Barbara Kingsolver says she almost threw away her first novel. It was 1986 and she was pregnant with her first child when she dove into writing it to occupy her pregnancy-induced insomniac hours, working in the closet of a one-room cabin in Arizona so she wouldn’t disturb her sleeping husband. She didn’t think of herself as a fiction writer, but she sent the completed manuscript to an agent anyway, with an apologetic note saying she thought this might be a novel. That manuscript became The Bean Trees, which is now a mainstay in school curricula and been translated into several dozen languages.
In a writing career that spans more than twenty-five years, Kingsolver has consistently and graciously invited readers into important conversations about urgent global issues: poverty, political violence, corporate greed, climate change. She weaves these pressing concerns into intimate stories about people who parent and garden, raise animals and find mates, stretch paychecks and pursue big dreams. Friends bicker, personal desires collide with the larger world, and people grow.
Born in Maryland in 1955, Kingsolver was raised mostly in rural Kentucky, with periodic moves to remote African and Caribbean villages, where her physician father volunteered his skills. She attended DePauw University on a classical-piano scholarship but switched her major to biology; she later earned a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona. While working on her dissertation (on the social life of termites), she made a fateful decision to leave academia and take a job as a science writer. She soon began freelancing for newspapers and magazines on nonscientific subjects. She and her husband lived briefly in downtown Tucson before moving to the desert outside the city, where they raised their daughter, Camille. Their proximity to Mexico inspired them to actively support immigrants and refugees and to investigate human-rights violations on the border. Kingsolver’s marriage ended in 1993, the same year her sixth book, Pigs in Heaven, became a bestseller. She later met and married Steven Hopp, a professor of environmental studies, and they had a daughter, Lily. For seven years the family spent each school year in Tucson and each summer on Hopp’s farm in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. In 2004 the family left Arizona to live year-round on the farm.
Kingsolver has written fourteen books: seven novels, five books of nonfiction, a collection of stories, and a volume of poetry. Her essays have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including The Nation, The New York Times, and Orion, and she has received a National Humanities Medal, the Orange Prize for Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Writer’s Digest named her one of the most influential writers in the twentieth century. In 1998 she established the PEN/Bellwether Prize to support socially engaged literature; it is the nation’s largest prize for an unpublished first novel.
In Kingsolver’s fiction and nonfiction there isn’t “personal” over here and “politics” somewhere else. There’s just life: messy, complex, beautiful, cruel, and glorious. I’ve shared her essay “Stone Soup,” about rethinking traditional notions of family, with friends who are navigating divorce. I’ve followed news of the Democratic Republic of the Congo because of her novel The Poisonwood Bible. Each winter, as I select seeds for my small summer garden, I revisit her nonfiction book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, cowritten with her husband and older daughter about their year-long commitment to eating only locally produced foods. And I devoured Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior, a lush tale set in the Appalachians that tells the story of a restless wife and mother who stumbles upon a mysterious migration of monarch butterflies to an odd location — a consequence of climate change.
Kingsolver’s descriptions of place — whether it’s the fiery desert sky or the cool, rich Appalachian soil — are so vivid that when I arrived at her farm for this interview, it felt completely familiar. Kingsolver suggested we start in the barn, where she let me hold two tiny lambs born six hours earlier. We spent the rest of the day on the spacious stone patio behind the 1903 farmhouse. Kingsolver retains close ties with the relatives of the people who originally staked the claim, plowed the fields, and built the structures in this hollow, where Kingsolver and her family raise sheep, maintain extensive orchards and gardens, and harvest wild mushrooms. She pointed out to me the spot on the front porch where her older daughter recently had said her wedding vows. At lunch we ate pizza and Monte Cristo sandwiches from Harvest Table, a restaurant Kingsolver’s husband helped create that serves seasonal, local foods. When Kingsolver noticed my plate wasn’t garnished with first-of-the-season strawberries, she sliced one of hers in half so we could share.
Supin: What has been the principal challenge of your career?
Kingsolver: Probably to negotiate between my own extreme introversion and a world of readers who want to know not just my work but me. When I first wrote a book, I thought that was all I was doing — writing a book. I thought my task ended when I put it in the mail to my publisher. I had no idea that it had just begun.
Supin: What about the writing itself? Isn’t it a challenge?
Kingsolver: Of course, but to me writing doesn’t feel like work. Sitting at my desk and putting together the puzzle of a plot, testing the tensile strength of a theme, pulling a sentence into poetry like taffy — I would do all that even if nobody paid me, even if nobody saw the results. I would write novel after novel and stick them in a drawer, and sometimes I threaten to do just that. My kids can turn them over to the publisher when I’m dead and there’s no possibility of a book tour. [Laughter.]
