Kevin Powers had been talking to audiences about his first novel, The Yellow Birds, for at least 72 hours by the time I had the chance to interview him. His novel was the 2014 selection for One Book, One Philadelphia, an annual program of the Free Library of Philadelphia that is designed to promote reading, literacy, and libraries, and to encourage the entire greater Philadelphia area to come together to read and discuss a single book. He was back in town for the finale of this program.
The Yellow Birds focuses on a young man, Private Bartle, who has returned from the Iraq War and is working to piece together a full picture of his experience. Our protagonist hurtles back and forth through space and time — stationed in Al Tafar, Iraq, training at Fort Dix in New Jersey, at home in Virginia before and after deployment — and mines his memories in order to gain an understanding of his wartime promises, responsibilities, and decisions. Yellow Birds has received heaps of recognition since its publication, including the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction, the Guardian First Book Award, and nomination for the National Book Award in Fiction.
Kevin Powers had just wrapped up an author event for an audience of high school students when I met up with him. We spoke over coffee about The Yellow Birds’ non-linear structure, the characters’ wartime philosophies, and how the book came into being.
Rachel Karasick: The Yellow Birds makes use of a non-linear structure. Can you talk about why you decided to have Private Bartle recount the story in this way?
Kevin Powers: I suppose it was a natural progression. It was a way of figuring out how I could use all of the resources that I had available to me to let a reader experience, as closely as a reader possibly can, the experience that the narrator has. I came up with the story and the initial draft all chronologically, but I felt like I had an opportunity to let the structure of the book reflect the fragmented way that Bartle perceives the world. I wanted to try to mimic the simultaneity of being in two places at once.
You know, I really like paintings. I think that one of the advantages that painting has over the written word is that you can take the whole in, all at once, and then after that you can break it down into its various parts. I was trying to recreate that effect of experiencing different parts of the story, different parts of the narrative, and different parts of the timeline all at once, so that the reader has the experience in the same way that Bartle does — going back and forth unpredictably.
Part of the challenge was controlling the narrative in a way so that the structure was evocative of that movement, but didn’t create confusion for the reader. I didn’t know the shape that the book would take when I began writing it, but once I felt like there was an opportunity to include that movement, it became a large part of the revision process. I was trying to fit those things together in a way that I thought would work well.
It seemed like this structure and movement actually generated a lot of suspense.
When you take the story as it unfolds over time and you shuffle it around, you also have to consider how that affects the one arc of the story. There will always be one storyline, no matter what order you present it in. I had to go back and figure out, “When does this information become clear to the reader? Now that I’ve moved chapter two to chapter seven . . .” as the case may be. A lot of the revision process was making tweaks to that so that it could build a kind of suspense.
Ultimately, I decided that it was more effective to reveal some information early on. For example, you find out that Murph dies very early on. It’s not so much about “is this or isn’t this going to happen,” because we already know the answer to that, given the subject. What’s important about the story is the how and the why. For me, the books that I respond to the most tend to explore those questions, rather than just the what. When Bartle is reflecting it allows the reader to also reflect. The hope is that you get as close to his experience, being inside his head, as I could possibly get you as a reader.
Bartle describes this at one point as, “like putting a puzzle together from behind: the shapes familiar, the picture quickly fading, the muted tan of the cardboard backing a tease at wholeness and completion.”
That’s part of it, you’re looking for ways to describe emotional states that are specific to the events that are happening in the story, but they’re also evocative of the larger themes that you’re exploring. I hoped it would be a fruitful way to talk about not just Bartle’s sifting through his own memory, but the way that we all tell stories about our own lives and the ways we construct our identity. In a lot of ways, those determinations guide the choices that we make going forward.
You’re being asked to construct a story, but the material from which you’re forced to construct it is questionable and faulty and unreliable. That was really probably the most fascinating part of the change that Bartle undergoes — accepting that we’re starting out with flawed data. At the same time, it’s the best he’s got. We have to use our memories to explore our past, even though it’s inherently suspect.
