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Barbara Kingsolver Tells Ben Williams about Her Life as a Writer, Hillbilly, Literary Muso and Zakes Mda Fan

Barbara Kingsolver SA Book Tour

Most people will be able to tell you that Barbara Kingsolver is an acclaimed novelist from the United States of America. But did you know that she’s a self-proclaimed hillbilly from Appalachia in rural Kentucky? Or that she performed in Stephen King’s literary rock band, the Rock Bottom Remainders? (Her place in the band was later usurped by Mitch Albom.)

Sunday Times books editor Ben Williams elicited all this and more from the author during their conversation earlier this month at Exclusive Books in Rosebank.

The Poisonwood BibleFlight BehaviourThe Lacuna

The event took place three days after the passing of André Brink and Williams asked if Kingsolver had ever read his work, or any other local authors. “You are rich in writers in this country,” Kingsolver said. “André Brink was great and Nadine Gordimer was a great inspiration to me, reminding me what we’re supposed to be doing on earth.” Kingsolver also revealed that she had read Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda on the plane on her way to South Africa and loved it. “It’s a different kind of South African literature. I thought it was South African magical realism!”

Barbara Kingsolver SA Book TourWilliams recalled a quote by Brink on his first visit to France: “I was born on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, in the early spring of 1960.” That was the “park bench moment” when Brink realised he wanted to write, and Williams asked Kingsolver if she had experienced a similar epiphany. So her story began.

Kingsolver was raised in rural Kentucky, the poorest and most economically backward part of America, as she describes it. She explained that where she came from aspiring to be a writer was like declaring your wish to be Tinkerbell – it was inconceivable. When she made her way to university and told people where she came from they were surprised that she wore shoes. “I was ashamed, I didn’t realise how shameful my life was,” she said.

Barbara Kingsolver in JohannesburgWhen Kingsolver reached her 20s she bought a cheap one-way ticket to Europe and spent her days doing odd jobs to keep the pot boiling and writing terrible short stories. “I was trying to be fancy and sophisticated,” she said of her early writing attempts. Then in the 1970s she moved to Tucson in Arizona where she cheated her way into a writing workshop. To her surprise she encountered a writer who was also from Kentucky: Bobbie Ann Mason. This was Kingsolver’s “park bench moment”. “She was writing about Kentucky and she wasn’t ashamed!”

Williams asked Kingsolver about the issues and activism in her novels Flight Behaviour, The Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible. “I think about things that scare the bejesus out of me that no one’s talking about,” she said, for example climate change in Flight Behaviour and The Poisonwood Bible. Even though she writes socially engaged fiction she said that the writer shouldn’t tell the reader what to feell that good fiction shows you what’s going on and you decide what to feel.

The integration between society and ecology is part of who Kingsolver is as a writer. Her rural roots have her firmly grounded in the belief that man and beast are interconnected: “I never thought of the world as anything but a huge collection of species of which I am only one.” For this reason, Kingsolver said that she loves Johannesburg, in particular the call of the Hadeda and the go-away-bird, also known as a lourie or kwêvoël.

Barbara Kingsolver SA Book TourIn Flight Plan Kingsolver writes about the monarch butterfly, which US President Barack Obama recently swore to protect. “I knew for several years I wanted to write about climate change,” she said. She believes that the divides between faith and science, rich and poor, rural and urban keep us from talking to each other and finding a solution to climate change. “These failures of compassion and communication keep us from doing something while we’re in a spiral,” she said. “What’s keeping us from talking to each other?” This is how you start a novel, she explained. “You create a mess and put people in it.”

Kingsolver spoke about the magical nature of books: “Of all the different things you can do, which one asks you politely to go inside the body and mind of another person?” This experience of empathy makes us the best humans that we can be.

At the end of the formal discussion avid Kingsolver readers snaked around the coffee counter to have their books signed. Mr Kingsolver was plied with wine and conversation while his wife did what she does best – write.

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Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer) and Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) live tweeted from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:



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Photographs courtesy of Talita van Graan


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