Barbara Kingsolver: “Novels are True…”

Dave and I heard author Barbara Kingsolver speak at Dominican University last week. Her latest novel, Demon Copperhead, won the Pulitzer Prize. I haven’t read it yet, but I will now that I’ve heard her talk about its inspiration in Dickens’s David Copperfield and her intention to write “the great Appalachian novel” as a window into that culture for those of us on the outside and a mirror to those who live it. I think I’ll start with Copperfield so I can better appreciate her parallels and creativity with narrative structure and character.

I could have listened to her speak for days.

About Appalachia and what it was like to grow up there and live there again as an adult:

“I didn’t know I was a hillbilly until I left… It wasn’t cool to be smart. At school I’d pretend to be dumb but then I’d go home and read voraciously… I wanted to write a great Appalachian novel to rethink the bias; that feeling of invisibility can make you desperate.”

About her writing process:

She starts with plot and questions that become the book’s architecture. Then she invents the cast of characters and creates the circumstances to make the characters do what she needs. She believes that writing on a computer is such an organic process. She creates a separate file for each chapter and works on whatever presents itself each day; ideas take priority over chronology. Once she’s filled in each file and has a first draft, she goes back to the beginning and writes the book anywhere from 5 to 25 times. The first draft of Demon Copperhead was a staggering 712 pages!

About why she will never write a sequel:

“I want to do something I’ve never done before, ideally that no one’s ever done before. That’s scary and thrilling, as Robert Browning said, ‘the reach exceeds the grasp.’ So, once I’ve done it, I’m done. Those characters become yours and I really want you to take them personally and imagine them for yourself.”

Her last comment resonated with everything in me:

“Thank you for reading fiction. Novels are true. They are different ways we receive truth. We receive facts with our heads and also with our hearts. A novel puts you inside another person’s brain. When their children become your children and their problems become your problems, you develop empathy and compassion, and that’s what will save us.”

Yes! Reading changes us. Reading fiction can take us around the world and into the lives of people we may never meet. It gives us facts and it offers truth we might otherwise miss due to the necessarily limited scope of our own daily realities. It creates in us empathy and compassion that can lead to greater understanding and become a means to peace.

Kingsolver said, “Any big project will change you, hopefully for the better.” Writing a novel is clearly a big project, but reading one can be as well. And it’s worth it.

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