Friends since the eighties, we have traded thoughts about fiction on many occasions through correspondence and over dinner. The dialogue that follows is a natural extension of those earlier conversations and letters, and was done by e-mail over several months this winter.
BRADFORD MORROW: Your interest in systems interests me. When I read a Richard Powers novel, I have the strong sense that predetermined underlying formal symmetry—like configuring gravities or grids—are very much in play. Such matrices aren’t unusual in music, where the composer brings harmonic ideas to a given structure, a sonata form, for instance. Or in classical poetry where, say, the sestina informs the contours of language, proposes rhythms and emphatic moments along a measured line. But the novel has historically been an organic enterprise, so often arising in different narrative shapes and sizes. You seem to embrace large-scale forms that create expectation of implicit symmetries from chapter to chapter. From the three voicings that braid in fairly strict succession in Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, to the more recent back and forth of personal to impersonal in Gain, these substructures inform the narrative’s meaning as much as the story itself. For instance, I couldn’t get away from the impression that I was experiencing Laura’s heart beating down toward her inevitable end in the very diastolic/systolic movement of Gain. How do you determine what interplay will occur between character and voice, story and system?
RICHARD POWERS: I do love the meaning that comes from form, and you’re right to conclude that my love comes out of an affinity for the forms and structures of classical music. I probably have a fuller, more visceral response to the formalisms of music than I do to what you call the organic enterprise of fiction, although the two don’t seem to me to be a dichotomy so much as a continuum. In fact, think of the tension graph of the classic, organic narrative plot—exposition, complication, climax, denouement—as roughly analogous to the Sonata-Allegro form. Even the most character-driven or event-driven of plots will have its shape, and in that shape, as much as in the particulars of gesture, the story’s meaning lies.
For better or worse, I do think in large-scale structures, and these structures, to some degree, inform all my novels. I’ve moved away from the top-down novel gradually over the course of fifteen years, to the delight of one kind of reader and the dismay of another. I’ve become more interested in allowing local urgency to subvert global plan. I believe that the richest fiction always exists in the tension between top-down and bottom-up, between the expectations that form sets up and the many ways that such expectation is subverted, deferred or satisfied. Ideally I shoot for a form that will hover in and out of a reader’s awareness, oscillating between figure and ground. You know what form I always find heart-rending? Those long, involved Bach chorale-preludes, where the simple hymn tune is so prolonged and elaborately interworked that it’s a shock, every time, to be recalled to its next, foursquare strain.
Form is visceral to me; I find it as moving and beautiful as any revelation of character. It is itself a revelation of character, that part of us that needs pattern and order. But recall that in its true sense, “organic” form is by far the most complex and ingenious of any form imaginable. No geometry, however elaborate, can match the astonishment of, say, blood vessels. That would be a structure worth striving for: the structure of organisms! When a story “lives,” I think it generally has all the breathtaking, indescribable complexity of a living hierarchy. Organism, organ, cell—novel, scene, sentence: form shades off into the same particulars that evade and inscribe it.
MORROW: Your vision seems to me essentially celebratory. Bachlike. It doesn’t shy away from the darkest of human experiences, from disease or from war, from treachery or other forms of human failure. But there’s an underlying pedal point—to extend this musical metaphor—that seems to me spiritual, even religious. Not only does your rigorous formalism not make spirituality impossible, but it is spiritual. The world is numinous, yes, but god is also in the numbers. How do you see spiritual belief relating to your work?
POWERS: Art is a way of saying what it means to be alive, and the most salient feature of existence is the unthinkable odds against it. For every way that there is of being here, there are an infinity of ways of not being here. Historical accident snuffs out whole universes with every clock tick. Statistics declare us ridiculous. Thermodynamics prohibits us. Life, by any reasonable measure, is impossible, and my life—this, here, now—infinitely more so. Art is a way of saying, in the face of all that impossibility, just how worth celebrating it is to be able to say anything at all. However miserable our moment of existence, simply existing ought to leave us infinitely ahead of the game. And our mortality ensures that misery will always eventually come to an end. But we forget our deaths, habituate to the infinite unlikelihood of awareness, take our lives to be a baseline, and measure our lot against the handful of even more unlikely configurations that we feel entitled to. The task of art is to estrange us from everything that seems given to us and to return us to a condition of brute astonishment. The inanimate universe has been kicking around for 20 billion years. For 70 years, you get to have a look at it. The terms of all saying can only be awe and gratitude.
