Barbara Kingsolver is a dogged optimist. A chronic insomniac, she considers the sleep she loses every night as working hours gained.
She wrote her first book in the wee hours, typing in a closet so her husband could sleep. She sent the completed work to an agent with an apologetic introduction saying she wasn’t sure what it was. The agent let her know in a hurry that it was a novel.
Before she began writing fiction, Kingsolver spent five years as a science writer for the University of Arizona. (She has a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, which accounts for the environmental themes and biological metaphors that appear in her stories.) I assumed she must have hated the job — it sounded so removed from creativity — but she is grateful for the experience. “That’s when I really honed my writing skills. I learned how to sit still every day and write.”
The Bean Trees, her first novel, is the story of a spirited young woman from Kentucky who adopts an abandoned baby as she’s driving across the country. She settles in Tucson, where she teams up with another mother, learns to deal with instant parenthood, and becomes embroiled in the difficult lives of Guatemalan refugees.
Next came Homeland, a book of stories that contains less of the political writing for which Kingsolver is known and less of the wrenching sadness found in most of her work, though all of the color and craft and humor characteristic of her style remain.
Her second novel, Animal Dreams, was awarded the 1991 PEN West Prize for fiction. It tells the complex, painful story of a woman who returns to her southwestern hometown to care for her dying father, becomes an activist for a poisoned river, and loses her sister to the war in Nicaragua.
Holding The Line: Women In The Great Arizona Mine Strike Of 1983 is a work of nonfiction that came out of Kingsolver’s freelance coverage of labor activities in the copper mines. Fascinated by the stories of the women involved, she found herself seizing every opportunity to talk to them. Married to miners, the women were mostly conservative, Catholic, and Mexican-American. For the most part, they had never been involved in political action. But when their striking husbands were ordered off the picket line, they took over the line themselves.
“Those women held tight through the National Guard, Huey helicopters, and tear gas,” Kingsolver said. “It was amazing to watch their sense of personal power change drastically during the course of the strike.”
Most recently, Kingsolver has published a book of poems in English and Spanish, Another America: Otra America. Its language is strong and sad, its images raw and immediate, and its content both personal and political, mainly concerning feminist and Central American issues.
Kingsolver’s third novel, Pigs In Heaven, is due out this summer.
Though now a successful writer, she claims she often writes “junk” when she begins working on a novel, before she’s found the voice. Although she admits it can be discouraging to write throwaway pages, she prefers to look at it “like mining. You have to shovel out a lot of dirt before you get to the gold. Either you can begrudge every shovelful for being in your way, or you can consider each one as getting you closer to what you’re after.”
A small-town Kentucky native with some Cherokee ancestry (which shows up in her cheekbones as well as her stories), Kingsolver moved to Arizona fourteen years ago, alone, on a whim. She now resides on the cusp between Tucson and the desert, her office facing a pond in the back yard that attracts thirsty coyotes. She lives with her daughter Camille, now six years old, who was born a few days before Kingsolver signed the contract for her first novel. When Camille was learning to walk, a year later, The Bean Trees was going out to bookstores. Thus Kingsolver was launched simultaneously as a novelist and mother, two roles she loves. Before starting our interview, she was talking about balancing the two, when it occurred to me we had already begun.
Kingsolver: It’s so hard for us to value our work if it’s not economically valued. That’s the story of women’s lives throughout history. Everything we do in our homes or anything we don’t get paid for isn’t considered valid work. I think it would have been awfully hard for me to justify my writing if I hadn’t been validated with a big check. Without that payment, I couldn’t have justified putting my daughter in someone else’s care and acting like a writer, which you have to do in order to get any writing done. My heart goes out to all women who are taking care of kids and writing in the margins of their lives.
Branscum: I don’t see how they do it. Writing can be such a struggle even for people who aren’t taking care of children.
Kingsolver: Yes, but they do it. It’s like breathing — if you’re a writer, you can’t stop. You give up something else, like sleep.
They’ve stolen the flag. It’s not ours. It doesn’t mean whatever Betsy Ross had in mind when she stitched it together. I guess we have to invent our own iconography of patriotism — even new words.
Branscum: Given the awareness in your books of the world’s problems, why is it you feel so positive about having children?
Kingsolver: What other world do we have? I can’t imagine any child ever looking her mother in the eye and saying, “Boy, it’s polluted here, it’s crazy. Why did you have me?”
