A TALK IN THE WOODS
What happens when two best-selling authors meet for the first time? A conversation between Barbara Kingsolver, whose new novel, Unsheltered, is out from Harper, and Richard Powers, whose novel The Overstory was published by W. W. Norton in April, turns into an impromptu master class in fiction under a canopy of leaves in southwestern Virginia.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TWO BEST-SELLING AUTHORS MEET FOR THE FIRST TIME? A CONVERSATION BETWEEN BARBARA KINGSOLVER, WHOSE NEW NOVEL, UNSHELTERED, IS OUT FROM HARPER, AND RICHARD POWERS, WHOSE NOVEL THE OVERSTORY WAS PUBLISHED BY W. W. NORTON IN APRIL, TURNS INTO AN IMPROMPTU MASTER CLASS IN FICTION UNDER A CANOPY OF LEAVES IN SOUTHWESTERN VIRGINIA.
BEHIND the farmhouse in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia where Barbara Kingsolver lives and writes, surrounded by trees, rubythroated hummingbirds are constant companions, darting here and there, pollinating the orange jewelweed and other flowering plants. But on the recent, sunny afternoon the best-selling author spent talking with novelist Richard Powers, who drove a few hours north from his home in the Smoky Mountain foothills of northern Tennessee to see her, the hummingbirds seem more interested in the almost-empty feeder that hangs above the table on her terrace, where we chat following a lunch of homegrown cucumbers, tomatoes, and red peppers along with olives and smoked-trout pâté with chips.
The humming is so loud, in fact, that at one point late in the conversation, Powers remarks, “Let the record show that what sounds like nearby automobiles are actually hummingbirds.”
Powers, whose list of awards covers just about every major honor available to a writer, including the National Book Award for The Echo Maker (FSG, 2006) and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, is the author of twelve novels, most recently The Overstory, which is, to repeat the word Kingsolver herself used in a front-page encomium in the New York Times Book Review upon its release by W. W. Norton in April, a “monumental” achievement.
Through eight intersecting and overlapping narratives, Powers expertly assembles a supporting cast of characters who, through their individual stories, reveal the novel’s real protagonists: trees.
Kingsolver is the author of nine bestselling works of fiction, including the novels Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, The Poisonwood Bible, and Animal Dreams, as well as books of poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction. Her list of honors and awards is even longer than that of Powers and includes the Orange Prize for Fiction, the National Humanities Medal, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her novel The Poisonwood Bible was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2000, the same year Kingsolver established what is now known as the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
Her new novel, Unsheltered, is the tale of two families who live, in different centuries, in Vineland, New Jersey, a real town built as a utopian community in the 1860s. Kingsolver masterfully blends historical and fictional characters to frame twin narratives of people coping with a paradigm shift. The story of Willa Knox and her family, who inherit a ramshackle house whose disrepair is in step with the family’s declining fortunes, is juxtaposed with the narrative 150 years earlier of Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher who comes under attack for furthering the controversial theories of Charles Darwin, and his neighbor Mary Treat, a scientist who corresponds with Darwin.
I invited Powers and Kingsolver to talk not only because they are both giants of contemporary American literature, but also because they’d never met, despite having much in common. Both pursued academic fields of study in the sciences (Kingsolver has a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, and Powers studied physics); they both moved overseas as children (the Powers family moved from Illinois to Bangkok for five years when Richard was eleven, and the Kingsolvers moved from Kentucky to what was then called Léopoldville, Congo, for a year when Barbara was seven); both live in southern Appalachia; and both have a deep, abiding, infectious fascination with and love for the natural world.
What would happen if they were given an open forum with no expectations, no preconceived editorial angle, other than recording their conversation? What would they talk about? Before I even started recording, they were exchanging strategies for observation in service of the fictional narrative.
Barbara Kingsolver: I always feel that I’ve seen a thing after I’ve described it. My notebooks that I carry with me when I’m researching a place are not full of drawings—only if there’s a map or something to help me orient myself—but when I’ve written a thorough physical description of something, then I feel like I’ve seen it and I’ll remember it. I’ve never been one to take pictures when I travel, even when I was younger. I always feel that taking pictures interferes with my being somewhere—
Richard Powers: —with actually being present. You are either in the scene or you have framed the scene. They are two different cognitive processes.
BK: They are. And I suppose that when I’m writing, taking notes on something, I am also outside of it. I’m framing it, but words are the way that I take something in.