Does awe need to make room to describe darkness and misery? Of course. It has to, or it would be lying about who we are and what we are obligated to feel. But to forget our basic unlikelihood in the face of the things we are able to feel: that’s lust negligence. Which emotions, finally, would the most life-weary banish from the repertoire? Even despair is really appetite by another name. The fact that we can feel misery at all ought to be its own cause for perpetual amazement. Yet contemporary writing looks a little askance at celebration. Awe had been killed, I think, by the age of self-realization. What we’ve really lost in contemporary life is any sense of belonging to a project that is larger than we are. We live at a moment when all things bigger than us seem to be insidious, man-made and threatening. We’ve thrown in our lot entirely with the self, and the self is not large enough. Literature can recall to us the smallness of the private narrative, its eternal insufficiency.
I’d say that this theme is dear to your heart as well, that it infuses your own fiction: the humbling of the individual self in the face of stories much longer and wider than its own. I see a common thread between our work: our characters seem to find a corpse in history’s attic, as it were, and are forced, by the rough edges of this discovery, to disassemble the small story they’ve been telling about themselves in order to accommodate the larger story they are thrust into ...
MORROW: The impulse to weave individual narrative threads through the tapestry of some large historical moment or movement, framing the personal within the public gesture, is one we share. History isn’t some capsuled stage set, nor can we ever fully detach from its magnetic anatomy. It isn’t widely differentiated from the biography of the frailest or most diffident soul who lived within its temporal borders. So, any individual act—however ostensibly small or even meaningless it might seem cannot fail to shape the larger cultural history of the day in which it transpired, and the day after, and beyond.
The butterfly effect, that ultimate precept for a Buddhist’s physics, is a commonplace by now, but a valuable one nonetheless. To contemplate an individual in fiction is, among other things, to study the social, political and economic powers that catalyze his or her intimate universe. Kip and Brice, in Trinity Fields, are unimaginable outside the initializing context of their youths in Los Alamos and, by turn, World War II and Vietnam, just as Three Farmers’ Hubert, Peter and Adolphe are a collective embodiment of pre-World War I life and thought. Similarly, Clare Soap and Chemical constitutes a kind of warp through which the woof of Laura Bodey’s thoughts and actions are woven on Gain’s loom; a novelistic fabric not unlike that of The Almanac Branch in which Grace Brush is enmeshed with the Geiger Corporation to such an extent that it defines her, even though—like Laura—she’d rather it didn’t. This instinct to counterpoint history and story may be born, aesthetically, from musical thinking—theme and variation crosscurrenting, echoing and influencing each other. Surely, it comes from the fundamental acknowledgment of a holistic ecology in which everything impacts the other. That corpse in history’s attic is our collective forebear and a possible key to a more deeply dimensioned understanding of the world that moves through the rest of the human mansion.
Your thoughts about awe and art are compelling. I know when I have really seen a painting or sculpture because when I leave the museum I find myself on streets I hardly recognize, even though they are the same streets I’d walked just a few hours before. Museum sans walls. The old idea holds. Nineteenth-century chamber orchestra audiences were invited to listen to the music with such pure empathy that their experience was tantamount to composing it spontaneously in their imaginations as the performance evolved, a kind of inventive engagement whose contemporary manifestation might be air guitaring. Windmilling rather than whistling in the breeze. A less subtle performance of affinities than the homme orchestre coniury of a Beethoven concerto, but the principle is the same, and so is the witnessing embrace. A book is asleep until the reader draws back its covers and awakens it. “What giants?” Sancho Panza asks Quixote—their very existence depends upon a willingness, a determination, to see.
Regarding empathy: How do you read books? Can you separate the sorcerer’s apprentice who is forever gleaning technical ideas from the immersion reader who gives himself over to the experience of the narrative? What kind of reader is your ideal?
POWERS: For me, the ideal reader doesn’t have too fixed an idea of what a novel must be, prior to embarking on the next proof of what it might be. As I see it, the meaning of any artistic engagement is a measure of the displacement of the engager. Where was I before I started this journey, and where am I now, as I come out the other end? In a sense, this model resembles an information-theoretical one: a sentence (or a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, or a story) means by setting up expectations and then not quite fulling them, leaving the slightly rearranged expecter to do a calculus on the gap opened up between the expected trajectory and the resultant one. No movement, no meaning. Books should not flatter our sense of self. They should investigate it.
