Like most artists, I’m chary about categorizing my work—particularly this novel. It’s very large. It’s political and domestic, symbolic and epic and, I dearly hope, a heck of a read. I believe in delivering on my contract with my readers. You’ve got plenty of other things to do, I know, so here is our deal: No matter what else I’m delivering inside the covers of a book, I promise also to make you laugh out loud at least once, cry some in private, and burn whatever you left on the stove.
Do you write every day?
Writing is my dream life. But many writers will tell you, in the modern era our job seems to demand everything but writing. In a typical week I spend hours or days on non-writing chores: fielding interviews, reviewing reprint requests and copy, updating websites, responding to particularly crucial requests, administering the Bellwether Prize, answering queries from translators, reviewing archives before they’re moved off-site, bookkeeping, giving at least a glance to the ten or twenty books sent to me by their authors or editors that week, puzzling over foreign-rights contracts, and supporting other writers and worthy organizations as best I can. When I release a new book, the “fielding interviews” portion of that list blows up into a full-time job. That and traveling for a book tour remove me from writing life for months, and I miss it, with an ache similar to missing my husband or children when they’re far away. I tend to choke up when someone asks me on book tour, “What are you writing now?” Nothing, would be the honest answer, but I wish I were! Still, I understand that meeting readers is an important part of my job, so I go willingly. The hard part is calling it off. The same book will be released in other countries as the translations come out; the requests don’t ever stop. I have to walk away, with firm resolve, from well-intentioned pressures that would keep me talking about the last book and its topics forevermore. It is painful for me to disappoint people, but I do it to save the life of my next book.
“The office of Barbara Kingsolver” is where my assistant Judy Carmichael makes writing possible for me by handling all things that come at us by mail, UPS, telephone, email, or wild elephant. It’s across the driveway from our house, in a remodeled carriage house.
The place where I write, upstairs in our farmhouse, has windows facing into the woods. The walls are lined with bookshelves. To avoid distraction, I write on a computer that is not connected to the internet. (I check email elsewhere in the house.) My companions in this room are the likes of Virginia Woolf and George Eliot, who peer down at me from the shelves, and a blue fish named Bruno. They are all very quiet.
How do you begin a novel?
I begin by imagining something surprising and important, a question whose answer is not clear to me, but seems vital. Questions like: How do we balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community, when they’re in conflict? (That became Pigs in Heaven.) How does one make peace with the terrible things one country does to another, when we’ve profited from them but weren’t responsible? (The Poisonwood Bible.) I begin to plot out a story in which characters will face these questions through some conflict or crisis. I write pages and pages of what this novel will be about. Themes, plot, characters. I create life histories for the characters. I list the things I’ll need to research, in order to tell this story. As scenes occur to me, I jot them down without worrying about chronology. The beginning and the resolution will come, once I understand the architecture of the story.
I spend months or years thinking about the shape of a novel and earning the authority to write it. Samuel Johnson wrote, “a man can turn over a whole library to write a single book,” and I would add, you also have to wear out some shoe leather. (See the question about primary and secondary research.) I usually keep a novel cooking on the back burner for a long time, before it moves up front. During this time I accept magazine and newspaper assignments that keep me writing while a novel is in the research and development phase. Once I begin writing the novel in earnest, the early challenge is to find the voice and tone. I throw away hundreds of pages before I find that; my best writing tool is the Delete key. I think of it as writing pages minus-100 to zero of my novel, just a necessary evil. I have to write them all, and pitch them out.
I struggle with confidence, every time. I’m never completely sure I can write another book. Maybe my scope is too grand, my questions too hard, surely readers won’t want to follow me here. A novel is like a cathedral, it knocks you down to size when you enter into it. I falter and fidget and worry it won’t be good enough, and then the day comes when I give myself permission: just write, I tell myself. No one has to see it, you can throw everything away if it’s terrible, we’ll keep it a secret unless or until it becomes wonderful. And then I get to work.
Do you go through a lot of drafts?
Gazillions. I adore revision. Whether it’s a two-page article or a 500-page book, I rewrite endlessly. I may rewrite the first paragraph of a novel fifty times before I’m satisfied. I comb through a manuscript again and again, altering every sentence a little or a lot. I don’t print out every draft on paper, or I’d be mowing down forests.
Pounding out a first draft is like hoeing a row of corn — you just keep your head down and concentrate on getting to the end. Revision is where fine art begins. It’s thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript, letting little glints shine through here and there. To plant resolution, like a seed, into chapter one. To create new scenes, investing a character with the necessary damage, the right kind of longing. To pitch out boldly and try again. To work every metaphor across the whole, back and forth, like weaving. I love that word “fabrication,” because making an elaborate fiction feels so much like making cloth.
Perfectionism is my disease. Revision is my milk and honey.
