Previous Books

 

About Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

About Prodigal Summer

About The Poisonwood Bible

 

QUESTIONS ABOUT ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE:

What inspired you to write about food? 

Food is inspiring, it’s that simple.  Eating is the most important human activity, and a consumer choice we make every day.  Suddenly, people started noticing our country was having a three-ring food crisis:  We have unprecedented health and obesity problems, due to poor diets.  We’re putting almost as much fossil fuels into our refrigerators as our cars.  And our farmers and rural communities are struggling to survive.  All these problems have one cause: we’re buying so much of our food from far away.  We rarely look at our plates and ask: “Where has this stuff been?” 

 

At my house, we’d asked that question for years.  Like many families, we were uncomfortable with the environmental costs of agribusiness and the health costs of junk food.  Many problems can be solved by one solution, getting food from closer to home.  We’d discovered it’s not so very hard to be a more conscious consumer of food.  Not everybody can walk away from the industrial food pipeline altogether, but all of us can take a few steps, and the benefits are immediate.

I’d thought about writing a book on this subject for years, but I have absolutely no interest in telling other people what to do.  It dawned on me, though, that narratives inspire people in a different way, explaining possibilities.  We talked a lot, as a family, about sharing our own experience of eating more locally.  We decided to frame it as a one-year narrative, in which we would try to make our best efforts.  Giving the project some structure made it more fun for us, and gave the book its shape.

Photo by Hank Daniel

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It seems like so much work to cook meals from scratch, let alone gardening and shopping at the farmers’ market.  Was it difficult to get the whole family’s cooperation on this project?

We’re a pretty ordinary family, in that we all have a thousand things to do including full-time jobs or school.  Part of the point we wanted to make inAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle is that regular, busy people can pay more attention to where our food comes from, and use healthier ingredients for the rituals of our lives.  All over the world, people have food cultures, cooking special meals on various occasions (or even every day) because it’s traditional, enjoyable, and considered to be worth the effort.  In this country, the closest thing we have to a distinctive food culture might be feeding our kids burgers in a speeding car.  Are we busier than families in Italy or Japan? 

It isn’t too late to reclaim a food culture of our own.  Decisions create new behaviors, and routines make things easier.  We simplified recipes, cooked in quantity, did what we could, but we also decided that cooking and enjoying meals would be a significant, important part of our family life.  Our family took a somewhat formal pledge in order to push ourselves into doing something we knew would improve our lives. We had to do it together, or not at all.  To be honest, it was much easier than we expected.

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What were the hardest foods to give up? 

This was not an experiment in deprivation.  We just wanted to stop pushing pampered fruits and vegetables around the globe on our behalf, so we changed our thinking.  Instead of starting every food sentence with “I want,” we began with “right now we have…”  Each season brought a new menu.  We tried to celebrate asparagus in April and apples in September, rather than whining about not having apples in spring or asparagus in the fall, if you see my point.  Our farmers here grow salad greens under row cover even in the snowy months, and in January we loved the pears we’d canned in cider last summer.  It’s not as if we were chewing on acorns.

It’s funny that this is the first question most people asked: what did you have to give up?  We shared that anxiety too, in the beginning.  A consumer culture has trained us all to concentrate intensely on what we might be missing, rather than what we have.  Unfortunately that encourages a toddler-like approach to the world: “I want everything, right now, so I can put it in my mouth!”  For many reasons, I believe it’s a useful family exercise to reorder this manner of thinking.  In my lifetime I expect to face the end of many kinds of abundance we’d thought would last forever.  Instead of dreading collapse, why not be inventive about adapting to a changing world?  Why not begin finding ways to eat splendidly from our own local food economies, and giving them our business so they will be even better next year?

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After the year ended and the book was published, did you keep up your local-food habits?

