You know that game where you can choose three people, living or dead, famous or not, to invite to your simplyfabulous dinner party? It is ridiculous how much pleasure I derive from this exercise. I love dreaming about the guests, where they would sit, what questions I would ask them, and what their answers might possibly be. Have I mentioned that I absolutely LOVE that game? My guests tend to shift and change based on what I'm reading, thinking, or learning about at any given time. Sometimes it's a blend of the famous and the beloved, like my surrogate grandfather and Harry Truman (because I would have LOVED to see the two of them talk), or Gandhi and Chris Rock. What would that look like? Princess Diana and Kate Middleton. (I KNOW. I am embarrassingly starstruck by princesses and am a more than a little bit embarrassed to admit this). Nelson Mandela and the entire cast of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. (They would not understand each other at ALL. Insert immature giggles here).
There is one person that has held the third place in my imaginary dinner party for almost twenty years running. The questions I want to ask her never change. And I always can count on her for interesting conversation with a polite Southern drawl and a pointed, yet gentle, intellect. (See how fun this is when you invent characteristics for people from their public persona?)
Barbara Kingsolver has been my imaginary dinner guest, my writing mentor and (imaginary) friend for a very, very long time. For years and years and years. She just doesn't know it. YET.
We met during Animal Dreams. What an introduction. In a summer where I was reading some seriously weird stuff to fulfill an undergraduate literature requirement, this book was different. I fell HARD. Exquisite in its construction and character development, and laser focused on the plight of migrants and the relationship between native and non-native cultures, Barbara had me at hello. Animal Dreams is a love story so beautiful, poignant, and memorable, that it is a part of me nearly twenty years later. Heady, beautiful stuff for my nineteen year old self. A beautifully constructed story with a side of social justice? Right up my alley.
I was converted and turned into a verifiable Kingsolver evangelist. My need to read her work was insatiable. To date, I had not yet read the work of a contemporary, ALIVE writer who wrote with such intensity, authenticity, thoughtful and elegant construction, and, for lack of a better (or even a real) word, rawness than Barbara.
To my utter delight, I discovered that she also wrote ESSAYS and nonfiction. Hooray and hallelujah, my favorite genre! I read High Tide in Tucson in one sitting and reread it nearly every year. Civil Disobedience at Breakfast? Hilarious and heartrending and as real as the sun.
And then came The Poisonwood Bible. Her masterpiece, in my opinion. That book is so richly drawn and vividly imagined, and perfectly circular in its structure that it left me breathless upon completion. This was the book that cemented Barbara's place at my table forever and ever and ever.
Don't EVEN get me started on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a nonfiction piece that chronicles her family's transition to complete consumption of only locally grown food (I think coffee was the only thing given a pass). That book transformed my thinking about food, family, cooking, and farming. It informs decisions I make at the grocery and guides me as to how I choose and prepare food (Most of the time. I do love me some Fritos). Occasional junk food notwithstanding, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle taught me to be thoughtful and mindful about agriculture and its precarious sustainability.
Barbara characterizes herself as a storyteller-scientist. I also think she needs to include teacher. Without fail, whether reading her architecturally structured fiction or her delightfully informative non-fiction, she leads her reader into a moment of transcendence, to a moment when what you knew before gets upended, and you will never look at that aspect of the world in quite the same way again. It happened for me in Animal Dreams, in High Tide in Tucson, in The Poisonwood Bible, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in Prodigal Summer. (She and I had issues with each other during The Lacuna. I got over them).
It also happened in her newest book, Flight Behavior.
One dreary morning nearly one year ago, I was listening to NPR when I heard the news. I was in a low, low place. I felt trapped in the vortex of infant and toddler care with no end in sight. Several of my dearest friends had moved away, and I was feeling sore alone. I had literally been tethered to my little nursing man, who would not take a bottle, for MONTHS, and my soul was feeling beleaguered and heavy. I could hardly read anything more intellectually taxing than People magazine before getting interrupted or falling dead asleep. I felt like my intellect was atrophying.
But this news! This news made me stand up straighter, it helped to reawaken my foggy, sleep-deprived, postpartum brain, and gave a glimmer of hope to my worn out soul. Overly dramatic? Perhaps. But try telling that to this girl a year ago and see what kind of response you get.
THE NEWS: Barbara Kingsolver had a new book coming out and was going to do a reading at the National Cathedral in a week. IN A WEEK! And come hell or high water, I was going to be there. My real life dinner party moment had actually arrived.
In the week between the news and the event, I listened to every radio interview she gave on Flight Behavior, read every review, and ordered my copy. The tickets were waiting at will call. I was ready.
After running late and getting horribly lost, I finally arrived at the majestic cathedral, met my waiting friend Cristina, and hightailed it into the sanctuary to listen to Barbara herself read from the novel.
As imagined, her voice in person was melodious, with a delicious Southern lilt. She speaks slowly, thoughtfully, with great care, whether she is reading from her work or answering a question. Words seem to matter very much to her, and it seems as though they are thoughtfully considered before they leave her mouth.
Cristina and I sat, mesmerized, listening to Barbara's soothing tones as she read the opening scene from the novel. The protagonist, Dellarobia, sets off up the mountain in too-tight boots to meet her "ruination." But, instead of a tryst with her erstwhile lover, Dellarobia discovers something that will ultimately, utterly transform her life. The reading was, in a word, exquisite.
Then it happened.
The dinner party moment.
I was the last person called on to ask Barbara a question. I ACTUALLY GOT TO ASK HER THE QUESTION THAT HAS BEEN BURNING WITHIN ME FOR YEARS! I couldn't even believe my great good fortune.
The Breathless Question: "In reading both your fiction and nonfiction over the years, I have noticed how circular and architectural in structure your books are. Can you explain your writing process? How do you go about crafting your pieces?"
"First of all, thank you so much for noticing that. I try to create my books in a process similar to that of an architect."
Here's me, inside my head, screaming, I KNEW IT!!!!
She then launched in to a delicious explanation of her writing process, which was everything I had imagined and more.
And then she thanked me again for asking. I was so filled up with joy that I floated back to my seat. Cristina and I beamed at each other and deemed the response perfectly exquisite.
Then just like that, the reading was over and we were invited to line up to get our books signed. The line was instantly enormous; snaking from one end of the cathedral to the other. The hour was late, the baby was hungry, and I was filled up. So, we walked to the front of the line, I snapped a picture of my friend Barbara, and drove home after a full and very satisfying dinner with one of my favorite guests.