On History, Marriage, and Politics: A Q-and-A with Barbara Kingsolver

THE RELEASE OF Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Unsheltered, coincides with the 30th anniversary of the publication of her first novel, The Bean Trees (1988). Since then, Kingsolver has refined her style, but her key themes — community, social justice, politics, science, and how people behave when their world seems to be falling apart — are fundamentally the same.

Unsheltered follows the parallel stories of two Vineland, New Jersey, families. The first is set in 2016 and follows Willa and her extended family, including daughter, grandson, and disabled father-in-law, in a house they’ve inherited from Willa’s aunt. The magazine Willa worked for has gone broke and laid her off: her husband has a one-year contract professorship at a nearby university; her son has over $100,000 in student loan debt and a new baby; her father-in-law requires expensive medical care; and the house itself is falling apart around them. The only way to save the house is to prove that it has historical relevance.

The second story is set in 1871 and follows science teacher Thatcher and his bride of six months, Rose. Their house (Rose’s family home, in which Willa and her family are living) is also in disrepair — as a teacher, Thatcher doesn’t make enough money to cover the cost of repairs, while his job is at risk due to ongoing debate with his principal about Darwin’s theory of evolution and whether or not he should be allowed to teach it to his students.

Unsheltered features two real-life characters: Mary Treat, who came to Vineland in 1868 with her husband, Dr. Joseph Treat, and shared her natural history research with Charles Darwin, Dr. Asa Gray (Harvard) and Charles Riley (Missouri state entomologist). Unfortunately, Treat’s personal life fell apart shortly after she arrived in Vineland, as her husband left her for New York City and another woman.

Charles Landis, who founded Vineland in 1861, is a secondary character: “[He] had the arrogance to found a so-called utopian [alcohol-free] town that, as part of its founding, included a historical society,” notes Kingsolver.

I spoke with Kingsolver on September 17, at the tail end of Hurricane Florence, and a few weeks before she set off on a six-week book tour across the United States.

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SARAH BOON: You mentioned in several interviews that you’re most proud of The Lacuna. Is that still true?

BARBARA KINGSOLVER: Yes, up until now, it was my proudest accomplishment. But now I’ll say I’m proudest of Unsheltered, because it was a similar kind of immersion and required an enormous amount of time, study, research, and cogitation. It is ambitious in its structure and there were a lot of things about it that felt impossible to me at the outset, but that’s where you want to be as an artist.

When I wrote The Lacuna, one of the things I set out to do was write about a happy marriage. Even though it’s a novel about many, many unhappy things, I also wanted it to be the story of a happy marriage. Because I think that’s worth writing about, and nobody ever does. I mean, what was the last novel you read about a married couple who actually liked and loved each other? We’ve bought it as truth that every happy family is alike. But it isn’t so. There are all kinds of happy families. And I decided it was very useful to my purpose when I’m writing.

Unsheltered is fundamentally about how people behave when their world seems to be falling apart. One thing people do in those circumstances, when they feel frightened, is to cleave to the old, to what they know. In many ways, it’s dysfunctional to try and hang on to an environmental situation or an economic situation that no longer exists or is obsolete. But holding on to a marriage is actually quite reasonable — it made sense.

Yes, it does in a way make sense. And in Unsheltered there is a shift in the marriage of Willa and her husband, whereas Thatcher and his wife end up drifting apart and he makes a stronger relationship with his neighbor, Mary Treat (whose husband has run off to New York).

Yes, so in the process of Unsheltered you’re watching the unraveling of Thatcher’s marriage. The very first thing you know about Thatcher and Rose’s marriage is that it’s new and that it seems to be very happy. The first thing you learn from Thatcher about his wife is that he is enthralled with her physical properties, he’s just so attracted to her, as people were in those days when they didn’t get to have sex until they were married. [Laughs.]

Well, they were hardly even able to talk. There always had to be someone there, supervising.

Exactly! So really, their wedding night is essentially their first date. At the beginning of the book he’s infatuated with his wife, but throughout the novel you watch that marriage fall apart because there’s really nothing to it.

However, as you watch Willa’s marriage, you might have some doubts about it in the beginning, that it’s perhaps stale or a mismatch. But as the story progresses you see the sturdiness and value of their marriage, and you see it’s going to work.

I liked that dynamic. I wanted the two sets of characters to tell one story thematically, so that each chapter moves toward this revelation about being sheltered versus unsheltered. But in terms of the dynamics of their relationships, they’re going in opposite directions.

Do you do a lot of research for all of your novels?

I’ve noticed a pattern in my novels: from large to small to large again. Unsheltered was large and came after Flight Behavior, which was set on my home ground so it went fairly quickly. I will certainly never run out of material.

Unsheltered has a male protagonist, which are rare in your novels. What led you to create Thatcher, and how different was it to write from a man’s versus a woman’s perspective?