When I read, I ask myself: “Who would I have to be in order for this work to answer all my unknown needs?” Then I ask myself whether I like being that person, the person who would find this particular book a masterpiece, and ask how far I’d have to move to get there. The distance and direction of that movement (whether or not I choose to make it) are the best indication of the values inherent in the story, of what the story means. I read another person in order to get better at interrogating my own unexamined narrative.
So my ideal reader is one who can allow the book to reinvent itself, not along a familiar trajectory but along one that seems familiar for a while and then, somehow, isn’t. Similarly, my ideal writer is one capable of reinventing herself with each new project. This imperative can really throw a reader, especially a reader who has succeeded in loving a previous work. I’m sure you’ve found this with your audiences. Readers who respond strongly to Trinity Fields must be willing to be reinvented when they come to Giovanni’s Gift.
MORROW: The ideal reader might want to remain open to self-reinvention with successive readings of the same work, as well, of exploring previously unseen tiers and depths. The Lolita I read when I was twenty made an enormous impression on me; its muscular, sensuous, sinuous language and all its sly tragedy—perfect then for who I was as a reader. The same Lolita reread in my thirties, then again recently, had of course newly seismographic impact. But of a different kind. Not that my earlier reading was all that immature, or that I didn’t feel those first resonances. But because Lolita as a masterpiece of human comedy—whose staggering accuracy is rendered in the minutiae of the quip, the parenthetical aside, paying off in every sentence, line after line—helped me understand in what ways I might have grown as a witness. Who was it that said we don’t judge books, they judge us ...?
Among novelists I know, there is a strong disagreement about the moral implications of fiction. Some believe fiction is its own end and cannot, should not, serve other than aesthetic ends. Then there is the argument that fiction always marks a political or moral engagement, whether or not the novelist intends such engagement or not. What responsibilities does a novelist have within the context of his culture?
POWERS: Aestheticize politics or politicize art: the old, iron-clad dichotomy absolutely bewilders me. I don’t mean I’m bewildered by having to make the choice. We’ve reified these two terms of creative engagement and made them out to be incommensurable. Should fiction be concerned with beauty or morality? It’s a little like asking whether humans ought rather to eat or to breathe, or whether sentences ought really to consist of nouns or verbs.
Everything I’ve ever written has attempted to break down this dualism and show the aesthetic and political to be two regions of a continuous spectrum, or better yet, two dimensions of a deep, wide plane. Warp and woof: the vocabulary of private experience depends upon the vocabulary of joint life, and the other way around. The purely aesthetic end still exists in a public and contested space, and even the most pragmatic politics will have, for the individuals who live them, private components of longing and fear. Which mode trumps the other? Which of the two is more legitimate or fundamental? The question doesn’t make sense to me. Why would we want to split the two? The life of the private self and the life of the public hive co-exist, by definition, in a perpetual, precarious, negotiated trade-off.
All human phenomena have their aesthetic abscissa and their political ordinate. We know things in our individuals bodies and then we trade them outwardly with others. Private desires turn into public power struggles. Questions of beauty become questions of morality. We recognize one only in the silhouette of the other. The strongest stories thrive on this strangest of predications. I’m after the novel that not only partakes of this anxious negotiation but takes it as its fundamental subject. Anyone who writes as if aesthetics or politics can exist without one another is not doing justice to the full range of human experience.
MORROW: There may be a corollary to this aesthetic/political argument in the relationship between the local/universal—a relationship both of us have explicitly addressed in our writing. Aesthetics must be local, insofar as they are subjective. And politics must be universal, in that political action is the powerful result of groups of individuals finding consensus among their disparate needs and beliefs. Just as the aesthetic causes the political, and vice versa, so do the local and universal cause one another. It’s the same family of coexistence, the same stuff of art.
