The Absence of What’s There: An Interview with Mark Powell – Michigan Quarterly Review

The Absence of What’s There: An Interview with Mark Powell

Mark Powell is the author of seven novels, including Small Treasons (Gallery/Simon & Schuster 2017), and Lioness, forthcoming in 2022. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Breadloaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and twice from the Fulbright Foundation to Slovakia and Romania. He has written about southern music and culture for The Oxford American, the war in Ukraine for The Daily Beast, and his dog for Garden & Gun. In 2009, he received the Chaffin Award for Contributions to Appalachian Literature. At present, he is under contract for a graphic novel about Russian malign influence in the US election, and working on a novel about the prison system in Florida.

Powell has degrees from Yale Divinity School, the University of South Carolina, and the Citadel. He taught at Stetson University in Florida for eight years, where he directed and co-founded their Low-Residency MFA and ran a prison writing program at Lawtey Correctional Institute. Currently, he is an Associate Professor and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Appalachian State University. He lives in the mountains of western North Carolina with his wife, children, and dog.

Daniel Weaver (DW): I want to start by asking you about the university. The university appears in your fiction, especially in Firebird and in that case Yale, but you also teach at one. How do these real universities compare to the ones that appear in your fiction, where they appear as part of a power network?

Mark Powell (MP): I’m at Appalachian State, a relatively small, state-school in North Carolina. It’s certainly not a school filled with power brokers or anything, it’s a wonderful place. Yale is a little bit different. I get the feeling that there are two sides to it, or maybe an inner core, like a Yale within a Yale. I always had the distinct feeling that what I was writing about that inner core wasn’t that far from reality. Obviously it’s a caricature and an exaggeration, but there is certainly a sense that there’s a revolving door between academia and government and that door is moving constantly and pulling people in. So, while it is far-fetched I like to think it is perhaps not that far-fetched. 

DW: There’s the idea of a secret society. 

MP: It’s like an open secret. There are people here in political science departments that have great influence in government. Or in the economics departments, they are often recruiting grounds for the US Government. I can say probably with some level of confidence, a lot of the foreign students studying there are probably watched or probably approached. All of this is, of course, hearsay, but if it one collects enough hearsay one tends to think that there’s probably something there. 

I just wanted to play with that notion that these universities are serving not even exactly dual purposes, right? There is the primary mission to educate and engage with the community, but they are also a larger springboard for U.S. interests. Which is not to say that places like Yale — they are large enough and diverse enough to be incredibly progressive, in one sense, and rather reactionary in another sense. They completely exist in that kind of tension.

DW: Have you written about the kind of university you work at? Do you feel drawn to write about it? 

MP: I think I will eventually get there, this is my sixth year, so I feel like in writing years that’s still relatively young to be learning something. There is a character in the novel I have coming up in April [Lioness] who teaches at Appalachian State. 

But it doesn’t factor, it’s more like a plot convenience than a large, framing device. So perhaps I’m inching there, I feel like I’m always moving. When I was living in Connecticut I was writing about growing up in South Carolina, and I moved to Florida and in Florida started writing about Connecticut. I moved to North Carolina and started writing about Florida. I’m always one move behind. There is that sense that you get to know place well, but you have to leave to see it with some objectivity. 

DW: I wanted to ask you about your experience with the Fulbright. There’s a mini genre of novelists who have also received a Fulbright and who introduced it into their novels. Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You are two examples. Is there anything about that experience that draws you to it in terms of novelistic representation? 

MP: First, I would say the US government does some things wrong, but Fulbright is something they do magnificently right. I am such a fan of the program. I think for a lot of writers, and this includes me, you move toward the Fulbright because there’s something you’re already interested in writing about. So, when we went to Slovakia – though with Slovakia that wasn’t necessarily the case. I wanted to be in Eastern Europe because I was particularly interested in that part of the world. And that was just a good match, it could have been Hungary or the Czech Republic. But when we went to Romania I went there very specifically to write a novel about it. I had an idea and I knew I needed to spend time there. Unfortunately that time was cut short by Covid so I didn’t quite achieve that. Ben Lerner, as I recall, when he was there, the novel happens during the subway attacks [in Madrid on March 11th, 2004]. 

So maybe he just found himself in a situation where it’s impossible not to write about it. But other writers go already wanting to write about it. To have the opportunity to immerse yourself for almost a year in another culture, where the duties are rather scant. You need that tactile sense of things. You can read endlessly and research things, but you need to know what the cobbles of the street feel like, what it smells like. I can’t write about it without that. 

DW: You said that you are specifically interested in Eastern Europe. Why? 