I found myself particularly fascinated by the characters of Murph and Sergeant Sterling. They seem to be polar opposites — their motives and reactions are always so different.
I don’t think either of these characters know that they have these particular philosophies, about how to endure during wartime or how to approach their set of circumstances. But I think for Bartle, as the central observer — he sees them as having the choice to go in one direction or the other. It was interesting to me to think about all of the people in the book who make compromises just to deal with whatever set of circumstances are immediately in front of them. What compromises are they willing to make?
In the simplest terms, Sterling is willing to set aside his humanity, his morality, in order to survive. In order to physically survive, in order to do what is expected of him, in order to protect the people that he’s obligated to protect. Whereas Murph thinks about things in almost opposite terms. He is so attached to his humanity. He thinks of it as being the thing that grounds him, he’s attached to a moral understanding of the world.
Again, not that he’s conscious of this, but in a way he’s willing to sacrifice his actual physical safety in order to preserve his dignity and the things that make life worth preserving. I think it’s true that they do occupy different ends of the spectrum. I wanted their decisions to reflect the things that they observe, and the different positions and points of view that they take in regard to the situation they find themselves in.
In The Yellow Birds, you describe each landscape that your characters inhabit with a lot of depth. Can you talk about some of these descriptions and their impact on the narrative?
One of Bartle’s concerns is the idea of control, of powerlessness. He has the sense that there’s all this chaos, and the decisions that he makes have a limited effect because there are so many variables beyond his control. For me, the natural world represents that really well — that kind of chaos that always moves in one direction.
Nature [. . .] seems to survive and change and carry on, and so I wanted that to be a counterpoint to all of that which is man-made. Which in many ways is a war: this is people making decisions, this is people doing these terrible things to each other. And of course, people are an aspect of nature, they are a part of nature, they are present in nature, but there’s this other part of it that I was interested in — the way that the world goes on in spite of all of our petty fights that turn into these massively destructive things.
That thread carried all the way to the end of the book, when Bartle has a vision of Murphy going back into something that’s going to carry on. It represents Bartle letting go of the need to control, giving up the idea that he’s outside of that, or that he really has a say other than what he does in the moment. I hoped it would illustrate another layer of the environment that they find themselves in — something that still exists independently of them.
The three scenes that happen in and around rivers, including the one you just referred to, were very compelling. There’s one mid-way through the book in which Bartle strips down and plunges into a river in Virginia, and comes a bit unglued. There is a parallel moment involving Murph and the river in Al Tafar, and also the vision that Bartle has at the end.
Can you tell me more about those river scenes? They seemed to represent pivotal moments in the plot.
It’s interesting. The way that those two parts of the story developed, the image of Murph came first. It was actually one of the earliest parts of the book that I wrote. I had this image of a soldier who had lost a friend, imagining all the damage that had been done to him, and reimagining him in the context of the processes of time, nature, weather. So in some ways, particularly as it relates to that thread of the book that we’ve been talking about, I had to figure out why that image had such power for me, why it seemed so interesting, why it seemed so unshakable in this weird way.
What is it about that end for Murph that somehow seems, if not redemptive, then like a source of closure for Bartle? You know what I mean? Why is this sticking with me? Why is this important?
I wanted to figure it out, so along the way, it occurred to me to give Bartle the opportunity to have the same kind of experience. But when he has it, he’s not ready for it yet. I mean, we can think of these very old ideas of being cleansed and so forth, but he’s not there yet. So by the end of the book, by imagining Murph in that situation, he’s letting Murph do that for him, you know? It frees him by freeing his feelings of responsibility for Murph. He’s talking about how he’s back to being material, back to being part of the earth. He becomes a part of the waves, a part of the movement of the waves.
I think that serves the same purpose that he begins when he has that weird experience of his own. Some of this stuff is intuitive, and you hope that there’s a connection there. You may not fully understand if it’s working, but it feels right. It feels like there’s some kind of balance and proportion and you just trust and hope that it works for the reader.
