BARBARA REVEALS HERSELF
In the culture in which I was raised, it was considered charming to tell long, entertaining stories about peculiar relatives or a runaway hog or anything under the sun—except yourself. Prolonged self-revelation seems discourteous to me, and self-aggrandizing is vulgar. Among the worst things I commonly heard people say about a woman, in my childhood, was that she was “parading herself around.” This may explain why I’m happy to put a three-pound novel into the hands of anyone inclined to heft it, but squeamish about autobiography. I’ve never written anything in that line. I offer the world my books, which stand on their own without explanation, and never imagine the details of my personal life should interest anyone but friends and family. I do not believe this information improves the understanding of my books, in any way
Yet I understand that for many people, art inspires curiosity about the artist. I’ve also learned, the hard way, that Wikipedia abhors a vacuum: others gladly fill in the biographical details I decline to offer myself. For that reason, as a supplement to the other versions that are now in the world, I provide here my own version of the Barbara Kingsolver story. It’s less entertaining than some of the others, but has the distinction of being true.
CHILDHOOD: A DIARY WITH A KEY
I was born April 8, 1955, in Annapolis, Maryland, but barely remember it because my family moved to rural east-central Kentucky when I was two. I’m lucky to have grown up in the midst of pastures and woodlands, with parents who favored virtually any form of reading as educational. This meant anything from classic comic books to the encyclopedia Britannica and whatever we could pull down from bookshelves at home or at the library or, scariest of all, my Dad’s old medical textbooks in the basement. Any wild creature we could catch and contain, except mice or snakes, could be brought in the house. We kept a snapping turtle for months in a large pickle jar, though it made him livid, and in retrospect I am sorry about that. My best childhood memories involve some combination of books or plots inspired by books; my siblings; hiding places under trees; games of stealth; living creatures; and no adult supervision.
At age eight I began keeping a journal, inspired by the gift of a small red diary with a tiny lock. The lock was gratuitous, given the diary’s soporific content, but the ruled lines encouraged a habit of daily writing. When my schoolteachers assigned a two-page theme, they would get ten pages from me, a surfeit of juvenile prose I am sure they came to dread. I could hardly contain my adjectives. I entered every school essay contest that presented itself, and my first published work, entitled “Why We Need a New Elementary School,” gave an exciting account of how our grade school’s ceiling plaster fell and injured my teacher. My essay was printed in the local newspaper prior to a school-bond election, and the school bond passed. I had no notion of ever becoming a writer then (evidence suggested that writers were old, from England, and uniformly dead), but I credit that school-bond incident for teaching me that the pencil is a mighty tool.
On several occasions during my childhood, my parents took my brother, sister and me to live in other countries where my father donated his services as a physician to people in extreme need. The most memorably exotic of these was the Republic of Congo, in 1963, in a remote village of thatched-roof houses with no electricity, plumbing, or automobiles. (Or school.) This required enormous courage from my parents who were dealing with problems on the order of smallpox and leprosy, and procuring our daily food from heaven knows where, in support of a newly independent African democracy.
For me it was just a fantastic adventure involving more exotic creatures to stalk, and a village of kids who surely found us oddly pigmented and inarticulate (they spoke Kituba), but played with us anyway. I was ignorant of politics but initiated to cultural difference.
Our family always returned afterward to Kentucky and electricity, but these jarring stints away were double-edged, giving me both a sense of the world beyond my small hometown, and an uneasy status as an outsider in a peer-group that valued conformity. I survived the standard miseries of introverted adolescence by means of high school marching band, piano practice and competitions, good novels, and copious journal entries.
Seeking My Fortune
In 1973 I entered DePauw University, in Indiana, on a piano scholarship. I soon changed my major to biology, in the practical hope of someday earning a living. Beyond the expected math and science classes, my liberal-arts education included a manic cross-section of electives: anthropology, history, French, music theory, a semester in Greece, a winter internship at the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Company, and one creative writing class, which I loved. I supported myself as an art-class model, typist, housecleaner, and typesetter in the town’s print shop. I nurtured a private passion for writing, but to claim “author” as a professional ambition would have seemed starry-eyed to me, in the same category with “concert pianist,” “movie star,” and “people who can fly.”
After graduation I bought a cheap one-way ticket to Europe to seek my fortune. I continued to support myself by any means available, working mostly on archaeological digs in France and England. By the time my work visa expired, I had accumulated notebooks full of poems and stories but no noticeable fortune.
I returned to the U.S. in ’78 and moved to Tucson, Arizona, out of a curiosity to see the West. I worked two years as a lab technician at the University of Arizona Medical School before entering the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology as a graduate student. While studying theoretical population genetics and teaching undergraduate biology, I continued to write poetry and fiction but never disclosed this to my colleagues, as I felt it would mark me as unserious.
