Poets & Writers

A TALK IN THE WOODS

BEHIND the farmhouse in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia where Barbara Kingsolver lives and writes, surrounded by trees, ruby-throated hummingbirds are constant companions, darting here and there, pollinating the orange jewelweed and other flowering plants. But on the recent, sunny afternoon the best-selling author spent talking with novelist Richard Powers, who drove a few hours north from his home in the Smoky Mountain foothills of northern Tennessee to see her, the hummingbirds seem more interested in the almost-empty feeder that hangs above the table on her terrace, where we chat following a lunch of home-grown cucumbers, tomatoes, and red peppers along with olives and smoked-trout pâté with chips.

The humming is so loud, in fact, that at one point late in the conversation, Powers remarks, “Let the record show that what sounds like nearby automobiles are actually hummingbirds.”

Powers, whose list of awards covers just about every major honor available to a writer, including the National Book Award for The Echo Maker (FSG, 2006) and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, is the author of twelve novels, most recently The Overstory, which is, to repeat the word Kingsolver herself used in a front-page encomium in the New York Times Book Review upon its release by W. W. Norton in April, a “monumental” achievement. Through eight intersecting and overlapping narratives, Powers expertly assembles a supporting cast of characters who, through their individual stories, reveal the novel’s real protagonists: trees.

Kingsolver is the author of nine bestselling works of fiction, including the novels Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, The Poisonwood Bible, and Animal Dreams, as well as books of poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction. Her list of honors and awards is even longer than that of Powers and includes the Orange Prize for Fiction, the National Humanities Medal, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her novel The Poisonwood Bible was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2000, the same year Kingsolver established what is now known as the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

Her new novel, Unsheltered, is the tale of two families who live, in different centuries, in Vineland, New Jersey, a real town built as a utopian community in the 1860s. Kingsolver masterfully blends historical and fictional characters to frame twin narratives of people coping with a paradigm shift. The story of Willa Knox and her family, who inherit a ramshackle house whose disrepair is in step with the family’s declining fortunes, is juxtaposed with the narrative 150 years earlier of Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher who comes under attack for furthering the controversial theories of Charles Darwin, and his neighbor Mary Treat, a scientist who corresponds with Darwin.

I invited Powers and Kingsolver to talk not only because they are both giants of contemporary American literature, but also because they’d never met, despite having much in common. Both pursued academic fields of study in the sciences (Kingsolver has a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, and Powers studied physics); they both moved overseas as children (the Powers family moved from Illinois to Bangkok for five years when Richard was eleven, and the Kingsolvers moved from Kentucky to what was then called Léopoldville, Congo, for a year when Barbara was seven); both live in southern Appalachia; and both have a deep, abiding, infectious fascination with and love for the natural world.

What would happen if they were given an open forum with no expectations, no preconceived editorial angle, other than recording their conversation? What would they talk about? Before I

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