But that sounds so ungracious, to say I don’t want to go out there and look in the eye the people who love my work. That’s just wrong. It’s not only decent but useful for me to meet readers and hear what literature means to them and witness their devotion to books. All that is nourishing. But for me it’s also work, because I’m someone who is most comfortable when she’s alone or with one other person at most.
Supin: Why don’t you put your manuscripts in a drawer?
Kingsolver: Well, number one is because I think my publishers would come here and root through the drawers until they found them! [Laughter.]
But really it’s because I know that the subjects I write about matter. For example, Flight Behavior is about the most crucial question facing the world today: Why can we not talk about climate change? How can we look at the evidence and not all come away knowing the same thing? What’s the disconnect there? The novel isn’t about climate change per se. It’s about why we’re having a war of silence about it. Nothing is more important than figuring that out right now. So for me to write about that and then hide the manuscript away for a decade or two just would not make sense.
Now, if I could publish it under another name . . . I wish I had thought twenty years ago to use a pseudonym and just be this mysterious writer nobody could find. That would be the ideal, but I didn’t think of it.
This isn’t about “paper or plastic” or some vision of self-congratulatory parsimony. It’s about replacing material gratifications with spiritual ones. I don’t know how much carbon I’m offsetting with my choices. I just prefer to be a good animal rather than one that fouls its nest.
Supin: What experiences inspired you to write Flight Behavior?
Kingsolver: I can rarely point to personal events that inspire novels. The process is complicated: less like a lightning strike, more like an accumulation of seeds growing into a forest — and about as gradual. I often keep a novel in the germination phase for years while I’m working on other projects.
Supin: What got you interested in climate change, then?
Kingsolver: I was trained as a scientist, because I tried for decades to do something respectable before I finally gave in and said, “Oh, what the heck. I guess I’m a writer.” I worked as a scientist. I understand biology. I continue to read science. So I’ve known for a while that climate change is underway and has already progressed to a tipping point. It’s shocking even to the scientists who have been studying it, because the rate of temperature increase is outstripping their predictions. It is already bringing significant changes to biological systems. It’s devastating to farming in parts of the world that were on the edge to begin with. So I came to it just by paying attention.
Supin: Why can’t we talk about climate change in a more intelligent and open manner?
Kingsolver: Well, my answer is in the novel. It’s a 355-page answer. The short version is that we believe we collect evidence and then use it to make up our minds, but in fact we make up our minds and then collect evidence to support our beliefs. Almost all of us work that way, more or less, unless we are scientists trained to ask unbiased questions. But the normal human decision-making process is mostly subconscious. We take in information only from sources we trust, whether that’s Rush Limbaugh or NPR or a church pastor or a co-worker. We make these kinds of animal decisions about who’s on our team, and then we pretty much believe what they say.
So lobbing facts over the wall at the climate-change deniers is useless, especially while we’re also saying, “Look how stupid they are.” It’s not going to change anything. What might change the deniers’ minds is if someone like a church pastor talks to them about the “green covenant,” the ways in which the Bible calls on us to take responsibility for God’s creation. That might be taken to heart. But some scientist from out of town who rolls in and starts lecturing people won’t convince them.
Supin: What about people who haven’t made up their minds yet? Why aren’t they convinced by the evidence?
Kingsolver: It’s hard to grasp something so abstract, because we can’t see climate change well with the naked eye, except when an unprecedented hurricane wipes us out, for example. It’s mostly a gradual trend. There’s something about our brains that doesn’t let us believe anything unless we see it for ourselves, or see a picture of it, and you can’t take a picture of the climate per se. Weather always changes a little bit from year to year, so warmer temperatures in the short term aren’t that shocking. And our climate is so fundamental. It’s something we’ve trusted all our lives. It’s hard to believe that it’s untrustworthy.
Supin: How do you judge whether a supposed fact is true or not?
Kingsolver: I think about motive. Who has a dog in this fight? If the person making the statement has something to gain from my believing it, then it’s suspect.
There are organized disinformation campaigns. ExxonMobil has been hiring public-relations companies for more than a decade as part of a very effective, very expensive campaign to fill people with doubts about climate change. These are the same PR companies that tried to obscure the connection between smoking and cancer.
But there is no question that the carbon we mine and burn goes into the air. That’s been known since the eighteenth century. It’s called the “conservation of matter.” Nobody who understands chemistry and physics doubts that carbon in the atmosphere warms the planet. And nobody doubts that a warmer globe will disrupt pretty much every system we depend on for life. It’s not complicated.
