Interview with Barbara Kingsolver

Posted by Goodreads on September 10, 2018
What happens when you've done everything right, but you can't pay your bills?

That's one of the questions Barbara Kingsolver probes in her new novel, Unsheltered. Weaving between the present and the past, it follows two families in Vineland, New Jersey, living in different moments of cultural crisis.

The main story, set in the present, revolves around a couple, Willa and Iano, whose lives are rocked by job loss and tragedy. Despite years working in magazines (Willa) and academia (Iano), they find themselves middle-aged, living in an old house that's falling apart, and barely able to make ends meet. As Willa learns more about her home's history, the book travels back in time to tell the story of Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher in Vineland in the late 1800s whose enthusiasm for Charles Darwin's controversial new theory of evolution endangers his livelihood and reputation.

Unsheltered is an ambitious, timely novel that explores some of today's most politically charged topics, including globalization and the decline of the American dream. None of this will surprise Kingsolver fans, as she is known for addressing social issues in her writing: colonialism in The Poisonwood Bible, climate change in Flight Behavior, and food production in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, to name just a few of the hefty topics she's tackled in her 30-year career. Kingsolver talked to Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw about her latest novel. Their conversation has been edited.

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Goodreads: I've read that you begin your novels by asking questions, but was there an "aha moment" or an experience that made you want to write this book?

Barbara Kingsolver: The question in this case was, "What in the heck is going on?" How can it be that all of the rules—about what kind of leaders people admire and elect to public office, and how we behave as citizens of the world—no longer seem to apply. All the rules seem to be changing. And not only that, but larger, biological rules about our home, the idea that the poles would always be covered with ice, and that there would always be more fish in the sea. All these things that I've always counted on suddenly were no longer true. But it wasn't an "aha moment." I'd say it was a couple of "aha years" when I understood that I needed to write about how people behave in moments of cultural crisis.

GR: When did you start writing Unsheltered?

BK: About three years ago, I had an outline in my mind of what the narrative arc would be. So I was writing in real time during the primaries when this new, very strange kind of leadership was coming up on the horizon, and none of us could believe it would really go anywhere. This character who's called "The Bullhorn" in my novel…I was watching that happen and writing about it in real time. And I was thinking the whole time, "Oh, by the time this book comes out, nobody's going to remember that guy." Well… [Laughs]

GR: I'm curious about the chronology because you've mentioned being interested in the decline of civil discourse, and I wonder if it's only gotten worse since you began writing this book, making your questions all the more germane today.

BK: Yes. The way history has played out has been really good for the book, really bad for the world. But I'm excited to be releasing this into the world right now because it's asking questions that I really believe in. And that's what a novel does: It doesn't propose solutions—it asks questions. Your hope is that it will lead people to question themselves or each other or to have conversations.

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GR: Do you have a theory as to why discourse is so difficult now?

BK: Yes, it's a book. [Laughs] I purposefully choose questions that aren't easily answered, and try to address them in 400 or 500 pages because a simple question wouldn't make a very good novel. But really that's another way of asking, "How do people behave in moments of cultural crisis?"

One of the things you can count on is that people will be very afraid, and they will cleave to leaders who reassure them, even if those leaders behave like tyrannical bullies. When we're afraid, we look for protection. One of the things this book is about is how desperately we hold on to our old world views, even when they no longer serve us, and how we overlook a lot of things to find reassurance.

GR: Your novel alternates between present and past. Can you talk about that choice?

BK: It's really hard to understand a crisis when you're living through it. I thought I'd have a shot at understanding this moment if I tried to step back and look at it through a historical lens, comparing it with some previous moment when people were similarly challenged.

There were various options: the Black Death, the Dark Ages. But I chose the 1870s because I wanted to stay in one place. Really early on, I devised this literary device of having two sets of characters living in the same house. So I had to choose another time in history that had knowable characters and a knowable place. The Dark Ages wouldn't have worked—there was no house I could really construct that could conceivably still be standing in modern times. So I settled on post-Civil War Vineland, New Jersey, and modern Vineland, New Jersey, after considering and discarding many other locations and time periods.

GR: How did you land on New Jersey, living where you do in rural Virginia?

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BK: Purely by chance. It's not a place I'd ever known or thought very much about. But I had settled on this time period of the 1870s, and a big part of that era's existential crisis was caused by the writings of Charles Darwin. Not just Darwin, but a number of his colleagues who were simultaneously coming to the conclusion that humans were not separate from the natural world—we belong to the natural world. We're all so accustomed to that idea now. It's hard to imagine how threatening it was to people who'd never imagined any scenario other than the one in which God created them to rule over the rest of creation.