It was a deeply enjoyable conversion, so yes, it did stick.  We still organize our meals around what’s locally available, when it comes into season.  We don’t eat industrially-produced feedlot meats, and frankly can’t imagine it.  Our garden expands every year, and our local farmer’s market also keeps growing.  We buy extra fruits and vegetables when they come into season, and freeze or can them so we’ll have abundance (and easy meals) in winter.  We’ve become friends with the farmers who work so hard to provide us with everything that helped make our “year of local” so delicious – why would we turn our backs on them now?  It’s not just a matter of health and epicurean pleasure, but also community responsibility, for us to stay involved in our local food chain. 

Once in awhile I do buy something marvelous and exotic at the grocery – Alaskan wild-caught salmon, or a pomegranate – as a splurge.  Because of our year of consciously passing up such things, we recognize them now as indulgences, rather than normal things to which we feel entitled.  Because really, what is normal about rushing a frozen creature three thousand miles in an airplane so I can eat it?  Our culture’s expectations about food are surreal.  So you could say, our family has become more realistic.

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Eating locally is one thing if you live on a farm, but what about city dwellers?

Thoughtful food life is not just about growing your own. Anybody who has choices about food can exercise them with more care.  Every grocery store carries some things that were produced closer to your home than the backside of yonder.  Anyone can emphasize whole ingredients in their meal plans, and pass up the processed junk that has so many costs wrapped up in the package.  And the majority of U.S. citizens live within a few miles of a farmers’ market.  In fact, these are much more concentrated in and around cities than in rural places.  The fastest-growing sector of the U.S. agricultural economy is the small market grower producing food for urban consumers.  City dwellers might be surprised to learn that rural America has fewer farmers’ markets per capita, and the hardest place of all to find local foods is the Midwestern corn-and-soybean belt.  It’s a sad commentary on our agricultural system that the bulk of our farm produce is essentially inedible.  

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is by no means intended to be a how-to book for growing your own food.  Our intention was to explain why food is not strictly a product, but a process.  That’s the lesson our culture has lost, and why we’re so dubious of the “product.”  An important step in anyone’s food security is to recover an understanding of processes – for example, to learn the differences between feedlot meat operations and pasture grazing, why one requires universal use of antibiotics while the other eschews it.  Why a pasture-raised chicken lays eggs with crayon-orange yolks, full of healthy beta-carotenes.  Why lettuce comes in early in the growing season, and watermelons arrive late.  When to look for asparagus.  Two generations ago, people knew such things intuitively, but now we may have to learn them from a book.  That’s why we provided a seasonal account of how foods grow – we thought readers might be interested in the natural history of what they eat.  We’ve been very surprised, and delighted, that this information has inspired countless readers to try and grow at least a few things themselves.  It’s a very basic human urge, it seems, to plant a seed, watch it grow, provision ourselves first-hand.  I wish everyone could have that experience.

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ABOUT PRODIGAL SUMMER:

What was your point of origin in writing a book so steeped in biological processes?

I’ve been trained as a biologist, more or less from the beginning.  I grew up chasing butterflies, went to graduate school in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and still look at the world through the eyes of a scientist, I suppose.  Leaving the halls of science for the world of literature and the humanities was like jumping across the Grand Canyon:  I can plainly see a great divide that exists between two kinds of thinking.  I wanted to write a novel to bridge that gulf somehow.  Specifically, I wished I could explain a handful of important ecological principles: speciation and natural selection, the keystone predator, genetic diversity and resilience, and the Volterra principle, which (for instance) shows mathematically why spraying a field with pesticides actually will increase the number of pests in the next generation.  These principles profoundly shape the world around us, in which we hope to survive.

