Live Bookclub webchat with Kevin Powers, author of the award-winning novel The Yellow Birds, Tuesday 30 July, 9-10pm

(77 Posts)

'Beautiful' is a peculiar word to describe a war novel, but our July Book of the Month is overwhelmingly beautiful. THE YELLOW BIRDS follows a young soldier's experience fighting in Iraq, his friendship with his comrades, his moments of combat, and his disorientation when discharged back to civilian life. The book moves back and forth in time, between the battalion's arrival in the desert and John's haunted post-war existence, unable to deal with the pride and admiration of his family and friends or the terrible sensation 'like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone...' It is an intense reading experience - and one of harrowing truthfulness. Every moment, every image, is a precise and startlingly original vision of war and its effects. The writing is exquisitely poetic in places and brutally raw in others - the book has already won the Guardian First Book Award and the Pen Hemingway Award. THE YELLOW BIRDS is a modern classic that should be on must-read lists for years to come.

The book has been highly acclaimed across the globe, by journalists and a plethora of famous authors: you can find all the rave reviews on Kevin's official website.

Hodder have 50 copies to give to Mumsnetters - to claim yours please fill in your details on the book of the month page. We'll post on here when all the copies have gone. If you're not lucky enough to bag one of the free books, you can always get your paperback or Kindle version here.

We are thrilled that Kevin will be answering questions about THE YELLOW BIRDS, his prizes and his writing career on Tuesday 30 July, 9-10pm. So please feel free to discuss the book here throughout the month, and then come and chat to Kevin on Tue 30 July. Look forward to seeing you all there...

KevinPowers Mon 29-Jul-13 12:03:22

Testing

KevinPowers Mon 29-Jul-13 12:05:15

nuggie

ps - Thank you for the book!

testing

EmpressOfTheSevenOceans Mon 29-Jul-13 13:25:44

I'm about halfway through (hoping to finish before the webchat), and was gripped from the start.

As other people have said the book's beautifully written, almost poetic, and there are places where the beauty of the language makes the events being described seem even uglier in contrast: the very first paragraphs, for instance, with the image of the war as a living beast. Or Sterling rubbing tabasco in his eyes is mentioned so casually that I was onto the next line before the doubletake came.

Was the contrast between the language & the events intentional?

yUMMYmUMMYb Mon 29-Jul-13 20:35:05

I am disappointed that i have not yet read this book. Anyone who has read it has told me it is a "must read". Fortunately it arrived in the post from Amazon this morning :-)

My questions for Kevin are:
- what made you go from thinking about writing a book to actually doing it?
- which review that you have read about your book is your favourite?
- any other books in the pipeline?

Thanks in advance, looking forward to reading your book

Gargamella Mon 29-Jul-13 22:24:29

Thanks for a tremendous read. This one will definitely stay with me for quite a while.

Sorry they're late, but here are my questions.
(1) There are very few characters in the novel. That absolutely worked for me, but was that always your plan, or did you have a broader cast at some stage which you then whittled down?
(2) If Bartle was real and your friend, at what point in his story would you most want to talk to him to help give him strength or comfort? Is he somebody you think you could reach at that point?
(3) Are you willing to share with us what you're working on next?

gazzalw Tue 30-Jul-13 09:20:51

Hi Kevin

I didn't get a copy but fuelled and inspired by the comments on here, it will definitely be on my book wishlist for the summer hols...

Looking forward to the webchat tonight...

My question is this (and hoping it's not too much of a political hot-potato to answer): in the UK there's been some shocking documentaries recently about the levels of PTSD amongst (former) soldiers and how it impacts adversely on them trying to pursue their lives in 'civvy street'. What is the situation currently like in the USA? As an ex-soldier who sounds as if he suffered from a form of PTSD, what do you think should be done to help soldiers adapt to their post-military lives and to prevent their war experiences from having a negative, and in some well documented cases, fatal, impact on the rest of their lives.

Many thanks

Gazzalw

Evening everyone

I've been looking forward to this chat for six months, ever since I stayed up all night reading THE YELLOW BIRDS and only just resisted waking up my husband at 2.15am to tell him about the excellence of this novel.

There is a lot to discuss, so without further ado...

