‘I’ve Always Been Either Praised or Accused of Ambition’: An Interview with Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver takes a rigorous, scientific approach to her novels’ subjects — but, as a woman writer, her authority is often challenged.

 

Sarah Boon | Longreads | October 2018 | 14 minutes (3,686 words)

 

Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees, was published in 1988, on the same day that her first daughter was born. Since then, Kingsolver has published eight more novels, two books of essays, a book of poetry, and three nonfiction books — including the popular Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about growing all of her family’s food on their farm. Her eighth and latest novel, Unsheltered, follows the parallel lives of characters in both 2016 and 1871 as they live and love in the same house at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey.

Kingsolver has received numerous writing awards, including the James Beard Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Orange Prize for Fiction. She has also been shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize and a PEN/Faulkner Award. Kingsolver has also established The Bellwether Prize for Fiction, an award to support writers who cover topics around social change.

I spoke with Kingsolver three days after Hurricane Florence made landfall on the east coast of the US, and the same day Florence was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, though it continued to bombard the region with strong winds and heavy rain. Kingsolver noted that she lives in the mountainous region of Virginia, farther from the storm. She wasn’t too worried about the rain, but was concerned about her downstream neighbors who were likely to be inundated. It was a perfect play on the title of Unsheltered.

Kingsolver and I discussed the writing craft and the effects of “writing while female.” Kingsolver said that there’s nothing she enjoys more than talking about craft, but that her interviewers generally focus on product rather than process. We discussed her scientific training and lack of formal writing training, and how that feeds into her writing, which communicates key scientific and ecological concepts convincingly but subtly to the reader. I also asked Kingsolver how she ensures that she fairly represents minorities and Indigenous people, without falling into stereotypes and while maintaining respect for these communities.

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Sarah Boon: You started your career as a scientist. You received an MSc degree from the University of Arizona on the social life of termites, which you finished in 1984.

Barbara Kingsolver: Yes, I entered the PhD program and was three-quarters of the way through. But I had a crisis of faith. What I was learning and writing about was so important, but I was frustrated that, when I finished, only about 11 people in the world would be interested in reading it. And I thought I could do better than that. Maybe even, you know, like 111 people.

I think that the scientific community can be, at its worst, fairly insular, with people talking only to themselves or to others in the same community. It’s a problem, and I decided to bridge that gap. So I organized with my committee to get a master’s degree and took a leave of absence. I left the program ABD [all but dissertation] and I never went back.

You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that “once a scientist, always a scientist.” In another interview, you said, “I create experimental conditions and then I let the characters sort of live out the hypothesis.” Which in my mind sounds like a kind of biosphere approach.

(Laughter) The imaginary biosphere — those people cannot get out!

(Laughter) I felt like you solved the science/writer conundrum by saying you see the world as a scientist, but you work as an artist. What do you say to people who say that science and art can’t coexist?

I say watch me.

(Laughter)

It’s not just me. There aren’t a lot of us, but there are other writers who have been trained in the scientific method, in scientific thinking and scientific information. Richard Powers is a good example. He’s studied physics and math, and now he’s gotten very interested in trees. And he writes very beautifully, inventing stories that pull the reader into a world where they’re going to learn something about science. We expect a novel to shift our perspective and give us some empathy for the theoretical stranger but, in the case of The Overstory, Powers shifts our perspective out of the human world and into the timescale of a tree, which is a magnificent endeavor. And that, to me, is the best of what fiction can do, is broaden your empathy.

You have to reach a point at which you’ve mastered the material enough so that you can create your own question, and then you have to further gain authority over the material so you can ask and answer questions that haven’t been asked before.

My favorite writers have always been those who aim a little higher than just the domestic drama, or the three conflicts of literature that we all learned in high school English class: man against man (the social drama), man against himself (the psychological drama), and man against nature (the environmental drama). I love books that address all three at once. Of course it’s not always necessarily by someone who was trained as a scientist. People who are acquainted with agriculture and an agrarian life are similar to scientists in that they’re always observing cause and effect, so they often have a similar perspective. I think Melville did it beautifully in Moby Dick, and Thomas Hardy also did it well.

