Barbara Kingsolver has suggested a picnic. This feels on-brand for the biologist turned legendary novelist, whose writing is famous for rich descriptions of the natural world. Since reading her 2000 novel Prodigal Summer during the early days of lockdown, I have never looked at moths with the same malice.
Kingsolver drives us to the trail head. Her car is electric, and surprisingly futuristic for the Appalachian town of Abingdon, Virginia. As we walk through the parking lot, two women chatting by their cars see us and abruptly go quiet. They had been discussing “the famous local author”. It makes sense. Kingsolver was once on Oprah, and has a new book coming out. In a town this small, everybody knows everybody’s business.
Kingsolver smiles and returns their hello, and we set off down a wooded trail named for a local vine with an unfortunate name.
Kingsolver is a celebrity author whose career has had unusual longevity. Her 1988 novel The Bean Trees put her on the literary map, but it was The Poisonwood Bible a decade later, about a family of Southern Baptist missionaries in 1960s Congo, that became an Oprah book club pick, sold 5mn copies, and made her a star. I’m meeting Kingsolver for lunch a week before the release of her 17th book, a novel. Demon Copperhead is a retelling of David Copperfield, Charles Dickens’ epic on childhood poverty, but staged in Appalachia at the start of the opioid crisis.
Kingsolver is lanky and shy with impossible cheekbones and a streak of light grey hair that frames her face. She talks animatedly with her hands, spreading them wide as we talk about book culture and the “myopic” dominance of New York’s literary gatekeepers. “If a novel takes place between eight square blocks of Manhattan, it’s universal,” she says, mystified. “And if it happens in Kentucky, it’s regional.”
A woman on a mountain bike slows beside us. “I’m a big fan of the books. Looking forward to your new one,” she says, and pedals away. “Thanks!” Kingsolver calls after her. “My fans are so nice,” she whispers, and suggests we walk to a table a bit further off the trail.
Kingsolver’s relationship with fame is complicated. Raised in a small Appalachian town where making a fuss of oneself is a cardinal sin up there with avarice, she is quick to self-deprecation. She will soon set off on a long book tour. It is, she says, “a performance. But I’m performing myself. I’m performing a version of myself that’s not acutely introverted.”
She catches herself. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful.”
We settle at a wooden picnic table tattooed with Sharpie graffiti. I unpack our sandwiches from The Girl & The Raven, a local coffee shop. Kingsolver opted for the turkey melt on a croissant. Leaning into the regional flavour, I selected the fried bologna sandwich with pimento cheese on buoyant white bread. Both come with a bag of sturdy potato chips.
I suggest that her instinct to avoid being the subject of attention could be part of the reason why the 67-year-old takes on difficult political themes in her books: Flight Behaviour (2012), tackled climate change and 2018’s Unsheltered plucked at the strains in American society against the backdrop of the election of Donald Trump.
“It’s easier to talk about a topic than a novel,” she says. On tour, she says: “I become the go-to girl, you know, for postcolonial Africa, or the industrial food system [Animal, Vegetable, Miracle], or child abuse [The Bean Trees] or the Indian Child Welfare Act [Pigs in Heaven].”
On her Demon Copperhead tour, the topic is how Appalachia (pronounced Apple-Latch-Uh) became the centre of Purdue Pharma’s opioid assault on America. It is also a chance for Kingsolver to tell another story for Appalachia, by an Appalachian.
The book is a homily to the spirit of this region, to which she feels a “pre-verbal attachment”. Although she was raised 200 miles away on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Kentucky, it was still Appalachia, the vast, ecologically rich region that sprawls from the north of Mississippi to western New York. Kingsolver has lived on a farm just outside Abingdon for almost 20 years.
What does she love about Appalachia? I ask. Kingsolver laughs: “That’s a 500-page answer.” She starts with the beauty, the tight rolling hills and the critters. She braves a bite of her sandwich. “I think . . . it’s like we imprint like baby goslings, on a type of horizon. On a type of sky.”
Kingsolver searched for years for a way into the story of the opioid crisis. In Abingdon, “everyone has friends who were directly impacted”, she says. “A huge percentage of our kids are not being raised by their parents because their parents are incarcerated or addicted or dead.”