POWERS: Have your thoughts about the relationship between little and big changed over the course of your years as a novelist? We’ve each been working now for roughly a decade and a half, long enough for our actual routes to have diverged from our initial headings. My earliest books—and yours, too, I think—were attempts to redeem the power of the single vote, and to affirm that decisions taken in a private, local life to have immeasurable “trickle up” effects. In some ways, to assert the local is also to mount an apology for fiction, which all novels incorporate into themselves in some manner. But my view of the terraced hierarchies of local and global has gotten more striated, if not more qualified, in the run of time. Gauges do cascade; vast ecological webs do self-assemble, aggregating into complex, recursive networks of feedback and feed-forward. But just what storms any given butterfly might create lie beyond anyone’s ability to calculate. The dialogue between Clare Chemical and Laura Bodey is, on the one hand, a conversation between two individuals: a flesh-and-blood individual, and the individual that the limited-liability corporation literally is, in the eyes of the law. But these conversants belong to different ordinal realities. Their gauges and scales differ so greatly that they cannot hear one another or factor one another into the levels on which each operates.
In a sense, my ongoing anxiety about the ability of the local to survive or impact the global has complicated my instincts as a reader over this same decade and a half. At 28, I liked to read for the transcendent moment, for the total immersion in the oceanic, an experience beyond our ability to decipher or control. At 42, I am still working out the relation between pleasure and responsibility, meaning and coercion, self-knowledge and rationalization, co-optation and genuine empathy. Every new book seems to interrogate the previous one’s loopholes. I don’t mean to say that I no longer find novels beautiful with the same frequency as I did when I was younger (although I guess I do now have more of the inevitable tradesman’s sense of when something has been a little jerry-rigged). But the absolute, universalizing kind of beauty that I was after when I read a book in 1985 has opened out, grown more mottled, become its own turbulent ecology. I can still weep for Little Nell. But the tears are driven by a wider sense of human agenda—tainted, touched-up, qualified and always magnificently insufficient.
I’d love to know how your own role as a reader has changed with your novelistic maturation.
MORROW: The simplest answer to your first question would be to say that I find it impossible to consider individuals outside the context of their historical environment, since each of us—whether we’re factual or fictional defines and is defined by the cultural moment. I’m reminded of Yeats’s intersecting gyres, the tip of one cone centering the circumference of the other and vice versa. You have indicated, and rightly, that there is no need to sever the little from the big. Indeed, they’re not separable. Countries form alliances, they go to war. The nation itself doesn’t die in the trench, as such, and yet it does. Every personal kindness informs peace accords. History remains a sequence of personal decisions scumbled onto a vast canvas.
The act of storytelling always presumes the singular experience to resonate with universal implication. Metaphor couldn’t very well function without this being a presumptive truth. Readers of fiction, these narrative moments set forth in language, are asked to reimagine those nuanced moments, breathe a kind of visual and aural life into them. Stage them, as it were, in the mind’s theater. So there’s an implicit pact between the reader and writer, in the best possible scenario. Reading is an act of trust, just as writing is an act of faith. You’re right about the tradesman’s eye for dropped stitches and tinted screens. Still, a great book requires energetic, empathetic reading to achieve that greatness. Even the richest text only escapes its fallow condition by a reader tilling and resowing its ideational fields.
POWERS: I like your formulation: the largeness of the novel does depend in part upon a reader’s willingness to exercise largeness of spirit upon it. Readerly renarration involves the reader in retelling not only the printed story but also her own life’s story, in the presence of a story that did not originate with her. And I like, too, the idea that this active reader somehow recapitulates the similar, active rereading that the novel’s writer has performed on the writer’s historical moment The tale of the private life becomes a way of voicing the chaotic public sphere that did not yet even know it was a tale. But at the same time, I have balked, throughout my career, at the contemporary American aesthetic bias that decrees that the public narrative space can only be gotten to through a metaphorical correlation with the private story. Do you sometimes feel this same weight of aesthetic consensus? Our literature has become so solid, so skilled, so professional, so sure of the superiority of dramatic realization over narration, of showing over telling. Fiction in this country, Madison Smartt Bell once wrote, has grown dangerously close to becoming a poor relation to the movie business. So I love the fact that many younger writers now seem to be recovering a belief that story is also about the words used to say it. Telling, to extend your idea, really can be showing, by other means.
