Pulitzer-winning author returns to DeKalb after 2 decades

Mayor Jerry Smith (left) presents author Richard Powers with the key to the city Friday at the DeKalb Public Library, 309 Oak St.

By Noah Thornburgh

Award-winning novelist Richard Powers found himself back in his one-time home, after 20 years.

Powers is the author of 12 novels, his most recent being 2018’s “The Overstory,” which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He visited the DeKalb Public Library, 309 Oak St., 7 p.m. Friday to give a reading of his book, see some old friends and mingle with the folks of DeKalb.

Before Powers read an excerpt of his novel, Mayor Jerry Smith presented him with an honorary proclamation and a key to the city while the 140 attendees looked on.

“I’m a bit overwhelmed by that,” Powers said, looking at the key. “There’s something terribly wrong, bewildering, about coming back to this place that was so formative to me, in such an important period of my life, and to be promoted to Mr. Powers. Mr. Powers was my dad.”

Powers was born in Evanston and moved to Bangkok, Thailand with his family of seven when he was 11 years old. His family moved back to the states when he was 16, landing in DeKalb, where he graduated high school in 1975.

Powers said the transition was a culture shock and, he recalled with a smile, a physical shock.

“It was the first winter I’d experienced for five years,” he said. “It was elemental.”

Five years in Thailand, where “70 degrees is cold,” made the trek to school through the frigid DeKalb winds that much harder, he recalled.

“I can remember almost freezing to death trying to walk that distance,” he said.

Powers insisted on the importance of his time at the high school, particularly under the mentorship of former DeKalb High School teachers Joe LoCascio and the late Mary Penson.

“The man had a profound influence on generations, generations of us,” he said.

LoCascio was in attendance at the event.

In his introduction of Powers, LoCascio choked up as he described the hard truths Powers’ “The Overstory” made him confront. He sat to the right of the stage with Powers’ sisters, and he listened to the reading with his eyes closed.

“[Powers] is the smartest person I’ve ever met, and one of the nicest guys too,” LoCascio said in a comment to the Star after the event.

Powers remembered Penson as “warm, funny, vital, sassy,” and well-read, introducing him to a wealth of literature. She was another crucial influence on his development.

Powers said Penson helped students publish DeKalb High School’s now-defunct literary magazine New Pennies, while he was there. It was the first publication to feature Powers’ works.

“It was all poetry,” he said. “I could write these things and have them be published, and see them in print, and have my friends read them. It was quite a thrill.”

Alongside New Pennies and the harsh winters, Powers remembered the library fondly, a destination worth the harsh winter walk.

“I would come here three or four times a week and use it as my home away from home,” he said in an interview before the event. “A lot of my exposure to great world literature came from just browsing the shelves here, going up and down [the stacks] and finding works — a kind of self-directed, comprehensive reading program.”

Third Street ran through the center of the library the last time he was here, Powers said, waving his hand over where the street would have been, where the audience was sitting.

The library began a $25.3 million renovation in 2014, adding new wings onto the original Haish building, according to a Jan. 20, 2014, Northern Star article.

“I’m hugely impressed by the new facility and the variety of activities that the library takes on as part of its normal mission,” Powers said.

“The Overstory” centers around anti-logging activists and their concern for old-growth, Northern California redwoods. Powers now lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, but he says nature is never difficult to find.

“I like to make the point that there is more nature, more living systems, more complex interaction, biodiversity and complexity, anywhere than almost anyone realizes,” he said. “While the landscape in [DeKalb] is profoundly transformed from native prairie to agri-business, there is no less.”

In his youth, Powers would bike out of DeKalb with a friend, riding around acres of corn fields and taking pictures of old farms, he said. Later, when he returned to write “Three Farm Boys on their Way to a Dance,” he would take long walks out of town into the same fields of his childhood.

{{tncms-inline content=”<p>“The best thing we can do now is get out of the way of the people who are going to be living with the deformed world and find what it is that would motivate them and keep them from despair, restore a sense of meaning and connectivity that we didn’t find.”</p>” id=”b71e31a5-f882-4d98-b8ab-3d4e1e7bd48d” style-type=”quote” title=”Powers” type=”relcontent”}}

DeKalb’s quiet, “womb-like” safety and comfort let him focus on writing, he said.

“A lot of people always say, ‘If you want to be a writer, move to New York,’” he said. “If I moved to New York, I wouldn’t have written anything. But here, you can hear yourself think. You can attend and be aware of the passage of time.”

He rented a one bedroom apartment on Seventh Street, far enough away from his mother on North Fourth Street, but close enough to beg her for dinner, he said to laughter from the audience.

During the Q&A part of the event, an attendee pointed out that the event coincides with the #FridaysForFuture school strikes for climate held across the U.S. since Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s arrival in New York.

Powers said he was once asked what he would say to Thunberg if he met her. 

He would say nothing, he said. He would listen.

“The best thing we can do now is get out of the way of the people who are going to be living with the deformed world and find what it is that would motivate them and keep them from despair, restore a sense of meaning and connectivity that we didn’t find.”