Interview with Barbara Kingsolver, April 17, 1993

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:10 - Introduction

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Partial Transcript: This is an oral history interview with Barbara Kingsolver being conducted by Linda Beattie for the Kentucky Writers Oral History Project.

Segment Synopsis: Introductions. Kingsolver recalls her childhood in rural Kentucky, and that she longed for life in a big city like Lexington, Kentucky.

Keywords: Barbara Kingsolver; Linda Beattie; Women writers

Subjects: Beattie, Linda; Carlisle (Ky.); Childhood; Kingsolver, Barbara; Lexington (Ky.); Rural conditions; Women writers

GPS: Carlisle (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.315833, -84.031944
00:09:29 - Growing tomatoes

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Partial Transcript: Are we back on?

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver uses a poem to try to explain why she feels it necessary to start a garden everywhere she lives. She reads a few lines from her "Poem for a Dead Neighbor." The predictability of the natural world is comforting.

Keywords: Female writers; Gardening; Kentucky women writers; Poetry; Women writers

Subjects: American literature--Kentucky.; Gardening; Kentucky--In literature; Poetry; Women writers

00:14:21 - Realization that letters on the page held meaning

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Partial Transcript: Yeah, um, and my father reveres books, I would say.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver remembers the moment when she realized that words could have power over others' emotions, while listening to her father read poetry. She also recounts reading her first word, which was orange. When Kingsolver got to school, she did not feel that her gifts were nurtured.

Keywords: Reading; Robert Burns; Sena Jeter Naslund

Subjects: Burns, Robert, 1759-1796; Education; Naslund, Sena Jeter

00:20:53 - Great teachers

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Partial Transcript: None of--did any of the teachers appreciate?

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver had some great teachers, particularly English teachers. One teacher in elementary school would keep the students spellbound by stories. Kingsolver would make up a fictional life of her own during school.

Keywords: Childhood; Schools

Subjects: Education; Teachers; Teaching

00:24:41 - Time spent in Africa

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Partial Transcript: I did have a really colorful life because we, um, we went to live in Africa.

Segment Synopsis: At age 7, Kingsolver and her family moved to Africa.

Keywords: Congo; Zaire

Subjects: Childhood; Congo (Democratic Republic)

GPS: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa
Map Coordinates: -2.88, 23.656
00:27:15 - Friends

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Partial Transcript: Um, and you talk about lack of friends, or, or, socializing. Did you have friends in the area that you played with at all?

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver feels that she was a solitary child, and this desire to be alone makes her well-suited to be a writer.

Keywords: Female writers; Journals; Kentucky women writers; Siblings; Women writers

Subjects: American literature--Kentucky.; Brothers and sisters; Childhood; Diaries; Kentucky--In literature; Women writers

00:28:32 - Keeping a journal

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Partial Transcript: Did you start to write in elementary school on your own?

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver began keeping a journal at the age of 7, when she was traveling to Africa. She notes that her writing was not particularly good at this age, and that would-be writers should know that everyone can improve in their writing. Kingsolver writes to make her experience seem real to her.

Keywords: Female writers; Journals; Kentucky women writers; Women writers

Subjects: American literature--Kentucky.; Childhood; Diaries; Kentucky--In literature; Women writers; Writing

00:35:02 - Kingsolver's daughter learns to talk

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Partial Transcript: Right, and I have that, too, you know, and I'm real aware of it, but there's this other thing that's you're right that's perfectly neutral, that's just a commentator.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver describes how her daughter spent a lot of time narrating everything that was in her mind.

Keywords: Children; Daughters; Narration; Talking

Subjects: Families.; First person narrative

00:36:56 - Point of view in writing

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Partial Transcript: Yeah, it just, it just interests me there--that that's a factor.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver feels most comfortable when she is writing in the first person. When she writes in the third person, she feels that it is closer to her experience. For Kingsolver, the first person is a lie.

