Come and chat to BARBARA KINGSOLVER in a Q&A, Tue 25 June, 9-10pm - and read her latest book, FLIGHT BEHAVIOUR

(74 Posts)

Barbara Kingsolver is a particularly fearless author. She tackles complex subjects with passion and vast knowledge. She is also one of America's most feted writers, author of the global bestseller The Poisonwood Bible, and the Orange Prize winner The Lacuna. Her latest book, FLIGHT BEHAVIOUR, is on the shortlist for the 2013 Women's Fiction Prize. It tackles one of the most contentious and tricky contemporary issues: climate change. Dellarobia Turnbow, a young, inquisitive mother of two small children is living on her in-laws farm in rural, Bible-Belt Appalachia. A shotgun marriage has left her dissatisfied and trapped, a stay-at-home mum who was the 'loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself.' Everything changes on the autumn day that she sees a miracle on the mountain - a burning lake of fire that turns out to be millions of orange butterflies. The insects have been diverted from their usual journey to Mexico by the unpredictable weather that is also creating havoc on the failing farm. The media soon leaps on the story of 'Our Lady of the Butterflies', and scientists arrive to study the phenomenon, battling against the farmers who need to clear the land for their livelihood. Kingsolver's understanding of her subject combined with her empathy for those on struggling on the breadline, makes this a meaningful, deeply affecting novel.

You can find details on every Kingsolver book at her official website. It includes a fascinating autobiography with slides, giving an insight into how close she came to throwing her first novel away...

Faber have 50 copies to give to Mumsnetters - to claim yours please go to the book of the month page. We'll post here when all the copies have gone. If you're not lucky enough to bag one of the free books, you can always get your paperback or Kindle version here.

We are thrilled that Barbara will be answering questions about her writing career and all her novels, including FLIGHT BEHAVIOUR, in an emailed Q&A. So please feel free to discuss the book here throughout the month, pop up your questions (about this book or any of her others) by Tue 18 June, and we will post the answers on the bookclub night, Tue 25 June, 9-10pm.

BarbaraKingsolver Tue 09-Jul-13 20:36:12

kokorako

Hi Barbara - I loved FLIGHT BEHAVIOUR. thank you (and have given it to at least 4 friends now). Two questions:
1) Do you think it has had the impact you hoped re how people respond to climate change? At our book group (in my kitchen) the mums mostly enjoyed it but still didn't seem to make the connection re flying off for work-holidays/their carbon use/choice of lifestyles (I work as an eco-bunny campaigner so they had an extra clue).

2) Although I adore the butterflies I worry that all your book is based on sound science - except the butterflies. I'm sure you angst-ed about this, but in retrospect does it feel like it gave climate deniers an opportunity to poke holes in the narrative?

PS - thanks to your book "Animal,Vegetable, Miracle" my family now always has homemade pizza on friday night!!!

1) Probably a lot of people make this assumption, that I write books with the hope of bringing around specific changes in readers' lives afterward. That isn't the case. That would be my reason for writing a letter to my Congressman or attending a protest rally (both of which I have done), but literary fiction is an extremely different enterprise. Successful fiction doesn't tell us what to do. It engages our rational minds and our emotional lives in a way that can get us looking with new eyes at our own internal (and sometimes suppressed) agendas. It's a completely interior process, different for every person. My readers are thousands of different people I don't even know, most of whom are no doubt much smarter than I am, so I wouldn't presume to tell them anything. All I can do is ask questions: whom here do you love, and why? What do you hope for now?

2) No worries there. When I researched this book I began with an exhaustive study of the published scientific literature on butterflies. Then I enlisted the counsel of some great entomologists, including Dr. Lincoln Brower, who knows as much about Monarch butterflies as anybody else on earth. We talked for hours about my hypothetical scenario, this particular perturbation of monarch wintering grounds to a location in southern Appalachia, and Dr. Brower found it completely plausible. We discussed three hypothetical causes of this shift, events that are already occurring, which are all described in the novel. And I was careful to remind readers in the Author's Note that this is a work of fiction, grounded in what I hope to be a plausible matrix of descriptive science.

In fact, this novel has recently been referenced by entomologists in professional discussions of potential effects of climate change on monarchs and other migratory species.

I'm devoted to accuracy in building the factual framework of my novels. I was trained as a biologist, so I feel a special urgency about bringing that world into my work. Trust me, if I ever caught myself trying to pass off fake science, I would fire myself on an ethics violation.

