting different views and plans against one another, connecting convictions to their holders, reflecting facts through their interpreters, and interpreters through the facts.

Fiction is a proliferating, multifaceted, interconnected system that depicts the way we and our worlds form each other. When the most effective nonfiction must persuade or clarify, it relies on storytelling.

A chemist can explain how atoms interact with each other, a molecular biologist can describe how a mutagen can alter chemical bonds and induce a mutation, a geneticist can locate a mutation and build a method to identify it, and clergy members and ethicists can discuss the social consequences of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.

Additionally, a journalist may interview two parents in a Chicago suburb who are struggling with their faith while attempting to produce a child without an inheritable disorder. However, a novelist is the only one who can weave together these characters and many more into a story that is sure to touch the hearts of readers.

In recent decades, the life sciences, physics and chemistry have been revolutionized by a new appreciation of emergent and complex systems, leading to a new kind of holism.

Scientists who study large, dynamic systems and reach the limits of old-style reductionism have discovered that the whole can sometimes be best understood as a whole. Consequently, complex models and simulations have become valid scientific tools for examining real-world phenomena.

This marks a major shift in human knowing, as empiricism has traditionally focused on understanding the whole through its isolated parts and writing out simple rules about their controlled behavior.

Fiction has relied upon intricate, interconnected systems for a long time, utilizing large-scale simulations to comprehend the world.

BLVR: You have been widely acclaimed by the critics and have an enthusiastic, even fanatical, following. The Echo Maker was deservedly rewarded with the National Book Award this past year. I’m curious to find out how the attention it will bring and the mainstream recognition you will receive might affect your writing, if at all.

RP: With the accolade only having been revealed two weeks ago, I’m uncertain of the impact it will have on the response to my books. I’m thankful for whatever extra attention from readers this kind of honour could bring and am elated that a work outside the mainstream has been welcomed into the mainstream discussion.

As far as my own writing practice is concerned, I have always seen awards not as a validation of the past but as an authorisation for the future.

To quote Larry Bird: scoring gives you the freedom to miss from anywhere on the court. Summing up, the award is just a marvellous push to not think about succeeding and, in the words of Beckett, to “fail better.”

BLVR: What’s the plan from here? What kind of trial will you be running next?

I’m writing a book about whether the future of humanity can be a positive one.

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