Kevin Powers: "When I was serving, I gave up any notion of a just cause."

The winner of the Guardian First Book Award interviewed.

Last night, the American writer and former soldier Kevin Powers won the Guardian First Book Award for his novel "The Yellow Birds", set during the Iraq war. I spoke to Powers about his service in Iraq and the tradition of the war novel.

Like the narrator of your novel The Yellow Birds, John Bartle, you went straight into the army from high school, rather than going to university. Was that always the plan? Or did you fall into military service by accident, like Bartle does?

I suppose I share that trajectory with him – it wasn’t something I planned to do from a young age. At the time I made the decision to sign up, it did seem like a practical choice, for a number of reasons. There’s an unofficial tradition of serving in the military in my family – my father, my uncle and my grandfather had all served. I did want to go to college, but for financial and other reasons it didn’t seem like I had all that many options. So knowing that the army would pay for that after my service … and I did believe that it was an honourable choice to make. I suppose in a way I was attracted by the sense of adventure.

Did it also have something to do with where you’re from, with Virginia and a particular tradition of military service there?

Not only Virginia, but throughout the south and the rural and semi-rural areas of America. It’s often the case that a significant portion of soldiers would come from those areas. It’s probably more common in places like where I grew up to go into the military than it may be in, let’s say, New York or Boston.

This is not just a novel about war is it? In a way, it’s also a book about Virginia isn’t it?

That’s true. Home, and the idea of home, figured prominently in the writing of it. So it seemed appropriate for the characters to have that shared geographical history.

What was it like going to college as a veteran, being alongside students who hadn’t had that experience?

Well, of course I was several years older than most of the other students. I probably didn’t take things for granted that I might have had I gone right after high school. I was aware of my own sense of being separate.

There’s a connection between what you’ve just said and one of the themes of the novel - that war is a kind of laboratory of solipsism in which soldiers care principally about saving their own skins.

That’s true. Bartle has to comes terms with his own survival and his responsibility for the people around him – particularly Murph. And when he comes home, the direct challenge he has to face is coming to terms with his individual experience. He has to fight that battle on his own too.

Bartle says early in the novel that “war is the great maker of solipsists” yet the book is also about relationships – between Bartle and Murph, and between him and Sterling. One of the organising tensions in the novel seems to be between solipsism and comradeship.

Yes, I think so. Obviously, the survival instinct, the instinct for self-preservation, is probably the strongest instinct we have in common. But it does also bump up against loyalty and the sense of responsibility for one another.

Did your commitment to the ideas of comradeship and loyalty survive your own experiences in Iraq?

You know, it certainly affected the way I determined what it is I am loyal to. When I was serving, I gave up any notion of a just cause. I focused on the fact that I’d made a commitment to the people around me that we’d watch out for each other. So for me that was what drove me to do the job, to stay alert. It was all rooted in the fact that I felt I had an obligation to the people in my unit.

It’s interesting that you mention the idea of just cause. Was it the very idea of war being pursued in a just cause that you gave up or the idea that that war in particular was being fought in pursuit of a just cause?

To some degree, it’s both. I am able to imagine a situation in which, if war was the last course of action available [it is just], but in the case I happened to serve in I find it harder to make the same claims.

This is a novel, not a political tract, but do you see it as having a political aspect? Or were your motivations in the first place literary?

I did try to avoid having any kind of explicit agenda. I simply want to leave a record of my own attempts to reckon with these question through the imagination. But it’s hard to talk about war honestly and not … My personal opinion is that if you’re talking about war honestly, it will naturally tend towards being anti-war. I can’t envision an honest war novel that left war in a positive light.

The Yellow of Birds has attracted comparisons with great war novels of the past, such as Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead or Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Were such novels on your mind when you were writing this? Is that a tradition you felt yourself writing your way into?

No. Sitting in the small apartment in which I wrote most of the book, I was only hopeful that one person might read it and feel some kind of connection. But obviously I’m flattered and grateful that people seem to have had a powerful reaction to it.

Are there war novels that you particularly admire?

There certainly are. There’s a spectacular Vietnam novel called Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright. Being someone who both reads and writes poetry, I think of Yusef Komunyakaa, an American poet who has written a great deal about his experiences of the Vietnam war. Those poems are singularly important to me.

There’s a remarkable density of description in the novel, and I guess that’s the poet in you. Do you see yourself as a poet first and novelist second, or the other way round?

I guess I find the boundaries between poetry and prose to be somewhat permeable. When I have an idea and sit down to write something, I trust my instincts that I’m taking the right form. Poetry and prose are of equal importance to me as a reader and there doesn’t seem to be much difference in my own writing.

