Novelist Barbara Kingsolver changes climate with new novel
Author comes to Asheville Nov. 28
by Rob Neufeld
“Where is she taking us?” you wonder as Dellarobia Turnbow, the heroine of Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, “Flight Behavior,” heads up a mountain, in obvious marriage distress, for a tryst with a dreamy power line worker.
“Innocence was no part of this,” Kingsolver writes in the opening passage. “She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace.”
Tickets have just gone on sale for Kingsolver’s appearance in UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium,. Nov. 28.
Flight or fight
The answer to Dellarobia’s dilemma unfolds throughout the book like a metamorphosis. The first reveal is comically pathetic.
Hobbling in overlarge, fashionable boots—bought used—and stopping for breath because she’s a smoker, she looks at something scaly hanging from a tree, and wonders if it’s a hornet’s nest, giant pine cone, or armadillo.
“For the second time” on her hike, “she wished for the glasses she’d left behind.”
Later on, she sees something that looks like a burning bush. It could be a sign, like the one Moses had witnessed. Or it could be something as deflating as the church marquee message her friend, Dovey, later texts her: “Moses was a basket case.”
Dellarobia is a basket case. She’d married a sheep farmer’s sheepish son at an early age because of an accidental pregnancy; and stayed married to him after a miscarriage because she had no family support and no other options. The two children she and her husband, nicknamed “Cub” (his father is “Bear”), later conceived tie her to a scraping-by existence on Cub’s tyrannical parents’ east Tennessee farm.
She wants out because she desperately needs out. Little does she know, and little does the reader know, that she is about to encounter something as expansive as the title of Chapter 9, “Global Ecosystem.”
As Dellarobia’s life transforms, so do the worlds of her fractious family and conservative community, for they become embroiled in a miracle that hinges upon the reality of climate change.
“I write about big things and serious things,” Kingsolver said in an interview with the Citizen-Times. “ I write about the real world and some of the things that are most difficult to think about. I ask my readers for some courage, to look at things that are not necessarily comfortable. So, what am I going to give in return? A great plot, and at least a few belly laughs, hopefully more than a few, and a narrative that will give you a reason to turn every page.”
“Flight Behavior” engages and plays with the reader from Chapter 1—in which the key revelation is delayed—to chapters in which expectations about “good” and “bad” characters are upended; the poor mountain South is given its due; and scientists are challenged to talk like people, even if the message is unacceptable.
Kingsolver is not only a master story-teller, but also a master popularizer. Through dozens of characters and encounters, she gets to play this role in various voices.
“If you woke up one morning,” a scientist asks Dellarobia when she tries to minimize the local evidence about climate change, “and one of your eyes had moved to the side of your head, how would you feel about that?”
Kingsolver is not saying, “Wake up!” She’s saying, “Look at all these people who are being challenged to wake up.”
Following is an interview with Barbara Kingsolver about her new novel.
Q: How did you choose this 5’0”, red-headed, dead-ended, East Tennessee country person as your vehicle?
A: She had a lot to learn. And I wanted to write about the culture war (that exists in rural Southern Appalachia). Dellarobia tries to get across to this slightly obtuse scientist how hard it is for people to change what they believe. She says, “Look, we’re born onto our teams.” She describes them as Team Camo and Team Latte. You’re born into your team, and then you absorb the facts that reinforce what you believe…In order to cultivate an outsider’s sympathy for her position, I needed to create someone who was likable, but also really vulnerable, whose trapped dead-end life would strike any reader as frustrating and intrinsically sympathetic. You want her to go somewhere. You want her to take off somehow or other.
Q: She has an eye for the sexy guy.
A: Her human narrative is that she’s been running away from her marriage pretty much since her wedding day in one way or another, and ultimately—well, I won’t tell you ultimately. Sooner or later, she is going to have to figure out a different flight plan….I hate spoilers.
Q: Did you write the flyleaf copy?
A: I did.
Q: I had that hunch because there was mastery in saying things without revealing things.
A: Thank you.
Q: It doesn’t even reveal the ending of the first chapter!
A: Exactly. I myself (in talking about the book) have never revealed what the miracle is. I made a strong case with my publisher not to put (a certain visual clue) on the jacket. I’ve tried hard not to reveal that because as a writer you work so hard to measure and deliver the story at a certain pace. This book is, among other things, about how we understand or don’t understand what we’re seeing—for example, climate change. I think Dellarobia at one point says, “We can only see what we already know.” So, I very carefully constructed that opening scene so that you the reader would share Dellarobia’s experience of looking at this amazing thing and not understanding what it is….Of course, the minute the first reviewer gives it all away, that experience is lost. I hope that there’s more to the book than that, but you can see that I myself would prefer the reader to go into this knowing as little as possible.
Q: It looks as if you have identified some hopeful places where understanding can happen, and one is Pastor Bobby’s church. Is it happening in the churches? How fanciful a creation is he?
A: Bobby is absolutely realistic. I did a lot of research. I visited a lot of megachurches. They’re non-denominational and they’re filling a certain void in rural places…I made up the Café in Christ and the country music room where people are allowed to smoke—but those kinds of arrangement do exist. I visited places like that, where you could buy your coffee and muffin and watch the pastor on closed circuit. I also watched a lot of sermons on my computer. A lot of these ministers are serving roles as counselors more than (adopting) the scolding moral tone of yesteryear…(They’re) leading people into positions of more faith in themselves…And the no-hell Baptists are real. Ralph Stanley was one. There is also a green church movement in this region. All of Bobby’s parts are authentic. I just put him together into a particular package, and then gave him a past.
Q: I was impressed by how much Dellarobia speaks up for poor people.
A: That’s something I really wanted to write about, environmentalism and class. I wanted to turn some clichés on their heads. This is a book about climate change, but the recyclers are not necessarily the heroes of this story.
Q: There’s that scene with Leighton Akins, the guy with the pamphlets.
A: Yes, he’s trying to get her to sign a pledge for a greener life, and she’s going down the listing. “But I don’t eat at restaurants. I wish I could. I wish I had red meat in my children’s life.” And “Fly less”? Right!” That pledge that he reads to her is not fanciful. I got that straight off the internet…I don’t think there’s any entirely safe territory in this novel. Everybody has to bear some scrutiny.
Q: Are you going to read that Akins episode to the Asheville audience?
A: I don’t think so. (laughs) Here’s the thing. You can’t go into it cold. It took me 300 pages to get you there. You need to be really well acquainted with Dellarobia before you can understand how ripped off she feels…It takes some grounding to understand that perspective, that we are not all coming to the table with the same full belly. That’s the main reason I chose Dellarobia as the protagonist of this story, because I wanted to get you inside her life and see what poverty is like. It’s not a bad joke. It’s not the stereotype. None of the easy labels fit Dellarobia’s life.
More of interview to be added soon.
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins hardcover, Nov. 6, 2012, 448 pages, $28.99)
Visit the author’s website at www.kingsolver.com.
Barbara Kingsolver discusses and reads from her new novel, “Flight Behavior,” 7 p.m., Nov. 28, Lipinsky Auditorium, UNC-Asheville. For tickets call Malaprop's Bookstore/Café at 254-6734 or visit www.malaprops.com.. A copy of “Flight Behavior” is included in the price.