About Writing

Do you have any advice for beginning writers? 

I try to avoid giving advice.  Maybe I’ll offer just this: if you’re a young writer and a smoker, you should probably quit, because that will increase your odds of getting old enough to accumulate wisdom.  That is the main thing readers want, I think: wisdom.  When I pick up a book, I want it to rock my mind.  That only happens if the author knew something I didn’t.  Wisdom tends to accumulate with age, as we survive misfortunes and distill what was useful.  So, while dancers and athletes peak at 25, writers have the career advantage of doing our best work in old age.  And that’s good, because given the average writer’s income, there is rarely much of a retirement account.

Any writer is well served by learning about the world.  In the movies they do this by having death-defying adventures and torrid affairs, but I’ve never actually known these to move a manuscript forward.  The great underestimated source of knowledge for writers is school: Latin American history, vertebrate biology, that kind of thing.  In school I studied nearly everything except writing, with degrees in science.  Afterward I found myself in demand as a freelance writer because editors knew they could send me into a biotech lab or epidemiology office, where people seemed to be speaking in tongues, and I’d come out with a printable story in lay-person’s English.  I was glad for my training.

I learned to write by reading the kind of books I wished I’d written.  I still do.  I limit my exposure to the type of stuff I don’t want to write, and oh boy is the world ever loaded with that, mostly waiting behind some form of “on-off” switch. I’m enough of a biologist to know that whatever comes in will, in some form, come back out.

The only way to become a writer is to sit still and write.  All writing counts, it’s cumulative.  I became a professional by taking any assignment I could get, applying fervent devotion even if the subject was algae production in sewage plants.  It’s good practice, to take an uninspiring subject and try to make it sing on the page.  I vowed never to hang any words under my byline until they were the best, most creative work I could produce.  It was tempting sometimes to blow out a junk story just to finish it off.  The devil on my shoulder told me I was a dupe to knock myself out for the Smallville Trumpet, putting so much time into research and revision that the job paid less than flipping burgers. (Freelancers get paid by the assignment, not by the hour.)  “But,” the angel on my other shoulder argued, “a dazzling article about auto insurance might get you noticed by other editors, and lead to better assignments.”  The angel was right.  A career is built one paragraph at a time.  I wrote six books and a blue-million articles before anything of mine hit the bestseller lists.  I don’t know any shortcuts.  But if you’re really a writer, that’s no problem, because you’d rather be writing than anything else.

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What is your writing routine?  How do you discipline yourself to keep at it?

I find it takes discipline to stop writing and go do other things, such as cleaning the house.

I tend to wake up extremely early with words flooding into my brain.  If I don’t get up, they’ll continue to accumulate in puddles, so it’s a relief to get to the keyboard and dump them out.  I’ll take a break to have breakfast with my daughter and walk her to the school bus.  In the afternoon I’ll break again to meet with my assistant, Judy, to review the day’s mail pile and decide how to respond to requests.  But if I’ve really gone into novel-never-land, the time disappears.  I sometimes look at the clock and am stunned to see that six or eight hours have passed while I sat motionless in my chair.

I’ve learned the hard way, from my body, that when I get in this zone it’s wise to set an alarm to go off every hour or so, to remind me to get up, unclench, do some yoga.  And I always try to follow my day at the desk with some form of physical exercise.  Summer evenings offer hours of daylight for weeding and planting, checking the lambs, whatever needs to be done.  I enjoy the physical engagement of farm work, because it balances the work I do inside my head.  I also appreciate my family for keeping me anchored in the real world.

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Do you write every day?

Writing is my dream life.  But many writers will tell you, in the modern era our job seems to demand everything but writing.  In a typical week I spend hours or days on non-writing chores: fielding interviews, reviewing reprint requests and copy, updating websites, responding to particularly crucial requests, administering the Bellwether Prize, answering queries from translators, reviewing archives before they’re moved off-site, bookkeeping, giving at least a glance to the ten or twenty books sent to me by their authors or editors that week, puzzling over foreign-rights contracts, and supporting other writers and worthy organizations as best I can.  When I release a new book, the “fielding interviews” portion of that list blows up into a full-time job.  That and traveling for a book tour remove me from writing life for months, and I miss it, with an ache similar to missing my husband or children when they’re far away.  I tend to choke up when someone asks me on book tour, “What are you writing now?” Nothing, would be the honest answer, but I wish I were!  Still, I understand that meeting readers is an important part of my job, so I go willingly.  The hard part is calling it off.  The same book will be released in other countries as the translations come out; the requests don’t ever stop.  I have to walk away, with firm resolve, from well-intentioned pressures that would keep me talking about the last book and its topics forevermore.  It is painful for me to disappoint people, but Ido it to save the life of my next book.  

