Writer Barbara Kingsolver is one of a handful of novelists with a science background, and she puts it to use in her new novel Flight Behavior. Kingsolver discusses the book and why she chose to look at the the issue of climate change in a fictional work set in rural Tennessee.
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FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:
Here's a big, giant question for you: Why do we believe what we believe? And how is it that two people can look at the exact same set of circumstances and see two completely different things? That philosophical question is at the center of a new book where, to put it another way, one person's beautiful miracle is another person's ecological crisis.
Here to talk more about that miracle - or crisis, depending on your point of view - is the writer Barbara Kingsolver. Her previous books include "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" and "The Poisonwood Bible." She's been awarded the National Humanities Medal. Her new book is "Flight Behavior." It's a novel. She joins us from WHYY in Philadelphia. Thanks for joining us today.
BARBARA KINGSOLVER: You're welcome. I'm glad to be here.
LICHTMAN: Give us a sense of the plot of the book. And I just want to tell people - give people a spoiler alert, because I think we have to reveal a twist that occurs early in the book, first 50 pages or so. Yeah, just give us a thumbnail sketch of what this book is about.
KINGSOLVER: This book is about a shocking, very beautiful and probably disastrous biological event that happens on a farm in southern, rural Appalachia. And I don't want to be the spoiler, but if you do, that's on you.
KINGSOLVER: Basically, this is - this event, it's a very freakish, amazing thing that should happen somewhere else in the world, and suddenly one winter, it occurs on a mountaintop in eastern Tennessee, among rural, conservative farmers who are prone to see it as a miracle from the Lord. But it attracts a lot of attention, and the media come in and scientists come in. And they declare it - at least the scientists declare it - a disastrous manifestation of a changing climate.
And I will go so far as to say that it has to do with a migratory shift of a migrating species that normally congregates somewhere else in the world, and they have congregated here. So it is fiction. It's a novel in which I use this device to talk about climate change, about the methods of science, because that's a really big part of this novel.
These scientists who come in have to really have a conversation with the people who live here. And it's really about this, as you said in the beginning, why we decide to believe what we believe and why it's so difficult for us to have this conversation about climate change.
LICHTMAN: OK. This is the point where you can lodge your complaints at me, because I am about to spoil it. So turn off your radio if you don't want to know. The event is a migration of monarch butterflies, and it's not clear originally what it looks like. It looks like a lake of fire is how you describe it. And then later, you describe it this way: Even the tree trunks wore butterfly pelts, all the way up, like the bristling hairy legs of giants. Have you seen these monarchs in person?
KINGSOLVER: Well, yes, of course, I have. I had to. When I realized that I wanted to write this novel and this is the way I wanted to do it, I wanted to use the monarchs - OK, we'll say it - the monarchs as a device. I, of course, had to be able to describe this phenomenon infinitely, in many different ways, and to express in language how amazing and how beautiful it is.
So I had to go and see that, and I did go to Mexico and spend time on the mountaintops in Michoacan, where these - the whole species or the whole population of eastern monarchs congregates in the winter. And so I had to be able to recreate that. So, yes, I have seen them. And it's - it is a wonder of the world.
LICHTMAN: Hmm. You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, on NPR. I'm Flora Lichtman, talking with Barbara Kingsolver about her new novel, "Flight Behavior."
It comes through as a real phenomenon in the book, too. I mean, it just seems - you can see why people would look at it and think it's a miracle.
KINGSOLVER: Especially if they were unprepared to see it any other way.
KINGSOLVER: And the story is conveyed through the eyes of this young woman, this farmer's wife, who discovers it, actually, in a - she's kind of in an awkward situation. She's going somewhere where she's not supposed to be, and she sees it and she's not allowed to tell anyone. But she feels it's her personal burning bush. She takes it as a warning to go back.
I wanted to write it initially through her eyes so that you, too, would not know what you are seeing. But later...
LICHTMAN: If SCIENCE FRIDAY didn't spoil it.
KINGSOLVER: Well, yeah. But you see what I mean? Because it is about perception and how we need to be - to understand what we're seeing before we can really see it, that's really key to understanding this whole issue of climate change and why we see or don't see what's right in front of us.