Keywords: "Animal Dreams"; Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Person; Perspective; Point of view; Women writers

Subjects: American literature--Kentucky.; Authors.; Kentucky--In literature; Point of view (Literature); Women writers; Writing

GPS: Kentucky
Map Coordinates: 37.5, -85
00:42:37 - Finding happiness in college

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Partial Transcript: And then when I went to college, well, well, I got a lot happier aftr I went to college, because, lo and behold, I found other people who liked to read books.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver describes the boredom of high school, and then how college opened up a lot of options in terms of entertainment and a social life.

Keywords: Colleges; Depauw University

Subjects: Depauw University; Education, Higher; Higher education

GPS: DePauw University, Indiana
Map Coordinates: 39.641389, -86.860278
00:47:08 - College experience and a regional accent

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Partial Transcript: It was, it was very happy experience.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver was shocked to be ridiculed for her regional accent while in college. She did not mean to change her accent, but a lifelong habit of being a chameleon led her to drop her accent. She feels that her sense of coming from Kentucky fell away along with her accent.

Keywords: Accents; Colleges; Social life

Subjects: Accents and accentuation; Depauw University; Education, Higher; Higher education

00:52:33 - Liberal education

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Partial Transcript: And that wasn't for me so I transferred out of the conservatory and, um, majored in biology.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver believes that ability follows from passion. She studied many different subjects in school, including natural sciences.

Keywords: Biology; Colleges

Subjects: Biology; Depauw University; Education, Higher; Higher education

00:54:09 - Writing during college

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Partial Transcript: Anyway, so, I didn't really, you know, have in mind, I, I had no intention of be--I didn't think I would ever be a writer.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver did not do much writing in college with the idea of becoming a writer, but because she had to write. There was one short story that she wrote, that she later edited for fifteen years. Kingsolver's college major was biology.

Keywords: Colleges; Female writers; Short stories; Women writers

Subjects: Authors.; Depauw University; Education, Higher; Higher education; Short stories; Women writers; Writing

01:01:54 - Influence of "Shiloh and Other Stories"

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Partial Transcript: In--it must have been 1981, I read "Shiloh and Other Stories."

Segment Synopsis: Reading Bobbie Ann Mason's work "Shiloh and Other Stories" reminded Kingsolver that her heritage is important, and the stories of her heritage are worth telling.

Keywords: Bobbie Ann Mason; Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Women writers

Subjects: American literature--Kentucky.; Kentucky--In literature; Mason, Bobbie Ann; Women writers

GPS: Carlisle (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.315833, -84.031944
01:07:09 - Publishing

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Partial Transcript: Um, um, what about your publishing career?

Segment Synopsis: In 1982, Kingsolver wrote in the middle of a journal, "I am a writer." She did not believe it. She was embarrassed to read her writing in public. She feels this sense of embarrassment has to do with living in an area where a third of the population lives below the poverty level. But she started sending out poetry and short stories to publishers. When these were published, she began to realize that she was a writer. After dropping out of her PhD program in biology, Kingsolver also did some scientific writing.

Keywords: Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Poverty; Women writers

Subjects: Authors.; Poverty; Publishers and publishing.; Women writers; Writing

01:22:25 - The environment

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Partial Transcript: Um, so, um, yeah, and that's because, as you said, um, you know, a while--a little while ago, usually if people have a bent towards the humanities, they shun the sciences and vice versa.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver explains how the environment is the responsibility of sciences. All people have to make changes.

Keywords: Environment; Science

Subjects: Adaptation (Biology); Environmental protection; Environmentalism

01:24:32 - Freelance writing

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Partial Transcript: Um, um, I began taking on other kinds of writing assignments, too.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver began to accept freelance projects. While pregnant, she wrote a novel.

Keywords: Female writers; Freelancing; Kentucky women writers; Women writers

Subjects: Authors.; Self-employed; Women writers; Writing

01:34:37 - Women holding the strike line

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Partial Transcript: I can't remember if I was going to say--

Segment Synopsis: Before writing "The Bean Trees," Kingsolver was interviewing women who were holding their husbands' strike line. When Kingsolver wrote "The Bean Trees" she didn't think that it would be published. After "The Bean Trees," Kingsolver went back to the story about the women strikers, and it was published.

