The Bean Trees
by Barbara Kingsolver
The following profile of the author of The Bean Trees is from the teachers guide to Signature, KETs series profiling contemporary Southern writers.
By the time she was 8 years old, novelist, short story writer, and essayist Barbara Kingsolver had already started keeping journals. She filled drawers and drawers with them, and yet she never thought shed be a writer.
I couldnt imagine that I would be a writer when I grew up, Kingsolver says, because nobody but old dead menyou know, like Charles Dickensdid that. It took me a long time to take seriously the artist in me, the writer in me.
Kingsolver was born in Annapolis, Maryland in 1955, but was raised in Carlisle, Kentucky, a small Southern town of 1,600 people. Actually, the Kingsolvers didnt even live in Carlisle proper, but out in the country, in the middle of an alfalfa field. Given that out-of-the-way setting, its not very surprising to learn that Kingsolvers childhood was a rather solitary one, which she now recalls as a lonely time in her life. But she also recalls it with affection and notes that the time she spent by herself helped to stimulate an elaborate life of the minda quality that would prove useful later on.
A gawky beanpole of a girl, more interested in her intellectual life than her social life, Kingsolver found high school an especially trying time. It didnt help that she found her school work unchallenging. I always did feel like a fish out of water, she says.
After high school, she left Carlisle for Depauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. She attended on a music scholarship and studied classical piano; but eventually, she says, it kind of dawned on me that classical pianists compete for six job openings a year, and the rest of us get to play Blue Moon in a hotel lobby. In an attempt to be more practical, she changed her major to biology.
After graduating from Depauw, and hoping again to expand her range of experiences and options, Kingsolver left for Europe. With very little money, she traveled the continent and took whatever work she could find. Mostly she worked on archaeological digs, but she did some translating, too. Her work visa eventually became more and more difficult to renew, and she knew she was going to have to figure out some new course. More or less on a whim, she decided to move to Arizona.
Id never seen the Southwest, she says, and I had this romantic notion that it would be a good place for a maverick who didnt know what she wanted to be when she grew up. I thought I might stay for a week or two, and its been 13 years.
Kingsolver worked as a laboratory assistant and later enrolled as a graduate student in biology at the University of Arizona. For a time she studied the social life of termites. She finished an M.S. degree but then, disillusioned with academia, left the Ph.D. program and took a job as a science writer for the university.
The science writing led to some freelance feature writing, and, after a time, the feature writing allowed her to quit her job as a science writer. Although she had written fiction and poetry for years, she showed her work to no one. With more time on her hands, she began writing in earnest, taking a creative writing course and struggling to find her voice. Her creative writing teacher gave her a copy of Bobbie Ann Masons Shiloh and Other Stories, which helped. Finally she screwed up enough courage to enter a short story contestand she won. 1983. That was the year that I wrote in block letters in my journal, I AM A WRITER. And I felt this great relief, you know, that Id found an identity that felt true and honest.
Her first published story, Rose-Johnny, appeared in the Virginia Quarterly in 1987 (and was later collected in Homeland). Her first novel, The Bean Trees, was published in 1988. She wrote it during a period of chronic insomnia that accompanied her first pregnancy. And not coincidentally, it is about a young woman making the move from Kentucky to Arizona, trying to find her place in the world.
Its taken me a long while to understand, really, what I am and who I am, Kingsolver says. I had to realize that Im very much formed by living in a small town, and that the things I value most have to do with community, and the ways that people know each other in a rural place, and the way they depend on each other.