To what extent is your fiction autobiographical?
Not at all. The plots are not my life, those characters are not people I know, and none of them is me. My job, as I understand it, is to invent lives that are far more enlightening than my own, invested with special meaning. That’s the whole advantage of fiction over life: you get to control the outcome.
I can’t base fiction on my life, because I don’t build a story on pre-existing conditions. I begin by considering theme, and creating a world in which the right questions will be asked. I populate my setting with characters who will serve my plot. Those characters are my slaves. They must do exactly what I want, or the story falls to pieces. No actual person I know is that cooperative. So I invent people from scratch, starting with what they need to do, and working backwards, inventing life histories that render their actions believable. Sometimes I do include historical figures in my fiction, and that is a tricky mix (see “FAQ’s: The Lacuna.”) These people are more like a setting, their real-life details forming an inflexible grid around which I weave my plot.
Pure invention seems straightforward to me, much easier than trying to jam an already formed personality into a mold it won’t fit. So it surprises me when people insist I must have experienced everything I write. Once a reader (a psychologist) wrote, “Come on now! How can you claim you’re not writing about yourself? Taylor Greer in The Bean Trees moved from Kentucky to Arizona, like you did. Codi Noline in Animal Dreams taught biology (you’ve studied biology). Why do you persist in the infantile need to deny you are writing about yourself?” Yikes. Did I move from Kentucky to Arizona, like Taylor Greer? Yes, but via France. Did someone leave an abandoned child in my car along the way? Uh, no. Does my fiction reflect my world view? Probably, but I have not done a fraction of the things my characters do, such as running from the law, adopting an abused child, being an expert cockfighter, having Alzheimer’s, being a gay man, being a straight man, being the child of a Christian Missionary, cooking for Diego Rivera, and having great sex in an Anasazi ruin. Do I seem that energetic?
A lot of your settings are places I can’t find on a map, even though they seem real. Do they exist?
The writing of fiction is a dance between truth and invention. Pittman, Kentucky, the starting point of The Bean Trees, resembles any number of small towns in east-central Kentucky where I grew up. I didn’t invent its weathered look, its party-line phones, its inclination to rally around good gossip or a neighbor in need. Those things I described from experience in a real place. The same is true of other small towns in my novels, from Grace, Arizona to Isla Pixol, Mexico. They are genuine, but not identified.
This is why: a little town named in a widely-read novel might become a destination for literary voyeurs. I don’t want to be responsible for changing the character of a quiet, rural place. Also, if I set my story in an actual small town in Kentucky (or Arizona, or Mexico), those events would be false: everyone would know that in the history of their town no man named Hardbine had ever been blown over the Standard Oil sign by an exploding tire, for example. Still, every soul in the named town would be scouring the pages for themselves, their friends and enemies, and finding them. (Even though I didn’t put them there.) So I choose real settings but place them off the map, for two reasons: to preserve the illusion of truth, and the substance of privacy.
Cities are different. I’ve set parts of novels in Tucson, Mexico City, Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago, and Asheville, North Carolina, to name a few. These places are large enough to absorb events and people. As long as you get the weather and the civic character right, even residents who live in those places can probably suspend disbelief and accept the illusion of truth. So yes, Virginia, there is a Pittman, Kentucky. It exists in your heart and your imagination. If it sustains you from one page to the next, it’s true enough.
Do you actually go to all the places you write about? What balance do you strike (if any) between primary and secondary sources?
Hooray for you, for knowing the difference between primary and secondary sources, in a world where many seem to think watching a nature show is the same thing as being in nature. It isn’t. The nature show leaves out the smells, for one thing, and the seventeen hundred hours the camera crew sat waiting for the rhinos to mate. Another person’s account of a place — whether it’s Henry Thoreau or Youtube — is only part of the story.
I almost never set a fictional scene in a place unless I’ve been there. Fiction is an accumulation of details, and if they’re wrong, it’s an accumulation of lies. Readers are not fooled. Fiction is invention but it’s ultimately about truth. If I want to remove you from your life and whisk you into a picnic on the banks of a river in Teotihuacán, here are some things I need to know: what grows there, what trees, what flowers, in that month of the year? What does it smell like, are there bees? Birds? Is it dry or humid, how does the dust feel between your teeth? What’s in the picnic basket?
What does candied prickly pear fruit actually taste like? Passing on someone else’s account of these things, from reading about them, would likely render a flat, one-dimensional scene, no matter how I injected my own additions of plot and character. The sensory palette would be limited. I can only paint with all the colors if I’ve seen them for myself.
The difference between amateur and professional research is a willingness to back away from other people’s accounts of what is, and find your own. There is no “googlesmell.”
Do you consider writing to be a form of activism? Do you think novelists have a duty to address political issues?
