Denton Loving

Mark Powell Interview


Mark Powell has written four novels.  The first three, Blood KinProdigalsThe Dark Corner, were all published by the University of Tennessee Press.  His newest novel is published by Story River Books, a southern fiction imprint from the University of South Carolina Press.  Called the best Appalachian writer of his generation, Powell has stepped away from native soil in his latest novel, The Sheltering, only to double down on exploring the themes that haunt all his work: ideas of family and love, questions of God and religion, and always, the difference between knowing and understanding.


The range you cover in The Sheltering is astounding.  You move from drones in Afghanistan to Iraq War vets to the real estate boom and crash to the Occupy movement to marriage and love and religion.  Was it difficult to work on such a large canvas, or did you always see all of these various parts working together?


Thank you for saying that. I wanted to try, to whatever extent I could, to capture what it’s felt like—at least to me—to be an American alive in the last decade, so I knew I needed to engage with both the wars and the boom and bust of the economy. But a writer always has to work on the visceral level of blood and bone. The idea of drones not only as a “bloodless” form of warfare, but as engagement with life via a sort of proxy seemed the precise metaphor of how we live our online lives—or so we like to think. We are lured into this ridiculous sense of “bodilessness,” but we are nothing if not bodied creatures. From the conception of the novel I wanted to try to tackle the way we imagine ourselves as physically disengaged, and then the way life constantly reasserts itself. The ethos of the last decade, maybe the ethos of all of American history, is our penchant for fooling ourselves that we are in control, that we know better, that we are somehow on a righteous path, only to have reality reassert itself, usually violently. That was the sense I was after from the start.      


You did a lot of research about drones during the writing of this book.  What was it about the use of drones in war that captivated you so much?  Did your feelings about their usage alter or evolve in the process of writing the book?


I have a built-in fear of anything that disembodies us, be it drones or the sort of online personas we too easily mistake for real people. Drones are a particularly scary representation of this disembodiment. But on the other hand, they are really, really good at killing people. But then again so was the Black Death. It was that sense that drones were both wholly new, but also something as old as human history—what are drones, really, other than highly effective Angels of Death?—that has fascinated me for years.


I know you attended the Citadel yourself.  How was it to give that experience to Luther Redding?  And where is the line between Luther’s experience and your own?


I’ve always wanted to write about my time at the Citadel, and Luther gave me a way to do it, though from a couple of removes. Our biographies are different, but I certainly shared that misguided notion that can inhabit a seventeen year old male and convince him that he is somehow “becoming a man” just because someone a year older is beating the hell out of him every night after “Taps” is played.


You also use MacDill Air Force Base in your book.  Any idea about how the men and women at MacDill feel about your depiction?


I don’t. I hope I’ve been respectful and evenhanded. The vast majority of the men and women I know in the military are smart, dedicated people with the courage to make the sort of difficult moral decisions most of us never face.


The structure of this book is not purely linear.  Not exactly, anyway.  When did you make the decision that the narrative should be revealed this way?


I knew I wanted a sort of circular structure from the start. Partly, because I thought it was a good way to reveal the story. But also because I wanted to convey the circular nature of life—the idea that lessons are seldom, if ever, learned; that violence begets violence, and when this particular story is over it simply starts again, though perhaps in another place, to other people. Violence, disenchantment, the overwhelming need to transcend the banality of life in a late-capitalist economy—those things never stop.


More than any of your previous novels, The Sheltering clearly shows the strong influence of Robert Stone in your work.  Sadly, Stone recently passed away.  Tell me about your relationship with Stone’s writing. 


I started reading his books in my mid-twenties and just as I was starting to discover the writers who spoke, and continue to speak, so directly to me. I’d read—and been deeply moved by—Faulkner, O’Connor, McCarthy, but by then I was on to Denis Johnson, Larry Brown, Joan Didion, Ron Rash, and Robert Stone. The books felt like a blueprint for living. It’s a bit dramatic to say I felt lost in a vast wood, but it’s not exactly untrue either. I had discarded the evangelical Christianity of my boyhood with such a thoroughness I had begun to feel the rough grain of my decisiveness. It was difficult for me to believe, and yet it was impossible not to. I felt the necessity of choosing something—anything—on my skin like a rash, as unwanted as it was inescapable. What I discovered in Stone was that I didn’t have to. It was perfectly acceptable to live in the tension of unknowing, doubt scaled against faith, neither attempting to resolve the other. The numinous, the presence, however I defined or failed to define it, did not exist to provide me with answers. Belief in God, Karl Rahner wrote, is orientation toward mystery. If there is any central line present throughout all the work of Robert Stone, it is, I believe, an orientation to mystery.

I read Dog Soldiers and then A Flag for Sunrise, and then backed up and read his oeuvre straight through, pausing, if only for a moment, where, in Bay of Souls, Michael Ahearn, faltering at a literal and spiritual crossroads, is pulled aside and reminded that the only thing that matters in the face of the unknown is courage. I’ve carried that idea of courage ever since. More accurately: that idea has carried me.

