Liz McCormick Published

Author Barbara Kingsolver Reflects On Appalachian Writing, Climate Change And Upcoming Novel

Barbara Kingslover
Barbara Kingsolver
Evan Kafka

Updated on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 at 9 a.m.

Kentucky author Barbara Kingsolver has won a 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her latest novel Demon Copperhead. The book debuted in October 2022.

Kingsolver has won numerous awards and accolades over her career, including the National Humanities Medal, the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction in Britain, and her 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible won the National Book Prize of South Africa, held a spot on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year and was an Oprah Book Club selection.

While Kingsolver’s fiction takes readers all over the world, she says her Appalachian roots inspire key themes and ideas in her stories. Last fall, Kingsolver was recognized by Shepherd University as the 2022 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence. Liz McCormick sat down with her at that time to learn more.

Listen to the extended conversation below:

EXTENDED: Author Barbara Kingsolver Reflects On Appalachian Writing, Climate Change And Upcoming Novel

The transcript below is from the original broadcast that aired in West Virginia Morning on Oct. 7, 2022. It has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Liz McCormick: What does it mean to be an Appalachian in your own experiences, in your own words? 

Barbara Kingsolver: To me, it means home. It means recognizing and celebrating my own people. I grew up in the eastern part of Kentucky. I left my little rural town, as young people do. I lived all over the place on several continents, doing low paying jobs. And as I traveled the world, and this country, I encountered a lot of shocking stereotypes, a lot of condescension that made me mad, it still makes me mad.

After trying out a lot of different places, I came back home to Appalachia, and I now live on the other side of the mountains in southwest Virginia. But it’s the same culture. It’s the same language. It’s the same emphasis on community, and resourcefulness, and kindness that I grew up knowing and loving.

So as a writer, I see it as sort of my mission to represent us in a way that is seldom seen and seldom understood outside of Appalachia.

McCormick: Barbara, you’ve written a lot of diverse stories, ranging from novels, short stories, poetry; some of these stories take us all over the world. What sort of impact do your Appalachian roots play in your writing? Like with The Poisonwood Bible, it took place in the Congo, how does your background and roots here in Appalachia impact your writing?

Kingsolver: You know, they say that every writer is really writing the same story over and over again. And if that’s true, my story is about community. If I really examine all my works, even though I work hard to make each one entirely new, not just a new place and set of characters, but I ask a whole new question.

I’ve written about climate change and why that’s so hard for us to talk about. I’ve written, as you said, a book set in the Congo, which is about cultural arrogance, and how what one nation will do to another. So these are big, big questions, sort of urgent, modern themes. But if you sort of dig down into the heart of every one of these stories, it’s about community, what is our duty to our community? How do we belong to it? How does it belong to us? And how does that play against the really powerful American iconography of the individual, the solo flyer, the lone hero that’s supposed to be the American story.

But as a woman, and as an Appalachian woman, I always see the other people behind the solo flyer. The people who gassed up his airplane, the women who packed his lunch. I mean, there is no such thing as a lone hero. I’m interested in the heroism of people who think they’re ordinary, and people who are helping each other, creating families for each other or safety networks for each other, who are aware of their indebtedness to their neighbors and their people.

McCormick: I understand you have a book that is soon to be hitting bookshelves on Oct. 18. And that is Demon Copperhead. I want to ask you to talk with us about this book, and what can readers expect when they read this?

Kingsolver: Readers can expect a page turner. I live in deep, deep southwest Virginia, which is the epicenter of the opioid epidemic. So we are living with this, and I wanted for several years to write about it, and I couldn’t think of a good way in that would make this story interesting and appealing to people, to readers, because it’s a hard subject. It’s dark, it’s difficult. Kids coming up in this environment.

And then I sort of had a conversation with Charles Dickens, and I realized the way to tell the story is the way he told David Copperfield. Let the child tell the story. That’s what I realized I needed to do. So this kid who’s called Copperhead, because he has red hair. He has Melungeon heritage, if people know what that is, and he’s the child of a teenage, drug-using mother. He’s born on the floor of her single wide trailer home. And he comes into the world with this fierce — if a newborn can have an attitude, demon has it — he tells you his story from his point of view, mostly taking place in his teens and early 20s, as oxycontin is released into Lee County, where he lives.

But he tells this story in a way that’s in his own voice. In a way that will just give the reader a reason to turn every page because you need to know how he’s going to come through this. How he’s going to survive because he is a survivor. He’s funny, he’s fierce, and he’s passionate.