Prodigal Summer

Barbara loves to hear from her readers, but due to the volume of of correspondence, she can’t answer each question individually. To help, we’ve listed many of the frequently asked questions here. Browse by topics below:

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Judy Carmichael
Office of Barbara Kingsolver
PO Box 160
Meadowview VA 24361

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.

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.”

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.