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Conversation: Kevin Powers, Author of ‘The Yellow Birds’

“The war tried to kill us in the spring.”

Those are the first words of a new novel set in Iraq and at home, narrated by a character named
John Bartle, a 21-year-old private from rural Virginia. The novel is titled “The Yellow Birds,” and it’s the first by author Kevin Powers, who himself served in the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.

In the videos above, I talk to Powers about his book and he reads an excerpt for us.

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to you.

KEVIN POWERS: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

JEFFREY BROWN: When did you know that you would write about the war and what did you want to convey?

KEVIN POWERS: About two years, a year, two years after I got home I started trying to deal with my own questions about my experience. I started initially writing poems about the war. I’ve been writing poems and stories since I was about 13. And I just started accumulating material and I realized that I needed a larger canvas to say what I wanted to say, which was to try to answer the question that people were asking me, which was what was it like over there.

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess the inevitable question, I’ll get it out of the way quickly, is how much of the book, the novel, is based on your experience?

KEVIN POWERS: The actual events that take place in the novel are not events that I experienced myself, but I think the kind of emotional core of the book was something that I identified with very strongly. This sort of interior life of the narrator, especially as something that I felt, those emotions are things that I felt myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you know you have this character Bartle, who is assigned really to watch over a less experienced soldier named Murph. And we learn fairly early — so I’m not giving anything away — that Murph dies. But then the story unfolds and we learn much more about the circumstances, so I’m just wondering about the narrative, the storytelling that you went through in trying to tell somehow a story about war.

KEVIN POWERS: Right, well, you know most of the story occurs inside John Bartle’s head, from many years after his actual experience in Iraq. And it’s partly an exploration of the way that memories, particularly his memories, his sense of guilt and confusion, anger, grief, the way they impact his life as he’s living it then.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that comes through, and it’s very early, there is an extended passage where the whole notion of luck and chance. You know, who gets hit, who gets hurt, who gets killed; there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason.

KEVIN POWERS: Right, that’s true. I think one of the things that is most difficult for him to adjust to is this feeling of powerlessness. That he’s kind of inside this thing that has a life of its own. The war itself seems to be have a mind and purpose beyond his ability to comprehend it. And that mere idea terrifies him and it’s hard for him to adjust to that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that the kind of thing that you felt yourself?

KEVIN POWERS: Certainly. I can remember distinctly feeling like I had very little control over anything other than kind of what was around me immediately, and even that there were times where you recognize that whatever may happen to you isn’t necessarily going to be of your own volition.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is another thing that comes through is the feeling of, I guess you could call it the absurdity of the war, in this war. There is a part where Bartle reflects that his grandfather’s war “had destination and purpose.” And then here there is a passage where you write, “We’d drive them out. We always had. We’d kill them. They’d shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they’d come back, and we’d start over…”

KEVIN POWERS: Right. And some of that comes from, you know, as I was writing the book, you know, I stayed aware of what was happening in Iraq, in some of the places that I had been. And I’d see, for instance in Tal Afar where I served part of my tour, it seemed as if every year there was a new battle. And it does seem strange, and absolutely absurd is probably an appropriate word to describe it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about, a lot of the book is also about coming home, and the difficulties. And that’s something we hear a lot about these days.

KEVIN POWERS: That’s true. I mean I think it was important for me to address the fact that the danger doesn’t end when you step back on U.S. soil. It may be a danger of a different kind but it’s just as grave and the results can be just as deadly as we’re finding out, sadly.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know inevitably there is the comparisons to other war books and I note you get the comparison to one: Tim O’Brien’s “Things They Carried” for example. You said you were writing since the age of 13, 15, early as young man. Were you aware of these models?

KEVIN POWERS: I wasn’t. Certainly some of those books I read in school. I think I had to mature a bit some of that maturation happened while I was overseas myself to fully appreciate the kinds of things that those books addressed. So sure, and now I mean in those books have been really important to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: I interviewed Tim O’Brien once a few years ago and one of the striking things is that he actually waited a long time before he wrote that book and others. It took him I think a couple of decades and so this is a discussion we’ve had on the program in looking at the art and writing about Iraq and now Afghanistan and you’ve written something relatively recent.

KEVIN POWERS: I suppose it doesn’t feel quite so recent to me. I mean I got home in early 2005. Started the book sometime in 2007. And really just spent the next four years working on it, so you know several years did pass, where the story would come together. I felt like I had more clarity on my experience and my own ability to kind of translate that experience into a book. And I’m sure more books will be written by other people who are still kind of working out how to tell their own story.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the ones have been written and the movies that we’ve seen? Do you– from your perspective does it feel like we’ve gotten a fair or clear picture of that experience so far?

KEVIN POWERS: I am happy that these stories are beginning to be told. I think a diversity of expression can only be good, so I think the more that people write about their experience, use their imagination to deal with their experience, you know, I think that’s going to be good for not only for those authors but also for people who are interested in trying to understand it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new novel is “The Yellow Birds.” Kevin Powers, thanks so much.

KEVIN POWERS: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.