I was casting around for important advocates of Darwin in the U.S. in the 1870s, and happened to cross the name of one of his correspondents, Mary Treat [a character in the novel]. I was surprised because I didn't know anything about her. When I started looking, I discovered that nobody knew anything about her! She had never been the subject of any biography. Her Wikipedia page had just two sentences, though that's changed now, I'm happy to say.

I had a hunch that if she'd left any papers, they would be in the town where she'd lived, Vineland. I called up the Historical Society there and found that they had a gold mine. I went there and spent days just reading her letters, her personal papers, as well as her published papers. It was astounding to me when the wonderful curator, Pat Martinelli, brought out this box and said, "Well, here you go!" And it was letters from Darwin. Not copies, not facsimiles, but actual letters in manila folders.

It was really thrilling to find this character and discover that she'd led such an interesting life, and that her town, Vineland, was the perfect setting. So much of what I put on the page—many of the things she says and does—came straight from her own writings.

GR: I know that a big theme in Unsheltered is the American dream. For me, it also looks at how the burden of taking care of a family falls on the woman. That could be because the protagonist is a woman, but I saw Willa absorbing the stress of every generation—her children, her grandchild, and her father-in-law. What do you make of that?

BK: I think it's really emblematic of our time. Yes, the gender conversation is there. But there's also this presumption that has carried us forward in our present paradigm—the idea that each generation will be a little better off than the one before. So it should be pretty easy to take care of the elders, while the younger people are becoming self-sufficient, and then it'll be their turn to take care of Willa, in this case.

But those presumptions aren't working anymore. Things that Willa and Iano did to guarantee their security failed them. Expecting their kids to do the same things is also a failure because the paradigm is not working anymore. A lot of Willa's frustration is that she still believes things should be different. It's hard for her to see her kids as anything but failures because the things that were supposed to happen aren't happening.

So it's not that I decided to also throw in the "Sandwiched Generation Woman" and add that as a theme. It's all part of the same theme: What happens in a culture, what happens in history, what happens in the family, when people are still following rules that don't apply anymore?

GR: Who are your favorite characters to write?

BK: I always enjoy the villains, like Nick [the elderly father-in-law]. The greatest challenge, I think, for the novelist is that we have to love every one of our characters, even those who behave horribly, because we have to understand them. Otherwise, they won't be convincing. Even the worst bully believes he's a good guy. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, "I'm going to be a bad guy today." Well, maybe they do, but they mean it in a positive way, thinking, "I'm going to do this because the world needs this."

Part of the problem in our modern polarized moment, when we're finding it really difficult to converge across political and geographic divides, is that we're so eager to reduce our enemies into cardboard stereotypes. And I'm really, really familiar with that because I live in Appalachia—my heritage, family, and culture are from here. Whenever I've left this region, I've encountered people who look at Appalachia and see cardboard stereotypes. So I've lived my whole life with an incentive to flesh out characters who people might see as not necessarily the enemy, but lesser than.

GR: You once said in an interview that you limit your exposure to the type of stuff you don't want to write. You said, "I'm enough of a biologist to know that whatever comes in will, in some form, come back out." What do you expose yourself to?

BK: Well, of course, I read research materials for content and not style. I have a really high tolerance for soporific or even poorly written material if it contains information I need to know for something I'm writing. That said, I'm always reading fiction, at every stage of my life, no matter what else I'm doing. My rule is that I read fiction that is so good, I wish I could have written it myself. And I avoid the other kind.

GR: Well, I won't ask you to name the other kind! Are there writers you love to read?

BK: The trouble I have with that question is that there are so many! I can tell you what's literally and truly on my nightstand right now: Southernmost by Silas House, Dopesick by Beth Macy. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks, Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild, The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay, Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth, and then a whole bunch of poetry, because I like to read poetry, like the last thing at night. It cleans up your brain, makes it better, fills it with really beautiful words.

GR: On that note, I noticed that you're not on Twitter.

BK: Ah, right. That's not what I want to go to bed with in my brain, for sure. Some of my favorite poets are Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Wendell Berry. Not to say that's an exhaustive list of my favorite authors—I wouldn't even say that all of them are my favorite authors. But that's what I'm reading right now. And all of them are recommendable.

GR: Whom do you trust in terms of what to read?

