A Talk in the Woods: Barbara Kingsolver and Richard Powers

Kevin Larimer

BK: What do you do? 

RP: Cry and be grateful I guess, when you manage to find something that you can make much more resonant through small changes. And sometimes they’re cosmetic and sometimes they’re subterranean, but so much has to do, again, with that humility of backing off from your original plan and being open to your actions as well. There’s a genome that drives the expression, but you also have an environment that has to allow all kinds of things to express. 

BK: That’s a book title: Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Grace Paley. But when I sign a contract I’m way ahead of where they think I am. That’s a secret. [Laughter.] So I know that I won’t be stressed by a deadline. There’s just no reason to do that to myself or to anybody else. I want to be sure this is exactly the book that I want it to be before I let go of it. So I don’t often have these great reckonings at the eleventh hour. I believe if I did I would just call my editor and say, “Are you sitting down? Barbara is going to miss her first deadline.” I couldn’t let go of a book if I felt it was not—I don’t want to say perfect; it’s never perfect—but exactly what I want it to be. Although I am grateful for deadlines because I reach a point of diminishing returns. I know that during the last three drafts of this thing I probably changed eighty words throughout, and they were all changed back from the last draft. Now I’m just fiddling. Then I’m glad I have to turn it in because I’m such a perfectionist. I would just keep messing.

RP: You just reminded me of George Sand talking about the way Chopin would write a short piece. She said he would start out, and it would be beautiful, it would be lovely. And then there would follow this incredible stretch of torture and agony. Everything came apart. It became something else. He hated it. He would throw it all away, and eventually he’d work his way back to what he had at the beginning. 

BK: Well, I don’t start with perfection, unlike Chopin. I start with a mess. I want to ask you how much architecture do you do at the beginning? 

RP: I’ll honestly say that when I started out as a wee boy—my first book was published in 1985, so just a couple years before your first book—I was definitely a top-down guy. I mean my tastes were all for the avant-garde. They were all for structured literature. They were all for constrained literature. I really loved the literature of the mind. And I remain somewhat unapologetic about that now, although I’ve lived most of my life in a culture and at a time where that’s not going to speak to a lot of people. And my journey has been toward the bottom up and has, over the course of thirty-five years and twelve novels, been toward the joys of the organic and the affective and the emotional and the unstructured. So I still think there’s something in me that wants to work on large-scale architecture. But I think I might be much more open to the idea of surprising myself along the way and being open to more substantial course correction. But again, if you’re looking for this triple-layer cake—if you want the psychological and the social and the political to line up, if you want your eros and philia and agape all to be pulling or adding to the sense of coherence for the work—you can’t be above structuring it. It has to be there. Despite this present-day obsession with “Don’t show anything that looks like architecture.” 

BK: I don’t think it has to be either/or. As long as you’re good at disguise. 

RP: And you’re the best. That’s why I love your stuff. There was a well-known Shakespearean critic who said, “It’s amazing, in the Elizabethan audience, how much poetry they would stomach on the way to blood and thunder.” I would say that slightly differently about a Kingsolver novel. How much incredibly deep education we get about the living world on our way toward understanding more about ourselves. So the seduction is there. The conventional pleasures of a character-driven novel, but superimposed on that is this whole superstructure of meaning that goes beyond the individuals and beyond the private transactions. 

BK: Well, if you don’t start with that, it’s not going to be there. I haven’t taught writing very much—it’s not my gift—but when I did, a question I would often ask is, “What does this mean?” And if the answer is you don’t know, then how the hell do you think I’m going to know? It can’t be random. You can’t just leave it to the reader to guess what your story is about, even though that has been much in fashion for most of our lives. When I finish writing like that I feel like I’ve consumed empty calories. I just feel like I need to go work out or something. And yet of course I understand that people read novels because they want to enter another life—the life of another human, not a tree, not a Venus flytrap—but they can be there. 

RP: You have a magnificent protagonist who feels passionate toward carnivorous plants in the way that the ordinary person can only feel passionate toward other people. So in a sense you finesse this difficulty of opening up a nonhuman to the human, via the human. 

