In other years I watched the sky for birds flying…
In a world as wrong as this one, all we can do is make things as right as we can,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote in her debut novel The Bean Trees, first published in 1988. Back then she could not have known that her entire ethos as one of our finest creative writers, public intellectuals, and humanitarians would be summed up in this statement. But consciously or not, that’s what Kingsolver has tried to do time and time again in her award-winning works of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry; in her advocacy on behalf of the environment, local foods, and social justice; and in her establishment of the Bellwether Prize for writers of “unusually powerful fiction.”
A daughter of Appalachia who has lived and worked all over the world, Kingsolver has produced novels—among them The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna, and Flight Behavior—short story collections, essays, and poems that have been translated into more than two dozen languages. She has received Britain’s Orange Prize for Fiction, the James Beard Award, the National Humanities Medal, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, as well as being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
In a recent conversation with acclaimed writer and teacher Crystal Wilkinson, Kingsolver spoke of how her rural upbringing has “never left [her] psyche,” finding her literary voice, and writing across genres.
Crystal Wilkinson: As a child you grew up in Carlisle, Kentucky, and then lived briefly in the Congo. How did your sense of the outside world as a girl develop? How did it frame your identity as a woman and as a writer?
Barbara Kingsolver: You’ve put your finger on the formative moment in my lifelong sense of place, belonging, and point-of-view. As a rural child in Kentucky, I claimed as my own universe the fields and woods surrounding our farm, and the few dozen children with whom I attended first grade. The next year my parents abruptly moved our family to the Republic of Congo, where my father provided health care to people who badly needed it. Instead of going to school I spent many months prowling with my brother around a village of thatched mud houses, no electricity or plumbing, no school, no stores, no roads or automobiles. We tried to befriend children who spoke no English and viewed our whiteness as a bizarre curiosity. The girls my age were all busy carrying younger siblings around as they fetched water, worked in manioc fields and gathered firewood from the jungle. Little boys climbed trees in search of things to eat, such as palm nuts or baby birds. I envied these kids’ adult-like competence, and tried to keep up, but mostly failed. I accepted my status as an utter outsider.
Surprisingly, that stamp never left my psyche. When we returned to Kentucky I entered third grade and found that important things had happened in my absence. My peers had learned to fit their writing on one line of the ruled paper instead of two. Our segregated school had been integrated. Classmates sorted themselves wordlessly into groups based not just on skin color but also clothing, possessions, whether they lived in town or rode the bus—subtle supremacies that baffled me. The kids who were considered poor in our county were affluent compared with those I’d recently known, who literally had nothing but the shirt on their backs. I resisted the easy order, and fell into a gap that continued to widen. In small towns like these, all human interactions tend to begin with the unspoken question:Are you one of Us, or one of Them? I accidentally became Neither. I felt as if I’d taken an apple from the tree of knowledge, and gotten myself thrown out of the garden.
I did what lonely kids do everywhere (or did, before the internet): buried my nose in books about everyplace and everything, and made friends with other people who didn’t quite fit in. Something in me was always watching life from the outside, permanently obsessed with the notion of belonging vs. not-belonging. It did not make for a happy childhood, but it was excellent training for a writer. At eighteen I left Kentucky and thought I’d never look back. I logged a couple of decades exploring the whole wide world, and along the way I began to see what I had loved about my childhood place, and how it might have loved me. I’d already spent years writing in journals, honing the habits of observation, so it was just in my nature to pay close attention to the nuances of language, culture, behavior, landscape, foods, scents, trees, the flowers that are in season—all the things that make a place what it is, and form the foundations for a person’s attachment. If a sense of place is important in my writing, that’s just my psyche. Place is the filter through which I understand everything. When I listen to conversations, I can’t help pulling out the threads of idiom that are particular to a place. Over the years, as I’ve come to understand the poetry of the land that made me, I’ve forgiven its trespasses, and those of my own.
In my late thirties, when I could have chosen anyplace in the world as home, I chose a farm in southern Appalachia and moved back here with my family. The years since then have been the happiest of my life, and both my daughters have grown up with very happy, secure identities as Appalachian citizens. So my life and work have been a process of making peace with my origins.
CW: You were educated in biology before becoming a writer. How do these two worlds converge for you, both on the page and in your everyday life?
BK: I suppose I would say that natural laws are the ones I trust. I hold all human argument and hullaballoo in the context of a certain smallness: we’re only one species, among millions. Every wren and groundhog and mosquito believes devoutly that its species—not ours—is the one that matters. I’m well aware of my dependence on other kinds of beings. Every breath I inhale was manufactured by a leaf; all that I eat was once alive, bent on its own survival and reproduction. Whether I’m getting up in the morning or sitting down to write, there’s this understanding between the world and me that requires a substantial measure of humility.
CW: The UK newspaper The Guardian has described your work as “intently political and genuinely bestselling.” I would add that you put the concerns of the world’s social and environmental wounds in a lived existence in your books, most often through the bodies, hearts, and consciousness of women and children as characters. How do you manage to meld this research and politics with the concerns of the everyday lives of your characters?