MP: That’s a great question. I think the answer, or as near as I can get to it, is that I am a child of the Cold War. I was born in 1976, my first memories are of Ronald Reagan talking about the evil empire. It just loomed large in my mind, the idea of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain and so forth. I said this last night, I grew up in a very conservative, very pro-America place, and I still very much believe in those ideals, even if the practice falls far short. I think it was just such a bogeyman in my mind. 

And then I found, for example, Czechoslovakian resistance to autocracy in the 1960s all the way up to 1989. It’s one of the more moving stories of the twentieth century, and solidarity in Poland. You have these instances that, at least when you’re a young person, seem to sparkle with moral clarity, which is something that seems completely absent from our world. So, to see Vaclav Pavel writing his manifesto and going to prison for it, but then emerging to stand on the steps of the castle with the Rolling Stones. You see that at a certain age and it imprints very deeply. So, I think in my mind, it’s always been this combination of both these childhood associations, this is the way this bipolar world is shaped, but also these incredibly brave acts of resistance, and often acts by artists, writers, and thinkers. And nonviolence, I mean, Romania is the only place where violence on a large scale takes place in 1989. So as someone who leans towards pacifist thought, anyway, I don’t know, it’s like a confluence. 

DW: I’m wondering how old you were when that happened? You also mentioned last night that 9/11 for you was also a very formative event. I’m wondering how those two things interact? 

MP: There are a lot of historians who call it the short twentieth century, from 1914 or 1918 up until 1989. There’s this strange period between 1989 and perhaps 2001, at least for Americans, and of course it’s the great squandering. A squandering of good will, a squandering of some level of moral suasion. So, there’s this great tragedy involved. The Soviet Union dissolves in 1991 and we respond by then trying to exploit their pockets. I mean, they were doing a good job of it themselves. They didn’t need our help but they certainly got it, they got what Naomi Klein calls the shock doctrine.  

My real political consciousness starts about 1989 and it starts in this incredibly idealist, even naïve state. I would’ve been about 13 when the Wall came down. By 2001, I have read and traveled my way out of this and swung to what I would say is the ridiculously extreme left. Since then, I’ve shifted again. I’m still on the left, but I’m not quite as far as I was. So, I think it’s the swinging between those two poles, between November 1989 and September 2001. That’s kind of why that registers so much.  

DW: Do you feel like you’re still writing from somewhere in between those two poles? 

MP: I think I’ll always write from there. You experience certain things at a time when you’re really malleable and your blank brain and your belief system are pretty plastic. And whether that reinforces it or shatters it, it also fashions the lens through which you see the rest of your life. To a certain degree, I’ll always be writing through that lens. Even as, you know, my new novel is set more or less in the present, 2018 or 2019, nevertheless the worldview is something that’s established almost twenty years prior to that. 

DW: I want to ask about Prodigals. That novel takes place in the 1940s, but presumably you were still writing from this mental space in the 1990s. Does it show up in the book? 

MP: I don’t know, because I started writing that book by accident. I had gotten out of undergrad and had no idea about what I was going to do, and my grandmother told me this fairly incredible family story that she experienced when she was young, about fifteen years old. And I thought for the sake of posteriority, for the sake of the family, I’d just write it down. 

My grandmother experienced this story when she was about 15, so she knew what a fifteen year old girl would know. She didn’t know the larger implications. So, having written it down, I just started imagining what the gaps were. And I realized I was writing a novel. And I think I thought of myself more at the time, almost just like an amateur anthropologist. I was writing this in the late ‘90s in South Carolina and I think I was witnessing the very end of a culture that has now essentially disappeared.

There were a lot of wonderful things and a lot of terrible things about that culture. At its best, it was a culture of hard work, stoicism in the face of poverty or in the face of all sorts of terrible things. At its worst it was homophobic, it was patriarchal, it was racist. But I knew it was also disappearing very rapidly, this kind of rural life. My grandparents were all farmers who, most of their family lost their farms and had to go to work in textile mills. And then the textile mills left in the 1980s to seek cheaper labor, right? So, this culture was disappearing, and I wanted to record that. To some degree I was recording not just the disappearance of that generation and of that culture, I was recording the disappearance of my own idealistic belief that was grounded in that world. So it was a sort of eulogy for that time, that place and my childhood understanding of that place. 

DW: I’m a bit nervous to ask this question, but because you said euology, I’m going to. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is probably the most widely read book about Appalachia published in the recent past, for better or for worse. What are the ramifications of representations like that? What currency do they have in the literary world? 

MP: There are of course ways one can embrace the stereotypes and perhaps be successful financially or even critically outside of the region. People in the region absolutely detest it. The thing that’s troubling to me about J.D. Vance is that now he’s opposed to these American institutions that he sort of pulled himself up by. Public education, the funding of universities, the U.S. military, all of these things that he used to pull himself out of his situation. 

