Presenter of the National Book Awards

2012 National Book Award Finalist,
Fiction

Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin PowersThe Yellow Birds

Little, Brown and Company

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds

Interview by Mary Beth Keane

Mary Beth Keane: Congratulations on being named a Fiction Finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. I know this must be a busy time for you, so many thanks in advance for doing this. How’d you learn you’d been named a Finalist and what was your first response?

Kevin Powers: My mother called me and said she heard it on the radio. I was speechless.

MBK: With what image did you begin The Yellow Birds?

KP: I began with the image of a body floating down the Tigris.

MBK: Did the story end up where you thought it would when you began?

KP: The process was so fluid that it's hard to say exactly what I thought it would look like when I began. 

MBK: You were a Michener Fellow in Poetry at the University of Austin, where you got your MFA. Your background in poetry comes through in the music of your prose, and serves as an often heartbreaking counterpoint to the blunt reality of these soldiers' war experiences. You are also a veteran of the Iraq War. Can you describe how your emphasis on language helped you get hold of this story (if that is, in fact, the case)?

KP: I wanted the language to reflect the intensity and complexity of Bartle's inner life and the strangeness of his experience. The sonic and rhythmic qualities of words and sentences are essential to the way I experience language.

MBK: How much consideration do you give to audience when you write?

KP: I don't think anything in particular. Generally speaking, I cross my fingers and hope there's someone who might find it interesting or moving or valuable in some way.

MBK: What, in your opinion, is the fiction writer’s greatest responsibility when writing a novel or short story?

KP: I don't know about other people's responsibilities. I try to get as close to the vision that exists in my mind as I possibly can.

MBK: Have any previous National Book Award Winners or Finalists been an influence on your work?

KP: There are too many to name them all. Yusef Komunyakaa and Cormac McCarthy are two that come to mind.

Mary Beth Keane is the author of The Walking People (2009) and the forthcoming novel, Fever, about the life of Typhoid Mary. She attended Barnard College and the University of Virginia, where she received an MFA in Fiction. In 2011, she was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. She lives in Pearl River, New York with her husband and their two sons.

Photo credit: Marjorie Cotera