Barbara Kingsolver: My Books, My Life
In a wide-ranging conversation with EW, the best-selling novelist and activist took a look back at her most memorable — and, often, ahead-of-their-time — works, including her latest: the Trump-era-set Unsheltered.
The Bean Trees (1988)
Kingsolver launched her career with a coming-of-age novel, in which twentysomething Taylor Greer leaves Kentucky — where Kingsolver grew up — before settling in an Oklahoma town. The Bean Trees introduced Kingsolver’s signature ability to tell prescient American stories by looking inward; in this case, the theme was the search for a community. While relatively small-scale, the experience of writing Trees was formative. “[Taylor] was from the place I knew,” Kingsolver says. “Suddenly I could write with a new kind of authenticity. I learned that my place in the world had worth.”
Animal Dreams (1990)
“My first novel was about running away from home; my second one was about going back,” Kingsolver says of this tale, which centers on Codi, a young woman who returns to her rural Arizona hometown. The book positions the small community against a mining company — a microcosm for a grander narrative about corporations squeezing people’s livelihood. Codi soon leads the fight to save the town. Kingsolver drew on her experience as a journalist here: “I spent hundreds of hours driving to these little dusty mining towns, interviewing women who faced down armies.”
Pigs in Heaven (1993)
This unofficial sequel to The Bean Trees marked the chance for Kingsolver to most clearly articulate one of her most regularly visited themes. In The Bean Trees, a Cherokee woman hands her baby off to Taylor, seemingly unprompted; Pigs in Heaven unfurls the complexities of the aftermath, in which the tribe believes the child should stay with them. “I recognized these two sides weren’t talking to each other,” Kingsolver says. “They were speaking different languages; they had two entirely different versions of the common good, the most important thing. On the one case, the individual, the family, the personal choice. And on the other side, the tribe, the community.” The plot grew out of Kingsolver’s natural interest in the storyline following completion of Bean Trees; indeed, Pigs in Heaven wasn’t even intended to be a sequel until things started lining up.
The Poisonwood Bible (1998)
Kingsolver’s most famous (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel, about a missionary family who relocates to the Congo in the ’50s, reflects the year she spent living in the region as a child. She interprets the brutal true story of genocide and colonization — for which she realized her own country was complicit — “through the eyes of a family.” What results is a searing exploration of American identity and an indication of Kingsolver’s literary evolution. Where before she mirrored her own life, here she took a closer, critical look and wrote what she saw — no matter how ugly.
Prodigal Summer (2000)
Kingsolver’s fifth novel was set in Appalachia, the place she’d called home for a few years by the time she set out to write it. The imagery is as vivid and sensual as anything this author has written; she calls this her “biology novel,” and indeed most strongly indicates the author’s talent for drawing out and meditating on natural wonders. “Prodigal Summer is about community in the deepest sense: It’s about biological community, and about individuals within those communities trying to find their place,” she explains. The book also has some surprisingly steamy sex scenes, which Kingsolver admits is very much by design: “Fortunately, biology is very sexy. Where biology is concerned, sex is the beginning and end of everything.”
The Lacuna (2009)
“What does it mean to be an American?” This complicated question drives The Lacuna, a period piece ahead of its time. “I wanted to write about patriotism — and how it can get weaponized,” Kingsolver says. The novel follows a man who lives between Mexico and the U.S., only to fall under suspicion by anti-Communist forces when he develops as a writer. Kingsolver was inspired by the post-9/11 climate, when dissent was often silenced. “This is a much bigger canvas than just a family — it’s nations,” she says. “It’s substantially more relevant to this moment than I ever imagined it could be.”
Flight Behavior (2012)
The book spawned from — where else? — Kingsolver’s interactions with her community. It’s set in deep Appalachia, where the author and her husband had moved full-time. “Nobody at the time was writing about [global warming],” she explains. “And it was difficult for me to talk about with my neighbors.” She mined that tension in the story of a woman “thrust into a culture shock,” faced with clear evidence of severe climate change in her own backyard. “She has to remain where she is — belong to the community she belongs to — but starts changing some of her beliefs.”
Kingsolver describes her latest as a direct response to the Trump era: “It’s about how people behave when it seems like the world is coming to an end.” The book moves between two timelines — the present and post-Civil War — in one house in a small New Jersey town. If The Lacuna and Flight Behavior proved Kingsolver’s canny foresight, one might hope Unsheltered does the same. Why? “I wanted to write a nuanced account of how we got into this crisis and how we might come out of it,” she says. No spoilers, but: We survive.