Scientific illiteracy is something that worries me every day.  At least half the population of this country has not been educated to understand basic, thoroughly documented phenomena like climate change, or even to grasp evolution through natural selection, which has now been the cornerstone of all biological sciences for two centuries.  When a population this uninformed tries to steer environmental policy, it’s like asking a five-year-old to drive the car: we might fully expect calamity.  I’ve noticed that very few people even know that ecology is a field of science – the theoretical study of how living populations interact with one another.  (Many have a vague idea that it means “the environment.”)  It’s a difficult science, involving a lot of advanced math and computer modeling, but the principles it gives us are literally matters of life and death.  We who are trained in this science have a responsibility to make our knowledge accessible to others.

So I took my leap across the canyon, and Prodigal Summer is its name.  Translating scientific ideas from clean, elegant mathematics into vernacular English was a huge challenge.  It’s easy to oversimplify or alter meaning.  Very few writers address this territory at all, but that was all the more reason, I felt, to do so.  And I knew I had at least one strike in my favor, from the start:  a biological novel will have to be full of sex.

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What does “prodigal” mean?

Recklessly productive, wastefully extravagant, lavish, prolific.  I thought it was the perfect word for describing nature in high season, when a maple tree is whirling thousands of seeds into the air.  It does not mean “returning home.”

I didn’t want this book to end, and in a certain way it didn’t.  Do you plan to write a sequel?

I don’t plan on it.  I never want to write the same book twice.  What keeps me awake at the wheel, as a writer, is the thrill of trying something completely new with each book – new ideas, new settings, craft challenges I’ve never handled before.  What makes my heart race is to dream up something no writer has ever done before, and then give it a go.  I’m not a risk-taker in life, generally speaking, but as a writer I definitely choose the fast car, the impossible rock face, the free fall.  I love the feeling that I’m becoming a new kind of writer, by stretching myself with every book.

Nevertheless, I am deeply flattered when readers take a book so thoroughly to heart that they crave to spend more time with the characters.  I hear this plea more often about Prodigal Summer than any other book, probably because the book is about biological cycles and rhythms, and therefore – as you point out – does not entirely conform to the conventional “beginning-to-end” structure.  My response is that those characters and that setting are yours now.  You can imagine them doing anything you want.

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ABOUT THE POISONWOOD BIBLE:

The history of cultural, religious and economic imperialism in Africa is not an easy subject.  What made you go there?  And why, specifically, the Congo in 1960?

This story came from a long-term fascination with politics and culpability, and my belief that what happened to the Congo in 1961 is one of the most important political parables of a century.  I’d thought about this story for a very long time, ever since the early 80’s when I read Jonathan Kwitny’s Endless Enemies, a stunning non-fiction account of that piece of history. 

Here’s how I framed the question, to myself:  nearly every industrialized country has arrived at its present prosperity by doing awful things, extracting wealth from some unfortunate locale, whether in the form of tea or diamonds, cheap labor, or even human slaves.  Most of us alive today didn’t participate in those decisions, but we do benefit materially from this history.  How do we think about that, if at all?  England has a strong tradition of postcolonial literature, but here in the U.S., we can hardly even say the word “postcolonial.”  We were a colony ourselves; we didn’t have colonies, we’re not like that.  If you can overlook an agricultural economy originally built on slave labor, and the odd coup our CIA has organized here and there, to control economic interests in Chile’s copper, Congo’s cobalt, and so on. We still would really like to think of ourselves as the global good guys.  Who wouldn’t? 

Denial is one path to redemption, but it leaves certain holes, and the possibility of repeat offense.  I’m keen to look at history, and study truth in all its facets.  I think this is one of the ways novelists can earn our keep, morally speaking.  So I decided to dive into the heart of darkness and write about paths to redemption.  It’s a large ambition.  I waited many years to begin.  I’d have waited a hundred, but realized I’d be dead before I was really wise enough to write this book, so I’d better give it a shot.

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Did you ever live in Africa yourself?

I did.  And I’m happy to say, my own experience was nothing like The Poisonwood Bible.  My father worked for fifty years as a physician dedicated to medically underserved populations.  Mostly he practiced in rural Kentucky, but occasionally he took our family to live in other places, where “medically underserved” is an understatement.  We spent 1963 in a Congolese village where most residents had never experienced electricity or plumbing, let alone western medical care.  I was seven years old when we went.  My parents were not missionaries, though we met some missionary families and benefited from their generosity on many occasions. 