All of the so-called doubts have been invented and planted by people who are good at figuring out how to get us to believe something. And we all would rather believe that we can go on using our cars and our computers and our hair dryers and everything we turn on every day, because it’s a great inconvenience for us to stop guzzling carbon-based fuel.
Supin: What changes have you made to lessen your own environmental impact? How do you practice conservation on a daily basis?
Kingsolver: My lifelong goal is to sort out the difference between “need” and “want.” My practices change over time, but the goal is consistent: to learn to live a happy, useful life on this earth without using up an unnecessary share of its goods. We all know the numbers about resource consumption here versus elsewhere: that giving birth to one U.S. child costs the same, in terms of consumption and carbon footprint, as giving birth to thirty children who will live in Bangladesh. It’s not that an American body needs more to survive. The problem is the hungry American brain. I certainly have one of those. I own plenty of things I could live without, and somehow there are always so many muddy shoes piled up on our front porch you’d think a whole village of people lived in this house.
But as a household we try to examine our “wants.” We don’t replace functional things simply because they are old. I live in an old house, work on a computer that some would call ancient, and still have a favorite sweater I purchased in high school. My daughters like to wear handmade and vintage clothes, and all of us sew, knit, cook, and make gifts rather than buying them. Poverty is not enviable. I know that, believe you me. But simplicity offers rewards. Instead of driving to a gym, I hoe a garden and haul hay into the barn, and I find that I love using my muscles, not to mention the companionship of my sheep. After a year of consciously growing most of our own food and buying everything else from local farmers, we felt as if our palates had gone to heaven, and we can’t imagine now going back to the industrial food pipeline. Another year I decided to avoid air travel, and that also unexpectedly enriched my life. To be still, to focus on home, to find more-economical ways to meet colleagues, to enjoy travels of the mind via books — these are not deprivations. That year I learned how to get to New York City by train. It’s not easy or fast, but the route winds through the New River Valley of West Virginia, and that is a glory no sensible person would regret seeing.
This isn’t about “paper or plastic” or some vision of self-congratulatory parsimony. It’s about replacing material gratifications with spiritual ones. I don’t know how much carbon I’m offsetting with my choices. I just prefer to be a good animal rather than one that fouls its nest. Also, and maybe most importantly, if I can learn to live happily with less, I feel more entitled to vote and agitate for legislation that would require everyone — even CEOs — to do the same.
Supin: Now that we’re into President Obama’s second term, many environmentalists are disappointed by his record. How do you feel about it?
Kingsolver: The losses are still outstripping the gains, environmentally speaking. I can hardly blame Obama for this, with Congress stacked against him. Unfortunately this country has exactly the legislators we deserve. I don’t expect much will change until a majority of us are brave enough to forgo familiar comforts and immediate gratification for the sake of a better future.
Supin: The situation with the climate is dire, but your books always have an undercurrent of optimism that is predicated on individuals’ ability to change.
Kingsolver: Change is a crucial ingredient to story. It’s like the yeast in the bread. I suppose you could write a story about how seventeen things happened that should have made this one idiot change, and he still didn’t. But otherwise any story is about transformation, whether it’s Cinderella or The Great Gatsby.
As a novelist, I love beginning with characters who have a lot to learn and then putting them through their paces. And not just one character. I like to write ensemble pieces about families or communities in which many people change, and not all in the same way. One person’s victory is another’s comeuppance. Or one learns a secret about another, and this causes them both to see each other differently. Maybe it brings them closer. People’s capacity to change makes me fundamentally optimistic. I have to think we can change in order to write the kind of books I do.
Getting back to what I was saying about trusting sources: Novels are an interesting way to cultivate a person’s trust. I like reaching people with information that perhaps they wouldn’t have accepted if it had been presented in a nonfiction book. Couched in fiction, ideas that might otherwise seem foreign or even unwelcome begin to seem reasonable, because the reader trusts the character and identifies him or her as somehow a member of the tribe. The character’s transformation is more compelling than a newspaper article about a stranger from another place. You could say that’s manipulative, and I suppose you’d be right, but the whole mechanism of literature is designed to manipulate the reader. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. There are some people who refuse to read fiction, maybe because they sense they’re being manipulated and don’t like it. They might say that a made-up story doesn’t matter. Or they might find it threatening to believe in a character who doesn’t exist. But most of us are willing to have our psyches manipulated in that way. We’re willing to take a chance.