Keywords: "The Bean Trees"; Arizona Copper Mine Strike; Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Novelists; Women writers

Subjects: Copper miners--Labor unions; Novelists; Strikes and lockouts; Women writers

01:42:09 - Sending work to an agent

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Partial Transcript: But, um, three or four years later, after I had written this novel in, in, in the night, um, in my insomniac delirium of pregnancy...

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver's agent explained how she should assess value on her fiction work. Kingsolver and Beattie discuss how women's work is undervalued, to the extent that the work that women do at home is not considered to be work at all. But with a publisher's advance, she felt confident that she could call herself a novelist. The Kingsolvers divided child-caring responsibilities.

Keywords: Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Literary agents; Women writers

Subjects: Authors.; Child rearing; Families.; Gender issues; Literary agents; Sex role; Women writers; Writing

01:52:11 - Writing a second novel

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Partial Transcript: So, anyway with that check from "The Bean Trees," I, um, I bankrolled that, and used the time to fi--to write--to finish the copper strike book, "Holding the Line."

Segment Synopsis: The difference between writing a first novel and writing the second, is knowing that someone is going to read the second book. Kingsolver is most proud of this book, because the story itself is true. Kingsolver discusses the fact that fiction reaches more readers than non-fiction. The value of fiction is more than entertainment.

Keywords: Female writers; Fiction; Kentucky woman writers; Women writers

Subjects: Authors.; Fiction; Women writers; Writing

02:08:08 - "Animal Dreams"

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Partial Transcript: Um, the example you just gave in terms of the, uh, pumice--

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver states the question that led her to write "Animal Dreams": why is it that some people are led to activism, while others are absolutely the opposite. It is important to help audiences relate to characters.

Keywords: Activists; Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Margaret Atwood; Optimism; Women writers

Subjects: Atwood, Margaret, 1939-; Optimism; Women writers

02:21:38 - A second creative writing class

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Partial Transcript: Um, one other, um--there was, um--I, I really like the, the author Francine Prose.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver thinks the main way to become a writer is to write and to read. The author Francine Prose taught a semester at the University of Arizona, and Kingsolver was able to attend the class.

Keywords: Female writers; Francine Prose; Kentucky women writers; Women writers

Subjects: Prose, Francine, 1947-; Women writers

02:29:02 - Teaching creative writing

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Partial Transcript: How do you think it should be taught, creative writing?

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver thinks that creative writing should be taught sparingly and kindly. Criticism should be done without trying to harm the other person. The writer should be willing to edit, confident that more words will come. A writer needs to read widely, and to have a broad knowledge of many topics, in order to write characters that have varied experiences.

Keywords: Creative writing; Female writers; Homer; Kentucky women writers; Women writers

Subjects: Creative writing; Homer; Women writers

02:43:05 - Kingsolver realizes that she is a novelist

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Partial Transcript: Um, you mentioned earlier, when you wrote poetry, you're still uncomfortable with the title, "poet."

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver identifies herself as a novelist. Beattie and Kingsolver discuss the evolution of the story in modern literature.

Keywords: Female writers; Kentucky woman writers; Storytellers; Women writers

Subjects: Storytellers; Women writers

02:57:13 - Creativity

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Partial Transcript: Um, I wanted to ask you what you think the nature of creativity may be.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver believes that creativity seeks the line between discipline and relaxation. Anyone can be creative given lack of interference. People become less creative as they go through school. Allowing the mind to connect things that have never been connected in real life.

Keywords: Creativity; Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Women writers

Subjects: Creative ability; Women writers

03:04:17 - Business as part of a writer's job

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Partial Transcript: There's this other part of my job as a writer now, I mean I never dreamed that this would become part of my job, but, I have to spend a couple days a week just taking care of business.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver discusses the business end of the writer's job that she did not expect to experience. She does not have time to answer all of her mail personally.

