Here is the life of a best-selling author, according to Barbara Kingsolver: ”Getting my kids to eat breakfast. Picking clothes up off the floor. Going to the grocery store. And then going into my room with three or four precious hours stolen from family life and, you know, writing a book.”
Chances are, you do know. Kingsolver, 44, has had five of her eight books land on coveted national lists in the last decade, and her latest novel, The Poisonwood Bible, has just hit the paperback charts after selling almost 400,000 copies in hardcover. Her most complicated book to date, The Poisonwood Bible chronicles the lives of missionaries who travel to the Belgian Congo with their four daughters in 1959. Recounted in five of the characters’ voices, Poisonwood interweaves political and cultural questions with the coming-of-age adventures of the girls: 14-year-old twins Leah and Adah (who occasionally writes backward), a five-year-old, Ruth May, and 15-year-old Rachel. It’s an unexpected follow-up to Kingsolver’s previous novels, The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, and Pigs in Heaven, all incandescent tales of motherhood, survival, and relationships beneath the fiery Arizona sun.
”This is more epic in scope than anything she’s undertaken,” says her editor at HarperCollins, Terry Karten. ”But she has this gift for clothing political ideas in fiction so they go down easily.” Kingsolver adds that the book ”did cause me a lot of nervousness, because I knew I was asking a lot. It is long. Passages are written backward. No matter how you look at it, it’s not an easy read — it challenges some pretty basic American assumptions [about] democracy and humanitarian health care.”
Nor was it an easy write. ”I know Isabel Allende, and I know how she writes, and I know she channels,” says Kingsolver. ”If it were only that easy…. I dragged these [characters] kicking and screaming out of the clay…. They did not come. It’s not an exaggeration to say I had known for 20 years that I would write this book, but I didn’t know if it would be in this lifetime.”
Kingsolver, who grew up in Carlisle, a Kentucky farm town, and graduated from DePauw University and the University of Arizona, never counted on fiction as a career. ”Writing was always the private thing I did to make sense of the world,” says Kingsolver, who worked as a biologist and then a journalist until The Bean Trees was published in 1988. A novel about a woman escaping a small Kentucky town, it immediately made Kingsolver a top-selling author, a status she still feels ambivalent about. Today she lives outside Tucson with her husband, an ornithologist, and her 3- and 12-year-old daughters, whom she is loath to leave; she almost never does publicity for her novels. ”As a Southern woman, it’s very hard for me to say no,” says Kingsolver, ”but I rationalize it by thinking that what people don’t know is that asking me to do all these things means never having time to write another book.”
Instead of touring the country, Kingsolver has gotten back down to work; she’s “smack in the middle” of a novel that should not, like its predecessor, take 20 years. “Writing is a terrifying process,” the author says. “I have so much respect for fiction that I always feel like I’m sneaking into the cathedral and doing something wrong. My position is that I have no business there, unless I do it really, really right.”