It’s not so different from the chance you take when making new friends. You let yourself become close to someone who was previously a stranger and who will introduce you to new passions, fears, and information. When I think about how to introduce a character to a reader, I think about the way you make a friend. If you sit down on a bus next to a person who just pours out the story of his or her life, you’ll probably get up, take your magazine, and move five seats away, because that’s not the way we get to know each other. We begin with exchanges that aren’t terribly revealing but are interesting and provocative and make us want to hear more. It has to be parsed out. Some writers make the mistake of trying to frontload a novel with information. Who wants that? You don’t want everything up front. You want to be just interested enough that you’ll come back for more, and eventually you’re ready to know the deep, dark secret.
Supin: Why is literature important to you?
Kingsolver: Do you mean as a reader or as a writer?
Supin: As a person.
Kingsolver: Curiosity, I suppose. Even an introvert loves knowing how people are, maybe more than most. I think the ones who hang back and watch a conversation are probably more able to hear both sides of it. I know the minute I enter a discussion, I’m going to lose half of it.
I’m infinitely curious about people’s motives and relationships, how they got to where they are. Every time I read an article in the news, I want to sit and think for five minutes about what the reporter hasn’t told me. I’ve always been fascinated by the complete story, the whole sonata of the human psyche, all the complicated instrumentation.
So curiosity is a part of it, and of course there is also a desire for healing, for a sort of broadening of acceptance. I grew up in a rural place that was constrained in a lot of ways. There were subtle class differences. There were clear racial differences. The elementary school I went to became integrated when I was in second grade. When the African American kids came down the hill to our school, there were all these unspoken cultural differences. No one’s horizons were very wide. Nobody was going to college. Nobody was leaving this place. Everybody was going to have to figure out how to stay here forever and get along with each other.
I guess the place where I grew up wasn’t worldly, and I had a craving for worldliness, and that’s what I loved about literature. I could read Doris Lessing. I could read Ernest Hemingway. I could read Jack London. I could go to other countries and other times with them and find out what people were like there. I thought this made me a better person. I mean, I didn’t think about it in those words, but I just felt I was better off for knowing more about the world and being open to otherness. It started me on a path to thinking that literature fixes something that’s broken.
Supin: We have much more access to other perspectives, cultures, and experiences now, even in rural areas. But I sometimes find the world to be more polarized, too.
Kingsolver: I’m tempted to say the world hasn’t changed. We’re as provincial as ever. It’s just that now we’re supposed to know better.
When I was in second grade, I was already part of the “out crowd,” so it was easy for me to accept integration. But there was still Henryville, the part of town where all the African American people lived, and there was Carlisle, where all the white people lived. Even though the school was no longer segregated, the town was and remained so for a long time.
On the other hand, we have an African American family in the White House today. So I have to think the country is not more racially or politically polarized than it was then. It’s just that a lot of the mistrusts and resentments and anxieties have gone underground. We’re still divided along community or tribal lines into teams. One character in Flight Behavior calls this division “team camo and team latte.” But this great divide is no longer legally sanctioned. We have taken down those barriers and are all standing with arms crossed, giving each other hostile looks. It’s a refusal to cooperate. It’s nothing new, just another mode of holding out against the dismantling of the walls that protect racism, classism, and misogyny.
Five hundred years ago people burned witches. Two hundred and fifty years ago slavery was still acceptable. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Those are the words I come back to on the bad days.
Supin: Why should we know better now?
Kingsolver: Five hundred years ago people burned witches. Two hundred and fifty years ago slavery was still acceptable. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Those are the words I come back to on the bad days, like on the morning of George W. Bush’s reelection, when I couldn’t think of anything to tell my kids, or on the morning after the Boston Marathon bombing, or any morning when hatred seems entrenched. The arc of history is so long you can’t see the end of it, so you don’t sense the movement. It’s an arc. It goes around to the other side of the horizon. But if you look backward, you see that when I was born, women couldn’t sit on juries. When I was born, African American people couldn’t use the same public bathrooms as whites.
Now, quite suddenly, gay marriage appears to be on the verge of countrywide acceptance. But it takes time for some people to catch up to the community consensus. So there’s anger and animosity and the occasional hate crime, and that makes us feel like we’re not getting anywhere, but of course we’re getting somewhere. That’s why the person committed the hate crime — because he or she felt pressured to change.
This caution is probably intrinsic to our nature — we call it “human nature,” but really it’s animal nature. Just like a mockingbird has a mockingbird nature and a gray squirrel has a gray-squirrel nature, we have a nature that served us well when we lived in little groups and survived only if we were quick to spot an outsider and dispatch him. Cooperation was an important part of our evolution, but cooperation within strict limits. Altruism was also part of our evolution, but, again, it was a very constrained altruism that would benefit our own descendants and nobody else’s. That’s the wiring we’ve inherited. And on this razor-thin leading edge of history, we’ve developed a civilization in which we generally acknowledge the benefits of cooperation beyond our immediate group. So we have charitable organizations and adoptions and nonprofits, and also international trade and NAFTA. But our nature is still pulling us back. That’s why the arc of history is long. We can’t just decide to be a certain way and force our hearts to follow. Our hearts follow at different rates.
