Written by Hannah Yterdal.
What makes a great writer? Is it the number of books they sell? The messages they deliver? Their skill with words? Or their uncanny ability to examine humanity in a way that makes us re-examine ourselves?
If any or all of these makes a great writer, few are on a level with Barbara Kingsolver. She is the author of 12 books, the first of which was published in 1988, that range from novels to essay collections to poetry. Her books have been adopted into high school and college curriculums across the country and translated into several languages. Her flowing, poetic style and insightful prose have made her one of the most influential modern authors.
Kingsolver was born in 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland and grew up in the Kentucky countryside. Beginning at age nine, she kept a journal and entered every essay contest she could. She graduated from DePauw University with a degree in Biology. She then spent the years after college in Greece, France and England, and later moved to Tucson, Arizona and earned her graduate degree in evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona. After graduate school she worked as a scientific writer for the University of Arizona before becoming a freelance journalist.
Kingsolver’s short stories and poetry began to be published in the mid-1980’s. She wrote her first novel, “The Bean Trees,” while pregnant with her first child. The novel was published in 1988 and has since been adopted into the core curriculum of high school and college literature classes across the U.S., and has been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Her other novels include “The Poisonwood Bible”, “Pigs in Heaven”, and “Animal Dreams”. Her collection of essays “High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now and Never” was published in 1995 and became a bestseller.
In 1997 Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize, awarded in even-numbered years to a first novel that exemplifies outstanding literary quality and a commitment to literature as a tool for social change. In 2000, in addition to the major medals and honors her books had won, Kingsolver was awarded with the National Humanities Medal, the United State’s highest honor for service through the arts.
In 1998 a special edition 10-year anniversary hardcover of “The Bean Trees” was issued. Although the book was received enthusiastically by critics, the most important thing to Kingsolver is that the ordinary reader enjoys her novels.
“A novel can educate to some extent,” she told “Publishers Weekly”. “But first, a novel has to entertain—that’s the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I’ll give you a reason to turn every page. I have a commitment to accessibility. I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want the people I grew up with—who may not often read anything but the Sears catalogue—to read my books.”
Barbara is the mother of two daughters, Camille and Lily, and is married to Steven Hopp, a professor of Environmental Sciences. In 2004, after more than 25 years in Tucson, Arizona, Barbara left the southwest to return to her native terrain. She now lives with her family on a farm in southwestern Virginia where they raise free-range chickens, turkeys, Icelandic sheep, and an enormous vegetable garden.
Many of Kingsolver’s novels are set in the physical and psychological locations that the author is most familiar with, but readers would be mistaken to assume that her work is autobiographical.
“There are little things that people who know me might recognize in my novels,” she said, “but my work is not about me. I don’t ever write about real people. That would be stealing, first of all. And second of all, art is supposed to be better than that. If you want a slice of life, look out the window. An artist has to look out that window, isolate one or two suggestive things, and embroider them together with poetry and fabrication, to create a revelation. If we can’t, as artists, improve on real life, we should put down our pencils and go bake bread.”