BK: I manage it by paying attention to craft, only and always. I never ask any version of the question, “How can I wedge a political point into this scene?” It just doesn’t work that way. I concentrate on character, theme, language, structure, voice. That’s all. It actually surprises me that no matter what I write, people declare it “intently political.” I’m just writing about the world I know, as it is. Wounds and griefs included.
CW: I read an interview in which you said that you began The Lacuna with a series of questions—that you were exploring why art and politics have such an uneasy relationship here in the States. Do all of your books begin with a series of questions? If so, can you talk about the questions that began your most recent novels?
BK: Yes, I always begin with questions. They are more nuanced than this, but for the sake of brevity I will simplify. The Lacuna began with my long-term curiosity about why people in the U.S. seem so suspicious of blending art and politics, compared with, for example, Latin Americans or Europeans who strike me as more comfortable with political art. I entered Flight Behavior with a curiosity about my own region: farmers around here already suffer damage from climate change, in the form of unprecedented droughts, floods, and tornadoes. And yet the people of southern Appalachia, on the whole, know less and speak less about climate change than more urbane folks tend to do. We’re smart, thoughtful people. How can I explain this conundrum?
CW: Some of the writers you have said you admire are Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jane Austen, and Kentucky’s own Wendell Berry and Bobbie Ann Mason. Which writers—these and others—were most influential on your journey as a novelist? Who are you reading at the moment?
BK: Of the writers you mention, Bobbie Ann Mason especially influenced my roundabout journey home. After I left Kentucky, people mocked my accent, and shocked me with their “joking” presumptions about ignorant, unwashed Kentuckians. Without making a conscious decision, I retuned my accent and spent years trying to “pass” as a more urbane person. I wrote stories set in exotic places I had never seen. I would now describe these stories, categorically, as dreadful. After five or six years of this, a writer I knew from New York loaned me Shiloh and Other Stories by Bobbie Ann Mason, and it knocked me out. Mason had this quiet, utterly confident voice that even sophisticated New Yorkers admired, and Mason was a Kentuckian. Unapologetically, a Kentuckian. For the first time, a voice behind my ear said, “Stop pretending. Find that place down inside that’s really you, and write from there.” Within a few months I’d written Homeland and Rose-Johnny, which I consider the first bearable fiction of my career. Then I lit into The Bean Trees with the feeling that I’d found my voice and hit the gas. I guess the rest is Kentucky Girl History.
Some recent reads that have moved me immensely are Alice Munro’s Dear Life, and Independent People, by the Icelandic Nobel Prize-winner Halldor Laxness. The latter is as Appalachian a book as ever I’ve read, despite its setting in nineteenth-century Iceland. And I also want to mention the remarkable play, This Is My Heart for You, by Silas House. Ever since I read it, I’m longing to see it staged.
CW: You’re most widely identified as a novelist, so some readers don’t realize that you have often crossed genres, writing creative nonfiction essays and poetry. Is writing outside of your home genre of fiction a challenge, or do you find it liberating?
BK: Really I feel equally at home in fiction or creative nonfiction. I worked for years as a journalist, and I started keeping a diary at age eight, so it seems like a relatively recent innovation to declare myself a novelist. The basic techniques of fiction and creative nonfiction feel so similar to me, it’s no stretch at all. Now, poetry is another matter. Poetry feels like a country I visit without a passport, where I look around furtively, grab hold of something precious, and try to smuggle it back across the border. Any poem I get written down feels like contraband to me.
CW: A friend of mine says, “If you want to know how to access the power of verbs in your scenes, go read Barbara Kingsolver.” I agree and often use your work in teaching students about the craft of fiction writing. What insight might you have for a writer who looks to your work to learn something about the writing process and becoming a better writer?
BK: I offer this insight: root out all the “to be” verbs in your prose and bludgeon them until dead. No “It was” or “they are” or “I am.” Don’t let it be, make it happen.
This insight took root in my soul in the following manner: after I earned my graduate degree in biology I took a job as a scientific writer for the University of Arizona. I spent my days reading reports of scientific research, and translating them into material that ordinary citizens (non-scientists) would want to read. Such leaden barges of verbiage oppressed me, I can hardly bear the recollection of those years. Honestly, after every few pages of Science I wanted to crawl under my desk and take a nap. But I love science! So why, I wondered, is all this prose so stupefying? How can these educated, articulate men and women of science all speak in the same soporific tongue? And then the problem dawned on me: the passive voice! The parameters are described…the results are found. Zzzz. Were these writers purposefully concealing the business of who actually did the work, and what they actually did? No, they couldn’t help it, they had to write that way. But I did not. So I learned how to burrow into every passive and render it an active. For reports that crackled and sparked instead of falling over dead, I learned to supply the secret ingredient: verbs, in varieties infinite and endless.