RP: Although you are converting it into another kind of semantic unit. It’s not like saying, “Here’s my composition.” It’s just a stab at something. It’s an associative mnemonic, and it has these endless repercussions of association that ripple outward from it.
BK: Right. There are a million ways that you could look at this thing or understand this thing, and you’ve mastered one of them. And that’s enough to hold on to it, I guess.
RP: But what about the visual? Your characters are insanely palpable and present and integral and coherent. You must have a visual fix on them too.
BK: When I’m writing I’m watching a movie in my head, but of course I’m also generating the movie in my head. Unlike some writers who claim that they just channel them or something. I think it’s Alice Walker, in the beginning of The Color Purple, who thanks all of these characters for showing up. I read that and thought, “Lucky you! I had to chisel mine out of cold, hard clay, and they weren’t that happy about it either.” What about you? Are your notebooks full of drawings?
RP: They are. I dearly love to draw and paint. I’m horrible at it. I can barely sign my name. When I do my compositing… when I bring my commonplace books into a kind of annotated outline, I need a visual prompt because maybe I can’t do quite as strongly what you’re able to do, which is to really summon up those visual cortex high-granularity, high-resolution images. So I’ll be on the lookout during composition for things—people, places, and things—in my consumption of visual images or in my travels that I can use as a stand-in, as a little bit of a bookmark.
BK: I do use visual prompts as well. I have a giant bulletin board in my office—probably a five-by-five-foot bulletin board—on the wall next to my desk. And right now, in the middle is a map of Vineland. It’s my Unsheltered visual composite. Just having that bulletin board full of photographs helps anchor me to that place—especially the nineteenth-century place, which is harder. It’s harder to visualize a scene in a time you’ve never lived. Like when people sit down to dinner: What are they eating? Who made it? Who
cooked it? Is it cold? Is it greasy? So many details you have to look up. It’s so much harder to visualize.
RP: But there was more joy for you than challenge in terms of living in that time period? You’ve done historical fiction before, but this may be the furthest away temporally.
BK: The furthest back I’d gone before is the twentieth century. And it was harder for that reason.
RP: As you were talking I realized you can get strength from the fact that there is a world to go to that you can find and build out of documents. But there is always that qualified sense of am I doing this in an arch fashion? Am I overlooking some obvious anachronism? There’s a terror associated with trying to make it credible.
BK: Absolutely. And you could discover something just as you’re finishing your last draft that makes everything moot. That’s the hardest thing about historical fiction: the terror of anachronisms.
RP: On occasion I’ve made things far more difficult for myself than I ever should have. For instance, in my novel Gain, I try to tell the history of a single company over the course of two centuries. And the challenges of a fixed time period that is not your time period are multiplied because now you have to set the whole process in motion. That luxury of making yourself expert over twenty decades.
BK: Yeah, that sounds miserable. [Laughter.]
RP: But also that sense of trying to grasp a large process, to cast a narration on something other than personal time, which was one of the great joys of working on The Overstory—finding narrative techniques that allow you the equivalent of time-lapse photography.
BK: And to knock a reader out of a personal time scale.
RP: Yes, which you do [in Unsheltered] by unity of place, in the crosscutting over 150 years. So that’s also an estrangement. And you have this lovely overlapping, almost like an Oulipo device, where the last words of each chapter become part of the next.
BK: As novelists we’re looking for the universal that makes a reader understand that a human person is a human person regardless of where and when and how.
RP: The lumping and splitting, as the taxonomists say.
BK: Exactly, but if we’re in the empathy business, that’s the first challenge: to get a reader to just forget themselves and be there in another body, another time, another set of worries.
RP: When you composed the book… you had to do a fair amount of topdown planning in order for all of the joints to work out. Were you to able to work consecutively, or were you doing a lot of discursive back and forth?
BK: I always do a lot of jumping around. I do a lot of architecture. I do an enormous amount of planning. I write things on legal pads: sort of narrative-arc stuff, the architecture of the story. Then I’ll just write almost like a movie treatment—a few sentences about what happens in each chapter— and then I’ll break each of those out into a computer file, and that way if I start seeing a scene that’s happening at the end, I can just go to that chapter and write whatever I want to write.
RP: I’m almost picturing an eighteenthcentury proto novel: “Chapter 18, in which…”
BK: Or A. A. Milne, “in which Pooh and Piglet discover…” Yeah, very much like that. So I have pretty much all of it plotted out and outlined, then I’ll try to do a continuous first draft, but I still do a lot of jumping around.
