Here’s a little-known bit of trivia about the Vancouver Writers Fest.
According to Wikipedia, more than a dozen authors have appeared at the annual event in the same year that they won the Man Booker Prize [now called the Booker Prize].
The Vancouver Writers Fest couldn’t confirm this by deadline. But if it’s true, American novelist Richard Powers hopes to become the next member of that exclusive club.
In September, he made the shortlist for the Booker—the most prestigious prize in the English-language literary world—for his 13th book, Bewilderment. It tells the tale of an astrobiologist raising an uncompromising neurodiverse son following his wife’s death.
Powers will find out on November 3 if he can call himself a Booker Prize winner.
“I have to say it’s a big thrill,” he told the Straight by phone about being nominated. “So we’re waiting with some excitement.”
In Bewilderment, the father, Theo Byrne, doesn’t want his nine-year-old son Robin to be medicated even after he acts out in school.
“It’s a book about empathy for diversity—for some way of finding common community and common cause with people who are very different than us,” Powers said.
The book centres around dialogues between the boy and his father on a wide range of issues, including Robin’s deeply held opposition to the extinction of so many animal species in the 21st century.
Like with the author’s previous Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Overstory, which was about humans’ relationship with nature, Powers includes a great deal of scientific information in Bewilderment.
This time, he delves into astrobiology because it’s Theo’s job. Plus, there’s an extensive section on decoded neurofeedback, which is a new technique relying on artificial intelligence to induce knowledge by activating parts of the brain.
“In the book I end up calling it an empathy machine,” Powers said. “The possibilities for that technique are still wide open because they’ve only been experimenting with it for a short period of time.”
Thinking about readers' comprehension
He communicates information in his book in concise sentences with an accessible vocabulary.
Bewilderment also includes short chapters, almost vignettes in some instances. And the dialogue is devoid of quotation marks—Theo’s words appear in Roman text whereas the words of his wife, Alyssa, and Robin appear in italics.
“I think about readers’ comprehension and powers of empathy and identification all the time,” Powers explained. “Every decision that goes into structuring and voicing a book is done with an eye toward the possible impact that it will have on a reader.”
He quipped that he’s been writing for almost 40 years, so he’s “finally learning things after decades and decades”.
His last book was very ambitious, close to 600 pages and unfolding through several characters over centuries. Bewilderment, on the other hand, is less than half that length and is dominated by Theo’s first-person narration.
“It’s a little bit like a piano sonata after writing a symphony,” Powers commented. “Both of those forms have the possibility of creating different kinds of effect in the reader.”
He realizes that some readers might skip over the astrobiology and simply focus on the father’s struggle to protect his son.
“I would be perfectly fine with that,” Powers said. “I do think the simplification in the style and the paring back of different kinds of literary devices…was a deliberate attempt on my part to make it a story that had a kind of fablelike universality to it.”