Exclusive Q&A: National Book Award Finalist Kevin Powers on ‘The Yellow Birds’

Exclusive Q&A: National Book Award Finalist Kevin Powers on ‘The Yellow Birds’

Kevin Powers’ debut novel of the Iraq War, “The Yellow Birds,” has been compared to Tim O’Brien’s classic, “The Things They Carried,” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” and has been selected as a finalist for the National Book Award. Powers’ inspiration for the novel came from his own experiences as a soldier in Iraq. The story centers on Pvt. John Bartle and his comrades in arms, Pvt. Murphy and Sgt. Sterling. Powers talked with Bookish about the immediacy of war and capturing it in fiction.

Bookish: Was there a particular moment or aspect of the Iraq War, as you experienced it or as you’ve known it, that you set out to capture in your book?

Kevin Powers: No. My intention was to provide an example of what that experience might have been like for the narrator, to provide just one individual’s perspective on the war. So it wasn’t that I was trying to capture anything about the war in itself, but rather the thoughts, feelings, fears and anxieties of this one character.

Bookish: Did the book start more with the character, or did it start with the idea of a soldier in this war?

KP: I think it started with the character, really. With reflections that, at that moment, were not even particularly assigned to a specific person, but which had all probably emerged from the mind of one person.

Bookish: It seems that there’s not necessarily a definitive meaning or a fulfilled sense of purpose that John Bartle comes away with after the war. Did you think of this as particular to him, to other soldiers like him in this particular war?

KP: I think it’s particular to him. I wouldn’t claim the authority to speak for anybody else in that regard. But probably in all wars there’s a sense that all of those material memories and experiences come to define you, and it can be incredibly challenging to try to make sense of that. So, it’s his particular expression of what I imagine is not an isolated set of emotions.

Bookish: There’s one point in the book where the character of Murphy, who’d been very close to Bartle, starts to drift away. Sgt. Sterling says something to Bartle along the lines of, “If you’re already home in your mind, you are a dead man.” Could you talk about how that split–having to stay attuned to every moment, yet being unsure of what any of those moments mean?

KP: Right. Sterling’s point of view is that survival demands the kind of attention that can’t be compromised at any time, which is of course–as we all know–an impossible task. We don’t control the way that thoughts enter our mind. For Bartle, he’s trying to process his own experience, his own perceptions, taking in the sensory overload that he finds himself in at all times.

But also, as you said, not being able to control his reminiscences. So, yes, there’s a conflict of approach there. Sterling is a bit of an automaton at the end of it. So, thinking of home seems like a luxury to him; if it’s not helping you get through whatever happens to be right in front of you–the next mission, whatever it is–then it’s a liability. I think Bartle probably believes Sterling when hears that, but it just adds to his own fear because that’s not his experience. He doesn’t have that kind of control or self-discipline, whatever it is that would be required to fulfill those parameters.

Bookish: Yes. Sterling, this very tough-minded sergeant, seems very good at war. He stays 100-percent focused, but at the same time, as you say, he’s kind of an automaton. Do you think you have to give yourself over to the war like Sterling has in order to be a successful soldier?

KP: I think it’s a negotiation, and that’s one of the things that most terrifies Bartle about his respect and admiration for Sterling, such as it is. He’s aware that Sterling has given up a significant portion of his humanity in order to be effective as a soldier. Now, I don’t know if that’s necessary, but that’s his approach and I think the thing that Bartle most fears is that it is necessary or it may be necessary. It’s a question that I wanted to address as I was writing. I’m not sure that I came away with any definitive answers.

Bookish: The book has an alternating structure: We’re in Iraq, and then we jump to Bartle in the aftermath–maybe a week later, a month later and then a couple months into the future as Bartle readjusts to civilian life. Did you choose that structure for a particular reason?

KP: I was trying to find a way to indicate the inescapable nature of his memories. The whole thing is essentially told looking back, but the way that those experiences in Iraq encroach on his homecoming, even when he’s dealing with what he deals with later on, is fluid. His ability to recollect his own life doesn’t happen in a linear fashion. It’s just what pushes forth prominently, whether it’s a memory of Iraq, or a memory of something that he experienced coming home. I tried to have the structure of the book reflect that somewhat organically. I wanted it to mirror that fragmentary nature of his experience.

