Kingsolver takes 'Flight'

Writer explains climate change in new novel
By Stina Sieg | Nov 19, 2012
Photo by: Annie Griffiths Famed novelist Barbara Kingsolver, whose most recent books delves into climate change, will be in Asheville Nov. 28. Tickets are available with the purchase of "Flight Behavior" from Malaprops Bookstore/Cafe.

When Barbara Kingsolver sits down to write, she doesn’t worry so much about her characters. They’re important, of course, but to this famed novelist, essayist and poet, they’re not the point. The point is the story she’s hungry to tell, often about social or environmental justice.

In the past, she’s dealt with everything from illegal immigration to biodiversity, often with a sense of hope and possibility in her prose. This time around she’s on to climate change — and it seems she couldn’t have picked a better moment to bring it up. Her book tour for “Flight Behavior” has coincided with the outbreak and aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, an event many connect to the warming of the planet.

“Well, at the moment, it means I can’t even get on a train to go to my next stop,” she said by phone a few weeks back, “so it’s definitely left its thumbprint on the tour.”

She was almost joking around as she talked, but the lightness belied a larger truth, a looming dread she’s been feeling for years. Her urgent angst over the planet’s rising temperatures is at the center of this novel.

“How is it that a lot of people can look at the same set of facts and come away believing very different things?” she asked. “And specifically, why are we behaving this way about climate change?”

It’s not even that people disagree, she went on. It’s that almost no one — not the believers or nonbelievers — has been discussing this issue.

“And it gets more and more difficult, rather than easier, to have that conversation,” she said. “Why is that? That’s my question.”

While Kingsolver, who was trained as a scientist, has been asking this for years, most of the characters in her novel haven’t. These are “good, forthright” people of small-town Appalachia, as she calls them, and like most anyone would, they ignore a complex and emotional issue until they can’t any more. The turning point comes when an inexplicable natural disaster hits their small slice of Tennessee, and scientists and the media flock to the area to gawk and explain.

These are people who think they “know better” than the locals, Kingsolver said, and in turn the natives are “flummoxed” by the invaders. Having been raised in rural Kentucky, and now living among the farms and coal mines of rural Virginia, she considers herself an Appalachian insider. So, she’s sensitive to the feelings of the people in this book, while still raising the concerns she feels she must.

“The most important requirement of me as I entered this novel is that I do it with absolutely no condescension,” she said. “I wanted to invoke every side of this argument — or non-argument, non-conversation — with absolute sympathy.”
Like journalists do — or aspire to — she doesn’t tell her readers how to feel. Instead, she presents a situation with facts and feelings on both sides, and lets the questions sit and simmer for her audience to answer on their own.

This nuanced approach is probably not something she could have done in her younger days, she admitted.

“But as I get older, I get more sure that nobody is entirely right, and nobody is entirely wrong,” she said.

Even in a situation as seemingly cut and dry as climate change, she knows that scientific facts don’t matter as much as how they’re delivered. People absorb their truths from people they trust, she said, and she believes everyone does that at all ends of the spectrum. That means real change, changes of heart, take a long time, even in the face of all the extreme weather that has been ramping up across the world in recent years.

While she appreciates that people are finally discussing climate change in a real way, she gets no joy from having beaten so many to the punch.

This issue is, in her words, “the tragedy of all human existence.”

“So, no, there’s no vindication in it for me. It’s great sadness,” she said. “I have kids that are going to have to grow up and deal with this mess, so it’s an immense burden, frankly, to carry around information that no one else — well, I won’t say no one — that many people choose to ignore.”

In black-and-white print, Kingsolver’s words might look angry, but they’re not. She’s not, at least not that she is letting on. She is more focused than that, awake and ready to discuss what’s she has been wanting people to talk about for a long time.
In the past, she’s been called an activist, and it’s easy to see why. This book, like so many of her books, is her addition to a conversation she holds dear.

“What I can do is write. What I can do is ask questions,” she said. “That’s my job, and that’s what I do.”

Barbara Kingsolver will be coming to town soon, with an appearance at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28. One ticket comes with each purchase of “Flight Behavior” from Malaprops Bookstore/Cafe, at 55 Haywood St., in Asheville. Call 254-6734 or visit for more information.