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Love in a Warming Climate: Bron Sibree Interviews Barbara Kingsolver

By Bron Sibree for The Times

Bron Sibree talks to Barbara Kingsolver about the conversations we avoid

If there’s more than a hint of prescience in her new novel, Flight Behaviour, Barbara Kingsolver is not about to trumpet the fact. But there’s no denying that she was horrified to see the final scene of Flight Behaviour “suddenly being played out in the news all over the place” in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

“That kind of made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end,” says Kingsolver. “But nobody wants to be right about this. This storm was like a gut punch to this country. But it is interesting to me that people are now eager to talk about climate change in a way they perhaps weren’t [before].”

Kingsolver was a biologist long before she became a household word for such works as The Poisonwood Bible – a novel that won the Exclusive Books Boeke Prize, was short-listed for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award – and most recently, her 2010 Orange Prize-winning bestselling novel The Lacuna.

So she is well versed in the science of climate change. She is famous too, for constructing her novels around a big question, and says: “In this case, it had bothered me for a long time that we have this difficulty in America speaking about climate change. It seems so strange that a whole lot of people can look at the same set of facts and come away believing different things. Why is that? How does that work and where does that leave us?”

Indeed, she is adamant that Flight Behaviour, which has been hailed variously as a love story, an environmental novel and a novel about a culture war, “is not so much about climate change as it is about the non-conversation around climate change”. Set in a small rural Appalachian community, not too dissimilar to that in which Kingsolver and her family now live in Virginia, the novel opens with a young, deeply unhappy mother climbing the mountains to an adulterous assignation. But instead of fleeing her unhappy marriage, Dellarobia Turnbow is stopped in her tracks by a forest of blazing orange light.

Dellarobia’s vision is, of course, a freak biological accident; a vast flock of monarch butterflies whose annual migration pattern has been seriously disrupted. Their arrival in the Appalachians instead of central Mexico, their usual destination, is seen by locals as a kind of miracle, but is viewed by the scientists who arrive soon after as a catastrophe. It’s this divide that Kingsolver knows only too well, and is careful not to take sides in her canny exploration of it. If anything, she concedes, her sympathy lies with her rural, Bible-belt characters.

“It’s a sector of American culture that is widely misunderstood, underestimated and generally ridiculed. And it also happens to be my home. It’s where I was raised, so it’s my culture, my people. So I feel a lot of sympathy for the circumstances of people who can hardly even afford to keep their electricity on from month to month, so are really in no position to be cutting back or conserving.”

Kingsolver grew up in an impoverished town in rural Kentucky where her physician father was often paid with vegetables. She has written movingly about going to school in hand-me-down clothes, and says: “I was the only person in my high school graduate class who went to college. The only one, and I’ve known lots of people like Dellarobia who had big plans that got sidelined by a high school pregnancy.”

Integral to this rural mountain culture too, she explains, is the notion of modesty. “Especially for women. So you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, and the notion that you could distinguish yourself by becoming a novelist would be absurd and boastful. So it was very hard for me to come out of the closet as a writer.”

It’s also given her an enduring distaste for the limelight, which has shone on Kingsolver with increasing intensity since she came out as a writer with The Bean Trees in 1988. Every one of her books since her second novel and sixth book, Pigs in Heaven (1993), has been a New York Times bestseller. She has accumulated numerous accolades and awards including the 2011 Dayton Peace Prize for a body of work that includes seven novels, three non-fiction books, two collections of essays, short fiction and poetry.

“I’ve never craved attention, so that’s difficult. But I’m very grateful for the loyalty of my readers who follow me wherever I take them. It’s an audacious act to put a story into the world that invites the reader to live the life of someone else. That’s life changing. So I appreciate that they’re willing to do that, and I’m respectful of the power of that.”

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