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The Genius in the Cornfield

Urbana professor Richard Powers on his National Book Award-nominated ninth novel, The Echo Maker

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Richard Powers calls it highway hypnosis--the hallucinatory state of mind that descends upon a weary traveler at the end of a long day on the road. In the late 1990s, the novelist was driving alone from Illinois to Arizona when in Nebraska he came upon what he thought was a mirage: thousands of three-foot-tall birds falling from the heavens. Powers was so shocked that he almost drove off the highway. The next day he learned that what he'd seen were sandhill cranes on their annual migration to the Platte River.

"I got a hotel room and woke up early the next morning and saw the massed departure of the birds from the fields at dawn," he says. "I had this awed sense of what these creatures do every single year, traveling thousands of miles to converge on this spot, teaching their offspring how to follow and time this migration. I glimpsed how these solitary creatures, for a brief moment out of the year, become incredibly social and form this enormous city of birds. And I was so taken by the richness of these processes that I knew I would have to write about this."

His ninth novel, The Echo Maker--published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and shortly thereafter named a National Book Award finalist--sprang from this chance encounter. Set on the Platte during the cranes' migration, the book follows the mysterious car accident, brain injury, and subsequent recovery of a slaughterhouse worker named Mark Schluter. Diagnosed with a rare neurological condition called Capgras syndrome, Schluter becomes the focus of one Dr. Gerald Weber, a popular neurologist a la Oliver Sacks, known for studying and writing about the oddest brain disorders. And Capgras is bizarre: the sufferer often believes that his close family members are impostors or robots.

Powers, an Evanston native who lives in Urbana and teaches English at the University of Illinois, studied physics during his undergraduate years and has woven science into the complex narratives of previous novels like The Gold Bug Variations (published a few years after he won a MacArthur genius grant) and Galatea 2.2. He saw a connection between Capgras and the cranes. "Learning about how the human brain can become split between rational and emotional processes--losing the ability to recognize a loved one while finding everyone else perfectly recognizable--I remembered that vision of the cranes and their mysterious mass staging. That's where my story came together.

"In a way," he continues, "this book is a return to the neuroscientific themes I had written about before, but it's also an attempt to bring those themes forward into the landscape of personal empathy while raising this larger question about our connection to other creatures. Can we recognize ourselves in other species?"

The Echo Maker feels more accessible than your previous books.

I hope so. There are ways in which its theme--the theme of empathy and of sharing someone else's view of the world--required me to rethink my narrative contract with readers. I very much wanted to write a book that would generate more ways of empathy with wider kinds of readers.

I was also looking for a way to absorb a lot of the background research and neuroscientific material into the flow of the narrative, since the book is so much about the ways that people narrate themselves and the outside world. So all of this research, instead of standing by itself as a separate intellectual frame as it has in some of my other books, is now absorbed into the principal characters' psyches. And while you do learn a bit about what's happening in cognitive neurology right now, you're really learning about the emotional language of the book's brain scientist.

You seem to have found a narrative for the midwest, a place that is often dismissed as a bland fly-over region.

I don't think there's a single midwestern narrative. I've tried different ways in several books to tap into some of those long rhythms that the midwest invites us to hear. But it's a subtle place that opens up only gradually as you keep looking at it, and keep listening.

But I think there's something else about the midwest. It's the portion of the country that supports the coasts and makes the coasts possible, so it's absolutely essential to how the American mind works in its role as a kind of primary producer for all the rest of this complex ecosystem. So that's always intrigued me: America stripped bare. America without props and without distractions or disguises and protections.

A brief bit about your history--you seem drawn to science.

I always thought I would be a scientist--an oceanographer, geologist, or physicist. I've tried to connect those disparate passions to fiction and to show, in my writing, ways in which science and art are not as far apart as a lot of people might think. Science and fiction are profoundly different cultures, profoundly different processes, yet they partake of each other, and they change each other. They are mutually defining, like nodes in a tangled network. You can't understand humans without looking at both art and science.

What are the seeds of your writing life?

The seeds of writing in me--boy, I could narrate that in all kinds of ways. Certainly, leaving Chicago at 11 to live in Bangkok had an enormous impact on me. [His family lived abroad for five years when his father, a high school principal, took a job at the International School of Bangkok.] Being dropped in an extremely different culture on the other side of the globe turned me into an observer. As I grew up, my love of music intersected with my love of science to become an interest in form--pattern making and pattern finding. Those impulses have been at the core of my vocation as a writer. What patterns can I find in people? What patterns can I find in the outside world?

I was a child and a young man who loved to do many different things and who could do many different things with a modicum of skill. Writing novels turned out to be the only place where I could pursue all those careers at once without having to make a choice.

What do you mean by "all those careers"?

I couldn't choose, professionally, between music, history, sociology, and all different kinds of science. But every career is fair game for a novelist's vicarious enjoyment. Every road that I didn't take, every profession I chose not to pursue, could become, at least in empathetic participation, a profession I followed for three or four years, while writing another book.

What's it like to be a writer in the digital age? You're rather famously suspicious of modern conveniences. (Powers recently bought his first car, a Prius, and owns neither an answering machine nor a cell phone.)

The more simplicity that you can create in your own life, the more freedom you have to travel in your fiction. The fewer intrusions and complications in the real world, the more rich and textured the creative process can become. That simplicity gets harder and harder for me to preserve with every passing year.

But you can be fabulously wealthy with lots of material things and have a low level of intrusion.

That's certainly true. And some really great American writers of this century have exerted tremendous effort to keep themselves outside of public life, and I admire them for doing that. Salinger and Pynchon, for obvious examples.

I did that myself as much as I could throughout the first part of my career. I didn't do any interviews for any of the early books, and the first photograph I did was for my fifth novel, ten years after I started. The first release of any kind of biographical data occurred about then as well. It's harder as I grow older to maintain that same withdrawal from the world. Now that I'm connected with the university, I have obligations and responsibilities that require me to live more publicly. And all of that is fine, I think.

The writer looks for some kind of balance between being in and being out of the world, coming and going. We find little rhythms on a daily basis and a weekly basis and over the course of a year, ways to keep immersed in the materials that we need to be thinking about and absorbing. But we also need to find ways of removing ourselves from the thick of things and from the turbulence of experience in order to reflect on and write about it. Most writers develop some kind of cycle of diving in and then removing themselves from experience.

The question is the relationship of technology to the user. The really perceptive thinkers about technology have been especially useful in pointing out, in the last several years, how tools are not something external to us or forced upon us, not something that makes us conform intellectually to certain forms of use. Rather, our technologies are prosthetic extensions of ourselves; they represent the congealed collection of our hopes and fears and dreams about the way we would like to extend ourselves into the world.

We tend to look at our machines and ask: are they good or evil? Are they helping us or hindering us? What are they doing to our ways of life? I think those questions miss the point a little bit. The question is not what values the machines force upon us. The question is: what do we want to do with the machines we've built? Every tool we've ever made can be used and abused, and that includes writing. We can't live in the world without some kind of moral ambiguity. It's forever up to us to shape our stories.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jason Lindsey.

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