Supin: So some of human nature is ugly, and some of it is beautiful, and you’ve chosen to live right in the middle of it. How do you do that?
Kingsolver: First of all I have to acknowledge that we are animals. We are biological creatures. We’re not just the executive function of our brains. We have to eat. We’re driven to reproduce and to survive. But our brains give us many more choices than other animals have about how to satisfy those drives. We like that we make choices, we like the notion of ourselves as being responsible about the choices we make, and we like to encourage responsibility through laws and parenting. We’re always going to be suspicious of outsiders and want to have power over others, the same way we will always want to sleep past the alarm clock, but we still have to get up, because it’s part of being a responsible adult.
Some aspects of our animal natures are actually very gratifying. For example, foraging. For most of our existence we probably spent a large portion of our waking hours looking for food. Since we’ve developed this artificially constructed world where we have no opportunity to see edible things growing, we’ve subverted that fundamental drive into shopping. Women did more of the foraging, and men did more of the hunting, so women have subverted the foraging drive into shopping, and men have subverted the hunting drive into sports. Of course, there’s plenty of crossover. I’m sure there always was. But we’ve taken these natural tendencies and applied them to pointless exercises. In the distant past you would have been the best forager in the village, but today you’ve got three hundred pairs of shoes. Nobody needs three hundred pairs of shoes.
If you can reconnect those drives to something more useful both to you and to your neighbors, it can be gratifying. Maybe going to the farmers’ market or having a community garden would reapply your foraging drive to what it was really meant to do.
For most of our existence we probably spent a large portion of our waking hours looking for food. Since we’ve developed this artificially constructed world where we have no opportunity to see edible things growing, we’ve subverted that fundamental drive into shopping.
Supin: Your book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle provides an intimate look into your family’s commitment to eat only locally grown food for a year. What did you learn during that time?
Kingsolver: That food made from fresh ingredients is amazingly good. That farmers are interesting and worthwhile people to know. That gardening and farmwork provide a healthy balance to a life spent mostly at a desk. And that turkey sex is a hoot to watch.
Supin: You got a lot of attention for that book, some of it unwanted.
Kingsolver: My family and I thought people would read the book and make its message their own, but the media wanted to make our house and our lives their own. We endured an assault by journalists who were insistent on coming to see the farm and photograph the farm and photograph us on the farm. We kept saying, “No, no, no. You have the book. Do what you want with it. But we’re not for sale, or for rent, or anything.” So we made a hard and fast rule: Nobody comes to the farm. We did interviews by phone and met a few reporters in town. (One British journalist hornswoggled his way onto the farm, but we won’t talk about that.) It was strange: the more we politely demurred, the more people wanted to get in here. Some even made threats. They said my book would not be reviewed if we didn’t let them onto the farm.
Supin: Don’t most memoirs spark interest in the author’s life?
Kingsolver: People call that book a memoir, but it’s not. The most important events that happened for us that year were that my sister-in-law died of brain cancer, leaving two little children motherless, and my daughter Camille went off to college. Those events were not mentioned in the book at all. A memoir of that year would have been completely different. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a book about local food. We used personal experience as a sort of jumping-off point to discuss confined animal-feeding operations and vegetarianism and a hundred other things, but all of it specifically related to food systems.
Supin: And some journalists weren’t satisfied with that.
Kingsolver: No, they were looking to get a scoop. It surprised me, because in the South, where I was raised, you don’t invite yourself into someone’s home. You just don’t. And another golden rule in Southern culture is that if people ask you for something, you don’t say no, because they don’t ask unless they really need it. And they also don’t ask if they’re not going to be able to reciprocate. If they need to borrow your hay baler, it’s because getting the hay in is life or death on a farm, and as soon as their baler is repaired, they’ll be prepared to do the same for you. When somebody brings you a covered dish, the rule is you return it with food in it. It took me a long time to figure out, in my professional life, that most of these Northerners who asked me for something were not going to bring the covered dish back full. They just wanted the covered dish, and then they wanted another one! [Laughter.]
I do want to make it clear that the people determined to get their feet on this farm and poke around and look at it and interview my children were journalists, not readers. Occasionally some young person would want to come work on the farm, which is sweet, you know. I understand that. But mostly what we heard from readers is “You’ve inspired me. I went right out and dug up my front yard, and here’s a picture of my two-year-old eating tomatoes off the vine.” That’s the response we’d hoped for, and it thrilled us to get it.
