“I find comfort in my work, because when I walk into my office and close the door, I completely leave my own life. In some ways I’m shouldering the human condition, which is a lot of weight there, but when I’m writing, when it’s going well, I have completely forgotten myself.”
Barbara Kingsolver once wrote that “a novel is like a cathedral, it knocks you down to size when you enter into it.” She should know. The 65-year-old is the author of eight acclaimed novels, including The Poisonwood Bible (1998) and Flight Behavior (2012), as well as eight other books. Her latest publication is a collection of poetry, How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons).
If a novel is like entering a cathedral, what is a poem like? “It’s far less intimidating,” she observes. “Still, I walk into a poem with the same sense of awe and humility. I love poetry and in many ways consider it to be the finest distillation of my art, the writing art, because of the craft involved. Every word has to carry its own weight. A novel is vast; a place of wonder that takes a long time to build. Entering a poem is like entering a clearing in a forest and hearing one bird sing and thinking, ‘This is a perfect place. I will do my best to earn my place here, to be a part of this grace.’”
Her new collection of poems “is far and away my most spiritual work I’ve published,” she says. “I carry my spiritual beliefs very close to the vest.
After The Poisonwood Bible came out I got asked a lot of questions about religion, since there were religious zealots at the story’s center … But I never wanted to talk about religion. My pat answer was, ‘Religion is like underwear. It is always close to you and you don’t bring it out in public.’”
With the new book, “it felt like I was coming out of the closet, because I am revealing myself in the poems,” she says. “I would say the title poem is my best distillation of my spiritual beliefs. The questions my kids asked me when they were little—what happens when we die, why are we here—all of those are answered in the poem.” Nature is a huge part of Kingsolver’s spiritual side. “The way I go to church is to go to the woods,” she says. “I hope that by going public with my view of spirituality, other people can find comfort in the parts of that which we share.”
Kingsolver has completed more than half a draft of a new novel during the pandemic. “It’s about difficult things, as all of my novels are. You don’t get a backlist like mine otherwise. I always write about things that worry me most. I find comfort in my work, because when I walk into my office and close the door, I completely leave my own life. In some ways I’m shouldering the human condition, which is a lot of weight there, but when I’m writing, when it’s going well, I have completely forgotten myself.” She may not move for hours when she is engrossed in her writing. “There is no me anymore. There is no me in that place of perfect creativity … I forget that I have a body.
“From my way of understanding my world, and humanity, and myself,” Kingsolver says, “forgetting there is a me is a state of grace. So you can see why that is very comforting. It’s also my way of doing something. I was raised to do something, to roll up my sleeves. There is comfort in feeling like you can be part of the solution. I can’t cure this virus. I can’t heal the sick. But writing is what I can do, what I can give.”
Kingsolver recently recorded the audiobook for Animal Dreams, a novel she wrote in her 30s. In preparation, she read the book to reacquaint herself with the characters. “I kept thinking, ‘I wouldn’t do it this way—I wouldn’t write it this way today.’”
But then, she says, “I started thinking of all the people who have told me over the years that Animal Dreams is their favorite book … Maybe the writer I was in my mid-30s had something to say and I’ve moved on from that. It became kind of a mystical experience in the studio, channeling the 33-year-old Barbara. I embraced my inner writers, all the writers I have been. … It’s a magical feeling, as a writer. All of those Barbara’s are still speaking to people.”
“I think it’s important for all of us, not just writers, all of us, to honor the people we have been in the past even if we chose to do things we wouldn’t choose to do now. They were the correct and well-informed actions of the people we were then. Those things we did when we were younger were not mistakes.”