Interview with Mark Powell, Author of Hurricane Season
Hurricane Season is a noir thriller about fighting and addiction, prison and drugs; but more than that, it is a love story set in the carnage of an America wrecked by inequality.
Below is an interview with Mark Powell, author of Hurricane Season, and Blake Sanz, a fiction writer teaching in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.
SANZ: At the heart of this novel is Shy, a young Florida woman who emerges out of poverty and obscurity to become a UFC fighter, and who attains some fleeting level of greatness in mixed martial arts. This passage, early in the book, struck me:
Professional fighting is a world of misogyny and expensive t-shirts, of collapsed sinus cavities and unhappy boys. But it is also a world of the occasional genius, someone who seems to have sprung from the skin of a Grecian Urn, nervous system as hair-triggered as a peregrine. That was Shy.
What interested you about writing this world and such a fascinating character from within it? What was involved in becoming well-versed enough in that world to feel confident in depicting it as you do?
POWELL: Fighting is something that has fascinated me (and that I have dabbled in) all of my adult life. There are many activities (for lack of a better word) that are both brutal and beautiful, and thus representative of the complexity of being alive in this world. But I don’t know of any that make that paradox so starkly alive and immediate. I wanted to sit with that, particularly since–at least as I see it–the job of fiction isn’t to smooth over moral complexities but to dig into them. I also wanted to sit with the idea that there are far more brutal aspects of the world around us. Perhaps, though, they aren’t quite as visible. Which, I think, speaks to a willful blindness on our part.
SANZ: As a newcomer to Florida, I found myself taken by the deftness with which you depict so many areas of this state in so many detailed and interesting ways. From ramshackle houses on the Saint John’s River to the workout scene in Miami, from political fundraisers at wealthy politicians’ homes to the drug-addled regions of rural central Florida, and from rare books shops in Winter Park to small-town churches, the state itself works on your characters in profound ways. What do you see as the connection between the places these characters inhabit and the changes those characters undergo?
POWELL: I spent eight years in Florida, and I think there’s a way in which those of us not born there see and experience the state a bit more intensely than native Floridians. People sometimes talk about Florida as this strange otherworldly place–and I get that. But, in truth, Florida is simply an intensification of the greater United States. Different cultures, different geographies, ridiculous wealth abutting shameful poverty—it’s all on full display. My sense is that living in such a place has a similar effect on us humans. Florida may be the geographical equivalent of what the theologian Karl Rahner called “limit states”: moments, and places, as the case may be, where human behavior moves toward extremes. It’s also possible I’m imagining all of that and just spent my time there drunk on all that sunlight and chlorophyll.
SANZ: The narrator of Hurricane Season spends many pages invisible to us, focusing largely on giving us the story of other main players: Shy the fighter and Thomas Clayton the drug-addicted doctor, in particular. Eventually, though, the narrator tells us the story of how he came across these and other characters—through teaching writing in a prison—and also describes various versions of this story that he considered telling. How did you land on this writer character, Jess, as the point-of-view character, and what did you feel he afforded the narrative that other points of view might not have?
POWELL: I didn’t want to tell the story like this. It felt cleaner to simply tell it in alternating third person points of view, and I had plenty of readers who told me as much. But the more I’ve written, the more I’ve gotten interested not just in the stories we tell but why we tell the stories we tell. Why do some stories or moments or experiences linger in our minds while others don’t? The story the narrator tells shouldn’t hold such power over him, yet it does, and he needs to find out why. If, as Joan Didion wrote, we tell ourselves stories in order to live, it seems equally relevant to examine which stories we tell ourselves. That was my hope with the narrator.
SANZ: Various characters have moments of solitude and quiet that seem elevated, somehow important to them and to our sense of their otherwise chaotic lives. I’m thinking, for example, about Doc’s routines in prison, which include reading philosophy and contemplating Kafka’s mandates to quietness, and also about the narrator’s romanticizing of his time in Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. Could you describe the importance of making space for quiet moments in a novel filled with intense moments of big action and dire consequences?
POWELL: So much of the book is physical—fighting, training to fight, Doc’s addiction, Doc’s violence—I wanted some balance to such. I didn’t want the book to be a thriller or crime novel that was all gas from the first sentence; rather, I wanted something that balanced the idea of an inner and outer life. And, of course, something that considered the notion that our distinction between the two may be no more than a false cultural inheritance.
SANZ: The novel depicts various forms of drug addiction in a contemporary setting. What are the challenges of representing lives altered by drug use on the page, and to what extent were you aware of writing toward or away from preexisting notions a reader might have about the various cultures of drug use and distribution that the novel portrays?
POWELL: Any book about opioid abuse is in danger of great cliché. But so too is any love story. Or any prison story. Or any whatever else. I hope I’ve taken situations we generally encounter in the abstract—statistics about overdoses or incarceration or what have you—and made those particular. I didn’t want to write a book that put forth the notion that “this is what drug abuse looks like” so much as I wanted to say “this is what drug abuse looks like in this particular place, to this particular person, in this particular moment.” I hope that specificity, that granularity of detail, humanizes the characters since it’s harder to condemn people, harder to damn them when you know them.
