Farm chores and her family keep author Barbara Kingsolver grounded, but so does her determination to advocate social change through literature.
When Barbara Kingsolver is not writing, she may be shearing sheep, or harvesting vegetables. Most recently, peppers, tomatillos and cardoons. Cardoons?
"They're like celery on steroids, about 4 feet tall," she said. "You cook and eat the roots of the leaves, like artichokes."
Kingsolver, whose seventh novel, "The Lacuna," comes out next week, described farming as "wonderful for the body and spirit. It gets me outside every day, and unlike the gym, you can't blow it off." So each weekday at 7:30 a.m. she pulls on her mud boots and first walks her daughter Lily to the school bus, a half-mile down the lane from her Appalachian farm in the southwestern corner of Virginia between Roanoke and Knoxville, Tenn.
"If I didn't have a family and a farm, I would write every minute of every day. So it's just as well that I do have these other things in my life to keep me healthy," she said.
In the two years since Kingsolver's last book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," a bestselling first-person paean to being a locavore, the eating locally movement has taken off.
"It was the crest of a wave, which astonished us. I've never been trendy in my life. Instead, I sit at my desk and dream up the next crazy idea."
"The Lacuna," Kingsolver's first novel in nine years, is her next big conversation starter. As always, she writes about the ways that cultures clash, but also the ways that people connect and find commonality, or at least empathy. Whether her stories are set in the American South or Southwest, Africa, Mexico or Central America, her characters' personal lives play out against the broader conflicts of history. Through it all, a primary theme emerges: the continuous human struggle to determine not only what belongs to individuals vs. the community, but to what and whom we all belong.
This time, an American boy named Harrison Shepherd grows up in Mexico in the 1920s with his man-hopping mother. Harrison winds up working for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, meeting Leon Trotsky and witnessing social revolution both in Mexico City and back home in the States, where he eventually becomes a celebrated writer. But he is caught up in a McCarthy-foreshadowing scandal fomented and distorted by rabid media (symbolized early on by howler monkeys), and the most widely printed words he ever writes wind up being: "Most of us never choose to believe in our country, we just come up short on better ideas."
Kingsolver, who spent time as a journalist covering striking miners in Arizona, has never before directly taken on the press in her novels. But it isn't just today's media climate that spurred her to do so in "The Lacuna." She doesn't believe that "the talkers rising above the thinkers," as Harrison puts it, is a new phenomenon.
"The speed of the Internet has ramped up the energy, but the howling is not a new tendency," she said. "It was the same in the radio of the late '40s. It's not just media irresponsibility; it's the eagerness of people to believe terrible things, to believe the worst."
No liberties taken
Some writers dream up characters first, then create stories around them. Not Kingsolver, who always begins with a theme.
"I work out what I want to talk about, then decide the best approach," she said. "Once I set up the landscape of a novel, everything has to look like it belongs. With this one, I spent years more time researching, reading through old newspaper archives and visiting museums."
"The Lacuna" was seven years in the making, though Kingsolver also published three nonfiction books in that time. The inclusion of real-life historical characters -- and excerpts of actual newspaper accounts -- made this book the most complicated she's ever written, she said: "I did not take liberties with their lives. I felt an obligation to be true to the people they were and the things they did, so if a newspaper account had Rivera being in a certain place on a certain day, so did I."
The theme for "The Lacuna" sprang from Kingsolver's reaction to "the fierce position of 'Don't mess with our country, it's a perfect finished product and this is no time for criticism.' ... Anyone who criticizes the way we do things gets called un-American. Where is it coming from? Why are we so frightened? This country was invented by rebels bent on stirring things up. So what happened? Also, during World War II, people were so eager to give things up and sacrifice comfort for the greater good. Where did that go and why?
"I never know where my books are going to land regarding the concerns of the day. Most of the time I was writing this one was during the Bush administration. I was thinking so much about censorship and infringement of rights and government bearing down on people, and how close we have come to repeating stomping on anyone critical of it. Then we had this election and change. And now, Obama is dealing with the howlers."
Promises to keep
Kingsolver grew up in eastern Kentucky, in a house surrounded by alfalfa fields.
"I grew up in a place and time where people didn't have delusions," she said. "No one I knew was ever going to be a writer."
Her father, a public-health doctor, moved them to the Congo for a year when she was 8 -- also the time when she first began to feel a drive to write it all down.
"On a typical day we got up, found a cobra, ate lunch, read a book and went to bed," she said. "It felt like life was a river rushing by and writing about it every day was a way to keep it from spilling over the banks."
Despite her youthful obsession with keeping journals, she took only one writing class as a college science major, "but my chemistry textbooks are full of poems scribbled in the margins," she said. Later, while she was working for the University of Arizona as a biologist, she audited a fiction workshop taught by Francine Prose.
"She taught me that the rule for a short story was: Your first sentence should make a promise the rest of the story can keep. My corollary rule is that for a novel, it can be the whole first paragraph."
In the world of arts and letters, Kingsolver is viewed as an activist as much as she is a writer, with dual aims similar to those of author and social critic John Steinbeck. History and folklore professor Bill Ferris, who chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2000 when the organization recognized Kingsolver, describes the author as a "modest, gentle person" whose writing he sees as "a force for social action. She connects her work with public issues as a force for good. Most writers write for themselves, and I don't argue with that, but Barbara feels that as an artist if she can't improve on life around her, then her craft is for naught."
Julie Schumacher, who teaches fiction for the University of Minnesota's Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts program, calls Kingsolver "a highly skilled literary writer with a vibrant social and political conscience. Sometimes one portion of her brain dominates, sometimes the other. When both are working at full velocity, you get 'The Poisonwood Bible.'" That book, about a misguided minister bent on saving souls in the Congo who drags his wife and four daughters along, is perhaps Kingsolver's most highly regarded work to date.
Kingsolver is known for crafting breathtakingly beautiful passages, especially about nature. But she says her approach to writing is practical, even occasionally scientific.
"People ask me what my rituals are to get in the mood to write," she said. "I don't know -- putting my kid on the bus? I've never had time for that, or writer's block. When I get to sit down at my desk, I feel like a racehorse at the gate, so ready to let out all the sentences and paragraphs I've written in my brain and held onto."
She also relishes the part of the job most writers hate: "I revise everything 70 times. I love revision. To me that feels like art pulling the thread of your ending all the way back to the beginning, to work on the grace and fluidity and architecture of a story, that is your real art. Slogging through a first draft is like hoeing a row of corn. You're just happy when you get to the end."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046