We’re just animals, like all other animals. That’s my religion. When people ask me if I believe in God, I tell them, No, I believe in trees. They think I’m being smart-alecky — and perhaps I am a little bit — but it also happens to be true. I believe in nature and its infinite capacity to renew itself. I believe in the way things rot when they die and turn into soil so something else can grow out of them.
So it’s irrelevant to consider whether it’s fair to bring a child into this world. We’re alive and we’ll keep on being alive as long as we can. It’s profoundly satisfying to me to have my daughter in my life. But I do think there are practical questions that aren’t irrelevant. Like, Can I afford this child? Can I be a responsible parent? Am I grown up enough myself to be a parent? Taylor Greer says, in Pigs In Heaven, “The thing about having a child is you can never ever again be the baby of the family.” If you can look yourself in the eye and say, “I’m not going to be the baby of the family ever again — not when I have the flu, not when I’m in a bad mood, never,” then you can be a parent.
Most people underestimate their ability to be good parents. I’ve watched so many people struggle with doubt all through pregnancy. After the baby is born, it’s biological. Think of the person you love the most in your life, and then think of loving someone that much times a thousand. That’s what happens when you have a child.
Branscum: In Animal Dreams, a character says that having a baby helps you forgive your parents.
Kingsolver: When you have a baby, you stop thinking so much about being someone’s child and start thinking about being someone’s parent. That certainly was the case in my life. It immediately stopped being important to me exactly what position I held in my parents’ life. Your obsession goes the other way. In a way, a birth is a death. It’s the death of your childhood.
Branscum: I love it that your work incorporates the personal and the political. Political art so often is out of touch with the realities of our lives. Also, it tends to sacrifice or dilute the artistry. It’s hard to read mediocre writing, no matter how important the ideas. But your work has all the components of wonderful writing: memorable characters, beautiful language, arresting images.
Kingsolver: It’s interesting to me that reviews of my work inevitably focus on the politics of the work rather than the craft. Even though I’ve been lucky with reviews, they generally don’t talk about metaphors or imagery. Sometimes they even come back to that tired, old discussion of whether or not it’s appropriate to include politics in literature, which baffles me. It’s such a provincial question. If you look at what people are writing about in the rest of the world — the Latin American poets, the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, the Czechoslovakian poet Czeslaw Milosz — everybody’s writing about the condition of the world and the human power of social change. Not here in the United States, though. It’s kind of pathetic.
I’ve always chalked it up to McCarthyism: art and politics were forced to get a divorce in the fifties. Although that overt censorship isn’t with us anymore, that way of thinking is.
Today I ran across an interview with [Canadian novelist] Margaret Atwood. She said that the United States is such a large country that writers can say, “My art is the expression of my individual soul. I’m not interested in politics.” Whereas in smaller countries, they are necessarily community-minded. That’s something I’d never thought about — that maybe in the United States writers have the luxury of being political or not, whereas in Latin America they don’t. But in the final analysis, I don’t think we really do have that luxury. The United States is really a country of small nations at war.
Branscum: By nations you mean —
Kingsolver: Nations of Hispanics, nations of African-Americans, nations of women — at war with poverty and discrimination, fighting for survival. But somehow there’s the illusion that things are easier here.
Branscum: During the Gulf War, I felt silenced as a human being, never mind as an artist. Censorship was in the air.
Kingsolver: We were allowed to have one opinion about that war, and the level of discourse was so primitive. I took every opportunity to speak about the war during that time, at teachers’ conferences and so forth. I did everything I could to air the possibility that there might be another way to solve problems besides bombing the hell out of people. Invariably people said to me, “Oh, well, you must love Saddam so much, so go over there and live with him.” It sounds like preschool! Play with me or I’ll hit you with this truck. It was shocking to me. It made me realize that this freedom we have is so fragile — not just the much-vaunted freedom of speech, but freedom to live as we choose. The things I want to do with my life, including the things I want to write about, could be taken away from me in an instant. We don’t have the luxury of not writing about the political, as Margaret Atwood assumes we have — and as we assume we have.
We’ve already seen a profound erosion of the status of artists. In schools, the arts are the first to be cut. They’re perceived as fluff. Stick with the math and the reading. Artists are horrified, and we’re saying, “How can you do this to us? How can you turn your back on your arts?” But what have we done lately to convince our nation it needs us? People in Latin America revere their poets. They put their pictures up on the wall, and they elect them to public office. That’s because their poets do something for them. Their poets are the voices for social change. They’re the miners’ canaries; they’re the ones who immediately make a fuss about what’s wrong. And if we’re not going to do that here, as artists, then we shouldn’t be surprised when we’re abandoned.