And of course his narrative, this is not exactly what he says but this is my read of what he says, is that it is almost genetically inbred in the Southern Appalachian that you are lazy and the people who come out of the region and are successful, like him, are simply the exception. I mean, that’s absurd. I said last night that Appalachia has long been treated like an internal colony. The cultural theorist Christopher Hedges talks about sacrifice zones in the United States and if you’re talking about coal country in Appalachia, if you’re talking about the tomato fields in Immokalee, Florida, you’re talking about the Grants Mineral Belt out west, or on Native American reservations. These are the regions of the country we have decided – sorry, I get a little choked up – we have decided these can be sacrificed. I think people like Vance realize they can play into that narrative and it not only inflates their sense of self, that they rose out of it, it enforces a sense of cultural superiority. 

DW: That brings us back to Yale, unfortunately, because his path runs through there. 

MP: Sure, yeah. 

DW: Where you always going to go home, in your own life? You’ve been all around. 

MP: No, I don’t know. I would say if you are from a small town in the South, but maybe if you’re from a small place anywhere…it’s something that you’ll circle all your life without ever exactly landing. I’m sure it says far more about me and the person than it does about the place itself, but it represents the thing that nurtured you in the best way and the thing that you ran from in the worst way. 

So, I don’t know. I feel like a moth to the flame. You get close, and you pull back. You get close, and you pull back. And I’ve done that enough of my life that I expect I’ll probably spend a good deal of my life doing that. I think we’re pretty settled [in North Carolina] where we are physically, but spiritually or psychologically there is this pull and repulsion to it. But the better thing, too, is that while it’s easy to move outside of the region physically, or even mentally, and just be done with it, it’s a lot harder to engage, to come back and engage. And that’s something I’ve spent a lot of my adult life avoiding, but it’s something that I don’t want to avoid anymore. I’d rather be engaged than running from it. 

DW: Do you see an allegiance between Appalachian literatures and literature of the South? 

MP: Well, it’s interesting because Appalachian literature, or Southern Appalachian literature, is a part of the South but it’s also incredibly distinct. To spend time in Atlanta, an incredibly progressive city, one of the most diverse cities in the United States, is almost nothing like spending time in the mountains of east Tennessee, or to be in Savanna, you know, any of these places. So, while it does fall under that larger umbrella, I think it is something very distinct. The distinctiveness of the South, for good or for bad, has begun to—like the distinctiveness of everywhere—has begun to homogenize and erode. I think it’s held a little longer in the mountain South. That may be true of the entire Appalachians, I don’t know, maybe people in New England are far more distinct in rural Maine than in Portland or something. I suspect that to some degree that is probably the case. I think it’s held longer because of isolation, but also because people feel culturally under siege, and I think that leads to a tighter clinging to some traditions. 

DW: Do you notice a difference in the way your work is received depending on where you are? Either the questions that you’re asked or the comments you hear? 

MP: That’s a great question. Yes, to some degree. I think often when I’m outside the region, people have questions about what it’s like, as if I live in this exotic place, almost like a trip to the zoo. When I read in the region, particularly in the string of mountains and into the foothills, it is more questions about how I believe people who live there are perceived from outside. 

When we lived in Slovakia, a friend of mine who is Slovak told me that Slovakia is to the Czech Republic what the Appalachia mountains are to the rest of America. Geographically, that’s somewhat true, it’s more rural, it’s mountainous, but it’s also a state of mind. And to a large degree it’s just fabricated, it’s a paranoia that just exists. So, there is this flipping of things. When I was in graduate school in the Northeast, people viewed me as some weird thing that had emerged, like a guide that was going to take them into the underworld. Or as a total idiot, like how did this person arrive here? By some accident, clearly. But then within the region there’s often that sense of, well, how are we perceived outside of this place?

DW: Does the parallel implied by your Slovakian friend feel true to you? 

MP: It does feel true to me. People in Appalachian studies would dispute this, they would argue, and they would be technically correct, that I’m using colony in exactly the wrong sense. But I’m also using it in a psychic sense, in a place that is going to be mined physically and metaphorically for coal, for timber, for cheap labor. When Purdue Pharma wanted to know how addictive opioids were, they blew them down the Interstate 81 corridor. It turns out they are extremely addictive. There’s your research. It is not acceptable, but it’s not unacceptable, either. Certainly, no one from Purdue is going to go to jail for this. 

I have to imagine that the people in New Orleans after Katrina had to think the same thing, right? As they sat on bridges for days at a time, waiting for people to pick them up. If a hurricane hit Hilton Head, South Carolina, I can assure you that nobody is waiting three days to get lifted off the roof of a house. I think there’s that sense of a chip on the shoulder, to some degree. 

