A! Magazine for the Arts

Barbara Kingsolver (photo by Evan Kafka)

Barbara Kingsolver (photo by Evan Kafka)

Kingsolver hopes she has created "The Great Appalachian Novel"

September 27, 2022

Barbara Kingsolver has a new novel coming out in late October, “Demon Copperhead.” What makes this a special cause for celebration throughout the region is that in the following interview she says that she has attempted to write the “great Appalachian novel.”

Kingsolver is the author of 10 bestselling works of fiction, including the novels ”Unsheltered,” “Flight Behavior,” “The Lacuna,” “The Poisonwood Bible,” “Animal Dreams,” The Bean Trees,” as well as books of poetry, essays and creative nonfiction like her influential bestseller, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.”

Kingsolver’s work has been translated into more than 20 languages and has earned literary awards and a devoted readership at home and abroad. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal, the United States highest honor for service through the arts; the Orange Prize in the U.K.; as well as the Dayton Literary Prize for the body of her work. She lives in Washington County, Virginia.

Here is her interview with “A! Magazine for the Arts”:

What inspired you to write “Demon Copperhead”?

Two things pushed me into this novel. First, I was fed up with how our region is represented in mainstream media. Movies, TV and national news are all made in cities by urban people who seem not to know we exist. Where are the small-town folks, where are Appalachians? If we show up at all, it’s as dumb hillbillies, or objects of pity. I’m a proud Appalachian. As a writer, I take it as my job to show who we really are, with all our strengths, humor and resilience.

I won’t romanticize it; we also have big problems. The second push was my heartache over the prescription drug abuse we’ve seen since OxyContin arrived here in the ‘90s. We’re all affected by the overdose tragedy and a generation of kids now being raised by grandparents or foster care. We’ve learned how aggressively Purdue marketed addictive drugs to a vulnerable population. Lots of journalists - Barry Meier, Beth Macy and others - did a great job of exposing that story.

But wrecked families and orphaned children didn’t disappear after the lawsuits stopped Purdue. The rest of the world might be bored with this story, but I can’t let them look away from these kids, and everything they’re still up against. Fiction is different from journalism: it sinks you into other people’s lives, so you feel their problems from the inside. A novel creates empathy.

You are obviously reflecting “David Copperfield” in many aspects of the book—from the title to the main character and the arc of his life. Why Charles Dickens? Why “David Copperfield”? And why did you choose to write the novel from Demon’s point of view?

It took me years to hit on this literary device. I knew what I wanted to write about, but struggled to find a way in. Who would tell the tale? How would the plot be framed? Let’s face it, the opioid epidemic is not a pretty picture. Readers might not think they want to see that world. How could I invite them into it, and keep them on the edge of their seats?

I found my answer in the strangest way. I was finishing a book tour in London and decided to give myself a weekend getaway on the coast. I learned that Bleak House, former home of Charles Dickens, was now a bed and breakfast. What writer could resist?

It turned out to be a creaky mansion on a cliff overlooking the sea. They had no other guests that blustery November weekend, so I was given the run of the place. I could even sit in Dickens’s study, at the desk where he wrote “David Copperfield.” I spent hours there, looking out the tall windows at a stormy sea, thinking: He was looking at this exact view, writing about exactly what’s been on my mind: Poverty that’s ingrained in a place, children who feel thrown away. Dickens knew those hardships from his own childhood. I’m sure the polite society of his time wanted to look away, too, but he didn’t let them. The longer I sat at that desk, the more I felt him telling me I had to do this. Make the characters so funny and real, and the plot so breathless, that readers will follow you anywhere. Above all, let the child tell his own story.

I started writing “Demon Copperhead” right there, on that desk. I patterned my novel on his, translating his characters and situations into present-day Southwest Virginia. A boarding school becomes a rundown tobacco farm using foster kids as free labor. The dangerous friend Steerforth becomes Fast Forward, a narcissistic high-school football star. In some ways it was harder than starting from scratch, but also such fun to have Charles Dickens sitting next to me, both of us alternately chuckling or tearing up. My novel stands on its own – you don’t need to read Dickens to enjoy it. But if you do, you’ll be in on all our private jokes.

Why did you choose Lee County, Virginia, for the setting of the book?

