Barbara Kingsolver: What is the Heart of a Novel?

 

Cover of "The Poisonwood Bible"

Cover of The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver is an American novelist, essayist and poet. She was raised in rural Kentucky and lived briefly in the Congo in her early childhood. The novel which earned her a pulitzer prize nomination and an Oprah endorsement, was “The Poisonwood Bible”  published in 1998, and follows a missionary family in the colonial Congo.  She is now the author of 14 books and her most recent novel “Flight Behaviour “, deals with climate change.

How Does a Novel Start?

I talked a couple of weeks ago in my post on Ray Bradbury, about the short story, referencing one of his quotes. This week I’d like, through Barbara Kingsolver, to look at how a novel might come to fruition. We can look at what is the heart of a novel by looking at her inspiration for it’s beginning.

“I woke up one morning with a vision,” she says. “I don’t know whether it was a dream, but it felt very dreamlike. And I saw – I don’t want to say it because I’ve made a point of not revealing the secret – the beautiful thing that arrives, that starts this novel rolling. I just woke up and saw that, in these forested mountains where I live.”

“I didn’t even understand what I’d imagined,” Kingsolver says, recalling that vision she had, “but I spent all day thinking about it and I’m enough of a biologist to ponder what it would really mean if that did happen here. I immediately saw the whole thing. Often there is a moment when I can see the novel sort of unrolling like a carpet in front of me and that did happen with this book. I think the novel is very much about how we understand and process what we see and how very true it is how we decide first what we believe and then collect evidence to support it, rather than the reverse. When you look at the conversation about climate change it’s baffling that everyone is presented with the same facts but people come away with very different convictions about what’s going on.”

This is one person’s experience, but it struck a chord for me. A novel can start with just the tiniest of sparks, and from that it can unfold or unroll like a carpet, as Kingsolver says. Like the short story, and even more so, you need to have a feeling about the work and be totally immersed in that feeling, otherwise what the book is really about – it’s theme – will be jumbled and confused. One can have more than one theme, but there needs to be a core sentence which you can refer to that tells us what the novel is about. You could call it the elevator pitch, but it is really the heart of the novel. “Flight Behaviour”  certainly has plenty of heart, and while I loved “Poisonwood Bible”, I think “Flight Behaviour” is her best novel to date.

Flight Behaviour, A.K. Andrew, akandrew.com, A writer's Notebook

 

As a novelist, can you summarise your latest novel in one sentence? As a reader do you think it’s important to know the theme? Does the theme of the novel influence you in buying the book?

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Comments

  1. Oh, I loved The Poisonwood Bible! Currently, I’m reading Lacuna but making very slow progress. I don’t think I could describe any of my WIPs in one sentence. Since I’m pantser, I don’t really think about themes until my novel is well under way, perhaps the first draft finished. But this is what intrigues me about Kingsolver’s work as well as novels in general: “how very true it is how we decide first what we believe and then collect evidence to support it, rather than the reverse.” I see that in my own writing. My characters already have their beliefs in place and their goal is to prove themselves right. Except, it isn’t possible for them all to be right.
    Marie Ann Bailey recently posted..Hair Today … #MondayBlogs #GoodHairDayMy Profile

    • Actually I really like all of Kingsolver’s books. The Lacuna lagged a little in the middle, but it was worth pressing on. I can relate to being a pantster Marie, and I’m trying to be less of one myself. I think it depends on what kind of work your writing how much you can plot. When characters are the driving force it’s particularly hard. But we all work in different ways. Thanks so much for your comment Marie. Always a pleasure to hear:-)
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  2. I got an interesting nugget of online advice on the subject of themes from novelist Cally Taylor who got it from a speaker at a writing conference who….the suggestion was at the second or third draft look at all the scenes, minor and major, and see how they contribute to the theme. I’m going through that process now – the theme is loyalty – and while I am not sticking to it 100% it is focussing my mind
    Bridget Whelan recently posted..OUT NOW! The latest edition of my Creative Writing Newsletter. Sign up and win a free paperback copy of Back to Creative Writing SchoolMy Profile

    • That’s a good way of looking at it Bridget. If they’re can’t relate in someway, then you have to question how they’re moving the plot forward. Of course there’s also the difference between premise and theme, so arguably one could say the premise is the heart of the novel. I’m reading something at the moment that says unless you decide on both of those things before you start writing you’re likely to come unstuck at some point in the process. I can see the logic. Thanks for stopping by Bridget:-)
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  3. This statement really strikes a chord with me: “A novel can start with just the tiniest of sparks, and from that it can unfold or unroll like a carpet, as Kingsolver says. You need to have a feeling about the work and be totally immersed in that feeling, otherwise what the book is really about – it’s theme – will be jumbled and confused.”

