Kevin Powers on The Yellow Birds

"and the dust covered everything in Al Tafar, so that even the blooming hyacinth flowers became a kind of rumor."--The Yellow Birds
"and the dust covered everything in Al Tafar, so that even the blooming hyacinth flowers became a kind of rumor."--The Yellow Birds
Kevin Powers, author of a novel about young soldiers who serve in fictional "Tal Afar," Iraq, served in real-life Al Tafar, Iraq (the anagram is so close it feels like a typo) when Powers was only slightly older than 21-year-old Private John Bartle, the first-person narrator of his sinuous and stark war novel, The Yellow Birds. Powers and Bartle are both from Virginia, and although the fictional Bartle does not share the MFA in poetry that Powers earned after his military service, his soldierly descriptions of everything from hyacinths to explosions contain the rhythms and sensory details of poetry. Powers speaks directly about the similarities between himself and the narrator of The Yellow Birds in an interview with Tom Gjelton, who was standing in for Diane Rehm during her vacation from The Diane Rehm Show (iTunes link to most recent episodes) in September 2012.

The Autobiographical Itch
Whenever a novelist's background clings closely to that of his or her fist-person narrator the question of autobiography is inevitable. In my experience this fiction vs. autobiography curiosity peaks right after I finish the book, which is what happened when I finished listening to the audiobook of The Yellow Birds (my review will appear soon in Shelf Awareness--I will add a link when goes live).

Podcast Provender
I often look for a podcast to give me answers to questions I have about a book or an author's intentions, and I am often satisfied by podcasts. Writers tend to be garrulous in audio interviews, and there are plenty of good interviewers out there asking questions readers might like to ask. One of the advantages of getting your author background information from a podcast is that you get hear the bonus verbal cues--hesitations, tone shifts, silences, or lack thereof--that can help you decide for yourself if the writer is telling the truth about the fiction.

Complimentary Snoopiness
I know authors get terribly tired of this snoopiness, but the better the story, the more avid the desire to know if it's real. Readers can't help it. If it turns out that there is actually a good deal of invention and inspiration, and that the biographical details are more scenic and empathetic than true-life-replicating, that only adds to my esteem for the fiction.

Veteran Experience
If you're read or listened to the audiobook of The Yellow Birds (and I recommend that you do, if you have any curiosity at all about what modern combat and the subsequent return home is like for our soldiers), you will find this interview with Kevin Powers by Tom Gjelton on The Diane Rehm Show well worth a listen. The author reads several well-chosen excerpts aloud (though I'm still partial to Holter Graham's audiobook performance). Powers' discussion with Gjelton will inform you about how much the author created from his experience, and listener call-ins bring in more voices of non-fictional veterans who served in various conflicts. The 50-minute interview is spoiler-free, so don't be afraid to listen to it if you haven't read the book yet (though it will be more interesting if you have).

Sterling Disappointment
My only disappointment with this podcast was that Powers did not budge a millimeter on the real-life inspiration for Sergeant Sterling, to my mind the most singular, enigmatic, and charismatic character in The Yellow Birds. Sterling's hot-metal dialogue and his brutal-love leadership of his unit give The Yellow Birds a necessary intensity. When Gjelton inquires, "Was there someone like Sergeant Sterling in your own experience?"(Minute 11), Powers replies, "I mean--not directly; none of the characters correspond to people I actually knew," and veers into a discussion of mining elements of himself (cf. Flaubert: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi"), the disavowal comes a little too fast and sounds a little too slick. Perhaps the soldier-poet-novelist knows when a diversionary answer is the most strategic, and in this debriefing he got away with one, or maybe he made Sterling up out of nothing but dust and shards of his own experience; either way I'm glad he exists in novelistic form.