BarbaraKingsolver Tue 09-Jul-13 20:38:00

funmummy48

I could have sworn I'd already posted a question last week but can't see it here so I must have had a "mummy moment" and forgotten to press "post message". I'd like to ask Barbara whether she felt there was a connection between the Monarch butterfly and Dellarobia in that they both had drifted off course and had ended up somewhere other than where they should have been. Dellarobia seems to have felt misplaced for most of her adult life.......was this something Barbara intended or did it evolve during the unfolding of Dellarobia's story? Thank you!

Yes, thank you for your attentive reading. And yes, all the metaphors, allegories, and thematic connections you find in the novel were put there intentionally by me, the author. That's what we do. Your English teacher back in school was not kidding.

BarbaraKingsolver Tue 09-Jul-13 20:42:35

DoItTooJulia

Wow! I have had to reregister because I am so excited to see Barbara Kingsolver here! I am a huge fan. I even had to play around with my username, happily I think I prefer my subversion!

I think my favourite works are the essay collections, especially High Tide In Tucson. I was wondering if Barbara (if I may be so casual!) had any plans for more non fiction/essay collections?

Also I am really interested to know more about where it comes from. Where does the story come from? Has everybody got a story to tell? Do you see untold stories everywhere and collect them up, picking the very best to expand on and research and eventually craft into a novel? Or not?

These are complicated questions, with so many answers on so many levels that any way I could reduce it feels dishonest. I have no idea whether everybody has a story to tell. My own stories come from the language center of my brain, during the hours when I'm able to provide it with uninterrupted quiet time, the right motives, and good tools.

I can definitely tell you how it does not happen. I don't start with real people, or with real events that happen in my life. I don't really look around and see untold stories, or pick them up and start trying to fit them together. I make the stories. My work is pure, carefully directed invention.

Finally, I would love to know who you read! Do you read a lot for work? Do you read for pleasure? Any recommendations?

I haven't read Flight Behaviour yet but I can't wait to.

Thanks!

I think my favourite works are the essay collections, especially High Tide In Tucson. I was wondering if Barbara (if I may be so casual!) had any plans for more non fiction/essay collections?

Yes, I seem to publish an essay collection about once per decade, so there should be one in the not-too-distant future. When I've published a couple dozen worthy short pieces in magazines, newspapers and anthologies, I pull them together into a collection, usually after rewriting everything to make it feel more like a book.

My first love is the novel form, but there is a rhythm to this job. I get requests every week to write shorter pieces for newspapers, magazines or anthologies and some are intriguing enough that I'd like to accept the assignment. But not enough to interrupt my concentration when I'm fully absorbed in a novel project. So I save up these assignments (if the editors are agreeable to waiting) and work on them during the interim months between finishing one novel and burrowing into the next. It's nice to have that variety, the contact with new people and topics, and the immediate gratification of writing a short piece and seeing it published a week later. That period of my life is always very interrupted anyway, by the book tours, interviews, studio time for the audiobook recording, etc., as I creep out of the shelter of my writing room to blink in the bright light and say hello to readers like yourselves. It's impossible to sustain novelesque concentration in the midst of all that, but a perfect time for writing essays, reviews, journalism and poetry. When they pile up, why, there's another embryonic book. So I take that on as a project, revising and slightly redirecting all these pieces to make them into a coherent book-length whole. That work becomes as compelling as writing a novel, and I hope the results stand up in a similar way.

Also I am really interested to know more about where it comes from. Where does the story come from? Has everybody got a story to tell? Do you see untold stories everywhere and collect them up, picking the very best to expand on and research and eventually craft into a novel? Or not?

These are complicated questions, with so many answers on so many levels that any way I could reduce it feels dishonest. I have no idea whether everybody has a story to tell. My own stories come from the language center of my brain, during the hours when I'm able to provide it with uninterrupted quiet time, the right motives, and good tools.

I can definitely tell you how it does not happen. I don't start with real people, or with real events that happen in my life. I don't really look around and see untold stories, or pick them up and start trying to fit them together. I make the stories. My work is pure, carefully directed invention.

BarbaraKingsolver Tue 09-Jul-13 20:46:07

gailforce1

I would like to ask Barbara which authors she reads and could she recommend any "up and coming" American authors we should be watching out for in the UK? Thanks.

