Arts & The Environment: Barbara Kingsolver
Author & Family Get Back To Their Roots
By Angela Wampler | September 24, 2007Best-selling author rarely grants interviews, so A! Magazine really appreciated it when she agreed to talk to us.
A! Magazine for the Arts: Tell us why, after so many years living in and writing about Arizona, you decided to move to Meadowview, Va.?
Kingsolver: To be near my extended family, who mostly live just over the ridge, in Kentucky. I always intended to move back to Southern Appalachia. This is the culture and landscape of my childhood. People talk the right way. It feels like home.
A! Magazine: Has the transition been difficult or easy for you and your family?
Kingsolver: Very easy. My husband, Steven Hopp, has lived here — in the farmhouse where we all now live — since the 1980s. For the first seven years after we married, our family spent every summer here, and the school year in Tucson. So the kids grew up with friends here, and I feel as if I did, too. We finally made the move in this direction for good in 2004, after [my daughter] Camille finished high school.
A! Magazine: Is it true that, after moving to Washington County, you discovered your Kingsolver family roots in Abingdon and Bristol?
Kingsolver: Not exactly. The story is even better than that. I first came here in 1993 as a visiting writer at Emory & Henry College, on a Lila Wallace Fellowship. When I won the Fellowship, I had no idea where they would send me, but I requested Southern Appalachia, mostly so I might end up close enough to my parents that they could baby-sit my five-year-old daughter Camille — during the two-week residency — I was a single mother at the time. I had never heard of Emory & Henry or Meadowview, though "Abingdon" rang a faint bell. It was a fateful coincidence that brought me here, since one of the professors whose class I — guest-lectured at the college would end up becoming my husband.
But it was fateful for other reasons, too. When I gave my first reading in Bristol, the whole front row was occupied by lovely elderly women who identified themselves as my relatives. Imagine my surprise! "Oh yes," they said, "It used to be, you couldn't walk around here without stepping on a Kingsolver." My grandfather's family came from here. One of my great uncles used to be the town doctor in Abingdon. It's wonderful to call this place home now. On Memorial Day we cut peonies from our backyard and take them down to our ancestors' graves in the cemetery, and that feels like the way things ought to be.
A! Magazine: How do you write? Do you have a regular schedule? A writing cabin? Do you make yourself write X number of words per day? Is every detail planned before the first draft?
Kingsolver: Writing is my job, so I'm sitting at my desk?during the same hours when most other people are at work — a little longer, in fact, since I can get to it just as soon as I put my sixth-grader Lily on the school bus at 7:30 a.m. My office is in my house, and I spend as much time writing there as I can. When a book is released, of course, I have to give up about six months to the touring and promotion, countless media interviews, editing of reprint excerpts, questions from translators, and so forth.
We get truckloads of mail, which is mostly handled by my terrific assistant Judy Carmichael, but as you can see, a writer's life can easily become consumed by everything but writing. Not to mention the extra occupations of motherhood, family cook, and farmer. When I finally get to write, I'm like a racehorse at the gate, fidgeting to burst out. The good news is, I've never experienced writer's block — heaven knows, I don't have time for it.
The writing process is different with each book, but when I'm working on a novel, I do months or years of research and what I call "pre-writing," constructing the plot, building character backgrounds, experimenting with voice. The first draft tends to grow from the inside out. I certainly never just sit down to a blank screen and start writing Chapter One.
A! Magazine: Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction? Do you seem equally adept at either?
Kingsolver: I begin with theme, and then decide on the best vehicle for carrying the weight of what I want to say: poetry, essays, fiction, or narrative nonfiction. I love working in every genre, and enjoy having so many options. Mostly I think about craft, and a good fit between form and content.
A! Magazine: Do you see a continuity of themes in your books or do you see each one as distinctive to issues of a particular era?
Kingsolver: My content changes drastically from one book to the next, but I find myself coming back time and again to certain large questions about community responsibility, individual identity, and the invisible threads that connect everything. I write about serious stuff, so I always have to make sure the package is a good one. It has to be lots of fun to unwrap. If you'll give me some hours of your time, I promise I'll keep you turning the pages.
A! Magazine: Which of the following niches best applies to you: Do you consider yourself an Appalachian writer? a feminist writer? a political writer? a Southern writer? an environmental writer?
Kingsolver: I consider myself a writer, and really see no point in hanging out any shingles beyond that. That's for scholars and librarians, I suppose, and anyone else who has to organize books on a shelf, but it has no effect on what I'm going to do, so it doesn't much interest me.
A! Magazine: You have labeled yourself on occasions as a political writer. Do you see the winds of change moving toward greater liberalism in politics, which should promote greater social and economic justice, environmental
awareness, tolerance of diversity of cultures, etc.? In other words, are
you hopeful for the future?
Kingsolver: To tell you the truth, I've never labeled myself a "political writer." Other people do that, and I don't bother to deny it. I concern myself with the subject matter of the real world: economic injustices, gender and power, cultural misunderstandings, the complex relationships of humans with one another, our habitat, and our food chain. I have no idea why this subject matter is always called "political" or "liberal" — to me it's simply the world as it is, and the fascinating project of imagining how we might do better. The fact that so many people, year after year, keep wanting to be my readers and participate in this fascinating project — that gives me hope for the future.
