A Talk in the Woods: Barbara Kingsolver and Richard Powers

Kevin Larimer

Behind the farmhouse in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia where Barbara Kingsolver lives and writes, surrounded by trees, ruby-throated hummingbirds are constant companions, darting here and there, pollinating the orange jewelweed and other flowering plants. But on the recent, sunny afternoon the best-selling author spent talking with novelist Richard Powers, who drove a few hours north from his home in the Smoky Mountain foothills of northern Tennessee to see her, the hummingbirds seem more interested in the almost-empty feeder that hangs above the table on her terrace, where we chat following a lunch of homegrown cucumbers, tomatoes, and red peppers along with olives and smoked-trout pâté with chips.

Richard Powers and Barbara Kingsolver. (Credit: Kevin Larimer)

The humming is so loud, in fact, that at one point late in the conversation, Powers remarks, “Let the record show that what sounds like nearby automobiles are actually hummingbirds.” 

Powers, whose list of awards covers just about every major honor available to a writer, including the National Book Award for The Echo Maker (FSG, 2006) and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, is the author of twelve novels, most recently The Overstory, which is, to repeat the word Kingsolver herself used in a front-page encomium in the New York Times Book Review upon its release by W. W. Norton in April, a “monumental” achievement. Through eight intersecting and overlapping narratives, Powers expertly assembles a supporting cast of characters who, through their individual stories, reveal the novel’s real protagonists: trees.

Kingsolver is the author of nine best-selling works of fiction, including the novels Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, The Poisonwood Bible, and Animal Dreams, as well as books of poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction. Her list of honors and awards is even longer than that of Powers and includes the Orange Prize for Fiction, the National Humanities Medal, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her novel The Poisonwood Bible was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2000, the same year Kingsolver established what is now known as the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

Her new novel, Unsheltered, is the tale of two families who live, in different centuries, in Vineland, New Jersey, a real town built as a utopian community in the 1860s. Kingsolver masterfully blends historical and fictional characters to frame twin narratives of people coping with a paradigm shift. The story of Willa Knox and her family, who inherit a ramshackle house whose disrepair is in step with the family’s declining fortunes, is juxtaposed with the narrative 150 years earlier of Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher who comes under attack for furthering the controversial theories of Charles Darwin, and his neighbor Mary Treat, a scientist who corresponds with Darwin. 

I invited Powers and Kingsolver to talk not only because they are both giants of contemporary American literature, but also because they’d never met, despite having much in common. Both pursued academic fields of study in the sciences (Kingsolver has a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, and Powers studied physics); they both moved overseas as children (the Powers family moved from Illinois to Bangkok for five years when Richard was eleven, and the Kingsolvers moved from Kentucky to what was then called Léopoldville, Congo, for a year when Barbara was seven); both live in southern Appalachia; and both have a deep, abiding, infectious fascination with and love for the natural world. 

What would happen if they were given an open forum with no expectations, no preconceived editorial angle, other than recording their conversation? What would they talk about? Before I even started recording, they were exchanging strategies for observation in service of the fictional narrative.


Barbara Kingsolver: I always feel that I’ve seen a thing after I’ve described it. My notebooks that I carry with me when I’m researching a place are not full of drawings—only if there’s a map or something to help me orient myself—but when I’ve written a thorough physical description of something, then I feel like I’ve seen it and I’ll remember it. I’ve never been one to take pictures when I travel, even when I was younger. I always feel that taking pictures interferes with my being somewhere—

Richard Powers: —with actually being present. You are either in the scene or you have framed the scene. They are two different cognitive processes.

BK: They are. And I suppose that when I’m writing, taking notes on something, I am also outside of it. I’m framing it, but words are the way that I take something in. 

RP: Although you are converting it into another kind of semantic unit. It’s not like saying, “Here’s my composition.” It’s just a stab at something. It’s an associative mnemonic, and it has these endless repercussions of association that ripple outward from it. 

BK: Right. There are a million ways that you could look at this thing or understand this thing, and you’ve mastered one of them. And that’s enough to hold on to it, I guess. 

RP: But what about the visual? Your characters are insanely palpable and present and integral and coherent. You must have a visual fix on them too. 

BK: When I’m writing I’m watching a movie in my head, but of course I’m also generating the movie in my head. Unlike some writers who claim that they just channel them or something. I think it’s Alice Walker, in the beginning of The Color Purple, who thanks all of these characters for showing up. I read that and thought, “Lucky you! I had to chisel mine out of cold, hard clay, and they weren’t that happy about it either.” What about you? Are your notebooks full of drawings?

