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About the Author
Barbara Kingsolver is the author of nine bestselling works of fiction, including the novels, Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, The Poisonwood Bible, Animal Dreams, and The Bean Trees, as well as books of poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction. Her work of narrative nonfiction is the enormously influential bestseller Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Kingsolver’s work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has earned literary awards and a devoted readership at home and abroad. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal, our country’s highest honor for service through the arts, as well as the prestigious Dayton Literary Peace Prize for her body of work. She lives with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia.
Date of Birth:April 8, 1955
Place of Birth:Annapolis, Maryland
Education:B.A., DePauw University, 1977; M.S., University of Arizona, 1981
Read an Excerpt
And God said unto them,
Be fruiful, and multiply, and replenish the earth,
and subdue it: and have dominion
over the fish of the sea, and over the foul of the air,
and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
Sanderling Island, Georgia
Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.
First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.
Away down below now, single file on the path, comes a woman with four girls in tow all of them in shirtwaist dresses. Seen from above this way they are pale, doomed blossoms, bound to appeal to your sympathies. Be careful. Later on you'll have to decide what sympathy they deserve. The mother especially--watch how she leads them on, pale-eyed, deliberate. Her dark hair is tied in a ragged lace handkerchief, and her curved jawbone is lit with large, false-pearl earrings, as if these headlamps from another world might show the way. The daughters march behind her, four girls compressed in bodies as tight as bowstrings, each one tensed to fire off a woman's heart on a different path to glory or damnation. Even now they resist affinity like cats in a bag: two blondes--the one short and fierce, the other tall and imperious--flanked by matched brunettes like bookends, the forward twin leading hungrily while the rear one sweeps the ground in a rhythmic limp. But gamely enough they climb together over logs of rank decay that have fallen across the path. The mother waves a graceful hand in front of her as she leads the way, parting curtain after curtain of spiders-webs. She appears to be conducting a symphony. Behind them the curtain closes. The spiders return to their killing ways.
At the stream bank she sets out their drear picnic, which is only dense, crumbling bread daubed with crushed peanuts and slices of bitter plantain. After months of modest hunger the children now forget to complain about food. Silently they swallow, shake off the crumbs, and drift downstream for a swim in faster water. The mother is left alone in the cove of enormous trees at the edge of a pool. This place is as familiar to her now as a living room in the house of a life she never bargained for. She rests uneasily in the silence, watching ants boil darkly over the crumbs of what seemed, to begin with, an impossibly meager lunch. Always there is someone hungrier than her own children. She tucks her dress under her legs and inspects her poor, featherless feet in their grass nest at the water’s edge--twin birds helpless to fly out of there, away from the disaster she knows is coming. She could lose everything: herself, or worse, her children. Worst of all: you, her only secret. Her favorite. How could a mother live with herself to blame?
She is inhumanly alone. And then, all at once, she isn't. A beautiful animal stands on the other side of the water. They look up from their lives, woman and animal, amazed to find themselves in the same place. He freezes, inspecting her with his black-tipped ears. His back is purplish-brown in the dim light, sloping downward from the gentle hump of his shoulders. The forest’s shadows fall into lines across his white-striped flanks. His stiff forelegs splay out to the sides like stilts, for he's been caught in the act of reaching down for water. Without taking his eyes from her, he twitches a little at the knee, then the shoulder, where a fly devils him. Finally he surrenders his surprise, looks away and drinks. She can feel the touch of his long, curled tongue on the water's skin, as if he were lapping from her hand. His head bobs gently, nodding small, velvet horns lit white from behind like new leaves.
It lasted just a moment, whatever that is. One held breath? An ant’s afternoon? It was brief, I can promise that much, for although it’s been many years now since my children ruled my life, a mother recalls the measure of the silences. I never had more than five minutes’ peace unbroken. I was that woman on the stream bank, of course. Orleanna Price, Southern Baptist by marriage, mother of children living and dead. That one time and no other the okapi came to the stream, and I was the only one to see it.
I didn't know any name for what I’d seen until some years afterward in Atlanta, when I attempted briefly to consecrate myself in the public library, believing every crack in my soul could be chinked with a book. I read that the male okapi is smaller than the female, and more shy, and that hardly anything else is known about them. For hundreds of years people in the Congo Valley spoke of this beautiful, strange beast. When European explorers got wind of it, they declared it legendary: a unicorn. Another fabulous tale from the dark domain of poison-tipped arrows and bone-pierced lips. Then, in the 1920s, when elsewhere in the world the menfolk took a break between wars to perfect the airplane and the automobile, a white man finally did set eyes on the okapi. I can picture him spying on...