BK: I read reviews. I have friends whose taste I absolutely trust. Ann Patchett is a genius at knowing what her friends would like to read. Usually the book she sends me will be my favorite book of the year. We all need friends like that, and I try to be a friend like that. Also, I begin a lot more books than I finish. If I'm reading a book for pleasure, I'll give it 30 pages. If I'm reviewing it, obviously, or if it's research, then I'll plow through. But otherwise, I give a book 30 pages, and if I'm still remembering at that point that I'm me, reading the book, I'll put it down. I have reached that point in life where I've probably read more books than I'll get to read in the future. So I just want to make sure they're all the right books.

GR: You have wonderful writing advice on your website. What's the one tip you find yourself giving the most to people who hope to write a book someday?

BK: Well, this one you've probably heard or read. Don't smoke, and observe posted speed limits, because good writing comes from wisdom. And the longer you live, the more likely you are to accumulate wisdom.

Comments Showing 1-42 of 42 (42 new)

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message 1: by Glenda (new)

Glenda When I want a book that covers all my interests, I look to see if Barbara Kingsolver has anything new. Can't wait to read Unsheltered.

G. French

message 2: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Reid Barbara Kingsolver is an author I look forward to reading, and also one of the few authors I enjoy re-reading to savor the language. I'm looking forward to this new one!

Suzanne R

message 3: by Robin (new)

Robin Drummond Something wonderful to anticipate!

message 4: by Annbritt (new)

Annbritt Keillor I love her books and learn something every time. A few times I read them again. They are not formula books

message 5: by Julie (new)

Julie Thanks for the insight into Barbara Kingsolver's new work. Can't wait to read it!

message 6: by Pip (new)

Pip Jennings Thank you for the interview. I’m really looking forward to reading this new book from Barbara Kingsolver.

message 7: by Sally-ann (new)

Sally-ann Hoyne Your stance on the state of things, society, sounds challenging. I grew up in NY, Eastern Long Island. I married and moved to rural Virginia, and lived there for 25 years. I am now living in Europe, since 2001. The broadening of my social and cultural horizons have been stretched over and over. I very much look forward to reading Unsheltered, and imagining myself in Willa's place. I wonder if my conclusions will be mirrored in her experience.

message 8: by Tracy (new)

Tracy St Claire Thank you for being interviewed here at Goodreads, where the readers are. You are my favorite author and your books have become important to my life. I have read them all, not just the ones marked here.

A family story that rings true, especially like The Poisonwood Bible, is recognized in other settings too. Flight Behavior also rings true with me because of the language and reactions of the people to each other in the book. The underlying social issues are also brought to the surface, but I enjoy how absolutely real your characters and families are, and how they have accurate language and mannerisms to the part of the country they live in, and yikes social class can I say that?

I am looking forward to this book. I have spent some time in Vineland because that is where my mother-in-law retired, and nearby Northfield is a family home. South Jersey is a strange place and I wonder what you did with it.

Thank you for all of your books.

message 9: by Deborah (new)

Deborah Byrd Thank you for your books, Barbara! They are wonderful.

message 10: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth What a marvelous insight to the book I’m anxiously awaiting and which our book club has chosen for its December meeting. Thank you both.

message 11: by Jo (new)

Jo Shafer Finally your newest novel it out on bookshelves! I'm looking forward to adding it to my own library shelves ~ after I've read it! You have merged with and taken the place of my other all-time favorite writer, Gail Godwin, who handles some of the same social topics as you do, in her own unique style. Thank you for granting us the pleasure of this latest interview as well as book.

message 12: by Pat (new)

Pat Winterton Thank you for sharing this wonderful interview. Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors going back to Animal Dreams. I’m so looking forward to reading Unsheltered.

message 13: by Marcia (last edited Oct 17, 2018 09:05AM) (new)

Marcia I will read her book but I was taken aback with her insinuation that our current leader is taking us in the wrong direction.

message 14: by Veda (new)

Veda Thanks Goodreads for the message & the interview.

I was introduced to 'Posionwood..' by a co-worker, along with the 'Red Tent' & it is the only book of hers that I have read - which I will rectify! I found the questions & answers here interesting - esp as a beneficiary of the aftermath that produced: a reduced (& intentionally secondaried) 'emancipation,' disenfranchised 'civil rights' legislation enforcement & the continued misogyny of an undermined 'equality of women' lets me see this atmosphere (as well as the "American Dream's" purported diminishing) from a different standpoint. & it has always struck me (where Darwin is concerned) funny that a 'highly' educated person would become angry & dismissive because his daughter died (perhaps a bit simplistic) considering we're all born - 'dying!'

