Barbara Kingsolver webchat

Barbara KingsolverBarbara Kingsolver, one of America's most feted writers, author of global bestseller The Poisonwood Bible and the Orange Prize winner The Lacuna,  was our book club guest author in June 2013.

Her latest novel, Flight Behaviour, was shortlisted for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction.

Barbara answered Mumsnetters' questions about Flight Behaviour, including how she tackled the sensitive issue of climate change, her themes and inspirations, as well as what motherhood means to her.


Q. maggiecockbain: Where do you get your inspiration to write and how do you prepare to write your novels?

A. BarbaraKingsolver:  Inspiration comes from everywhere, so many different places I can't offer a sensible answer. But I can tell you how I begin: I wake up (usually too early) with words pooling in my brain, I get up, I go to my desk and write. I don't need any rituals to get me in the mood, other than filling my coffee cup.

I've been raising children for all the years I've been writing books, so I never had time for writer's block or any fussiness. In the early years, I never had quite enough writing time and I craved it constantly. Now that my youngest is 16 I have much more control over my working hours, but even so, when I'm really in the throat of a novel I never want to stop writing and go make dinner. It's lucky I had a family. Otherwise I might have forgotten to sleep and eat, and finally been found hunched over my computer, an emaciated pile of bones.

"Starting a new book is the most thrilling sensation this side of giving birth. And like that, it feels brand new each time."

OK, that's dramatic. But truly, starting a new book is the most thrilling sensation this side of giving birth. And like that, it feels brand new each time.

I plot, I read and study, I make notes, I sketch out the story's architecture, I invent and psychoanalyze and reconstruct life histories of the characters I need, I write and throw away and rewrite and throw away. I can take weeks of writing just to find the right voice in which to begin the story. To start with, it's all a mess.

Some mornings I sit down knowing I may spend the whole day writing balky prose that I'll ultimately delete entirely, as I slowly make my way toward the good stuff. That's the beauty of working solo: you don't have to let anybody see your mistakes. 

Q. gailforce1: I would like to ask which authors you read and could you recommend any 'up and coming' American authors we should be watching out for in the UK?

A. BarbaraKingsolver: I read constantly for pleasure, for work, for learning to be a good human. Writers are my teachers: I'm still learning about plot and character from Dickens; from Virginia Woolf, transcendence; from Doris Lessing, courage; from George Elliot, worldliness. I love Margot Livesey, Russell Banks, Annie Dillard, Louise Erdrich, Andrea Barrett, Alice Munro, I could go on until you make me stop. 

Some up-and-coming American writers to seek out: Eula Biss, Hillary Jordan, Ken Powers, Julie Orringer, Heidi Durrow, Seth Kantner, Naomi Benaron, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Susan Nussbaum. 

Q. DoItTooJulia:  I was wondering if you have any plans for more non-fiction/essay collections?

Also I am really interested to know more about where it comes from. Where does the story come from? Has everybody got a story to tell? Do you see untold stories everywhere and collect them up, picking the very best to expand on and research and eventually craft into a novel? Or not?

A. BarbaraKingsolver: Yes, I seem to publish an essay collection about once per decade, so there should be one in the not-too-distant future. When I've published a couple dozen worthy short pieces in magazines, newspapers and anthologies, I pull them together into a collection, usually after rewriting everything to make it feel more like a book.

My first love is the novel form, but there is a rhythm to this job. I get requests every week to write shorter pieces for newspapers, magazines or anthologies and some are intriguing enough that I'd like to accept the assignment. But not enough to interrupt my concentration when I'm fully absorbed in a novel project. So I save up these assignments (if the editors are agreeable to waiting) and work on them during the interim months between finishing one novel and burrowing into the next.

It's nice to have that variety, the contact with new people and topics, and the immediate gratification of writing a short piece and seeing it published a week later. That period of my life is always very interrupted anyway, by the book tours, interviews, studio time for the audiobook recording, etc, as I creep out of the shelter of my writing room to blink in the bright light and say hello to readers like yourselves. It's impossible to sustain novelesque concentration in the midst of all that, but a perfect time for writing essays, reviews, journalism and poetry. When they pile up, why, there's another embryonic book. So I take that on as a project, revising and slightly redirecting all these pieces to make them into a coherent book-length whole. That work becomes as compelling as writing a novel, and I hope the results stand up in a similar way. 

These are complicated questions, with so many answers on so many levels that any way I could reduce it feels dishonest. I have no idea whether everybody has a story to tell. My own stories come from the language center of my brain, during the hours when I'm able to provide it with uninterrupted quiet time, the right motives, and good tools.

I can definitely tell you how it does not happen. I don't start with real people, or with real events that happen in my life. I don't really look around and see untold stories, or pick them up and start trying to fit them together. I make the stories. My work is pure, carefully directed invention. 

