Barbara Kingsolver Biography

Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955, in Annapolis, Maryland, to Wendell Kingsolver, a physician, and Virginia Henry. Her family soon moved to be close to relatives living in eastern Kentucky. Kingsolver’s father worked as the only doctor in rural Nicholas County, a county situated between the poverty of coal fields and the affluence of horse farms. Nicholas County was an economically depressed area, and most people living there were not well off; they earned only enough money to ensure their survival through tobacco farming. Nicholas County did not have a swimming pool, and Kingsolver never laid eyes on a tennis court until she went away to college.

From an early age, Kingsolver enjoyed telling stories (her parents listened to bedtime stories instead of telling them). And because her parents were intolerant of television, Kingsolver spent her time reading and writing stories and essays. Living in the country amid fields and woods, Kingsolver became a student of nature. Plants and animals fascinated her and often found their way into her parents’ house. Her parents were generally understanding; however, they did not allow snakes and mice inside.

In 1962, Kingsolver’s father chose to practice medicine where he felt he could make a significant difference in the lives of others. He took his family first to St. Lucia, an island nation in the Caribbean, where they lived in a convent hospital, and then to central Africa. While living in Africa, Kingsolver experienced what it was like to be a minority and an outsider. She was the only white child in the village. At the time, her hair was long enough to sit on, and the village children, never having seen hair like Kingsolver’s, tried to pull it off as though it were some sort of headpiece. Kingsolver’s experiences opened her eyes to the world and provoked her curiosity about people from other cultures. By the time she was eight years old, Kingsolver resolutely kept a daily journal and entered every essay contest for which she was eligible.

Other important influences on Kingsolver during her childhood included the county Bookmobile, large family vegetable gardens, and a community that depended on the kindness of others to get by.

Having returned to Nicholas County to attend public school, Kingsolver graduated from Nicholas County High School in 1973. She then attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, on a scholarship to study instrumental music, a lifelong interest of hers. In college, Kingsolver changed her major to biology and worked to eliminate her rural Kentucky accent and the expressions she had adopted from that particular region, both of which seemed to invite teasing. (Much later, Kingsolver realized how unique her language was and has attempted to re-create it in her writing.) While in college, she was exposed to the writings of feminist authors Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and studied German philosophers and socialists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. She took one creative writing class and participated in anti-Vietnam War protests. She graduated from DePauw magna cum laude in 1977 with a Bachelor of Arts degree and then moved to Tucson, Arizona, where she began graduate studies in biology and ecology at the University of Arizona and worked as a research assistant in the physiology department until 1979.

After receiving a Master of Science degree in 1981 from the University of Arizona, Kingsolver accepted a job at the university and began writing science articles. She also pursued additional graduate studies and took a writing class with author Francine Prose. It was then that she realized that she did not want to pursue a career in academia but, rather, wanted to write. She began working as a freelance scientific writer and journalist. Her articles have appeared in The Progressive, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Sonoran Review. Kingsolver also began writing short stories that have been published in Redbook, Mademoiselle, and anthologies such as New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 1988; Florilegia, an Anthology of Art and Literature by Women; and Rebirth of Power.

Kingsolver began a nonfiction book in 1983 about the copper mine strike against the Phelps Dodge Corporation in Arizona. She spent hours interviewing union wives about their experiences during and after the strike. A year later, the book was only half finished, and because her agent was having trouble selling it, Kingsolver stopped working on the book and returned to freelance writing.

On April 15, 1985, Kingsolver married University of Arizona chemistry professor Joseph Hoffmann. She soon found herself pregnant and unable to sleep at night. Her doctor suggested that she scrub bathroom tiles with a toothbrush to battle her insomnia, but instead she sat in a closet and began writing her first novel, The Bean Trees. If her daughter, Camille, had not been born three weeks late, Kingsolver might never have finished The Bean Trees, published in 1988.

Supporting herself with the advance money from The Bean Trees, Kingsolver completed writing her nonfiction account of the Arizona mining strike. Published in 1989 by Cornell University Press, the work is titled Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983. In 1989, she also published a collection of short stories, Homeland and Other Stories. She then went on to write the novels Animal Dreams (1990) and Pigs in Heaven (1993), a sequel to The Bean Trees; a best-selling collection of poetry, Another America: Otra America (1992); a collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now and Never (1995); and another novel, The Poisonwood Bible (1998).

Kingsolver’s writing has received much acclaim. Her awards and honors include American Library Association awards for The Bean Trees in 1988 and Homeland in 1990; a citation of accomplishment from United Nations National Council of Women in 1989; a PEN fiction prize and Edward Abbey Ecofiction award, both in 1991, for Animal Dreams; a Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction in 1993 for Pigs in Heaven; and a feature-writing award from the Arizona Press Club (1996). The Bean Trees has been published in more than 65 countries throughout the world and was released in 1998 in a mass-market edition. In 1995, Kingsolver was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters degree from her alma mater, DePauw University.

Kingsolver was divorced from her first husband in 1993. In 1995, she married Steven Hopp, an ornithologist, animal behaviorist, and guitarist, with whom she has a second daughter, Lily, born in 1996. Kingsolver, her husband, and the two girls continue to live in Tucson. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time parenting, cooking, gardening, and hiking. Because Kingsolver loves music, she sings and plays keyboard in several small groups, including an amateur rock band called the Rock Bottom Remainders, which is made up of fellow writers Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Dave Barry. Kingsolver continues to be an environmental activist and human rights advocate. She cherishes her role as a professional writer, which enables her to promote personal political and social agendas in hopes of leaving the world “a little more reasonable and just.”