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Richard Powers has been called reclusive, but the term is misleading. Although he struggles to maintain a low profile, fearing that celebrity will make inordinate demands on the time he needs to write, he is outgoing. Interviewers find him cooperative but firm in his refusal to share the personal information...

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Richard Powers has been called reclusive, but the term is misleading. Although he struggles to maintain a low profile, fearing that celebrity will make inordinate demands on the time he needs to write, he is outgoing. Interviewers find him cooperative but firm in his refusal to share the personal information around which interviews with notables often revolve.

This reluctance is not a pose Powers has adopted to project some calculated public image. He firmly believes, however, that one’s writing must stand on its merits, that details about the life of an author or an author’s autograph on the flyleaf of a book should affect neither the public perception of what authors produce nor the value of their books.

Powers’s novels display an easy command of specific information about an amazing range of subjects, from literature to art to photography to science to music to history to astronomy to folklore. His knowledge in this daunting array of subjects is not superficial: He has a thorough understanding of the subjects he chooses to explore and he absorbs complex information quickly.

An encompassing influence on Powers’s literary structure is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, stemming from his exposure to Bach’s music as a cellist. Elements of Bach’s harmony and, particularly, Bach’s counterpoint underlie the structure of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985) and Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988). The Gold Bug Variations (1991) draws its title in part from Bach’s The Goldberg Variations; its structure stems from Powers’s comprehensive understanding of Bach’s inventions.

There are thirty Goldberg variations; Powers’s novel has thirty chapters. Bach’s Variations were based upon four notes or musical phrases; the number four, a controlling element in Powers’s novel, is fundamental to an understanding of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the mysteries of which play a central role in The Gold Bug Variations. Powers’s title alludes both to Bach’s musical masterpiece and to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Gold Bug.” The latter correspondence alerts readers to the cryptograms and veiled allusions that pervade the novel.

An interchapter toward the end of Prisoner’s Dilemma provides a rare bit of autobiographical information about Powers. Major elements of Prisoner’s Dilemma are autobiographical, although not dependably so. In the autobiographical interchapter, for example, Powers reveals that although his fictional family consists of the Hobsons and their four children, his actual family consisted of his parents, Richard Franklin and Donna Powers, and five children. Major elements of this book, set in De Kalb, Illinois, where Powers lived during his high school years, draw upon details surrounding his father’s final illness.

Much of Operation Wandering Soul (1993) is based upon experiences that the author’s older brother, a surgeon, had when he completed a rotation as a resident in pediatric surgery in a large California hospital. In this novel, the protagonist is named Richard Kraft. Kraft is German for power, the plural form of which is the author’s name. In his other novels, Powers plays with his surname, dedicating Prisoner’s Dilemma to “the powers.”

Powers, a physics major for his first two years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graduated in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric, completing his university studies with a perfect A average. The following fall, he entered Illinois’s master’s degree program in English, receiving the M.A. in 1980. For three semesters, he held teaching assistantships in composition and literature. Upon completing the master’s degree, Powers lived for nearly three years in the Boston area before returning to Champaign in 1983.

Powers, honored in 1986 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1989. Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance and The Gold Bug Variations were both among the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Gold Bug Variations was Time magazine’s 1991 book of the year. Operation Wandering Soul was among five finalists for the 1993 National Book Award in fiction.

From 1987 until 1992, Powers lived in Heerlen, a coal-mining town in the southern tip of the Netherlands, within biking distance of Germany and Belgium. In the spring of 1992, he was artist-in-residence at Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge University in England. After he returned to the United States, he was appointed writer-in-residence in the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In 1998, he became the first occupant of an all-university endowed professorship, the Swanlund Chair, a position he occupied until 2005 as a member of the department of English and the fledgling Program in Creative Writing. He retired from that position and was appointed writer-in-residence of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with no teaching duties. On May 18, 2001, he married Jane Kuntz.


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Powers is among the most intellectually complex novelists to appear since James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon. His novels are the fruits of a Renaissance mentality. Powers’s encompassing grasp of abstract ideas is impressive; more impressive still is his ability to link them to the compelling central reference points his fiction creates and to do so with a literary style consistently and dependably excellent.


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Richard Powers’s roots in Illinois are deep and of long standing. Born in Evanston in 1957, he was the fourth of Donna and Richard Franklin Powers’ five children. He attended elementary school in Lincolnwood, a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago. On Jewish holidays, the Powers children were among a handful of non-Jewish children attending school.

When Powers was eleven years old, his father, a secondary school principal, accepted a position at the International School in Bangkok, Thailand. During his family’s five-year stay in Thailand, Powers perfected his skill in playing the cello, heightened his understanding of Johann Sebastian Bach’s complex compositions, and joined a chorus that traveled within Asia to perform. His vocal abilities were substantial, and his exposure to Asian culture had a considerable effect on him.

Upon returning to the United States, Powers’s family settled in De Kalb, Illinois, where the father became a school administrator and Donna Powers worked as a secretary and administrative assistant for the Wurlitzer Corporation. Powers, who was six feet, seven inches tall, played high school basketball, but he also read voraciously, taking careful notes on his reading.

When he completed high school, Powers entered the University of Illinois at Urbana, an institution familiar to him because his family had lived near the campus in the mid-1960’s. His father had completed a doctorate there in 1967. Uncertain of what studies he wanted to pursue, Powers considered becoming a physics major. During his freshman year, however, he took an honors seminar with Professor Robert Schneider of the university’s English department. Schneider ignited in him a spark that eventuated in Powers’s becoming an English and rhetoric major. In 1977, he completed his undergraduate degree, having maintained a perfect A average. He then pursued graduate studies in English and received a master’s degree late in 1979.

Spurning the university’s attempts to lure him into the doctoral program, Powers moved to Boston in 1980, where he became a computer programmer and data processor for a large corporation. When his employers tried to advance him into management, he quit his job, became a freelance computer specialist, and devoted himself to writing.

In Boston, Powers visited the Museum of Fine Arts every Saturday, when visitors were admitted free before noon. During one such excursion, he stumbled upon an August Sander photograph of three country bumpkins, bedecked in weekend finery, on their way to a dance. This photograph haunted Powers because its date was 1914 and the dance to which these three peasants were going was, metaphorically, World War I. Powers used the picture as a central reference point in his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.

In 1987, Powers relocated to the Netherlands, where he polished the first draft of Prisoner’s Dilemma and completed The Gold Bug Variations. In 1991, he became writer-in-residence at Cambridge University. During his tenure there, he completed Operation Wandering Soul, a disturbing book that reflects some of his personal upheavals and has elicited mixed responses.

Returning to the United States, Powers gravitated to the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he had an ad hoc arrangement to be a writer-in-residence in return for room and board. Here he wrote Galatea 2.2. By 1996 he had reluctantly accepted a full professorship in the university’s English department, and in 1998 he became the university’s first Swanlund Professor of English. In 2001, he married Jane Kuntz, a doctoral candidate in Romance languages.

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