Award-winning novelist Barbara Kingsolver is one of those authors whose work inspires profound affection in the hearts of her readers.
Best known for her Pulitzer-nominated novel The Poisonwood Bible and nonfiction works like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, her work is rich in science, politics, texture and character. She is also proudly the founder of the Bellwether Prize to support unpublished novelists writing literature about social change.
Check out our recent interview with Emma Donoghue about her new short story collection, 'Astray.'
Her latest, Flight Behavior, draws on Kingsolver’s origins as a curious and highly trained biologist. It opens on the rural community of Feathertown, Tenn., where dutiful wife Dellarobia Turnbow is on the verge of an outrageous act of rebellion when she runs across a truly mysterious phenomenon deep in the mounts of rural Appalachia. In a starred review, Kirkus called this '[o]ne of Kingsolver’s better efforts at preaching her politics and pulling heartstrings at the same time.'
Flight Behavior begins with an anxious opening scene that closes with a bewildering phenomenon. How would you characterize the book?
It involves a very beautiful and probably disastrous biological event that has happened on a farm, and it creates a commotion in that little town that ripples out through the media and over the Internet to involve the community, the state, the nation and finally, the whole world. This protagonist, Dellarobia, finds her very limited and stifling little life exploding out into larger and larger spheres of influence.
The way I would characterize the novel thematically is that it explores the methods of science and the nature of belief. I’m very interested in climate change right now, especially as our nation comes to a really crucial moment of decision. I’m curious as to why we all look at the same evidence and come away with very different ideas about what is the truth.
How would you describe Dellarobia?
She’s had an extremely confined life. She accidentally became pregnant and married. She was a young woman who had a lot of energy, a lot of smarts and very big ideas in childhood, and at 17 she found herself accidentally pregnant and married to a farmer whose parents really don’t like her. She’s really living in the milieu of this very restrictive Bible-belt family. This is terrain where she has lived without questioning the bigger ideas of the world.
I was very interested to see where she would go when she met the world. This is a novel about meetings of minds and conversations and the difficulty of talking across these divides of science and religion, of conservative and progressive, of urban and rural. It’s about getting past complacency and the assumption that we already know everything. This novel is full of surprises, all the way to the end. Every chapter will blow open what you thought this book is about.
Does Feathertown resemble your own surroundings in Appalachia?
Feathertown does look very much like any number of little towns in the region where I live. In that way, the cultural and physical territory of this novel is very familiar to me. I live on a sheep farm, which is the setting of this novel. I have this day-to-day richness of farm life, of rural Appalachia to draw from. One of the ways in which I’m very invested in this novel is that I believe there’s an enormous amount of beauty, richness, intelligence and validity to life in Appalachia that is almost never written about.
Do you consider yourself a social activist, or do these themes inspire you as an artist?
Activism is a very simple and forthright process. I think of activism as writing a letter to my congressman, or getting on a stage and stumping for people to get out and try to get a bill passed. Art is a much more nuanced business than activism. I think it’s very important that literature ask questions but not answer them for you. I think literature should never tell you what to do or what to think. It should ask you what you think. I’m aware that my work does, for better or worse, gets branded as political. And I think the reason for that is that the questions I ask are meant to be provocative.
So this is a novel that asks questions about evidence versus faith and trust. It’s about the scientific method versus popular media—the many different ways that information is conveyed and the ways people absorb and process that information. I think these are very topical questions and they can lead a reader down any number of roads. I hope some of them are ones you’ve never traveled before.
What would you hope to be the legacy of the Bellwether Prize?
I hope it will go on forever. The Bellwether Prize was intended to be a career-founding event for each winner. That’s just about unheard of in this country for literary prizes. There are plenty that give you pat on the back after you’re established and everyone thinks you’re tops. This prize is to give someone a hand up—someone who’s been working at it really hard and pull them into the world of being a published author with a good probability of writing more. Getting these voices out into the open in a way that they deserve is so gratifying to me.
[Editor's note: an earlier version of this article appeared on the website June 5, 2012.]