Table of Contents
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What People are Saying About This
There are few ambitious, successful and beautiful novels. Lucky for us, we have one now, in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible....This awed reviewer hardly knows where to begin.
On Monday, October 26th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Barbara Kingsolver to discuss THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.
Moderator: Welcome, Barbara Kingsolver. Many of us at barnesandnoble.com have fallen in love with THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, and based on the amount of questions we've received already tonight, this book has touched many readers across the internet. Are you ready to dig in?
Barbara Kingsolver: Yes, I am.
Hattie Norman from Chattanooga, Tennessee: Please explain the title of the book, POISONWOOD BIBLE.
Barbara Kingsolver: Like all of my titles, when you have read the book, you'll understand the title. I use titles as a sort of key for unlocking the themes of the book through every chapter, from beginning to end. This one is no exception.
Gary from Boston: Wow! I can't believe you're online. Why did you decide to set this novel in Africa? It's such a change of scenery from your other novels.
Barbara Kingsolver: I've been thinking about this novel for more than 20 years, actively researching and writing it for ten. It was no casual decision. It would take too long to explain fully why I chose the place, the time, the political drama, and the characters for this novel. Just trust me, I had a very good reason.
Bliss from Denver: I'm curious to find out how you wrote this novel. Did you write it in chronological order, from the perspective of the five females, or did you write each individual story separately and combine them. Thanks.
Barbara Kingsolver: Neither. I don't work in a very linear way. I conceive of a question first, which establishes my theme. In this case, I wanted to construct a political allegory in which the story of a missionary family would shed light on the much larger story of postcolonial Africa. I wanted to tell it in the voices of the missionary's wife and daughters. I began with an outline of the plot, then I spent years refining the individual voices, and writing and rewriting sections of the narrative, not necessarily in order.
Soraya from New Haven, Connecticut: In THE POISONWOOD BIBLE you demonstrate a facility with the Bible. Some of the lines you pick for "The Verse" are deliciously appropriate. Have you studied the Bible? How do you know so much about it?
Barbara Kingsolver: I was not very familiar with the Bible before I began to work on this book. My brother and I undertook to read the whole thing when I was about nine years old because we thought it would make us better people or something. But we got bogged down about a quarter of the way through Genesis. Since then, I hadn't really ever read the Bible, but when I began working on this novel in earnest, I knew I would need an intense familiarity with at least the Old Testament and much of the New. So I picked up that project where I left it 30 years ago and I studied the heck out of the King James Bible. It was one of many reference books I found invaluable in the writing of this novel.
Betsey Williams from Anacortes, Washington: Barbara, I'm interested to know how your formal education influenced your choice of writing and your choice of subjects about which to write. DePauw is a beautiful and great school; how does a degree in biology influence your writing?
Barbara Kingsolver: I wouldn't say that my formal education has ever influenced my outlook on life or my writing. I would say it's the other way around. Because of my interest in the natural world, I studied a lot of biology. Also a lot of history, cultural anthropology, and so forth. These interests and all the things I've learned about them naturally inform everything I choose to write.
Kristina Plath from Delhi, New York: Hi, Barbara. I loved THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. I loved Adah's voice, and I wondered how you were able to make it sound so convincing for her, and also for Doc Homer; they both have a different way of thinking, and what you write is so believable. How did you get that? Thanks.
Barbara Kingsolver: It's surprising to me and a little scary that on the occasions when I've decided to write from the point of view of someone who's brain is seriously impaired, I've found that it comes very naturally. Makes me wonder about myself. In the case of Adah, whose brain was seriously damaged on one side at birth, I did a lot of study about the brain, how it's organized, and what sorts of linguistic and behavioral changes tend to manifest after different kinds of injuries. It helps that my husband has a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology and is an expert on the brain. He could point me to the right reference books and help me understand. But after a point the science ends and the poetry takes over. I can't represent what every person with that sort of brain damage experiences. I can only create the experience of one imaginary character whose experience I hope will be both unique and in some way representative as well.
Elda from Michigan: I recently read an article in The New Yorker that described the atrocities that are going on in the Congo right now. The article was basically a plea for the United Nations and the United States to get involved. What do you know about this issue and why do you think it's been relatively ignored?