RP: They are. I dearly love to draw and paint. I’m horrible at it. I can barely sign my name. When I do my compositing…when I bring my commonplace books into a kind of annotated outline, I need a visual prompt because maybe I can’t do quite as strongly what you’re able to do, which is to really summon up those visual cortex high-granularity, high-resolution images. So I’ll be on the lookout during composition for things—people, places, and things—in my consumption of visual images or in my travels that I can use as a stand-in, as a little bit of a bookmark. 

BK: I do use visual prompts as well. I have a giant bulletin board in my office—probably a five-by-five-foot bulletin board—on the wall next to my desk. And right now, in the middle is a map of Vineland. It’s my Unsheltered visual composite. Just having that bulletin board full of photographs helps anchor me to that place—especially the nineteenth-century place, which is harder. It’s harder to visualize a scene in a time you’ve never lived. Like when people sit down to dinner: What are they eating? Who made it? Who cooked it? Is it cold? Is it greasy? So many details you have to look up. It’s so much harder to visualize.

RP: But there was more joy for you than challenge in terms of living in that time period? You’ve done historical fiction before, but this may be the furthest away temporally. 

BK: The furthest back I’d gone before is the twentieth century. And it was harder for that reason.

RP: As you were talking I realized you can get strength from the fact that there is a world to go to that you can find and build out of documents. But there is always that qualified sense of am I doing this in an arch fashion? Am I overlooking some obvious anachronism? There’s a terror associated with trying to make it credible. 

BK: Absolutely. And you could discover something just as you’re finishing your last draft that makes everything moot. That’s the hardest thing about historical fiction: the terror of anachronisms. 

RP: On occasion I’ve made things far more difficult for myself than I ever should have. For instance, in my novel Gain, I try to tell the history of a single company over the course of two centuries. And the challenges of a fixed time period that is not your time period are multiplied because now you have to set the whole process in motion. That luxury of making yourself expert over twenty decades. 

BK: Yeah, that sounds miserable. [Laughter.]

RP: But also that sense of trying to grasp a large process, to cast a narration on something other than personal time, which was one of the great joys of working on The Overstory—finding narrative techniques that allow you the equivalent of time-lapse photography. 

BK: And to knock a reader out of a personal time scale. 

RP: Yes, which you do [in Unsheltered] by unity of place, in the crosscutting over 150 years. So that’s also an estrangement. And you have this lovely overlapping, almost like an Oulipo device, where the last words of each chapter become part of the next. 

BK: As novelists we’re looking for the universal that makes a reader understand that a human person is a human person regardless of where and when and how. 

RP: The lumping and splitting, as the taxonomists say. 

BK: Exactly, but if we’re in the empathy business, that’s the first challenge: to get a reader to just forget themselves and be there in another body, another time, another set of worries. 

RP: When you composed the book…you had to do a fair amount of top-down planning in order for all of the joints to work out. Were you to able to work consecutively, or were you doing a lot of discursive back and forth? 

BK: I always do a lot of jumping around. I do a lot of architecture. I do an enormous amount of planning. I write things on legal pads: sort of narrative-arc stuff, the architecture of the story. Then I’ll just write almost like a movie treatment—a few sentences about what happens in each chapter—and then I’ll break each of those out into a computer file, and that way if I start seeing a scene that’s happening at the end, I can just go to that chapter and write whatever I want to write. 

RP: I’m almost picturing an eighteenth-century proto novel: “Chapter 18, in which…” 

BK: Or A. A. Milne, “in which Pooh and Piglet discover…” Yeah, very much like that. So I have pretty much all of it plotted out and outlined, then I’ll try to do a continuous first draft, but I still do a lot of jumping around. 

RP: What you just said explains a bit of something that I just marvel at and that fills me with horrific envy at how well you do this. Very few people writing now are as absolutely, viscerally persuasive at the level of the scene and the character and the transactional vignettes while still in the service of grand architecture and a thematic preoccupation that manifests itself in all kinds of ingenious ways across the journey. And I just think, “How does she do that when it does not feel constructed?” And yet when you step back and you realize where you’ve been, to quote Horace, “the instruction and the delight,” or the top down and the bottom up, just mesh. You’re not hitting that in the first draft presumably. 

BK: That is sort of the manifold challenge of the process: to start with that architecture and then you put on the sheet rock and then you put on the paint and then you put in the furniture. And by the end of it hopefully none of the I-beams are visible, but they’re all there. 

