Barbara Kingsolver, of Poisonwood Bible and Lacuna fame, requested her publisher not to be too explicit about a major plot point of her new novel, Flight Behavior (HarperCollins), in which a fearsome and unexplained vision is revealed in the opening chapter to the book’s protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow. “Requested” is too weak a word for Kingsolver. “I begged them not to put it on flap copy or the cover,” she says. The result of some environmental catastrophe caused by climate change, Dellarobia’s vision fuels the events of the novel, as people in her small Southern town try to make sense of what she witnessed, offering up explanations religious, secular, scientific, and magical.
“The book is about catastrophe and disaster and the psychological triggers that lead us to look at evidence and accept or deny what we’ve seen,” Kingsolver says. “It’s about how we see what we see and how our preconceptions influence what we see. We would like to believe that given the same evidence we would all see the same thing. But that’s not true. The book examines how we decide what to believe.”
The novel’s setting of rural southern Appalachia is also Kingsolver’s home turf. “I have enormous sympathy for the people who live there,” she says. “They are savvy but not worldly, smart but not well educated. They’re religious. Politically conservative. In the novel these people are thrown into contact with urbane, worldly, educated, scientific outsiders. The hardest part of writing the novel was when I sent these characters off to New York to be read by people who are not familiar with this cultural milieu. It’s a more sympathetic view of my culture than most people are prepared for. But so far so good. The reaction has been entirely positive.”
Though she’s been to BEA for many of her previous books, Kingsolver is excited to be attending another one. “It’s heartening to see so much attention focused on books rather than movie stars, scandal, money, and reality TV,” she says. “All of us in the publishing industry have this feeling that we are in some sense survivors of our time. We are still writing and still reading. I feel a great loyalty to my tribe.”
Kingsolver is one of the Adult Book and Author Breakfast speakers, and she will be at the Uptown Stage along with PEN American Center president Peter Godwin to announce and present the winner of the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Kingsolver established this $25,000 prize in 1999 to honor and publish an unpublished work of fiction, and funds it herself; for the first time, PEN has become a partner in the award.