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Climate Change Takes Flight in New Novel


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman. Why do we believe what we believe? And how is it that two people can look at the exact same set of circumstances and see two completely different things? That philosophical question is at the center of a new book where, to put it another way, one person's beautiful miracle is another person's ecological crisis. Here to talk more about that miracle or crisis, depending on your point of view, is the writer, Barbara Kingsolver. Her previous books include "Animal, Vegetable Miracle", and "The Poisonwood Bible." She's been awarded the National Humanities Medal. Her new book is "Flight Behavior." It's a novel. She joins us from WHYY, in Philadelphia. Thanks for joining us today.

BARBARA KINGSOLVER: You're welcome. I'm glad to be here.

LICHTMAN: Give us a thumbnail sketch of what this book is about.

KINGSOLVER: This book is about a shocking, very beautiful, and probably disastrous biological event that happens on a farm in southern, rural Appalachia. And I don't want to be the spoiler, but if you do that's on you. But basically, this - this is discovered - this event, it's a very freakish, amazing thing that should happen somewhere else in the world, and suddenly, one winter, it occurs on a mountaintop in eastern Tennessee, among rural conservative farmers, who are prone to see it as a miracle from the Lord. But it attracts a lot of attention, and the media come in and scientists come in and they declare it, at least the scientists declare it, a disastrous manifestation of a changing climate. It is fiction. It's a novel in which I use this device to talk about - about climate change, about the methods of science, because that's a really big part of this novel. These scientists who come in have to really have a conversation with the people who live here. And it's really about this, as you said in the beginning, why we decide to believe what we believe and why it's so difficult for us to have this conversation about climate change.

LICHTMAN: Okay, this is the point where you can lodge your complaints at me, because I am about to spoil it. So turn off your radio if you don't want to know. The event is a migration of Monarch butterflies and it's not clear, originally, what it looks like. It looks like a lake of fire, is how you describe it, and then later, you describe it this way. Even the tree trunks were butterfly pelts all the way up, like the bristling, hairy legs of giants. Have you seen these monarchs in person?

KINGSOLVER: Well, yes, of course, I have. I had to when I realized that I wanted to write this novel and this is the way I wanted to do it. I wanted to use the monarchs - okay, we'll say it - the monarchs as a device. I, of course, had to be able to describe this phenomenon infinitely, in many different ways, and to express in language how amazing and how beautiful it is. So I had to go and see that. And I did go to Mexico and spent time on the mountaintops in Michoacan, where these - where the whole species, or the whole population of eastern monarchs congregates in the winter. And so I had to be able to re-create that. So, yes, I have seen them, and it is a wonder of the world.

LICHTMAN: You can see why people would look at it and think it's a miracle.

KINGSOLVER: Especially if they were unprepared to see it any other way.


KINGSOLVER: But the story is conveyed through the eyes of this farmer's wife, who discovers it, actually, in a - she's kind of in an awkward situation. She's going somewhere where she's not supposed to be, and she sees it and she's not allowed to tell anyone. But she feels it's her personal burning bush. She takes it as a warning to go back. I wanted to write it, initially, through her eyes so that you, too, would not know what you are seeing, but later ...

LICHTMAN: If Science Friday didn't spoil it for you.



KINGSOLVER: Well, yeah. But you see what I mean, because it is about perception and how we need to be - to understand what we're seeing before we can really see it. That's really key to understanding this whole issue of climate change and why we see or don't see what's right in front of us.

LICHTMAN: What drew you to monarchs in the first place?

KINGSOLVER: I had really wanted to write about the subject for a long time. I live in southern Appalachia. I am surrounded by neighbors and friends, people I respect very much, who don't really understand climate change or believe in it. Even though, as farmers, they're getting socked by it. We've had unprecedented, disastrous weather time and again. So it's such a strange contradiction that the people in our continent, who were first to feel the harm of a changing climate, are the last to be able to talk about it. That was such a conundrum and such rich territory for a novel to tread that I was just looking for the right way to get into the subject. And one morning, I just woke up with this vision in my eyes of millions of butterflies covering the forest behind my house. I just, I mean, I didn't actually see it. I imagined it. I just - I woke up and there it was, and I knew that was it. I was really excited because to write - the difference between journalism and fiction is that you need - it has to be symbolic. You need a plot, you need characters, and you need a way to enter the story that isn't telling, but showing. And you need, of course, extraordinary events. You need conflict.

LICHTMAN: I mean, you also seem sort of perfectly positioned to write this because you have a background in science. You have a degree in biology, right?

KINGSOLVER: Several of them, in fact. That's right, I always loved reading and writing as a kid, but I didn't imagine that I could be lucky enough to be a writer. For a living, I thought I should study something practical, so - and I love science. I really feel I am a scientist. I was cut out to be a scientist. I studied biology in college, and I actually have a Master's degree in evolutionary biology. And I have always loved science, but somehow, apparently, love writing novels more.

LICHTMAN: Why aren't many other people writing these stories? I mean, it seems to me like climate change is so ripe for good symbolism. I mean, the world is melting, there are floods, there're catastrophes. It seems well suited.

KINGSOLVER: Not to mention, an urgent matter. But you're right, very few novelists have tackled it. And I really think part of that is that, well, it's a scary subject in every way, but also, most novelists aren't trained in science. We have this divide in our culture. I think, kids decide pretty early on whether they groove on the math and chemistry classes or whether they're going to run for their lives into history and AP English, and it just goes on from there. We establish this - we kind of establish these roots for ourselves in which we're not going to really cross over, and it becomes increasingly difficult to do that. I think a lot of people are afraid of science really, which is - which is bad news for everybody, because we really all need to understand a certain amount of science in order to make decent policy about the world we live in. But the truth is translating scientific ideas from physics and mathematics and biology into vernacular English is difficult enough, and then translating it into fiction, so that it's all there, unobtrusively, is extremely challenging. And that was both a daunting and a really fun part of this novel. In order to bring the reader into this world of scientists studying climate change in front of their eyes, they had to know something about the physics of why warm air holds more moisture. I wrote in this novel about the difference between correlation and causation, one of my pet peeves with journalists when they report on science. It requires a certain comfort with the literature and with the subject to begin to translate that into plot and character, and to make it really compelling. So the people who might think they're afraid of science can read this novel, enjoy this novel, without knowing that they're being educated in science.

LICHTMAN: One of the interesting things about how this novel is structured is that we get a really full explanation of climate science, I think, without any condescension, because the protagonist is learning about it herself. Do you think that there are ways in which fiction might be actually better suited to take on issues like this than nonfiction?

KINGSOLVER: I absolutely do, and that's why I do it. As I said earlier, for one thing, you can introduce ideas to people in a nonthreatening way. You can introduce science to people who didn't know they were interested in science. You can also talk about how people come to their truths, which was really a big part of this novel. Ultimately, even though the science and the butterflies are the central device here, a novel has to be about people. And what I really wanted to get at was the opening question that you made very clear. Why do we believe or disbelieve the evidence we see for climate change? And because I live in southern Appalachia, and have great respect for communities of people who have chosen to believe otherwise, I really wanted to look into how we make those choices and how it's possible to begin a conversation across some of these divides, between scientists and nonscientists, between rural and urban, between progressive and conservative. That when it comes to understanding the scientific truths about the world, there must be another way to bring information to people that is beyond simply condescending and saying, well, if only you had the facts, if only you knew what I did, then you would be a smart person. That gets you nowhere. And again, this is my community, this is my culture. Another rarity in literature is not very many people write about southern Appalachia very respectfully, and that was important to me, as well.

LICHTMAN: Do you have science - I have 30 seconds left - but will we see science in your next book?

KINGSOLVER: Absolutely.

LICHTMAN: Well, I look forward to it. Thank you for joining us today.

KINGSOLVER: It's my pleasure.

LICHTMAN: Barbara Kingsolver is the author of "Flight Behavior." This is Science Friday, from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.