Were you writing in Iraq or did you start writing when you got back from your tour of duty there?

I didn’t have much spare mental energy to write [over there]. I did jot some things down in a notebook, but nothing that was directed with any kind of order.

Have many of those you fought alongside read the book?

No. But I’ve talked to some of them about it and they say they’re looking forward to reading it.

Do you think there’s a kind of standard time-lag before a war gains its own literature? After all, it took a while for a Vietnam literature to emerge. Is it still quite early as far as the literature of the Iraq war is concerned?

It does seem to be the case. But Iraq books are beginning to emerge – Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk for instance.

Kevin Powers, winner of the Guardian First Book Award (Photograph: Kelly Powers)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Property programmes are torture for millennials - so why do we keep watching?

Once aspirational, property TV shows now carry a whiff of sadism. 

I watch property programmes because I like inflicting pain on myself.

That’s the only conclusion I, as a millennial, can come to. I must be a masochist, because I enjoy seeing people with more money than I’ll ever have buying homes I’ll never be able to afford.

There was a time when, for me at least, watching property shows was an act of dissent. In the mid 2000s, catching Homes Under the Hammer during its 10am timeslot as a teenager was the ultimate sign of rebellion, because you should, by rights, be in school. Ditto with Location Location Location, Escape to the Country or any of the litany of property programmes which have been going strong since the turn of the century.

Now, though, I realise that these property shows are not simply designed for adolescents pulling sickies. In fact, I’m not the prime target audience for these shows at all. The people who actually appear on these shows are whiter than white, comfortably middle-class and able to splash the cash from years of good jobs. They couldn’t be further away from a working class, white-passing millennial in an age defined by the mortgage crisis and subsequent financial crash.  

It wasn't always this way. When Location, Location, Location began in 2000, 20 per cent of young people and 80 per cent of middle-aged people owned their own home. Rewind a decade, to 1991, and just north of 35 per cent of 16-24 year olds owned their own home. By 2013-2014, that figure had fallen to under 10 per cent. On average, house prices have risen 7 per cent each year since 1980. Job security is hugely decreased. The average deposit needed to buy a property in London, where jobs are most plentiful, has risen by £76,000 in the last decade. 

In short, in 2017, watching a property programme as a millennial is simply a reminder that the ladders have all been pulled up. 

To add insult to injury, political attempts to help young renters, like that of Ed Miliband's 2015 manifesto, face a backlash from Britain's well-organised and vocal landlord class. It's a small comfort that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have proposed reforms, since this parliament looks likely to be dominated by Brexit. On the plus side, as far as sofa bums are concerned, appalling renting conditions has spawned a new genre of gritty reality TV typified by When the Landlords Moved In. 

So why do I keep watching programmes about people I do not resemble buying houses I cannot afford? Simply because property programmes make undeniably good viewing. Teenagers argue on Twitter about which of them would be the better replacement for Grand Designs’ iconic presenter Kevin McCloud. One friend I spoke to about the show called it "daydream material".

"It's really satisfying to watch", she said. "There's something about seeing people be able to build their dream houses that's interesting. I like thinking about what my house would look like." Another said that "it's a nosiness thing combined with seeing how the other half live". Another friend I spoke to, a couple of years younger than me, couldn’t describe the allure specifically, simply saying “I just like houses”. 

Twitter hosts a number of young fans who also like houses:

Why indeed, Ally. Why indeed.

Other millennial users are brokenhearted that Kirstie and Phil, the pair who host Location Location Location, are not, in fact, a real couple:

There’s something else here though, aside from on-screen sexual tension. It goes back to that idea of "daydream material". It’s an image of what could be – of what should be. You can’t help but be excited for the homeowners featured on the programme, especially if they’re buying their first home or expanding to a home for life. It’s an infectious feeling of what we’d like to have. It’s hope.

Granted, it might be futile. Despite Brexit, a shortgage of homes means house prices don't look set to plummet any time soon. And millennials don't seem likely to afford them - figures released yesterday make clear that though employment has gone up, wages remain stagnant.

There doesn't appear to be any real way out, except for a permanent sojourn in the letting market. As a result, property TV is actually perfect "reality" TV. Like living in the Big Brother house, or finding "love" on an island, or winning £1,000,000 through being a nerd, property TV has ascended from its roots as programming designed to inform and entertain, to the realm of unantainable, glossy wish-fulfilment, as removed from real life as that Total Wipeout assault course.

And yet, the hope lives on. It might not be yet – it might not even be soon - but Phil and Kirstie, when you come for me, I’ll be ready.