I think of “activism” as a simple action meant to secure a specific result: for this purpose I go to school board meetings, I vote, I donate money, and occasionally fire off an op-ed piece. But that’s not what I do for a living. Writing literature is so much more nuanced than these things, it’s like comparing chopping vegetables to neurosurgery. Literature is one of the few kinds of writing in the world that does not tell you what to buy, want, see, be, or believe. It’s more like conversation, raising new questions and inspiring you to answer them for yourself.
As a literary novelist I spend my days tasting the insides of words, breathing life into sentences that swim away under their own power, stringing together cables of poetry to hold up a narrative arc. I hope also to be a fearless writer: examining the unexamined life, asking the unasked questions. In most of the world, people call that literature. For some reason, people in the U.S. are fond of putting me in a box labeled “political,” which could mean anything: “this is about the world,” or “this makes me uncomfortable.” If it means “inclined to change people’s minds,” that seems ludicrous as a category because great literature will always do that. Fiction cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view. It can broaden your view of gender, ethnicity, place and time, power and vulnerability, things that influence social interaction. What could be more political than that?
I think the novelist’s duty is to own up to the power of the craft, and use it wisely.
Who are your favorite authors?
It’s impossible to choose. Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Russell Banks, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Louise Erdrich, William Faulkner, Milan Kundera, Doris Lessing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Bobbie Ann Mason, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Francine Prose, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf. That’s only a partial list, chosen on the basis of career output. Many of my favorite books are by authors I didn’t list: The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy, The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey, Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kentner, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
Why did you establish the Bellwether Prize? What are you most proud of in its ten years, and do you think it’s as necessary now as it was in 2000?
I always thought if I had more money than I needed to support my family, I would use it to improve the world somehow. So when I received my first really large book advance in 1998, I considered the power of words. I decided to use that money to encourage writers, publishers, and readers to consider how fiction engages visions of social change and human justice. The capacity of literature to do this is cherished and respected in most of the world, but less so in the U.S. For that reason the competition is open to U.S. writers who’ve completed a first novel. The prize is $25,000 and publication. It’s awarded every other year. The prize is administered by the PEN American Center.
I’m proud of the new voices we’ve published as Bellwether winners, and the thousands of people who have submitted manuscripts, because of their commitment to socially engaged fiction. The publishing climate for new authors is harder now than it was ten years ago. Under economic duress, publishers feel a pressure to turn out proven blockbusters rather than fresh voices and literary diversity. So yes, more than ever, I want to support good writers who are asking the big, difficult questions.
I’m a school teacher. What can you offer to help me prepare 4th graders to appreciate writing, now and for the rest of their lives?
Writing and reading are the two best ways humans have invented to participate with the larger world. Everybody in school wants to be popular: it’s so utterly human, to long for self-expression and connection with others. I would point out that writing and reading offer those things, and more. Writing is a kind of social networking in the way that it connects you with other people, but literature asks a bit more from you than Facebook, and offers more mature rewards. A great book can take you anywhere on earth, in the present or the past or the future. It’s the only mode of communication we have that actually lets you become another person by living inside his head, experiencing his problems and hopes. Fiction is a sort of inter-human magic, allowing you to travel into a scene and feel it tingle on your skin, see it in your mind’s eye and smell it with your mind’s nose! But forming these images from the printed page is a skill you have to develop when you’re fairly young, I think, or else it’s very difficult to read for pleasure later on. Writing is also a tool you can use your whole life: to help people, make them laugh, change their minds. You can do it for people in faraway countries, even for people who haven’t been born yet. Writing is a way to live forever.
What was the genesis of The Lacuna? Is it a story you’ve wanted to tell for a long time?
It raises questions I’ve wondered about for nearly as long as I’ve been a writer, starting with this one: Why is the relationship between art and politics such an uneasy one in the U.S.? Most people in other places tend to view these as inseparable. Mexico, for example, has historically celebrated its political artists as national heroes, but here that combination can make people nervous, to put it mildly. We seem to have an aversion to national self-criticism in general. We began as a nation of rabble-rousers, bent on change. But now, patriotism is often severely defined as accepting our country to be a perfect finished product. As in, “Love it or leave it!”
I suspected this internal shift might date to the mid-20th Century, a time when U.S. citizens were persecuted, lost jobs, and could even be imprisoned for expressing dissident opinions. People were singled out not just for communism, but for supporting unions, women’s rights or racial desegregation. Those times seem to have put a stamp on our national psyche that has never completely washed off. I always thought someday I should go sleuthing, to see if I could turn up something interesting: the end of World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the blacklisting of artists, I knew these were probably relevant but wasn’t sure how.
