A photo of a man sitting in front of a brick wall
Kevin Powers, who has published a book of poetry and three novels, enjoys “the room that fiction gives me to explore.” (Contributed photo)

VCU alum Kevin Powers takes on murder mystery in new book ‘A Line in the Sand’

The National Book Award finalist, who earned an English degree in 2008, reflects on his writing journey, the legacy of war and advice for VCU writers.

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Award-winning author, veteran and Virginia Commonwealth University alum Kevin Powers recently released his third novel, returning again to the resonant topic of the Iraq War.

Powers earned a bachelor’s degree in English from VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences in 2008. “A Line in the Sand” is his first entry in the thriller genre and his second relating to the Iraq War: His acclaimed debut novel, “The Yellow Birds,” was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2012.

Set in Norfolk, Virginia, “A Line in the Sand” follows Arman Bajalan, a refugee from Iraq and former interpreter for the American military. Bajalan finds a dead man on a Norfolk beach without any ID, launching him into a journey to unravel the truth with a team of detectives. The novel deals with questions of the lasting impact of the Iraq War on individuals and the privatization of the military. Powers, who deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005, recently discussed his new book with VCU News.

What inspired “A Line in the Sand,” and what was it like writing a thriller for the first time?

I’m new to the thriller genre as a writer, but I’ve always loved it as a reader. Mystery, crime novels and thrillers have always been books that I’ve enjoyed. But a strange set of circumstances led me to write it. While on tour for my last book, I got in a motorcycle accident. There was a long period when I couldn’t get around. I was basically stuck in bed for six months.

I had these different ideas about the political situation in Iraq, especially for the Kurdish people and those who would really put themselves in grave danger assisting the U.S. armed forces. And then, there was this real-life mystery about the Somerton Man [an unidentified body discovered on a southern Australian beach in 1948]. I also had this image of a young girl walking with her father through the mountains of Virginia. While reading all these thrillers and crime novels during my recovery, these ideas just came together for some reason, and I thought, ‘Oh, I can write this as a murder mystery.’ That was my first conception of it.

In terms of working in a new form or new genre, it was exciting and scary. I like being challenged in that way. I have so much admiration for people who can do it well. The most challenging thing you can do as a writer is to get somebody to keep reading, right? Thriller writers and mystery writers do it. They’re experts at that task.

How does “A Line in the Sand” differ from your previous novel about the Iraq War, “The Yellow Birds”?

It’s more concretely interrogating policy. “The Yellow Birds” was about one young soldier’s experience and its effect on an individual, a couple of individuals. I hope this one also gets readers to ask questions about the impact of war on people like Arman and people like Sally [a reporter who lost a family member in the Iraq War], people who have lost loved ones.

I’m also explicitly asking questions about the privatization of the military, how the profit motive can influence foreign policy decisions and my discomfort with that. I’m not making a policy statement myself, but it is something that I’m wrestling with that I wasn’t wrestling with directly in the first book.

A book cover that has an illustration of a man walking through a field. While text reads \"A LINE IN THE SAND\" and brown text underneath reads \"KEVIN POWERS>\"
“A Line in the Sand,” the new novel by VCU alum Kevin Powers, follows Arman Bajalan, a refugee from Iraq and former interpreter for the American military.

What was the process of putting the novel together, from research to writing?

I had a sense of what I wanted the story arc to be. I knew who the central characters were. I had a general idea of where I wanted to end up: just telling a story that felt engaging and had good pacing. I wanted it to have a certain literary quality.

I had a lot of experience with the jargon, that sort of thing, so I didn’t really need to do a lot of research on the military end. But, you know, approaching characters who are police officers, that was different for me. I know a guy who was a retired investigator for a district attorney’s office in New Jersey, and he’d been in law enforcement for like 30 years. I bought him coffee a bunch of times and asked him questions until he was sick of seeing me. I read a lot of books. It’s a process of discovery as much as anything else.

You’ve published both fiction and poetry now — how does your experience in each style influence the other as you’re writing?

On the level of the sentence, I am interested in the aesthetic qualities of the language. I hope it’s beautiful. I hope it’s rhythmic. Poetry was kind of like my first love. People say something is poetic or not, and I’m not entirely sure what that means. But I do want the sentences to have an artistic quality about them.

Poetry is so constrained. Most poems are relatively short, so you don’t necessarily have as much room to explore the thematic elements that a novel can provide. And while I don’t know where the inspiration to write a poem comes from, with fiction, I’m less of a romantic. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, to be honest. But I approach fiction more like a carpenter building something. I have a vision of what I want the end to be, and a lot of work happens between the start and the finish. I like the room that fiction gives me to explore, and it gives me much more room to make mistakes. You can’t really make a mistake in a poem. In many ways, fiction is the more straightforward form to work in.

You’ve now written two novels and a poetry collection about the Iraq War. Do you think you’ll continue to return to this topic?

I definitely wouldn’t close the door on it – just because I don’t know what I’m gonna be interested in in five years or 10 years. But I think because my experience [in the Iraq War] was so formative for me in a more general way, it does seem like my primary thematic concern as a writer is conflict and violence and what it does to people who participate in it, or are victims of it, or are witness to it. That’s my subject in many ways, and it wasn’t my choosing. Whether it manifests explicitly as a story about Iraq or veterans from Iraq: that I don’t know.

The book I’m working on right now concerns veterans of the First World War, so I’m interested in history and … thinking about how choices made before we were born still influence the world we live in now.

Overall, what do you hope readers take away from “A Line in the Sand”?

I spent a lot of time in Iraq around the Kurdish people. Their political situation is and has been precarious for a really long time. I would hope that people would come away with an interest in the largest group of people on Earth who don’t have a country of their own and have often been victimized by the nations they live in. I really hope [readers] get invested in the story and the book’s characters, and I hope when they finish, they feel like I didn’t waste their time. That’s really it — I hope they enjoy their time with it. That’s really all I can ask for.

Do you have advice for VCU students who want to pursue writing as a career?

I would take advantage of the resources that are available to them. Meet with their advisers in the Department of English – and even if they’re not English students, remember that interesting writers come from all different backgrounds: journalists, scientists, visual artists, whatever. The most important thing is just to write. Write, write, write, write, write. So many people at VCU have wisdom and experience and can act as a guide for people with that interest. And don’t pay for grad school!