“The office of Barbara Kingsolver” is where my assistant Judy Carmichael makes writing possible for me by handling all things that come at us by mail, UPS, telephone, email, or wild elephant.  It’s across the driveway from our house, in a remodeled carriage house. 

The place where I write, upstairs in our farmhouse, has windows facing into the woods.  The walls are lined with bookshelves.  To avoid distraction, I write on a computer that is not connected to the internet.  (I check email elsewhere in the house.)  My companions in this room are the likes of Virginia Woolf and George Eliot, who peer down at me from the shelves, and a blue fish named Bruno.  They are all very quiet.

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How do you begin a novel?

I begin by imagining something surprising and important, a question whose answer is not clear to me, but seems vital.  Questions like: How do we balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community, when they’re in conflict?  (That became Pigs in Heaven.)  How does one make peace with the terrible things one country does to another, when we’ve profited from them but weren’t responsible?  (The Poisonwood Bible.)  I begin to plot out a story in which characters will face these questions through some conflict or crisis.  I write pages and pages of what this novel will be about.  Themes, plot, characters.  I create life histories for the characters.  I list the things I’ll need to research, in order to tell this story.  As scenes occur to me, I jot them down without worrying about chronology.  The beginning and the resolution will come, once I understand the architecture of the story.

I spend months or years thinking about the shape of a novel and earning the authority to write it.  Samuel Johnson wrote, “a man can turn over a whole library to write a single book,” and I would add, you also have to wear out some shoe leather.  (See the question about primary and secondary research.)  I usually keep a novel cooking on the back burner for a long time, before it moves up front.  During this time I accept magazine and newspaper assignments that keep me writing while a novel is in the research and development phase.  Once I begin writing the novel in earnest, the early challenge is to find the voice and tone.  I throw away hundreds of pages before I find that; my best writing tool is the Delete key.  I think of it as writing pages minus-100 to zero of my novel, just a necessary evil.  I have to write them all, and pitch them out.

I struggle with confidence, every time.  I’m never completely sure I can write another book.  Maybe my scope is too grand, my questions too hard, surely readers won’t want to follow me here.  A novel is like a cathedral, it knocks you down to size when you enter into it.  I falter and fidget and worry it won’t be good enough, and then the day comes when I give myself permission:  just write, I tell myself.  No one has to see it, you can throw everything away if it’s terrible, we’ll keep it a secret unless or until it becomes wonderful.  And then I get to work.

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Do you go through a lot of drafts?

Gazillions.  I adore revision.  Whether it’s a two-page article or a 500-page book, I rewrite endlessly.  I may rewrite the first paragraph of a novel fifty times before I’m satisfied.  I comb through a manuscript again and again, altering every sentence a little or a lot.  I don’t print out every draft on paper, or I’d be mowing down forests.  

Pounding out a first draft is like hoeing a row of corn – you just keep your head down and concentrate on getting to the end.  Revision is where fine art begins.  It’s thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript, letting little glints shine through here and there.  To plant resolution, like a seed, into chapter one.  To create new scenes, investing a character with the necessary damage, the right kind of longing.  To pitch out boldly and try again.  To work every metaphor across the whole, back and forth, like weaving.  I love that word “fabrication,” because making an elaborate fiction feels so much like making cloth. 

Perfectionism is my disease.  Revision is my milk and honey.

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To what extent is your fiction autobiographical?

