‘Writers write’: Richard Powers on his Booker-shortlisted novel Bewilderment

The Booker Prize-shortlisted author felt “he’d said what he had to say” after finishing The Overstory – until a bestselling novelist suggested otherwise.

Richard Powers, photographed standing in front of a tree.
Image: Dean D. Dixon

It’s amazing to think that Bewilderment, the critically acclaimed, Booker Prize-shortlisted 13th novel from Richard Powers, nearly never existed. Speaking on the Penguin Podcast, Powers told host Nihal Arthanayake that after finishing his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Overstory, he “truly was exhausted” to the extent that he thought it would be his last.

‘I really had a moment where I felt I've said what I have to say’

“It’s a long book. It had a very large cast of characters. It was written in multiple narrative styles. It unfolded over a long period of time. And I'm an increasingly old man and I was just beat at the end of it,” Powers explained. “I really had a moment where I felt, you know, I've said what I have to say and I was thinking of the Tao Te Ching saying, ‘When you have said what you have to say remove yourself from the stage.’”

And yet, within weeks, Powers was back at work – and on his poignant novel Bewilderment. What happened to not writing?

“I mentioned all of those doubts to to a friend of mine, Barbara Kingsolver, and said, ‘I think it might be my last, you know. I think I'd like to go out with this as my as my consummation,’” Powers told Arthanayake. Kingsolver, he added, was sceptical. “She said: ‘Good luck. Writers write. And you're gonna have to find some way to justify your existence and fill the days.’”

Listen to Richard Powers on the Penguin Podcast

“Sure enough, a few weeks later, I did have that feeling,” Powers said. “Of not necessarily having to justify my existence... but having to have a process to be immersed in. A process that makes sense of, and consolidates, and extends the experience of my days, and to put them into a story that brings together what it is that my feelings and my thinking have led me to discover.”

Asked if he was addicted to writing, Powers said it wouldn’t be unfair to say so. “It is embarrassing to say that it was mere weeks between that initial sensation and the realisation that no, you know, Barbara was right: writers write.”

‘For me, each of these 13 books has been an excursion into a new way of looking at the world’

“If addiction means that you feel edgy and withdrawal symptoms when it's not happening, that box is checked. The beautiful thing though about this particular addiction is that it resists habituation. You aren't returning to the same process again and again. For me, each of these 13 books has been an excursion into a new way of looking at the world, a new kind of disciplinary organisation. And it has moved me forward in my life to embark each time on what seems to be the same process, but like evolution itself just keeps unfolding in different ways.”

You can listen to the whole conversation, in which Powers also speaks about the book that’s reduced him to tears, what he thought of the other Booker Prize-shortlisted novels and how he survived lockdown alone in the Smoky Mountains, above – and don't forget to subscribe to the Penguin Podcast, wherever you listen to podcasts, to be notified of future episodes.

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