Barbara Kingsolver and Emily Ramshaw sitting on a swing

Meeting Barbara Kingsolver in Appalachia

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“I’ve been waiting a long time to write a novel about Appalachia. In a way, maybe my whole life… I didn’t know when I was growing up in Kentucky that it was a reviled place or a place that was disrespected by the rest of the world. I didn’t know that until I went away to college. I was shocked that my accent…my Kentucky origins…made people laugh, and think that it was okay to laugh.”

In this podcast episode, we travel to Appalachia for a conversation with 2023 Fiction winner Barbara Kingsolver, whose sweeping tale, “Demon Copperhead,” won the 2023 Fiction Prize. An earlier novel, “The Poisonwood Bible,” was a 1999 Fiction finalist

Appalachia is the place at the heart of “Demon Copperhead” but also at the heart of Kingsolver’s life. We meet with Kingsolver on the farm where she lives with her family and their animals, buzzing bees and clucking chickens providing the backdrop for a conversation with Pulitzer Board member Emily Ramshaw, chief executive of nonprofit news site The 19th.

Directly inspired by Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” Kingsolver describes how she mapped her own creation onto the structure of that classic novel, finding echoes of 19th century poverty and abuse in England in current day Appalachia, with its experience of the opioid crisis. Her unforgettable narrator, Demon, was close to her heart. Asked how writing this novel affected her, Kingsolver says, “Many a day I ended feeling so sad, because this is all real. I know it’s fiction, of course, but it’s made out of truths. Everything that happens to Demon has happened to somebody that I know.” 

Kingsolver shares her own story in this episode too, of growing up where a love of reading and scholarly ambition were attributes to hide, but also where she learned the value of independence. She shares her experiences working as a science writer and a journalist (including covering protests at mines) before she wrote her first novel. She talks about creative inspiration, her own writing process, and her hopes that a novel founded in respect for the culture of Appalachia might contribute to a larger conversation in America. 

A full transcript to this episode can be found here.  

Learn more about our guests in this episode

Barbara Kingsolver is the author of ten bestselling works of fiction, including the novels “Unsheltered,” “Flight Behavior,” “The Lacuna,” “The Poisonwood Bible,” “Animal Dreams,” and “The Bean Trees,” as well as books of poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction. Her work of narrative nonfiction is the influential bestseller “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.” Kingsolver’s work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has earned literary awards and a devoted readership at home and abroad. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal, our country’s highest honor for service through the arts, as well as the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for the body of her work. She lives with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia. 

Emily Ramshaw is the co-founder and CEO of The 19th. She was previously editor-in-chief of “The Texas Tribune,” an award-winning nonpartisan digital news startup that now boasts the largest statehouse reporting bureau in the country and the nation’s most successful business model for local news. A Washington, D.C., native, Ramshaw started her career at “The Dallas Morning News.” A graduate of Northwestern University, Ramshaw joined the Pulitzer Prize Board in 2016.

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