As for the woman issue -

do you (Kingsolver) know the story of Heddy Lamar (actress & inventor) whose invention/contribution to allies during WWII are used in todays tech, yet she was cheated by the military & ignored regarding compensation(s), or that 'DNA' data was discovered by Rosalind Franklin, yet men have been allowed to claim her discovery & that 'Our legislative body' (from 2011 - now) set in 'committee' (with our tax-dollars) attempting to redefine 'rape' for the benefit of 'rapist,' yet survivors are not to be believed without scrutiny.

Lost doesn't begin to cover it!

From where I sit - the more things change (for some), the more they remain the same (for others) esp where man's 'inhumanities' are concerned. Reading the answers esp regarding the present nastiness & re-advancement of bigotry, misogyny & misrepresentation/lying (as an art form disguised in "patriotic" integrity) I think of Anne Frank & the life she was cheated out of - all the while believing in the "goodness" of people - esp when "they" show they had/have none!

I look forward to reading 'Unshelthered,' as I can relate having recently lost everything myself & been helping take care of my autistic grandson - although my daughter often says she "appreciates" my sacrifices, I firmly believe that "actions speak louder than words" LOL & being a "literal" person (blessing & a curse;) there's no two-ways around the fact that some have exalted a sex offender into the highest office in the land simply because they see those they 'other' doing well (in general/at all) & for some this is/has been the American way that's fueled an un-Constitutionalized dream-state, that never was a reality to begin with.

& Barbara when I think of Appalachian's, I think of the trip the Black Panthers made to enlighten them about their 'disenfranchisment' within the very system they were upholding, at their own expense & Mark Sandford (of course!)

message 15: by Sherry (new)

Sherry I look forward to reading your book. As always your books are my "cup of tea," in more ways than one. Thanks for these words.

message 16: by Faisal (new)

Faisal Soomro a o a Madum to you work you as good reader this is award take you

message 17: by Susan (new)

Susan How exciting! I am a huge fan, and this sounds like another novel I will love. Thank you!!

message 18: by Irene (new)

Irene Grau _Animal Dreams_ changed my life. I related so much to the father/daughter love/hate relationship and I read it at a time where I was feeling like I was floundering and directionless, much like Codi. It was reading that book that motivated me to go back to school to finish my degree and follow my dream. I've been teaching college now for 20 years. Thank you, Ms. Kingsolver!

message 19: by maureen zeigler (new)

maureen zeigler One of my great 👍 teams of authors and I’ll certainly read this book!

message 20: by Trudy (new)

Trudy McDaniel I recall the wondrous experience when I read your earlier novels and am looking forward to reading "Unsheltered". I'm #69 on my library's waitlist, but they do have 6 copies.

Meanwhile, I sincerely wish you could provide a list of the books recommended to you by Ann Patchett over the years. I wonder what I have missed and might find available while awaiting my turn to read "Unsheltered".

Thank you for the interview.

message 21: by Numberbox (new)

Numberbox I am delighted to read about this new book of Barbara’s. And what a great interview. I have read every single on of her other works, and I’ve been known to purchase multiple copies to give to family for Christmas (yes, I’m that person.)

“Unsheltered” sounds timely and wonderful in a perfect Kingsolverly satisfying way. I look forward to reading it (perhaps I will be the one to find it under the Christmas tree!)

message 22: by SamMarsha (new)

SamMarsha Schumer I grew up in Vineland NJ, actually, in Alliance which is only a few miles from Vineland. One set of my grandparents settled in Vineland in 1905; my other set of grandparents settled in Alliance in 1882.
I am ready to read this novel and compare my understanding of the history of Vineland to what is portrayed in the book. I understand, of course, that the background may be just that, background, as the plot is the true purpose of story.
After reading the interview with the author, I am curious about what seems might be a novel interlaced with a political theme. I also agree with a comment by Marcia, who posted earlier, that she "was taken aback with her (the author's) insinuation that our current leader is taking us in the wrong direction".

message 23: by Yvonne (new)

Yvonne Crawford Love your books and looking forward to this new one

message 24: by Pam (new)

Pam Holden I am so looking forward to reading this book. I've had an affinity for Darwin ever since I read Irving Stone's "The Origin", and reading a book written by you, Ms. Kingsolver, will make this a double win for me. It sounds interesting and educational, to boot. Just like all your other books! Thank you!

message 25: by Ross (new)