RP: What you just said explains a bit of something that I just marvel at and that fills me with horrific envy at how well you do this. Very few people writing now are as absolutely, viscerally persuasive at the level of the scene and the character and the transactional vignettes while still in the service of grand architecture and a thematic preoccupation that manifests itself in all kinds of ingenious ways across the journey. And I just think, “How does she do that when it does not feel constructed?” And yet when you step back and you realize where you’ve been, to quote Horace, “the instruction and the delight,” or the top down and the bottom up, just mesh. You’re not hitting that in the first draft presumably.
BK: That is sort of the manifold challenge of the process: to start with that architecture and then you put on the sheet rock and then you put on the paint and then you put in the furniture. And by the end of it hopefully none of the I-beams are visible, but they’re all there.
RP: Absolutely, but there are things that pop up on page 370 of the nineteenthcentury frame that are a kind of retrospective correspondence to things that are happening on page 20 of the twenty-first-century frame. You know, I think, “She sold her soul to the devil to get this!”
BK: Bless you for having the memory to notice. I just love those letters I get from people who say, “I read [your book] four times and I’m starting my fifth,” because you put so much more into a book than any one person is going to get out of it. But that’s okay because that’s the form, and it needs to be many things to many people. And anyway I’m not trying to please anybody really, am I? I’m trying to say this thing right. But I think what you’re referring to, the cross-referential nature of it, is the beauty of revision. I feel like once I’ve gotten a draft nailed down, then I can breathe. Then I can accept the advance. Now I know for
sure I can do this thing. But the real art comes from revision. Because you can take that ending and pull it back through the whole thing, and the minute you know for sure where you’re going to end up, then you can start angling, holding up mirrors in different scenes that lead the reader in the right direction without giving away too much.
RP: There’s a great villanelle by Theodore Roethke, “The Waking.” And the refrain is: “I learn by going where I have to go.”
RP: But of course that means two completely inimical things.
BK: And it is fascinating that every writer has a different process; many, I know, say, “Well I just start writing and I don’t have any idea where I’m going to end up, and it’s like I wander through the woods.” I think if I did that it’d be trash.
RP: I think you can get away with that if your primary concern were simply to manifest some local aspect of consciousness.
BK: You’re right.
RP: Some private thing, some psychological, small-scale thing, but you’re not doing that. You are working on at least three levels at once. You’ve got the psychological going, you have the social and the political going, and you have this larger…. I think of it as the three kinds of love: eros, philia, and agape. I think Kingsolver is the one who gets all three plates in the air every time with no sacrifice.
BK: You’re really making me blush. [Laughter.] That’s what I love about your work. Like the first chapter of The Overstory, the chestnut chapter. I thought that was a perfect short story. It’s a story of a man, it’s the story of a family, it’s a story of the species, and the last paragraph just shoots you through the heart. And a human gets to feel for once—for most humans, once in a lifetime—what a tragedy this was for the chestnuts, that they lost their whole family, and it mattered. That was just beautiful.
RP: You’re also a plant person, and you have spent a great deal of your life finding ways of joining human stories to nonhuman stories, so you are the
ideal reader for this, and my fairy godmother put the book into your hands.
BK: Well, I was thrilled. There is no more enjoyable assignment than reviewing a book you love and no more miserable than reviewing a book you didn’t like. I haven’t reviewed that many books that I didn’t like, but the effort I put into it was far and away more than anything else. It’s so hard. It’s just not worth taking up column inches to say, “Don’t read this book.” It’s just wrong.
RP: That’s never a very useful function of a review. I had a teacher who said, “Here’s one way you can approach this question of reviewing: Rather than superimpose your preexisting values on the thing, why not ask, to the extent that you can, ‘Who would I have to be to find this magnificent and moving?’ Now start looking at that list. Can I get there from here? Do I want to go there? Would I like myself if I were that person? What would it teach me to not be the person I am but to be that person?” It behooves the reviewer to move toward that world to decide what the values of that world are. But this act of becoming the right person for the other end of that contract—the act of imagining yourself into who you need to be to like the book or for the book to be useful to you—isn’t dissimilar to what you were talking about earlier with the act of character creation and narrative testing, where you’re basically saying, “Yes, I’m here.” I know where I would like this to go, but I do have to defer to some other temperament that is not my temperament.