Keywords: Business; Female writers; Finances; Kentucky women writers; Robert Redford; Women writers

Subjects: Redford, Robert; Women writers

03:08:52 - Overcoming shyness

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Partial Transcript: I'm destined to spend the second half of my life overcompensating for the first where shyness is concerned.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver writes when her daughter is at school only, and not on weekends. She writes on a computer. Kingsolver is a hard worker, and is a full-time writer. A minority of her friends are other writers.

Keywords: Editors; Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Women writers

Subjects: Authors.; Editors; Women writers; Writing

03:16:21 - "Pigs in Heaven"

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Partial Transcript: Um, the book we haven't talked about is "Pigs in Heaven."

Segment Synopsis: The novel "Pigs in Heaven" addresses the question of individual rights vs. community rights.

Keywords: Community rights; Female writers; Individual rights; Kentucky women writers; Sequels; Women writers

Subjects: Women writers

GPS: New York Times book review of "Pigs in Heaven"
Map Coordinates: http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/18/specials/kingsolver-pigs1.html
03:22:56 - Writing about conflict

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Partial Transcript: And the other thing, I'm a person who avoids conflict at any cost.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver discusses her choice to write about conflict in the book "Pigs in Heaven."

Keywords: Conflict of interests; Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Women writers

Subjects: Conflict of interests; Women writers

03:26:18 - Humor in adversity

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Partial Transcript: Um, uh, you t, you talked about being such an optimist, however so many of your characters, they're not pessimistic, but they at least have a sort of a sardonic sense of humor.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver discusses the fact that her characters do not have a choice, but are optimists.

Keywords: Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Optimism; Women writers

Subjects: Optimism; Women writers

03:28:47 - Book tour

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Partial Transcript: What, uh, projects are you currently working on, or what do you have planned?

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver discusses the fact that authors have to be performers. After the book is released, there are many tours, and also a sense of loss on the part of the author.

Keywords: Book tours; Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Women writers

Subjects: Authors.; Women writers

03:32:39 - Rock Bottom Remainders

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Partial Transcript: Um, and I'm playing--I'm going on tour with the Rock Bottom Remainders.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver discusses the musical group, The Rock Bottom Remainders, a group of musicians who are writers.

Keywords: Musicians; Writers

Subjects: Authors.; Bands (Music); Music--Performance.; Musical groups.; Musical performance; Rock Bottom Remainders (Musical group); Women writers

03:38:48 - Influential writers

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Partial Transcript: You've, you've referred to some writers that you admire.

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver mentions the women writers who showed that the traditional themes for novels, which are all male-centered and all involving conflict, are not the only permitted themes.

Keywords: Doris Lessing; Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Margaret Atwood; Ursula LeGuin; Women writers

Subjects: Atwood, Margaret, 1939-; Le Guin, Ursula K., 1929-; Lessing, Doris, 1919-2013; Women writers

03:42:06 - Setting

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Partial Transcript: What about sense of place in your writing?

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver can only set a book in a place where she has internalized the sound of people's regional speech.

Keywords: Biologists; Female writers; Kentucky women writers; Women writers

Subjects: American literature--Kentucky.; Biologists; Kentucky--In literature; Place attachment; Women writers

GPS: Tucson (Ariz.)
Map Coordinates: 32.221667, -110.926389
03:50:20 - Kentucky writers

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Partial Transcript: Um, are there Kentucky writers whom you particularly admire?

Segment Synopsis: Kingsolver says that coming from a place that is looked down on, and how they deal with that, influences writers.

Keywords: Female writers; Fenton Johnson; George Ella Lyon; Kentucky women writers; Wendell Berry; Women writers

Subjects: American literature--Kentucky.; Berry, Wendell, 1934-; Johnson, Fenton; Kentucky--In literature; Lyon, George Ella, 1949-; Women writers