Waxter speaker lures readers to science with fiction

| March 22, 2013

Author Barbara Kingsolver presented Sweet Briar’s 2013 Waxter Environmental Forum. Photo by Meridith De Avila Khan.

Writer Barbara Kingsolver charmed an audience of more than 600 people in Murchison Lane Auditorium Thursday night with the same grace and humor she uses to hook readers.

Kingsolver presented Sweet Briar College’s 2013 Julia B. Waxter Environmental Forum, an annual lecture series focusing on environmental concerns. The much-loved and critically acclaimed author of 14 books brought her own words to life as she read from her latest novel, “Flight Behavior.” The story explores the central question of why different people look at the same set of facts about climate change and reach different conclusions.

First she explained that she’d been trying to figure out for two or three years how to write about the thorny subject. The answer came to her when she awoke one morning with a vision. She imagined millions of monarch butterflies landing in the hollow behind her home in southern Appalachia, thousands of miles from where they are supposed to winter in Mexico.

In short, she begins with a dramatic effect of climate change and builds the narrative around how her characters interpret what has happened. Kingsolver is trained in ecology and evolutionary biology and has always sought to teach her readers about the natural world.

“I have this idea that there are lots of people who probably would like to know stuff about science but they don’t think they want to. So, this is my sedition. I put it in novels,” she said.

The premise has to be plausible, of course, and the science has to be real.

“Now we’re getting into an interesting area of what fiction is and what it does, because I wanted everything in my novel to be true even though it’s not, it hasn’t happened,” she said. “I want my readers to be able to trust me that everything I’m telling you is accurate even though I made the whole thing up.”

Kingsolver was aware that her audience included about 60 participants in Sweet Briar’s annual Creative Writing Conference for undergraduate students — promising writers from colleges around the country. For them, she had this advice: Be smarter than all of the characters in your book.

So, in addition to exhaustive study of the literature on monarch butterflies, she did primary research. She visited the overwintering colonies in Mexico and she went to the lab of Lincoln Brower, a research biologist at Sweet Briar and one of the world’s foremost experts on monarchs.

It was Brower and his wife, Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink, who gave Kingsolver the confidence that the extreme natural disturbance she describes in the book is theoretically sound. They also reviewed the manuscript for the scientific details.

“That made me really happy because I felt safe sending this into the world, that I haven’t written anything that is stupid,” Kingsolver said.

Kingsolver says her books don’t try to make a moral point. Rather, she creates a world in which she hopes readers will hang out a while, exploring the questions it raises for themselves. As a scientist and a novelist, she can speak to readers on opposite sides of issues such as climate change.

This is important, she says, at a time 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.

The event was streamed live and may be viewed at sbc.edu/live. Read the Lynchburg News & Advance coverage here.

Jennifer McManamay

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Category: Biology, Environmental Science, Environmental Studies