Barbara Kingsolver: I know very little more about it than what I've read in the same sources you have, since I have very few contacts left in the Congo. All have left or are no longer living. So, I can't speak about what's going on there at this moment. What I do know is that the atrocities, the corruption, and the sort of economic genocide that took place in the Congo for more than 30 years under Mobutu are just about unparalleled on the planet. I think it's a disgrace that we, meaning the United States government, put Mobutu into power and held him there for more than three decades. I believe that the best thing we could do now for the Congo is stop interfering. I believe the people of the Congo deserve a chance for the first time in centuries, to decide the fate of their own country without outside interference. It may take them several generations to sort this out and recover from the damage we did there. Nevertheless, I hope the U.S. stays out.
Pat from Pennsylvania: Do you think an author's political conscience makes her write better fiction than a writer who may only be interested in telling stories? Some of my favorite authors -- I'm thinking of Margaret Drabble in particular, but the same could even be said for Susan Isaacs -- began with lighter books, love stories, humorous stories, always distinguished by powerful writing -- but in later years they've moved into a more self-conscious political kind of book, highly moralistic. I wonder if you're making that same move, and what if anything you have to say on this subject.
Barbara Kingsolver: I believe what makes good writing is passion. If you are passionate about issues of social responsibility, then those issues will necessarily rise through whatever you write. You wouldn't be true to yourself or very successful as a writer, I don't think, if you avoided writing about the things for which you care most deeply. If you care most deeply about Gothic romance, then, for heaven's sake, that's what you should write. But if you are moved by injustices you see around you in the world, matters of gender, or race, or class, for example, your passion on those subjects will illuminate your stories even if they are simply love stories. In the case of the writers you mentioned, I agree that a kind of moral vision rose to the surface over the years. In the case of my own writing, my very first novel, THE BEAN TREES, was essentially driven by my interests in various issues of social justice. That novel addresses child abuse, the difficulty of growing up as a girl in poverty, immigration law, and the sanctuary movement and US foreign policy in Central America, just for starters. I cared about all those things and couldn't have left them out of that story. I don't think I could have been anything other than a political writer right from the beginning.
Hattie Norman from Chattanooga, Tennessee: Your description of Orleanna's grief over Ruth May's death moved me deeply. I cried. From what personal experience did you draw? I would also like to know what you are writing next?
Barbara Kingsolver: I'll answer the second one first. I would like to know what I'm writing next! I finished THE POISONWOOD BIBLE in July, the first reviews came out in August, and since then the demands of publicity and my readers have not allowed me one single day at my writing desk. I look forward to becoming a writer again when all this settles down. As for the other part of your question, as a writer I draw on every experience I've had myself or that I've witnessed to conjure the emotional states of my characters. That doesn't mean I have been through everything my characters do or feel. It only means that I pay close attention to emotional states and am very empathetic. I believe it's a little like being an actor. Sometimes to portray a great loss, you remember losses of your own and then magnify them. It's not very easy to explain. Maybe that's the best I can do.
email@example.com from XX: Ms. Kingsolver, first I just want to tell you how much I enjoy your writing. Secondly, I want to get your opinion as to why so many top fiction author's latest books are historical fiction? With Russell Banks' CLOUDSPLITTER, T. C. Boyle's RIVEN ROCK, and heck even Elmore Leonard's latest novel CUBA LIBRA was historical fiction. What drove you to write historical fiction?
Barbara Kingsolver: I would say that the four or five historical novels I can think of that appeared among the 700 books published this season don't necessarily constitute a trend. I also would never claim to know why any other author wrote the book she or he did. My own reasons for writing THE POISONWOOD BIBLE are a complex culmination of an entire lifetime of experience, interests, and concerns about things like cultural imperialism, cultural difference, and political mistakes. Nevertheless I've noticed that since we are nearly at the end of the millenium, just about everything anyone does is being analyzed as an "end of the millenium" endeavor.
Janine from Oakley, California: Did you do special research to come up with the old commercial slogans and jingles you mention in the book? You also use some expressions I haven't heard in awhile like "believe you me." Just memory, or more? (By the way -- thank you for everything you have ever written. I am now bowing in front of my computer and saying, "I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy." Thank You!) And congratulations on another daughter!
