Tag Archives: research

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Does Unsheltered live up to the high standards of her previous books? We have come to expect a great deal from Barbara Kingsolver following the success of the novels she has published since The Poisonwood Bible. In particular, Flight Behaviour was considered a great success by my reading group. We all found something to admire in the story of Dellarobia and her family’s struggle against rural poverty. And in the warning of the changed behaviour of the monarch butterflies.

We discussed Unsheltered recently and some of the group were disappointed; it was too dry, too close to home, they found splitting the stories across two time zones was irritating, and some of the characters were like cardboard cut outs … And because there was also plenty to like and admire, we had a good discussion.

Unsheltered

The title seems awkward, Unsheltered, but this is new condition that requires a new term. At least it is new to the ordinary middle classes in the US, Barbara Kingsolver suggests. Both sets of characters, present day and in the 19th century, were finding themselves without protection in Vineland, Pennsylvania. Both lived in unsafe houses that were falling down. They were literally threatened with losing their shelter. But they were also unsheltered, unprotected from irrational beliefs, irrational policies, and new conditions. For me, the dual timeframe provided hope. However strange and dangerous our world today we should take some courage and hope by remembering that in times gone by people have coped with this kind of threat, not always well, but they coped.

The two stories, two timeframes intertwine. In the present day Willa and her family have been forced to move into a house that is falling down in Vineland. They find themselves challenged on multiple levels. Willa’s husband Iano had finally achieved tenure, permanent employment much sought after in American academia. But his college closed. He has to take a demanding but less intellectual post in Philadelphia. 

Willa lost her job in journalism and is finding freelance work beyond her because of other family needs. These include a house that is falling apart. Her son Zeke, in Harvard, is a new father but his wife commits suicide and Willa must help with the care of the baby and the recovery of her son. Tig, her daughter has returned from time spent in Cuba but she is a mystery to her parents and seems not to have found her way in suburban life. Willa’s father-in-law is staying with them, sick with diabetes, a stroke and revolting opinions. The family dog is also approaching her last days. There appears to be no solution to the multiple complications being experienced by this family. Traditional resources for middle class families have been eroded: access to affordable education, steady employment, secure accommodation, health insurance, career paths for the young. All gone.

The second story focuses on Thatcher Greenwood who is a teacher in the 1870s in Vineland. He is newly married to a beauty, Rose, who is not interested in his scientific pursuits. He meets (the real life) Mary Treat, next door, who is in contact with Darwin and other evolutionists. Vineland has been set up as a model town but is in the clutches of its founder Landis. Although Landis claims that he had created a utopia, its rotten core is revealed when Landis is acquitted of the murder of a prominent critic of his controlling practices. His acolyte the headteacher rejects evidential science and makes life difficult for Thatcher in the school where he teaches. The parallels with today are obvious and real. 

Underpinning both stories is the wonder and fragility of the natural world. Thatcher Greenwood and Mary Treat are uncovering the marvel of the flora around them through an understanding of the new theories of evolution and they are also contributing to the development of the new ideas and theories. 

In the present-day story the characters are facing the climate crisis. It is Tig who speaks for the future. She and her mother are sitting in the cemetery where they have deposited some of the ashes of Willa’s dreadful father-in-law.

‘It’s so scary. It’s going to be fire and rain, Mom. Storms we can’t deal with, so many people homeless. Not just homeless but placeless. Cities can go underwater and then what? You can’t shelter in place anymore when there isn’t a place.’ […]

‘I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, Mom,’ she said quietly. ‘You and Dad did your best. But all the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.’

All the rules. Really?’ (462-3)

Challenged to describe how people like them might adapt to living in the future, Tig provides some very down to earth examples and I suggest you read them. It’s the core dialogue of the book. Barbara Kingsolver is again warning us about the future towards which our actions and attitudes are impelling us. Our future will be without shelter, unsheltered, unless we change how we live, change the rules, all the rules.

Barbara Kingsolver’s books

I have long admired the writings of Barbara Kingsolver and was pleased to be introduced to her more than ten years ago by my sister. I especially enjoy the variety of locations and timeframes of her writing, which always illuminate pressing present-day problems and issues by reference to history as well as to what we see around us. All this is carried by a strong narrative about very authentic humans who we can recognise and perhaps identify with. It feels like she shares some of this territory with Anne Tyler.

And to do all this she must be an excellent researcher; Belgian Congo for The Poisonwood Bible (1998); Freida Kahlo, Trotsky and post-war America for The Lacuna (2009); the monarch butterfly for Flight Behaviour (2012). In Unsheltered she takes pleasure in revealing ‘a nineteenth century biologist whose work deserves to be better known’. (523) This is Mary Treat who really did correspond with Charles Darwin.