Branscum: You don’t just evoke the human condition in your writing, you confront people with it and ask them to do something about it.
Kingsolver: I suppose I have political intentions when I write, but they’re not conscious. What I work hard at is the craft. I’m thinking, Now what would make this scene work the best? I need some color, I need some voices, I need setting, I need this character to move this way and that character to move that way. The politics are there because that’s who I am and that’s how I think. For me to write an apolitical love story or adventure story, I would have to have lived a different life.
I write about relationships between people, and that in itself is a little bit revolutionary.
Branscum: Women are often accused of writing only about relationships.
Kingsolver: Yes, and it took me a long time to realize that was a legitimate subject for literature, because when I learned how to analyze stories it was all in terms of opposition: man against man, man against nature, and man against himself. Then I read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and wondered, Where’s the plot? There’s no against; it’s all with. How fascinating. I thought, I could do that.
So I write about relationships between people. And every relationship I’ve experienced or witnessed had power built into it, and a disequilibrium, an automatic inequity, built into it. Or if it didn’t, that was what made it extraordinary. How a particular woman and a particular man dance around that inequity — either to make it better or worse or to ignore it — is an important component of that relationship. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most interesting components. It’s the same between white people and people of color; between old people and young people; between prettier people and less pretty people. I write about that on an individual scale and on a cultural scale. I don’t sit down and think, How can I shoot some politics into this plot?
Branscum: Central America figures prominently in your work.
Kingsolver: That’s because of where I live, here in Tucson. A lot of my friends are from Latin America, and they’re here because of some bomb my country dropped on theirs, either figuratively or literally. I can’t be friends with someone and ignore that particular aspect of our common history. It gave me the impulse to be an activist and also to write stories that include that piece of history.
Branscum: What do you do as an activist?
Kingsolver: I write, not just fiction but also pamphlets. I’m involved in Latin American solidarity work, and I turn out for demonstrations. I used to be in the center of all these things — mainly feminist, human rights, and environmental organizations — but I’ve gone from being an organizer to a show-up-when-I’m-called person. That has to do with this coincidence of becoming a mother and a novelist at the same time.
Branscum: Do you think writing counts as activism?
Kingsolver: I sure do. I don’t think it’s enough, but it’s something. I also feel obliged to do the right thing with the money that writing brings me, to use it in ways that will count. And I vote with my feet.
Branscum: Are you aware of any specific impact your work has had on people — changing them or moving them to act?
Kingsolver: People write me letters to that effect and it’s overwhelming. I’m really glad, but it’s scary, too, that people would listen to me that carefully. Of course, I also get letters that say, I don’t like Mexicans very much, but I liked your book.
Branscum: Maybe they didn’t quite get it.
Kingsolver: Some people are able to separate the personal from the political. I know some extremely conservative people who don’t dislike my company or my books. They can tolerate a different view in their lives, but without thinking about it much or respecting it. But the reverse isn’t true. I don’t know very many leftists who could, for example, marry a Republican, or easily cohabit with fascist thinking. I suppose that’s the difference between politics as a sort of hobby and politics as fighting for your life.
Branscum: That reminds me of your character Hallie in Animal Dreams, who says America is a nation in love with forgetting. How do you feel about being an American?
Kingsolver: I love leaving. [Laughs.] It gave me enormous pleasure after the Gulf War to pack up and move to the Canary Islands. I didn’t like living here. I felt horribly isolated and somewhat cynical — and I hate cynicism in particular. Most of my life I’ve had a lot of faith in the people of the United States. I believed that if only they knew what was being done with their tax dollars, they would care, and do something about it. The Vietnam War era, when I came of age, was wonderful evidence of that.
But the Gulf War and the response to it scared the bejesus out of me because people didn’t want to see what was right in front of them, half an inch behind the TV screen: 100,000 Iraqi civilians being killed. Everybody was quite prepared to believe this amazing fairy tale that our bombs were smart enough to ferret out the bad guys and leave the mommies and the babies alone. It horrified me that people could roll over and play dumb, in unison, in mass. I got disgusted and left.
Several times I’ve expatriated. In the seventies I went to Europe and never intended to come back, but I always do. I’ve had to accept there must be reasons for that. One is that an accident of birth put me here; this is where I have citizenship. But it’s more than that. There’s a lot I love about this place — particularly the Southwest. I love the cultural diversity here. Europe, for all its lovely cultural open-mindedness, is rather homogeneous. It’s pretty white and pretty racist.
