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Barbara Kingsolver, writer: ‘You buy a book to take a break, not to be taught a lesson’

In ‘Demon Copperhead’ the American author builds a saga about the impoverished Appalachian region and the opioid crisis. Inspired by Charles Dickens, the book won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver, pictured in London, when she received the Women’s Prize for Fiction for 'Demon Copperhead,' in June 2023.David Levenson (Getty Images)
Andrea Aguilar

She was going to be a pianist, but ended up changing course, studying biology and ecology instead. She was in her thirties when she published her first novel. And, since then, Barbara Kingsolver, 69, has published 17 books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her best-known works include The Poisonwood Bible (1998) — the story about a family of American missionaries in the Congo, where she lived for several years as a child (her father worked there as a doctor) — and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007), about a project that she undertook with her husband and daughters. For a year, they only fed themselves with the food obtained from either their farm or their own neighborhood.

Adored by millions of readers and honored with numerous awards, the author’s piano skills didn’t fall entirely on deaf ears: she performed as a keyboardist in an amateur band — Rock Bottom Remainders — alongside novelists Stephen King and Amy Tan, among others. “It was [columnist] Kathi Kamen’s idea. She accompanied [us] when we were on tour in San Francisco. Since she was a musician, she ended up discovering that many of the writers played instruments. I didn’t last very long, but I had a great time,” she recalls, during a videoconference with EL PAÍS from her farm in West Virginia.

Kingsolver has just concluded a long promotional tour through Europe for Demon Copperhead, her latest novel. It won her the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (Hernán Díaz also won, for his novel Fortuna). This time around, her European trip didn’t take her to Tenerife, the Spanish island where she spent a year in 1991 (it’s rumored that she decided to go there when the United States entered the first Gulf War). However, Kingsolver speaks enthusiastically about her visit to Cádiz, a city that she’s been intrigued with ever since she read books about trade between Spain and North America.

“That place was alive in my head,” she says, with a broad smile. In her latest novel, however, the writer hasn’t traveled to any distant place. Rather, she has put the magnifying glass on the impoverished region where she was born and where she still lives today, the Appalachian Mountains. Once a mining hub, Appalachia is one of the American regions with the highest poverty rates. The opioid crisis has had the greatest impact in this area, making it the central nerve in the story of Demon, the red-haired protagonist of the book.

While writing Demon Copperhead, Kingsolver took David Copperfield — the monumental work by Charles Dickens — as a guide, adapting it to the present-day. “It’s a mountainous region… a place more culturally than politically united, because it’s distributed across many states (13 in total, including Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi). It has a long history of exploitation: its inhabitants have seen their opportunities to prosper completely curtailed. When the mines were active, everything was set up so that there was no other business, no possibility of employment in another sector, no opportunities in education. Those of us who live here are looked at with disdain: we’re what they call ‘hillbillies.’ [We’re] the rednecks who are always laughed at,” she notes.

Does she live in Trump country? “Rural people tend to be more conservative,” she shrugs. “Here, many feel ignored, left out, without trains or buses, with closed hospitals. [It takes] more than two hours by car to get to the doctor. Many of my neighbors vote for Trump, yes. And I understand why, because they’re very frustrated,” the author explains. “They’re the forgotten and punished, whose misery [is separate from] racial injustices. In the United States, we talk about structural racism, but never about the structural classism suffered by the working class. Here, the myth persists that this is a classless society. But people who start out with nothing don’t get ahead… and they feel ashamed. The victims are blamed for their poverty,” she emphasizes.

View of the Appalachian Mountains.
View of the Appalachian Mountains.NurPhoto (NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Kingsolver remembers that her encounter with Dickens goes back to childhood, with A Christmas Carol (1843). She’s read all the classic British novels, but David Copperfield didn’t particularly stand out in her imagination until she set out to write “a great saga of my people and my place, that had a context.” She wanted to talk about the brutal opioid epidemic and suddenly remembered Dickens, who wrote about rough lives, misery and children who had to work. “I decided to relocate his book here, to make it that same hard story of love, humor and growing up. David Copperfield would be my template. I was passionate about the challenge… it was like fitting a puzzle with many pieces,” she notes.

Kingsolver is often called a “political writer,” perhaps because she always places her pen on the side of those who suffer injustice. What does she think of this label? “I never understand what they mean and I don’t think it makes any sense. I don’t write fantasy books, but my stories are located in this world full of inequalities, machismo, and racism. In the past, there was anxiety within artistic circles about social realism, but it has now been overcome,” she reflects. “My writing isn’t domestic. I leave the house behind [when I write] my books and address issues such as, for example, child abuse. Perhaps women are more harshly judged for having ambition and not limiting themselves to an intimate universe.”

Before turning to voluminous novels and intricate stories, Kingsolver studied science and worked as a freelance journalist. Did this formation help her literary career? “I’m introverted and shy. Journalism forced me to call people up and ask them questions. It gave me tools that I later used in fiction. With Demon Copperhead, I investigated the childcare system and drug addiction. A lot of people who are hooked only started taking these pills after their doctor gave them a prescription,” she explains.

Science, she says, allowed her to approach writing by starting from a hypothesis, to try to reach a conclusion. But, Kingsolver emphasizes, it’s essential to never tell the reader what to think. “You buy a book to take a break, not to be taught a lesson. I think of novels as windows and mirrors. When you’re little, they allow you to see what’s happening outside. And, when you grow up, you see them as a reflection of what you feel. I hope that the people who read my books see another world and feel compassion.”

Translated by Avik Jain Chatlani.

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