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Volume 26, Number 7 — July 2019

Barbara Kingsolver: The Interview

Barbara Kingsolver with one of the family dogs. (Photo by David Wood)
Barbara Kingsolver with one of the family dogs. (Photo by David Wood)

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

A! Magazine for the Arts: What motivates you to write? Do you have a writing schedule you try to adhere to or do you write when the spirit hits? What do you do when the words just won't come?

Kingsolver: The spirit hit me in the head like a baseball when I was four years old, and read my first word. I'd been watching my Dad read the newspaper with rapt attention. Whatever he was getting, I wanted some too. When he put down that paper and left the room, I picked it up and stared ferociously, pronouncing the letters to myself until a string of them made sense: orange! I have no idea what was orange, or what else was on that page, but I fell in love.

Since then, words have flowed into me through books and out of me onto pages as continuously as breathing. My diaries and school essays gave way to articles and stories, and ultimately to a livelihood, but I couldn't stop writing if it were outlawed.

My schedule is that I wake up early with words pouring into my mind, and get to my desk as fast as I can, so I can begin getting sentences onto the page. I keep going until I have to stop, to make dinner with my family and engage in regular human life. But part of me is always impatient to get back to writing. Writer's block is not a thing I can picture. I suppose it will arrive when I've breathed my last.

A! Magazine: What inspired you to set your newest novel in southern Appalachia? And how long did you spend researching it, compared with some of your earlier novels, such as The Lacuna or The Poisonwood Bible?

Kingsolver: Those two books you mention are big historical sagas, covering several decades in multiple countries, so each required encyclopedic research and almost a decade to write.

I like to follow a marathon with a sprint. After Poisonwood I wrote the relatively constrained, intimate Prodigal Summer, and after The Lacuna I had the same inclination. This is not to say sprinting is easy; it's fast, exhilarating, and uses different muscles.

The basic premise of Flight Behavior arrived in my head as a dreamy visual image one January morning in 2010. I jumped into the research right away, which involved some travel, reading and extensive interviews with some scientists who had to be tracked down. I was able to start writing in earnest that autumn, and finished a nearly-final draft by the end of December 2011. In the arena of literary novels, a year and a half is a sprint.

I set the novel here in this region because that's how it occurred to me: a very beautiful, extremely unnatural biological event happens in a forested Appalachian hollow, and the people of that rural place try to make sense of it. Some believe it's a visitation of the Lord, and others say it's a disturbing result of changes in the climate.

This is a conversation I definitely wanted to hear. I care about everybody involved: the farmers, the scientists, the church congregation, the journalists, and the young farm wife who stumbles on the miracle in the first place, with no idea her world is about to turn upside-down.

Seriously, don't you want to hear that conversation?

A! Magazine: Do you base your characters on people you know, or take characteristics of someone you know and use that as a base? Do they often take on a life of their own and lead you to places you didn't expect?

Kingsolver: Sorry to be negative, but no, no, and no. I never base characters on real people, or parts of real people, and my characters never tell me what to do. They are invented by me, to do my bidding. Literature is a careful construction of theme, plot and character. It's entirely symbolic, invested with meaning. Every action moves the story forward in a premeditated way. This is not a job I could leave to actual people, who would talk nonsense and misbehave.

Let me put it this way: if you wanted a house, would you make it out of things you found along the road, because they looked interesting? You could pile up rocks, a hubcap, an armful of flowers, a couple of chickens, et cetera, but they would not make a nice place to live. No, you would draw an architectural plan, and then go get fresh raw materials and carefully cut them to shape and size as the structural beams you need. That's how I build a novel.

A! Magazine: Do you think there is a war on science vis vis global warming and other issues of the day? The Library of Congress currently has an exhibit of books that influenced American culture. Do you believe that fiction can change people's behavior?

Kingsolver: Now I can be positive: Yes, and yes! I'm glad you mentioned the Library of Congress list of the 88 books that shaped America. I loved reading that list, reliving all the ways those books shaped me — everything from Thomas Paine's Common Sense and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring to The Joy of Cooking.

I was amazed that more than half the books on the list were fiction or poetry. That's proof that novels can and do change the world. We read for distraction and entertainment, but from great fiction we also get new views of the world, and our hearts get involved. Uncle Tom's Cabin didn't just inform people about slavery as a crucial issue of their times. It infuriated them and incited change.

A crucial issue of our day is what you called the war on science. I would call it a malignant ignorance. As a culture we love our technology, but can't get excited about math, science, natural history or even cause and effect.

The average cashier can't do arithmetic in a pinch, and journalists typically misunderstand the science news they're trying to report.

Our schools lag behind the world in science education, thanks to a unique American notion that believing in basic principles of biology and physics should be a personal choice, rather than a requirement of good citizenship. And yet, the laws of science apply universally. Species still evolve (such as drug-resistant bacteria), even if you don't understand why, and the carbon we burn remains permanently in the atmosphere, embroiling the weather over red states and blue states alike.

The name of this game is denial. I find it fascinating. So I wrote a novel about it. Will it give people something to talk about? I hope so. Will they learn some science along the way? Very likely. But those are side effects. My vow to the reader is that I'll take you on an exciting ride. You will forget all about yourself for awhile, and take a turn as somebody new.

A! Magazine: What have you read that changed your life or worldview?

Kingsolver: I'll name a few from that Library of Congress list that helped make me who I am: Charlotte's Web, Little Women, Walden, Silent Spring, Our Town, The Sound and the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath, The Feminine Mystique, Fahrenheit 451, And the Band Played On and Beloved. Not to mention, the word orange.

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Topics: Literature