I love driving from my house to the post office and passing through the little Yaqui pueblo nearby. On the corner is a church where they have amazing rituals around Easter that combine deer dances with the Crucifixion. It’s another creation myth, and I get to touch that. It reminds me that there are about a million different ways I can look at any one thing in my field of vision.
Branscum: Do you get overwhelmed by all that needs to be done in this country?
Kingsolver: Sure I do, but I believe that optimism is a renewable option. You can run out of it at the end of the day and still start over in the morning.
But where one lives, and our sense of patriotism, are complex questions. I have a favorite quote by Garry Wills, who says, “Love of one’s country should be like love of one’s spouse — a give-and-take criticism and affection. Although it is to be hoped one prefers one’s spouse to other people, we rarely see anyone using his or her spouse as the excuse to blackguard or defame all other men or women. . . . One does not prove that one loves one’s wife by battering other women.” That says everything about what’s wrong with the way we’ve defined patriotism in this country. It’s monogamy-plus: if you’re a patriot, you not only love this country, but you hate all the others.
The word patriot has been usurped, just like the flag. All the iconography is gone; there’s nothing left to us.
Branscum: During the Gulf War I started to hate the sight of the flag.
Kingsolver: They’ve stolen the flag. It’s not ours. It doesn’t mean whatever Betsy Ross had in mind when she stitched it together. I guess we have to invent our own iconography of patriotism — even new words.
At first I thought it would be wrong for me to write about violence of any sort. Then I realized it’s not the violence itself that’s the problem; it’s the disconnection between the violence and its consequences.
Branscum: Your writing is very painful. I’ve cried through most of your books.
Kingsolver: That’s the power of fiction. It creates empathy. It allows you to live inside the life of another person and understand things that person understands.
That’s why fiction is an important political tool: creating empathy is a political act. If we had empathy, we wouldn’t need to drop bombs on people because we’d understand that means doing immeasurable damage to individual people, and we would feel what that means.
A lot of entertainment, including fiction, exists outside of real life. That’s fine; there is a place for that. But I don’t know how to write stories that are outside of real life, and I also don’t have any desire to do that. I love to remind people of terrible truths. I want people to confront the hypocrisies we live with every day that allow us to be comfortable. I want them to confront the comfortable mythologies that aren’t true anymore, like the one that says anybody can be well off, if only you’re smart enough and ambitious enough. That’s a very valuable myth. It means you can leave the grocery store parking lot and drive right past that woman with the brown cardboard sign that says, Homeless, three children. You can drive on and feel perfectly content with those seven sacks of groceries in the back seat because you can say to yourself, I worked hard for what I have, and she’s just lazy.
That myth holds us together as Americans. Joseph Campbell says myths hold us together as long as they work, but when they stop being true we fall into crisis. That’s exactly what’s happened. We had the riots in L.A., we have people getting murdered at an astonishing rate because our myths aren’t true anymore, and we don’t have any new ones to replace them.
This society absolutely equates prosperity with morality. Lacking any other myth to explain why some people have so much and some people have so little, we’re holding on to it, rich and poor. If you happen to be poor, holding on to that myth means believing that you’re worthless. Somehow you’ve screwed up; it’s your fault that you’re where you are. And that leads to a horrible despair.
My new book is about a Cherokee child who is adopted by a white mother and whose tribe wants her back. So it’s about individual versus community values, and it’s also about morality and poverty, and the ethics of adopting Native American kids outside of their tribe. You could say that’s beginning with a political point. After I consciously bring those intentions to the work, the craft takes over. How can I invent characters who will show these truths to be self-evident? How can I make them believable?
I think about the power of fiction because I don’t want to take it lightly. It’s a lot of power. One should enter the writing of a novel as one enters a cathedral.
Branscum: I’ve been thinking of the National Endowment for the Arts and its censorship through withholding funds, and I’ve begun to wonder, Do artists have a responsibility to censor themselves? For example, I’d love to put an amazing LSD experience in the novel I’m writing, but I question whether that’s responsible. What if someone who couldn’t handle it, some sixteen-year-old, tried dropping acid as a result?
Kingsolver: I do think that artists have the responsibility to censor ourselves. I know a lot of people would disagree with me. A lot of people feel that art is outside of questions of moral consequences, just as some people feel that science is outside of questions of moral consequences. A lot of people believe that those involved in the Manhattan Project did nothing wrong by pursuing this fascinating question of whether or not an atomic bomb could be constructed. Because I was a scientist for much of my life, I lived in those hallowed halls of the belief that Truth with a capital T stands outside of our experience, and that our job is merely to seek it, to explain what it is, without ever worrying about the tools for human destruction we might be creating in the process. I disagree. I think that’s profoundly irresponsible in science, and I think it’s profoundly irresponsible in art. I don’t think art can exist outside of its consequences.