After receiving a Master’s degree but before finishing my dissertation, I took a job as a scientific writer for the University of Arizona. My duties ranged from grant-writing to reporting on research news. I was not always thrilled by the material, but arrived at a new understanding about writing: if I worked at it full time, it paid the rent. After-hours, I took assignments for newspapers and magazines, branching out beyond the science beat into arts coverage and investigative journalism. By 1985, my freelance assignments were steady enough to lure me toward the most difficult professional decision of my life: to walk away from a salaried job and benefits, in order to pursue my passions. My first year as a full-time freelancer, I earned about $6,000 and learned to live on it. I never looked back.
That same year I married Joe Hoffmann, a chemist who had recently earned his PhD from the U. of A. We lived in a fix-up-special bungalow in downtown Tucson, honed our carpentry skills, and grew a garden in our miniscule backyard. A few years later we moved from there to a small cabin in the desert outside the city. We were both active in organizations that worked to investigate human-rights violations on the border and support Latin American refugees seeking asylum. I would later write about this time: “I had come to the Southwest expecting cactus, wide open spaces, and adventure. I found, instead, another whole America . . . This desert that burned with raw beauty had a great fence built across it, attempting to divide north from south. I’d stumbled upon a borderland where people perished of heat by day and cold hostility by night.”
A Wholly Unexpected Life
In the mid-80’s I began publishing poems and short fiction, in addition to journalism. I spent so many months covering a dramatic mine strike, the strikers referred to me as “the gal that’s writing the book about us.” Not wanting to disappoint, I assembled my hundreds of hours of interviews into Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike, a history of some heroic, principled people fighting a losing battle against big money. In the library I looked up “how to find an agent” and found Frances Goldin, a wonderfully encouraging literary agent who tried for a year to find a publisher for my mine-strike book, without success.
I was embarrassed to tell her I was also working on a novel, The Bean Trees, equally unmarketable I felt certain. I wrote it during the insomniac nights of my first pregnancy, working at a desk inside a closet so the light wouldn’t disturb my sleeping husband in our one-room house. Just before the pregnancy concluded in the birth of a daughter, Camille, in March ’87, I had a fit of extreme housecleaning and needed to evict the piles of pages one way or the other: the trash can, or New York. I decided on the latter, and mailed off the manuscript with a note saying, “I’m sorry, you probably don’t want this. I think it’s a novel.” Ms. Goldin responded that it was indeed a novel, and immediately found a publisher. It was released the next year with a modest first printing and an abundance of kind reviews. Independent booksellers pushed it into readers’ hands, and now it has been in print for over twenty years, becoming a standard in literature classes and translated into several dozen languages. It gives me pause, still, to think of the day I cleared the decks and mopped the floor before heading to the delivery room: how near I came to throwing The Bean Trees in the trash.
Instead, I found myself living a wholly unexpected life as a full-time author, and hoped to make it stick. I learned to type one-handed while nursing a baby, and followed publication of the first novel with a collection of short stories called Homeland the following year, and a second novel, Animal Dreams, in 1990 (both from HarperCollins). My earlier non-fiction book about the mine strike finally found a home at Cornell Press and also came out in 1989.
In 1991 we moved to the Canary Islands for personal and professional reasons including Joe’s research, our wish for Camille (now age four) to absorb another language, and my long-term plan to write a novel set in Africa. As a mother with a young child and limited funds, it hadn’t been feasible for me to take research jaunts from Tucson to the other side of the world. But the Canaries, just off the African coast, offered that possibility. In our apartment in Santa Cruz de Tenerife I pondered how my closet-writing fortunes had reversed: now we made a large closet into our makeshift bedroom so I could use the front room for writing, under a window with a view of the sea. While living in Tenerife I was able to begin researching my embryonic African project, and I also completed the novel I’d begun back home, set largely in Tucson and Oklahoma. I recall the odd feeling of struggling to remember the flavor and context of American dialogue while living a Spanish-speaking life.
I also proofed the galleys of my first poetry collection, Another America, which was released after our family returned to the U.S. in ’92. The following year my life took a turn for dramatic excess as the three of us coped with grave illness and divorce, and my sixth book, Pigs in Heaven, became my first to hit The New York Times bestseller list. It was one of those years in which “best” and “worst” do not combine to equal “average.”
Over the next decade I learned to roll with the hard knocks and also take the pleasures of a writing life I’d never planned. I wrote five more books: the essay collection High Tide in Tucson (’95), novels The Poisonwood Bible (’98) and Prodigal Summer (2000), and Small Wonder (essays, 2001), all from HarperCollins. I served as editor for Best American Short Stories 2001, contributed work to many literary anthologies, and wrote for newspapers and magazines. I got to meet a lot of the writers and artists I admired, and some of them became friends. In collaboration with photographer Annie Griffiths, I wrote prose to accompany her remarkable photographs in the book Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands, published by National Geographic in 2002.