BK: Exactly, as you did with people who love trees. And that’s our contract. I know I’m an odd bird, but some of the passages in fiction that I love best are those that don’t have any people. And they’re still clear in my mind. The first one I think I ever read was in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. I loved Steinbeck when I was younger, when I was first sort of teaching myself to write, because there’s just so much instruction there. And in Cannery Row there is a complete chapter told from the point of view of a groundhog. And it just blew out the windows when I read that. I thought, “I could do this? I could do this in a novel?” My goal in life was to do “the groundhog,” as I called it to myself. But it’s a huge risk. I think the first time I ever really tried to pull it off is at the beginning and the end of Prodigal Summer

RP: The coyote.

BK: You are experiencing the world through the eyes and mostly the nose of a coyote, and that’s really where I want to take people—out of their humanness. It is the ultimate act of empathy. If you can imagine yourself in some other life that’s not human.

RP: In Unsheltered you tackle head-on the direct fear of what science might be telling us about our importance or place in the world, or the way that we have to think about our relationship to the nonhuman. And I hit this line where Thatcher Greenwood is talking to Mary Treat. He says to Mary: “You and I are not like other people. We perceive infinite nature as a fascination, not as a threat to our sovereignty, but if that sense of unity in all life is not already lodged in a person’s psyche I’m not certain it can ever be taught.” I read that first half and I just thought, “It has taken me some years to get around to this, but that’s the club I want to belong to.” And you’ve been there for a while. When he says that if you’re not born with that sense of unity maybe you can’t learn it, I think your book is a spectacular example of the opposite, both in its narrative and in your use of that narrative to move people who are somewhere on that spectrum closer to this idea that what we can take away from this astonishing revolution that the people in your nineteenth century are just feeling the forward edge of. And what we in our twenty-first century are just feeling a very late edge of: If we can’t take away from the fact that this is a huge augmentation and enhancement of the reverence of life and the urgency of life—if instead it feels like a diminishment to us—we’re doing something wrong. 

BK: And we’re sunk. But this understanding that natural law applies to us as well—we don’t get to rewrite it. We can try our best, but it wins. Physics—I don’t use the word trumps anymore; it used to be a good word—but physics takes all. 

RP: But what you’ve done is juxtapose the story where that initial dramatic dislodging of anthropocentrism—you’re juxtaposing that story, that trauma, with the trauma of the present, which is a dislodging of the same kind of what George Lakoff has called Western paternalism: men above women, white above black, Americans above all other nationalities, and humans above all other creatures of the earth. The rejection of Darwin because we’re no longer the center is also the kind of rejection that’s being promulgated by our political leaders right now because we can’t think of ourselves as centrist or as urgent or as essential as we perhaps once were. 

BK: Right. Nationalism and patriotism and patriarchy and all of these things are sort of crass attempts to hold on to the same thing that Thatcher and Mary’s compatriots were trying to hold on to: supremacy in the face of a complete failure of the paradigm. Well, it’s really hard to understand a paradigm shift. It’s impossible, by definition. 

RP: Not when you’re in the middle of it. 

BK: So that’s why I really wanted to write about paradigm shift, and I thought the only way to do it would be to compare this moment with some equivalent moment in history when people were really struggling with a paradigm shift that just oriented them completely. And I’ve always wanted to write about Darwin. I thought he would be a character in this novel…but it just wasn’t going to work because I had this device of the house and the people, then and now, living in the same house. You think it’s the same house. And of course it’s falling down. When you start with all of this structure it seems like, oh, that’s going to be so obvious: a falling-down house as a metaphor for a crumbling paradigm, but you just keep at it until the house is the place. You know, you’re talking to the contractor and you’re in the house and you’re feeling like, I got to fix this house. 

RP: In the act of reifying that place in your own imagination and seeing every timber in the floor plan and what rooms have caved in and where they have retreated to, you’re also animating that house in an almost pantheistic way for the characters in the story. I mean it is no longer a placeholder in your intellectual scheme about the intersecting themes of Unsheltered. It actually has a visceral urgency to your protagonist. And as a result that urgency is transferred to the reader.

