From MICHAEL SHAPIRO
Barbara Kingsolver, whose novels’ deep evocation of place has made her a national treasure, almost tossed her first book into the trash.
“I had no way of knowing that it could matter to anyone else. I didn’t dream I could be a writer,” she said in a phone interview this month, in advance of a 10-city tour that brings her to Santa Rosa and Corte Madera on Nov. 15.
Instead of discarding her manuscript of “The Bean Trees,” Kingsolver drove to a mailbox in an Arizona mall and sent it to a publisher.
“I was nine and a half months pregnant. I got out of the car and wobbled over and said, ‘Here you go, goodbye.’ It felt kind of like throwing it in the trash can,” she said. “I was pretty sure the results would be exactly the same.”
Kingsolver’s latest novel, “Flight Behavior”, is due out November 6
Fortunately for Kingsolver and the legions of people who became her fans, “The Bean Trees” was published in 1988 and became a critical and commercial success.
“The Poisonwood Bible,” her 1998 book about a missionary family that goes deep into the Congo, was selected by Oprah’s Book Club and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Raised in rural Kentucky, Kingsolver, 57, studied biology at Indiana’s DePauw University. In 1978 she moved to Tucson, earned a graduate science degree and worked as a science writer at the University of Arizona.
In the 1990s, Kingsolver met and married biology professor Steven Hopp at a college in southwestern Virginia; in 2004, Kingsolver moved there, and two years later the couple had a daughter, Lily.
Her new novel, “Flight Behavior,” takes on the topic of global warming and is set in Appalachia, where Kingsolver grew up and where she again lives. It will be published Nov. 6.
Following are highlights of a phone conversation with Kingsolver:
Q. Can you tell me about the title of your new book?
A. What I love about a good title is that it can function as a key that unlocks every important door in the book. Until I have that title, I’m not happy. “Flight Behavior” works on every level — flying away, fight-or-flight — because this is really a novel about denial. It’s about how every one of us in some way or another tends to fly away from what we don’t want to look at straight in the eye.
Q. How do you balance politics and the art of the novel?
A. If you preach in a book, you’re not an artist. I wouldn’t dream of preaching in a book. I couldn’t preach if I tried, because I don’t always know what the hell I believe in. What I do is ask questions. I’ve heard people say that I preach in novels. I find that hilarious. There’s nothing in this novel that tells you what to think. This novel does one thing: It asks you what you think.
Q. You seem to try something new in each of your books. What was your greatest challenge in this one?
A. It’s really important to me not to write the same book twice, not even close. What gets me to my desk every day is the thrill of doing something new, that I’m not at all sure I can really pull off. In (“Flight Behavior”), the scary, difficult thing … was to write about climate change, to write about science and convey the basic fundamentals in an artistic way. As a person trained in science, I feel this is mission work: To carry important ideas of science that people really need to know. … In the beginning I had no idea how I was going to succeed at that, and at the end I felt, by golly, that I did.
Q. Do you feel that some readers view authors as spiritual leaders?
A. I think it’s probably true. Through the ages people have looked to novels for wisdom. When I ask what it was that changed me, the answer really is wisdom, some deeper understanding of the world. In a secular age, it might become even a little more true than ever that people are looking to writers as spiritual mentors. However, when I think of myself in that way, that’s scary.
Q. How has your understanding of science contributed to your work?
A. The minute I said those words “mission work” I regretted it, because I don’t preach, so that’s probably a badly chosen metaphor. And I don’t want to suggest that I’m taking light into the darkness. I already wrote a whole novel (“The Poisonwood Bible”) about why that’s a bad idea. There are very, very few of us literary fiction writers who were trained in science, so few you can kind of count them on one hand. I have a sense of obligation to do something that might be unique, so I have written about science in several of my novels.
Q. What’s your view of independent bookstores and their role in your success?
A. There are a handful of professions I would canonize for sainthood: High-school English teachers, librarians, and independent booksellers. To continue the image you posited earlier about writers being spiritual leaders, I guess that makes bookstores a kind of church.
Q. Did traveling as a child shape your view of the world?
A. I went to the Congo instead of second grade and came home to southern Appalachia with my eyes wide to see my more familiar world in a whole new way. Some kids would complain that they didn’t have the newest fashions in shoes or book bags. I never could forget that I played with kids who had one shirt and they had it on every day. And they didn’t have a book bag because they’d never own a book.
Also: Kingsolver also appears Nov. 15 at 1 p.m. at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista, Corte Madera, 415-927-0960, www.bookpassage.com. Free with $29 book purchase.