    That’s exactly what it’s like when you write an excellent article. And even more important when it comes to a novel. If not, the reader will swiftly stop reading. Both a novel and an article needs to have a heart.
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  4. Absolutely, AK.

    When it comes to research, I used to know Frederick Forsyth and he told me how much research he makes for each novel. When you read his books you can rely on all the facts being correct. Even complicated ones as what the coalition against Iraq when Saddam had invaded Kuwait were doing. He found out the details of what happened.
    Catarina recently posted..Inventories can be managed – people should be ledMy Profile

    • That’s fascinating Catarina. I’m not familiar with Frederick Forsyth, so I will def. look him up. Getting things correct is essential if it’s work based on true fact, past or present. You have to be credible, even if a good part of the work is fiction. And you need to be really interested in the subject matter to care enough to do the research.
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  5. I really did love The Poisonwood Bible, and all of her work! She’s a remarkable writer and I subscribe to her belief that most writers decide first what they believe and then collect evidence to support it, rather than the reverse. But that’s true of most people in gerneral, right?
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  6. As she describes it, it is almost as if the novel finds you rather than the other way around.
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  7. Not being a novelist I cannot totally or fully relate. I wonder why she says, “And I saw – I don’t want to say it because I’ve made a point of not revealing the secret.” Wow. Are we all getting that competitive? Are we thinking we are that original? I don’t know, I’m just curious.

    It’s interesting though, even in my genre, “we decide first what we believe and then collect evidence to support it, rather than the reverse.” I bet that is mostly true. One book I think goes the other way is the Blue Ocean Strategy. That’s because the strategy, is the other way!

    Thanks for this A.K.
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    • I think what she meant by that Pat, is that she saw the thing that is the crux of the novel – so she meant she didn’t want to give away too much about the novel to spoil the surprise. Like not giving away the punchline, or who dies etc. As for finding info to support what we believe, I do think she’s right on that one. Though of course when we do research we are often surprised by what we find, and so the direction may change.
      A.K. Andrew recently posted..Barbara Kingsolver: What is the Heart of a Novel?My Profile

  8. I enjoyed Poisonwood Bible, which means I look forward to reading Flight Behaviour. I like the description of the novel unrolling like a carpet, although I think that makes it sound a lot simpler than it actually may be. It may unroll, but there is a lot of pondering about it first and exploring in several directions. A few sections may get stuck a bit before unrolling.
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  9. A.K. — There are so many things that can inspire a thought or idea: a conversation, a fragrance, a letter. I’m reminded of Marcel Proust’s famous quote about how a madeleine brought back a flood of memories, “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.”

  10. I feel like I read one of her books, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I do love how she came to her inspiration. I’ve never written a novel, but I imagine a prerequisite is deep curiosity and desire. I love the image of a novel “unrolling like a carpet”. It sounds like, when your mind really wants to keep exploring an idea and taking it new places, you are possibly onto something special.
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  11. I definitely look at themes when choosing books. I usually avoid ‘chick’ books with little substance.

  12. I’ve not read the Poisonwood Bible, but I have read a couple of her other books and enjoyed them quite a lot. If I remember correctly, she has quite the knack for rendering setting. I totally agree with what she write about the importance of knowing a book’s theme or that absence of certainty will be reflected in the quality of the overall novel. I feel that tug of uncertainty because that’s what I feel as I’m gearing up to dive back into Lost Girl Road. It’s my own damn fault and I know it. Time to get cracking. I don’t think all novels necessarily just spring from the writer, but it is nice when it does happen that way…
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    • The Poisonwood Bible was a big departure from her earlier novels which were set in the southwest. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read actually, and to be honest I waiver as to whether Flight Behaviour is better, although I do think her prose matured. But I’ve been thinking about theme myself a lot recently and feel strongly that I want to have that locked in place before I start my third novel. You can still be flexible as you go, but having that cornerstone makes a huge difference for sure. Looking forward to you getting back to Lost Girl:-)
      A.K. Andrew recently posted..Barbara Kingsolver: What is the Heart of a Novel?My Profile

