Richard Powers (born 18 June, 1957 in Evanston, Illinois) has received
numerous honors including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and
the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He teaches in the
Creative Writing M.F.A. program at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, teaching a graduate seminar in multimedia authoring and an
undergraduate course in the mechanics of narrative.
He grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, the fourth of five children. Early in the 1960s his father, a high school principal moved the family to the north Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood; then, when he was 11 (1968) his father accepted a job at the International School of Bangkok, and the family spent the next five years in Thailand, where he became both an accomplished music student (cello, guitar, clarinet and saxophone) and a voracious reader - his earliest literary passion being for nonfiction - particularly biographies and science. He recalls feeling that he was "destined to be a scientist", thus as a teenager he explored careers in paleontology, oceanography, archaeology and physics.
He enrolled at the University of Illinois as a physics major but was inspired to change fields after taking an honors literature seminar (taught by Robert Schneider, a charismatic teacher and an accomplished Freudian critic who convinced Powers that literature was the "perfect place for someone who wanted the aerial view") - which led to him earning an M.A. in English. After graduating, he worked in Boston as a technical writer and computer programmer while continuing to read voraciously; he spent many weekends at the Museum of Fine Arts where, one day, he came across a photograph titled "Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance", in an interview sometime later he told an interviewer, "I knew instantly not only that they were on their way to a different dance than they thought they were, but that I was on the way to a dance that I hadn't anticipated until then. All of my previous year's random reading just consolidated and converged on this one moment, this image, which seemed to me to be the birth photograph of the twentieth century."
The identity of the three men in the picture preoccupied him so much that he decided to put his speculations in a novel. Within two days he had given up his job to focus on writing and three years later, in 1985, he published Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. It was praised by critics, but what most excited Powers was that at the age of 32 his indecision was over, "It was the discovery that I didn't have to give up anything that electrified me about writing, Here was a place where being a dilettante was actually an asset. You could, for two years, live vicariously as a German farmer or a molecular geneticist, that thing that you gave up at 18 and figured you'd never visit again."
Since then he has published a book every two to three years: Prisoner's Dilemma (1988), The Gold Bug Variations (stories, 1991), Operation Wandering Soul (1993), Galatea 2.2 (1995), Gain (1998), Plowing the Dark (2000), The Time of Our Singing (2003), The Echo Maker (2006), and Generosity (2009).
His books share what Powers refers to as "a restlessness in theme", covering a multitude of areas but usually, if not always, exploring the effects of modern science and technology that, in Powers's words give an "an aerial view" - portraying humanity as just one small element in a complex universe.
This biography was last updated on 06/14/2011.
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