BK: I’m just thinking about sentences when I’m writing. I mean, once I’ve done all of this planning, then, well, then the fun begins. And just thinking about the internal alliteration. I read sentences aloud as I write them. That’s where 90 percent of the work is—and the fun. What moves me utterly in The Overstory, when I understand I’m in the company of greatness, is when I feel like I’m being asked to be a larger person, a larger brain, than I was when I started. And I think we reach for wisdom, don’t we?

RP: We also write for wisdom; we sneak our way toward it I think. 

BK: I always start with questions that I can’t answer. Otherwise you get bored halfway through if you already know the answers. If you’re asking what seem to be unanswerable questions, then you have to keep showing up. It is so interesting to me that people, in what they’re calling the attention economy, and people are chronically short of time, or so they say—as if people weren’t short of time when they had to dig up their own food or shoot it or whatever, it’s a sort of artificial urgency—but people don’t buy and read poetry. I mean masses of people don’t read poetry; they don’t read short stories. I know if I went to my publisher, which I would love to do, if I went to my publisher and said my next book is going to be poems or short stories, I think they would just smile, leave the room, and then keel over. They wouldn’t be happy. Why not? If people don’t have much time, why do they prefer novels?

RP: We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. And yet to have a keyhole in a door that’s on our scale to get into this larger place. And you almost need the real estate of the novel to bridge that, from little to big and back again. That’s one possibility. This isn’t you, although you certainly channel this woman at various places in your career: “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more.” That’s Willa Cather in My Antonia. “Perhaps we feel like that when we die, and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” I’m not saying the novel is a sure way to get that. It just allows that strange mismatch of scale. It also allows that strange distortion of time. You know, Peter Brooks says we have a curious relationship to the logic of time in a novel: We read in anticipation of retrospect, and we know that page 400 is going to change page 20 forever. And we love the fact that page 20 is disappearing under our feet as we move forward to this ending that has already been written. It reverses our relationship to the fixity of future and past. We want that immersion. We want to feel like we’ve gone into a world, and when we turn that last page it’s hard for us to come back from that world into this world.

BK: Half of it is about entering into the other world, and the other half is self-forgetting. I think self-forgetting is really important and really valuable, and in times past it was for most people a function of religion, spirituality, culture, music.... Participatory music was a really standard way that ordinary people all the time would just stop being themselves and become part of the human chorus—self-forgetting—and so the novel gives you the space to leave yourself and go be someone else and really just go inside another human brain and see through other eyes and hear through other ears. It’s something we must crave because the novel as a form has remained pretty consistent for hundreds of years.  

RP: Reading as a confirmation or as a provocation. Reading as telling us what we already knew. So we come to the final page having journeyed not all that far from where we went into it, or having been taken out of ourselves into other selves in other places and other hierarchies. I do believe that a book can trouble and delight us at the same time.

BK: And should, ideally.

RP: I wonder—though it’s a horrible thing to ask, because it’s only a deep commitment to commodity culture that would make any interviewer ask, “So what are you working on now?”

BK: I know. And don’t you love when you’re on book tour, and in the signing line people ask, “What are you working on?” And you want to say, “Signing your book! That’s what I’m writing: my name.” [Laughter.] 

RP: I’ve always been restless. Every book has seemed to run its course and present new questions that take me to some new place and make me want to commit for another three or four years to some new place, to become knowledgeable about some new domain. But this time I thought, “Now wait a minute—I want to stay here. I like these woods.” We’ll see.

BK: Interesting. So you don’t have any idea what your next novel might be? Do you think you’re going to stay in the woods? 

RP: I don’t think the apple is going to fall too far from the tree. 

BK: That is wonderful news. It is interesting though, as you say, our vocation is to love and to leave...but your readers and the media want to keep you where you were. We did a book about local food, and I still get five invitations a week to go talk about local food economies. I say no to all of them, but then it’s like you’re betraying a sacred trust. But it’s our joy—and an urgent requirement of our vocation—to move on, to not get so associated with the subject matter of one book that we can never write another. And it’s really difficult in the modern era to set those boundaries. You’re going to be the go-to forestry guy now.

RP: There are worse fates. 


Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.