Not at all.  The plots are not my life, those characters are not people I know, and none of them is me.  My job, as I understand it, is to invent lives that are far more enlightening than my own, invested with special meaning.  That’s the whole advantage of fiction over life: you get to control the outcome.

can’t base fiction on my life, because I don’t build a story on pre-existing conditions.  I begin by considering theme, and creating a world in which the right questions will be asked.  I populate my setting with characters who will serve my plot.  Those characters are my slaves.  They must do exactly what I want, or the story falls to pieces.  No actual person I know is that cooperative.  So I invent people from scratch, starting with what they need to do, and working backwards, inventing life histories that render their actions believable. Sometimes I do include historical figures in my fiction, and that is a tricky mix (see “FAQ’s: THE LACUNA.”)  These people are more like a setting, their real-life details forming an inflexible grid around which I weave my plot.

Pure invention seems straightforward to me, much easier than trying to jam an already formed personality into a mold it won’t fit. So it surprises me when people insist I must have experienced everything I write. Once a reader (a psychologist) wrote, “Come on now!  How can you claim you’re not writing about yourself?  Taylor Greer in The Bean Trees moved from Kentucky to Arizona, like you did.  Codi Noline in Animal Dreams taught biology (you’ve studied biology).  Why do you persist in the infantile need to deny you are writing about yourself?”  Yikes.  Did I move from Kentucky to Arizona, like Taylor Greer?  Yes, but via France.  Did someone leave an abandoned child in my car along the way?  Uh, no. Does my fiction reflect my world view?  Probably, but I have not done a fraction of the things my characters do, such as running from the law, adopting an abused child, being an expert cockfighter, having Alzheimer’s, being a gay man, being a straight man, being the child of a Christian Missionary, cooking for Diego Rivera, and having great sex in an Anasazi ruin.  Do I seem that energetic?

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A lot of your settings are places I can’t find on a map, even though they seem real.  Do they exist?

The writing of fiction is a dance between truth and invention. Pittman, Kentucky, the starting point of The Bean Trees, resembles any number of small towns in east-central Kentucky where I grew up.  I didn’t invent its weathered look, its party-line phones, its inclination to rally around good gossip or a neighbor in need.  Those things I described from experience in a real place.  The same is true of other small towns in my novels, from Grace, Arizona to Isla Pixol, Mexico.  They are genuine, but not identified.

This is why: a little town named in a widely-read novel might become a destination for literary voyeurs.  I don’t want to be responsible for changing the character of a quiet, rural place. Also, if I set my story in an actual small town in Kentucky (or Arizona, or Mexico), those events would be false: everyone would know that in the history of their town no man named Hardbine had ever been blown over the Standard Oil sign by an exploding tire, for example.  Still, every soul in the named town would be scouring the pages for themselves, their friends and enemies, and finding them. (Even though I didn’t put them there.)  So I choose real settings but place them off the map, for two reasons: to preserve the illusion of truth, and the substance of privacy.

Cities are different.  I’ve set parts of novels in Tucson, Mexico City, Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago, and Asheville, North Carolina, to name a few. These places are large enough to absorb events and people. As long as you get the weather and the civic character right, even residents who live in those places can probably suspend disbelief and accept the illusion of truth.  So yes, Virginia, there is a Pittman, Kentucky.  It exists in your heart and your imagination.  If it sustains you from one page to the next, it’s true enough.

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Do you actually go to all the places you write about?  What balance do you strike (if any) between primary and secondary sources?

Hooray for you, for knowing the difference between primary and secondary sources, in a world where many seem to think watching a nature show is the same thing as being in nature.  It isn’t.  The nature show leaves out the smells, for one thing, and the seventeen hundred hours the camera crew sat waiting for the rhinos to mate.  Another person’s account of a place – whether it’s Henry Thoreau or Youtube – is only part of the story.

I almost never set a fictional scene in a place unless I’ve been there.  Fiction is an accumulation of details, and if they’re wrong, it’s an accumulation of lies.  Readers are not fooled.  Fiction is invention but it’s ultimately about truth.  If I want to remove you from your life and whisk you into a picnic on the banks of a river in Teotihuacán, here are some things I need to know: what grows there, what trees, what flowers, in that month of the year?  What does it smell like, are there bees?  Birds?  Is it dry or humid, how does the dust feel between your teeth?  What’s in the picnic basket?  What does candied prickly pear fruit actually taste like?  Passing on someone else’s account of these things, from reading about them, would likely render a flat, one-dimensional scene, no matter how I injected my own additions of plot and character.  The sensory palette would be limited.  I can only paint with all the colors if I’ve seen them for myself.