Yes, I read constantly for pleasure, for work, for learning to be a good human. Writers are my teachers: I'm still learning about plot and character from Dickens; from Virginia Woolf, transcendence; from Doris Lessing, courage; from George Elliot, worldliness. I love Margot Livesey, Russell Banks, Annie Dillard, Louise Erdrich, Andrea Barrett, Alice Munro, I could go on until you make me stop.

Some up-and-coming American writers to seek out: Eula Biss, Hillary Jordan, Ken Powers, Julie Orringer, Heidi Durrow, Seth Kantner, Naomi Benaron, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Susan Nussbaum.

(this is also an answer to DoItTooJulia's last question)

BarbaraKingsolver Tue 09-Jul-13 20:48:07

valiumredhead

Oh goodness, The Poisonwood Bible is very well thumbed in this house, I think I've read it about 5x! Each time I read it I discover something new.

Where did the story come from, was it based on your experiences? It felt so real.

Can't wait to read the new booksmile

Excuse any typos I'm posting from my phone!

I'm happy to report that The Poisonwood Bible is not a life I have lived. None of my fiction is in any way autobiographical. It's my work, something I create, like a sculptor or a baker or a contractor. My ingredients are words and ideas, not retrieved experiences. So no, that was not my family. But if you found them so believable you thought they must be real, I thank you for the compliment.

BarbaraKingsolver Tue 09-Jul-13 20:49:10

Trinski

I finished Flight Behaviour last night and very much enjoyed it. Thank you!
My question:
Was it your aim from the start to educate about climate change or did this develop as you went along?
It's handled so well and as others have said, not at all 'preachy'.
Can't wait to start The Lacuna now.

Thank you. As I mentioned earlier, my goal is not to instruct. My starting point in this novel was to examine modes of denial and the ways we all decide to absorb or ignore evidence, for example, around the subject of climate change. It's something I'd been watching with interest, and seemed a robust topic. The entry door to a novel is curiosity about some aspect of human behavior, and I've been intrigued for years by the way people talk or don't talk about climate change. I wanted to throw conflicts together: denial and honesty, religious faith and science, loyalty and betrayal, town and country, provincial and worldly. This is the thematic plane. I had to provide certain kinds of information as a ladder to get the reader onto the platform, if you didn't already know some of the science involved. But if you did know, I didn't want to bore you. So all writing skills and tools are engaged, to embed these things with subtlety. It involves rewriting some passages or chapters again and again, maybe 20 times, to craft the nuance.

Myself, I love reading novels that manage to slip new bits of information about the real world into my head, more or less unnoticed, while I'm absorbing the thematic and emotional content. So I'm glad that was your experience.

BarbaraKingsolver Tue 09-Jul-13 20:50:23

coffeeanybody

Really excited about this interview, Poisonwood Bible is one of my all time fav's. My question would be: What kind of process does Barbara go through to research her books?

It's different for every book, since each one requires expertise in a whole new field; it's like getting a new master's degree every few years, which is fine by me. I was one of those geeks in school who wanted to major in everything.

There are obvious categories of research, and I generally make use of them all: libraries, the internet, original archives, interviews, expert advice, and lots and lots of travel. I would never write about a real place I had not experienced myself. For my big sagas, The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna, the research took nearly a decade. For Prodigal Summer and Flight Behavior, because they were set in places and cultures I already knew very well, the process was much more concise.

BarbaraKingsolver Tue 09-Jul-13 20:55:03

Sapeke

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy so Flight Behaviour went right to the top of my (very long) list of books to read one day. I loved it right from the start. The climate change theme makes this an important book but the way that theme is woven so perfectly into the story of complex and real characters makes it a great read. What really spoke to me were the telling details of Dellarobia's life - I can't think of another book that puts the daily grind of being a hard up mother of 2 kids centre stage.
I think one of the joys of a good book is not being able to predict the ending and I was surprised when D had her talk with Preston about her plans for the future. I confess I was a bit sorry that she wasn't going to stick with Cub (who could suddenly become worthy of her!), and I wondered whether you considered any alternative endings. Thank you!

The novel is fundamentally about denial and facing the truth. I knew from the beginning that Dellarobia would, in the course of her arc, stop deluding herself about almost every structural beam in her life, including her marriage. That painful conversation with her son, in which she requires him to accept and honestly face their whole situation, is the emotional climax of the story. Every page had something on it to prepare you for that talk, that melting hillside, those heartbreaks and the walking away.