The converting element, of course, is voice. I have a favorite observation, made by Mikhail Bakhtin: “Every act of depicting is itself a depiction.” Just as we’ve learned, over centuries of literary exploration, to refract the values of a literary work through the vessel of character, we can learn to read in a way that sees extended acts of narrative or even discursive prose as “characters”—sometimes ironized, sometimes frail or faulty, but always living, voiced depictions in their own right. We can read a narrative not for its final truth or universal sufficiency, but as a record of some provisional, always contingent, always improvised guess about the shape of the place we occupy. Stories—showing and telling—are, like genomes, the sculpted shorthand of speculations about how to stay alive. As the Psalms say: we live our lives as a tale told.
MORROW: Because of the process of writing novels, I have naturally grown more sensitive to overtones, extended possibilities of meaning, the secondary nuance, the texture of rhythms and music. To read the first sentence of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day—“It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days”—is to appreciate how the protagonist’s rhetorical approach to life defines him. The tentativeness of “seems,” “likely” and “really” in tanderm with the comic hyperbole of “undertake the expedition” defines the narrator sheerly through language. He’s cautious, stubborn, proud, antiquated and all of it’s embedded in his manner of address. There are so many examples of form informing content. The imperative of “See the boy,” at the outset of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian proposes by its very syntax that the reader is entering a harsh world, peremptory, belligerent. It also carries, whether the author intended this or not, an echo of a precursor text. Melville’s, which begins with three similarly loaded words, “Call me Ishmael.” The basics, the building blocks. McCarthy’s desert Moby-Dick begun with a formal wink to the heritage it further extends.
These nuances and connectives may be the product of my implicating imagination. But unlike the lady who asked Robert Creeley during a question and answer session after a reading, “Was that a real poem or did you just make it up?” I’d like to believe my task is to know the difference, while allowing myself full rein as a creative reader. To be responsible to the spirit of the work, and responsive to the joys of experiencing it. So as not to sound overly cheerful, I should say, too, that with every book I read I’m increasingly aware of those I won’t experience. Time the welder, time the cutter.
Which brings me to a question about mortality. You’re relatively young, as novelists go, and have been steady, prolific, thoughtful in your progress from book to book. Do you have an ideal trajectory or arc in mind for your work as a whole?
POWERS: Each book tacks back across the path of the preceding one. But do I narrate the shape of my career forward in time, past the story that I’m currently working on? Never very far. And I always look to the book I’m immersed in to correct any ideas I might have about who I arn or what I’m doing. Sarn Shepard once said something I admire: “I don’t want to have a careen I just want to write what I need to write.”
You can and do have more than one book project alive and germinating at a time. I find that remarkable. How do you make that work?
MORROW: You know those Boorum & Pease ledgerbooks that are about the shape and site of a modest grave marker, or a flotation paddleboard that children use when they’re learning to swim? Being a longtime aficionado of stationery shops, I discovered these old behemoths collecting dust on high shelves and became addicted to filling them with words, clippings, drawings, invented family trees, character analyses, photographs, verbal and visual bric-a-brac. The stuff of narrative. Over a period of years these image greenhouses will begin to establish a character of their own, crises that define them, centralizing dynamics. And while they were likely latent novels from the day I first walked home with a new one under my arm, I made it my habit not to think of them as a fictional manufacturing site, or template, or anything other than a notebook. A tabula rasa ripe for the palimpsest.
What seems to have become a working pattern for me is to develop these image systems which attach to names, become characters, members of families, in different ledgerbooks. A prose music evolves, some centralizing problem. Then the novel.
This pattern of developing two novels concurrently isn’t one I can easily account for, other than that I may simply need some promise of futurity in order to believe what is present. Ciaro requiring scuro, ying needing yang, walking being a series of recovered falls, left foot right? At this point, I can’t imagine not working on two novels at the same time, though it’s important to note that one always recedes while the other truly takes precedence. They assume their own authority in the daily imagination, as you well know, and can become very demanding once they do establish precedence. As if, trading places, the novel views its author as ledger rasa. So, while yes I am composing two novels always, one is inchoate as the other emerges. I like that Bakhtin observation. Words are at once objects, signifiers, and the objects being signified. It’s the most lovely paradox.
You have always brought into close proximity people, histories, places that are superficially unconnected but through narrative process become crucially interdependent, mutually influencing. One finishes Plowing the Dark agog at how divergent seemed the paths of those laboring the virtual crayon kingdom in Seattle, and Taimur imprisoned in Beirut. Enclosures: one potentially fleeing, the other seemingly a crypt. How do you conceive these dualisms? I wonder if they’re not so different from the Boorum & Pease books, but collecting into a dynamic the possibilities of two novels and compressing them into a single furnace.
