Small Wonder

Barbara Kingsolver: How I Write

The Poisonwood Bible author, whose new novel is Flight Behavior, wakes up to sentences pouring into her head—she never has a problem forcing herself to write.

David Wood

Do you know the origins of your evocative surname?

I do. At least, I know the stories, there are several. It is probably a corruption of Gonsalvez, a common Portuguese surname. When it got to Virginia it turned into Consolver, then it quickly became corrupted into Kinsolving, Kingsolver, and other variations. We’re all pretty closely related. When you go back six or seven generations, people of my ancestors’ station in life hardly ever wrote their names, so it didn’t much matter how it was spelled.

Describe your morning routine.

I tend to wake up very early. Too early. Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency. It’s a funny thing: people often ask how I discipline myself to write. I can’t begin to understand the question. For me, the discipline is turning off the computer and leaving my desk to do something else.

When would you normally finish your day, then? What would your evening be like?

For the whole of my career as a novelist, I have also been a mother. I was offered my first book contract, for The Bean Trees, the day I came home from the hospital with my first child. So I became a novelist and mother on the same day. Those two important lives have always been one for me. I’ve always had to do both at the same time. So my writing hours were always constrained by the logistics of having my children in someone else’s care. When they were little, that was difficult. I cherished every hour at my desk as a kind of prize. As time has gone by and my children entered school it became progressively easier to be a working mother. My oldest is an adult, and my youngest is 16, so both are now self-sufficient—but that’s been a gradual process. For me, writing time has always been precious, something I wait for and am eager for and make the best use of. That’s probably why I get up so early and have writing time in the quiet dawn hours, when no one needs me.

Following up on that, do you have any unusual traditions associated with the writing process? Any magic hat you have to wear?

No. As you can probably guess from this conversation, I’ve always been so eager to write that I don’t need any rituals to get myself in the right mood. I used to say that the school bus is my muse. When it pulled out of the driveway and left me without anyone to take care of, that was the moment my writing day began, and it ended when the school bus came back. As a working mother, my working time was constrained. On the other hand, I’m immensely grateful to my family for normalizing my life, for making it a requirement that I end my day at some point and go and make dinner. That’s a healthy thing, to set work aside and make dinner and eat it. It’s healthy to have these people in my life who help me to carry on a civilized routine. And also to have these people in my life who connect me to the wider world and the future. My children have taught me everything about life and about the kind of person I want to be in the world. They anchor me to the future in a concrete way. Being a mother has made me a better writer. It’s also true to say that being a writer has made me a better mother.

Have you continued with the living traditions you outlined in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, or have your habits changed since then?

The way we eat as a family is the way we live in general. We try to avoid excessive consumption in every way, of resources, of fuels. The process we described in that book, of eating deliberately, of tending to the sources of our food, was very gratifying to us. It was a wonderful exercise both emotionally and socially to engage with the farmers in our region, to learn about the provenance of our food. It’s something we couldn’t go back on. When you have a conversion like that, you don’t leave it. We do what we do because it makes us happy.

For those unfamiliar with your work (and there may not be too many of them left), which of your books do you recommend a reader start with and why?

It’s hard for me to give that advice. Each of my books is extremely different. I think The Bean Trees, my first novel, is one I might recommend as a starting place for younger readers, because I was a younger writer when I wrote it. It’s not specifically written for young adults, but because it’s a coming of age story, it might appeal in that way. I also believe that every reader is different and every reader receives a book in his or her own way. It’s touching to me ... I have 14 books in the world now, and every day that I spend in contact with readers, as I am now on book tour, is really gratifying to me. One thing I hear from readers is this one is my favorite—and it could be any of the 14. I couldn’t even guess statistically if it would be The Bean Trees or The Poisonwood Bible or The Lacuna, or Small Wonder, because I write not just different novels, but different genres. I love the fact that any one of my books could be someone’s favorite. So I guess the answer to your good question is that it really depends on who you are.

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Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

I do a lot of mapping out. I was trained as a scientist—undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology—and I tend to think like a scientist and work like a scientist. It seems to me that every book reminds me of writing a dissertation. Each idea begins with a hypothesis, to put it into scientific terms. A great “what if” that seems important to me. Then I think about how to translate that very real question, about human nature or the world, into a plot. A novel doesn’t tell you anything. It has to show you everything. Even a question has to be asked through character and plot. I spend a lot of time thinking about the narrative structure. I do tons of writing that is not yet scenic but more schematic. It will never appear in the book, it’s really just notes to me about this book. In fact the top of the file might say “The Lamp on the Desk.” I made that up because it’s what I’m looking at now, but you see what I mean. The file will be “The Lamp on the Desk,” and then it will say “the characters are x, y, and z. This is the plot. It begins here, it goes there, everyone has to see x in the end.” It’s writing about the book, almost like a treatment or, as they say in the film industry, a “bible.” I can spend months doing this, until I know who everyone is, and what they will be doing. Only then do I start writing. I invent characters who will do what I need them to do. Then I invent life histories that will make them the kind of people that would do what I need them to do. Like all authors, I’m asked if characters are biographical, if I put people I know into my fiction. You can see from my process that that would be impossible for me. I begin by seeing a narrative, so I can’t put people I know in it—they simply wouldn’t behave properly, they wouldn’t be cooperative and do what I asked of them. So I invent the people I need, and that’s a lot more fun anyway. I can continually refine the characters, their histories, and their damage, until they are exactly the right people I need. Then, after a lot of that work is done, I start writing scenes. Sometimes the opening scene will occur to me first, but usually not. I write a lot of material that I know I’ll throw away. It’s just part of the process. I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.

Your books are read in many American schools as part of the curriculum. It’s very rare for a contemporary author to have that. It strikes me as similar to a contemporary painter whose work is acquired by museums for permanent display.

It’s incredible. It feels amazing. My first thought, of course, is that I hope those students don’t hate me [laughs]. It’s reasonable for a teenager to resent any work that is assigned, so I will begin by saying “I’m sorry. I know you probably have better things to do than read The Poisonwood Bible or The Bean Trees when you’re 15. Given that you have got to read something for your English class, I hope this one will be a friend to you.” I have immense appreciation for high-school English teachers. I think they are the saints of this earth. They are gathering in a fresh generation of readers, sending them into the world armed with the capacity to read and appreciate all the literature that has been accumulated in history. That’s a fine gift to the world. Especially now when we are in danger of losing a new generation of readers.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

[Laughs a lot] Apparently this question. I couldn’t even tell you the images that just went through my brain now. There are too many of them, and it’s too embarrassing!

Do you have any superstitions?

Every time I step onto an airplane, I turn to the right and take a good, hard stare into the maw of the engine. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I just do it. Because I’m on book tour now, I get to do that almost every day.

What is your favorite snack?

Whatever is in the mini-bar at the end of the line, when I get to the hotel after a long evening of signing books. I love greeting readers, I do, but as the hours pass I confess I am also fantasizing about that chocolate bar.

What phrase do you overuse?

“To be honest, yes.” That’s probably it.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Learn as much as you can about the world itself. That means not just writing courses, other courses. Probably I would say learn about science. There are very few fiction writers who know about biology, physics, environmental chemistry, and there’s a great need for science in the literary world.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

I have in fact a great-uncle who is buried near to where I live. I’ve considered that I might cop what’s on his tombstone. He died nearly a hundred years ago. His gravestone says, “I was here, now I’m gone. I had a good time.”