Q. valiumredhead: Where did the story (The Poisonwood Bible) come from, was it based on your experiences?

A. BarbaraKingsolver: I'm happy to report that The Poisonwood Bible is not a life I have lived. None of my fiction is in any way autobiographical. It's my work, something I create, like a sculptor or a baker or a contractor. My ingredients are words and ideas, not retrieved experiences. So no, that was not my family. But if you found them so believable you thought they must be real, I thank you for the compliment.

Q. TillyBookClub: What childhood book most inspired you?

A. BarbaraKingsolver: I'll join virtually every female American writer I know in the choice of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I read it as a restless seven year old cramped in the back seat during a long car trip, and it's my earliest memory of utterly leaving my present circumstances to become someone else inside the wide spaces of a book. Holy cow, I thought, here lies magic. Jo March as apotheosis. 

Q. coffeeanybody: What kind of process do you go through to research your books?

A. BarbaraKingsolver: It's different for every book, since each one requires expertise in a whole new field; it's like getting a new masters degree every few years, which is fine by me. I was one of those geeks in school who wanted to major in everything.

There are obvious categories of research, and I generally make use of them all: libraries, the internet, original archives, interviews, expert advice, and lots and lots of travel. I would never write about a real place I had not experienced myself.

For my big sagas, The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna, the research took nearly a decade. For Prodigal Summer and Flight Behavior, because they were set in places and cultures I already knew very well, the process was much more concise.



Q. kokorako: 1. Do you think Flight Behavior has had the impact you hoped re how people respond to climate change? At our book group (in my kitchen) the mums mostly enjoyed it but still didn't seem to make the connection re flying off for work-holidays/their carbon use/choice of lifestyles (I work as an eco-bunny campaigner so they had an extra clue).

2. Although I adore the butterflies, I worry that all your book is based on sound science - except the butterflies. I'm sure you angst-ed about this, but in retrospect does it feel like it gave climate deniers an opportunity to poke holes in the narrative?

"The entry door to a novel is curiosity about some aspect of human behaviour, and I've been intrigued for years by the way people talk or don't talk about climate change."

A. BarbaraKingsolver: 1. Probably a lot of people make this assumption, that I write books with the hope of bringing around specific changes in readers' lives afterward. That isn't the case. That would be my reason for writing a letter to my Congressman or attending a protest rally (both of which I have done), but literary fiction is an extremely different enterprise. Successful fiction doesn't tell us what to do. It engages our rational minds and our emotional lives in a way that can get us looking with new eyes at our own internal (and sometimes suppressed) agendas. It's a completely interior process, different for every person. My readers are thousands of different people I don't even know, most of whom are no doubt much smarter than I am, so I wouldn't presume to tell them anything. All I can do is ask questions: whom here do you love, and why? What do you hope for now?

2. No worries there. When I researched this book I began with an exhaustive study of the published scientific literature on butterflies. Then I enlisted the counsel of some great entomologists, including Dr Lincoln Brower, who knows as much about Monarch butterflies as anybody else on earth. We talked for hours about my hypothetical scenario, this particular perturbation of monarch wintering grounds to a location in southern Appalachia, and Dr. Brower found it completely plausible. We discussed three hypothetical causes of this shift, events that are already occurring, which are all described in the novel. And I was careful to remind readers in the author's note that this is a work of fiction, grounded in what I hope to be a plausible matrix of descriptive science.

In fact, this novel has recently been referenced by entomologists in professional discussions of potential effects of climate change on monarchs and other migratory species.

I'm devoted to accuracy in building the factual framework of my novels. I was trained as a biologist, so I feel a special urgency about bringing that world into my work. Trust me, if I ever caught myself trying to pass off fake science, I would fire myself on an ethics violation. 

Flight Behaviour

Q. funmummy48: I'd like to ask whether you felt there was a connection between the Monarch butterfly and Dellarobia in that they both had drifted off course and had ended up somewhere other than where they should have been. Dellarobia seems to have felt misplaced for most of her adult life. Was this something you intended or did it evolve during the unfolding of Dellarobia's story? 

A. BarbaraKingsolver: Yes, thank you for your attentive reading. And yes, all the metaphors, allegories, and thematic connections you find in the novel were put there intentionally by me, the author. That's what we do. Your English teacher back in school was not kidding.

Q. Sapeke: The climate change theme makes this an important book but the way that theme is woven so perfectly into the story of complex and real characters makes it a great read. What really spoke to me were the telling details of Dellarobia's life - I can't think of another book that puts the daily grind of being a hard up mother of two kids centre stage.

I think one of the joys of a good book is not being able to predict the ending and I was surprised when D had her talk with Preston about her plans for the future. I confess I was a bit sorry that she wasn't going to stick with Cub (who could suddenly become worthy of her!), and I wondered whether you considered any alternative endings.

A. BarbaraKingsolver: The novel is fundamentally about denial and facing the truth. I knew from the beginning that Dellarobia would, in the course of her arc, stop deluding herself about almost every structural beam in her life, including her marriage. That painful conversation with her son, in which she requires him to accept and honestly face their whole situation, is the emotional climax of the story. Every page had something on it to prepare you for that talk, that melting hillside, those heartbreaks and the walking away.