I wrote to Stone over the summer of 2008. My son Silas had just been born, and I remember late one night or early one morning sitting in the tiny kitchen of our old cabin in Mountain Rest, South Carolina, pouring all this out. Despite the possibility of waking a barely sleeping baby, I printed out the letter that night. I sealed it and stamped it and addressed it to the care of his publisher. I discarded the computer file. I needed to send the letter, but I didn’t need to be reminded of what it said. It was the sort of confession that would melt come daylight, and while I meant every word, I knew with just as much certainty that I would be embarrassed by every word.

We were living in Florida several months later when I came home from teaching class to find an otherwise bare envelope in our mailbox. The postmark was Key West and inside was Stone’s response. In it, he thanked me for my letter and spoke of his need to be of service. That his writing might be something other than an indulgence—that was his hope. To the extent that he could pray—that was his prayer. The letter was generous and eloquent beyond all reason, and reading it I knew I held in my hands something of great beauty, as bright and compressed as a jewel, a work of art that could not have been more direct had it been shaped as an arrow. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart”—so closed the letter—“and may God, wherever He has gone, bless you.”


Did you ever have the chance to meet him?


I met Robert Stone in Key West in January of 2012. There’s a certain danger in meeting your heroes—how could they possibly be who it is they are supposed to be?—but I wanted to meet the man, if only to thank him.  I wanted to thank him as much for that letter as for his books. It was a lonely letter, I think, but a letter that revealed the steadfast purpose of a life, of how the desire to be of service created that very purpose. I didn’t mention it, of course. He labored into the room—a workshop of twelve participants, most of whom didn’t even know who he was; which, yeah, galled me in the extreme—and huffed up the stairs, already suffering from the respiratory problems that took his life. Over the course of the next week he quoted Flaubert, read Hemingway, nodded his head knowingly, as if deep in thought, and then spoke with such good-hearted wisdom I stopped taking notes and simply listened. We workshopped what eventually became the opening section of The Sheltering. No one much cared for it, it seemed—too dark, too sad—but afterwards Stone pulled me aside and gave me a card with the name and email address of his agent. “When it’s finished,” he said, “tell this man I told you to send it.” That the agent eventually had no interest meant nothing to me. I had seen Stone in the flesh, and his life, so far as I could tell, embodied the same grace as his fiction. That he is no longer with us—isn’t the world a little less rich? a little less nuanced? Is it too much to say that I feel a little of the wonder slip? It’s silly to miss a man I knew almost exclusively through his books, but I do. I hope wherever he is, he is at peace. I hope he knows he was of service. I hope God, wherever He has gone, blesses him.      


Since The Sheltering has been released, you’ve spent six months in Slovakia, and you’re currently spending another six months in Mexico.  Have you been writing while you’ve been living abroad, and how have those very different locations effected your writing?


I’ve been working on a long novel set mostly in Eastern Europe that deals with the war in Ukraine. One thing about being an American abroad is that you are constantly reminded of your “American-ness.” You can’t not be an American because to almost everyone you meet, you embody whatever (misguided) idea of the US they carry around. Some people instantly love you, some instantly hate you. It’s unsettling to realize you carry such cultural and national baggage. But it’s also enlightening (and frightening) to see the long reach of US foreign policy from outside our borders. You can’t live outside the US long and fool yourself into thinking ours is a benign presence.


Besides writing and teaching, you’ve been named the director of a really exciting new MFA program at Stetson University.   There are a lot of MFA programs, but this one is going to be really different, isn’t it?


I hope so. The program will be based in Florida, but we hope to engage with the peoples and literatures of all of the Americas, blurring borders, so to speak. Our summer residencies will move from Mexico to Colombia to Brazil and on and on. 


What will we see from you next?  And what advice do you have for writers working with a big canvas and broad ideas?


I hope you’ll see a big novel set all over the US and Eastern Europe tentatively called Grievous Angel, after the Gram Parson’s album. As for working on a big canvas, Zadie Smith has said that fiction has to be necessary. When something could just as easily be a song or a film or even a podcast, why must this particular “thing” be a book? I think the answer to that is that over the course of human history we have developed no better tool for encompassing and interrogating the moral and emotional complexity of being alive than the novel. Novels are these wildly complex things made as much out of carpentry as magic, and what they do better than any other art from—what makes them necessary—is their ability to balance broad and conflicting ideas. When you write a book, you have to throw your whole life at it—everything you’ve been, thought, hoped, feared. I suspect that the more gutted and vulnerable you feel as an author, the better the work you’ve done.  


Denton Loving is the author of the poetry collection, Crimes Against Birds.  He is also the editor of Seeking Its Own Level: an anthology of writings about water.  He works at Lincoln Memorial University, where he co-directs the annual Mountain Heritage Literary Festival and serves as executive editor of drafthorse: the literary journal of work and no work.

Mark Powell is the author of four novels, most recently The Sheltering. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Sewanee and Breadloaf Writers' Conferences. He is an associate professor of English at Stetson University where he directs the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing.