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Happy 65th Birthday to Barbara Kingsolver

Portrait of an Activist Writer

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • April 08, 2020

Growing Up

Born April 8, 1955, Barbara Kingsolver was one of three children and grew up largely in rural Kentucky. She describes a childhood that was decidedly free-range, playing in the pastures and woodlands surrounding her home and reading everything she could get her hands on, even her father's old medical textbooks. She always loved to write, but it didn't occur to her that she could make a living as a writer until much later.

In 1963 her family moved briefly to the Congo where her father donated his services as a doctor. Though living there inspired her to write a novel set in Africa, she has often said that her bestselling The Poisonwood Bible is not an autobiographical novel. Of this, and other childhood experiences of living abroad, Kingsolver writes, "these jarring stints away were double-edged, giving me both a sense of the world beyond my small hometown, and an uneasy status as an outsider in a peer group that valued conformity." This perspective shines through in Kingsolver's writing, which often delves into themes of exploration and the search for belonging and community.


In 1973, Kingsolver enrolled in DePauw University, eventually settling on biology as a major. Her education was eclectic, demonstrating an interest in a wide variety of subjects, as well as a propensity for activism. Though she nurtured a private passion for writing, she says that calling herself an author would have seemed "starry-eyed." After graduating in 1977, she lived in Europe for a few years before returning to the States for graduate school in Tuscon, Arizona, where she would reside throughout much of the next two decades. Though she was studying ecology and biology, she continued writing poetry and fiction. Her deep scientific knowledge is evident in several of her novels, like Prodigal Summer and Flight Behavior. After graduation, she took a job as a scientific writer, taking freelance jobs in other areas. Little by little, began to realize that she could support herself with her writing and in 1985 she decided to follow her dreams and become a full-time writer.

Starting a Family

In the mid-1980s, Kingsolver met and married her first husband, Joe Hoffman. Both she and Hoffman were active in Tuscon-area human rights organizations working on behalf of undocumented immigrants and refugees. Around this time, Kingsolver wrote her first book, a nonfiction account of the Great Arizona Mine Strike called Holding the Line. She found an agent and began trying to get the book published. In the meantime, pregnant with her first daughter and suffering from insomnia, she began writing her debut novel.

In a fit of nesting before her daughter Camille was born, Kingsolver recalls coming across her fledgling manuscript of The Bean Trees, a story about Taylor Greer, a young Kentucky woman who moves to Arizona and, along the way, adopts an abandoned three-year-old American Indian girl named Turtle. She nearly threw it out, thinking it was probably not worthy of publication. On a whim, she sent it to her agent who immediately found a publisher for what would become a bestseller. Pigs in Heaven, also a bestseller, continues the story.


In the early 1990s, Kingsolver's first marriage ended and she found herself single with a young daughter. During that difficult time, she accepted a visiting-writer residency at Emory & Henry College, where she met biology professor Stephen Hopp. The two married in 1994 and settled back in Tuscon, where their daughter Lily was born in 1996. Published around his time, High Tide in Tuscon is an excellent book of essays by Kingsolver exploring themes of family, community and the natural world.

In 2004, the family moved to a 100-year-old farmhouse in rural Virginia where they embarked on a project of living almost entirely off the land for a year. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is Kingsolver's memoir based on that endeavor.

A Multi-Faceted Artist

In addition to producing books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Kingsolver is also an accomplished musician. When she initially entered in college, it was on a piano scholarship, but she changed her major when she realized that "classical pianists compete for six job openings a year, and the rest of [them] get to play "Blue Moon" in a hotel lobby." In the late 1990s, she was one of the founding members of the Rock Bottom Remainders, an all-author rock band. Other famous band members include Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Matt Groening, and Stephen King.

In 2000, Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, a literary prize awarded biennially to previously unpublished authors taking on issues of social justice. Winners are awarded major publication and a cash prize of $25,000, fully funded by Kingsolver. Past winners have included Hillary Jordan with Mudbound, Heidi W. Durrow with The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and Lisa Ko with The Leavers.

Many Happy Returns!

All this to say, we are enormous admirers of Ms. Kingsolver and it pleases us no end to sing her praises as we mark her 65th turn round the sun. With her arresting combination intellect, passion, and talent, she has made an indelible mark on the world of contemporary literature.

Kingsolver's most recent publication, Unsheltered, tells the story of two families, weaving between the past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval. Taking on such topics as environmental destruction and political unrest, the novel both is ambitious and timely. If you haven't read it, get your hands on a copy ASAP. As for us, we can't wait to see what she does next.

If you have any Kingsolver favorites that we've missed, please feel free to share in the comments! And combat social isolation by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for daily book recommendations, literary tidbits, and more.

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