Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi.
Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso is a weekly series of intimate conversations with artists, authors, and politicians. It’s a podcast where people sound like people. New episodes air every Sunday, distributed by Pushkin Industries.
We return this week to our 2021 conversation around climate change and the restorative power of nature with Pulitzer-prize winning author Richard Powers. We begin by defining the thematic through-line between The Overstory and Bewilderment, the eco trauma articulated in each text, how we may redefine hope in 2021, and what the pandemic may teach us about the looming climate crisis. Powers also details the ecological shortcomings of capitalism, our myopic interpretation (and fear of) death.
On the back-half, we unpack why he writes, the need for “productive solitude,” and the singular way he writes analytical and emotional characters. To close– a fitting scene from one of Powers’ earlier works, Plowing the Dark, in which an older man enters an used bookstore, unable to find the book intended. And in the absence of that book, Richard Powers will continue to do so.
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From the episode:
Sam Fragoso: I love this idea that your fate is inextricably linked to the person across from you on that bus right now— the person driving in the car next to you, maybe someone doing the dishes in their house. As we talk about personal purpose and meaning, we’ve taken a very 30,000-foot view. And I want to go a little bit more granular here in understanding your purpose. To do that, I thought we’d begin on the final two paragraphs of page 48 in Bewilderment.
I woke one morning looking down on my body where I lay in bed. I saw myself the way my old mentor Dr. McMillan sized up a new species of archaea. I weighed where I’d come from, my cast of mind, the sum of my failings and capabilities, and I knew what I wanted to do before my small part of this giant experiment ended. I’d visit Enceladus and Europa and Proxima Centauri b, at least via spectroscopy. I’d learned how to read the histories and biographies of their atmospheres. And I’d comb through those distant oceans of air for the slightest signs of anything breathing.
SF: I present that passage because I want to go back to when you knew what you wanted to do before this giant experiment ended. To do that, we have to go back to 1980: you had finished college, you’re 23 years old, you’re working as a computer programmer, you lived near a museum at that time. And on a Saturday, you went to an exhibit that you did not know— and found something that changed you.
RP:There were years, growing up, where I imagined myself being just about every kind of scientist that I could think to be. I wanted to be a geologist. I wanted to be a paleontologist. I wanted to be an oceanographer. I wanted to be an entomologist. It was just this endless sense of fascination and curiosity. And I just thought, what a great life it would be to feed that curiosity. The problem is, as I grew older, I didn’t want to give any of it up.
I just felt a kind of panic at having to specialize and make decisions. You know, when I graduated from high school and went to college, the idea of declaring a major was like killing forty other lives that I wanted to lead. It was just a period of great stress for me. I was a generalist who was living in a specialist’s world. I didn’t know how to move forward without giving up most of the things that interested me.
When I discovered writing, first poetry and then short fiction, I just thought this is so wonderful because the choice to do this doesn’t preclude the choice to fill it up with all these other curiosities. To write was not to give up on being any of these other things. In fact, it was the way forward to be all those other things, one after the other, after the other.
So, when I was a young man in 1980, and I was making a living as a computer programmer, I no longer felt that sense of low-grade panic that I was a computer programmer and not something else, because I had writing. I had this idea that I could affix myself and define myself and shape myself through this other activity that wasn’t professional yet, but that could allow me vicariously to pursue just about any other professional course of interest that caught my fancy.
When I walked into that museum on that Saturday morning and turned around the corner, I saw this photograph that was looking back at me— these three men in the middle of an empty road in the weeks just before World War I, in their Sunday finest, just looking out over their shoulder. I stepped into their gaze and kind of completed this circuit across the distance of seventy-five years, I just thought, “I could be, for a while, a historian. I could be for a while a participant in the lives of these other people who were shaping and seeing the world in very different ways. That’s been the beauty of all thirteen of these books. Each one has been a kind of ticket to another way of understanding the world, another kind of discipline, another professional relationship through the eyes of people who pursued the careers that I myself would never pursue.
Richard Powers is the author of thirteen novels, including The Overstory and Orfeo, and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award. He lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, a weekly series of conversations with artists, activists, and politicians. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and NPR. After conducting seminal interviews with icons like Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, and Noam Chomsky, he independently founded Talk Easy in 2016.