I set up a phone interview at his home in Champaign,
just before he and his wife Jane headed for California, where
he is teaching a 10-week course this semester at Stanford University.
There is no doubt he was the most brilliant student
I ever had, retired DeKalb High teacher Joe Lo Cascio told
me recently. He was referring to a 1975 DHS graduate named Richard
Harriett Kallich, another retired local
teacher, had tipped me more than a year ago about Powers, whom
she also considered the best student she ever encountered. He
has written 10 books, won the National Book Award, was a finalist
for a Pulitzer, was named one of the top five authors of the
decade by Esquire magazine, and received the coveted and financially
rewarding MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
when I asked around town about the name Powers, most people could
recall a Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the
Soviet Union, but not the man named Richard.
I sought out this famous author through his former teacher and
friend Lo Cascio. In the meantime I checked out a copy of The
Echo Maker, which won him the National Book Award, and
realized what I had missed in not finding out about this brilliant
writer years ago.
Author Richard Powers
Powers recalled his two years at DeKalb High
after his parents returned from a teaching assignment in Bangkok,
Thailand and had relocated to DeKalb where his sister was enrolled
in college. He has fond memories of both Lo Cascio and Kallich
and also had great praise for a class that was team taught by
Betty Bischof and Mary Penson known as Junior Humanities, which
really opened my eyes about the possibility of adventures
in literature, as he put it.
in the same class with Lo Cascio his senior year. Next, he was
admitted to the University of Illinois, first majoring in physics,
then switching to English, earning a bachelors and M.A.
in that field. His first jobs were in technical writing and computer
programming in Boston. One day while visiting a museum he noticed
a photograph of three farmers all dressed up for a dance and
from that encounter came the idea for his first novel Three
Farmers on their Way to a Dance. To undertake this book
project he returned to DeKalb and rented an apartment on North
Ninth Street, writing it longhand on a canary-yellow legal pad,
then asking his mother to retype it into a draft. He eventually
transferred the draft to a computer, being one of the first to
use this new tool for word processing due to his earlier experience
as a programmer.
Lo Cascio told about the time
Powers accepted an invitation to speak to his class, driving
here from Champaign where he has an endowed chair and teaches
creative writing. He spoke to classes for eight consecutive hours
and has also returned again to visit with his former teachers
at a small reunion of sorts arranged by Lo Cascio. Looking back
at his high school days, the teacher also remembered that even
though Powers was not a cellist he volunteered to fill a void
in the cello section of the school orchestra and excelled at
Powers said he tries to complete a novel every
two to three years and has chosen a diverse array of subjects,
including some in high technology such as neuroscience and genetics.
He admits being a writer can be a lonely business staying
in the back room working by yourself for so many years ... so
it is very healthy and productive to come out and mix with
other people. He travels a lot and beside the years he spent
in Holland and other parts of Europe he went to Berlin in 2009
to be there for the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall
and hopes to go to Belgium and France later this Spring, after
his teaching stint at Stanford.
Asked what advice
he might have for young writers, he suggested they not quit their
job and just start writing, but remember how much you can
do if you just put in an hour or two a day. The regular, sustained
but short intervals can produce amazing things and more effectively
(at times) than trying to write like crazy for a month or two
and then go back to doing something else full time. Like exercising,
slow, constant, steady (intervals) are better for producing long-term
results, he commented.
He said that Web-based
electronic publishing has changed the writing world. He thinks
we are entering into a time where new writers can establish themselves
and build a reputation through online publications, which
is a exciting new venue. It can provide new outlets for people
who cannot find commercial publishers at the outset, he
Something I dont want to miss are
two excellent exhibits opening Feb. 1 in downtown DeKalb. The
long-anticipated DeKalb Ag Memories exhibit assembled by former
Ag employees will open at the Nehring Gallery, corner of Second
and Lincoln Highway, while down the street at Bliss Beads studio,
161 E. Lincoln Highway, photographer/candy man Tom Smith will
debut his photo exhibit on our vanishing agricultural surroundings.
Ann Engstrom, a member of St. Peters
Episcopal Church in Sycamore, saw my column last week on Isaac
Johnson and alerted me that the pews in their church were built
by Johnson. There is also a stained glass window dedicated to
his memory at St. Peters. Nice to know his handiwork has
been in constant use since the 1870s.