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Volume 26, Number 3 — March 2019

Kingsolver talks about her new book

Barbara Kingsolver’s newest book, “Unsheltered,” was released Oct. 16.
Barbara Kingsolver’s newest book, “Unsheltered,” was released Oct. 16.

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | October 31, 2018

Emory, Virginia, resident and internationally known writer Barbara Kingsolver’s newest book, “Unsheltered,” was released Oct. 16.

The book interweaves past and present linked via a single location in New Jersey.

The blurb on the book jacket describes “Unsheltered” this way. “How could two hardworking people do everything right in life,a woman asks,and end up destitute?Willa Knox and her husband followed all the rules as responsible parents and professionals, and have nothing to show for it but debts and an inherited brick house that is falling apart. The magazine where Willa worked has folded; the college where her husband had tenure has closed. Their dubious shelter is also the only option for a disabled father-in-law and an exasperating, free-spirited daughter. When the family’s one success story, an Ivy-educated son, is uprooted by tragedy, he seems likely to join them, with dark complications of his own.

“In another time, a troubled husband and public servant asks,‘How can a man tell the truth and be reviled for it?’A science teacher with a passion for honest investigation, Thatcher Greenwood, finds himself under siege: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting work just published by Charles Darwin. His young bride and social-climbing mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal and dismiss his worries that their elegant house is unsound. In a village ostensibly founded as a benevolent Utopia, Thatcher wants only to honor his duties, but his friendships with a woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor threaten to draw him into a vendetta with the town’s powerful men.
“’Unsheltered’is the compulsively readable story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey, navigating what seems to be the end of the world as they know it. With history as their tantalizing canvas, these characters paint a startlingly relevant portrait of life in precarious times when the foundations of the past have failed to prepare us for the future.”

Before Kingsolver left on tour to promote her new book, she took the time to answer some questions about her new book.

A! Magazine for the Arts:
What was the inspiration for “Unsheltered”? In what ways do you see humans as “unsheltered” today?

Kingsolver: Trouble inspires me to worry, and worry makes me write. Our shelter is failing us at many levels: whether it’s a new graduate with big debts and no job in sight, or a retiree without a pension or health care, or whole cities going underwater thanks to a new breed of storms, we’re getting socked. There aren’t enough resources on earth to keep up with all humanity’s demands, but we continue to idealize growth and consumption. We cling to our tried and true solutions. But old adages don’t deal with new realities: there will not always be more fish in the sea.

It’s happened before that people had to reevaluate their place in the world, for example in the late 1860s, when Darwin and other scientists first suggested humans were subject to natural laws, not the other way around. The more out-of-control things felt, the louder people hollered about bringing back the old order. The comparison to our current times was interesting. So I created two sets of characters for my novel one living in the 19th century, the other right now and put them in the same house.

A! Magazine:
How did you happen upon the historical character of Mary Treat? (Treat is the historical female scientist character) How much research did you do and what resources did you use?

I saw a reference to Mary Treat’s correspondence with Charles Darwin, and was curious, because I’d never heard of her. It turns out she was an important naturalist, writer and proponent of a new scientific vision in her time, but her work has been forgotten. I went to Vineland, New Jersey, where she lived and spent many happy hours reading her professional and personal papers. As I learned more, I discovered her town had a great story of its own. So I set the story there.

A! Magazine:
How did you plan the two parallel stories so carefully? Especially with the last phrase in one chapter being the title of the next one?

When I begin a novel, I make a very detailed outline. In this case I made two concurrent outlines and braided them together. After I finish a first draft, I rewrite everything dozens of times. By knowing exactly where I’m going, I can make all the details click together. There’s no magic trick, just lots and lots of work. Fortunately, it’s work I love.

A! Magazine: To what extent is your fiction autobiographical?

Kingsolver: Not at all. The plots are not my life, those characters are not people I know, and none of them is me. My job, as I understand it, is to invent lives that are far more enlightening than my own, invested with special meaning. That’s the whole advantage of fiction over life: you get to control the outcome.

I can’t base fiction on my life, because I don’t build a story on pre-existing conditions. I begin by considering theme and creating a world in which the right questions will be asked. I populate my setting with characters who will serve my plot. Those characters are my slaves. They must do exactly what I want or the story falls to pieces. No actual person I know is that cooperative. So I invent people from scratch, starting with what they need to do, and working backwards, inventing life histories that render their actions believable. Sometimes I do include historical figures in my fiction, and that is a tricky mix. These people are more like a setting, their real-life details forming an inflexible grid around which I weave my plot.

Pure invention seems straightforward to me, much easier than trying to jam an already formed personality into a mold it won’t fit. So it surprises me when people insist I must have experienced everything I write. Once a reader (a psychologist) wrote, “Come on now! How can you claim you’re not writing about yourself? Taylor Greer in“The Bean Trees”moved from Kentucky to Arizona, like you did. Codi Noline in“Animal Dreams”taught biology (you’ve studied biology). Why do you persist in the infantile need to deny you are writing about yourself?” Yikes. Did I move from Kentucky to Arizona, like Taylor Greer? Yes, but via France. Did someone leave an abandoned child in my car along the way? Uh, no. Does my fiction reflect my worldview? Probably, but I have not done a fraction of the things my characters do, such as running from the law, adopting an abused child, being an expert cockfighter, having Alzheimer’s, being a gay man, being a straight man, being the child of a Christian Missionary, cooking for Diego Rivera, and having great sex in an Anasazi ruin. Do I seem that energetic?

A! Magazine:
Of all the current global worries, which are you most concerned about?

Kingsolver: Climate change. When a planet becomes uninhabitable, nothing else matters, does it?

A! Magazine: You are often referred to as a “political writer.” Why have you chosen fiction as the primary form to express your political views rather than non-fiction, essays, etc.?

Kingsolver: I don’t refer to myself as a “political writer,” other people do, and I’m never sure what they mean. We all learned in English class about the three types of conflicts in fiction: man against himself, man against man, man against nature. To update the terminology, a psychological novel deals with inner turmoil; novels of interpersonal struggle can be domestic, social or civic; environmental novels cast humans in relation to their ecosystems. I admire fiction that engages all three kinds of conflict, and that’s what I want to write. But women are supposed to stick to psychic and domestic drama, so some people might be surprised or unsettled by my bigger themes. Male writers I know don’t get the same reaction.

A! Magazine:
How do you compare your literary reputation in Europe (and around the world) with that in the United States?

Kingsolver: I’m amazed that my work is translated and read in more countries than I can name, on every continent. I used to wonder why, because I think of my writing as very American. Maybe that’s the answer: the whole world wants to know what makes Americans tick.

A! Magazine: Several of your novels have been optioned for films. What is the status of those projects?

Kingsolver: I’m working on adapting one of my novels as a television miniseries. I’m not at liberty to say much more, except that I love writing in this genre, and I’m working with fantastic people at every level production, direction, cast. If I weren’t excited about it, I wouldn’t be doing it.

For more information about Kingsolver, visit

Kingsolver celebration set for December in Abingdon