A Shout in the Ruins

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Kevin Powers was born and raised in Richmond. He enlisted in the Army National Guard when he was 17, eventually carrying a machine gun in northern Iraq during a yearlong tour of duty. The first big decision he made after coming home -- to go to college -- was practical; Powers graduated Virginia Commonwealth University in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in English. The next decision was inspired; he left home again, this time enrolling at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, achieving an MFA in poetry and turning early drafts of a story about Iraq into the novel that launched his writing career. 

War and homecoming have formed the center of his work, and the work begins with "The Yellow Birds" (Little, Brown, 2012). This is the story of Private John Bartle, who survives a deployment to Iraq only to return home haunted by an experience he can't explain to others, much less understand himself. Enormously successful upon publication, Powers followed up his debut novel with a collection of war poetry entitled "Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting" (Little, Brown, 2014). In his latest book, the novel "A Shout in the Ruins" (Little, Brown, 2018), Powers returns to Richmond to tell of a murdered plantation owner, alternating between the Civil War-era 1860s and the Civil Rights-era 1950s to weave together the lives of people separated by circumstances but connected through time by blood and suffering.

The author took a break from working in his yard to speak with me over the telephone.

Why did you enlist in the Army National Guard?

I'm being truthful when I say that I was just looking for something to do. I was a senior in high school and not a very good student. My girlfriend's dad was the head of recruiting for the National Guard in our area of Virginia, and I really admired and respected him. I figured I needed something to do and thought the Guard would give me some type of skill; I figured I'd be ready for college at some other time. I don't want to say I didn't put any thought into it, but it just happened that way.

You deployed to Mosul and Tal Afar from 2004 to 2005, and then you went home. Tell me about going home to Richmond, Virginia.

Obviously, there are the personal elements to Richmond. So much history, first of all. Battlegrounds and monuments ring that city. I'm not in any kind of lineage that my characters were in, soldiers from the Civil War and so on, but there's a sense that this is the kind of thing that had been going on since the dawn of time, that people came back from war and felt the difficulty of reintegrating. The signposts were all around in Richmond. Cemeteries and monuments, reminders that peace, not war, is the aberration. The homecoming fueled my desire to figure out how I fit into this tradition.

The big thing was realizing there were so many questions that I had never asked myself, certainly not while I was deployed. You get home from war and there are the constant "What was it like?" questions, to which there are delicate and indelicate answers one can give. I'm still trying to answer that central question and find some way of approximating an interior experience on the page for someone who has no relationship to the subject. The goal is always to approximate for the reader the recognition that I'm home, but things are no longer how they were when I left.

I remember watching the movie "The Hurt Locker” when it came out in 2008. Of course, we are plenty familiar with that movie and the complaints about its accuracy to combat operations and so on, but I remember in particular the scene when Jeremy Renner comes home. He is standing in the aisle of a grocery store, baffled by the fact that things have just proceeded as normal while he's been away—what an excellent depiction of the dislocation. My goal as a writer is to open a window so readers can have some view of that experience.

How did you begin your first novel?

"The Yellow Birds" started for me with an image, the image that closes the book. It wasn't a character or a story. There was just a picture of a body floating out toward the Persian Gulf; that was it.

I wrote letters during deployment, but I didn't have any intention of documenting my experience at war. I was busy, actually, and I don't know that I would have had any meaningful insights while I was living through the deployment. As I began to write, though, I figured I could rely on my memory, that I could depict that sense of being away from the experience but always on the verge of returning to it in my mind. In the moment, I never asked myself if what I was doing mattered; it was important to the people around me if nothing else. However, the further away I get from the Iraq deployment, I started to wonder if it mattered much.  What I'm trying to say is the level of removal forced me to reflect and allowed that reflection, those questions to become a part of the story. There's an excavation of what did that experience mean to me and what am I responsible for, the questions raised when I came home, if not while I was living through combat. The more my experiences recede into memory, the harder it becomes to reach any conclusions about whether it mattered.

Writers rely on observation, experience and imagination. You used all three to compose "The Yellow Birds" and also your book of poems. Tell me about using research in the writing of "A Shout in the Ruins."

My new book still emerged from personal experience. The central figure in the story is, first, its location, Richmond, and, second, this house at the center of a plantation; it's a real house. The house was about 300 yards from the house where I grew up, and I had a fascination with it as a child. As I recall the story, the owner of the plantation was set up to be murdered by his young wife. The murder, the history, had all entered the local mythology, and I was fascinated to see this tangible evidence of how history informs the present.

To go back to your earlier question, when I came back to Richmond, I started thinking about how much blood had been shed in every place I had ever lived. There was combat, of course, and also slavery. There is a pain that was not totally comprehensible to me as a child, but the introduction to pain through war brought forward a new fascination, and that house became an emblem for this pain. To answer your question more directly, the library of Virginia has incredible resources, and I read every book I could get my hands on about Richmond during the Civil War in preparation for drafting the novel.

My books are related to one another. In the first book, I was asking about an individual and levels of responsibility. In the newest book, I was thinking about that, responsibility mainly, more on the level of the community where I came of age. Are we just the sum of the things we've done before? Whether I'm using research or experience, when it comes to writing, I'm still going back to how do I evoke the feeling of being in awe of this wreck, this 'haunted' house, that even as an eight year-old there was something so powerful about the house that everybody could feel it. 