My second novel, Animal Dreams, also has a male protagonist (one of two, in a divided father-daughter narrative), as does The Lacuna. It wasn’t a big deal. After working out the plot of Unsheltered, I needed a protagonist who could do things only males could have done in their era. I don’t believe there’s a male perspective — there are millions. In creating male characters I draw on what I know well (for example, Thatcher’s scientific curiosity) and steer clear of what I don’t (for example, how it feels to have an erection).

You’ve mentioned previously that you ask your readers questions: what do you think, does this worry you, does this scare you? You’ve also been clear that a lot of a story is told through dialogue. You’ve mentioned that storytelling can be used to introduce new ideas into receptive minds — in your case, environmental or social justice ideas. A colleague of mine once suggested that we should write romance novels that incorporate themes of environmentalism, climate change, and science because the market is so big for these books, and she thought it would be a subversive way to introduce these ideas into receptive minds. Do you think that the romance novel works in such a way that you would still be able to bring your political themes to bear in that genre?

I don’t know anything about the romance genre, but I would suspect that it does work in the same way as literary fiction. Writers of commercial fiction are living in the same world that I am, so many of the same things must worry them. I’d imagine that racial tensions, gender issues, and perhaps even environmental issues do come up in the romance genre.

I’m not writing genre fiction, but I do set out to write a love story or a conquest story, and I structure a plot so that it follows some person trying to figure out how to do something. Fundamentally it’s a human story. I don’t start with saying, “This one’s going to be about capitalism,” or, “This one’s going to be about climate change.” I set out to write a story about people and the world in which they’re living, so the problems of that world are part of the setting and part of their lives.

In Unsheltered, when I’m writing about the contemporary family (Willa et al.), they have student debt and employment problems and health care issues, especially since they’re living in the United States. This is what people deal with every day. So yes, I think that even genre fiction is focused on the world we live in.

Some reviewers have suggested that your writing is preachy, and that readers are bombarded with environmental and social justice issues. But I would say that a lot of that information is couched in dialogue, and in the relationships between people. They just happen to be talking about environmental and social justice issues.

I’m not sure what they mean by “preachy.” The characters argue with each other, but what is the title of the sermon and who is the preacher? I’m a little baffled by that. I mean, there’s not anyone in Unsheltered that represents me, that has my exact principles. So, they’re not right.

The discussions between Tig and her brother Zeke often devolve into “you’re a capitalist, but you’re an anti-capitalist.” In the book’s acknowledgments, you mention that you read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. It sounded like a lot of the arguments that Tig and Zeke have are based on things that come up in Klein’s book.

I think Naomi Klein’s book is a really interesting way of framing environmentalism within the dynamics of global capitalism. But no, I don’t think I took any of Tig and Zeke’s debates from that book. I think that if you went to any college campus, you would hear that argument between the econ majors and the environmental majors. That’s what kids are screaming at each other about right now.

I was wondering, if readers are uncomfortable with the level of debate between Zeke and Tig about capitalism, could it be because these debates are very real and present right now? Could it be that, when we read them in a novel, we feel that we’re being bombarded with the same things that come through the daily news cycle, when all we want from a novel is a bit of escapism?

Well, I don’t know. If you were reading a book about an unhappy marriage or a cheating spouse, and everyone knows somebody who’s in that situation, why wouldn’t you say, “Oh no, this is too much like real life, this shouldn’t be in a novel.” I mean, isn’t every good novel about something that makes us a little uncomfortable?

I guess I’m just baffled by that. Because Unsheltered is a novel about dynamics and dialectics, and how arguments are framed and how they’re won and lost. And it’s also sort of about to whom does it fall to solve these problems.

You’ve said that you can’t start a new novel without having a complete clearout of your office.

I’m laughing because it’s a mess right now. I’m trying to do spring cleaning in September.

I was going to ask: Have you started your cleaning after Unsheltered?

Yes, I have. I still have my bulletin board up, which has Mary Treat’s picture and Landis and all of these historic photographs. I’ll take that down (I’ll wait until after the book tour), and file it away in the archives and put up something new.

So what are you planning to write about next?

I feel like I should be writing about nothing but climate change!

This is interesting, because one of the things you’ve said about Flight Behavior is that it’s a novel about the war of silence around climate change. It’s “about how we talk about climate change, how we think about it and why we don’t talk about it and why it is so hard to talk about.” When you say you feel like you should be writing about nothing but climate change, I think that’s highly relevant because we aren’t talking about it. It is like a cone of silence and, given the latest IPCC report, it’s something we need to address head on. Maybe novels are a way to do that.

Yes, I think so.

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Sarah Boon is freelance writer who covers the environment (wildfire, drought, flood), women in science, and mental health. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Literary Hub, Hakai Magazine, Terrain.org, Science, and Nature.

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