In the autumn of 2001, after the September 11 attacks, I witnessed a ferocious backlash against people who raised questions about how we should respond. The mainstream media launched a lot of vitriol at any artist or public person identified as a dissident voice. It stunned me. The culture of fear is potent and terrible, something worth dissecting in order to understand. That was the push I needed. It was time to sink or swim, so I dived into that question and swam.
Lacuna is a word with many meanings: an absence, a gap, a missing manuscript, a tunnel through time or substance. Why did you choose it as a central theme
The theme arrived long before the word. I worked on the novel for six years under a different title, which wasn’t a very good one. I was near the end of a first draft when one day I thought about this amazing word, lacuna, with all its intertwined meanings that unlock the inner workings of my story. I typed it, stared at it, and actually may have smacked myself on the forehead. It must have been lurking in my unconsciousness for a while, because everything came together around that word, once I committed it to the page. This novel is about all the important things you don’t know – the other side of the story, the piece of history that’s been erased. The plot is elaborately drawn around this idea in dozens of different ways.
The word “lacuna” is familiar to editors, physiologists, and certain other professionals, but I suppose it’s not a word most people hear every day. For this, I make no apologies. It’s a perfectly good, solid English word (not Spanish) that anyone can look up in the dictionary. Ours is a beautiful, rich language with words for every possible concept and shade of meaning. Why not use them all?
Why did you choose to include Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and other real-life characters? Did you portray them accurately, or take a lot of liberties?
Frida and Diego are relatively minor players who received a disproportionate amount of the review attention, probably because it made for good artwork on the Sunday Arts section of the newspaper. But that’s not why I included them. When I construct a novel, I back up from “effect” to “cause.” I wanted to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle. My protagonist would be singled out because of his suspect past, so I had to give him a past. It made sense for many reasons to start with the Mexican revolutionary muralists of the 1930’s, and end with the anti-communist censorship of the 1950’s. I would track the contrast, as Mexico’s attitudes about political art diverged from those in the U.S. I initially thought of these figures as setting rather than character, part of the novel’s grounding in historical fact.
Trotsky has fascinated me for decades, and so have the muralists, these men with their party work and shenanigans. I didn’t initially plan to write about Frida Kahlo, as I considered her too private and self-involved to add much to my story. But she grew on me. I read all the biographies, then went to Mexico City to see artworks, archives, and the Rivera and Trotsky homes, which are preserved as museums. Frida was everywhere: her doodles even cover the margins of Diego’s financial ledgers. I felt her poking at my shoulder, saying, “Muchacha, you’re ignoring me.” I began to understand her not as a martyred icon but as a roguish, complicated person. She began stealing scenes. She was a natural for drawing out my reclusive protagonist, they had excellent chemistry.
Frida and Diego were among the most discussed and photographed people of their time, two of North America’s first artistic celebrities. This novel is about, among other things, infamy and privacy, the role of the media in shaping public opinion, and its penchant for passing on gossip as news. So this couple played directly into my hand. I read their journals, covered my bulletin board with photos, and the scenes began to roll. Of course, I had to make them lively and convincing, not just stagehands, so they came to have their roles in the story. But their actions were limited to the strict confines of truth. I feel strongly about that: other people’s lives are not mine to appropriate, so I was careful about plotting their every move, their tastes, and even a lot of their words directly from the historical record. If Frida went into the hospital or Diego went to San Francisco on a certain date in 1936, that’s where they went in my novel. I did not put them into bed with anyone they didn’t actually have affairs with. Fortunately, that gave me plenty of options to choose from, as there were scandals galore.
In addition to Mexico, why did you choose Asheville, North Carolina as a main location for this story?
In the early months as I laid out the plot, I cast around for a setting for the U.S. portion of my story: a medium-sized city within a day’s drive of Washington, whose history I could research thoroughly. My character would live there throughout the 1940’s, so it would be ideal for me to find a city that had preserved a lot of architecture from that era, both public and private. I would love to find intact neighborhoods, downtown blocks, grand old resorts, preserved WPA road systems and parks, all kinds of places where I could walk around and visualize my setting down to its finest details. Asheville was perfect, just a couple of hours from where I live.
Because it’s an old resort town, its history is very well documented in words and pictures. The city’s unique story became its own contribution to the novel. I discovered, for example, that in the summer of 1948 Asheville had the worst polio epidemic in the nation, putting the whole town under quarantine. I learned this during my research and it became a key plot element, creating a perfect, claustrophobic backdrop to the suspenseful narrowing down of choices for my protagonist. I love this fantastic synergy between discovery and creation, in writing historical fiction. It feels like magic.
You included actual newspaper and magazine articles in this novel, alongside fictional ones. Why do that? If the history is that important, why set it as fiction?
