Further enriching the legacy set forth by such writers as Elizabeth Kostova, James Patterson and Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver will be the keynote speaker at the Literacy Council of Buncombe County’s Authors for Literacy Dinner & Silent Auction on Thursday, Nov. 29, at the Crowne Plaza Resort Expo Center.
Before her visit, Xpress corresponded with Kingsolver about her new novel, Unsheltered, adapting her work for the screen and her enduring love of Asheville.
Mountain Xpress: What’s been your history with Asheville since coming here to do research for The Lacuna in the mid-to-late 2000s?
Barbara Kingsolver: One of my daughters lived there for years, so we visited regularly and considered it an extension of our family geography. She and her husband have since moved to our town in Virginia, but my family still thinks of Asheville as our city.
What do you enjoy doing while you’re here?
I love life on our farm, but now and again I need an infusion of the things a city offers, and Asheville has lots to love: good restaurants for every mood. … Because I’m a weaver and knitter, I appreciate the excellent yarn stores, and another resource most Ashevilleans may not know about — Echoview Fiber Mill in nearby Weaverville, where I take our farm’s wool to be spun into yarn. (We raise sheep.) The list of favorite shopping spots is long, and at the top of it is my best-beloved indie bookstore, Malaprop’s.
Since writing The Lacuna, what observations about the city’s past and present have stuck with you?
In my research, I got to know the Asheville of 70 years ago, when it was a charming resort town, but also very much a working-class city. It’s interesting to watch Asheville come into a new century with these two identities — established residents and newcomers — still somewhat at odds. I love that I can walk around some neighborhoods and see almost exactly the same Asheville my historical characters would have known. I also love the freshness of the city’s commercial heart. And sometimes, when I have to push my way through a jammed street or hear about friends getting priced out of their own neighborhoods, I find myself joining the tribe of grumblers wishing for the good old days. But this permanent struggle to make old and new into one city might just be part of what makes Asheville the place it is. Economically, culturally, sociologically, it’s an interesting project.
How have your writing and research processes evolved over your career?
My research and writing processes have been pretty stable over a 30-year career: I always begin with a big question, plot out the architecture of the story, fill in the characters I need and then spend years working to make every sentence glow in the dark. With each new book, I try to get my arms around something bigger than ever before so I’ll stay awake at the wheel and keep growing as a writer. … I’ve moved happily from interlibrary loan to internet, at least for the preliminary stages. But what I love best is getting my hands into actual archives, reading letters and manuscripts, walking new streets, getting my feet onto the ground and all my senses into the place I’m writing about. To make a setting come alive on the page, direct experience is crucial. That will never change.
How did you decide to set the historical portion of Unsheltered in 1871?
This is a novel about how people cope with what feels like the end of the world as we know it. Right now, our familiar shelter seems to be failing us at every level — economic, political, environmental. I wanted to contrast this with an earlier moment of existential crisis. I chose the 1870s, when the U.S. had just come through a civil war with devastating losses, leaving it as polarized as we are now, along similar lines. And then along came two books by Charles Darwin that called into question the very idea of human sovereignty. People must have felt the way we do now — basically, that the sky was falling.
Each timeline in Unsheltered features journalists. What similarities and differences about that profession then and now stood out to you most in your research?
I didn’t really think about this until recently, but in The Lacuna, journalists were some of the bad guys, contributing to a climate of hysteria by trading in hearsay and incendiary scandal. It was a truly awful part of the McCarthy era. People’s reputations were ruined by irresponsible, politically motivated smear campaigns in the mainstream media. In Unsheltered, by contrast, journalists are some of the story’s heroes. In the five years I was writing the novel, I watched and worried a lot about the widespread assault on truth-telling, so that’s reflected in the plot. And this wasn’t planned, but I have to say that this time around on the book tour, the journalists who interview me have tended to be in my corner.
Multiple generations of adults living under the same roof have become more common in recent years. What attracted you to explore those specific social and economic dynamics in this novel?
Literary fiction is symbolic — everything stands for something. So a family is a microcosm of society, and all the problems and breakdowns you want to explore have to go into the setup of plot and character. It wasn’t hard to create a contemporary family dealing with all kinds of systems failures: a middle-aged journalist working for a magazine that folds; a tenured professor whose college has closed; kids with college degrees, big debts and no jobs; an elderly, sick parent with lousy medical coverage. Nearly every family I know is dealing with one of these things or another. Put them all under one roof, which happens to be leaking, and that’s a novel. Then all I had to do was make it a fun read. No small trick, but that’s my job.
What are the latest updates on adapting The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer for the screen?
Prodigal Summer onscreen is still alive but off in the distance. The Poisonwood Bible adaptation is more immediate — writing that script will become my full-time job as soon as my current book tour ends. I’m not at liberty to reveal many details except that I’m thrilled to be working with spectacular people at every level — production, direction, cast. And that it won’t be a feature film. Expect a story told onscreen in more hours — lots more than two.
How often do you accept speaking invitations, and what about the work of the Literacy Council made you want to keynote its event?
I figured out long ago that I can serve the world best by devoting myself to my writing, my family and my community. That means I do no public speaking at all, outside the month or so of travel that my publisher asks of me each time I release a new book. The Literacy Council event fit perfectly into my book tour schedule and gives me a chance to connect with Malaprop’s and my favorite city. The work of the council is very compelling. I expect I’ll talk about the value of literature and reading to cultivate empathy for people who are different from ourselves. At the moment, it’s hard to see what could be more important.
WHAT: The Literacy Council of Buncombe County’s Literacy Dinner & Silent Auction
WHERE: Crowne Plaza Resort Expo Center, litcouncil.com
WHEN: Thursday, Nov. 29, 6 p.m. $95