Five minutes after arriving at the Marriott Marquis in New York City for the National Book Award ceremony Nov. 15, Richard Powers remembered he had forgotten his finalist medal, which the writers had been reminded to bring in case they were photographed.
"I really should go back and get this," said the tall 49-year-old novelist before bolting back to his hotel room.
As it turned out, Powers' hunch was right, as The Echo Maker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pages), his ninth novel, beat out Mark Danielewski's Only Revolutions and three other finalists to take home the prize. It is Powers' sixth novel to be short-listed for a major American literary prize, but the first to win.
The novel tells the story of a 27-year-old man who emerges from a car crash with a rare disorder called Capgras Syndrome. The man can recognize his loved ones but doesn't believe they are who they claim to be. The book follows the victim through his rehabilitation, which is aided by his anguished sister and a neuroscientist who is nearly unraveled by the spectacle of the half-million cranes that migrate to the Nebraska plain where the action takes place.
Thirty minutes before the ceremony began, Powers talked to me about the book and its origins and what he hopes it says about our ability to think and feel.
What started you on The Echo Maker?
A couple of things. Many years ago my two nephews were in a horrible car accident and the person who found them left a note much like the note that propels the plot in this book, and that's always haunted me — that note.
Also, some years after I was driving across country to see my mother who lives in Tucson, Ariz. I'd been on the road for many hours and it was getting on toward sunset; I was in the middle of Nebraska. And I looked out off the interstate and I saw this large, 3-foot-high biped, then another. Then as far as I could see, it was this continuous carpet of birds.
That must have been really strange.
I almost drove off the road, it was such a hypnotic and fascinating sight. But that image was in the back of my mind when I began reading neuroscience — that sense of these creatures that dance and sing and gather together in this big city of birds and how they seemed vaguely familiar but really, really alien — simultaneously something like humans, but really, really far away from humans.
How are the two related in the book?
Well, when I came across the documentation about this syndrome, Capgras Syndrome, whose fundamental feature is the inability to recognize your loved ones — and only your loved ones! — it got me thinking about the animal intelligence that brings these hundreds of thousands of birds to these places like clockwork, and also that weird feeling that I felt that they were familiar and yet the most foreign thing I'd ever seen.
The hospital scenes are both vivid and terribly sad. Did you hang out at a hospital much in the research?
Well, my brother is a surgeon, and I had spent a long time with him during his residency and later on in his private practice, so there is a fascination with medicine and the relationship between medicine and storytelling has surfaced in my books a few times.
The stories that we tell ourselves — we the healthy when someone near us is in danger, undergoing treatment — can be profoundly moving.
There's a lot of humor in this book that is both a relief and a surprise — how did that come about?
I was a little nervous last night when I was reading from it, because we have almost no other response to this stuff but to laugh sometimes, but it's an anxious laughter.
Does what we know about the brain make it harder to operate as a novelist now? After all, what we once thought of as our inner lives — the thing novelists like Jane Austen so beautifully created — is basically a mixture of the reptilian and chemical.
That's exactly what I wanted to do in this book. I wanted to tell a story that quite clearly showed that you cannot make a separation between knowing the world intellectually and knowing the world emotionally. That all the different ways we know the world all come from the brain, and they all depend on each other to make sense.
In your previous books, you have written about RNA, music, doctoring, the rise of capitalism, technology, singing, computers — is part of the fun of writing for you assigning yourself a new discipline?
Without question. That to me — the discipline — is what opens up all the passions people have about the world. We, in real life, articulate our hopes and our fears about the world through the work we do. To get to the real heart of who a person is you have to find out what they do all day long.
We've fallen into this convention that the human heart is limited to interpersonal relationship and self-examination.
It seems you could have gone into anyone of these fields professionally. Why did you choose writing?
Because I didn't have to choose. Novel-writing is the only place where someone who would have liked to do anything can still do that vicariously. If not in fact, at least in imagination. So over the course of the years, the books have been explorations, through characters, of these different ways of knowing the world: history and biology, digital computer technology. All of these are my opportunity to spend three or four years vicariously pursuing the road not taken. The career one part of me would have tried.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.[email protected]