International best-selling writer Barbara Kingsolver was in Durban at the beginning of the year to promote her latest novel, Flight Behaviour. I
Barbara Kingsolver was born in rural Kentucky in the USA, in 1955 – a place of extreme poverty and racial segregation.
In this community, she says, career options were extremely limited: “You either became a farmer or a farmer’s wife.”
Being a writer, therefore, was almost inconceivable.
But as a young child, Kingsolver was always writing in a diary and begging to tell her own stories to her family. Working as a journalist later on probably entrenched her will to write.
She also believes that being an introvert and one who analyses everything to death contributed to her eventually becoming a full-time writer.
“Most writers are introverts,” she says. “You go into a room, shut the door so that you are alone and then you write. You have to enjoy being alone to be a writer.”
For this accomplished author, writing is about being an observer as opposed to being a participant.
“There is some part of me that is always watching what goes on between and among people. As much as I participate in everyday life, there is also part of me that is always questioning and analysing what is going on.”
It is probably for this reason that critics say her writing is a form of political activism for her.
For Kingsolver, it is about looking at the real world and analysing the power structures in that world.
“I look at what is wrong in the world and the way people deal with it,” she says. “That’s my starting point – I write about what is wrong, but without the illusion that I am going to fix it in my novel.
“The actual novel will be very human struggles and issues – a woman considering having an affair, a girl dealing with an authoritarian father.
“The novel will be about everything besides social injustice. But the backdrop will be about something real like climate change or post-colonialism.”
Her aim is to encourage her readers to think about the world as it could be and how far we go to achieve that.
The value and beauty of a novel, though, is that the same novel can have a different meaning for different people.
“When I finish a novel, it is only half done. When you read it you complete it in your way,” she explains.
A novel is owned entirely by the reader, Kingsolver believes. It is the reader who puts the faces to the characters, it is the reader who invests the characters and events with his or her own emotions and world view.
And each reader will take from the novel his or her own lessons.
“The most beautiful thing about literary fiction is that it is nutrition for the mind – we pull from it the vitamins we need,” she says.
I think what makes Kingsolver’s writing particularly accessible and enjoyable is that she deals with important social or political issues without becoming preachy. Her approach is one of humility and empathy instead.
“I don’t think about delivering messages, I think about questions that are important to me,” she explains.
“I begin with presumption that many people out there know more about a social issue than I do. I create a world and invest it with questions that I think may be important. So, I start a conversation, but it is the reader who finishes it.”
Having travelled vastly – which began with her living in the Congo for about a year when she was just seven years old – Kingsolver is able to draw from a wealth of experiences she has gained over the years.
Her experiences as a biologist, journalist as well as running the farm she lives on currently also play a role.
Having knowledge of many different experiences is important to her because “you have to be as smart as the characters in your novel”.
Always on hand is a notebook in which Kingsolver is constantly adding snippets of information she comes across in her travels or while talking to people.
In South Africa, she encountered a large scorpion and a puffadder. These encounters and her different reactions to the creatures went down in her notebook. Who knows, we may meet one of these creatures in her next novel.
It is all about using experiences to clarify themes, building a good plot, attending to the craft of writing and making her characters as real as she can.
“With a novel you can invite people in – (people) that didn’t know they would be interested in particular issues like climate change, post colonialism.
“The information goes to the heart and creates empathy in the reader. Disturbing realities become your own problems.”
Fans of her novel, The Poisonwood Bible, may be pleased to know Kingsolver is currently working on a screen adaptation that will be filmed soon.
She has no illusions that a film will not be the same as reading the novel itself.
She doesn’t expect people who read the book and liked it to like the movie – in fact she thinks they may be very disappointed.
But she says she has to be realistic that millions of people will not read her book, so the film is a chance for them to access her work.
But because she herself is writing the screenplay, she is determined to put the heart of the novel into the screenplay.
For fans of her novels, rest assured she still has time to write, and she promises a new novel is in the making. So watch out for it.