Barbara Kingsolver: First of all, you are plenty worthy. Every reader is a valuable and worthy critic. It's astute of you to notice that the teenage dialogue in THE POISONWOOD BIBLE was a special challenge. Teenage language is notoriously specific to its time and quickly out-of-date. At the time these girls were asking "Aren't you glad you used Dial. Don't you wish everybody did?" and saying things like "man oh man..." I was only three years old. So, memory would hardly serve. I had to do tons of research for this novel, but researching teenage jargon was some of the most fun research I did. I prowled used bookstores and scored every magazine from the late 50s I could possibly find. The advertisements were invaluable. By the time I finished writing the novel, I was hearing this stuff in my sleep.
Denise from Netscape: Hello. I can't wait to read your latest book. I'm so excited. However, my question is about publishing. I have just completed my first manuscript and want to know whether or not you think it's appropriate to send a query to many agents at one time. I have heard several different answers. I have a list of 20 that are interested in my genre. Thank you for answering my question.
Barbara Kingsolver: I believe the polite thing to do is query one at a time. If you don't hear from someone reasonably promptly, I think it's OK to write again and if you still don't hear, move on. I know you're excited to get your novel out there, but the whole process takes lots of patience. Unless your book is extremely topical, it won't hurt to take your time from the beginning and start off on the right foot with the agent who will ultimately become one of the most important relationships in your life.
Janine from San Francisco, East Bay: Are you taking a break after this book tour and promo stuff? I mean with two children you'd be busy no matter what, but are you working on another book? Any gigs planned with the Rockbottom Remainders? Do you have a new signature song, or still "Dock of the Bay"?
Barbara Kingsolver: When my tour is finished on November 7th, I've promised to devote myself full-time to the kids, at least through Christmas. They've been patient with my travel and deserve some solid Mommy time. I look forward after that to starting a new book. No, I'm no longer playing with the Rockbottom Remainders. We have officially disbanded. It was fun while it lasted and probably lasted longer than our talents warranted. However, I am still musically involved. My husband is a guitarist who has just released a new CD called "Fingers Crossed" (http://members.xoom.com/vireomusic is his web site). He's touring with me and playing in bookstores, and I'm actually going to play with him on a few gigs. So that's a lot of fun. I'm also raising two musicians. My eldest plays violin in an orchestra and my two-year-old can make a percussion instrument out of anything.
Marco Aurlio from Brazil: Hi, dear Barbara, how are you? It's a pleasure for me to be able to ask you a question. Unfortunately here in Brazil we don't have your books in Portuguese, but I hope they'll bring them soon. I'd like to know: What authors have influenced you in your writing? Thank you.
Barbara Kingsolver: Hi, dear Marco. It's nice to hear from Brazil. You're right. My books have not yet been translated into Portuguese, though that's coming soon, I believe. I have been influenced by a long list of writers. I think some of the most important ones were the women writers I discovered in my late teens. Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, and Marilyn French, just to name a few. I had previously been taught in school that the great themes in literature were man against man, man against nature, and man against himself. I always felt a bit left out of that whole show. When I discovered books like THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK or THE WOMEN'S ROOM, a whole new kind of thematic material presented itself to me and I understood for the first time that what happens among women could also be literature. I think it was the first time I really understood that I could also be a writer.
Vick from Trinidad: What are the main qualities required of a successful author?
Barbara Kingsolver: I could never presume to tell anyone else what they have to do to be successful, because success is a quality so personally defined. Writing a memoir that will be read and cherished by your children could be considered by some people success. My own definition of success is to define the questions that seem most important, to address issues that could alter the way people live and cooperate in the world, and to write books that will honor my best intentions. On a more practical level, I feel successful if I have written my best, not compromised my ideology, and thrown away all the bad prose that I typed into my keyboard. For me, being a writer is mostly a matter of carving out the time to do it five days a week for at least a few uninterrupted hours because I am also raising children. I push myself hard, cope well with interruption, and never watch TV. Mainly, I would say, it's about getting yourself to sit down and write, day after day. Forget waiting for the muse. She has a lousy work ethic.
Penny from Santa Fe, New Mexico: I just want to say thank you.... Your books are moving and satisfying and meaningful. Hope you get off the road, and back to work soon!
Barbara Kingsolver: Me too!
Moderator: Thank you, Barbara Kingsolver. This has been a fascinating hour. Do you have any closing comments for the online audience?
Barbara Kingsolver: Thanks everybody for your interest and keep reading.