The Lacuna explores some shocking things that happened in our country’s history. Some of the events are so unbelievable, I decided to use historical figures and actual news clips from the New York Times and other sources to anchor the reader’s attention to the facts. I didn’t want these uncomfortable truths to be dismissed as simply an author’s fancy. Informing the reader about facts and events is an important part of what I do. But ultimately that’s not enough: I also want you to care. A history book can educate you, but oddly, a novel is much more likely to move you to tears, because it creates empathy. That’s the amazing power of fiction.
Is Harrison Shepherd inspired by an actual 1950’s writer? Are his books modeled on real ones?
No. While the novel is chock-full of real events and people, the reader’s engagement will always hang on a well-constructed plot. This I know. For sympathy, intrigue and heart-pounding suspense, I needed protagonists who would be completely malleable to my authorial control, to give me the flexibility to turn the events exactly as I needed. So Harrison Shepherd is a pure product of my imagination, and so is the indispensable Violet Brown. They were both entirely cooperative.
Of course, I had to imagine Shepherd as fully real in every aspect, including as a writer. No one has really done the Pre-Columbian Potboiler, as far as I know, but I had in mind a category of fiction that came of age around Dashiell Hammett’s time, in novels like The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. This was the last hurrah of the novel as an everyday, working person’s entertainment, and a golden time for some writers who considered themselves entertainers, yet really did sophisticated work. (Interestingly, despite his apolitical subject matter, Hammett was persecuted for communism.) Combine the Sam Spade genre with James Michener’s historical sagas – Hawaii and Tales of the South Pacific — and you’re in the right part of the bookstore.
I spent so much time thinking about Harrison Shepherd’s hard-boiled Aztec novels, I even designed their dust-jackets in my head. Immediately behind my desk is a shelf where I keep my dictionaries, the thesaurus, and the reference books I’m using most during a given project. A couple of times without really thinking I turned around to reach for Harrison Shepherd’s Vassals of Majesty or Pilgrims of Chapultepec. And then laughed at myself, out loud.
How long did it take to write the book?
I began plotting out the structure of the story in February 2002, and finished exactly seven years later. I took a hiatus between 2005 and 2008 to write and release a nonfiction book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but the novel was still on my mind during that time, accumulating weight and momentum. The research and writing were simultaneous, almost to the end. I kept discovering fascinating or horrifying events buried in the historical record that pushed me forward to the conclusion.
The research for this book must have been massive. Was it daunting, or fun?
Both. Fortunately, I like research. I was trained as a scientist, and tend to approach tasks methodically, enjoying what I learn along the way and trying to use it resourcefully. Sometimes I did feel I was trying to move a mountain with a teaspoon. I read many books about U.S. and Mexican history just to find my starting point. Month by month, I circled in to frame the story in theoretical terms. And that was only the beginning. A novel is made of details. Every character, on every page, has to be immersed in a perfectly visualized scene: using transportation, cooking, listening to radio programs, speaking in the particular jargon of an era. Wearing clothes. (Unless they aren’t, but that can’t last long.) Each detail has to be historically exact, and in this case “the era” involved dozens of different locations in two countries, crossing nearly thirty years.
I traveled to all the settings, on both sides of the border: Washington, D.C., Asheville, North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway, on this side. On the other, I hiked through Mexican coastal jungles, hung out in villages, went to see a brujo, visited Mexico City’s archaeological and art museums, the preserved homes of Rivera and Kahlo and the Trotskys, and their personal archives. I climbed the pyramids at Teotihuacán. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico over the past thirty years, living near the border in Arizona for most of that time, so I drew on the past too, digging out old notebooks from assignments in the Yucatan and elsewhere. I only set scenes in places where I’ve been myself. When I create a world for the reader, I want to do it right, using all my senses.
That was the fun part, the “writer’s life” they show you in the movies. Here’s what they don’t show: the writer sitting in a chair in her study, glasses on her nose, coffee cup in hand, reading. For years and years. Biographies, court transcripts, political analyses from every angle, catalogues of women’s clothing from the ‘30’s and 40’s, recipe books, you name it. Everything ever written by or about Trotsky, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, J. Edgar Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, I tried to lay eyes on. I read literally thousands of newspaper and magazine articles documenting everyday life in the U.S. during World War II, and everything leading up to the post-war political freeze-up. Autobiographies of blacklisted artists. The internet was useful, many newspapers now have electronic archives, but mostly it served to lead me toward better things that are not online. I had to get my nose into a lot of dusty places. I pored over old letters and photo collections. I visited an old-car museum. This is a good example of the importance of primary sources: “Googling” a 1930’s Roadster won’t tell you how it feels to shift its gears, or that the windshield wiper is hand-operated by a lever over your head. Who would have thought? I loved the surprises. I learned that contrary to popular belief, the continental U.S. was attacked during WWII. The New York Times ran photos of the aftermath. The Japanese sent a submarine up the Columbia River and deployed a floatplane bomber, with the goal of setting the Oregon forests on fire and creating panic in the land. But the plan was rained out. History hinges on things like this, events that get forgotten — this is the soul of the story I wanted to tell. It was thrilling to immerse myself so deeply in the era. I dreamt of cooking breakfast for Trotsky, and became a curiosity for elderly men at dinner parties who quizzed me about arcane World War II trivia. The stacks of research materials grew tall in my office, like a forest of wobbly trees. I’ve cleared it all out now, making way for the next.
