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17 October 2018

Barbara Kingsolver Q&A: “The superpower I’ve always wished for is invisibility“

The novelist on trees, feminism, and the perils of climate change.

By New Statesman

Barbara Kingsolver was born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1955. She has published 15 books, including Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist “The Poisonwood Bible”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Of several, my favourite is the day I figured out how to read, around age four. I stared at a newspaper as I’d seen my father do, and willed with all my might for the meaning to come out. I’d learned the alphabet, so I knew words were in there. The first one to arrive was “orange”. All the bells in my head began ringing.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. She clarifies the motives of the foundations that spend billions promoting climate change denial in media and politics. It’s not just oil companies, it’s think tanks of moneyed conservatives. I thought they were greedy and ignorant, but I was wrong about the latter, they grasped the truth very early: that the health of the planet is incompatible with unlimited market-driven capitalism. These professional deniers really do know they’re taking down the ship.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand. She’s looking after her country’s infrastructure and economy, championing women and marginalised people, and calling climate change the nuclear challenge of her generation – all this while ignoring the sexist background noise and, oh yeah, also having a baby.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The flora and fauna of eastern North America. If that’s too broad, just give me the trees. I grew up a wild child, so I know just about everything in the woods by its first name.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Definitely not among people of any earlier century, who thought women were a category of property. But if I could have a few hours to myself I’d walk around the exact place where I live, in the year 1800 or so, to see the virgin forest. The size of those trees, that community as it existed before its main character – the American chestnut – went extinct: I would give anything to breathe that air.

Who would paint your portrait?

My choice? Nobody. The superpower I’ve always wished for is invisibility, and I chose my vocation accordingly. A novelist gets 140,000 words per one tiny author photo. That’s a visibility ratio I can live with.

What’s your theme tune?

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. My family would tell you this: in work, in love, in cooking, in planning next year’s garden, you name it, I have trouble knowing when to quit. Even when I go on vacation, I like hiking vacations.

What would make your life better?

A well-placed political retirement.

When were you happiest?

Mid- to late-term in any large act of creation, I fall into a prolonged state of ridiculous joy. This has been true of both my pregnancies, and all 15 books so far.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

Field biologist. Anthropologist. Linguist. Musician. Historian. Farmer. Landscape designer. As a university student I wanted to study everything. So I became a novelist – we get to inhabit as many lives as we can imagine.

Are we all doomed?

Depends. From a molecular perspective, our elements will recycle infinitely. I actually love the idea of dissolving and being reconstituted as a maple tree. 

“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver is published by Faber & Faber

This article appears in the 17 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war