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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2018

Barbara Kingsolver takes Flight with a New Novel

Barbara Kingsolver accepts Britain's prestigious Orange Prize in 2010 for <em>The Lacuna</em>. One of her previous books had been nominated in 1999. The Orange Prize for Fiction was set up in 1996 to celebrate and promote fiction written by women throughout the world to the widest range of readers possiible. The Organge Prize is awarded to the best novel of the year written in English by a woman.
Barbara Kingsolver accepts Britain's prestigious Orange Prize in 2010 for The Lacuna. One of her previous books had been nominated in 1999. The Orange Prize for Fiction was set up in 1996 to celebrate and promote fiction written by women throughout the world to the widest range of readers possiible. The Organge Prize is awarded to the best novel of the year written in English by a woman.

By Leslie Grace / A! Magazine for the Arts | September 26, 2012

Because much acclaimed writer Barbara Kingsolver lives in our region, a new novel by her is a cause for celebration.

That new novel Flight Behavior will be released on election day, Nov. 6. As with her other recent novels, this one deals with a timely issue: climate change.

Set in East Tennessee, the novel opens with a young woman hiking in the mountains. She comes upon a forested valley that is orange and black — completely covered with monarch butterflies.

The novel explores how this event alters her and her family's life. The mystery of the displaced butterflies gets divergent explanations from scientists, religious leaders, politicians and the media.

Her Kentucky Childhood

Kingsolver is not a native of Southwest Virginia. She grew up in East-Central Kentucky and says her "best childhood memories involve some combination of books or plots inspired by books; siblings; hiding places under trees; games of stealth; living creatures; and no adult supervision."

She didn't spend all her time in Kentucky; her father, a physician, volunteered his services to underserved countries. "The most memorably exotic of these was the Republic of Congo, in 1963, in a remote village of thatched-roof houses with no electricity, plumbing, or automobiles, or school," she says. "This required enormous courage from my parents who were dealing with problems on the order of smallpox and leprosy, and procuring our daily food from heaven knows where, in support of a newly independent African democracy.

"For me it was just a fantastic adventure involving more exotic creatures to stalk, and a village of kids who surely found us oddly pigmented and inarticulate (they spoke Kituba), but played with us anyway. I was ignorant of politics but initiated to cultural difference.

"Our family always returned afterward to Kentucky and electricity, but these jarring stints away were double-edged, giving me both a sense of the world beyond my small hometown, and an uneasy status as an outsider in a peer-group that valued conformity. I survived the standard miseries of introverted adolescence by means of high school marching band, piano practice and competitions, good novels, and copious journal entries."

That musical bent continued when she want to DePauw University in Indiana as a music major. Soon she changed her major to biology, but she had one class outside of her major that she loved creative writing.

"I nurtured a private passion for writing, but to claim "author' as a professional ambition would have seemed starry-eyed to me, in the same category with "concert pianist,' "movie star,' and "people who can fly,'" she says.

Moving to Arizona

After a sojourn in Europe where she says she "accumulated notebooks full of poems and stories but no noticeable fortune," she moved to Arizona. Her first paying writing job was as a scientific writer for the University of Arizona. "I was not always thrilled by the materials, but arrived at a new understanding about writing; if I worked at it full time, it paid the rent."

She branched out into poems and short fiction in the mid-"80s. The first book she wrote, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike, lead her to find an agent, but her agent was unable to find a buyer.

"I was embarrassed to tell her I was also working on a novel, The Bean Trees, equally unmarketable I felt certain," she says. "I wrote it during the insomniac nights of my first pregnancy, working at a desk inside a closet so the light wouldn't disturb my sleeping husband in our one-room house.

"Just before the pregnancy concluded in the birth of a daughter, Camille, I had a fit of extreme housecleaning and needed to evict the piles of pages one way or the other: the trash can, or New York. I decided on the latter and mailed off the manuscript with a note saying "I'm sorry, you probably don't want this. I think it's a novel.'"

Her agent replied that it was indeed a novel and found a publisher. The book has been in print for more than 20 years. "It gives me pause, still," she says, "to think of the day I cleared the decks and mopped the floor before heading to the delivery room; how near I came to throwing The Bean Trees in the trash."

She followed that book with a collection of short stories, Homeland, and a second novel, Animal Dreams. Then Holding the Line found a publisher.

"In 1991, we moved to the Canary Islands for personal and professional reasons and my long-term plan to write a novel set in Africa. As a mother with a young child and limited funds, it hadn't been feasible for me to take research jaunts from Tucson to the other side of the world. But the Canaries, just off the African coast, offered that possibility.

"In our apartment in Santa Cruz de Tenerife I pondered how my closet-writing fortunes had reversed; now we made a large closet into our makeshift bedroom so I could use the front room for writing, under a window with a view of the sea. I recall the odd feeling of struggling to remember the flavor and context of American dialogue while living a Spanish-speaking life."

During the next decade she played with the Rock Bottom Remainders, an all-author rock'n'roll band; The Poisonwood Bible was chosen for Oprah's Book Club, and she received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton.

But she almost missed one of the most important events of that decade meeting her husband, Steven Hopp. She was offered a Lila Wallace Fellowship (a visiting-writing residency program), and almost turned it down because she didn't think as a single mother that she could take the time. But she negotiated a residency at Emory & Henry, and her mother helped with baby-sitting. It was during this residency that she met Hopp and later married him.

Virginia

They divided their time between Arizona and Virginia until 2004 when they returned permanently to the area. "Arizona was not easy to leave behind. I am grateful for my 25 years in the Southwestern borderlands, where I meant to spend a few months and instead became a writer, mother and citizen of the world. Equally welcome to me, though, has been a return to the eastern deciduous woodlands of my childhood and the polite, inflected accent that is my first language."

She also collaborated on a book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, with Hopp and her daughter, Camille. (For more about this book, visit www.artsmagazine.info; search "Barbara Kingsolver.") It appeared in 2007 and her next book The Lacuna was published in 2009. The Lacuna won Britain's prestigious Orange Prize.

Her newest book is Flight Behavior, her 14th book. She says she feels "a profound connection to my far-flung community of readers and am grateful for their support. My life surprises me daily. I kept my writing a secret for more than 20 years, because it seemed an indulgent passion and came within about six inches of discarding my first novel, rather than bother anyone to read it. Now, each time I begin a new book, I wonder again who will follow me down these roads, to ask these difficult questions that draw me in. And still, readers do. That is the best luck of all."

It is A! Magazine for the Arts' good fortune that Kingsolver took time to answer our questions before we, once again, follow her down the roads she creates.

>> The Interview


Topics: Literature