Scientist Gets Her Way with Words

| August 5, 2013

Danaus plexippus in Michoacan, Mexico. Photo: Medford Taylor.

By Jennifer McManamay

Barbara Kingsolver likes to joke about the limited reach of her writing when she was a graduate student in evolutionary biology.

“I thought there must be a better way to make writing about science more useful to more people than the ten or twelve who would read my dissertation,” says the now popular and critically acclaimed author of 14 books.

“This is my sedition,” she says. “I put [science] in novels.”

To be true to this aim, the story can be made up, but the science must be real. That’s how Sweet Briar College and research professor of biology Lincoln Brower came to make a cameo appearance in Kingsolver’s latest best-seller, “Flight Behavior.” She sought Brower as one of the world’s foremost experts on monarch butterflies because she needed to know if and how her book’s premise could  happen — even though it hasn’t.

The novel opens with a dramatic effect of climate change: Millions of the migratory monarchs appear on a southern Appalachian mountainside. The butterflies are supposed to be thousands of miles away, in their protective overwintering grounds in Mexico.

As part of her meticulous research, Kingsolver visited Brower and his wife, Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink, at their Sweet Briar lab. Their consequent friendship also brought Kingsolver to the College in March. She read from and spoke about “Flight Behavior” as the 2013 Julia B. Waxter Environmental Forum presenter.

The book’s narrative grows from how her characters respond to the monarchs’ presence — from the scientists who investigate it as an ecological disaster to town folk who see the hand of God, and those who fall somewhere between.

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver read from and spoke about “Flight Behavior” at the 2013 Julia B. Waxter Environmental Forum. Photo: Meridith De Avila Khan.

Kingsolver said she wanted to write a novel about why people think about climate change or why they don’t, and how they draw different conclusions from the same set of facts.

Kingsolver says her books don’t try to take sides.

“A novel is more like a conversation that asks the reader to think about things in a new way,” she says. “[‘Flight Behavior’] is about people, family, about telling the truth, modes of denial, the divide between rural and urban cultures, between science and religion, faith and objectivity, and the media.”

Brower and Fink counted on that.

“We knew she was going to be objective about [climate change] and she was going to spin an interesting yarn around it,” Brower says. “I have no problem with that, in fact using literature to explore complex issues is an important thing to do.”

The author was relieved by the couple’s response, as she had approached them with some trepidation. Would they think her central premise was nonsense, despite her own preliminary research concluding it was not? They didn’t disagree.

“It turns out they are literary people, they read fiction, they understand the symbolic nature of fiction. They understand that fiction is about real things even though they haven’t happened,” she says. “I was so gratified by the generosity of their imaginations.”

Kingsolver says she has always felt the need to write, but saw training in science as a more useful occupation. After almost accidentally publishing her first book, “The Bean Trees,” she decided she liked being a novelist.

“But I feel that I can also be a scientist, I can also be a citizen of the world, I can do a lot of the work that I wanted to do as a scientist while sitting at my desk being a writer.”

Addressing students studying science and creative writing during the Waxter Forum, she noted the “combination of those interests is something very valuable in the world at this moment,” when we have big environmental questions to think about and decisions that can no longer be postponed.

“Talking across those divides is the most useful thing we can possibly do,” she said, adding that listening is equally important.

Students who had opportunities to talk with Kingsolver while she was on campus took her message to heart.

Sarah Lindemann ’13, Barbara Kingsolver and President Jo Ellen Parker. Photo: Meridith De Avila Khan.

“The biggest thing I took away was that we need all kinds of people who can understand science and communicate it through all kinds of mediums, whether through writing, paintings, photography or education,” said Morgan Franke, a senior studying biology and environmental science.

“It further impressed upon me that I not only want to be researching different conservation methods, but I need to be able to relay to the public why it’s important and give them a reason to care.”

Sophomore Kaitlin Schaal heard that, too, but after Kingsolver spoke vividly of the need to see, hear and smell the things she writes about, the biology major and creative writing minor took away another lesson.

“As an author, you have to know everything,” Schaal said.

Even so, Kingsolver asked Brower and Fink to review the finished manuscript.

“I felt they had my back, that when this book went to press I was probably not going to hear complaints from monarch butterfly researchers about the science. And that’s been true.”

Speaking at Sweet Briar was a measure of her appreciation. While she enjoys meeting readers, she doesn’t do paid public appearances, she said in an interview. She’d rather spend her time where her heart is, at her writing desk.

Besides, she says looking back at her writing career, her first child and first book contract arrived at the same time.

“Gallivanting around the country [being a celebrity] is also anathema to family life,” she says. “I looked around and saw that very successful writers were generally not women raising children and if I was going to be one, I was going to have to work hard on getting my priorities straight. You can’t do it all. I just made that choice.”

Kingsolver’s online biography lists numerous accolades including the National Humanities Medal and finalist consideration for a Pulitzer. She also established the Bellwether Prize for first unpublished novels, which has helped launch careers.

What gratifies her the most?

“That I have managed to do it all and raise two daughters who seem to be happy, well-adjusted and are determined to be useful to society.”

Category: Features, Features Summer 2013, Summer 2013