I think that violence, for example, should be handled carefully in art. I believe that seeing violent acts performed again and again, completely devoid of consequences, leads to violent action. At the very least it leads to a numbness that can tolerate violent action — for example, in Iraq.
At first I thought it would be wrong for me to write about violence of any sort. Then I realized it’s not the violence itself that’s the problem; it’s the disconnection between the violence and its consequences. Watching TV, people just see Bang, you’re dead, Bang, you’re dead, Bang, you’re dead. It’s handled so cavalierly that your heart never even registers that a death has just occurred.
Years ago I went to see the movie Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Everyone assured me it wasn’t violent at all. So I went to see it, and I started counting the deaths — to distract myself from the pain in my stomach. There must have been two hundred in the space of two hours. I thought, How could anyone have said this wasn’t a violent movie? Well, because it didn’t register as violence, which is the most insidious thing of all, this subliminal suggestion that a death means nothing. Let’s rewrite that movie and witness the funerals and the years of bereavement of each of those families who lost their breadwinners, and then we’d have maybe a seven-thousand-hour movie, and no one could say that it wasn’t violent.
This is why the violence of Shakespeare, for example, is not dangerous in the way the violence of that movie is dangerous. One violent act in Hamlet, the poisoning of Hamlet’s father, launches the whole story — the whole play surrounds that act. Shakespeare concentrated on the consequences of violence, even in his bloodiest plays. You generally felt the enormous weight of those deaths. You felt the torture that they left behind, both among the bereaved and among the murderers.
All of Animal Dreams, in a way, is about Hallie’s death, even though it happens near the end. It’s the story of the consequences of that loss and of other losses. A woman wrote me to say that she stopped reading the book as soon as it became clear to her that Hallie was going to die. She told me she’d endured violence in her life and was opposed to any form of violence in art. Her position was that real violence is bad enough, so why invent more? After I thought through my own defensiveness to that letter, I understood that as artists we can’t ignore the violent part of life. Animal Dreams was dedicated to [U.S. volunteer worker] Ben Linder, who died in Nicaragua almost exactly the way that Hallie died. I wanted people to remember that we Americans outfitted the army that killed this good kid. I wanted people to know that really happens, and it’s a terrible loss. I wanted people to feel less numb after reading that. I think that’s the responsible way to handle violence.
Branscum: That reminds me of what you said about novels that don’t seem connected to the real world. During most of the sex scenes I come across, it seems the characters have never heard about AIDS.
Kingsolver: Or birth control! All these love scenes, and nobody ever pulls out a condom.
Branscum: They did in your love scene in Animal Dreams.
Kingsolver: I was criticized for that. They said, Even her sex is politically correct. I thought, Well, how is yours? I didn’t write it that way to be politically correct, but because that’s how life is.
I remember watching The Electric Horseman, with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. She played a lonely journalist who was starved for love. Suddenly they were having sex in the wilderness. I was thinking, What are they using? To me it’s distracting to leave those things out.
The first time I ever saw the issue handled well in a movie was in The World According To Garp. These kids were having sex for the first time, and she insisted on a condom. It was handled really well. She said the right thing: “No glove, no love.” That’s how life is. And if it isn’t, then there are consequences, and you’ve got to put those in there, too. Scene two, she gets pregnant.
Branscum: In Animal Dreams, there’s a wonderful scene where Codi furiously lectures her students about environmental issues. The only way she got away with that kind of lecture was because she was grieving about something else. That worked beautifully. Nothing she said about the environment wasn’t true and to the point, but anywhere else in the novel it would have sounded self-righteous.
Kingsolver: There are tricks you have to use when you’re delivering a lecture in a novel. You have to make it really funny, or you have to overdo it in some way.
There’s an imaginary banner over my desk that says, Refrain from diatribe. My readers are good people; they know what to think. It’s not my job to form their minds. It’s my job to build a scene and invite them in, and encourage them to reach their own conclusions.
When critics complain about the politics, I know that I need to listen to that. Criticism is what you learn from. It’s worthwhile to believe every criticism, to an extent. Complaints about politics might mean they were intrusive in this scene, and that I need to work harder at unifying the art and the politics. But I also know I’m on the right track. As my mammaw says, if you never stepped on nobody’s toes, it means you never went for a walk.