LICHTMAN: What drew you to monarchs in the first place?
KINGSOLVER: I had really wanted to write about the subject for a long time. I live in southern Appalachia. I am surrounded by neighbors and friends - people I respect very much - who don't really understand climate change or believe in it, even though, as farmers, they're getting socked by it. We've had unprecedented, disastrous weather time and again. So it's such a strange contradiction that the people in our continent who are first to feel the harm of a changing climate are the last to be able to talk about it.
That was such a conundrum and such rich territory for a novel to tread, that I was just looking for the right way to get into the subject. And one morning, I just woke up with this vision in my eyes of millions of butterflies covering the forest behind my house. I just - I mean, I didn't actually see it. I imagined it. I woke up and there it was, and I knew that was it.
I was really excited, because to write - the difference between journalism and fiction is that you need - it has to be symbolic. You need a plot. You need characters, and you need a way to enter the story that isn't telling, but showing. And you need, of course, extraordinary events. You need conflict.
LICHTMAN: I mean, you also seem sort of perfectly positioned to write this, because you have a background in science. You have a degree in biology, right?
KINGSOLVER: Several of them, in fact.
KINGSOLVER: That's right. I always loved reading and writing as a kid, but I didn't imagine that I could be lucky enough to be a writer for a living. I thought I should study something practical. So - and I love science. I'm - I really feel I am a scientist. I was cut out to be a scientist. I studied biology in college, and I actually have a master's degree in evolutionary biology. And I have always loved science, but somehow apparently love writing novels more. But there are very, very...
LICHTMAN: You combined the two.
KINGSOLVER: Exactly. And I feel a kind of compunction to do this, to write about science and fiction, because almost nobody is doing that. There - I mean, the number of trained, pure scientists who - well, I don't know what pure means. But, you know, people who are trained in pure sciences who are writing fiction are very, very few.
LICHTMAN: I want to talk lots more about this.
KINGSOLVER: So I've got to do this.
LICHTMAN: I want to talk lots more of this when we come back from this break. We're talking with Barbara Kingsolver, the author of the new novel "Flight Behavior." And if you have questions for Barbara Kingsolver, give us a ring. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.
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LICHTMAN: I'm Flora Lichtman. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.
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LICHTMAN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman. We're talking with Barbara Kingsolver about her new book, "Flight Behavior." And when we left for the break, we were talking about how you have to do this and you're sort of well-positioned. But I wonder, why aren't other - many other people writing these stories? I mean, it seems to me like climate change is so ripe for good symbolism. I mean, the world is melting. There are floods. There are catastrophes. It seems well-suited.
KINGSOLVER: Not to mention an urgent matter. But you're right. Very few novelists have tackled it. And I really think part of that is that - well, it's a scary subject, in every way. But also, most novelists aren't trained in science. We have this divide in our culture. I think kids decide pretty early on whether they groove on the math and chemistry classes, or whether they're going to run for their lives into history and AP English. And it just goes on from there. We establish this - we kind of establish these roots for ourselves in which we're not going to really cross over. And it becomes increasingly difficult to do that.
I think a lot of people are afraid of science, really, which is bad news for everybody, because we really all need to understand a certain amount of science in order to make decent policy about the world we live in. But the truth is, translating scientific ideas from physics and mathematics and biology into vernacular English is difficult enough, and then translating it into fiction so that it's all there unobtrusively is extremely challenging.
And that was both a daunting and a really fun part of this novel, because I had to - in order to write about - in order to bring the reader into this world of scientists studying climate change in front of their eyes, they have to know something about the physics of why warm air holds more moisture. I wrote in this novel about the difference between correlation and causation. One of my pet peeves...
KINGSOLVER: ...with journalists who - when they report on science. There - this novel even mentions the ice-albedo effect. I was really excited listening to your previous half hour when I heard that word, albedo effect. That's in my novel. But it's not every easy to do, and it requires a certain comfort with the literature and with the subject to begin to translate that into plot and character and to make it really compelling so that people who might think they're afraid of science can read this novel, enjoy this novel without knowing that they're being educated in science.
