Writing the Pulitzer-Winning The Overstory Changed Richard Powers’s Life

The author’s 12th novel was inspired by what he’s described as a kind of “religious conversion.”

The Overstory follows nine characters whose close relationships with trees lead them to a deep appreciation of the world’s threatened forests. (Galyna Andrushko / Shutterstock)

“Writing The Overstory quite literally changed my life, starting with where and how I live,” the author Richard Powers told the Chicago Review of Books. Before writing the book, Powers had been living and teaching in Palo Alto, between tech-centric Silicon Valley and California’s old-growth forests. An encounter with a giant redwood shook him; in a Guardian profile, he describes it as a kind of “religious conversion” that showed him his place in “a system of meaning that doesn’t begin and end with humans.” Powers then began work on the novel, and his research took him to Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. Months later, he moved there to live deep in the woods, where “walking a trail has become as important to me as writing.”

The Overstory, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction on Monday, is as close as it gets to a founding text for Powers’s environmentalism. The novel follows nine characters—among them a Vietnam veteran, a young coding prodigy, and the last descendant of immigrant pioneers—whose close relationships with trees, lasting sometimes for generations, lead them to a deep appreciation of the world’s threatened forests. Nearly all the characters become activists in some form—five of them eventually come together in protest against a timber company—and throughout their personal transformations, the trees around them are so exquisitely rendered that they seem like characters themselves. The result is what the Pulitzer committee praises as “an ingeniously structured narrative” that approaches trees and the threats facing them with wonder, reverence, and an urgency that could be enough to change minds.

Powers’s novels can be categorized as part of “the grand realist tradition”; Nathaniel Rich, writing in the June 2018 issue of The Atlantic, noted the author’s penchant for critical documentation of contemporary society, exploring “our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma.” Powers himself, however, views his work as allegorical, and, indeed, The Overstory in particular has a mythic scope. The trees at its heart are godlike in scale, “as old as Jesus or Caesar”; over hundreds of years, they engage in social behaviors, communicating with one another through a vast network of roots. Human characters treat them as revered ancestors; after all, they share significant amounts of DNA with us. Fantastic as they might sound, all these qualities of trees are real. With The Overstory, Powers has not created a fable so much as translated reality into a compelling system of belief.

The Overstory fits well within the growing genre of “climate fiction,” which explores the effects of climate change and humans’ impact on the Earth. Although the term, coined by the former journalist Dan Bloom, has been in use for about a decade, it’s gained new prominence within the past few years as a number of recent works have tackled ever more pressing problems such as global warming, drought, and rising sea levels. Climate fiction is often speculative: Books such as Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, for example, envision drought-stricken dystopias in the American West. But as other novels—such as C. Morgan Babst’s The Floating World, set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—demonstrate, the consequences of climate change don’t need to be imagined. They’re already very real.

Powers was a Pulitzer finalist in 2006 for his novel The Echo Maker, about a woman struggling to care for her brother after a brain injury, which won the National Book Award for fiction. That book, as Powers told the Los Angeles Review of Books last year, was also in part “a story of forgotten kinship” between humans and birds, whose intelligence is “deep and foreign enough to be invisible to many of us.” The Overstory takes this theme of connection with the natural world a step further, challenging people to recognize trees as creatures like themselves. It is the 12th novel Powers has published, and after a storied three-decade career, he seems to regard it as a kind of arrival, artistic and personal, at the place where he’s always been headed. “I just want to walk, look, listen, breathe, and write this same book,” he told the Chicago Review of Books, “again and again, from different aspects and elevations, with characters as old and large as I am able to imagine.”