Kevin, welcome to Mumsnet Bookclub and thank you very much indeed for taking the time to be here. And many congratulations on your numerous prizes and on your beautiful, deeply affecting novel. We'll kick off with the advance questions from further up the thread. And then we'll aim to get through as many new ones as possible over the next hour (although getting through all the posts above may take a good chunk of that...)

I'd also like to add our two standard MN Bookclub questions (which we like to ask all authors):

Which childhood book most inspired you?

What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?

Over to you...

KevinPowers Tue 30-Jul-13 21:02:23

TillyBookClub

Evening everyone

I've been looking forward to this chat for six months, ever since I stayed up all night reading THE YELLOW BIRDS and only just resisted waking up my husband at 2.15am to tell him about the excellence of this novel.

There is a lot to discuss, so without further ado...

Kevin, welcome to Mumsnet Bookclub and thank you very much indeed for taking the time to be here. And many congratulations on your numerous prizes and on your beautiful, deeply affecting novel. We'll kick off with the advance questions from further up the thread. And then we'll aim to get through as many new ones as possible over the next hour (although getting through all the posts above may take a good chunk of that...)

I'd also like to add our two standard MN Bookclub questions (which we like to ask all authors):

Which childhood book most inspired you?

What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?

Over to you...

Thanks for having me. I've had a chance to look at some of the questions and they've been great.

As to those two questions:

I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember. When I was young I’d read as many fantasy and westerns as I could get my hands on. But it wasn’t until I read the poetry of Dylan Thomas when I was 12 or so that I felt like I needed to write.

For advice I'd say don’t worry too much about trying to figure everything out before you start. Allow the writing to be the place where you make your discoveries and your mistakes. I try to be fearless in my writing and ruthless in my rewriting. It’s a standard I rarely live up to, but the effort does pay off.

KevinPowers Tue 30-Jul-13 21:03:17

girlie26

Beautifully written, you're drawn into the friendship and want to see how it evolves. Had to concentrate at times due to the scenes alternating.

Question-Did you consider writing the story chronologically? And if so, why didnt you?

Reading this well written, observed book-experience of reading about war differs to that of what you read in newspapers etc

The story was initially written chronologically. But once I had a clear sense of what was going to happen to the characters, I felt like there was an opportunity to let the structure of the book contribute to a reader’s ability to understand what they were going through. So, for instance, the structure of the book is fragmented in the same way that John’s memories of his experiences are fragmented. I didn’t feel like that would have been possible if I’d left the story in order.

KevinPowers Tue 30-Jul-13 21:04:24

ResNulis

I am unable to join the webchat this evening, but very much wanted to post - both to thank you for my copy of the Yellow Birds, and to say how impressed I was by this book.
The subject would not normally have tempted me, but I had read such excellent reviews that I was encouraged, and was fully rewarded.
It is a rare thing, these days, to find a book so evocative of both atmosphere and human spirit in such well crafted and eloquent prose. I recently re-read The Grapes of Wrath, and found much in the Yellow Birds which reminded me of this classic.
An emotive, stunning read.

I would be most interested to know if the author found writing to be cathartic in dealing with the remaining issues of his own return to homelife.

I did. I’ve never found turning away from or trying to ignore the issues in my life to be an effective way of dealing with them. And I’d include questions and concerns about the society I live in along with whatever is going on in my personal life. I’ve always found it necessary to try to understand where and how I fit into the world. For me, writing is a singularly useful way of getting closer to something like understanding.

KevinPowers Tue 30-Jul-13 21:05:18

SunshinePanda

This book makes me so pleased to be part of MN book club as I would probably not have chosen this book myself but found it both moving and insightful. Certainly the language used added to the depth of the story as did the complexity of the relationships between the main characters. When you were writing, how pivotal to the development of the story was the promise made to Murphy's mother?

It was essential. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write about someone who had good intentions but would be faced with the terrible consequences of acting on them. John’s guilt, which I see as the root of his problem (not that it isn’t justified), largely stems from the failure to keep this promise. This is really the heart of the book for me, because that promise comes to represent so much more than just the few irresponsible words he spoke to Mrs. Murphy.