The historical novel is extremely popular at the moment – why do you think this is?
We live in unusually challenging times. There’s no recipe for how to fix a global economic collapse and climate crisis. Our news media don’t always help, when they flood us with superficial glimpses of disaster or lurid gossip about people we will never meet. It’s not surprising that readers may be hungry to put our experience into a more useful context.
Historical fiction can be a part of that. As a case in point, when I was researching this novel I read a lot about World War II — not the battles abroad, but domestic life. I was amazed to learn how families adapted cooperatively to rationing. Everything was in short supply, from food and clothing to wristwatches, typewriters, and bed sheets. Access was limited equally among rich and poor. The government actually outlawed long skirts and ruffled sleeves, to save fabric, and no cars were manufactured for civilian use for many years. There was something almost cheerful about the way people accepted the necessary frugality, undertaking it as a contribution they could make to a better world. Now, that climate of unselfish cooperation is hard to fathom. Reading history suggested to me that no matter what’s happening, we have probably been here before at some time, possibly with a better attitude. Historical fiction carries that kind of useful information and can render it emotionally compelling.
What inspired you to write about food?
Food is inspiring, it’s that simple. Eating is the most important human activity, and a consumer choice we make every day. Suddenly, people started noticing our country was having a three-ring food crisis: We have unprecedented health and obesity problems, due to poor diets. We’re putting almost as much fossil fuels into our refrigerators as our cars. And our farmers and rural communities are struggling to survive. All these problems have one cause: we’re buying so much of our food from far away. We rarely look at our plates and ask: “Where has this stuff been?”
At my house, we’d asked that question for years. Like many families, we were uncomfortable with the environmental costs of agribusiness and the health costs of junk food. Many problems can be solved by one solution, getting food from closer to home. We’d discovered it’s not so very hard to be a more conscious consumer of food. Not everybody can walk away from the industrial food pipeline altogether, but all of us can take a few steps, and the benefits are immediate.
I’d thought about writing a book on this subject for years, but I have absolutely no interest in telling other people what to do. It dawned on me, though, that narratives inspire people in a different way, explaining possibilities. We talked a lot, as a family, about sharing our own experience of eating more locally. We decided to frame it as a one-year narrative, in which we would try to make our best efforts. Giving the project some structure made it more fun for us, and gave the book its shape.
It seems like so much work to cook meals from scratch, let alone gardening and shopping at the farmers’ market. Was it difficult to get the whole family’s cooperation on this project?
We’re a pretty ordinary family, in that we all have a thousand things to do including full-time jobs or school. Part of the point we wanted to make in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is that regular, busy people can pay more attention to where our food comes from, and use healthier ingredients for the rituals of our lives. All over the world, people have food cultures, cooking special meals on various occasions (or even every day) because it’s traditional, enjoyable, and considered to be worth the effort. In this country, the closest thing we have to a distinctive food culture might be feeding our kids burgers in a speeding car. Are we busier than families in Italy or Japan?
It isn’t too late to reclaim a food culture of our own. Decisions create new behaviors, and routines make things easier. We simplified recipes, cooked in quantity, did what we could, but we also decided that cooking and enjoying meals would be a significant, important part of our family life. Our family took a somewhat formal pledge in order to push ourselves into doing something we knew would improve our lives. We had to do it together, or not at all. To be honest, it was much easier than we expected.
What were the hardest foods to give up?
This was not an experiment in deprivation. We just wanted to stop pushing pampered fruits and vegetables around the globe on our behalf, so we changed our thinking. Instead of starting every food sentence with “I want,” we began with “right now we have… .” Each season brought a new menu. We tried to celebrate asparagus in April and apples in September, rather than whining about not having apples in spring or asparagus in the fall, if you see my point. Our farmers here grow salad greens under row cover even in the snowy months, and in January we loved the pears we’d canned in cider last summer. It’s not as if we were chewing on acorns.
It’s funny that this is the first question most people asked: what did you have to give up? We shared that anxiety too, in the beginning. A consumer culture has trained us all to concentrate intensely on what we might be missing, rather than what we have. Unfortunately, that encourages a toddler-like approach to the world: “I want everything, right now, so I can put it in my mouth!” For many reasons, I believe it’s a useful family exercise to reorder this manner of thinking. In my lifetime I expect to face the end of many kinds of abundance we’d thought would last forever. Instead of dreading collapse, why not be inventive about adapting to a changing world? Why not begin finding ways to eat splendidly from our own local food economies, and giving them our business so they will be even better next year?