LICHTMAN: I mean, it sounds like you felt compelled to really get the science right in this, even thought it's fiction, to get that accurate.
KINGSOLVER: Well, absolutely. That would be a sin for me...
KINGSOLVER: ...to put inaccurate science into my work. So you're right. And it's true. Even though this transposition or this abrupt shift of the monarch migratory pattern is an invention, I wanted to frame it in a plausible way. And the fact is, one of the manifestations that we're already seeing that's really very straightforward to document is migratory shift in - especially birds. Almost - the great majority of North American bird species have already shifted their migratory patterns and their breeding ranges.
And so I thought this is a sensible beginning place, so that if I could ground this fictional event in real science, that would be - it wouldn't be a sin. It would be both good fiction and good science, if you see what I mean.
LICHTMAN: I do. Did you have to do a lot of reporting?
KINGSOLVER: I did a lot of research. Of course, I'd - as I said, I went to see the monarchs and what that looks like. But I also did a lot of scientific research. I did - I read pretty much everything there is to be read about monarch butterfly migration, monarch parasites, monarch science. I've got all those journals on my desk in giant piles.
And I also - I sought out and gained the friendship of a very great scientist, Dr. Lincoln Brower, who knows more about monarchs than anyone on the planet. And Dr. Brower and his wife Dr. Linda Fink were very helpful to me. You can imagine when I went to them to talk about this idea that I have some trepidation to go to a scientist and say, well, OK. I know that the species that you know everything about have never done this, but what if it did? You know, I didn't know if they...
LICHTMAN: Yeah. I can imagine.
KINGSOLVER: ...run me out of the lab on a rail. But they were delighted. They were so imaginative and they were so - well, they're both fiction readers, which helps, so they understand what literature can do, that it's symbolic and how you can sort of tell the truth in a fictional way.
So they - we just have a great time. We spent hours in conversation about this. If it did happen, then what would be the reasons? You know, we sort of backed up and had all of these hypothesis and, you know, Dr. Brower was even saying, oh, and there's another species of milkweed, and if that range shifted a little too - so we were really - they were very enthusiastically helping me create this imaginary world, which gave me a lot of confidence in the final manuscript because they vetted it for me and they made sure that every degree of temperature was accurate and all the equipment used by the scientists in this novel were, you know, I haven't positioned them upside down. You know, everything, every detail has to be right.
So I really appreciate, not just Dr. Brower and Dr. Fink, but all of the scientists who have done a lot of work on monarchs that I relied - on which I relied to get my facts straight.
LICHTMAN: Well, one of the interesting things with - about how this novel is structured is that we get a really full explanation of climate science, I think, without any condescension, because the protagonist is learning about it herself. Do you think that there are ways in which fiction might be actually better suited to take on issues like this than non-fiction?
KINGSOLVER: I absolutely do, and that's why I do it. As I said earlier, for one thing, you can introduce ideas to people in a non-threatening way. You can introduce science to people who didn't know they were interested in science. You can also talk about how people come to their truths, which was really a big part of this novel ultimately, even though the science and the butterflies are the essential device here. A novel has to be about people.
And what I really wanted to get at was the opening question that you made very clear. Why do we believe or disbelieve the evidence we see for climate change? And because I live in Southern Appalachia and have great respect for communities of people who have chosen to believe otherwise, I really wanted to look into how we make those choices and how it's possible to begin a conversation across some of these divides - between scientists and non-scientists, between rural and urban, between progressive and conservative - that when it comes to understanding the scientific truths about the world, there must be another way to bring information to people that is - that's beyond simply condescending and saying, well, if only you had the facts. If only you knew what I did, then you would be a smart person. That gets you nowhere.
And again, this is my community. This is my culture. Another rarity in literature is not very many people write about Southern Appalachia very respectfully. And that was important to me as well. The spiritual and religious life of the people in this novel was something - was an important component of how, you know, to me, portraying of how people arrive at their belief systems and their truths about the world. So...