I found that to be true of the Slovak people, I found that to be true of a lot of the Romanian people, too. It’s interesting that it so often comes down to natural resources. There are vast oil fields in the northern part of Romania, which of course, Hitler had his eye on it, Stalin had his eye on it, Nicolae Ceaușescu, too, he had to hold on to them. The people that live in those places just get ground by the machine that has to extract the resource, whatever it is. That’s not to say, I mean, I’m being hyperbolic – Appalachia is mostly white and obviously there’s a great deal of privilege that comes with that and it is nothing like some of the sacrificed regions in other places. But it is nevertheless true. It might not be as pronounced, but it happens, it’s real.  

DW: There’s a moment in Firebirds about aggrieved white Americans that felt very contemporary to me, or at least contemporary to 2019 or 2020, presumably whenever you were writing. If you agree that it is contemporary, are there risks and benefits to writing in such an obviously contemporary way?

MP: We’ve certainly seen this nostalgia for a past that never was, which is really just nostalgia for a white hegemony. The risk is that you date something, and it does not age well. It’s a risk I’m always willing to take because what I want to do, even if it’s just me, I want to be in conversation with the immediate moment. I am not so arrogant as to think that I’m in conversation with posterity or something, but I also think about that thing Eudora Welty said, if you drill deep enough into one place you hit a groundwater that’s universal. So maybe this idea of a false nostalgia on the part of—the word is not the ruling class—but the dominant economic class or what have you, maybe this idea of false nostalgia and grievance against anyone that they perceive as taking what is rightfully theirs, has always been theirs, maybe that’s something that’s timeless. And maybe I risk losing that if I talk about 401ks, or something like this, but I hope I’m tapping into something that is larger. 

DW: You’re hesitant now, but would you have used a word like ruling class twenty years ago? Or was there a vocabulary that you imbibed when you were on what you call the extreme left? I’m talking about this pendulum swing you described from 1989 to 2001. And if you did, does it bubble up into your writing now? 

MP: It certainly bubbles back up constantly in my writing. I don’t know that “ruling class” is the right word, or that I even would have used that if I had been more thoughtful just now. But certainly, for the sort of thing that involves cultural, and more than that, economic dominance, hegemony. I was just reading in the Times this morning, actually, it was in the comments section of an article by Paul Krugman, and it was talking about the specter of inflation. Some people are beginning to call this period the Great Resignation, where a lot of people who are working hourly jobs are just saying “I’ve had enough.” Seven people right now in the United States control over a billion dollars, and they’re the usual suspects: Bezos, Musk, and so forth. I mean, that’s a hegemony right there. And that sort of thing trickles down to a certain percentage of people who are managing capital. There’s a certain hedge fund right now, I was reading in The Atlantic last night, that’s buying up newspapers and gutting them and closing them. Of course, they’re doing it for short term profits, but they’re also doing it because when you take away a diversity of voices, you begin to have the ability to enforce uniform rules. So let me walk it back, Daniel, maybe ruling class is exactly what I’m getting at. But it’s not a ruling class of the aggrieved people I’m talking about in the books. They think they are, right, and that’s the great sham of it all, to convince these people that they are some sort of ruling class when they’re just cogs in the machine, they’re just a half-click above some other cog in the machine. 

DW: That sounds like the blind greed you talked about last night, instead of conspiracy, because no one is that competent, but avarice, certainly. If there’s an intensification, a Great Resignation or something—things are getting worse—does literature becomes less important? More important? 

MP: I think literature might possibly be the last place we can have a cultural conversation about larger issues, a thoughtful conversation, that exists beyond soundbites, social media, and cable news or what have you. It might be the last place that we can ask these big questions that were asked by Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf. To me, that makes it more important. I think of that wonderful line in DeLillo’s Mao II, where someone tells Bill Gray, the reclusive novelist in the book: Oh, if I was a novelist how I would love to be told that the novel is dead. Because that means that you work from the margins and you make these strikes into the heart of things. Obviously, that is the answer coming from a novelist. There’s a certain amount of hope in that, that it’s still culturally relevant. 

DW: Do you have doubts about that conviction? 

MP: Of course, yeah. 

DW: Is there a part of you that feels as if you should get up from your writing desk and organize? Or organize again? 

MP: The problem is I’m terrible at those things, I’m like an introvert. [laughs] This is all I’ve got. What I fear is not that we’ll cease to hold books important, I fear we, the larger readership, will lose the ability to engage with serious fiction, from a long process of just not doing it. We will continue to consider books of huge importance, but we won’t understand them. Or it won’t be worthwhile. I’m not sure that that makes sense. We do need some sort of critical mass who are reading these books and discussing these things for them to have an impact in society. 

Poetry does nothing—is that Pound? But you operate out of the belief that that’s not totally true, surely it’s doing something. William Carlos Williams said poetry isn’t news, but every day men die for the absence of what’s there. So, maybe we’re going to all continue to die from the absence of what’s there. 

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