After the year ended and the book was published, did you keep up your local-food habits?
It was a deeply enjoyable conversion, so yes, it did stick. We still organize our meals around what’s locally available, when it comes into season. We don’t eat industrially-produced feedlot meats, and frankly can’t imagine it. Our garden expands every year, and our local farmer’s market also keeps growing. We buy extra fruits and vegetables when they come into season, and freeze or can them so we’ll have abundance (and easy meals) in winter. We’ve become friends with the farmers who work so hard to provide us with everything that helped make our “year of local” so delicious – why would we turn our backs on them now? It’s not just a matter of health and epicurean pleasure, but also community responsibility, for us to stay involved in our local food chain.
Once in awhile I do buy something marvelous and exotic at the grocery — Alaskan wild-caught salmon, or a pomegranate — as a splurge. Because of our year of consciously passing up such things, we recognize them now as indulgences, rather than normal things to which we feel entitled. Because really, what is normal about rushing a frozen creature three thousand miles in an airplane so I can eat it? Our culture’s expectations about food are surreal. So you could say, our family has become more realistic.
Eating locally is one thing if you live on a farm, but what about city dwellers?
Thoughtful food life is not just about growing your own. Anybody who has choices about food can exercise them with more care. Every grocery store carries some things that were produced closer to your home than the backside of yonder. Anyone can emphasize whole ingredients in their meal plans, and pass up the processed junk that has so many costs wrapped up in the package. And the majority of U.S. citizens live within a few miles of a farmers’ market. In fact, these are much more concentrated in and around cities than in rural places. The fastest-growing sector of the U.S. agricultural economy is the small market grower producing food for urban consumers. City dwellers might be surprised to learn that rural America has fewer farmers’ markets per capita, and the hardest place of all to find local foods is the Midwestern corn-and-soybean belt. It’s a sad commentary on our agricultural system that the bulk of our farm produce is essentially inedible.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is by no means intended to be a how-to book for growing your own food. Our intention was to explain why food is not strictly a product, but a process. That’s the lesson our culture has lost, and why we’re so dubious of the “product.” An important step in anyone’s food security is to recover an understanding of processes – for example, to learn the differences between feedlot meat operations and pasture grazing, why one requires universal use of antibiotics while the other eschews it. Why a pasture-raised chicken lays eggs with crayon-orange yolks, full of healthy beta-carotenes. Why lettuce comes in early in the growing season, and watermelons arrive late. When to look for asparagus. Two generations ago, people knew such things intuitively, but now we may have to learn them from a book. That’s why we provided a seasonal account of how foods grow — we thought readers might be interested in the natural history of what they eat. We’ve been very surprised, and delighted, that this information has inspired countless readers to try and grow at least a few things themselves. It’s a very basic human urge, it seems, to plant a seed, watch it grow, provision ourselves first-hand. I wish everyone could have that experience.
What was your point of origin in writing a book so steeped in biological processes?
I’ve been trained as a biologist, more or less from the beginning. I grew up chasing butterflies, went to graduate school in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and still look at the world through the eyes of a scientist, I suppose. Leaving the halls of science for the world of literature and the humanities was like jumping across the Grand Canyon: I can plainly see a great divide that exists between two kinds of thinking. I wanted to write a novel to bridge that gulf somehow. Specifically, I wished I could explain a handful of important ecological principles: speciation and natural selection, the keystone predator, genetic diversity and resilience, and the Volterra principle, which (for instance) shows mathematically why spraying a field with pesticides actually will increase the number of pests in the next generation. These principles profoundly shape the world around us, in which we hope to survive.
Scientific illiteracy is something that worries me every day. At least half the population of this country has not been educated to understand basic, thoroughly documented phenomena like climate change, or even to grasp evolution through natural selection, which has now been the cornerstone of all biological sciences for two centuries. When a population this uninformed tries to steer environmental policy, it’s like asking a five-year-old to drive the car: we might fully expect calamity. I’ve noticed that very few people even know that ecology is a field of science — the theoretical study of how living populations interact with one another. (Many have a vague idea that it means “the environment.”) It’s a difficult science, involving a lot of advanced math and computer modeling, but the principles it gives us are literally matters of life and death. We who are trained in this science have a responsibility to make our knowledge accessible to others.
So I took my leap across the canyon, and Prodigal Summer is its name. Translating scientific ideas from clean, elegant mathematics into vernacular English was a huge challenge. It’s easy to oversimplify or alter meaning. Very few writers address this territory at all, but that was all the more reason, I felt, to do so. And I knew I had at least one strike in my favor, from the start: a biological novel will have to be full of sex.