Ross Martin Thank you for the 30 pages advice. I just turned 54 and still feel some moral obligation to finish a book once I start it. I’m probably at that same point where I’ll read fewer books in the future than I’ve read in my past. So I’ll choose carefully. But I can’t imagine staring a Kinsolver novel and quitting after 30 pages! You’ve captured some of the most beautiful pages I’ve ever read!

message 26: by Kamryn (new)

Kamryn Lessie I can't wait, I can't wait, I can't wait.

message 27: by Beem (last edited Oct 25, 2018 10:35PM) (new)

Beem Weeks The Poisonwood Bible is my all-time favorite novel. So glad Barbara Kingsolver has something new coming out.

message 28: by Helen (new)

Helen Wilber Really interesting article with a writer that has much to say I will be looking out for this book !

message 29: by Myrtle (new)

Myrtle Siebert Thank you for alerting me about this interview. I read it after the fact as I've been inactive on this site for some time. Now you've solved the decision on what book to put in our Book Circle for reading in 2019. My first shared book with our group was Bean Tree and went on to read Barbara's other books. Many thanks to both of you.

message 30: by A.K. (new)

A.K. White Very keen to read this book. Thanks for the great interview.

message 31: by Natalie (new)

Natalie Very much looking forward to reading this one. Love all her books!

message 32: by Natalie (new)

Natalie Chickey Poisonwood Bible is one of the books in my Top Five list. It changed me! Over the years, I have enjoyed talking with my high school students about the multiple points of view and which character they most identified with. As I get older, I admit that I have become the mother, but my students always clearly identified with one of the daughters. I just received my copy of Unsheltered in the mail, and I cannot wait to sit down and dive in.

message 33: by Alfreda (new)

Alfreda Samana Thank you-most interesting! I've read all the books by Barbara Kingsolver and now I've got Unsheltered in my Kindle, it's like an amazing dessert that's waiting to be enjoyed, The novels by the author are more than just stories to me-they are journeys into new lands, acquaintance with cultures, lessons of motivation and so much more.

message 34: by Sheryl (new)

Sheryl Ipsen Love The Poisonwood Bible - to date my favorite book of all time. I have headed a Book Club for over 20 years and we read a LOT! Thank you for continuing to write such great books and I am looking forward to reading Unsheltered!!

message 35: by Joseph (new)

Joseph "Unsheltered" fills a crucial space for building empathy for "friends/family" who have become unbelievable. I discuss this in a recent blog: .

message 36: by Gill (new)

Gill Ross wrote: "Thank you for the 30 pages advice. I just turned 54 and still feel some moral obligation to finish a book once I start it. I’m probably at that same point where I’ll read fewer books in the future ..."
So agree with this Goodreader! My parents were both librarians and I was brought up with "It would not have been published if there were nothing worthwhile in it", but I did sink at page 7 of Virginia Woolf's The Waves, and there have been one or two others since then.
I also recall that my father locked all the Enid Blyton in the 'obscene' safe, so parents had to especially request it, but he left DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover on the shelves even whilst the court case was running here in the UK.

message 37: by Gill (new)

Gill So glad I adhere to the two pillars of wisdom Barbara Kingsolver recommends, having just become a published author at 73 I need a few more years, as there are more books in me yet (2nd nearly completed a couple of months down the line, but collected together from a year or so's work).
Looking forwards to reading my second Kingsolver Book, Prodigal Summer some years ago made a lasting impression on me. I love authors who spend the time researching before putting pen to paper. 95% research, 5% writing often in my case!

message 38: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Lipschitz Loved this book

message 39: by Deepak (new)

Deepak Chauhan Really interesting one!

message 40: by Chris (new)

Chris Introna You are again the queen of my heart!! Just finishing Unsheltered. LOVE your metaphors. Love your characters. Love your heart. This book is such good medicine for anyone having a really hard time with this hate drenched polarized political climate. Love how you have represented all perspectives but in a beautiful thoughtful way. SIGH! Already sent copies to all my family and friends. I pay books forward ... Treasured words should be shared! (BUT, I have a shelf that still holds all your books! They are all gems! ) I am also an Ann Patchett fan:~) Thank you for all you have given us! (I think you might just be Willa:~) page 395) HUGS! Chris Introna

message 41: by Lori (new)

Lori I loved this book for it’s themes, structure, dialogue, and superb writing. I listened to it as an audiobook while commuting to and from work. It’s read by Barbara Kingsolver herself, which made it even more special. Bravo! Or should I say, Μπράβο!

message 42: by Jodi (new)

Jodi Blackman Looking forward to reading this one very much. A wonderful interesting interview, too.

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