We’ve built ourselves an unsustainable house of cards and moved in. What does a species like that deserve? I’m hopeful that as the cards fall, we will watch and learn. We’ll adapt to our altered circumstances and create new ways of being.
Supin: So you offered your personal story for others to relate to, but not because you wanted to be famous.
Kingsolver: I’ve never wanted to be famous. I’m just not wired that way. I write because I love it. When struggling writers ask me for a few words of encouragement to help them stick with it, I want to say, “If you don’t love it at this point, you should move on to something else.” There are so many things to do in this world. Dolly Parton once said if she ever got to where she didn’t love singing, she’d just do hair.
If I didn’t love this, I wouldn’t do it. We’re not going to run out of writers or books because one person quits. I hope that doesn’t sound discouraging. And I do have days when I struggle with it myself, when that beautiful DELETE key is my friend. But I know by now, because I’ve done it long enough, that the bad writing is getting me to the good writing. Think of it as mining: you’ve got to move all this dirt before you get to the sparkly parts. You can’t just walk right in and expect sparkles. That’s the modern disease. That probably makes me sound like an old person.
Supin: Sometimes encouragement is appropriate, though. How do you nurture people to work hard enough to move all the dirt? How do you do that with your own children?
Kingsolver: There’s something I have said so often to my children that now they chant it back to me: “You can do hard things.” I sent my kids to a Montessori preschool, and thank heavens I did, because most of what I learned about parenting came from those wonderful Montessori teachers. They straightened me out about self-esteem. There’s this myth that self-esteem comes from making everything easy for your children and making sure they never fail. If they never encounter hardship or conflict, the logic goes, they’ll never feel bad about themselves. Well, that’s ridiculous. That’s not even a human life.
Kids learn self-esteem from mastering difficult tasks. It’s as simple as that. The Montessori teachers told me to put my two-year-old on a stool and give her the bread, give her the peanut butter, give her the knife — a blunt knife — and let her make that sandwich and get peanut butter all over the place, because when she’s done, she’ll feel like a million bucks. I thought that was brilliant. Raising children became mostly a matter of enabling them and then standing back and watching. When a task was difficult, that’s when I would tell them, “You can do hard things.” Both of them have told me they still say to themselves, “I can do hard things.” It helps them feel good about who they are, not just after they’ve finished, but while they’re engaged in the process.
And so, if you’re writing a novel, and you say, “Wow, I’m probably writing a lot of crap, but I think I wrote a couple of good sentences today,” and you’re just dying to get in there the next day and write more crap to get to those good sentences, and you enjoy the thrill of the chase, getting a little closer each day to the sparkle, then you’re going to be a writer. But if you hate what you’re doing, then go do something else.
Supin: And that applies to anything, not just writing.
Kingsolver: Yes. It’s important to find your passion. I don’t believe in talent. I don’t even like that word talent. When people say, “Oh, you’re so talented,” I think, You have no idea. I work hard. [Laughter.] I don’t say that, though, because it wouldn’t be gracious.
I think if you feel passionate enough about something to keep doing it through the failure, through the bad days, then you’ll get somewhere. That’s true of writing or painting or accounting. I’m so glad there are people who love being accountants. My accountant, Marty, is passionate about his job. I thank God for putting Marty in the world. [Laughter.]
Supin: What do you say to the oil geologist or the land developer who says, “This is my passion”?
Kingsolver: I say not all passions can be tolerated. Crimes of passion, for example, are not to be admired. The simple truth is that the oil companies control too much of the world’s economy, and a company doesn’t function like a person. A company is a machine that only wants to make itself bigger and stronger. People have principles. People have restraint. They can say, “I’d like to eat all the desserts on this table, but that would be stupid.” Corporations don’t have principles. They do whatever they need to do to increase their bottom line and show their shareholders that they grew in the last quarter. So they’re just going to keep pumping oil, and try to keep people burning oil.
Supin: Did you always know you’d be a writer?
Kingsolver: I didn’t allow myself to plan on being a writer at first. I made myself follow other paths, because I thought that wanting to be a writer was impossible or silly — or maybe it seemed silly because I thought it was impossible.
I grew up in a rural, working-class place where hard work was valued. It was the way you participated in the community. Your effort defined you. If you were one of those people who didn’t work or got lucky or inherited money or somehow stepped into the limelight without having earned it, then you were not respected. And all extravagance was suspect. There was a suspicion that movie stars, for example, weren’t really working. I know now that’s not true; movie stars do work hard. But the assumption about artists and famous people in my hometown was that they weren’t real workers. They were getting “above their station.” In that community you didn’t get above your station, because that would be forsaking other people. You also didn’t draw attention to yourself, especially if you were a woman. The worst thing you could say about a woman was “She’s parading herself around.” So when I go on a book tour, what words do you think are roaring through my head? [Laughter.]