What does “prodigal” mean?
Recklessly productive, wastefully extravagant, lavish, prolific. I thought it was the perfect word for describing nature in high season, when a maple tree is whirling thousands of seeds into the air. It does not mean “returning home.”
I didn’t want this book to end, and in a certain way it didn’t. Do you plan to write a sequel?
I don’t plan on it. I never want to write the same book twice. What keeps me awake at the wheel, as a writer, is the thrill of trying something completely new with each book — new ideas, new settings, craft challenges I’ve never handled before. What makes my heart race is to dream up something no writer has ever done before, and then give it a go. I’m not a risk-taker in life, generally speaking, but as a writer I definitely choose the fast car, the impossible rock face, the free fall. I love the feeling that I’m becoming a new kind of writer, by stretching myself with every book.
Nevertheless, I am deeply flattered when readers take a book so thoroughly to heart that they crave to spend more time with the characters. I hear this plea more often about Prodigal Summer than any other book, probably because the book is about biological cycles and rhythms, and therefore — as you point out — does not entirely conform to the conventional “beginning-to-end” structure. My response is that those characters and that setting are yours now. You can imagine them doing anything you want.
The history of cultural, religious and economic imperialism in Africa is not an easy subject. What made you go there? And why, specifically, the Congo in 1960?
This story came from a long-term fascination with politics and culpability, and my belief that what happened to the Congo in 1961 is one of the most important political parables of a century. I’d thought about this story for a very long time, ever since the early 80’s when I read Jonathan Kwitny’s Endless Enemies, a stunning non-fiction account of that piece of history.
Here’s how I framed the question, to myself: nearly every industrialized country has arrived at its present prosperity by doing awful things, extracting wealth from some unfortunate locale, whether in the form of tea or diamonds, cheap labor, or even human slaves. Most of us alive today didn’t participate in those decisions, but we do benefit materially from this history. How do we think about that, if at all? England has a strong tradition of postcolonial literature, but here in the U.S., we can hardly even say the word “postcolonial.” We were a colony ourselves; we didn’t have colonies, we’re not like that. If you can overlook an agricultural economy originally built on slave labor, and the odd coup our CIA has organized here and there, to control economic interests in Chile’s copper, Congo’s cobalt, and so on. We still would really like to think of ourselves as the global good guys. Who wouldn’t?
Denial is one path to redemption, but it leaves certain holes, and the possibility of repeat offense. I’m keen to look at history, and study truth in all its facets. I think this is one of the ways novelists can earn our keep, morally speaking. So I decided to dive into the heart of darkness and write about paths to redemption. It’s a large ambition. I waited many years to begin. I’d have waited a hundred, but realized I’d be dead before I was really wise enough to write this book, so I’d better give it a shot.
Did you ever live in Africa yourself?
I did. And I’m happy to say, my own experience was nothing like The Poisonwood Bible. My father worked for fifty years as a physician dedicated to medically underserved populations. Mostly he practiced in rural Kentucky, but occasionally he took our family to live in other places, where “medically underserved” is an understatement. We spent 1963 in a Congolese village where most residents had never experienced electricity or plumbing, let alone western medical care. I was seven years old when we went. My parents were not missionaries, though we met some missionary families and benefited from their generosity on many occasions.
My memories of playing with village children and exploring the jungle are acutely sensory and indelible. My parents were courageous to do the work they did, risking their own comfort and security to help address problems like leprosy and smallpox. But for me, it was just an adventure. I was a child, and understood only about a thimbleful of what was happening around me in the Congo. The thematic material of The Poisonwood is serious, adult stuff. I wrote the book, not because of a brief adventure I had in place of second grade, but because as an adult I’m interested in cultural imperialism and post-colonial history. I had to approach the subject in an adult way.
Why did you choose to tell the story from five points of view, and how did you make them sound so distinct?
I spent nearly a year getting the hang of the Price girls, by choosing a practice scene and writing it in every different voice. I did that over and over until I felt the rhythm and verbal instincts of character: Rachel’s malapropisms, Leah’s earnestness, the bizarre effects of Adah’s brain damage, and so forth. Adah was the most challenging character I’ve ever created, starting with a lot of medical research about hemiplegia. Those long palindromes became a family project, we all worked on them. I gave not one single thought to the headaches I was giving to my future translators.
Why I framed the story this way has to do with the novel’s central question. I don’t want to oversimplify, but this novel is about presumptions, arrogance, and the terrible things one country will do to another. How, in the aftermath, do we make our peace with that?
I don’t believe there is one single answer to that question; there are many. In the four Price daughters and their mother, I personified attitudes crossing the spectrum from Orleanna’s paralyzing guilt to Rachel’s blithe “What, me worry?” I wanted to create a moral conversation. That’s what literature can do.