By Shannon McGovern
Delivering the keynote address for the Julia B. Waxter Environmental Forum at Sweet Briar College last Thursday, Barbara Kingsolver revealed the inspiration for her latest novel, “Flight Behavior.” One morning about three years ago, Kingsolver said, she woke up with a vivid image that had never before occurred to her.
“I had a vision,” she said.
In her mind’s eye, Kingsolver said she saw a million monarch butterflies landing on the trees on the mountain behind the valley where she lives in Meadowview, Va. She knew immediately that she had a novel to write.
“Flight Behavior,” Kingsolver’s 14th book, is set in southern Appalachia, in rural Feathertown, Tenn. It’s here that Dellarobia Turnbow hikes up the mountain behind her home one morning, intent on betraying her husband and children. She’s stopped by the sight of millions of butterflies fluttering among the trees in the valley, enveloping it in their fiery orange color. Something has prompted these butterflies to abandon their usual home in Mexico.
This phenomenon attracts the interest of scientist Ovid Byron, who comes to Feathertown hoping to figure out what has disrupted the migratory habits of the monarch butterflies. A companionship between Ovid and Dellarobia forms.
Kingsolver said she had been thinking for a few years about writing a story about climate change, but for a long time she did not know how to approach the subject in a way that readers would find palatable. Climate change, she said, is a loaded, abstract and scientific topic that turns people off instantly. She decided to start with an effect of climate change, an event signaling a disruption within nature’s ecological systems.
“Every one of my novels comes from a question,” Kingsolver said.
For “Flight Behavior,” that question was, what if monarch butterflies actually did migrate to southern Appalachia instead of Mexico? It was an idea, Kingsolver said, that seemed within the realm of possibility—even if it had never happened and perhaps never would.
Kingsolver decided to set the novel in a place like her own home, and the characters are like her neighbors—farmers already affected by climate change but not likely to believe in it or understand what it is.
Names, Kingsolver said, are also important ingredients of a novel, because they help create a sense of place for the reader. She usually gets inspiration for character names reading the obituaries in the local paper. But because her latest novel is set in the place where her family is from, she looked to her own family tree this time.
The only exception was name of the novel’s protagonist: Dellarobia. Kingsolver said she named this character for her great-grandmother, who loved to make dellarobia wreaths, made from odds and ends found around the house or in the yard. Kingsolver remembers being a child in awe of her great-grandmother’s homemade wreaths.
“These were the ‘Mona Lisa’ to me,” she said.
But before she began writing, Kingsolver wanted to get her story straight. “I wanted the facts to be right, even though it was fiction,” she said.
Kingsolver said her research process for a novel is not unlike the work that she put into her scholarly scientific work earning degrees in ecology and evolutionary biology.
“Every time I write a novel, it feels like a dissertation,” Kingsolver told an audience of more than 600 people. “The difference is only 11 people cared to read [my dissertation].”
She decided to seek the expertise of Lincoln Brower, a research professor at Sweet Briar College whose research includes the study of overwintering, migration and conservation biology of the monarch butterfly.
“I wanted to talk to him, but I was much too shy to call him up,” Kingsolver said. She explained her hesitance to a friend acquainted with the professor. That friend urged her to give him a call.
“So I emailed him,” Kingsolver said.
With that correspondence, Kingsolver joined forces with Brower and his team of scientists. She learned the names of the machines they use and observed the sounds and smells of the lab.
“A monarch lab smells like there’s a gasoline station across the street,” Kingsolver said.
She said Brower and the other scientists showed an appreciation for fiction and were helpful as she developed her story. She would explain her ideas and theories, and they would come back with modifications or alternative ideas.
“I was so gratified by the generosity of their imaginations,” Kingsolver said.
This interaction is an important element of Kingsolver’s creative process for any book she writes. Without experiencing things first hand, she said, she feels like a fraud. If you’re writing about a scene outside in springtime, Kingsolver said, “You have to know what’s blooming in April.”
A webcast of the event may be viewed on Sweet Briar College’s website at http://sbc.edu/live