At the beginning of my writing career, in the 1980s, there was a great withdrawal from the third conflict (the environmental drama). It seemed as though most of the writing that was popular in the 1980s and 1990s was very small in scale, minimalist — it was conflict at the level of the marriage or the grocery store. And I’ve always been restless, I’ve always wanted bigger than that. And I’m happy to say that this approach is being embraced by more writers now in the USA than it has been in decades.

You took very few creative writing courses and relied largely on your own experience. You’ve said “Writing is writing, it all adds up. Freelance journalism was my best training for becoming a novelist.” You’ve also said that your years as a technical writer taught you to produce whether you wanted to or not, rather than waiting for a so-called muse. How do you think the fact that you’re mostly a self-taught writer has shaped your writing? How might it have been different if you had been able to take more creative writing courses?

What you left out is that I learned to write by reading. I started reading novels when I was seven and I never stopped. Even though I didn’t form the ambition of becoming a writer when I grew up, because my world contained no indication that that was a possibility for me. But I knew I loved literature and I studied it because I study everything, it’s just the animal that I am. So pretty early on I was reading the likes of Virginia Woolf or Tolstoy, and pausing or backing up and saying “OK, I see what’s going on here.” In my 20s, when I started writing more seriously, I became more conscious of reading to learn. I’d study Dickens for plot, or I’d analyze Steinbeck for theme.

If I’d studied writing in school I wouldn’t have studied science, so I wouldn’t be writing about all these scientific ideas that are so exciting and such a rich subject for me. Additionally, if I’d gone the creative writing route, I think I would have learned the literary fashion of my era which, as I mentioned before, focused on small conflicts at the level of the marriage or the grocery store. Nobody told me “you can’t put all three kinds of conflict in one story,” so I didn’t know any better. That’s why I’ve always been either praised or accused of ambition, because I write the literature I love, based on what I’ve learned by reading.

I like that comment about being “praised and accused of ambition,” because it’s such a common double-edged sword for women.

Yes, women often get accused of ambition.

You mentioned in an interview with Charis Perkins that you were largely outside of the writing community because you were a mother. You said “whole categories of things that authors do that are not writing — going to conferences, giving talks, going to workshops and schmoozing events — I didn’t have that luxury.” How might your writing have been different if you weren’t so isolated from the writing community at the beginning of your literary career?

It’s meant that I’ve focused my life. The locus of my writing life is my desk, is my home, my office which is in my house. And I don’t regret that at all, given that I also had children to raise and a life to live. I’ve probably been more productive and written more books than I would have if I’d been on the “circuit.” It’s also a matter of personality. I’m an extremely introverted person, I’m very happy in a room by myself. I used to be shy when I was young, and you can unlearn shyness but you can’t unlearn introversion, it’s genetic. That’s how I’m made.

But now that you’re part of the writing community, what does that look like?

I can be in a room with 1000 people, I can stand on a stage and talk, I can sign 400 books in a night, and I’m about to do that every single day for six weeks because I’m going on a book tour. But what that means for me being the person that I am is that it’s exhausting. I’m profoundly grateful to my readers and it’s moving and wonderful for me to go out in the world to meet them and hear what they have to say. It reminds me that I’m not alone in a room, but that I’m having this huge conversation.

It also reminds me that I should keep doing what I’m doing and ignore either the praise or the accusations, because what I hear from readers is that they want to be challenged, and often they say thank-you. “You said what I’ve been trying to tell my husband.” Or “you woke me up, I never thought of it this way.” For that reason, the book tour is very good for me. It gives me the courage to come back home and do it again, to ask really hard questions and to keep pushing down these difficult roads, and never to take the easy way out.


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You mentioned in several interviews that you’re most proud of The Lacuna, and that you spent seven years reading and immersing yourself in that timeframe and point in history to examine the link between politics and art in Mexico versus the US. One line in particular, from an interview with Goodreads, really stood out for me. You said, “I sat and read for years.” I could picture this, you sitting and reading for years.

