Interview with Barbara Kingsolver

November, 2009

Barbara Kingsolver As a master's student in evolutionary biology, Barbara Kingsolver struggled to complete her thesis on the social life of termites. Thankfully, Kingsolver dropped the bugs and took up the pen—writing books with strong political motifs. The Poisonwood Bible, her best-known work, analyzes post-colonial inequity in Africa, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is an autobiographical tome about planting and eating locally grown food. Her latest book, The Lacuna, follows the son of a Mexican mother and American father. Harrison Shepherd stumbles into Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky as he witnesses history take shape in the United States and Mexico, from pre-World War II turmoil to McCarthyism. We asked Kingsolver why she believes that literature will always be political.

Goodreads: It has been nine years since your last work of fiction, Prodigal Summer. When did you begin work on The Lacuna and what inspired you to canvas midcentury Mexico and the United States?

Barbara Kingsolver: I've always wondered about the uneasy relationship between art and politics in the U.S. In most other places I've been, the two are completely intertwined. Mexico, particularly, has historically celebrated its most political artists as national heroes.

I began writing The Lacuna in February 2002. The previous autumn, after the terrorist attacks on the U.S., I had expected that we might use that challenging time to examine our role in the world. But that was not the national mood. Patriotism is strongly identified with the notion of our country as a perfect finished product—as in, "love it or leave it." Mexico is so different; their revolution is always a work in progress. I wanted to write about that.

I went poking into history, hoping to find a formative era when these modern political identities took shape, soon after World War II. And what a surprise, I found a thrilling seven-year project.

GR: The story is told through protagonist Harrison Shepherd's diaries and letters, but also through other devices, such as newspaper clippings. What kind of research did you conduct, and how much historical source material did you incorporate?

BK: The research was daunting: It felt, in the beginning, that I was undertaking to move a mountain with a teaspoon. But I like doing research, I told myself, spoon in hand. Beyond the historical and political sleuthing, a novel is made of details. Characters have to wear clothes, use transportation, cook, listen to radio programs, and speak in the particular jargon of an era. In this case, "the era" involved dozens of different locations in two countries, crossing nearly thirty years. I traveled in Mexico, of course, visiting settings from the coastal jungles to Mexico City's art museums, the homes of Rivera and Kahlo, Trotsky's personal archives, the amazing pyramids at Teotihuacán, every place I would have to translate for the reader using all my senses. I also studied the U.S. settings, particularly Asheville, North Carolina.

That was the fun, adventurous part. But the lion's share of the work happened here in my study. I sat and read for years. Everything written by Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo, and everything written about them. Thousands of newspaper and magazine articles documenting everyday life in the U.S. during World War II, and then the postwar freeze-up. Old photo collections. Many newspapers now have electronic archives, but the best material is not online. I had to get my nose into a lot of dusty places. But I loved the surprises. For example, I learned that contrary to popular belief, the continental U.S. was attacked during WWII. The New York Times ran photos of the aftermath. The Japanese sent a submarine up the Columbia River and deployed a floatplane bomber, with the goal of setting the Oregon forests on fire and throwing the country into a panic. But the plan was rained out. History hinges on things like this, events that get forgotten—this is the soul of the story I wanted to tell. First I had to learn it myself. My heart was in my throat more or less the whole time.

GR: You are noted for your skill with dialogue, often using vernacular speech. This book includes many historical figures, such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Is it more difficult to find the voice of these real characters compared to your own fictional characters?

BK: Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. It can be an elegant way to package some of a novel's most crucial information. But you do have to work hard to keep it vernacular and well paced. I construct the fictional conversations in my head and listen carefully. It might seem easier to put words in the mouths of my own invented characters than the historical figures who also appear in the story—Frida and Diego, for example. But really there was little difference. By the time I'd read their personal diaries and everything else, their voices were coming through loud and clear. Sometimes their words came straight from the record. The conversations with my protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, are all invented, of course, but it was engaging to fit everything together.

When I went into the studio to record the audio book, I realized I was hearing these characters plainly in my mind, so I did my best to replicate those accents and intonations. This meant acting out conversations between characters who were Mexican, Russian, French, Mexican American, Ashevillean, and so forth, in various combinations. If I thought too much about it, my brain might blow a fuse. So I just channeled the voices as I heard them.

GR: You are the founder of the biennial Bellwether Prize, which celebrates socially responsible literature by awarding (and guaranteeing publication of) a work of fiction that includes an element of social change. Over the ten years of the prize's history, the United States has witnessed the 9/11 attacks, a country at war on multiple fronts, a sea change in political power, and now the economic recession. Have you observed any trends in the sociopolitical topics being tackled by authors? What role will literature play in the political landscape as we move further into the 21st century? (Readers: Vote here for your favorite books that include an element of social change!)

BK: It's an interesting question, which I can't answer. We get hundreds of submissions for each cycle of the Bellwether Prize, and I don't see any manuscripts until our energetic panels of readers and judges winnow the pile down to a few finalists. So I don't know whether the submissions reflect any trends in the political landscape. But I have noticed that new writers are often tackling the novel form rather bravely, both in terms of craft and content. Twenty years ago the cool thing in writing workshops was minimalism: a conversation between a cashier and a bored lady buying cigarettes, posited as a story, heaven forbid it should have any noticeable beginning or end. Now you see more writing in the "maximalist" line, with extremely unusual devices and thematic material. I love the courage of these efforts, and sometimes they succeed.