A few other highlights of the decade were: occasionally playing with the Rock Bottom Remainders, an all-author rock and roll band; getting the call from Oprah, when she chose The Poisonwood Bible for her book club; having the National Humanities Medal hung around my neck on a red ribbon by President Clinton; and being invited to join the usage review panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, a responsibility I enjoy to this day. One of my kids learned early that any playground shouting match over “my-parent-is-tougher-than-yours” could be ground to a halt with: “My Mom writes the dictionary!”
All public exposure is hard work for introverts like me, especially in a culture that treats celebrities (even lower-order, literary ones) as objects rather than humans with feelings and families. A significant task of my life has been learning how to accept the “fame” package with a smile and then scribble a forwarding address on it as quickly as possible. In the late 1990’s I was able to put good fortune to use by establishing the Bellwether Prize, which is awarded biennially to first-time novelists.
The most important event of the ‘90’s, for me, turned out to be a Lila Wallace fellowship. I nearly declined the invitation; as a single mother I could hardly take a night off to see a movie, let alone accept a visiting-writer residency in another state. After some indecision I negotiated a brief residency near Kentucky so my family there could help with babysitting. At Emory & Henry College in southwestern Virginia, I gave lectures in countless classrooms including that of biology professor Steven Hopp. It was a good choice. We married at the end of 1994, and our daughter Lily was born in ‘96.
For the next seven years our family spent summers living in a log cabin on Steven’s farm in the mountains of Virginia, and the remainder of the year in Tucson where the girls attended school.
The Landscape of Home
In June 2004 Camille finished high school, Lily completed grade two, and our family made our move to Virginia permanent, to be near extended family. Arizona was not easy to leave behind. I am grateful for my 25 years in the southwestern borderlands, where I meant to spend a few months and instead became a writer, mother, and citizen of the world. Equally welcome to me, though, has been a return to the eastern deciduous woodlands of my childhood and the polite, inflected accent that is my first language. The year of our move, we remodeled a 100-year-old farmhouse, renovated fields and orchards, and established flocks of poultry and Icelandic sheep. I wrote a screen adaptation for The Poisonwood Bible (on contract, though it has yet to be produced), and broke several crucial bones while on an assignment in South America. The next year I spent re-learning to walk, and beginning two new books. The first, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, was published in 2007. Co-written with Steven and Camille, it is a nonfiction book about farming and food economies framed by a memoir of our family’s year of producing or procuring our food locally. The overwhelming response of readers to this book stunned us. As an ongoing commitment to our own local food economy, Steven founded the Meadowview Farmers Guild in our community, a project that includes a local-foods restaurant, The Harvest Table.
The next book, The Lacuna, was published in 2009. This novel about memory, history, American political identity, privacy, celebrity, gossip and truth, I had contemplated for decades. It took years of research in libraries and archives, jungles, museums, and historic neighborhoods all over Mexico and the U.S. It was the hardest work I’d yet written, and I was thrilled with its worldwide reception, especially as the winner of the UK’s prestigious Women’s Prize.
Finding My Place, Again
The second decade of the new millennium found me happily settled on our farm in southern Appalachia, but unsettled by certain new ways of the world. With strong ties to distant cities and also my rural neighborhood, I sensed mistrust between these two parts of my country. I could identify with all sides: the mobile, highly educated, and those prioritizing family roots and respect for manual labor. Devotees of science and innovation, and those trusting tradition and spiritual practice. With these cultural rifts deepening into canyons, one issue preoccupied me especially: climate change. Many of my farming neighbors didn’t believe in it, even as we watched our crops being destroyed by new, unpredictable weather patterns. Why was naming this so hard?
For me a novel always begins with a big question, and I knew I’d found my next one. How can people look at the same evidence and come away with entirely different conclusions? How does the human brain decide what to believe? My search for answers, or at least a useful story, took me through the annals of psychology, physics, biology, and ultimately to the wintering grounds of the Monarch butterfly in the high Sierra Madres of Mexico. The novel, Flight Behavior (2012), set in southern Appalachia, works through complex rural and urban perspectives on science, religion, climate change, and globalization. And yes, how people decide what we believe in.
I was happy with that novel and the conversations it launched. But the world felt no more settled to me. In fact, the 20-teens felt like the end of the world as I knew it. So many physical and civic shelters I had always taken for granted – environmental, economic, political – suddenly seemed to be falling apart. Things a lot of us had counted on were disappearing fast: the certainty of a job at the end of school, a pension at the end of life’s work, even the ice on the poles and the fish in the sea. What do we do, when the rules we’ve always followed no longer seem to apply? That question took me into a novel of epic scale, examining two families living 150 years apart, in two different eras of global, political and spiritual crisis. I put both sets of characters in the same spot, in a crumbling house in Vineland, New Jersey, a real-life community that was established in the 1860’s as a “modern utopia.” I added real historical events with harrowing implications for our own times, and followed them to my newest novel, Unsheltered.