The difference between amateur and professional research is a willingness to back away from other people’s accounts of what is, and find your own.  There is no “googlesmell.”

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Do you consider writing to be a form of activism? Do you think novelists have a duty to address political issues?

I think of “activism” as a simple action meant to secure a specific result: for this purpose I go to school board meetings, I vote, I donate money, and occasionally fire off an op-ed piece.  But that’s not what I do for a living.  Writing literature is so much more nuanced than these things, it’s like comparing chopping vegetables to neurosurgery.  Literature is one of the few kinds of writing in the world that does not tell you what to buy, want, see, be, or believe.  It’s more like conversation, raising new questions and inspiring you to answer them for yourself.

As a literary novelist I spend my days tasting the insides of words, breathing life into sentences that swim away under their own power, stringing together cables of poetry to hold up a narrative arc.  I hope also to be a fearless writer: examining the unexamined life, asking the unasked questions.  In most of the world, people call that literature.  For some reason, people in the U.S. are fond of putting me in a box labeled “political,” which could mean anything: “this is about the world,” or “this makes me uncomfortable.”  If it means “inclined to change people’s minds,” that seems ludicrous as a category because great literature will always do that.  Fiction cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view.  It can broaden your view of gender, ethnicity, place and time, power and vulnerability, things that influence social interaction.  What could be more political than that?

I think the novelist’s duty is to own up to the power of the craft, and use it wisely.

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Who are your favorite authors?

It’s impossible to choose.  Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Russell Banks, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Louise Erdrich, William Faulkner, Milan Kundera, Doris Lessing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Bobbie Ann Mason, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Francine Prose, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf.  That’s only a partial list, chosen on the basis of career output.  Many of my favorite books are by authors I didn’t list: The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy, The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey, Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kentner, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett,Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

Favorite poets (incomplete list): W.H. Auden, Billy Collins, Emily Dickenson, Martín Espada, Carolyn Forché, Pablo Neruda, Sharon Olds, Dylan Thomas, Adrienne Rich.

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Why did you establish the Bellwether Prize?  What are you most proud of in its ten years, and do you think it’s as necessary now as it was in 2000?

I always thought if I had more money than I needed to support my family, I would use it to improve the world somehow.  So when I received my first really large book advance in 1998, I considered the power of words.  I decided to use that money to encourage writers, publishers, and readers to consider how fiction engages visions of social change and human justice.  The capacity of literature to do this is cherished and respected in most of the world, but less so in the U.S.  For that reason the competition is open to U.S. writers who’ve completed a first novel.  The prize is $25,000 and publication.  It’s awarded every other year.  For more information see bellwetherprize.org.

I’m proud of the new voices we’ve published as Bellwether winners, and the thousands of people who have submitted manuscripts, because of their commitment to socially engaged fiction.  The publishing climate for new authors is harder now than it was ten years ago. Under economic duress, publishers feel a pressure to turn out proven blockbusters rather than fresh voices and literary diversity.  So yes, more than ever, I want to support good writers who are asking the big, difficult questions.

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I’m a school teacher.  What can you offer to help me prepare 4th graders to appreciate writing, now and for the rest of their lives?

Writing and reading are the two best ways humans have invented to participate with the larger world.  Everybody in school wants to be popular: it’s so utterly human, to long for self-expression and connection with others.  I would point out that writing and reading offer those things, and more.  Writing is a kind of social networking in the way that it connects you with other people, but literature asks a bit more from you than Facebook, and offers more mature rewards.  A great book can take you anywhere on earth, in the present or the past or the future.  It’s the only mode of communication we have that actually lets you becomeanother person by living inside his head, experiencing his problems and hopes.  Fiction is a sort of inter-human magic, allowing you to travel into a scene and feel it tingle on your skin, see it in your mind’s eye and smell it with your mind’s nose!  But forming these images from the printed page is a skill you have to develop when you’re fairly young, I think, or else it’s very difficult to read for pleasure later on.  Writing is also a tool you can use your whole life: to help people, make them laugh, change their minds.  You can do it for people in faraway countries, even for people who haven’t been born yet.  Writing is a way to live forever.

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