LICHTMAN: Well, I mean, your main character definitely holds her own?
KINGSOLVER: Yes. She does.
LICHTMAN: She definitely did. I actually want to read a little excerpt from your book. We're in a scene where the lead scientists, the McArthur Genius monarch biologist Ovid Byron, is sort of an little diatribe. And he says, I'm not a zookeeper. He said, I'm not here to save monarchs. I'm trying to read what they are writing on our wall. Dellarobbia (that's the main character) felt stung. If you're not, who is? She could think of some answers: the knitting woman, the boys with the duct tape clothes, people Cub and her in-laws thought to be outside the pale of normal adulthood.
That is the concern of conscience, Ovid Byron says. It's not a biology. Science doesn't tell us what we should do. It only tells us what is. That must be why people don't like it, she said, surprised at her tartness. Do you hope that scientists will read your book and reconsider that role?
KINGSOLVER: Well, I hope anyone would read it and take from it what they may. But it's a worthy consideration for scientists. Of course, science isn't proscriptive. It's about learning what is, not about what should be. And that is a problem. I want to just illustrate that in the book. That is a problem people outside of science have with it, is that it refuses to say what should be. It only says what is. It also refuses to overstate the case, which is also a reason why people misunderstand, often. If there's a two percent possibility that the head-on collision won't kill you, a scientist will not say a head-on collision will kill you. You know, they just - scientists cannot overstate. And we're so accustomed to politicians and advertisers and everyone sort of overstating the case, that this also - it creates misunderstanding.
People say, well, if they can't tell us for sure that Hurricane Sandy was, you know, then they say, well, then it must not be true at all. So these communication difficulties are really a lot of what I wanted to illustrate in this novel and maybe just create a new way of looking at some of the problems and some of the potential for conversation.
LICHTMAN: You have a scene in the book where Dellarobbia is up on the mountain and for the first time, looking with the scientists, at the monarchs. And she end up sort of characterizing or doing her own little survey of the scientists themselves. And many of them, to her, seem younger, even though they're her peers, pretty much. But they have money, and they have the privilege of spending, although being curious. Do you think that there is a connection there, that privilege begets science in some way or that you have to be - it's easier to be a scientist if you're privileged or - I don't know. You tell me.
KINGSOLVER: Well, there's definitely a class difference here, that's sort of glaring. Dellarobbia notices that these graduate students, you know, who have come to help document this strange event are wearing shoes that cost more than her husband earns in two months of driving that gravel truck. So she's - it kind of stings that these kids have extraordinary worldliness. They've already traveled a lot to study the monarchs. They have access to a lot of resources and information that's just beyond her.
She's lived her entire life in a - in one county. She hasn't even - she's hardly been off this farm since she married 11 years earlier. She's very worried about her own kids and thinking how - if they want to go to college, how can they compete with these - with kids who are just - already know everything by kindergarten?
So, sure, this novel is also about class and some of the basis for frustration and, perhaps, suspicion between scientific and non-scientific communities. This novel doesn't explain how to fix everything. Obviously, a novel can't do that. It only asks questions that, I think, are worth considering.
LICHTMAN: It's interesting because I've heard you in an interview that the role of the artist or the job of the artist is really only to make great art, which I - I mean, you know, personally, I think you achieved with this book. And I wonder if you also feel a sense of mission, also, with your writing.
KINGSOLVER: Well, I think...
LICHTMAN: Social mission, I guess.
KINGSOLVER: Well, I think every writer hopes to bring information to a reader or a viewer. Every artist wants to reach another person through the heart. Something that a novel can do is bring you information in a different way from journalism or all other forms of acquiring information. It brings you inside the mind of another person. So it creates empathy for the theoretical stranger, and that's - it's a fresh avenue, really, for bringing science to a reader, to get to the head via the heart.
LICHTMAN: Do you have science - we have 30 seconds left. But will we see science in your next book?
LICHTMAN: Well, I look forward to it. Thank you for joining us today.
KINGSOLVER: It's my pleasure.
LICHTMAN: Barbara Kingsolver is the author of "Flight Behavior." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.