Bookish: You’ve mentioned that Stephen Wright‘s “Meditations in Green” is one of your favorite books. Did that novel influence you in writing this book? Were there other books that were models for you as you wrote “The Yellow Birds”?

KP: Yes, for me, that was the clearest one. Not so much the alternating structure, but just because it freed me from feeling like I had to take any other approach other than the one that felt right to me–because it’s such a unique book. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it. It’s so strange, hallucinatory. It’s adventurous, really, the way that it handles its material. It was really freeing for me. When I read that, I just felt like I could take any approach that I wanted to.

And, also, books that compress the interiority of their subjects, like “The Stranger.” You’re spending a lot of time inside one person’s head, and I wanted to see how that could be done, and done effectively.

Bookish: When Bartle comes back from the war, he’s a bit conflicted about people always thanking him for his service, and he feels like it’s not really his place to accept that gratitude.

KP: I think, for him, the difficulty lies in the fact that for what he’s gone through and what he’s done or participated in, “thank you” just doesn’t seem to be the appropriate response. He can’t find any result of his efforts, or the sacrifices of people that he was with. He can’t see where they’ve achieved anything worthy of being thanked for.

And there is also the sense that not only is this experience (which he doesn’t share with very many people) distancing but, also, these attempts to elevate him as a soldier–genuine though they may be–only serve to further distance him and further isolate him. It may be true that he’s being put on a pedestal, but he is alone on that pedestal, and that loneliness is the emotion that he feels most intensely.

Bookish: The Iraq War has been politically fraught from its inception, and yet your book seems almost determinedly apolitical. Was that a choice you made early on?

KP: Well, obviously my experience is absolutely different from that of the characters in the book. But having been a soldier in Iraq, it felt like an honest approach not to dwell on those political aspects because, to be perfectly frank, those aren’t the primary concerns–at least in my experience, limited as it is. Those kinds of concerns are pretty much left stateside. When you’re over there and you’re understanding that everything you do has life-and-death consequences, the political ramifications–grave as they may be–stop being of primary importance. It just seemed like an honest way to approach the story. People can make of it what they will, as far as any political implications go.

Bookish: That sounds like a relief, actually, to be able to leave politics behind. Why would these guys care about politicians bickering when what they’re doing is so immediate?

KP: Exactly. For them, whether they should be there or shouldn’t be there is almost an irrelevant question because they are there. They just want to make sure that they can get home.

Bookish: Have there been reactions to the novel that have surprised you?

KP: Somebody did tell me that she had been wanting to read the book, but she was dreading it. It’s funny, she said, “You know, I was just dreading reading your book. I really wanted to, but I was dreading it just because–” She had been on this idyllic vacation with her family, and she said, “I just didn’t want to be reminded about what the real world actually was.” But she said that she did, ultimately, read it and really appreciated it. The only response that I was able to come up with was, “Well, both of those things are in the real world, you know?” This amazing time she had with her family is no less true and valid.

Bookish: You’re also a poet. Was this the first long prose piece that you’ve completed? Are there particular rewards or pains to fiction writing versus poetry writing?

KP: Well, it’s certainly the longest that I’ve completed. I’ve been writing stories for a while, but this is my first attempt at a novel. With poetry, I do feel married to the immediacy of it. There’s something about having the idea come, letting the work be done in your head as you’re reflecting, or whatever–however you want to phrase it. Just getting the expression of that out is kind of like allowing the poem to happen and, generally, it’s a fairly quick process. We’re talking about hours or days, rather than months and years like fiction.

What I really did appreciate in writing a long prose piece like this was the freedom to go in directions that I wasn’t necessarily sure would be fruitful–the way that I could go back and take a different approach, with the understanding that I had time. It felt very much like “work” in the best sense of the word–the pleasure of doing work, which is a big difference. It’s just different from writing a poem and feeling like you’re–not to sound precious–but like you’re at the mercy of the muse. There’s a lot I learned about both over the four years that I was working on this.

Bookish: Have you started to work on another project?

KP: I have, yeah. I’ve got a poetry collection that I’m trying to finish up, and then I’ve been taking some notes and sketching out some scenes on another novel. So, we’ll see how that goes.

Bookish: Will it be about the Iraq War?

KP: It will not, no. It’s still coming together in my mind, but as of right now, it’s going to be about the murder of a former plantation owner just after the end of the Civil War.

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