A book tour is hard on anyone, but especially on me. So what do I do? I just think of myself as carrying a big mirror, and I reflect the light onto something else. My last tour began the week Hurricane Sandy hit, and everywhere I went, I said, “Let’s talk about climate change.” Sometimes I talk about literature and independent bookstores. For most of my tours, every event I do is a fundraiser for a local organization. So I’m not just parading myself around, because I get to tell the crowd that tonight is a benefit for the local Farm Aid chapter or what have you, and here’s how to get involved. Then I’ll do my little reading.
Supin: I’ve noticed when I read your books that at some point your main characters all describe feeling constrained by the smallness around them, and so they branch out. They jump in cars, they jump on boats, they jump on ideas, and they become more worldly. But there are costs and implications to that, too.
Kingsolver: A larger life might necessarily have a larger carbon footprint.
Supin: A larger life also takes you away from the local community.
Kingsolver: Bingo, you’ve got my number. I guess all writers sooner or later figure out that they are writing the same book over and over, and the book I’m writing is about the difficult dynamic of belonging to a community and being true to that, but also being an individual and pursuing a truth that’s larger than your community. It’s that sort of push-pull. The only exception is maybe The Lacuna, which was an aberration. Years from now they’ll find out that someone else wrote that book. [Laughter.]
Supin: I’ll admit I started it three times and finished it only when I knew I would be interviewing you. Now it may be one of my favorites.
Kingsolver: It’s my favorite, too. I was absolutely determined to write a book that nobody had ever written before, and nobody had ever written a first-person narrative that doesn’t use the pronoun I until almost nine-tenths of the way through. I think it’s my best book. I set for myself the challenge of creating this first-person narrator, a gay male for whom self-revelation was almost impossible. I came to love him inordinately, I guess because self-revelation is difficult for me. I don’t like to talk about myself. Yet here I am.
Of course, I also wanted to write about how it came to pass during the McCarthy era in the United States that art and politics got a divorce. I wrote The Lacuna because I needed to know what had happened in the fifties that had made people yank politics out of art and stuff it in some dark place. What had happened to the psyche of our nation? It’s our job as citizens to look at this country and figure out what we don’t like and fix it. That’s what Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive . . . it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.” Why isn’t that also the job of the artist? I started creating this novel right after 9/11, when I saw that anybody who said anything critical about the U.S. was cordially offered a one-way ticket out. That was the America I was living in.
So how did we get from Thomas Jefferson to George W. Bush? It seemed to me that the national appetite for self-criticism had turned on a dime right around 1949. I was really interested in that part of U.S. history. So I devised a character who does nothing wrong but becomes a victim of the circumstances of that time.
The research was herculean. I realized that people who didn’t live through that era were not going to believe the country was really like that. They would think I was exaggerating. So I had to pull archival articles from The New York Times and other newspapers and layer them into the narrative. It was like a puzzle: the construction, the research, the ambition of the question — all were bigger than anything I’d ever taken on before. I just kept saying, “You can do hard things.” [Laughter.] I didn’t even let anybody read a draft for seven years.
Supin: What are the rewards and possible pitfalls of incorporating controversial political issues in your writing?
Kingsolver: Controversy is in the eye of the beholder. Every story contains elements that could be upsetting for some people: deceit, bad parenting, climate change, sex outside of marriage. For some reason I’ve been branded a “political writer,” and therefore anything I write, whether it’s a pure love story like Prodigal Summer or a carefully documented historical fiction like The Lacuna, will be declared political and controversial.
I’m getting a little weary of the lazy way this descriptor “political fiction” gets overused, often with an edge of dismissiveness, as if that alone told you all there was to know about a particular novel. I mean, what fiction isn’t political, unless it’s a bodice-ripper or something? Some people use the word political as a criticism, as if fiction shouldn’t be political. But I’m a political person: I vote, I pay attention, and I care about matters that influence the future of the world. When people say, “Oh, this novel is political,” as if that were the beginning and end of it, that to me is like saying, “This is an African American novel,” or, “This is a women’s novel.” Louise Erdrich’s The Round House brings attention to an unfair law that makes it difficult to prosecute rape cases on Indian reservations. It’s also a beautiful work of art. It would be demeaning to say The Round House is a “political novel,” and that’s it. I guess I’m grumpy about that.