RP: Absolutely, but there are things that pop up on page 370 of the nineteenth-century frame that are a kind of retrospective correspondence to things that are happening on page 20 of the twenty-first-century frame. You know, I think, “She sold her soul to the devil to get this!”

BK: Bless you for having the memory to notice. I just love those letters I get from people who say, “I read [your book] four times and I’m starting my fifth,” because you put so much more into a book than any one person is going to get out of it. But that’s okay because that’s the form, and it needs to be many things to many people. And anyway I’m not trying to please anybody really, am I? I’m trying to say this thing right. But I think what you’re referring to, the cross-referential nature of it, is the beauty of revision. I feel like once I’ve gotten a draft nailed down, then I can breathe. Then I can accept the advance. Now I know for sure I can do this thing. But the real art comes from revision. Because you can take that ending and pull it back through the whole thing, and the minute you know for sure where you’re going to end up, then you can start angling, holding up mirrors in different scenes that lead the reader in the right direction without giving away too much. 

RP: There’s a great villanelle by Theodore Roethke, “The Waking.” And the refrain is: “I learn by going where I have to go.” 

BK: Exactly. 

RP: But of course that means two completely inimical things. 

BK: And it is fascinating that every writer has a different process; many, I know, say, “Well I just start writing and I don’t have any idea where I’m going to end up, and it’s like I wander through the woods.” I think if I did that it’d be trash. 

RP: I think you can get away with that if your primary concern were simply to manifest some local aspect of consciousness. 

BK: You’re right.

RP: Some private thing, some psychological, small-scale thing, but you’re not doing that. You are working on at least three levels at once. You’ve got the psychological going, you have the social and the political going, and you have this larger…. I think of it as the three kinds of love: eros, philia, and agape. I think Kingsolver is the one who gets all three plates in the air every time with no sacrifice. 

BK: You’re really making me blush. [Laughter.] That’s what I love about your work. Like the first chapter of The Overstory, the chestnut chapter. I thought that was a perfect short story. It’s a story of a man, it’s the story of a family, it’s a story of the species, and the last paragraph just shoots you through the heart. And a human gets to feel for once—for most humans, once in a lifetime—what a tragedy this was for the chestnuts, that they lost their whole family, and it mattered. That was just beautiful.

RP: You’re also a plant person, and you have spent a great deal of your life finding ways of joining human stories to nonhuman stories, so you are the ideal reader for this, and my fairy godmother put the book into your hands. 

BK: Well, I was thrilled. There is no more enjoyable assignment than reviewing a book you love and no more miserable than reviewing a book you didn’t like. I haven’t reviewed that many books that I didn’t like, but the effort I put into it was far and away more than anything else. It’s so hard. It’s just not worth taking up column inches to say, “Don’t read this book.” It’s just wrong. 

RP: That’s never a very useful function of a review. I had a teacher who said, “Here’s one way you can approach this question of reviewing: Rather than superimpose your preexisting values on the thing, why not ask, to the extent that you can, ‘Who would I have to be to find this magnificent and moving?’ Now start looking at that list. Can I get there from here? Do I want to go there? Would I like myself if I were that person? What would it teach me to not be the person I am but to be that person?” It behooves the reviewer to move toward that world to decide what the values of that world are. But this act of becoming the right person for the other end of that contract—the act of imagining yourself into who you need to be to like the book or for the book to be useful to you—isn’t dissimilar to what you were talking about earlier with the act of character creation and narrative testing, where you’re basically saying, “Yes, I’m here.” I know where I would like this to go, but I do have to defer to some other temperament that is not my temperament. 

BK: I know where they all have to end up. So I get to cast this story and I put the people in it who I know will go the distance, who will do the things that I need them to do. Once in a while they may balk and say, “I don’t want to do that.” So then you have to light a fire under them, you back up, and that’s one of the many things I love about revision: Any weak parts, if their motivations aren’t clear you can back up all the way to the beginning, and you can begin building up motivation right from the start. And you get to connect things across time, across place. I would so much rather revise. I wish I could just pay someone to write my first draft, and then I would just revise. [Laughter.] 

RP: But there’s that sense when, okay, [the work] has somewhat set in concrete—I’m not doing major surgery at this point—but I realize, my goodness, “He’s not saying that; she’s saying that,” and this happens at the eleventh hour, ten minutes to midnight. I must have known at some level that I just headed in the wrong direction, or that if I use this metaphor instead of the metaphor I was using, then I have a correspondence that wasn’t there before. I must have been leaving bread crumbs for myself, and I’m now just getting to the point where I can detach enough from it to see the signals that I was sending.