  13. I write nonfiction but my approach is to make complex topics ‘user friendly’ and a lot of my process takes place in my mind so in a way I can relate to the creative process of a novelist. I’ve often thought about giving fiction a try because I so often create entire dialogues in my head but keep putting it off which is probably a sign I should do it if for no other reason than to challenge myself to stretch in a new direction. Thanks for the inspiration!
    Marquita Herald recently posted..Why We Sometimes Struggle to Feel GratitudeMy Profile

    • Your’e welcome Marquita. As you’re already a writer, you’re halfway there. I find doing free-writest are a great way to get the creative juices flowing, and starting small too. Which is not to say short stories are easy, but they don’t take the years long investment of time that a novel takes. Keep me posted and let me know if you take the leap, and whether you enjoy it or not OK?
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  14. I’m not a novelist. But I really admire novelists who can take a idea and organize it into a story and stay focused throughout the novel. Thanks for sharing.
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  15. I loved Poisonwood Bible, and have always wanted to explore Kingsolver’s other work. Her process is fascinating – sounds like she had some kind of epiphany. I think we all have at least one book in us, and getting in touch with that story is a bit of an art all to itself. In my day-to-day work writing, I find that doing the research creates the story – I come across certain points that jump out at me, and then it’s just a matter of arranging everything.
    Krystyna Lagowski recently posted..2015 Scion FRS Series 1.0: Like a batmobile out of hell!My Profile

    • Glad you liked the Poisonwood Bible too:-) She does mae it sound almost epiphany like, but she was also a scientist – a biologist – before she became a writer, so i think that personal area of interest certainly would have swayed her to have pursued what she saw to go on to write the novel. research is a wonderful thing Ive discovered over the past five years. I disliked it when I was in college, and always saw it as a chore. But know, I think my thirst for knowledge is much greater, and look at the world with a much broader perspective. Interesting that you also find the research for your work also creates the story. The edge does need to be found before it can spring off the page. Thanks so much Krystyna:-)
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  16. I confess I did not like the Poisonwood Bible at all. Of course, I feel strange even saying that, since others seem to like it so much. It was quite a while ago that I read it – maybe I found the characters a bit unreal? In any case, I should at least try looking inside Flight Behavoir. But if it’s about climate change, I might find that topic too depressing. And yes, many people can look at the same “facts” (facts can be presented in different ways) and come to a variety of conclusions.
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    • Well we all have different tastes Leora, so liking a book others do, isn’t obligatory! The subject of climate change is depressing, but then a book is always about its characters and the plot conflict etc. The issue may be at it’s heart , but there’s so much more to it than that – otherwise it would be a non-fiction book. That said, maybe she’s just not the author for you.

      Her earlier novels are very different and set in the southwest. much lighter in a way, though there are definitely some potentially tricky subjects dealt with, such as children of one ethnic background being raised by another etc.
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  17. I’m no novelist as yet but as Ken said the whole idea of writing a story is not so much about you finding it but rather the opposite is true. When that combines with a sense of urgency to tell it, then you have the rolled up carpet at your feet…so to speak.
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  18. I look at themes when choosing books. I’ve not read the Poisonwood Bible. Got me thinking now 🙂
    Thanks for sharing x
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    • Themes are definitely key – I also look at them in choosing what to read. If , for example it was about a real estate magnet struggling with the issue of what golf club to join because of the cost, I probably wouldn’t bother to read it. But if it was because the club actively discriminated against anyone who wasn’t male and/or white, I might take a look.Thanks for stopping by:-)
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  19. A great little story about a writer. I love reading about other authors, and how they write. A novel can start from a tiny spark, like the oak tree from the tiny acorn. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  20. I enjoy Barbara Kingsolver’s books. It’s always interesting to hear about how authors get the ideas that become their novels. A tiny spark is a good one to begin! Where it goes is the really fascinating part.
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