POWERS: You mentioned the Yeats gyres: an old favorite of mine too. And there’s an old Dutch fairy tale called, in one variation, the Innkeeper’s Wife, which has always seemed to me the perfect illustration of that theory of interpenetrating complements. I’ve narrated the tale explicitly in one of my books, and it haunts the margins of at least two others. The wife of an innkeeper in Zeeland has a dream in which she finds a fortune outside the Bourse in Amsterdam. When she wakes, the dream is still so palpable that she feels it must be real. She tells her husband, who tries to discourage her from making the ruinous journey. But nothing can stop her, and she spends her savings on a ticket in to the city. All day long she walks up and down in front of the Bourse: no treasure. Finally, in despair, she prepares to go home empty-handed. A broker corning out of the Bourse sees her and asks her what the matter is. When she, weeping, tells him, he laughs. “You must never believe in such things. I, personally, have often dreamed that I’ve found treasure under the bed of a little inn in Zeeland where I’ve dreamed I’m staying.”
Some versions of the story end there, and others have the woman rushing home, tearing up the floorboards, and coming in to her inheritance. The force of the story, for me, is the fact that each dream only has use as the key to the other. We cannot understand our own narratives except as the ground for some other’s figure (or the figure for their ground). In Plowing the Dark, I tried to find two stories that exist at exact polar opposites of the unimaginable divide that we live spread across, two stories that have absolutely no point of contact, except that each is fated to save the other ...
MORROW: An intriguing function of that fairy tale is its unspoken invitation, even exhortation, for the listener to consider digging up the floorboards of dreams to see whether there isn’t similar buried treasure in the form of a complementary story. Themes not only invite variation, but seem to demand them. It must be the organic and necessary result of our will to personalize the world, to make it habitable. For every book you write there are as many versions of it as readers who have taken it into their hands and read it. That’s why I’ve always thought that all text is hypertext insofar as readers, during that inventive, passionate time they make their way through the narrative, breathe various life into the code once laid down on the page by an author long gone on to another labor, another encryption, often another sphere of existence altogether.
I’m curious about the process of genesis of these books. Speaking with Joanna Scott about what triggers a novel, she describes small startling moments that in themselves wouldn’t seem particularly fecund but spark a question, a curiosity, that then blossoms. A suit of clothes laid out on a bed, chosen by a widow for her husband to be buried in. A crashed car upside-down on the roadside which, when searched by the police who arrive on the scene, is empty. I recall, fifteen years ago, witnessing a woman drop her baby on Sixth Avenue and all in one fluid movement scoop it up and continue walking as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. That moment marked the beginning of Come Sunday for me.
POWERS: Amazing: what a long journey that must have been, from that two-second catastrophe to the finished universe of your novel.
My books have sometimes come in a moment, sometimes in a year or more. Three Farmers was a moment. I was living in the Fens, behind the MFA, in Boston. Saturdays were—and still are, as far as I know free days at the Fine Arts, if you could get there before noon. I was there most Saturday mornings! One day, I walked over for the first American retrospective of a German photographer whose name meant nothing to me. I still have a visceral memory of walking into that room and coming into that almost 70-year-old gaze of those three boys, as if they were waiting for me to close the loop. I leaned forward to read the caption: “Young Westerwald farmers on their way to dance.” That was Saturday morning. On Monday, I gave my two weeks’ notice at my job. Three years later, my “moment” was complete.
Another moment: this time I myself was in Germany. (I’d never been to Northern Europe prior to writing Three Farmers and I waited until I moved there to write my most American book.) I was now living in the little Dutch town I’d described in my first fiction. The Germans were having a rail promotion: 48 hours of unlimited travel for 50 marks. Determined to get my twenty-five dollars’ worth, I decided not to sleep for the duration, but to keep sightseeing. So I found myself in a little Wesser town at 4 in the morning, wandering around and trying to see things in the dark. Wesser Renaissance pinnacles everywhere, and that weird, pastel, birthday cake painting on all the old town buildings. I found myself in a side street, trying to read a plaque on a wall in German. (My German comprehension is strictly a function of Dutch cognates.) At last I doped out the inscription: “On June 26, 1284, the children of Hamlin disappeared down this street.” That instantly triggered the memory of my brother’s account of serving as surgical resident in a large Los Angeles hospital ER on the afternoon when a killer opened fire in a nearby grade school playground. Of the children who entered the emergency room that day, the staff was able to save two.
