Barbara Kingsolver is a Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist whose books include The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna and, most recently, Demon Copperhead
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
I read this book in the back of a car. I must have been in third or fourth grade, and my parents were taking us on a rare vacation. They put us in the back of the station wagon and expected us to be quiet for as long as it took to drive to the Grand Canyon. Luckily I can read in moving vehicles, and I just disappeared into Little Women. That was my first experience of really losing myself in a novel.
"I just disappeared into Little Women. That was my first experience of really losing myself in a novel"
Where we lived we had bookmobiles. A bookmobile is a little bus that’s kitted out with bookshelves and it drives around all the country roads. We don’t have public transport in rural America so say if you’re a kid living on a farm, you’re stuck there. So this was like an ice cream truck for books that would come round and I made friends with the driver so she let me take as many books as my little arms would carry!
That’s how I found Little Women and I just loved it. I thought of myself as Jo, of course, don’t we all?
The Children of Violence series by Doris Lessing
Another book—well, actually, a series of books—that rocked my world was the Children of Violence series by Doris Lessing. These are novels that are connected by a main character, Martha Quest. They’re set in what was then called Rhodesia, where Lessing grew up. She was writing about sexism and racism in a time where those words weren’t really used yet.
"These books were about these big, universal themes that I was feeling so powerfully in my own life"
They had what was called the colour bar back then, and as far as sexism, it was just called life. Nobody was remarking on it. But these books were about these really big, universal themes that I was feeling so powerfully in my own life.
It was what I saw in my little town. There were these claustrophobic limitations on what women could aspire to, and my town was segregated. It was a revelation to me that fiction could be about these things that everyone in the world should be thinking about. That larger sense of the purpose of fiction was revealed to me through these books. I was amazed to start thinking about what a novel could be in the world, what it could do.
Cannery Row, John Steinbeck
I always loved to read, and I always kept a journal since I was eight years old. As a young adult I wrote poetry and stories which I did not show to anybody. But I did not think I could be a writer. In my small town, my small world, it just didn’t seem possible. I thought, I don’t know anyone important. I just know regular, ordinary people. You can’t write about that.
"[Cannery Row] showed me fiction doesn’t have to be about famous people or heroic lives"
And then a book fell into my hands that was this exquisite novel about this funny ragtag group of ordinary people living in an ordinary place. It was Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, not one of his best known, and it was like the scales fell from my eyes. It showed me fiction doesn’t have to be about famous people or heroic lives. It can be about anybody. Heroic lives can be found in real, honest places. I thought, This is the kind of book I could write. It was the first time I imagined myself as a writer.
The idea of an ecosystem of characters is really important in my work. I write against the American philosophy of individualism, this cult of the solo flyer, the lone hero. That’s supposedly what America is all about but it’s not real. Every hero has a whole bunch of people backing him up. I’m interested in those people! And Cannery Row showed me that you can write about those people.
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