LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Barbara Kingsolver, winner of the Orange Prize for fiction, is back in the U.K. one month after scooping up the prestigious prize awarded to the best novel of the year written in English by a woman.
“I was more surprised to win than anyone,” she said of the prize. “I never really expect to be successful.” Kingsolver nearly threw out the first novel she wrote more than 20 years ago, but on a whim she decided to send it to an agent and was amazed when “The Bean Trees” was published.
“It truly could have gone either way,” she said, adding that no one knew she was writing a book in the closet at night while pregnant with her first daughter.
Since that time she hasn’t stopped writing. The author of 13 books including six novels, poetry, short stories, non-fiction and essays, Kingsolver has been lauded as one of the most important writers of the 20th Century by Writers Digest, as well as being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
But she never wanted to be famous. And the Orange Prize is the first major prize she’s won.
“The Lacuna,” the book which launched her on her current trajectory, is about Harrison Shepherd, a man torn between Mexico and the United States and unwittingly caught up in the worlds of art and politics.
Shepherd’s life becomes entwined with the famous muralist Diego Rivera, his wife Frida Kahlo and exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky.
Speaking at the London Literature Festival at the weekend, Kingsolver, 55, joked that writing about communism in the United States was akin to declaring “I’m a leper.”
But what she set out to do, in the novel written while George W. Bush was in power, was to see how the McCarthy witch-hunt for communists could have happened and how that era reverberates today.
Her books have been called political, but Kingsolver maintains that she simply wants to ask questions, to engage readers and to foster empathy.
Whatever her goals, her following is growing.
Since winning the Orange Prize, Nielsen Bookscan figures show sales of The Lacuna have been boosted more than 250 percent and her UK publisher Faber and Faber is reprinting her backlist.
“My inspiration comes from living in the world and seeing things that aggravate me to the back of my teeth, or sing for joy,” she said sitting in Faber and Faber’s tiny office, near Bloomsbury Square, London — an area made famous by a group of friends including literary greats such as Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh who lived, worked and studied there in the first half of the 20th century.
A keen environmentalist, one of the subjects that has caught Kingsolver’s ire of late is the worst oil spill in U.S. history in the Gulf of Mexico. Kingsolver said she hopes it will have a sobering influence both on petroleum owners and consumers.
She still finds writing a very personal experience and is determined to write about topics she’s passionate about rather than what market forces suggest would be popular.
The writer, who got her start as a biologist doing her doctoral dissertation on the social life of termites, is honored by the accolades she’s received, but doesn’t want them to change her life.
Married with two daughters, Kingsolver lives and works in a 100-year-old farmhouse in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia where the family raise Icelandic sheep, Bourbon Red turkeys, laying hens and have a big vegetable garden.
Words are always running through her mind, she said, except when she listens to, or plays music. She finds writing her first drafts challenging, but loves research and revision and counts herself as truly lucky to work with an encouraging agent and editors.
Kingsolver put most of the 30,000 pound ($46,000) Orange Prize money into the Bellwether prize she set up in 1999 for an unpublished work of fiction in North America. This year’s winner is Naomi Benaron for her novel “Running the Rift,” which will now be published.
For Kingsolver it’s a way to pass on the support and encouragement she’s received along her journey.
After a few more engagements in the UK and a holiday in Ireland with her family, Kingsolver will return to her farm and her writing.
There were nine years between her last two novels, but Kingsolver said readers won’t have to wait that long for the next one.
Editing by Steve Addison