My memories of playing with village children and exploring the jungle are acutely sensory and indelible.  My parents were courageous to do the work they did, risking their own comfort and security to help address problems like leprosy and smallpox.  But for me, it was just an adventure.  I was a child, and understood only about a thimbleful of what was happening around me in the Congo.  The thematic material of The Poisonwood is serious, adult stuff.  I wrote the book, not because of a brief adventure I had in place of second grade, but because as an adult I’m interested in cultural imperialism and post-colonial history.  I had to approach the subject in an adult way.

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Why did you choose to tell the story from five points of view, and how did you make them sound so distinct?

I spent nearly a year getting the hang of the Price girls, by choosing a practice scene and writing it in every different voice.  I did that over and over until I felt the rhythm and verbal instincts of character: Rachel’s malapropisms, Leah’s earnestness, the bizarre effects of Adah’s brain damage, and so forth.  Adah was the most challenging character I’ve ever created, starting with a lot of medical research about hemiplegia.  Those long palindromes became a family project, we all worked on them.  I gave not one single thought to the headaches I was giving to my future translators.

Why I framed the story this way has to do with the novel’s central question.  I don’t want to oversimplify, but this novel is about presumptions, arrogance, and the terrible things one country will do to another.  How, in the aftermath, do we make our peace with that? 

I don’t believe there is one single answer to that question; there are many.  In the four Price daughters and their mother, I personified attitudes crossing the spectrum from Orleanna’s paralyzing guilt to Rachel’s blithe “What, me worry?”  I wanted to create a moral conversation.  That’s what literature can do.

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What research helped you to recreate the world of missionaries to the Congo?

Obviously, I read a lot of books about the political, social, and natural history of Africa and the Congo.  Some were famous and well-written, but most were obscure.  I found some self-published memoirs written by missionaries to the Congo in the 50’s and 60’s, which were gems, giving me details of missionary life and attitudes from the era.  I also read daily from the King James Bible, to help internalize the rhythm of the Price family’s speech, their spiritual frame of reference, and countless plot ideas. Likewise, I daily perused an ancient, enormous, two-volume Kikongo-French dictionary, compiled early in the century (by a missionary).  I hoped to grasp the music and subtlety of this amazing African language, with its infinite capacity for being misunderstood and mistranslated.

A big challenge, also, was to capture the language of U.S. teenagers in the late 1950’s.  Teenage slang is notoriously ephemeral; if I’d just guessed, it would have sounded inauthentic. I purchased thirty pounds of Life, Look, and Saturday Evening Post magazines from 1958-1961, from a used book store, and sank into those pages until the attitudes of the era began to acquire for me a certain ring: “Aren’t you glad you use Dial?  Don’t you wish everybody did?”  Thus Rachel Price was born.

I also needed to know things about Africa that must be learned first-hand.  I made research trips into Western and Central Africa (as near as I could get to Mobutu’s Zaire) to experience the sounds, smells, textures, tastes, and domestic trivia that I couldn’t really get from reading.  I stayed with local residents, walked through village markets to bargain and bring home the ingredients of a meal, and often asked questions that many Africans surely found amusing and too personal.  A University student in Cotonou suffered my curiosity for days on end, giving me his frank views on religion, history, and family life that would permanently alter my universe.  I also spent time in museums studying exhibits on African religion and material culture.  I lost myself in the amazing Okapi diorama in the American Museum of Natural History.  And I spent one unforgettable afternoon in the Reptile House of the San Diego Zoo, watching a green mamba.

If this laundry list of observations seems excessive or odd, I can only say that this is what it means to be a novelist.  You have to be madly in love with the details.