It seems like you’ve been busy since you finished your deployment in 2005: a B.A. in English at Virginia Commonwealth University, an M.F.A. in poetry from the Michener Center, two books of poetry, and a novel. At what point in this fairly short time window did The Yellow Birds start to take shape?
The book started in 2007. At that time I was working a full-time job after my deployment. It was around that time that I quit my job and went to school full-time. I was working and going to school at night and it was weird. I was just kind of like, fuck it, I want to be a writer, I’ve known that I wanted to be a writer my whole life. I was actually writing and I realized — what am I waiting for? Why don’t I see what happens if I just try to do this? So I started going back to school full-time and taking English classes. I’d already been writing poetry about the war, and I started to recognize, hey, this seems productive. It seemed like I was going in the right direction, but I felt like I needed a bigger canvas.
So I started writing this long prose piece, but I didn’t know what the direction would be. I ended up with this draft of a . . . thing. I don’t know what else to call it. It didn’t have much shape and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I think of it as my first attempt at writing the book.
And so I continued working on it, getting the chance to talk and build relationships with other writers for the first time. I started thinking a bit about M.F.A. programs and I was given the opportunity to go to Texas. I knew was going to have three years to work and so I looked back at the writing I had done. I went there for poetry. I had some poems, and I knew I was going to keep writing poems. But I looked at this prose-draft-thing that I had, and I knew that it just wasn’t . . . I knew there was more. I knew it could be better and that I could do more with it. So I kind of just scrapped it, and thought, well for the next three years, I’d try to do all of the things that I didn’t feel like I could do with that first draft.
That’s when I approached it with goals in mind. I had specific questions that I wanted these characters to address through their decisions. So it was probably sometime in 2008 or 2009 when I really felt like “Okay, I’m working on this book,” and it started to come together in my own mind in terms of what it was about, who the characters were.
Are there any pieces of earlier writing that ended up in the book?
I didn’t really write much while I was overseas. It represents the only gap that I’ve ever really had in my writing life. I read a lot — or relatively a lot. I read when I could.
I think that fact — of not having material to draw directly from — really influenced the way I thought about my experience and I felt like I could integrate that into the narrator’s thought process. This need to go back and revisit the recent past. The difficulty of activating our memories and trying to figure out our stories based on that. So my process in writing paralleled the narrator’s process of trying to figure out what his level of responsibility is in terms of what happens in the story.
It was actually, I think, really productive, and influenced the things I was trying to achieve in the book. It’s as much about memory and feelings of guilt as it is about battles. At least, I hope it is.
The poetry book is imminent! It comes out April 1st, which I’m excited about. The title is Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting.
I’m fairly early in the stages of working on another novel, set just after the American Civil War has ended. It’s — as currently constituted — a story about people, relationships, and a ruined plantation owner and his young wife. It’s focused on her coming to terms with the status quo and the consequences. I’m interested in the fact that as a country, in that particular period of history, there was a really great opportunity to create a society that actually had equality and justice. The choices that people made in those moments, those early moments after the war, really affected that opportunity.
I’m going to try to find a story that can explore how that happened, why that happened, and how it affected the people in those moments. It’s early, but I’m excited about it. I grew up in Virginia, in Richmond, where a lot of this took place, where these real lives were lived. It’s something that I’ve been curious about and have been fascinated by since I was a kid. I walked on that ground, and that ruined plantation house was 300 yards away from my house, and I wondered about the stories of what happened there.
This interview was arranged in cooperation with the Author Events Series of the Free Library of Philadelphia. You can listen to a podcast of Kevin Powers’ Author Event at the Free Library here or a podcast from the One Book, One Philadelphia opening program here.
Rachel Karasick lives in Philadelphia, works for the Free Library, and is pleased that the Author Events series takes place 500 feet from her desk.