BarbaraKingsolver Tue 09-Jul-13 20:57:34

maggiecockbain

I would like to ask Barbara Kingseller where she gets her inspiration to write and how she prepares to write her novels? Cheers Maggie at Tutor Doctor Private Tutors.

Inspiration comes from everywhere, so many different places I can't offer a sensible answer. But I can tell you how I begin: I wake up (usually too early) with words pooling in my brain, I get up, I go to my desk and write. I don't need any rituals to get me in the mood, other than filling my coffee cup. I've been raising children for all the years I've been writing books, so I never had time for writer's block or any fussiness. In the early years, I never had quite enough writing time and I craved it constantly. Now that my youngest is sixteen I have much more control over my working hours, but even so, when I'm really in the throat of a novel I never want to stop writing and go make dinner. It's lucky I had a family. Otherwise I might have forgotten to sleep and eat, and finally been found hunched over my computer, an emaciated pile of bones.

Ok, that's dramatic. But truly, starting a new book is the most thrilling sensation this side of giving birth. And like that, it feels brand new each time. I plot, I read and study, I make notes, I sketch out the story's architecture, I invent and psychoanalyze and reconstruct life histories of the characters I need, I write and throw away and rewrite and throw away. I can take weeks of writing just to find the right voice in which to begin the story. To start with, it's all a mess. Some mornings I sit down knowing I may spend the whole day writing balky prose that I'll ultimately delete entirely, as I slowly make my way toward the good stuff. That's the beauty of working solo: you don't have to let anybody see your mistakes.

BarbaraKingsolver Tue 09-Jul-13 20:59:02

Gargamella

Way-hay. Thanks for the extension, Tilly. Only finished this one today and I've stated away from here for fear of spoilers.

I loved this book - really beautiful and thought-provoking. The most moving scenes for me were those centred on parenting on a tight budget. Did anyone else feel like this or was that more peripheral to the ecological messages for others? I guess some of it just really struck a chord with me. My parents often used to get our Christmas presents second hand shops, for example, and there was one time I was delighted with a board game that was really popular - only some pieces were missing. My mother told me if I wrote to the manufacturer explaining I was sad about this they'd be more likely to help me than they would a grown up. I did and they sent spares. So I was really behind Preston haggling for the encyclopaedia set...

Anyway, a question for Barbara at last: did you set out to raise awareness of living in poverty, or was that more of a side issue for you too?

As I've mentioned, I don't write a novel to instruct, because I'm well aware that at least some of my readers know much more than I do about any subject I undertake. My project is more intimate. My task is to inhabit a fictional world with acuity, honesty and compassion, and to bring readers into places that may not be completely familiar. Very few novelists write about science, for the obvious reason that most young writers dropped the chemistry-biology track as early as possible in school, and took the humanities route. But I've also noticed that children rarely show up in novels as genuine characters. And motherhood itself -- if it's not trivialized or romanticized -- tends to go tragicomic or monstrous. Likewise, the lives of the working poor. So this was important territory for me. The people in Flight Behavior are very much like those among whom I live, in my rural farm community. I'm devoted to this place, these lives, these mothers and kids, and the different ways the modern world darkens our doors.

BarbaraKingsolver Tue 09-Jul-13 21:01:26

Hullygully

Ok, I've just finished. I wonder why you plumped for the optimistic ending? I can see it was necessary, fictionally, it felt like hope was necessary and the growth and change of Dellarobia, and of course that decision to move and grow and fight for life fits with the butterflies, adapting and hanging on in there, AND I would have been bitterly disappointed without a happy(ish) ending as who wants realism in their escapism? BUT the truth is we are doomed, the planet is doomed...doesn't ending with hope let people off the hook? Doesn't it allow the fiction of possibility to continue? Or is it so hopeless there isn't even any point in telling the truth?

I loved the book, btw. Dellarobia a superb creation, wonderful for simple explication and point-making and still human.

I loved Lacuna too.

What are we having next?

Thank you. And wow, you felt this was a happy ending? I hate spoiler reviews, and don't want to give away anything for those who haven't finished the book, but I'm thinking you might want to go back and read the last four and a half pages. This is the story of the end of the world as a person can know it. It brought me to my knees to write that scene, but in a novel about facing the truth, I had no choice. No escapism here.

And yet. One of the greatest gifts of literary fiction is that readers can find what we want and need inside each story. So if you wanted to find hope in this novel, I grant you every grain of that.

