My Interview and Thoughts on Barbara Kingsolver

I did an interview recently with my good friend Diane over at Mind, Body, Spirit. I hope you check it out.

And now, my dispatches from San Miguel…

On Barbara Kingsolver

There is a mystery surrounding the bells that sound at all hours in San Miguel, in that counting the tolls is like solving an algebraic equation, one that only the truly gifted could possibly solve. Barbara Kingsolver may just be one of those with the key. Those bells toll with a complexity that at once seems both out of reach, and entirely attainable.

I was too tired really for her keynote speech yesterday. A long day of negotiating people, telling my story, reading excerpts of my book to a smattering of lunching conference-goers, and enduring a chaotic auction were the preamble. But when Barbara finally took the (too small) podium, all grace, salt and pepper hair, and sparkling pink scarf, the experience of being transported into her world of wonder were unmistakable. Upon being asked her inspiration for The Lacuna, something we learned takes over an hour to explain, most find her explanation too long for a sound-bite feverish world. But this was a unique audience.

It began with a file folder, “Notes to a Historian,” the start of what she knew not. Trips to Mexico, a Mexican police chief’s photo-laden desk, years of individual experiences, each becoming an “acorn” that might grow into something tall and grand, or might just as easily be washed down a river or be engulfed in weeds. Regardless, each thought, each experience was placed into the folder, a folder of abstract ideas. No notion of a story, let alone novel, simply a repository for thoughts, things a historian may one day find and wonder about, looking for clues to uncover this very private of writers.

And some of those acorns grew. And then the world changed in a day we all know too well. A date we now prefix with the word “since” and Barbara responded with what she knew best, her words. Her questions. In the hate mail that followed, she learned a hard lesson. Questions were unpatriotic, un-American. And her acorns grew some more. It took another 7 years for them to finally leaf into The Lacuna.

Lacuna means “a gap,” one which might be found in a silent pause in music or in a missing section of text or some missing piece in a point in history, lost, erased, and which changes how we might view the world in future, a theme of the book. The bells toll too many times for the hour, but its OK. I am beginning to understand.

About writing her advice is clear. Simple. She begins with theme. A revelation for me to begin there, thinking always that theme just came, unbided, slithered in uninvited, but welcome.

Then plot, then characters. She assigns meaning to things that would normally have none, and writes about them, erring on the side of obscurity, trusting the acumen of the reader. And another revelation: The first lines of the book need to make a promise to the reader, a promise of what’s to come, a promise in the form of a metaphor.

She begins by writing about the book and what its about. She adds structure, mapping out scenes. The themes come, the characters come. She practices voices. Experiments. Researches and then bleeds through a first draft. Like giving birth, painful.

And then the joy of revision, where the art begins.

The characters become real, she cares about them, but doesn’t give them away too early. Feeding small details, dropping clues, weaving a tapestry.

And so I absorb, learn, am inspired and keep listening to those bells hoping someday to unravel their mystery. I will be glad to look back some day and see that Barbara Kingsolver herself was one of my own acorns, taking root, becoming something strong, something that will endure.

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