KevinPowers Tue 30-Jul-13 21:06:24

mignonette

Kevin- Thank you so much for your book.

"I've always had a certain level of comfort with the dark part of the human experience"- Kevin Powers-Guardian June 2013

Have your experiences at war modified this at all?

What response have you had from fellow veterans?

I’ll answer your second question first. I think that more than anything else veterans are pleased that people are trying to understand their experience and that their stories are being told.

I didn’t mean to give the impression that I’m attracted to that part of the human experience, only that I have always felt like there is so much to learn by thinking about it. And I seem to have a relatively high tolerance level when it comes to exploring that part of life. The war certainly focused the kinds of questions I’d have to ask myself: What can we endure as human beings and how? What does this do to us if it doesn’t destroy us? Why, when we’ve achieved so much in terms of alleviating pain and suffering, do we still spend so much of our time causing it?

KevinPowers Tue 30-Jul-13 21:07:02

EmpressOfTheSevenOceans

I'm about halfway through (hoping to finish before the webchat), and was gripped from the start.

As other people have said the book's beautifully written, almost poetic, and there are places where the beauty of the language makes the events being described seem even uglier in contrast: the very first paragraphs, for instance, with the image of the war as a living beast. Or Sterling rubbing tabasco in his eyes is mentioned so casually that I was onto the next line before the doubletake came.

Was the contrast between the language & the events intentional?

It was, at least in part. On the one hand, I naturally respond to this kind of language as a reader and a writer. On the other, I wanted the experience of reading the book to be strange and unsettling. One of the ways I hoped to achieve this was by letting the language create an atmosphere that I thought was parallel to the atmosphere that John finds himself in.

KevinPowers Tue 30-Jul-13 21:08:04

Gargamella

Thanks for a tremendous read. This one will definitely stay with me for quite a while.

Sorry they're late, but here are my questions.
(1) There are very few characters in the novel. That absolutely worked for me, but was that always your plan, or did you have a broader cast at some stage which you then whittled down?
(2) If Bartle was real and your friend, at what point in his story would you most want to talk to him to help give him strength or comfort? Is he somebody you think you could reach at that point?
(3) Are you willing to share with us what you're working on next?

-what made you go from thinking about writing a book to actually doing it?


It almost didn’t occur to me that I was doing it until I was already well under way. I’ve always been a writer. And I’ve always used writing as the place to understand the world I live in. At some point, admittedly early in the process, I just accepted that I was writing a novel and I was going to see it through to the end.

-which review that you have read about your book is your favourite?


I don’t really read reviews. My personal feeling is that I’m not the intended audience for them, readers are. It keeps me from getting too high or too low on my own work. But I will say that I was relieved when the first review came out in the Guardian and it was positive. The fact that it was reviewed by John Burnside, a writer I truly admire, was also satisfying.

-any other books in the pipeline?

I’m working on another novel now. It’s about a young woman caught up in some difficult circumstances just after the end of the American civil war. And I have a book of poetry that will be out in April.

I have to say a big thank you to the book club too, as I wouldn't have chosen to read a modern war book. But your book really made me think about the lasting effect that war still has on those that serve and the how atrocity becomes the norm. Very thought provoking

KevinPowers Tue 30-Jul-13 21:10:11

Gargamella

Thanks for a tremendous read. This one will definitely stay with me for quite a while.

Sorry they're late, but here are my questions.
(1) There are very few characters in the novel. That absolutely worked for me, but was that always your plan, or did you have a broader cast at some stage which you then whittled down?
(2) If Bartle was real and your friend, at what point in his story would you most want to talk to him to help give him strength or comfort? Is he somebody you think you could reach at that point?
(3) Are you willing to share with us what you're working on next?

Oh, I think I might have mixed up answers with this and the last one. Sorry, first time doing a chat like this!

(1) There are very few characters in the novel. That absolutely worked for me, but was that always your plan, or did you have a broader cast at some stage which you then whittled down?


I always meant it to be a narrowly focused story, but yes, I did remove some characters and storylines that I felt detracted from the overall experience. I wanted readers to be in John’s mind with him for as much of the story as possible. I also understood that his mind isn’t the most pleasant place to be, so I tried to tell his story as efficiently and effectively as I could.