I write fiction set in the real world, where people lead lives circumscribed by class, gender, and fortune. Also, because I was trained as a biologist, I see a planet populated by species other than humans, and I note the extent of the damage wrought by one species upon another. This is the world where my novels are set, but it’s not generally what they are about. How the human psyche behaves under duress is the domain of all literary fiction. Flight Behavior is an exploration of our tendency to avoid or deny unwelcome news, even when this denial is likely to ruin us. As sure as you’re born, though, Flight Behavior will be declared a novel about climate change — or, heaven help us, about butterflies.
But I like to believe there is no wrong way to read a novel except upside down, so I suppose people may conclude whatever they please. I’ll just concentrate on writing the best book I possibly can. Then I’ll move on, letting the controversy fall where it may, and avoid laying my eyes on anything that’s written about the book after publication. If I let myself get caught up in reviews, I might lose my nerve for facing the genuine, problematic world where I want to keep setting my stories. And that’s what it takes, mostly: nerve. It’s risky to bring up subjects that will make people uncomfortable, or push them to think about their own limits or prejudices or assumptions. But I admire that kind of writing. I always have.
Supin: You established and fund the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Tell me about that.
Kingsolver: I think the book industry needs a nudge to publish riskier work, especially by writers who are at the beginning of their careers and whose first novels are brave in terms of the subjects they tackle. And I think readers could use some help embracing socially engaged fiction. Most of all, I think writers who are contemplating being that sort of writer could use some encouragement.
The Bellwether Prize is an award for an unpublished first novel and comes with twenty-five thousand dollars and a guarantee of publication. So this prize, as I conceived it, takes a brave emerging author and gives him or her a seat at the table. Every writer who has won it has gone on to do other brave works.
Supin: You obviously no longer think of being a writer as impossible or silly, but you do seem never to have abandoned this notion that our work must have meaning and purpose, both for ourselves and for the broader world; that each individual’s life should do good.
Kingsolver: You’re right. I haven’t abandoned that. I don’t feel I have a choice. I’m a mother. I’m not always optimistic about the fate of the world — especially the natural world — but I’m still hopeful, because hope is a choice you get to renew. You can reboot hope. [Laughter.] I have to do that, and not just for my own kids. Entire future generations will have to sort out this mess that we’ve left them. So I have to participate in solutions, because to do otherwise would feel like child abuse.
My writing, of course, is a part of that participation. I love getting letters from people who were inspired by my work to do courageous and creative things. I did something, and then they did something, and we met in the middle. Somehow we touched. They brought their lives to my work and then went and dug up their front yard to make a garden or opened a school or joined the Peace Corps or helped their mother die in a loving way. That’s the magnificent, mostly invisible community in which I live, even though I go whole days without leaving this hollow and spend most of my waking life in an upstairs room by myself — very happily by myself. I used to have a little fish in a bowl in my office, but it died. So now it’s back to just me.
I didn’t go into this work thinking I’d become a part of this huge community of readers. I went into it because I wanted to do something that felt good and right and beautiful. I didn’t think about what readers would do with it. Now I know. It’s like what they say about casting your bread on the waters. I think of throwing my books out on the water, and they float away, like messages in bottles, and I don’t know where they’re going to end up. I love when people find those bottles and do something meaningful. That’s why I go on book tours, even though they’re hard for me: to see all the surprising things that happen on the other side of the writer-reader contract. How could I not be grateful for that? It reminds me that I’m not up there in that room alone. I look out over the crowds, all those faces, and I see that I’m also a part of the world.
Supin: There are many people who say we’ve passed the tipping point with climate change and that, within the next fifty or sixty years, billions of people will be affected by food shortages, droughts, forced migration, and the loss of arable land. We want to remain optimistic, but does it ever become irresponsible or painful to speak of hope?
Kingsolver: It’s never irresponsible to speak of hope. It’s irresponsible to give up. We’re definitely in for a future none of us banked on. There is no going back to the planet on which human life first evolved, and of course that’s terrible news for us humans. So many extinctions and habitat shifts are already underway, I don’t actually feel sure that humanity will be around in fifty or sixty years. But I’m hopeful anyway. Not just for the people, but for the gray squirrels and foxes and oak trees and mockingbirds. It’s more a question of what to hope for. It would be foolish to hope that life will stay exactly the same as it is now. We’ve built ourselves an unsustainable house of cards and moved in. What does a species like that deserve? I’m hopeful that as the cards fall, we will watch and learn. We’ll adapt to our altered circumstances and create new ways of being. Humans have done that through ice ages and bronze ages and all the other ages we’ve been on earth. Like it or not, it’s what we do best.