With the world continuing on its unhinging trajectory, I found myself turning to poets for strength and solace, counting on friends like Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver to see me through. I love the way poetry wakes up my brain and quiets it, both at once, dissolving partisan barriers to remind me of the things we all feel together: joy, grief, wonder. So it struck me that a book of my collected poems from recent years might be just the thing to launch into perilous, alienating times. My editors agreed, and the result was How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons), released in the fall of 2020. Offering reflections on the practical, the spiritual, and the wild, in more intimate terms than any of my previous work, these poems examine the ties that bind us to one another and to an untamed world beyond ourselves.
At the dawn of another new decade, I’m comfortable with my unusual position in the universe: a literary writer trained as a biologist; a rural, agrarian advocate working in an overwhelmingly urban-based, urban-representative field. Living in the red end of a blue state, working with both my head and my hands, devoted to science, faith, family, tradition, and progressive social change, I try to be a useful ambassador between disparate worlds. I hope to spend the rest of my days in this old farmhouse at the foot of a mountain, where we raise Icelandic sheep, poultry, and an enormous vegetable garden. I love how farm life asks me to be a different person every day: meditative weed-puller, crafty fruit and vegetable canner, emergency vet for the occasional breech lamb delivery. My farming partner Steven is also a professor of environmental science. Our daughter Lily is a biologist, working to preserve and revive the nearly extinct American Chestnut. Camille is a therapist working with at-risk teenagers, and with her husband Reid is raising two sons. They all live nearby, enriching our lives across three generations and gathering for family meals at least once a week.
For the first time in my writing career, with my daughters grown, I’m also enjoying more flexible ties to hearth and home. I’ve had the privilege of meeting readers all over the world, from South Africa to Iceland to Nepal to Australia, where I got to do a book signing with a joey on my lap. I’ve made forays into screenwriting. As research for adapting The Poisonwood Bible, I traveled to the Congo and even made it back to the rural village where my family lived all those years ago. I found it remarkably unchanged in all the ways I remembered: resourceful, hospitable people making everything they need to survive, in an unimaginably isolated place.
But I’m convinced my best work is done here at home. I’m a better person, and writer, if I stay closely engaged with my family, community, and this desk where I’m hard at work on whatever comes next. This is how I keep my part of the bargain, honoring my commitment to my far-flung community of readers who have given me this incredible writing life. Thank you.
I kept my writing a secret for more than twenty years because it seemed an indulgent passion, and I’m well aware of how risk and luck have crossed my path at important turns. I could have stayed on payroll instead of hazarding the precarious economics of freelance writing. Later on, because I felt swamped as a single mother trying to make ends meet, I nearly declined the writing fellowship that led me to meet my husband. And I came within about six inches of discarding my first novel, rather than bother anyone to read it. Now, every time I begin a new book, I wonder again who will follow me down these roads, to ask these hard questions that draw me in. And still, readers do. That is the best luck of all.
Timeline of life events and major works
|1955||born April 8, Annapolis, Maryland|
|1957||moved to Nicholas County, Kentucky|
|1963||lived with family in Republic of Congo|
|1973||left Kentucky to attend DePauw University|
|1977||earned Bachelor’s Degree, |
moved to Soissons, France
|1978||moved to Tucson, Arizona|
|1980||enrolled in graduate school, |
University of Arizona
|1985||began full-time freelance writing,|
married Joseph Hoffmann
|1987||birth of daughter|
Camille Hoffmann Kingsolver
|1988||publication of first novel, The Bean Trees|
|1989||Homeland (short stories) |
Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike (nonfiction)
|1990||Animal Dreams (novel)|
|1991||moved to Tenerife, |
Canary Islands, Spain
|1992||Another America (poetry); returned |
to U.S., ended marriage
|1993||Pigs in Heaven (novel), |
first national bestseller
|1994||married Steven L. Hopp|
|1995||High Tide in Tucson (essays)|
|1996||birth of daughter Lily Hopp Kingsolver|
|1998||The Poisonwood Bible (novel)|
|2000||Prodigal Summer (novel);|
National Humanities Award
|2001||Small Wonder (essays) The Best |
American Short Stories (editor, anthology)
|2003||Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands with photographer Annie Griffiths Belt|
|2004||moved to Washington County, Virginia|
|2005||April, to April 2006, locavore year|
recorded for book in progress
|2007||Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of |
|2009||The Lacuna (novel)|
|2012||Flight Behavior (novel)|
|2013||Screenwriting projects, ongoing|
|2017||Animal, Vegetable, Miracle|
10th Anniversary Edition (includes new
chapters written by Barbara, Steven,
Camille and Lily)
|2020||How To Fly (In 10,000 Easy Lessons)|