BarbaraKingsolver Tue 09-Jul-13 21:03:46

HazelDormouse

Thank you Mumsnet for introducing me to such a great author. I doubt that I will be able to finish the novel before the bookclub night. I really don't want to rush reading it. I would rather savour the words and images. I will look out for her other novels.

Would most people try 'The Poisonwood Bible' after this?

I hope so!

In closing, I want to thank this Mumsnet group for your interest, and for your patience. The answering and posting of this forum was delayed because I was away from my office for the last two weeks, working alongside my family to honor my mother's final wish to die in comfort and dignity in her home, and then to organize all the rituals that bring loved ones together in the aftermath.

It's been a privilege to join your conversation. As a working Mum myself, I have a bone-deep appreciation for anyone steeped in the daily work of "mashing peas and arbitrating tantrums," as Dellarobia described her résumé, and still mustering the energy to read and talk about books. I've always felt pretty sure that motherhood has made me a better writer, and that writing and reading have made me a better mother.

Thanks to all for their questions - and an enormous, heartfelt thanks to Barbara who took time to answer them even when in the thick of a family crisis (her mother died on July 1st).

There were a few messages that overlapped with others, asking a similar thing, so I hope everyone feels they got an answer, even if the name at the top wasn't theirs...

Please feel free to carry on chatting about the book here, and let us know what you thought of all the discussion above...

Gargamella Tue 09-Jul-13 21:23:45

New way of running Book of the Month night, obviously, but I like it. Condolences and thanks to Barbara.

Hullygully Wed 10-Jul-13 09:08:31

I had forgotten about this

Goodness <goes off to reread ending>

Hullygully Wed 10-Jul-13 09:15:35

I've reread them and I know I'm talking ot myself but hey that's never stopped me, I thought the survival of millions of butterflies flying forth to find a "new earth" augured survival, a bit like the dove on Arafat.

confused now.

Glad you liked it Gargamella, but we'll be back to our usual live webchat this month (with Kevin Powers, on 30th July). We only very occasionally do the emailed Q&A sessions with authors who can't make it in person for various reasons. Interested to hear which style you prefer, though?

Hullygully Wed 10-Jul-13 10:15:50

What did you think, Tilly?

Hullygully Wed 10-Jul-13 10:16:19

<restrains self from emailing Barbara and shouting I'M NO CLIMATE CHANGE APOLOGIST>

gailforce1 Wed 10-Jul-13 14:23:39

I thought the emailed Q&A worked well and perhaps gave Barbara a opportunity to give fuller answers as she had a chance to consider the questions for longer.

DoItTooJulia Wed 10-Jul-13 17:11:17

Yay! I have just read all of the questions and answers properly, and I am thrilled to have been given the chance to 'chat' to one of my literary heroes. Thank you and condolences Barbara.

Gargamella Wed 10-Jul-13 21:25:42

Think I preferred this style because the responses were obviously so considered. That said, I know MN generally gives authors a bit of notice of the questions.

I was lucky enough to get a free copy of Flight Behaviour (thanks Mumsnet) and have only just finished it due to family commitments.
I found the start quite hard to get into, but liked Dellarobia and her family and the way they were described. As the story went on, I found it heavy going in places and couldn't see where it was headed. I was disappointed with the ending and didn't think it was believable.....Dellarobia struck me more as the kind who would have kept her family together rather than moving out.
Also, the beginning and middle of the book had lots of description and detail, taking the story day by day, but then leapt forward in great chunks of time, without the description and detail, and missed out important events like Preston's birthday. I found this strange.

stantonjulie Sun 25-Aug-13 19:25:27

Having won the book, I have finally finished Flight Behavior. I don't know why it took me so long to finish because the book is very readable. I read Pigs in Heaven years ago and loved it and hadn't read any Barbara Kingsolver since. Unfortunately I've travelled a lot on business and it doesn't fit nicely in my handbag.

I'm sure that there are many people with lives like Dellarobia and it was interesting to read about her journey and getting her to where she wants to be. I think the ending was OK, because the whole story was clearly about her wanting to break away from what she had and the story and it's twists and turns helped her make the decision. It was a bit farfetched that she got work in the lab with no experience or skills. Surely in real life - given the interest in the butterflies - there would have been many more qualified applicants around.

The factual side about the butterflies and the climate change was interesting and keep seeing pictures of these butterflies now I've read the book.

Sorry for the slow review.

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