Friday, October 17, 2014

Kevin Powers on The Yellow Birds

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a dinner on campus with Kevin Powers, the author of The Yellow Birds (here is my review from last year) after which he gave a talk. We had a very big turnout and great discussion, led by student questions (even through Twitter). He is a very nice guy, and was very thoughtful about and attentive to every student question.

He actually touched precisely on a point I made in my review, namely the question of thanking people for their service. He said he always appreciated the gesture as well-meaning, but that the question had a superficial quality and inherently generated a lot of negative memories as well. He says soldiers coming home are also commonly asked, "What's it like over there?" and he doesn't know how even to respond. In a way, the book reflects him struggling to articulate what the combat experience (he was a machine gunner in Iraq) meant to him.

That struggle makes the book very worth reading. He said he chose fiction so that he could explore themes without having to constantly wonder whether his exact memories were accurate or not. Through characters, he could wonder about what would happen if he had made different decisions, if he had followed different paths.

One interesting point came from a student question about why he chose not to present the narrative in chronological order. He said he originally wrote it like that, then felt that he could dig deeper into the book's themes by moving them around. Doing that and making the pieces fit together again took him about a year and a half.

Incidentally, he also has a book of poems that I will need to buy at some point.


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