For what it's worth, the house is now a shopping center. They've built a Ruth's Chris steakhouse on the ground that was once the central location of incalculable suffering.

How far out on a limb did you go in writing this new book?

Far enough. This is a part of the history that artists better than me have been exploring for a long, long time, and one has to be sensitive to the stories of other people. I approached the writing as someone who grew up with it; I'm writing about my home. The urgency was there for me, and that's the reason I told the story.

You mention artists. Many writers and artists go to war, and many more seem to come out of war. Talk to me about the connection between vocations.

I didn't advertise at basic training the fact that I'd been reading poetry since I was 12 or 13 years old, but you are right, there is an overlap in the Venn diagram between service people and the smaller subset of people who have that artistic impulse. The connection is a restlessness, maybe adventurousness. The risks are entirely different, of course, but there is some similarity in the risks taken. I heard so many times growing up that I was going to starve if I tried to be a writer.

To make another connection between the two, I'd say the challenge they present. I had no idea what would happen to me when I stepped out of the cattle car in Fort Leonardwood, Missouri, whether I would fail or succeed. I recall Master Sergeant Bellamy gave me that exact point as the sales pitch: "You'll find out who you are." Both art and the military attract the kind of people who need to find something out about themselves.

The connection is especially strong when you're young and thinking big questions about how to define yourself. When I set out to see if I could write, I knew that the prospect of humiliating failure was there and that it would always be there, but I wondered about how I'd look back on this when I'm 60 and how I'd feel if I never tried. I knew I had the impulse, and the fear of regret turned out to be more powerful than fear of failure or other consequences.

When asked why he started writing, Virginia novelist Jim Webb cited the Auden poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," singling out the line "mad Dublin hurt you into poetry." What caused you to begin writing poems?

The first time I had to put down words was after reading Dylan Thomas. It was a reaction to encountering something so new and so different from what I thought language could do. I thought, "I just want to try this." It seemed so unreal to me, it seemed like magic what he was doing, but I never had an idea that it would be more than a hobby. The attempt to respond to coming home, the incessant questions about what ‘was it like.’ When I finally decided to start writing, I felt I had a reserve of language and imagery to deploy in responding to those questions. Sure, I was writing at 15 or 16, but I didn't have a story or a question to respond to at that point in time. The homecoming became that for me.

And, when I went to Virginia Commonwealth, I got encouragement from people I trusted and that gave me the confidence, too.

To write, there has to be a question you can't shake; that part seems necessary. There are stories of happy, well-adjusted people who make stories, but there has to be something you're looking at that you don't understand, and I have a particularly strong need for clarity. I want to feel like I'm seeing everything that's really there, and the only way I've gotten close to that is by using writing. There were moments in all the stuff that I've written where I can see that I got the clarity I was seeking. There's a poem in the collection, the title poem, it's very short. I believe I captured an emotion as well as I was capable of capturing it. Others might have the ability to be more precise, but I put on the page what I wanted to put on the page. If I tried to re-write "The Yellow Birds," it would be different. The writer changes and the work changes, too. I might even change things that don't need to be changed.

Writers from Hemingway to Webb have looked at impressionist painting for instruction, particularly the work of Paul Cézanne. What is the connection between impressionism and writing?

The end result is both less than reality and more than reality. It's not photo-realism, but somehow by using the impressions, you get something that approximates reality. Think of something like Haystacks, the series of Monet paintings. He shows you not what haystacks look like, but what it's like to look at haystacks at sunset. The ability to transfer that experience of seeing to the viewer is what makes impressionism remarkable. As a writer, you're trying to do the same for the reader, you're trying to transfer to the reader the experience of seeing war or slavery or coming home from battle. To just describe the haystacks, to take a photograph, would be useful, but it would not be art. You want the reader to have the feeling and emotion that the protagonist is having.

There's an artist who slashes paintings with a knife. The same neurons that fire, when you make the slashing motion on the canvas, are the same neurons that fire when you see the artwork.

Tell me about a favorite memory from your deployment to Iraq.

I had a profound and overwhelming sense of awe one moment during that deployment. We did a lot of security for EOD units while I was in Iraq, mostly at IED sites in and around Mosul. We'd pull up to the site, dismount, then fan out to pull security while EOD did its thing. One day, I'm up on a long berm pulling security, looking outboard, when suddenly it dawns on me; this berm, the one I'm lying on with my machine gun, was once one of the walls of Nineveh, and that realization just, like, melts my brain. It brought in for me just how small I was, not that I didn't matter as a person, but that there were so many people and so many experiences in the world, and that I could see that laying in the dirt while it was 105 degrees outside. It was an incredible moment for me.

Naturally, I also just think about those moments of being really bonded with people I loved and respected. I got out of the Army only a couple of months after returning to Virginia, and a lot of guys I deployed with eventually deployed two or three more times. I imagine that more bonding happened that I wasn't part of.

What is the one trait all writers have in common?

Curiosity, an unwillingness to accept face value. Writers share a suspicion that there is more to see, more to understand.

John J. Waters is a writer in Omaha, Nebraska.

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