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Book club webchat with Kevin Powers


We were delighted to welcome Kevin Powers for a webchat as our guest author for July 2013, to talk about his latest novel and our book of the month The Yellow Birds

The novel 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. 

Find out what Kevin had to say about his own experience of the Iraq war, his upcoming book of poetry and more. 

Inspiration, influences and writingExperiences of war | The Yellow BirdsPoetry and other work | Other


Inspiration, influences and writing

Q. TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you?

A. Kevin: 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.

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

"It almost didn't occur to me that I was writing a book until it 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."

A. Kevin: 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.

Q. yUMMYmUMMYb: 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?

A. Kevin: 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.

For your second question, 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.

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.

Q. TillyBookClub: 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?
A. Kevin: I used a combination of experience and imagination. The story is about memory, and the difficulty of relying on memory to understand ourselves.
John's process of trying to account for himself is similar to my own, in a general way. His is much more difficult than mine ever was, but my experience gave me a place to start from. The WWI poets were a presence for me, absolutely. I felt like they had a way of looking at the war experience that had been abandoned, not because it wasn't valuable, but because it wasn't fashionable.


Experiences of war 

Q. ResNulis: Did you find it cathartic to deal with the remaining issues of your own return to homelife?

A. Kevin: 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.

Q. migonette: In June 2013 in the Guardian, you said: "I've always had a certain level of comfort with the dark part of the human experience." Have your experiences at war modified this at all? What response have you had from fellow veterans?

A. Kevin: 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?

Q. gazzalw: In the UK there's been some shocking documentaries recently about the levels of PTSD among (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.

"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."

A. Kevin: 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. 

Q. TillyBookClub: 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?

A. Kevin: It has. I signed up out of a sense of duty to my country and my fellow citizens, and an idealist's perspective on words like freedom, justice, etc. Most of all though, I naively believed that people in positions of power would only send an army to war if it were absolutely necessary. I hope I've done away with my naivety and retained a healthy amount of idealism.

Q. over40andmumtoone: How do those close to you feel about the war after your return?

A. Kevin
: My mother was opposed to the war from the beginning. Most people don't know anyone who has been to Iraq or Afghanistan, so for the people close to me they had an opportunity to hear what it was like first hand. I think most of the people I talked to came to the conclusion that it was a tragic mistake.

Q. TillyBookClub: I think you are a hero for retaining even a smidgen of idealism, after all that brutality. How on earth did you manage it? What are the positive things you brought back from war (if there are any at all)?

A. Kevin: I don't know. I guess I believe that even though we can't control the world, we can control how we see it. One of the things that the war made a permanent part of my world view is that life is precious and fragile and deserves to be valued.


The Yellow Birds

Q. girlie26: Did you consider writing the story chronologically? And if so, why didn't you?

A. Kevin: 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.

"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."

Q. SunshinePanda: When you were writing, how pivotal to the development of the story was the promise made to Murphy's mother?

A. Kevin: 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.

Q. EmpressOfTheSevenOceans: 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 - it is mentioned so casually that I was onto the next line before the doubletake came. Was the contrast between the language and the events intentional?

A. Kevin: 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.

Q. Gargamella: 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? 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?

A. Kevin: 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.

With regards to your question about Bartle, 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.

Q. GeraldineMumsnet: 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?

A. Kevin: It's impossible for me to completely block out my experience when writing. I didn't base those relationships on my relationship with my own mother, but what she went through certainly contributed to my perspective on these two women. I felt a responsibility to show the challenges they face. In some ways they've both lost a son, or feel they have.With the fathers, I felt like there was some disconnect between the soldiers of my generation and the men of the Vietnam era. I wanted to describe that disconnect and it manifested itself as absence.


"Writing always feels hard, but the process is easier because I recognize what part of it I'm in. So I don't beat myself up when I'm not as productive as I'd like."

Poetry and other work

Q. EmpressOfTheSevenOceans: 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?

A. Kevin: Writing always feels hard, but the process is easier because I recognize what part of it I'm in. So I don't beat myself up when I'm not as productive as I'd like. With The Yellow Birds every step was a step into the unknown.

Q. Gargamella: I last read Wilfred Owen's poems about 30 years ago, but your book has inspired me to go back to them. I've not read anything else by you yet (I will) so apologies for my ignorance but have you already had any war-themed poetry published?

A. Kevin: Thank you. You won't be disappointed by Owen. Heartbreaking work. There isn't much else out there of mine to read, so don't worry. I have some poems online at various magazine websites and my first poetry collection will be out in April.



Q. EmpressOfTheSevenOceans: Did you ever envision Yellow Birds being so very successful?

A. Kevin: No, I didn't. I was proud of it, and I hoped it would find an audience, but I never could have expected the response it has gotten. I didn't know a thing about the publishing world, so I honestly didn't know what to expect.

Q. TillyBookClub: Which novelists writing at the moment do you admire? And can I also ask what you are reading right now?

A. Kevin: I'll read anything by Cormac McCarthy or Marilynne Robinson. I loved Hilary Mantel's Cromwell books. Philipp Meyer is another young writer I admire. His book The Son is a tremendous achievement.

I've been reading a few different things recently. Some books on coal and the American south before, during and after the civil war. Rereading some Jose Saramago and a book by the brilliant poet Eavan Boland called Object Lessons. I've just finished re-reading Anna Karenina (for about the fourth time, I think - I try to read it at least once a decade) and am about to start Alice Munro's latest collection.



Last updated: over 3 years ago