It wasn’t until a stay at Bleak House, the cliffside manor in Broadstairs, Kent, where Dickens wrote David Copperfield, that she found her opening. “I just felt him saying . . . ‘You let the child tell the story’,” she says. “My skin was crawling.” She sat down at Dickens’ desk and started to sketch the novel. “I just started hearing [Demon] talk — that kid saying ‘don’t look away. Here I am.’”
Kingsolver’s protagonist, Damon Copperhead (nicknamed Demon), is born and raised in Lee County, Virginia. We meet him as he is born en caul on the floor of a single-wide trailer in the hills. He is yanked into the state’s overburdened and threadbare foster care system, and loses his mother to an overdose. “There’s north and there’s south, and then there is Lee County,” Copperhead says. “World capital of the lose-lose situation.”
Then prescription opioids crash across the region with the violence of a summer storm. Parents bury their children without funerals. Friends dissolve into shadows. Copperhead is prescribed OxyContin for a football injury, and the delicate thread tethering him to a future snaps.
During her research, Kingsolver befriended the doctor Art Van Zee, who raised early red flags about opioid addiction in his rural practice in Pennington Gap, Virginia. Through him, Kingsolver connected with people in recovery from opioid-use disorder. “They would say ‘ask me anything’, and I’d say, ‘what do you do to get the pill into the syringe?’”
She spent hours listening to their stories. “It’s not just the logistics of it, but the life,” she says. “‘Where did you end up that you didn’t want to be?’ Those were the stories that were just shattering.
“Nobody chooses this life,” she says. “Every single person I talked with started with a prescription, from a doctor, with instructions: ‘take this every four hours, set an alarm so you won’t forget’.”
In the wake of the Purdue trials and several hit TV series such as Hulu’s Dopesick, based on the best-selling book, it is tempting for the rest of the country to talk of the opioid crisis in the past tense. But Appalachia is still sifting through the wreckage.
As she speaks, Kingsolver gazes past our table, reaching for her thoughts along the tree line. The breeze carries yellow sycamore leaves down around us like snow. “After the bomb is dropped. You still got the radiation. You still got the flattened fields. There’s a generation of kids growing up here with immense trauma.”
Picnic food from . . .
The Girl & The Raven
380 E Main St, Abingdon, VA 24210
Turkey melt sandwich $12
Classic bologna and cheese $11.50
Total (inc tax and tip) $31.09
Driving into town for lunch, I saw yard signs encouraging locals to sign up to be foster parents. Some estimate that 40 per cent of children in some Appalachian counties are living with people other than their parents. And when Covid closed the region’s schools, “so many of these kids were just cut loose,” Kingsolver says.
“I might be driving home and see a couple of 13-year-olds with backpacks walking on the road, and I can tell they don’t have any place to go,” Kingsolver says. “That’s why I wanted to tell the story of Demon . . . the lost boys and lost girls, this generation of kids that feel like nobody wants them.”
Demon Copperhead feels timely. While the fortunes of Appalachia were weaponised in the 2016 election, the region seems to be slowly and almost imperceptibly fading from the conversation. No longer on the front page. Back to being a punchline. And for many, the only narrative about the region is a bleak one, defined by low employment rates, “hillbillies”, a perpetually declining economy and opioids.
“The entire history of the structural poverty of this region is what nobody understands,” Kingsolver says. Like Dickens before her, Kingsolver was determined to lay bare how the precariousness and poverty Copperhead has known his whole life was architected, not accidental. Demon Copperhead is drenched with historical context: how the mining companies fought tooth and nail to keep other employers out of Appalachia, and kept the education system poor to produce workers with no bigger hopes than to work in the mines.
“It was done to us. And we’re still living with that,” she says. “We get blamed for it. Even the JD Vance version of Appalachia is ‘we’re too lazy to get out of our rut’ . . . He’s so blind to the history.”
Her voice swings remembering the national fervour Vance’s memoir-cum-diatribe, Hillbilly Elegy, caused as coastal liberals struggled to comprehend the origins of a Trump presidency. Vance has since aligned himself with Trump and was elected to the US Senate in November.