BK: I know where they all have to end up. So I get to cast this story and I put the people in it who I know will go the distance, who will do the things that I need them to do. Once in a while they may balk and say, “I don’t want to do that.” So then you have to light a fire under them, you back up, and that’s one of the many things I love about revision: Any weak parts, if their motivations aren’t clear you can back up all the way to the beginning, and you can begin building up motivation right from the start. And you get to connect things across time, across place. I would so much rather revise. I wish I could just pay someone to write my first draft, and then I would just revise. [Laughter.]
RP: But there’s that sense when, okay, [the work] has somewhat set in concrete—I’m not doing major surgery at this point—but I realize, my goodness, “He’s not saying that; she’s saying that,” and this happens at the eleventh hour, ten minutes to midnight. I must have known at some level that I just headed in the wrong direction, or that if I use this metaphor instead of the metaphor I was using, then I have a correspondence that wasn’t there before. I must have been leaving bread crumbs for myself, and I’m now just getting to the point where I can detach enough from it to see the signals that I was sending.
BK: What do you do?
RP: Cry and be grateful I guess, when you manage to find something that you can make much more resonant through small changes. And sometimes they’re cosmetic and sometimes they’re subterranean, but so much has to do, again, with that humility of backing off from your original plan and being open to your actions as well. There’s a genome that drives the expression, but you also have an environment that has to allow all kinds of things to express.
BK: That’s a book title: Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Grace Paley. But when I sign a contract I’m way ahead of where they think I am. That’s a secret. [Laughter.] So I know that I won’t be stressed by a deadline. There’s just no reason to do that to myself or to anybody else. I want to be sure this is exactly the book that I want it to be before I let go of it. So I don’t often have these great reckonings at the eleventh
hour. I believe if I did I would just call my editor and say, “Are you sitting down? Barbara is going to miss her first deadline.” I couldn’t let go of a book if I felt it was not—I don’t want to say perfect; it’s never perfect—but exactly what I want it to be. Although I am grateful for deadlines because I reach a point of diminishing returns. I know that during the last three drafts of this thing I probably changed eighty words throughout, and they were all changed back from the last draft. Now I’m just fiddling. Then I’m glad I have to turn it in because I’m such a perfectionist. I would just keep messing.
RP: You just reminded me of George Sand talking about the way Chopin would write a short piece. She said he would start out, and it would be beautiful, it would be lovely. And then there would follow this incredible stretch of torture and agony. Everything came apart. It became something else. He hated it. He would throw it all away, and eventually he’d work his way back to what he had at the beginning.
BK: Well, I don’t start with perfection, unlike Chopin. I start with a mess. I want to ask you how much architecture do you do at the beginning?
RP: I’ll honestly say that when I started out as a wee boy—my first book was published in 1985, so just a couple years before your first book—I was definitely a top-down guy. I mean my tastes were all for the avant-garde. They were all for structured literature. They were all for constrained literature. I really loved the literature of the mind. And I remain somewhat unapologetic about that now, although I’ve lived most of my life in a culture and at a time where that’s not going to speak to a lot of people. And my journey has been toward the bottom up and has, over the course of thirty-five years and twelve novels, been toward the joys of the organic and the affective and the emotional and the unstructured. So I still think there’s something in me that wants to work on large-scale architecture. But I think I might be much more open to the idea of surprising myself along the way and being open to more substantial course correction. But again, if you’re looking for this triple-layer cake—if you want the psychological and the social and the political to line up, if you want your eros and philia and agape all to be pulling or adding to the sense of coherence for the work—you can’t be above structuring it. It has to be there. Despite this present-day obsession with “Don’t show anything that looks like architecture.”
BK: I don’t think it has to be either/ or. As long as you’re good at disguise.
RP: And you’re the best. That’s why I love your stuff. There was a wellknown Shakespearean critic who said, “It’s amazing, in the Elizabethan audience, how much poetry they would stomach on the way to blood and thunder.” I would say that slightly differently about a Kingsolver novel. How much incredibly deep education we get about the living world on our way toward understanding more about ourselves. So the seduction is there. The conventional pleasures of a characterdriven novel, but superimposed on that is this whole superstructure of meaning that goes beyond the individuals and beyond the private transactions.