SANZ: Hurricane Season feels literary and reads like a thriller. Did you consider the notion of genre as you wrote this book? Do you hope the book will be read as coming out of any particular literary tradition?
POWELL: I certainly wanted a noir feel, but, more than that, my hope was to write a book that moved quickly plot-wise without sacrificing too much character or intellectual depth. My models for this are the great short novels of Joan Didion. Didion is rightly lauded as a writer of nonfiction, but I’ve always felt she was grossly underestimated as a novelist. She wrote serious meditations on politics and power but somehow packaged them as political thrillers. The writers I find myself returning to do the same: Robert Stone and Denis Johnson. Dana Spiotta and Francisco Goldman. I once heard the great Bob Shacochis say he wrote thrillers for people “paying attention.” I aspire to the same.
SANZ: You invoke Don DeLillo with your epigraph: “If you think the name of the weapon is beautiful, are you implicated in the crime?” How is this book in conversation with that question?
POWELL: When you write about suffering, when you write about people who have been exploited by large structural systems as well as by each other, you like to think you are writing against such, that you are part of a sort of resistance standing for basic human dignity and against faceless, soulless, aggregated power. But I think one has to be mindful that in exposing suffering or exploitation that you aren’t also participating in it, that you aren’t wallowing or glorifying. This is another way in which fighting lays bare the truth of the world, the way it can be both beautiful and abhorrent at the same time. There are times I’ve watched fights and thought, as Joyce Carol Oates put it about the third Ali-Frazier fight, that I was watching the analogue to King Lear. There are other times I’ve watched fights and thought, as Shy thinks late in the book, I was watching two poor kids trying not to die. An honest book about fighting, an honest book about anything, I suppose, has to be willing to sit with the moral paradoxes that exist around and within us. Which means acknowledging that we are all deeply implicated in suffering.
SANZ: In how you pace action, you often toggle between scenic detail and a quickening of action via summary, all while keeping us bonded with the consciousness of the characters whose actions you describe. I’m thinking particularly of this paragraph:
Her mother died on the tenth of May and was buried two days later across town in the great retaining pond that was Memorial Gardens. Shy stayed alone in the house for several days but this was not a good thing. She let her phone die, got distracted and left the refrigerator door open, the lights on, and the food she never ate forgotten and dissolving on the shelves.
Here, we pass over a death and a funeral with style and grace, but we also get a scenic sense of Shy’s emotions in the week thereafter. This fluidity, this ability to dip in and out of days and into moments is a hallmark of how the book moves. Can you speak to your instincts for when to zoom in on action and when to zoom out, and how and when one versus the other (or both) seems like the right way to tell part of the story?
POWELL: I think a lot about how time compresses into realized precise moments and how it expands and slips by us, both in fiction and life. My usual sense is that if you want a reader to simply know something, you tell it as economically as possible. But if you want the reader to feel it, you have to slow time and show it in a scene. When to do which, though, is a tricky matter. No one is better at this than Alice Munro, and I’ve tried to read her in such a way that I absorb some of her technique. It hasn’t worked, by the way. But I do think that the more I’ve read her, the better intuitive sense I’ve developed of when to move quickly and when to linger.
SANZ: What did you think this book would be about when you started it, and how much did your idea of the book change over the time it took to complete? What core ideas carried through the drafts to the final version, and what new ideas emerged?
POWELL: Hurricane Season began as two distinct books. I had written a short story for Hunger Mountain about Shy, and I felt like there was more to say. At the same time, I was still haunted (I guess haunted is the word) by the years I’d spent teaching at Lawtey Correctional in North Florida. I thought maybe that was a different book. Then interesting parallels, interesting connections between the two stories, kept popping up (or maybe I kept imagining them). I was sensing some thread between the idea of addiction (and pain management) and fighting (actively seeking pain). Whether I was hoping or imagining these, I don’t know. But without fully realizing it, I began to merge the two stories. And the deeper I got, the more I felt like one complimented the other so that only together would each be fully realized. That was the idea at least. But as Denis Johnson put it, writing a novel is like trying to cross a large ocean in a small boat. Success is making it across, even if you don’t make landfall where you intended.
Mark Powell is the author of seven novels, including Lioness, Small Treasons–a SIBA Okra Pick, and a Southern Living Best Book of the Year–and Hurricane Season. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Breadloaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and twice from the Fulbright Foundation to Slovakia and Romania. In 2009, he received the Chaffin Award for contributions to Appalachian literature. He has written about Southern culture and music for the Oxford American, the war in Ukraine for The Daily Beast, and his dog for Garden & Gun. He holds degrees from the Citadel, the University of South Carolina, and Yale Divinity School, and directs the creative writing program at Appalachian State University.