“Everyone here who read that book, hated that book,” she says. “It made us so mad to see the rest of the country embracing that as ‘yes, that is the story of Appalachia’.”
Kingsolver takes umbrage with Vance’s presumption that his personal story tells a broader one for the region. “If he wanted to write a memoir about his family, fine.” She adds: “It wouldn’t have been a bestseller.”
Over lunch, Kingsolver keeps returning to the question of what she loves about Appalachia. There’s the storytelling and hyperbolic humour, the do-it-yourself-ness. People make things and fix things, they grow their own tomatoes and stitch their own quilts.
She is thrilled that her daughters have relocated back to the area. This is home, the horizon she craves and to which she always returns. “There’s a reason people grow up here and stay here,” she says.
Kingsolver closes the box on her sandwich, while I pick at the crusts of pimento cheese-smeared bread. I haven’t made up my mind on pimento cheese which, for the uninitiated, is more cheese-adjacent than cheese. Kingsolver’s bag of potato chips is untouched. The author opts to bin them — her husband, Steven Hopp, would eat them, she says, but maybe he shouldn’t.
We are talking about the heartbreaks of modern dating, and the illusion of perfection propped up by infinite choice. Kingsolver writes love so tenderly, I had long ago decided she must be an expert on all matters of the heart. How did she know Hopp was the one?
“It was kind of crazy,” she says. They met when Kingsolver was in town lecturing as part of a “starving artists fellowship” at a local university, where he taught. On her last night, seeing how worn out she was after two weeks of nonstop teaching, “He just said, ‘come out to my farm, just to relax’.”
“That’s a great line,” I say.
She and Hopp stayed up around a campfire until sunrise talking and laughing “like little kids at a slumber party”.
She wasn’t looking, she says, and neither was Hopp. She already had a daughter and ex-husband back in Tucson. In the morning she flew home, but he kept calling. “We just talked on the phone every night, the way you do with friends,” she says. “We fell in love before we even had a chance to go on a date.”
Kingsolver is generous with her answers, as well as her questions. Perhaps because of this, young writers often ask her for guidance whether they should move to New York to be close to the literary scene. She recommends against it.
She spent her early adulthood on the move, travelling through Europe and later lived in a number of “low-rent” areas such as the American Southwest. “Overhead will determine the choices you make,” she says. “If you have to pay $2,000 a month to live in a closet, then you’re going to write about cryptocurrency. Sorry!” she says, realising she was actually speaking directly to me. She has a point. Except my closet costs more.
She tucks her knee up in front of her and wraps her arms around it. Plus, she says: “City life can be very provincial.”
While Kingsolver is frustrated by the part of her brain “that memorises criticism and immediately forgets praise”, she is grateful for the part that is able to hold such a striking amount of detail, the level of colour and imagery her prose is famous for. “I’ve always been a chronic eavesdropper,” she says.
But her devotion to detail, she says, has a downside. “The same thing that makes me revise a novel 100 times could be called by some people a disease,” she laughs. She describes writing the ending of a book as bringing a plane down to land — holding every detail simultaneously in mind as the whole story gets tied together, brought back to the ground. “Writing a novel is an extraordinary exercise in memory,” she says.
As we walk back to her car, I tell her that hers were the first literary novels I picked up as a child. They were all on the shelves — my mom was in a book club, and Kingsolver was (and remains) the queen of the book-club book.
Kingsolver has been surprised that her early works are still read by young readers, or are remembered by older ones. She receives a note or two each day — often on social media — telling her about a different book of hers that has meant something to someone.
Recently, Kingsolver was asked to do the narration of her earliest novels, now resurrected as audiobooks. She says she reread them the weekend before the recording, “so I wouldn’t have a breakdown in the studio”.
“I just thought, what the hell is this going to be like, to read a novel I wrote at 33? I was terrified that I would hate it,” she says. But Kingsolver felt as if the books, in a way, belonged to someone else.
“It doesn’t sound like me now. But it sounds like me then,” she says. “It was a spiritual experience of accepting all the writers that I’ve been. And all the writers that I will be.”
Madison Darbyshire is the FT’s investment reporter in New York
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