On Thursday night Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favorite writers, kicked off the book tour for her new novel Flight Behavior at the Washington National Cathedral, one of my favorite places. And I went with two friends and no children. What joy.
She read most of the first chapter of the book, which was completely riveting and made me want to go home and stay up all night reading it. Except for practical reasons I can no longer stay up all night reading and also I’m waiting for my mom to read her copy of the book so I can borrow it.
After the reading, an audience member asked Kingsolver how much of her own life experiences show up in her books. Kingsolver said she doesn’t write about herself, but sometimes moments that strike her will reappear in a novel. She and her husband currently live on and operate a sheep farm in Southwest Virginia. She had read a veterinary manual about lambing, in preparation for helping sheep give birth of course, and read about a method for reviving a calf who was born not breathing. The technique involved grasping the lambs legs by the feet and swinging the lamb around your head very quickly so the force of the air or spinning or something clears the mucus out of the lamb’s airway. Then one day she was called upon to employ this method, and she did, and it worked. Her husband, plowing a nearby field on the tractor, looked over and saw her doing this and stopped what he was doing. “He hadn’t read this particular manual so he had no idea why I was swinging a lamb around in the air over my head,” she explained. So when you read Flight Behavior look for the lambing scene.
Kingsolver, trained as a biologist, said writing a novel for her is “like doing an experiment.” She develops a hypothesis, then creates a plot to test it. Then she comes up with characters whose actions bear out the hypothesis. That’s the first draft.
“The real art,” she says, however, “is revision. I love revision.” Writing the first draft is like weeding a garden, or hoeing a row of potatoes, necessary but not that much fun, she explained. To go back and revise is fun.
“When you know the ending, you can go back and rewrite the beginning so they match. The beginning and ending throw light on each other,” she said. She writes hundreds of drafts of each book. “I could revise forever because it’s so much fun.” Tell that to any high school student.
Her insight that I most need to take to heart. When she’s writing, she doesn’t think of her audience. “I labor alone in a room not thinking of all of you. I do not think about what people expect of me. That would pull me off center from what I have to give. I think about what I have to give in the world. There are so many books out there, but no one has been me before.”