Yes, and it wasn’t for fun, it was to find my way into a time and a place, but particularly to determine the evolution of an attitude. How could the people of America fall from the kind of grace and generous patriotism that we mustered in World War II to the hatred and hysteria of the McCarthy era? I was very interested in that sociopolitical shift, which I think is relevant to what we’ve seen again in the last decade.

Until now, The Lacuna was my proudest accomplishment. But now I’ll say I’m proudest of Unsheltered, because it required a similar kind of immersion and an enormous amount of research. It’s ambitious in its structure and there were a lot of things about it that felt impossible to me at the outset, but that’s where you want to be as an artist. I’m most excited by the things I’ve never done yet. And that uncertainty about whether or not I can master the challenge I’ve set for myself is what gets me up in the morning, it’s thrilling and it’s risky. I guess there’s that adrenaline that keeps you excited to write.

Do you do that much research for all of your novels?

There’s always research, of course — as an academic you’ll understand this. I feel every book is like a dissertation in some way because you have to reach a point at which you’ve mastered the material enough so that you can create your own questions, and then you have to further gain authority over the material so you can ask and answer questions that haven’t been asked before. So every novel I write involves that process of acquiring authority over a particular subject. It might be the Indian Child Welfare Act (Pigs in Heaven), or climate change (Flight Behavior), or post-colonial Africa (The Poisonwood Bible).

I’ve noticed a pattern in my novels: from large to small to large again. So after The Poisonwood Bible, which took about 15 years to write (though I was doing other things as well), I wrote Prodigal Summer. It was set in a place I knew well, among people whose language I knew intimately — it was my own place. While I had to learn about moss, entomology, and chestnut breeding, fundamentally it was faster to write. I did most of the writing in a single year, plus the lead up and the polish. But my next novel was The Lacuna, which was a big slow “sitting and reading” kind of book. After that I returned to southern Appalachia and wrote Flight Behavior. Again, I had to learn about monarch butterflies and travel to Mexico to see their wintering grounds. But I mostly knew the territory. I knew about sheep farming, and mega-churches, and the antagonism between urban and rural people. It was my home ground so it went fairly quickly. And then the next novel, Unsheltered, took more research and thinking. So I guess my next one might be quick, but I don’t know.

If you behave as if you know something, then you get arrested for being smart while female… Moral authority expressed in a female voice gets challenged a lot.

One of the things you’ve just brought up is this idea that “the essential ingredient of authorship is authority.” I’m curious about how you achieve authority — is it mainly through your extensive research?

Yes. And you know you’re never finished, you can never assume that you’re the final authority, or no one would want to read your books because you’d sound like a know-it-all. But you want to achieve enough authority over your subject that you can ask the right questions, particularly of your readers: What do you think? Does this worry you? Does this scare you? Have you noticed that people do and say this? The wonderful thing about a novel is that it doesn’t tell you what you think, it asks you what you think.

Do you think that women writers are sometimes assumed to have less authority than male writers?

(Laughs loudly) Oh yes, especially moral authority. For years I’ve run up against this question that goes something like, what makes you think you can write a novel that is about these current events, this large social problem, this issue, this pressing moral issue? I get asked that over and over and over again. The soundbite it comes down to is Barbara Kingsolver is a political novelist. But every novel is political in some sense, if it’s about relationships between people and imbalances of power. Why do I get asked that?

I finally figured out that it’s because I’m female. It hit me during the last election cycle, when I watched poor Hillary Clinton be damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. If you behave as if you know something, then you get arrested for being smart while female. It’s just a frustration that we have to live with. So yes, moral authority expressed in a female voice gets challenged a lot.

Some reviewers have suggested that your writing is, as The Telegraph called it “political tub-thumping,” which is an interesting phrase.

Political what? Tub? Like bathtub? Wow, I don’t have any idea what they mean. Do you know what they mean?

I think what they’re saying is that the story — for example in Unsheltered — gets lost amongst the politics, environmental issues, or social justice issues that are brought forth in the book.

