This interview is part of a series about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Dan Kois: You’ve written about the deaths of human characters before, including in The Overstory. What’s different about writing the death of a tree? Is it tricky to find the right tone?
Richard Powers: It’s difficult to find the right tone for any death scene. In fact, finding the right tone for any scene at all is hard, even for scenes where everyone survives! But I did wonder, when writing the death of Mimas, how to engage a human reader with the death of an organism that a lot of people barely acknowledge to be alive. To create the scene, I relied, in part, on refracting the loss of the giant tree through the eyes of human characters who had given so much of themselves to keep the tree alive. But I also wanted to mourn this tree for itself, and that meant trying to make the size and age and complexity and grandeur and massive, inexorable agency of one of the world’s most extraordinary creatures as vivid as the death of anything with a human personality and human history. Mimas, almost as old as Christianity, as wide as a house and as tall as a football field is long, transformer of the air and water and soil, home to billions of creatures over the millennia, goes down mute and defenseless, to be turned into decking and shingles. And there is nothing any of the human characters can do to help.
Deaths of nonhumans in novels are often meant to jerk tears. (Often, it’s the death of a dog.) Mimas’ death seems meant to do something else. It made me so angry! Was that a goal? The goal of The Overstory itself seems to be, in part, to teach readers to mourn the death of Mimas as we would mourn the death of a person. How did that influence how you wrote about Mimas’ end?
I’m not sure that my fiction ever has a “goal” in any simple sense of the word. I don’t write books as means to an end. The book is the end. The way that readers react to a story and the things they feel and do in response to a scene are creative works in themselves that have as much to do with the readers’ own life narratives as they have to do with the book.
But yes: Mimas’ death scene is driven by a desire to give the same sanctity to another living thing as we humans ordinarily only give to ourselves. Readers have written to me about the death of Mimas. They mention their anger and their sadness, their astonishment and even their tears. More than one reader said that they felt the death more powerfully than they felt the fate of any of the book’s humans. For me, the scene is simply an act of witness. If it asks anything, it is just for the reader to be present and attend, both to the deeds and needs of people and to a history that is orders of magnitude bigger and millions of times older than us.
We understand that Mimas is exceptional among trees, but we also understand that its death is just one of many within its local ecosystem and on the Earth writ large. Is Mimas a symbol, or a character, or something else?
Mimas is certainly a character in The Overstory. They (Mimas’ preferred pronoun!) have a temperament and behavior and a purpose. One might even say they have core inner values. They interact with the book’s other main characters, especially Nick and Olivia. They play a part in advancing and altering the plot. Within the arc of the whole book, Mimas, too, has a narrative exposition, development, climax, and denouement. But all characters in books also stand for things, and a reader’s brain is going to see them as emblematic. Of course, the symbolic value of a character can range from relatively crude allegory to very subtle and ambiguous kinds of floating figurations.
Almost all the great forests of North America have been logged, and most of them have been clear-cut. No more than 5 percent of the primary, old-growth forests of the continent remain. For redwoods, the surviving percentage is even lower. Almost any American forest that you see today is recovering, and there are profound differences at every level between a recovering forest and a primary one. It bears pointing out that we’ve never yet seen a recovering forest turn back into a primary forest, so we don’t really know how long that takes. So is the death of Mimas a kind of synecdoche for the annihilation of redwoods, or even the death of American forests as a whole? In part, I suppose. But the way it functions for me as a belated reader of the book is simply as the shattering end of an individual life that has been around for 60 or more human generations and has had an impact on the Earth as great as any individual who has ever lived.