His latest novel explores radicalisation in the United States. He tells Ben East how he hopes it opens a few eyes.
American author Mark Powell’s Small Treasons asks big questions
I’m excited – and a little worried, given the timing,” frets American author Mark Powell. With good reason: his latest book is his first through a major publishing house, and has at its core a young man being slowly radicalised. Just a few days after another terrorist attack in the West, timely doesn’t quite do Small Treasons justice. “Looking at the United States with a clear eye might shock some people,” he admits. “But it doesn’t seem like a good time to engage in navel-gazing.”
Of course, Powell had no idea just how prescient Small Treasons would become when he began writing it.
Although, given the book explores so many of the issues that have dominated the 21st century, it probably wasn’t a huge surprise. Indeed, the actual starting point for Powell was ISIL’s siege of Kobanî, the Syrian town on the Turkish border in 2014.
“I have long considered myself a pacifist,” he explains. “But as American and French jets bombed ISIL, I found myself almost cheering them on. And that frightened me. So I wanted to engage with that feeling. What I write is less in response to inspiration than confusion.”
Powell’s previous novels have successfully explored the life of a pilot flying a drone over Afghanistan, and a priest haunted by images of Iraq and Abu Ghraib – all through the prism of American families searching for meaning.
He employs a similar tactic in Small Treasons, without ever tripping into sensationalism.
Tess and her husband John have dark secrets. Tess is obsessed with watching terrorist ransom videos, while John was once employed in underhand government activity after September 11, participating in interrogations and torture. When John’s past comes back to haunt him, he gets caught up in the life of would-be terrorist Reed Sharma.
Part family drama, part psychological exploration of the confusion of modern life and part thriller, Powell skilfully intertwines the plot with the human, political and religious subtexts.
“I was really curious about how you go from being a citizen of a country to wanting to commit violence upon its innocent people,” he says.
“That’s a frightening transformation, and I wanted to try to sift my way through how that might happen. So the Boston marathon bombers, for example, were just young men adrift, searching for who they were.
“In Small Treasons, it’s not so much that Reed is wanting to become a terrorist. He’s just determined to become something, belong to something larger than him, something that matters. Of course, there are ways in which that very basic human desire can be manipulated – I hope I got to the nature of that malleability.”
But the most conflicted character of all is Tess. She’s in a state of constant fear; coming to feel violence as a “natural state”, she goes to a mall in Atlanta and thinks of the possibility of a terrorist destroying her family.
“She’s just trying to make sense of what the world has become,” says Powell.
“And basically there’s this climate of fear in even the most basic, suburban of lives – my characters essentially embody this possibility of violence blurting around the edges of trivial lives, even if statistically we’re quite safe. Like with the recent Manchester attacks, it’s the randomness which is difficult for people to cope with.”
Tess is a young mother, but she was a teenager during the time of September 11. Powell, 40, teaches at Appalachian State University, and he makes a really interesting point about his students, who have grown up never knowing anything other than this climate of supposed fear and surveillance. It makes the Clinton years of the 1990s feel rather innocent.
“There is this notion now that someone out there wants very badly to kill you,” he argues. “They don’t know who you are, and you’ll probably never encounter them in all the innocuous things you do in your life. But it feels like they exist.”
Which is an incredibly depressing state of affairs. Small Treasons actually isn’t a particularly downbeat book – it has the pace of a thriller and though the way in which the strands of family life and the radicalised boy come together is slightly convoluted – there is real empathy for everyone’s situation.
“What a novel can do is move past the superficial nature of news,” says Powell.
“We hear so much about radicalisation, but I want people to look deeper at what the nature of that is, to pay closer attention, to look at the substance beyond the platitudes or the tweets that come from Donald Trump.”
The fact remains, though, that Trump won. What does that say about America?
“Well, there’s this great American delusion that somehow we are outside history, immune to the larger world. Trump is the direct result of this inability to think realistically about the planet. All I can do is write things that are in conversation with what’s happening in the world.”