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The evangelist Nathan Price never speaks for himself in this tale, we only see him through the eyes of his wife and daughters.  Why did you not give Nathan a voice?

Because of what the story is about.  Some people to seem to think this is a male/female issue, but that never even crossed my mind.  He represents an attitude.  This book is an allegory, in which the small incidents of characters’ lives shed light on larger events in our world.  The Prices carry into Africa a set of beliefs about religion, technology, health, politics, and agriculture, just as industrialized nations have often carried these beliefs into the developing world in a high-minded way, very certain of being right (even to the point of destroying local ideas, religion and leadership).  But sometimes—as happens in this novel—those attitudes are offensive or inapplicable.

I expected my readers would feel unsympathetic to that arrogance.  We didn’t make those decisions, we didn’t call for the assassination of Lumumba; most readers, I’m guessing, didn’t even know about it.  We inherited these decisions, and now have to reconcile them with our sense of who we are.  We’re the captive witnesses, just like the wife and daughters of Nathan Price.  Male or female, we are not like him.  That is what I wanted to write about.  We got pulled into this mess but we don’t identify with that arrogant voice.  It’s not his story.  It’s ours.

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What are your feelings about the single-minded Nathan?  Do you feel you did justice to him and his faith?

Nathan kept me in thrall for thousands of pages, through the many drafts of this long novel.  Am I pleased with how I rendered him?  Yes, of course, or he would not be in print.  I only turn in a manuscript after I’ve made it exactly what I want it to be.  If I ever worried that he was overdrawn, I don’t any more, since the book came out and I began getting letters from women asking, “How did you know my ex-husband?”
Nathan is single-minded, but I respect his complexity.  Sometimes people do contain their own opposites, particularly his combination of ferocity and cowardice.  He is charismatic and revolting; brilliant and tedious.  Unhinged characters are fascinating to create.  When people ask if I “did him justice,” I have no idea what they mean, because obviously I don’t owe him anything.  He’s a character, invented by me, to serve my plot.   I count on readers to know what literary fiction is, and to understand the relationship between character and theme.  Nathan Price does not represent the missionary profession (or men), any more than Dr. Jekyll represents all physicians or King Lear represents all old men with daughters.  Charles Dickens especially excelled at the wicked male character, but we don’t assume he therefore hated men.  I created Nathan Price as a symbolic figure suggesting many things about how Western nations have approached Africa with a history of arrogance and misunderstanding.

Did I do justice to his faith?  I would call his faith “deeply misguided Christianity, combined with mental illness,” and yes, I think I pegged it.  But many other spiritual traditions are also represented here.  I have no antagonism toward generous-hearted Christianity, or missionaries, and I took some care to show that.  My favorite character is Brother Fowles, a Christian who does beautiful things with the notion of mission.  At one point in the novel he says, “There are Christians, and there are Christians.”  Nathan Price and the Jesus-like Fowles are utterly different men who use the same name for opposite brands of faith and works.  They even have a Bible-quote showdown.  This duality is a real-life phenomenon I find fascinating.  To my mind, religion is never well served by people who attempt to reduce it to a sound bite.

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Were you consciously trying to create a parallel to Little Women, in this story of a mother and four daughters?

Certainly I considered that other famous family as I was writing this.  It was one of the most beloved books of my childhood.  But the parallels don’t go too far.  Louisa May Alcott didn’t put any snakes in her book, that I recall.

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Would you characterize this book as a postcolonial political epic, a psychological novel, a family saga, or what? 

Like most artists, I’m chary about categorizing my work—particularly this novel.  It’s very large.  It’s political and domestic, symbolic and epic and, I dearly hope, a heck of a read.  I believe in delivering on my contract with my readers.  You’ve got plenty of other things to do, I know, so here is our deal:  No matter what else I’m delivering inside the covers of a book, I promise also to make you laugh out loud at least once, cry some in private, and burn whatever you left on the stove.

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