Barbara Kingsolver: 'Motherhood is so sentimentalised in our culture'

The American author on her novel Flight Behaviour, shortlisted for the Women's prize, and the truth about living with young children

Raised in rural Kentucky, Barbara Kingsolver studied biology at DePauw and the University of Arizona and had a science-writing career before publishing her first novel, 1988's The Bean Trees, which roughly coincided with having her first child. The 58-year-old now lives on a farm in Virginia and has 14 books to her name, including the bestselling The Poisonwood Bible. The winner of numerous awards, including the 2010 Orange prize, and the founder of the Bellwether prize for socially conscious fiction, her most recent book is Flight Behaviour.

Where did you get the idea for Flight Behaviour, a novel charting the impact of climate change on a rural farming community in the Appalachians?
I had been wanting to write about climate change for some years. One morning I imagined millions of butterflies settling in the treetops – a drastically altered natural phenomenon that people would not understand as dangerous, one that looks really beautiful but is in fact dreadful. I don't know how that vision came into my head as that is not how this business usually works. Most every book I bring into the world is like birthing a baby, it's a lot of effort! So when it did, I thought: oh, this is a perfect starting point.

This novel represents motherhood in quite a stark light.
Motherhood is so sentimentalised and romanticised in our culture. It's practically against the law to say there are moments in the day when you hate your children. Everyone actually has those moments. So to create this mother, who loves her children, of course, but is just so fed up of living in a house with people who roll plastic trucks on the floor, was a writing challenge.

Children feature prominently in your writing. Why is this?
I love developing children as characters. Children rarely have important roles in literary fiction – they are usually defined as cute or precious, or they create a plot by being kidnapped or dying. I think that's probably because people who are writing novels are not usually raising children. A lot of writers are women who don't have children or who are past their child-rearing days, or, I'm sorry to say it, men who can go off to their cabin in the woods to write a novel. So I feel really lucky I've had this rich and textured experience of having children literally on my desk most of the time I've been writing novels, at least for some portion of the day.

Flight Behaviour is on the Women's prize for fiction shortlist this year. After winning in 2010 for The Lacuna, do you think you could do it again?
Oh no, I might even feel guilty if I won! However I am very excited that it is included. But I just can't call it the Women's prize – I keep calling it the Prize Formerly Known as Orange.

Which book are you most proud of?
I have a loyalty to each one, but the book I feel most proud of, because it was hardest to write, is The Lacuna. It was like creating a flying machine – I had to get it to fly. And I do think 50 years from now, if there are people and there are books, that's the one of mine that people will be reading.

Where do you write?
I have an office in my house. Actually it's currently in transition because one of my rules is that when I finish a novel, I have a complete clear-out. Writing novels is a much messier business that you think. I have this desk that's 12ft long, covered with stacks of scientific journals, newspaper clippings, printer paper, the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Animal Life… I can't really start writing the next novel until I've cleared out all of these research materials. And then I get a fresh start.

You set up your own website to correct information about you circulating on the internet. What's the most ridiculous thing you've read about yourself?
On Wikipedia at one point it said I belonged to a terrorist group that had attempted to assassinate President Ford! But I think the most common misconception is people confusing my fiction with my life. After The Poisonwood Bible was published several people believed that my parents were missionaries, which could not be further from the truth. For years I found it irritating – give me a little credit! I make this stuff up! But eventually I learned to take it as a compliment. If it seems true to people, it must be well written. If they think the characters I have invented are real, then I have done my job. That's the magic trick we do.


Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy

The GuardianTramp

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