Thursday, April 11, 2013

Getting Involved: The Empathy of Arthur Powers

What follows is from an interview with Arthur Powers:

In one sense, I have been interested in writing ever since I was in junior high school and became intensely interested in reading. There was a “classics” section in our school library, and I gobbled the books up one after another: Dumas, Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott. I did some writing then, and in high school took a creative writing class.
But in another sense, I did not see myself primarily as a “writer.”  I loved (and still love) history – I wanted (and still want) to be an active participant in society – in the history of our times. I believe that living life – being involved – comes first. If someone asks me, I am a husband, a father, a grandfather, a Catholic, a lawyer, vice-president of a public safety communications company, member of the pastoral council, former lay missioner in Brazil, a poet & writer.
As a young person – as with most young people – I wanted to express myself. As I matured (I’m sixty five), I became much more interested in other people. My grandfather told me that one can never be bored if there are people to watch. I find people fascinating – I love to observe them, to hear their stories, to listen to the way they say things, to enter their world.
I also love words. I grew up in a family that loved words. My father was a wonderful punster, and my mother was always finding and introducing to us new vocabulary. My early writing is poetry – I started publishing poetry in the late 1960s, and by the 1990s (when I began publishing fiction) my word skills were well honed. I had the privilege of not having to earn my living through writing, so that I could focus on writing things I really wanted to write, and could take the time to craft my work. Some of my writing is better than others, but – on the whole – I am very satisfied with the craftsmanship of the work I have published.
I always have more ideas than I have time to write. Ideas come in many ways. I’ve woken in the morning with a complete story in my head (for example, the short stories “Thorn” and “Sonata on a Michigan Night”). Others grow out of a single line, or – more commonly – seeing a person in a particular situation (“The Moving” and “Switzerland”). They can be developed from a story someone tells me (“The Healer”), or from an experiences I’ve witnessed (“A Hero for the People” and “Two Foxes”), or from an almost geometrical idea (“Commedia Dell’Arte” and “Four Litres of Honey”).
In terms of what makes a good story, characters are the most important element in fiction, and next in importance is atmosphere. How characters confront situations and one another in that atmosphere is the essence of the story. (I know this because I read and write stories.) I want my readers to be drawn into the world of my characters – to understand, even empathize with, the characters’ situation and world view. Much like a “method” actor, I essentially become my characters as I write about them. I see them – but also see the world through their eyes.
I firmly believe that good writing is inspired – inspirited – by something greater than the writer. Often a reader will point out some meaning or nuance in my story that I never thought of, and I will immediately recognize that the comment is valid. Of course, at times I am completely bemused by a reader's interpretation of a story and his misunderstanding of what I had in mind. But that happens to all artists.
Most of what I write is either realistic or what is called in the United States “magical realism.”  I spent most my adult life in Latin America, so I tend not to distinguish between the two. Latin Americans do not draw a line between the “natural” and the “supernatural” in the same way that North Americans do. Natural and supernatural are two interrelated aspects of life. A faith healing (“The Healer”) or an angel (“Padre Raimundo’s Army”) is as real as a stone or a chair.
Everything in life is an act of self-discovery. More importantly, there is a discovery of ourselves in relation to others and with God. Writing and reading are part of life. Of course we grow through them. Good writing makes us grow in good ways (which doesn’t mean that it only deals with good things happening to good people). I heard recently that there are studies showing that fiction readers tend to be more empathetic than other people – I haven’t seen the studies, but it doesn’t surprise me. Reading fiction is a way of getting into the experiences of people whose world is different from our own.
Stories are like children. You love them all. All of those that have reached publication I feel to be well crafted. Some are light (“Grace & The Chickens”), some more profound. It is interesting to see how different stories touch different readers. A story I am very fond is the title story in “A Hero for the People.”  Yet only one very discerning reader – Debra Murphy – has remarked to me on the story’s underlying architecture, social message, and gentle humor – noting that it is her favorite in the collection. Most people focus on other stories in the collection – which is fine. They are all good stories.
Concerning my work schedule, I have a demanding job, a family, and an active life. I write when I can. Usually I will conceive a story in my head, ponder it, work out details – then write it down when it is ready. I’ll put it away and pull it out a few weeks (or months) later, make some revisions, and send it out. I try never to talk about the stories before I write them – I find that, if I talk, the stories are diffused and lose their immediacy.
I don’t think much about genres. Generally I suppose, for that reason, my stories would be labeled “literary.”  I’ve written some science fiction, some fables, and have a pretty good mystery in the works. I enjoy reading mysteries but, except for the very best writers (Marjorie Allingham, Ellis Peters), most writers end up twisting their characters and situations to fit the mystery plot and, in the end, that is not very satisfying.
In addition to my professional work and own writing, I’m also the “contemporary” editor for – a site that reviews books of interest to Catholics (which is a broad category). So I read quite a lot of contemporary (roughly anything written since 2000) Catholic fiction. I also mentor a number of other writers, and read their work. In my spare time, I read history, biographies, some philosophy, some classics, short stories, poetry, and a few of the better mystery writers. A great number of writers have influenced me over the years. Notable among them are Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.
Until recently, I have not belonged to writing groups. This was partly due to circumstances – I was living in Brazil (much of the time in remote locations), so there were no writing groups. But it is also due to my nature. I’m a very social person, but I find that writing is, for me, an individual endeavor, not a social one. I find that talking about what I write (before it is written) draws away from the actual writing. That being said, I truly believe writers can reach out and help each other through encouragement. I am a founding member of the Catholic Writers Guild: I regularly lead workshops and I mentor a number of writers.
Some have asked how technology (since most people over the age of forty have lived through dramatic changes) has affected my work habits. I used to carry around notebooks and writing pads, and write everywhere. I now find that I need a laptop to write. It has made it easier not only to write, but to revise. Currently I am working on a number of short stories. I am also seeking to publish my novel, Shadow Companion, set in Brazil during the military dictatorship. Portions of the novel have appeared in the journal Dappled Things. It is very good, but it crosses genre bounders (literary, political thriller), which makes it hard for publishers to classify.
Copyright 2013 by Arthur Powers - All Rights Reserved