If you are looking for ammunition to fight the prevailing idea that the novel is dying as important cultural discourse, then the slug for you is a writer named Mark Powell. Powell’s books, Prodigals and Blood Kin, are stylistically resonant and rich with an earnest moral concern. He tells stories of violence, addiction and redemption with the grace and distinction of a truly world-class novelist.
Powell currently teaches English at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. He was kind enough to conduct this short interview over email.
CW: Both of your novels are deeply informed by two recurring themes—place and violence. This contributes to a rather mythic quality very much at odds with much fiction being written by younger writers. With writers like Tao Lin and Miranda July, there is often a lightsome, almost wryly humorous quality to their fiction when dealing with serious themes. It leads to what I would almost call a fear of commitment on the author’s part. There’s also a sense that these stories (and the many imitations) could have happened in any place. Your stories, however, feel authentically tied to where they are occurring and there is a narrative force that seems to run as deep as your own bones. Can you tell us if this is a conscious approach or one that has always been part of your impulse to tell stories.
MP: It’s interesting that you say that, as I often feel like I was born too late–at least when it comes to my prose. In my defense, I can only say that I have always viewed life as too serious to approach in any manner other than straight forward. Which isn’t to say others should do likewise. Only that I don’t know how else to face things. I recognize the legitimacy of writing that is clever or whimsical, but it doesn’t particularly interest me. Life is violent and terrible, but it’s also comprised of moments of amazing beauty, and I lack the ability to render it in any other form. My constant fear as a writer as that I will fail to convey the gravity of living. I know that to some degree that sets me up as boorish, but I’ll have to live with that, and, honestly, I’d rather err on the side of being “unredeemingly dark,” as one reviewer said about BLOOD KIN, than on keeping to the sunny side.
CW: Each of your novels features characters recovering from combat experiences abroad. This often translates into a fragmented sense of peace in their own lives once they return home. What is the impetus behind this concern?
MP: I’m not sure why exactly, maybe because had fate not played out slightly different I would have been a soldier. (I went to a military college and always assumed I would be in the service.) Or maybe because the narrative of my extended family has been one of men returning from war. With my grandfathers and my great-uncles war was always such a touchstone. There was before the war and then there was everything after, that terrible seismic shift. But if, as McCarthy says in BLOOD MERIDIAN, “War is and we are,” then maybe war is the only real subject, war and love, and everything else an after-shock.
CW: Readers will note a stylistic shift from your first book PRODIGALS to your second novel BLOOD KIN. While both books are recognizably Mark Powell books, there’s the obvious change from hyphens to quotation marks to denote dialog. But also, there’s an opening up of the syntax in BLOOD KIN, a kind of lofty ease that’s quite different from the sharp edged poetry of PRODIGALS. It would be inaccurate to call PRODIGALS more tight stylistically, but there’s something going on where you’re letting the rhythm of the language carry itself in BLOOD KIN, almost in a way that it becomes a voice driven novel, along the lines say of something by Virginia Woolf. This is very different than the close-up psychological interiority we see in PRODIGALS. How do you explain this change?
MP: The opening up of the language is, I think, my maturation as a writer (what little of it there has been). My prose continues to become more expansive. I’m not sure why. Confidence, maybe. PRODIGALS was the first thing I ever wrote and so much of the process was a matter of simply trying to make the book work.
CW: It would be interesting to hear about some of your influences, both literary and otherwise. Are there certain voices that keep drawing you back over the years?
MP: The earliest and, I suppose, strongest literary influences were Faulkner, McCarthy, and O’Connor. I love writers whose work occupies a dark space, and characters that are seekers. Denis Johnson and Robert Stone are two writers that I’m always rereading. And Joseph Conrad. And Dostoevsky. If there are Tolstoy folks and Dostoevsky folks in the world, I aspire to be a Tolstoy man, knowing all along I’m not and never will be.
But perhaps more importantly, I spent huge chunks of my childhood sitting on our front porch talking. My entire family. We argued, told stories, just talked, talked, talked.
CW: It seems that a keen awareness of the natural world is a large part of your stories. Talk to us a little about your sense of environmental ethics as it pertains to your fiction.
MP: I’ve been through periods of intense activism, but now more and more seem to be mired in despair. Nature, solitude, silence–these aren’t commodities therefore we have decided they have no real value. A coal seam–that has value–so we level the mountain. But I can’t imagine life without wild places, even, like in the SC mountains, when they aren’t even that wild. When you step out of the woods you cut off one major connection that binds us to millions of years of humanity. And we call this progress.
CW: I’ve read that you’re at work on a new novel. Can you talk about this project and when we might be able to get our hands on a copy?
MP: I’ve just finished a third novel called, right now, THE HOUSE OF THE LORD. It’s actually set mostly in South America but concerns a southerner gone afoul. It’s in the hands of my agent and hopefully by the time folks read this it will be going out to houses. I’m clawing (very slowly) through the first draft of a fourth novel which is set back in SC in the present.
CW: Is there anything else you would like to add?
MP: Just thanks for reading and thanks for the questions.