BK: Well, if you don’t start with that, it’s not going to be there. I haven’t taught writing very much—it’s not my gift—but when I did, a question I would often ask is, “What does this mean?” And if the answer is you don’t know, then how the hell do you think I’m going to know? It can’t be random. You can’t just leave it to the reader to guess what your story is about, even though that has been much in fashion for most of our lives. When I finish writing like that I feel like I’ve consumed empty calories. I just feel like I need to go work out or something. And yet of course I understand that people read novels because they want to enter another life—the life of another human, not a tree, not a Venus flytrap—but they can be there.
RP: You have a magnificent protagonist who feels passionate toward carnivorous plants in the way that the ordinary person can only feel passionate toward other people. So in a sense you finesse this difficulty of opening up a nonhuman to the human, via the human.
BK: Exactly, as you did with people who love trees. And that’s our contract. I know I’m an odd bird, but some of the passages in fiction that I love best are those that don’t have any people. And they’re still clear in my mind. The first one I think I ever read was in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. I loved Steinbeck when I was younger, when I was first sort of teaching myself to write, because there’s just so much instruction there. And in Cannery Row there is a complete chapter told from the point of view of a groundhog. And it just blew out the windows when I read that. I thought, “I could do this? I could do this in a novel?” My goal in life was to do “the groundhog,” as I called it to myself. But it’s a huge risk. I think the first time I ever really tried to pull it off is at the beginning and the end of Prodigal Summer.
RP: The coyote.
BK: You are experiencing the world through the eyes and mostly the nose of a coyote, and that’s really where I want to take people—out of their humanness. It is the ultimate act of empathy. If you can imagine yourself in some other life that’s not human.
RP: In Unsheltered you tackle head-on the direct fear of what science might be telling us about our importance or place in the world, or the way that we have to think about our relationship to the nonhuman. And I hit this line where Thatcher Greenwood is talking to Mary Treat. He says to Mary: “You and I are not like other people.
We perceive infinite nature as a fascination, not as a threat to our sovereignty, but if that sense of unity in all life is not already lodged in a person’s psyche I’m not certain it can ever be taught.” I read that first half and I just thought, “It has taken me some years to get around to this, but that’s the club I want to belong to.” And you’ve been there for a while. When he says that if you’re not born with that sense of unity maybe you can’t learn it, I think your book is a spectacular example of the opposite, both in its narrative and in your use of that narrative to move people who are somewhere on that spectrum closer to this idea that what we can take away from this astonishing revolution that the people in your nineteenth century are just feeling the forward edge of. And what we in our twenty-first century are just feeling a very late edge of: If we can’t take away from the fact that this is a huge augmentation and enhancement of the reverence of life and the urgency of life—if instead it feels like a diminishment to us—we’re doing something wrong.
BK: And we’re sunk. But this understanding that natural law applies to us as well—we don’t get to rewrite it. We can try our best, but it wins. Physics—I don’t use the word trumps anymore; it used to be a good word—but physics takes all.
RP: But what you’ve done is juxtapose the story where that initial dramatic dislodging of anthropocentrism— you’re juxtaposing that story, that trauma, with the trauma of the present, which is a dislodging of the same kind of what George Lakoff has called Western paternalism: men above women, white above black, Americans above all other nationalities, and humans above all other creatures of the earth. The rejection of Darwin because we’re no longer the center is also the kind of rejection that’s being promulgated by our political leaders right now because we can’t think of ourselves as centrist or as urgent or as essential as we perhaps once were.
BK: Right. Nationalism and patriotism and patriarchy and all of these things are sort of crass attempts to hold on to the same thing that Thatcher and Mary’s compatriots were trying to hold on to: supremacy in the face of a complete failure of the paradigm. Well, it’s really hard to understand a paradigm shift. It’s impossible, by definition.
RP: Not when you’re in the middle of
BK: So that’s why I really wanted to write about paradigm shift, and I thought the only way to do it would be to compare this moment with some equivalent moment in history when people were really struggling with a paradigm shift that just oriented them completely. And I’ve always wanted to write about Darwin. I thought he would be a character in this novel…but it just wasn’t going to work because I had this device of the house and the people, then and now, living in the same house. You think it’s the same house. And of course it’s falling down. When you start with all of this structure it seems like, oh, that’s going to be so obvious: a falling-down house as a metaphor for a crumbling paradigm, but you just keep at it until the house is the place. You know, you’re talking to the contractor and you’re in the house and you’re feeling like, I got to fix this house.
