Pulitzer Prize winner found inspiration while at Stanford

Richard Powers
Richard Powers, former creative writing professor, has won the Pulitzer Prize.

RICHARD POWERS, the former Phil and Penny Knight Professor of Creative Writing in the Department of English, has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Overstory.

Powers told the Santa Fe New Mexican in a February interview that the inspiration for the novel came from his hikes in the Santa Cruz Mountains while he was teaching at Stanford in 2012. While living in Palo Alto, he escaped the Silicon Valley culture by hiking among the redwoods.

The article explains: “The trees he encountered weren’t the towering giants that once populated the coastal regions. They’re second growth, the redwoods that sprung up after timber companies harvested their ancestors. But among these already impressively sized trees, Powers discovered one of the old-growth behemoths the loggers had somehow left standing. Its stature stunned him.”

Powers said, “Certainly the sense of an individual creature operating on such a vast scale is humbling. You get a certain feeling when you can’t see the top of trees that are five or six times larger than the largest mammal. A sense of time unfolds that’s different than what we experience, measured in millennia rather than our three score and ten.”

He continued, “Going back down into Palo Alto after seeing this 1,300-year-old creature, I realized that Palo Alto and San Francisco were there because of these trees, that there is this whole component of human history that we forget, there’s an amnesia that lets us think we made this world by ourselves. My consciousness was transformed.

“This book is about the connection between the trees of the world and the people of the world,” Powers said, “the humans and the nonhumans. We’re in this process of planet-making together. At the heart of the book is a call for a realization for the nonseparability of humans from the rest of creation.”

Powers first spent time at Stanford as a Stein Visiting Writer in 2010 and 2013. He joined the Department of English in 2014 as the Phil and Penny Knight Professor of Creative Writing and stayed for one year. In 2014, Stanford Report published this question and answer article with Powers.