‘It put both my writing and my life on a radically different course.’

In this Man Booker 2018 longlist interview Richard Powers tells us how California’s redwoods inspired The Overstory and what genres he’s drawn to the most. 

What’s it like making the longlist again? 

Something about this list of 13 books makes the nomination especially satisfying. The selection is bold and wide-ranging, with several distinctive debuts. It’s a joy to appear alongside so many younger, vital writers, not to mention one seasoned luminary who has awed me for decades. 

What inspired the novel? 

I was hiking in California’s Santa Cruz mountains under the second-growth redwoods when I came across an ancient tree that had somehow avoided the saw. It was as wide as a house, as tall as a football pitch is long, and as old as King Arthur. When I learned that redwoods that size and age were still being felled, it put both my writing and my life on a radically different course. 

You’ve written books in many different genres. Is there one genre that you are drawn to the most? 

I am compelled by the ‘scientific romance’ – works that manage to set the beauty and sweep of some large-scale, non-human drama against more familiar and local human urgencies. (A new and wonderful addition to this genre will appear this fall – Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered.) 

Favourite Man Booker-winning novel? 

What sadist wants me to answer this question? Rushdie, Carey, Byatt, Coetzee, Barnes, Saunders, Ishiguro, Atwood, etc., etc. – and I’m supposed to be a good consumer and pick just one? I’m grateful to dozens, but let me at least mention John Berger’s G., which helped spark my own first novel, a third of a century ago. 

What are you working on next? 

A machine for putting one person directly into the head of another. 

Richard Powers