A! Magazine: This is a question like "which of your children do you love the best" — are you proudest of one book of yours over others? The Poisonwood Bible probably has had the most critical acclaim — is it your favorite?
Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible took longest to write, certainly — about 15 years of research and hard wrestling with craft, through 17 complete rewrites. Should that make it my favorite? Do you love your difficult child the best?
A! Magazine: At what stages are movie versions of your books? Have you been involved in writing adaptations of your books?
Kingsolver: I've written screen adaptations of three of my novels, and all five have been optioned at some point, many of them several times over; two film projects are underway at the moment. But these projects tend to move at a glacial pace when you insist on quality, and I do. I can't see any earthly reason to allow a bad movie to be made from any of my books. I've learned to decline?the great majority of offers from producers and directors, even the ones I greatly admire, because it takes a?huge amount of?time to be involved with film adaptation — time that I won't get to use for writing the next book. I'd much prefer to write the next book.
A! Magazine: In 2005, you received the Writers for Writers Award from Poets and Writers' Magazine for your work in founding the Bellwether Prize for Fiction. What/who have been the winners? When will this year's finalists be announced?
Kingsolver: It's clear to me that publishing in the U.S. has a peculiar bias against literature that openly addresses issues of social justice and social change: what I call a "literature of social responsibility." In the rest of the world, this seems to be the primary role of artists, but here it's viewed with suspicion. We need to get over that. So 10 years ago I took the advance from one of my books and used it to establish a literary prize for fiction. The Bellwether Prize is awarded, every other year, to a first novel. We'll be accepting manuscripts until October 5, and the winner will be announced next May. The prize is $25,000 and guaranteed publication. The website is www.bellwetherprize.org.
Previous winners are:
* Donna Gershten, 2000, Kissing The Virgin's Mouth
* Gayle Brandeis, 2002, The Book of Dead Birds
* Marjorie Kowalski Cole, 2004, Correcting the Landscape
A! Magazine: How do you deal with your international celebrity status? Can you have a private life?
Kingsolver: I love being a writer, but don't especially like being famous, so I try to keep our family's life as ordinary as possible. That means declining invitations to gallivant around, even when they come from movie stars or heads of state. It means not allowing NBC news or journalists from major newspapers to set foot on our farm, even though that sometimes makes them mad. My responsibilities are to my family, my community, and my work. I'm happiest in my garden, my kitchen, or visiting with my neighbors. "Fame" doesn't give you any of those things. So I try to keep the spotlights aimed somewhere else.
A! Magazine: Was your family's business — the Meadowview Farmer's Guild, featuring locally grown food and products — your idea or your husband's?
Kingsolver: It's a community development project that was entirely Steven's idea. I'm excited to see this vision unfolding, but it's his — I already have three or four jobs. The general store has already opened. In October, the restaurant will be open for evening meals.
A! Magazine: Describe how Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was written. Did you and your husband and daughter plan it out and assign each other topics, or did the book just organically grow as the year progressed?
Kingsolver: We worked out a division of labor very quickly. Steven is an academic, so he was good at writing brief, well-researched sidebars. Camille, as a nutrition expert and wonderful cook, did the recipe and food sections. My job was the narrative — to make it a good story.
A! Magazine: Did you intend Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to be a contemporary updating of Walden?
Kingsolver: I'm a big fan of Henry Thoreau, but I never thought of us as hiking off into the woods to be alone. What we did was the opposite: engaged so completely with our local community, we incorporated it into our bodies' cells.
A! Magazine: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has been on the best-seller lists since its publication. How pleased have you been that a work of non-fiction has had such wide appeal?
Kingsolver: Pleased, astonished, encouraged beyond words. That so many people care about improving their relationship with their environment and local farmers — this makes me wake up in the morning with a smile on my face.
A! Magazine: Have you seen a difference in the people attending book signings/readings of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle compared to signings/readings for your fictional works? Are many people at signings/readings of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle more interested in growing/promoting local foods or in your literary inspirations/influences?
Kingsolver: On the book tour in May and June , we gave readings to huge crowds in 20 different cities, and in every case the questions afterward were like this: How can I find the farmers around my city? Can you really freeze tomatoes when they're in season, to use later on? What do you do about tomato hornworms? People all over this land are waking up to the fact that?our national culture?has been ignoring our farmers,?slighting small communities, polluting the sources of our sustenance, and we just can't do it any more.
The European book tour in July was just as exciting. I'm thrilled to bring that message back here to our community. We're so lucky — we have farmers growing wonderful food here. We have a terrific farmers' market, and great organizations like Appalachian Sustainable Development helping it all come together. Now when I walk out to the garden to weed the beans and pick tomatoes, I look out over my neighbors' pastures at the horizon and think: Wow. I'm living at the center of the universe.
www.kingsolver.com includes book descriptions, guides for discussion groups, audio clips, and a discussion forum.
Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral
Symphony & Planetarium present "Art of the Universe"
Art and Science merge in Hands On! Exhibit
Former Bristolian featured in "Voice of the Whale"
Barbara Kingsolver says, "I love being a writer, but don't especially like being famous, so I try to keep our family's life as ordinary as possible."
"That so many people care about...their environment and local farmers — this makes me wake up in the morning with a smile on my face," Kingsolver says.
Kingsolver on her farm in Meadowview, Va.