Literature will always be political: It cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view. It can broaden your view of gender, ethnicity, place and time, power and vulnerability, all the elements that influence social interaction. What could be more political than that?

GR: We asked for questions from your readers, got a huge response, and selected a few for you. Goodreads member Elizabeth says, "In the preface of The Poisonwood Bible you wrote that you waited nearly 30 years for the wisdom and maturity to write that book. As an active writer with that sort of ethic, do you ever find it difficult to have enough material for which you feel ready to write? What else do you do, when the wisdom and maturity are still cooking?"

BK: Excellent question, Elizabeth. When a project feels compelling but too scary, for practical or moral reasons, I keep it on the back burner but don't give up on it. I pondered The Poisonwood Bible for ten years before I felt ready to tackle it. During that time I collected clippings, books, and jotted down thoughts I hoped would someday help me frame the big questions I wanted to ask. In the meantime, I wrote novels and nonfiction books that were more modest in scope, with more familiar settings and fairly linear, manageable story arcs. The most important part of this paragraph is: "but don't give up on it." The most daunting ideas turn into the best books.

Backing up a few more years, I can tell you that long before I felt ready to write my first whole book, at around age 30, I wrote short stories, poems, articles, reviews, anything. Writing is writing, it all adds up. Freelance journalism was the best training for becoming a novelist. Every day I had to pull on my boots and go make myself an "expert" in whatever an editor had assigned me to write about. The essential ingredient of authorship is authority. You hunt it out in a library, you chase it down the street, or you knit it from the fiber of your own will. From somewhere, you get it. You begin.

GR: In reference to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Goodreads member Amy asks, "I'd love to know if you are still gardening and eating all local foods. Did the experiment stick?"

BK: Yes, we're still eating locally. Our garden expands every year, and our local farmers' market also keeps growing. How could we turn our backs on that bounty? It feels great to be an active part of one's own food chain. Given the worrisome state of globalized, fossil-fueled infrastructures, we all seem to be headed in a more localized direction, and I recommend embracing the change. Where food is concerned, it's overwhelmingly a change for the better.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

BK: Now that I've finished reading hundreds of arcane books about the Mexican Revolution, Life magazines from the 1940s, et cetera, I'm thrilled to be digging into my backed-up personal-reading pile that has been waiting. My last five books devoured and loved: Milan Kundera's The Joke, Margot Livesey's The House on Fortune Street, Annie Dillard's The Maytrees, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray, and Eaarth by Bill McKibben.

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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Shelby (new)

Shelby Boyd Loved the interview. I love getting inside an author's head. I especially liked your comments about "literature being political". I'd never really thought about it that way. And I'm passing along your comment about "writing is writing" to one of my writer friends to help get her motivated.


message 2: by Margaret (new)

Margaret Bottley Having been a devoted reader of Babara Kingsolver for years, I am delighted to hear that she has a new book. It's interesting to know how hard she works on her novels and her voice is definitely very important in today's disturbed world. May her example be noted and followed.


message 3: by Richard (new)

Richard Thank you for this interview. My local library did Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for a book discussion and my wife and I were very impressed. When we lived in California this way of life was much easier to do than it is in the Midwest, where we have been for several years.
I am really looking forward to The Lacuna, especially since the movie about Frida's life came out a while back.


message 4: by Claudia (last edited Nov 19, 2009 08:33PM) (new)

Claudia Barbara Kingsolver is a goddess! can't wait to get her book.


message 5: by Juliet (new)

Juliet Wilson An excellent interview with one of my favourite authors!


message 6: by Janekvella (new)

Janekvella Dear Barbara!!!

My own personal hero...thank you for the new book, and thanks for these words of wisdom...

Jane


message 7: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie What a wonderful and important interview. For some reason I didn't read Barbara Kingsolver until recently (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) and knew little about her. I can see I have some catching up to do. Can't wait to read her other works as well as the books she's been reading. And a wonderful bonus with this interview: every word in the comment section is spelled correctly!


message 8: by Dotprice (new)

Dotprice I have read all of Barbara's novels and my favourite is Animal Dreams. Whenever I have no new book to read I pull it out. Halley's wisdom is phenominal. I almost know the book by heart. I've also read The Poisonwood Bible several times. I love them all. I now have The Lacuna given to me as a gift and will no doubt read it several times before I die! I also love her essays and the philosophies she promotes. From what we read about them her daughters are such lovely fearless girls.


message 9: by Judydernburg (new)

Judydernburg Dernburg Why Trotsky? Why now? There is already fiction about the era - B. Wolfe: "The Great Prince Died," and a book written by a friend of my mother's - Lillian Pollack, complete with pictures of Lillian with Trotsky and his wife. Since I grew up with the Trotsky legend, I will be interested in reading this book


message 10: by Girma (new)

Girma V.good in deed, It teachs a lot.


message 11: by Andrew (new)

Andrew I don't normally get much out of these author interviews, to be honest, but this was a gem. I think it's because she talks about writing as part of life, not as an isolated act of the ego or intellect.


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