RP: In the act of reifying that place in your own imagination and seeing every timber in the floor plan and what rooms have caved in and where they have retreated to, you’re also animating that house in an almost pantheistic way for the characters in the story. I mean it is no longer a placeholder in your intellectual scheme about the intersecting themes of Unsheltered. It actually has a visceral urgency to your protagonist. And as a result that urgency is transferred to the reader.
BK: I’m just thinking about sentences when I’m writing. I mean, once I’ve
done all of this planning, then, well, then the fun begins. And just thinking about the internal alliteration. I read sentences aloud as I write them. That’s where 90 percent of the work is—and the fun. What moves me utterly in The Overstory, when I understand I’m in the company of greatness, is when I feel like I’m being asked to be a larger person, a larger brain, than I was when I started. And I think we reach for wisdom, don’t we?
RP: We also write for wisdom; we sneak our way toward it I think.
BK: I always start with questions that I can’t answer. Otherwise you get bored halfway through if you already know the answers. If you’re asking what seem to be unanswerable questions, then you have to keep showing up. It is so interesting to me that people, in what they’re calling the attention economy, and people are chronically short of time, or so they say—as if people weren’t short of time when they had to dig up their own food or shoot it or whatever, it’s a sort of artificial urgency—but people don’t buy and read poetry. I mean masses of people don’t read poetry; they don’t read short stories. I know if I went to my publisher, which I would love to do, if I went to my publisher and said my next book is going to be poems or short stories, I think they would just smile, leave the room, and then keel over. They wouldn’t be happy. Why not? If people don’t have much time, why do they prefer novels?
RP: We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. And yet to have a keyhole in a door that’s on our scale to get into this larger place. And you almost need the real estate of the novel to bridge that, from little to big and back again. That’s one possibility. This isn’t you, although you certainly channel this woman at various places in your career: “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more.” That’s Willa Cather in My Antonia. “Perhaps we feel like that when we die, and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” I’m not saying the novel is a sure way to get that. It just allows that strange mismatch of scale. It also allows that strange distortion of time. You know, Teeter Brooks says we have a curious relationship to the logic of time in a novel: We read in anticipation of retrospect, and we know that page 400 is going to change page 20 forever. And we love the fact that page 20 is disappearing under our feet as we move forward to this ending that has already been written. It reverses our relationship to the fixity of future and past. We want that immersion. We want to feel like we’ve gone into a world, and when we turn that last page it’s hard for us to come back from that world into this world.
BK: Half of it is about entering into the other world, and the other half is self-forgetting. I think self-forgetting is really important and really valuable, and in times past it was for most people a function of religion, spirituality, culture, music .... Participatory music was a really standard way that ordinary people all the time would just stop being themselves and become part of the human chorus—self-forgetting— and so the novel gives you the space to leave yourself and go be someone else and really just go inside another human brain and see through other eyes and hear through other ears. It’s something we must crave because the novel as a form has remained pretty consistent for hundreds of years.
RP: Reading as a confirmation or as a provocation. Reading as telling us what we already knew. So we come to the final page having journeyed not all that far from where we went into it, or having been taken out of ourselves into other selves in other places and other hierarchies. I do believe that a book can trouble and delight us at the same time.
BK: And should, ideally.
RP: I wonder—though it’s a horrible thing to ask, because it’s only a deep commitment to commodity culture that would make any interviewer ask, “So what are you working on now?”
BK: I know. And don’t you love when you’re on book tour, and in the signing line people ask, “What are you working on?” And you want to say, “Signing your book! That’s what I’m writing: my name.” [Laughter.]
RP: I’ve always been restless. Every book has seemed to run its course and present new questions that take me to some new place and make me want to commit for another three or four years to some new place, to become knowledgeable about some new domain. But this time I thought, “Now wait a minute—I want to stay here. I like these woods.” We’ll see.
BK: Interesting. So you don’t have any idea what your next novel might be? Do you think you’re going to stay in the woods?
RP: I don’t think the apple is going to fall too far from the tree.
BK: That is wonderful news. It is interesting though, as you say, our vocation is to love and to leave...but your readers and the media want to keep you where you were. We did a book about local food, and I still get five invitations a week to go talk about local food economies. I say no to all of them, but then it’s like you’re betraying a sacred trust. But it’s our joy—and an urgent requirement of our vocation—to move on, to not get so associated with the subject matter of one book that we can never write another. And it’s really difficult in the modern era to set those boundaries. You’re going to be the go-to forestry guy now.
RP: There are worse fates.