I think there are people who would say that about my work even if I wrote a pure, flat-out genre romance. Some people have decided who I am and so they don’t need to read the book. And again I think it’s because I’m female. If a man wrote this book, nobody would question its right to put large arguments in the world. I think we’re hearing a bit of misogyny there. I think this is a case of “writing while female.” That’s what I’m being accused of.

Kavita Das wrote an essay for the LA Review of Books blog about cultural appropriation in writing. She noted that the consensus seems to be that, if you do your research and write with empathy and understanding, you can avoid being pilloried for appropriating other cultures. Is this something that you’ve struggled with, for example when writing about the Congolese in The Poisonwood Bible, or about Central American refugees and Cherokee in The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven? How do you avoid the pitfalls of potential cultural missteps and accusations of appropriation?

I don’t struggle because I worked out my rule years ago. Of course I aim to approach it with empathy and understanding, but I safely avoid cultural appropriation by using the dramatic point of view when writing about cultures other than my own. In The Poisonwood Bible, for example, Congolese characters are always portrayed as if they’re on film, as seen through the lens of a white American child. This is a point of view I can assume with authority because I was once a white child in the Congo. If you study my books you’ll notice that I never write from inside the mind of characters who are categorically different from me — instead I show them from the outside. I learned this approach from studying Steinbeck.

In Unsheltered, the Victorian character, Thatcher, goes into a lot of detail about evolution in the debate with his school principal. In The Lacuna there is a lot left unsaid about the relationships between Kahlo, Rivera, and Trotsky. I almost felt I had to read more about Darwin for Unsheltered, and I felt I needed to know more about the Kahlo/Rivera/Trotsky triangle to catch some of the nuances in The Lacuna that I missed just because I didn’t know the backstory. To what audience do you pitch your books and what do expect readers to do once they’ve read your books? Do you expect them to act on certain things or do you expect them to think about certain things?

I have no expectations. My contract with the reader is, if you give me 10 hours of your time (which is a big ask, because everybody’s got a lot to do) I will give you a story, I will give you a reason to turn every page, and I will bring you into a world where you might see some things you’ve never seen, think about some things you’ve never thought about, and maybe walk away from it a little changed. If I get to broaden your vision a little bit, I feel I’ve done my duty. We have the power to create empathy, to take people into the mind/brain/world of another person. That’s what I do, and what the reader does with that afterwards is really none of my business. The reader meets me halfway, we make this thing together, and then we go on. I have no more right to tell the reader what to do next than they have to tell me what to write next.

There are no prerequisites for reading my books: you just need to know how to read, and you need to have a certain level of intellectual curiosity and an ability to understand the novel as figurative rather than literal. I’m going to tell you all you need to know in order to understand the story. I know my audience is many different people, so I try to make sure that the themes and character motives and the action are clear enough that everyone will get the basics of what’s going on. If you just want to read for plot, that’s fine. But if you’re the type of reader who’s going to pause and savor the metaphor, or if you’re the kind of reader who’s going to stop and realize that there’s an exact repetition of a phrase here that was also used in Chapter 1 or Chapter 7, and you think “why is this repeated, what am I meant to conclude from this?” Then that’s wonderful, too.

And that’s why I laugh at the tub-thumping thing — I’m putting so much care into this, so for someone to suggest I’m just walking around banging a drum, it’s just really dumb. They’re not paying attention to how literary this is: it’s writing poetry. Writing literary fiction is hard work. You work on every single sentence until you’ve turned it inside and out and you’ve made it work with all the other sentences.

You’ve said that you have to read about the things that keep you awake at night. So what’s keeping you awake at night that we’ll get to read about in the next year or so?

Oh man, right now I’m just trying to get through the book tour! But there’s plenty to worry about. I mean, Hurricane Florence is telling me right now that I feel like I should be writing about nothing but climate change. It’s just hard to keep finding ways of asking the questions that none of us really wants to talk about. But I will never run out of material.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Sarah Boon a former environmental science professor who studied water, wildfire, and climate change. Her articles about the environment, science, women in science, and literature have appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of BooksHakai MagazineTerrain.orgScienceNature, and other outlets. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky