A TALK IN THE WOODS

Poets and Writers - - Contents - By kevin larimer

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.”

BK: Ex­actly.

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

it.

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.

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