Masterclass with Kevin Power

As part of the Dublin Writer’s Festival, the Irish Writers Centre welcomed Kevin Power. Kevin, an American award winning writer, had great success with his début The Yellow Birds which won the Guardian First Book Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction, and has received international acclaim.

He is a veteran of the war in Iraq and his book is about the harrowing story of two young

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soldiers trying to stay alive. ‘I think shoulders appreciate that the war is being spoken about. As a nation, we are starting to discuss it. I’m interested in the emotional truth and soldiers may be able to understand the reality and not the emotional bit, or not express the emotional bit. War can be just as dangerous when it’s not being spoken about.’

When Power was asked as to why he joined the army at seventeen he replied, ‘I was a bit of a juvenile delinquent. I didn’t have many options. I’d always written but I never thought that pursing that would be realistic.’

The masterclass with Power was booked up well in advance. He was considerate and answered every question. Power is influenced by The Great Gatsby and he rereads it every two years. He also admires Housekeeping by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson.

For Yellow Birds he wrote over 500,000 words. The first draft and all the notes was just a way of getting it down on paper. He asked himself, ‘where is the story here?’  Then he rewrote it to 59,000. He always knew the novel was going to be short. As he is a poet he is attracted to the qualities of language. Writing the novel he concentrated on the language as a way in. He used the landscape to show the feeling of dislocation the narrator feels.

Power followed the truth of his character and was advised by his editor to add third character to a scene to make it realistic. But that extra character wasn’t important to the truth of the scene. So, he kept it at the two characters talking, and added a third in the background, typing.

Writing Tips
  • Writing is hard work but that’s the satisfying part. You’re asking yourself questions with infinite answers. It’s hard, but so what? Life’s hard. Being an accountant is hard. 
  • Keep all of your drafts. The more drafts you write the more interesting things will become.
  • If he is stuck on something structural, he’ll go back and reread (out loud), asking – how is the piece flowing? Then her works on it.
  • Every day, he rereads 30/40 pages of his WIP just to get a really good scene of the story. He also reads out loud. Chip away every day, he maintains.
  • Ask yourself; ‘Are you writing in an emotionally realistic way or a real realistic way?’ You need to figure that out. What is your truth?
  • Get beta readers or use your writer friends. He had a love interest in the original story and cut it after feedback. He’s delighted he did cut that subplot.
  • Some see the trajectory of where your story is going. But, you still need to follow your gut, listen to advice but keep with your gut.
  • If you are creating something that’s meant to be read then you’ll need people to read it as you write. It was after the third draft that Power started to share his work with readers.
  • Follow your fascination. When working on The Yellow Birds he would ignore his plan of working on a specific chapter if he was thinking about another one.

Hungry for another masterclass? Have a read of my post about Pulitzer Prize winner, Paul Harding.

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