Q. Gargamella:  Did you set out to raise awareness of living in poverty, or was that more of a side issue for you too?

A. BarbaraKingsolver: As I've mentioned, I don't write a novel to instruct, because I'm well aware that at least some of my readers know much more than I do about any subject I undertake. My project is more intimate. My task is to inhabit a fictional world with acuity, honesty and compassion, and to bring readers into places that may not be completely familiar.

Very few novelists write about science, for the obvious reason that most young writers dropped the chemistry-biology track as early as possible in school, and took the humanities route. But I've also noticed that children rarely show up in novels as genuine characters. And motherhood itself - if it's not trivialized or romanticized - tends to go tragicomic or monstrous. Likewise, the lives of the working poor. So this was important territory for me.

The people in Flight Behavior are very much like those among whom I live, in my rural farm community. I'm devoted to this place, these lives, these mothers and kids, and the different ways the modern world darkens our doors.

Q. Trinski: Was it your aim from the start to educate about climate change or did this develop as you went along?

A. BarbaraKingsolver: My goal is not to instruct. My starting point in this novel was to examine modes of denial and the ways we all decide to absorb or ignore evidence, for example, around the subject of climate change. It's something I'd been watching with interest, and seemed a robust topic.

The entry door to a novel is curiosity about some aspect of human behavior, and I've been intrigued for years by the way people talk or don't talk about climate change. I wanted to throw conflicts together: denial and honesty, religious faith and science, loyalty and betrayal, town and country, provincial and worldly. This is the thematic plane.

I had to provide certain kinds of information as a ladder to get the reader onto the platform, if you didn't already know some of the science involved. But if you did know, I didn't want to bore you. So all writing skills and tools are engaged, to embed these things with subtlety. It involves rewriting some passages or chapters again and again, maybe 20 times, to craft the nuance.

Myself, I love reading novels that manage to slip new bits of information about the real world into my head, more or less unnoticed, while I'm absorbing the thematic and emotional content. So I'm glad that was your experience.



Q. EmpressOfTheSevenOceans: I was reading the biography on your website and saw that you nearly threw your first novel, The Bean Trees, in the bin. My question is, if you had thrown it away do you think you would still have gone on to write your other books?

"One of the greatest gifts of literary fiction is that readers can find what we want and need inside each story."

A. BarbaraKingsolver: Absolutely. And I might have thrown all those in the trash bin also, if I hadn't figured out the slightly more pro-active option. I write stories for essentially the same reason I breathe: no other version of living seems manageable. Audience is not the motive. I love you all, but I don't even think about letting you into my office to peer over my shoulder when I'm writing.

Realistically, though, if I hadn't published that first novel and gotten paid for it, I wouldn't have had the freedom to quit my day job and support my family as a full-time novelist ever since. So I'm very grateful for readers, and the subsequent books you've underwritten with your support.

Q. Hullygully:  I wonder why you plumped for the optimistic ending? I can see it was necessary, fictionally, it felt like hope was necessary and the growth and change of Dellarobia, and of course that decision to move and grow and fight for life fits with the butterflies, adapting and hanging on in there, AND I would have been bitterly disappointed without a happy(ish) ending as who wants realism in their escapism? BUT the truth is we are doomed, the planet is doomed... doesn't ending with hope let people off the hook? Doesn't it allow the fiction of possibility to continue? Or is it so hopeless there isn't even any point in telling the truth?

A. BarbaraKingsolver: Wow, you felt this was a happy ending? I hate spoiler reviews, and don't want to give away anything for those who haven't finished the book, but I'm thinking you might want to go back and read the last four and a half pages. This is the story of the end of the world as a person can know it. It brought me to my knees to write that scene, but in a novel about facing the truth, I had no choice. No escapism here.

And yet. One of the greatest gifts of literary fiction is that readers can find what we want and need inside each story. So if you wanted to find hope in this novel, I grant you every grain of that.

Q. TillyBookClub: What would be the first piece of advice to anyone attempting to write fiction?

A. BarbaraKingsolver: Read ravenously, and well. Read the kinds of books you wish you had written yourself.

Q. HazelDormouse: Would most people try The Poisonwood Bible after this?

A. BarbaraKingsolver: I hope so!

In closing, I want to thank this Mumsnet group for your interest, and for your patience. The answering and posting was delayed because I was away from my office for the last two weeks, working alongside my family to honor my mother's final wish to die in comfort and dignity in her home, and then to organize all the rituals that bring loved ones together in the aftermath.

It's been a privilege to join your conversation. As a working Mum myself, I have a bone-deep appreciation for anyone steeped in the daily work of "mashing peas and arbitrating tantrums" as Dellarobia described her résumé, and still mustering the energy to read and talk about books.

I've always felt pretty sure that motherhood has made me a better writer, and that writing and reading have made me a better mother.



Last updated: about 3 years ago