Let me ask you the complementary question: when did you know that Come Sunday was finished? How do you get out of a book? Can you get out of a book?
MORROW: A moment of ambiguity, of imbalance, is what I look for as I near the end of a novel. The big ending is more the domain of Anton Bruchner and Metallica, or of didacticism. It has always been clear to me that too finished a finish may be too nature morte, or conversely too hopeful. The dead fish on the white plate with the bouquet of flowers in the vase on the table hopeful? Well, probably. So when I wrote my way to a moment when Krieger, the resourceful antihero of Come Sunday is literally up a tree, somewhere near the border between Nicaragua and Honduras, observing down a pair of binoculars the temporary triumph of his sometime colleague and new nemesis, and has, at the very moment of utter moral, financial, political, human defeat, a new idea, I knew that was it. His thought is that he needs to get to a phone, but quick. He will redefine the argument, the rules, by reshaping the very game itself. How and what is of little consequence. And I understood that determinative fact. Readers of the book have asked me what Kreiger’s idea was that would morph his fate and I’ve answered honestly I don’t know. I do care, but am in the necessary dark. If I needed to know, I would have to break into that discrete world that was Come Sunday’s and still is. It was an unexpected, epiphanous instinct when I realized I didn’t belong there any more. There was no further need of my imagining and to continue would have been to encroach. It has been true with the other novels, as well. Grace Brush’s meditation about time in Almanac. Brice McCarthy down at Po-Sah-Son-Gay, a bend in the Rio Grande where the river speaks according to pueblo legend, his camera poised to photograph the old bridge the scientists crossed on their way to Los Alamos to invent the atom bomb. Grant listening to the bells ringing the angelus in Rome even as he has no idea whether his hoped-for new life will come to pass in the last paragraph of Giovanni’s Gift. These unfinished edgy instances are my clues to get out of the narrative, at least as its author. Whether we ever finally detach from these dreamed worlds is another matter. That is not as easy, even were it desirable. Which isn’t to say that coming to completion, discovering the finalizing form of a book is not satisfying, pure joy. I leave unreluctantly, yet remain inhabited by that offspring cosmos. The word “character” is one for which I hold no fondness, so given I don’t think of the people who populate my narratives as characters, they recede—while life continues and a new novel rises into view—as might old friends for whom I will always have complicated affections but never see again.
Your Plowing the Dark has a particularly astounding ending. Without giving any hint of the end bracket to readers who haven’t been there yet, could you tell me something about your endgame process in the book? Is the knowing when to leave the narrative a tougher decision than the entrance into it for you?
POWERS: I understand and agree with your desire to avoid too finished a finish, and there may be no better a description of our contemporary aesthetic than the resistance of closure. And yet, my endings have sometimes fought toward, if not finality, at least some denouement. But then, “denouement” originally means not wrapping up but untying ...
Sometimes my stories will want to do something to change the terms of the narrative justification, right at the end—some shift in focalization that will, with luck, deposit the reader on another level of the nested recursion that story-telling necessarily implies. A jump-shift in epistemic levels: the tale you’ve been reading becomes the book you are holding, as it does, in reverse, for the fictional inhabitants of that book “Let’s make a baby,” Frank Todd tells Jan O’Deigh at the end of Gold Bug, cajolling her out of her half of a story that will make his whole, the story the reader has just finished.
Now the weird thing is that I find these “untied” endings will only work if I let them come upon me through the accident of design. I write the book to discover the ending that, unknown to me, has set me on the path of the story in the first place. The ending of Plowing the Dark completely blindsided me in its inevitability. Of course I meant it from the beginning; all the establishing elements were there from the start. But I hadn’t a clue what I was doing until I did it. I find that if I work at the foundations, the vault will be there beforehand, even if I can’t see it as I build. I may not get there the first time, but through the dismantling and recasting of successive drafts, I’m suddenly (some “suddenly”!) where I was trying to get. As the multiply reparsable, wonderfully ambiguous Roethke line has it: “I learn by going where I have to go.”