Army veteran and UT alum Kevin Powers, MFA ’12, has published perhaps the premier novel of the Iraq War.
The reviews are in for Kevin Powers’s debut novel, The Yellow Birds, and they are superlative. The New York Times proclaims it “a remarkable first novel, one that stands with Tim O’Brien’s enduring Vietnam book, The Things They Carried, as a classic of contemporary war fiction.” This echoes praise from novelist Tom Wolfe, who calls The Yellow Birds “the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab Wars.” The Guardian (UK) adds The Red Badge of Courage to the list of comparisons and writes, “The Yellow Birds does … for our time, as those books did for theirs.”
Today the book hits the shelves and becomes available to the reading public. It is fitting that Powers’ novel should be released on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Powers was 21 when the World Trade Center fell, and in his book he represents a generation of young military volunteers whose lives were forever changed by the aggressive foreign policy pursued by the United States in the aftermath of those attacks.
Powers grew up outside Richmond, Virginia, in a military family. His father, uncle, and both grandfathers are veterans. He wasn’t a strong student, though he has always loved books, from biographies of baseball players in his childhood up through Stephen Crane and other classics of war literature in high school.
At 17, Powers enlisted. “It seemed like a natural thing to do,” he says. “The alternative was to try to go to community college, and I just thought, well, take some time, have an adventure.” The adventure eventually took him to Iraq, where he served as a machine gunner in a combat engineer unit. “My service was honorable but more or less without distinction,” Powers says. His distinction would come afterwards, as he tried to make sense of his experiences.
Though The Yellow Birds involves situations similar to what Powers experienced in Iraq, the plot and characters are invented. “I think of the emotional core of the book as being true to my experience,” Powers says. “The stuff that actually happens to [the characters] didn’t happen to me. But having been in circumstances that could be regarded as somewhat similar, I felt like I was in a position to think about and write about and ask questions about the emotional significance, the moral significance of what being in a war meant to these characters.”
Upon returning to civilian life, Powers briefly worked a full-time job and wrote at night, but he soon decided to take the G.I. Bill and go back to school. “I’d known I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but I just had no idea how people went about doing that,” Powers says. At Virginia Commonwealth University, his poems and short stories earned praise from professors, who encouraged him to apply to MFA programs.
UT’s Michener Center for Writers is regularly ranked among the top Creative Writing MFA programs in the country. Powers applied as a poet. “We loved his poetry on the admissions committee,” says novelist Jim Magnuson, director of the Michener Center. “It was very powerful stuff. I had no idea that he had any interest in fiction.”
Once in Austin, Powers had the time and resources to work a messy first draft of a war novel in to what would become The Yellow Birds. “I had a whole bunch of unshaped material when I arrived, but the work of turning it into a book primarily happened at the Michener Center,” Powers says. He credits Magnuson, English professor Michael Adams, and poet Dean Young, among others, with helping him shape his voice and his vision for the novel.
Another help was rising-star novelist and Michener alum Philipp Meyer, MFA ’08. Resettled in Austin after publishing a successful first novel, Meyer would occasionally hunt deer with Powers and other Michener Center students. He also passed Powers’s manuscript along to his agent, who reportedly stayed up all night reading it the night he received it. “The responses were pretty instantaneous,” Magnuson says.
The rest is history. Powers is thrilled by the good reviews, but most of all, he says, “I’m happy that it seems like people are reading it and some people are connecting to it. That’s more than I allowed myself to hope for when I was working on it.”
Regardless of the smashing success of his first novel, Powers remains committed to a second career as a poet. His attention to language shows in the novel’s finely-tuned sentences. “This is also, in a way, going to be the birth of a major American poet,” Magnuson says. “In that sense too he’s a bit like Stephen Crane. They both allow you to see things as if for the first time.”
Photo courtesy Hachette Book Group USA.