Purdue Pharma studied medical records from all over the country to see where they could best pressure doctors into prescribing their new drug. Lee County was a top choice, with so many injured miners on disability, very overworked doctors and patients who have to rely on a pill rather than other therapies available to patients with better transportation and sick-leave policies. Long story short, Purdue knowingly preyed on our region’s poverty.

The more I dug into Lee County, the more I saw Purdue’s exploit as the latest in the long train of big-money operations coming here to scoop out our resources, get rich and leave a mess behind. It’s no accident that Appalachia is poor, that our schools often don’t meet national standards, that we have almost no industries other than mining. Those were deliberate choices imposed by coal executives, to keep people in the mines. Then mechanization replaced most of the mine jobs, leaving us with staggering unemployment and a lot of despair. Our people, our timber and coal powered the country’s industrial revolution, but robbed us of its rewards. Now the national culture shames us for backwardness. It’s a huge story that never gets told. I had to tell it. “Demon Copperhead” is my earnest attempt to write the “Great Appalachian Novel.”

What kinds of research did you have to do to write the novel?

I started with piles of reading, not just about the recent drug crisis but the deeper history of Appalachia: mining, class, culture (my protagonist is a Melungeon), and America’s long war against self-sufficient mountain people, going all the way back to George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion. This is important context, but it won’t keep readers on the edge of their seats. A reader bonds with characters, and only if they seem real. I have to create them from the fabric of reality. It’s all in the details. I drove around Lee County taking pictures, talking with people, absorbing places where I would set dramatic scenes: the Five Star Stadium where the Lee High Generals play football. The Devil’s Bathtub.

My narrator, Demon, grows up surrounded by drug use. That’s reality. So, in addition to learning the ins and outs of DSS and foster care, I had to know the specifics of a life ruled by addiction. I spent time with people who are in recovery after losing years in that hell. Nearly always it started after an injury, with pills taken precisely on doctor’s orders. By the time the bottle was empty, their brain chemistry was altered so they couldn’t live without continued opioids, even as it led to horrible places, lost families, lost dignity. I cried a lot, hearing these people’s stories and have kept in touch. I’m glad to say, they’ve read the novel now and love it.

Some of the book goes to “dark places.” How were you able to go to those “dark places” while writing and come back to your life? What kind of emotional impact did the writing of this book have on you?

Some mornings it about killed me to turn on my computer. What will I do to poor Demon today? Writing a novel is kind of like marriage or parenting, you build intense relationships with these characters and spend years with them. If you don’t care, your readers won’t either. So you get in there and love and forgive while you put them through their paces. I created this kid, only to give him DSS caseworkers who can’t remember his name, and foster homes where he envies the dog because it’s getting better meals. I finished a lot of workdays feeling heartbroken. My husband would take me by the hand and remind me I was okay, our kids were okay. We took long walks in the woods. I had to keep a fire burning under my faith that this story is worth telling.

I did have the advantage of knowing how it would end. (If you’ve read “David Copperfield,” you will too.) It’s told by Demon himself, in first person. That’s a promise about the outcome. I sent an early copy to Lee Smith, and she wrote back to tell me how much she worried about Demon, “but I kept telling myself, he’s telling the story, so he’s going to be alive in the end!” Exactly.

What hope do you have? What solutions do you see for the drug addiction problems in our region?

This book is not just a parade of heartbreaks, it also speaks of everything I treasure about our home: the beauty of our mountains. The way we value family and community over material ambition. The kindness that draws neighbors together in hard times, with shared labor and prayer and covered dishes. My narrator feels unsafe in a place full of desperation, but he doesn’t want to leave. I think most of us have felt that conflict at some point. It’s the attachment to home that drives us to look for solutions. I believe we’ll find them here.

Right now, we’re at a critical moment as funds from the settlements against Purdue are released, and decisions get made about how that money will be spent. We need it here badly, not for bigger prisons but to repair lives, which begins with an understanding of opioid use disorder and compassion for its sufferers. Our region desperately needs facilities to help people recover, starting from wherever they are – whether that’s clinics for medically-assisted recovery, or harm-reduction outlets distributing clean needles and Narcan to keep them alive until better help is available. The greatest barrier to these patients’ recovery is stigma. The so-called War on Drugs has taught us to look down on them as criminals and lock them up, which only leads to self-hatred, recidivism and a more likely overdose death. Real solutions come from acceptance that addiction could happen to any of us: parents, friends, daughters and sons. If my novel can help make this shift in a reader’s heart, creating empathy for our shared humanity, I’ve done my job.