If a function of fiction is to describe truths that elude other forms of communication, how can a novel say something true about one of the most difficult truths of our time—that Earth’s climate is changing? Barbara Kingsolver’s newest book, Flight Behavior, about an Appalachian woman who discovers something new and dazzlingly wrong in the woods near her home, offers one compelling answer. Here’s Barbara on whether and how novelists can address humanity’s most demanding, confusing, and far-reaching crisis.
In the world where I live and work and look my family in the eye every day, I can’t see anything more important in our periphery than climate change. Honestly, nothing. The work deadline, the college decision, the ever-fascinating broken heart—I’m sorry, but you can’t name the item on your agenda that holds a candle to the physics and cultural reckoning of a pending global disaster. And yet the subject goes untouched by literature. For that matter, it’s rarely touched even by political discourse.
For me, as a novelist, this is catnip: to touch the untouchable. To roll around in it, actually. To invent the characters and conversations, the scenarios, the confrontations that add up to a story nobody has told yet, because it was presumed too scary to talk about. This is thrilling territory. These are the novels I’ve wanted to read, all my life, and certainly they’re the ones I want to write.
However reality-based a topic may be, though, the point of entry for fiction can only and ever be the human psyche. What do we talk about, when we talk about climate change? Or more to the point, when we don’t talk about it? Why, and why not? I live in rural Appalachia, among farmers, who are among this country’s most vulnerable populations in the face of extreme weather events, but around here we are mostly non-conversant on the subject of climate change. How on earth does that happen to smart, functional people? Who are the players in the culture war, and how do science and evidence play out against trust and faith, for any of us? Isn’t it true that we all, at some point, attach ourselves fiercely to belief systems that will be our ruin? These were the kinds of questions that pulled me into the narrative, when I began writing Flight Behavior.
From questions like those, art surely rises. Characters emerge, conflicts bristle, metaphor lights a path, language seduces. There is research, of course, and lots of it, but mostly there is the business of spinning threads of sentences, one after another, until they amount to a sturdy net, pulling the reader away from his or her life into a new world of sights unseen. I trusted that if I kept at the task, I could eventually bring around the unprecedented storms, the disrupted biological systems, maybe even some physics, but it always has to begin with a stranger who comes to town. Or in this case, a young farm wife marching up a hill to meet her secret lover and ruin her life. It begins with a first sentence that makes a promise: “A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture.”
The starting point is to find the bedrock at the bottom of the particular story, the thing that’s true for everyone. That’s the trick. That is how five hundred pages of pure invention can be true as true can be.
Learn more about the Orion Book Award here, and stay tuned to the Orion blog for more on the year’s finalists.