Barbara Kingsolver is not only a contemporary American author of best-selling novels, nonfiction, and poetry, but also a freelance journalist and political activist. Kingsolver cares deeply about the world in which she lives and the people in it, and her writing attempts to change the world — to make the world a better place in which to live. Thus, Kingsolver writes about current social issues such as the environment, human rights, and social injustice. Her protagonists tend to be resilient, sensitive females, who are successfully surviving the typical day-to-day struggles found in America. Although Kingsolver's characters tend to find themselves facing traumatic dilemmas, Kingsolver is able to interject humor, which lightens the tone and communicate the love, hope, and strength that is evident in the lives of people from all cultures and walks of life. Kingsolver's personal experiences and passions, as well as her love of the southwestern United States, deeply influence her writing.
Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955, in Annapolis, Maryland, to Virginia Henry and Wendell Kingsolver, a physician. The family moved to eastern Kentucky in order to be close to family, and Kingsolver's father worked there as the only doctor in rural Nicholas County. This was a depressed county — oddly situated between the poverty of coal fields and the affluence of horse farms — and most people living there were not well off. They earned enough money to ensure their survival through tobacco farming, but were dependent on neighbors for everything else. Nicholas County did not have a swimming pool, and Kingsolver never laid eyes on so much as a tennis court until she went away to college.
From an early age, Kingsolver enjoyed telling stories — her parents would listen 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 — the county bookmobile was an especially strong influence. Surrounded as she was by fields and woods, Kingsolver became fond of studying nature. Beyond her fascination with the large family vegetable garden, the many plants and animals in her environment fascinated her and often found their way into her parents' house; her parents' understanding, however, stopped at the threshold to their house, and Kingsolver's snakes and mice were not allowed inside.
In 1962, Kingsolver's father chose to practice medicine where he felt he could make a significant difference in the lives of others, so he took his family to St. Lucia, 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, never having seen hair like hers, the village children tried to pull it off as though it was some sort of headpiece. Kingsolver's experiences in Africa opened her eyes to the world, provoked her curiosity about people from other cultures, and served as a model for the setting of The Poisonwood Bible.
Back in the States, by the time she was eight years old, Kingsolver was adamant about keeping a daily journal and entering every essay contest for which she was eligible. One of her essays, entitled "Why We Need A New Elementary School," included a description about how her teacher had been injured as a result of the grade school's ceiling falling on her. The piece, published in the local newspaper just before a school-bond election, was instrumental in the passage of a school bond.
After graduating from high school in 1973, Kingsolver attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, on a scholarship to study instrumental music. Once in college, however, Kingsolver changed her major to biology and worked to eliminate the rural Kentucky accent and expressions she had adopted from that particular region, both of which invited teasing from others. (Much later, Kingsolver realized how unique her language had been and resurrected it in her writing.) While in college, she was exposed to the writing of feminist authors Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, studied Marx and Engels, German philosophers and socialists, and participated in anti-Vietnam War protests. She graduated magna cum laude from DePauw in 1977 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
To satisfy her curiosity about the American Southwest, Kingsolver moved to Tucson, Arizona. 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. During her college years, and time spent in Europe, Kingsolver supported herself working myriad small jobs, working as a typesetter, copyeditor, archeologist, X-ray technician, biological researcher, and translator of technical medical documents.
After receiving her 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 Kingsolver realized she did not want a career in academics; she wanted to write. She began working as a freelance scientific writer and journalist, with articles appearing in The Progressive, Smithsonian, and The Sonoran Review. Kingsolver also began writing short stories that were published in Redbook and 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. However, a year later, the book remained half finished, and because her agent was having trouble selling it, Kingsolver stopped working on the project 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, and although her doctor suggested that she scrub bathroom tiles with a toothbrush to battle her insomnia, she sat in a closet instead 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, which was published in 1988.
With the advance from having sold The Bean Trees, Kingsolver finished her nonfiction account of the Arizona mining strike, entitled Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, which was published in 1989 by Cornell University Press. She also completed a collection of short stories called Homeland and Other Stories, also published in 1989, and then went on to write the novel Animal Dreams (1990); the sequel to The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven (1993); a bestselling collection of poetry called Another America: Otra America (1992); a collection of essays called High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now and Never (1995); and another novel, The Poisonwood Bible (1998).
All of Kingsolver's writing has received much acclaim, including the American Library Association awards for The Bean Trees in 1988 and Homeland in 1990; the citation of accomplishment from the United Nations National Council of Women in 1989; the PEN fiction prize and Edward Abbey Ecofiction award, both in 1991, for Animal Dreams; the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction in 1993 for Pigs in Heaven; and the 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 had a second daughter, Lily, in 1996. Today, Kingsolver, her husband, and their two daughters continue to live in Tucson, where she also cooks, gardens, and hikes. 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 Berry. Kingsolver continues her role as an environmental activist and human rights advocate, taking full advantage of the opportunity her writing career offers for spreading her political and social message. Her hope is to leave the world "a little more reasonable and just."