Richard Powers Speaks for the Trees

His thoughts began to wander when he visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston one weekend and saw a 1914 photograph of German farm boys.

He quit his programming job and began writing his debut novel, “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance,” in 1985 after being inspired by the figures in the photograph. After receiving a nomination from the National Book Critics Circle, it went on to receive a MacArthur “genius” grant and a National Book Award, the first of many honours.

With fiction, Powers has explored our relationship to technology and our capacity for ingenuity, as well as how these things define and trap us. As a result, he’s been dubbed “our foremost novelist of ideas,” “our greatest living novelist,” and “the best novelist you’ve never heard of.

“” Aside from writing precisely about molecular DNA, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and gene editing in his books “The Gold Bug Variations,” “Galatea 2.2,” “Powing the Dark,” and “Orfeo,” he seemed to be questioning what makes us human and how transmutable those qualities are.

At the time of his inspiration for “The Overstory,” Powers felt that all of his novels were leading up to it, which he saw while hiking in Northern California. “You just start saying, I’ve missed something obvious here when you stand in front of something that’s as wide as a house and as tall as a football field is long,” he said.

To learn how to identify the trees in his novel, he read more than 120 books on trees before starting to write it. He now knows the difference between dozens of different species. Once it was published, Powers became more than just a literary star but an eco-warrior and environmental prophet because of the book’s rapturous reception.

For the first time in non-literature, children’s a tree was a character in the deepest, fullest sense,” said Bill McKibben, the environmentalist and author of the book “The End of the World.” For an inanimate object to be animated so spectacularly, it’s a rare thing indeed.