This 2012 interview with Barbara Kingsolver from The Daily Beast touches on a few topics already mentioned in previous posts - when she writes, does she outline, etc. As a mother to young children myself, one of my favorite parts is how she used to say the school bus was her muse! For me, that is definitely the biggest obstacle to actually sitting down to write these days - finding time when the children aren't vying for my attention. Usually this means writing after they are in bed (although let it be said, bedtime rarely goes smoothly!), or else convincing my husband to take them to do something fun out of the house.
Describe your morning routine.
I tend to wake up very
early. Too early. Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with
trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because
my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and
start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring
into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long
emergency. It’s a funny thing: people often ask how I discipline myself
to write. I can’t begin to understand the question. For me, the
discipline is turning off the computer and leaving my desk to do
When would you normally finish your day, then? What would your evening be like?
For the whole of my career as a novelist, I have also been a mother. I was offered my first book contract, for The Bean Trees,
the day I came home from the hospital with my first child. So I became a
novelist and mother on the same day. Those two important lives have
always been one for me. I’ve always had to do both at the same time. So
my writing hours were always constrained by the logistics of having my
children in someone else’s care. When they were little, that was
difficult. I cherished every hour at my desk as a kind of prize. As time
has gone by and my children entered school it became progressively
easier to be a working mother. My oldest is an adult, and my youngest is
16, so both are now self-sufficient—but that’s been a gradual process.
For me, writing time has always been precious, something I wait for and
am eager for and make the best use of. That’s probably why I get up so
early and have writing time in the quiet dawn hours, when no one needs
Following up on that, do you have any unusual traditions associated with the writing process? Any magic hat you have to wear?
As you can probably guess from this conversation, I’ve always been so
eager to write that I don’t need any rituals to get myself in the right
mood. I used to say that the school bus is my muse. When it pulled out
of the driveway and left me without anyone to take care of, that was the
moment my writing day began, and it ended when the school bus came
back. As a working mother, my working time was constrained. On the other
hand, I’m immensely grateful to my family for normalizing my life, for
making it a requirement that I end my day at some point and go and make
dinner. That’s a healthy thing, to set work aside and make dinner and
eat it. It’s healthy to have these people in my life who help me to
carry on a civilized routine. And also to have these people in my life
who connect me to the wider world and the future. My children have
taught me everything about life and about the kind of person I want to
be in the world. They anchor me to the future in a concrete way. Being a
mother has made me a better writer. It’s also true to say that being a
writer has made me a better mother.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
do a lot of mapping out. I was trained as a scientist—undergraduate and
graduate degrees in biology—and I tend to think like a scientist and
work like a scientist. It seems to me that every book reminds me of
writing a dissertation. Each idea begins with a hypothesis, to put it
into scientific terms. A great “what if” that seems important to me.
Then I think about how to translate that very real question, about human
nature or the world, into a plot. A novel doesn’t tell you anything. It
has to show you everything. Even a question has to be asked through
character and plot. I spend a lot of time thinking about the narrative
structure. I do tons of writing that is not yet scenic but more
schematic. It will never appear in the book, it’s really just notes to
me about this book. In fact the top of the file might say “The Lamp on
the Desk.” I made that up because it’s what I’m looking at now, but you
see what I mean. The file will be “The Lamp on the Desk,” and then it
will say “the characters are x, y, and z. This is the plot. It begins
here, it goes there, everyone has to see x in the end.” It’s writing
about the book, almost like a treatment or, as they say in the film
industry, a “bible.” I can spend months doing this, until I know who
everyone is, and what they will be doing. Only then do I start writing. I
invent characters who will do what I need them to do. Then I invent
life histories that will make them the kind of people that would do what
I need them to do. Like all authors, I’m asked if characters are
biographical, if I put people I know into my fiction. You can see from
my process that that would be impossible for me. I begin by seeing a
narrative, so I can’t put people I know in it—they simply wouldn’t
behave properly, they wouldn’t be cooperative and do what I asked of
them. So I invent the people I need, and that’s a lot more fun anyway. I
can continually refine the characters, their histories, and their
damage, until they are exactly the right people I need. Then, after a
lot of that work is done, I start writing scenes. Sometimes the opening
scene will occur to me first, but usually not. I write a lot of material
that I know I’ll throw away. It’s just part of the process. I have to
write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
as much as you can about the world itself. That means not just writing
courses, other courses. Probably I would say learn about science. There
are very few fiction writers who know about biology, physics,
environmental chemistry, and there’s a great need for science in the