(2) If Bartle was real and your friend, at what point in his story would you most want to talk to him to help give him strength or comfort? Is he somebody you think you could reach at that point?


I don’t believe anyone is beyond reaching, ever. It would be difficult to pinpoint the optimal time to do it, but somewhere along the line I’d simply say, “You are not alone. If you think you are, you’re wrong.” I don’t know if it would work the first time, but I believe it to be true, and I believe the truth does set us free.

(3) Are you willing to share with us what you're working on next?

I have a book of poems out in April and I’m working on a novel about a young woman set in Virginia just after the end of the American Civil War.

KevinPowers Tue 30-Jul-13 21:11:48

gazzalw

Hi Kevin

I didn't get a copy but fuelled and inspired by the comments on here, it will definitely be on my book wishlist for the summer hols...

Looking forward to the webchat tonight...

My question is this (and hoping it's not too much of a political hot-potato to answer): in the UK there's been some shocking documentaries recently about the levels of PTSD amongst (former) soldiers and how it impacts adversely on them trying to pursue their lives in 'civvy street'. What is the situation currently like in the USA? As an ex-soldier who sounds as if he suffered from a form of PTSD, what do you think should be done to help soldiers adapt to their post-military lives and to prevent their war experiences from having a negative, and in some well documented cases, fatal, impact on the rest of their lives.

Many thanks

Gazzalw

We’re experiencing the same terrible difficulties in the US. In my opinion, we should understand as citizens of our respective countries that this is what happens and will continue to happen to a huge number of people who go to war. We can call it soldier’s heart, shell shock, combat fatigue or ptsd. It isn’t a side effect of going to war; it’s the primary result. And it will continue as long as we think we can use violence on a massive scale to solve political differences. I personally don’t think a nation should go to war unless it completely understands that it may sacrifice the futures of all of the people who will fight on that nation’s behalf. If it’s not as an absolute last resort, I don’t think war can ever be justified.

I'd like to know whether your experience has changed your essential view on war as a solution to political problems - did you believe in the 'rightness' of the Iraq war when you signed up? Or was it more a duty?

EmpressOfTheSevenOceans Tue 30-Jul-13 21:12:53

Hi Kevin. Thanks for answering my question. I'm intrigued by what you said about your next novel- does writing it feel easier or harder so far than writing Yellow Birds, and why?

yUMMYmUMMYb Tue 30-Jul-13 21:14:00

Thanks for answering, so refreshing to hear that reviews aren't what you focus on. Started your book last night and i'm hooked already. Look forward to reading more of your work :-)

KevinPowers Tue 30-Jul-13 21:17:28

over40andmumtoone

I have to say a big thank you to the book club too, as I wouldn't have chosen to read a modern war book. But your book really made me think about the lasting effect that war still has on those that serve and the how atrocity becomes the norm. Very thought provoking

I'm very happy you decided to read it. A group like this one is particularly important because people often forget that the consequences of war extend beyond the people directly involved in it. Their friends and families suffer an extraordinary hardship, mothers most of all. I try to remind people that the mothers of these men and women are all fighting private wars of their own.

Oops, crossed posts and you've answered my question in the last one to gazzalw... but would still like to know how you felt at the beginning of your stint in the Army.

Same question as TillyBookClub and how do those close to you feel about the war after your return?

GeraldineMumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 30-Jul-13 21:19:26

Can I ask you to expand on your previous answer and talk about your portrayal of mother-son relationships in your novel, please (this being Mumsnet)?

I was very moved by the inability of John and Murph's mothers to protect their children, or fully comprehend what they'd gone through (although perhaps that was a blessing of sorts) - it speaks to every parent's deepest fears, at home or abroad.

So my question, which is personal, so please feel free to ignore if you don't want to answer, is: are you basing the depiction of mother/son relationships on your own in some way? Why do mothers figure and fathers don't really? Or is the Sergeant a sort of father figure?

My other quick question: did you feel the presence of war poets such as Wilfred Owen or Sassoon at your shoulder when you wrote this? Did you consult any other war literature as research, or conduct interviews, or was the book pretty much all based on your own experience?

(sorry, that's rather a lot of questions actually)

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