She also lives her beliefs. The book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a year of food life (2007) was written with her family. They moved from Arizona to a farm to live as sustainably as they could in Virginia, learning by working with the community, as well as by drawing on the family’s experiences.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, published in 2018 by Faber. 524pp

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

What I write about when I’m not writing fiction

My good news is that I’m getting back to revising my novel. Thank you, good friends, who have enquired about its progress over the last 12 months. My bad news is that the progress has been very slow, and was much delayed for about 9 months. In fact I put the novel back in its drawer again for a while. I just couldn’t work on it at the same time as on the book I have just finished with my two co-authors: The New Age of Ageing.

145 writing keyboard

Writing fiction and non-fiction

I have tried and failed on several occasions to keep two large writing projects on the go at the same time – one non-fiction and the other a novel or short story. It just doesn’t seem to work. I am wondering why. In part it is because they require conflicting skills.

The New Age of Ageing, and non-fiction writing generally, requires methodical and thorough research, solid arguments, a sequence of writing that reflects the ideas under discussion. Some skills needed are the same as for fiction, such as hooking interest early, clarity and presenting factual information that relates to people’s lives. What I don’t need is to go shooting off after a new narrative idea, or to leave the reader in suspense at the end of a chapter. No, every assumption and connection needs to be considered, verified, scrutinised. Flights of fancy must be followed by reasoned hypothesis.

Structural problems of the two genres are very different. For the novel I have a plot in 23 chapters. I have been challenged by the novel’s structure, deciding on advice to change to alternating chapters having originally written it in alternating pairs. The change resulted in an improved novel but hours of confusion as I had to re-label everything on my computer and on the hard copies. You need to be well organised about peripheral things when writing a novel. Well I do, being a planner rather than a pantser. Zadie Smith referred to micro managers and macro planners in an influential lecture at Columbia University in March 2008. I am happy to quote her descriptions, because I admire her work and recently wrote a post challenging a comment she made about writing and therapy.

You will recognise a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organises material, configures a plot and creates a structure—all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle.

I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.

Structure for the book on ageing posed different challenges. Each chapter required a great deal of revision, recasting, editing, removal, filling gaps. It often seemed that I had all the right ideas but in the wrong order. I also had two co-authors to whom reference needed to be made for everything as they are also responsible for the content. Their feedback notes were invaluable, our talk was even better.

I can get very passionate about ageing and the issues and challenges that are not getting enough attention. I loved writing our manifesto for the book, getting clearer and clearer what it was we wanted to say. I loved the process of taking our combined ideas and moving them to a place I could not have gone on my own. So my involvement in writing that book was social as well as requiring some good research and communication skills.

243 New Age cover

Writing my novel is more isolating. To write the novel or the book on ageing I sit for hours in my writing room, looking out occasionally at Dartmoor and its changing weather patterns. Sitting. Tapping. Rearranging papers. An observer would not see the difference. But in the end, the novel has been a very isolated and individual activity.

So they require different skills, but that does not quite explain why I can’t do write fiction and non-fiction at the same time.

Working one project

About 9 months ago I decided to put the novel back in the drawer (yes again). After all we had a contract for our book on ageing and a deadline for completion. And I had two co-writers to answer to. And to be honest I had got to a sticky point in the revisions.

I had found that my fiction writing is not good enough at showing or even telling the reader about the emotional state of the protagonists. I tend to assume it’s obvious. In my best moments I think that is honouring the intelligence of the readers, allowing them to do some work. But when my intelligent readers said that I needed to work on this I can only agree. It has taken me some rumination, reading novels and some guidance from my on-line course to help me see what I must do. That’s what I am working on now.

Blogging

94 Blog on tablet

I can’t concentrate on fiction and non-fiction writing at the same time. However, one genre of writing has proved itself compatible with both fiction and non-fiction – blogging. The Book Word blog has been building slowly but steadily throughout this time, and I have posted every five or six days. In the posts I explore writing issues, review books, continue the series on older women in fiction and am able to look at all things connected with books and writing that take my fancy.

Perhaps I can combine blogging with both fiction and non-fiction because blogging requires some creativity, some research, some care over the communication of the content. And I am my own publisher for the blog. It’s not a commercial undertaking, so if a post bombs there is no consequence except to my pride. The deadlines are close, but I can (and do) alter them to suit my life.

It’s back to the novel

So … I am taking the chapters and looking at the emotional arcs of the characters and hoping that all the reading and writing and thinking I have done will help me see afresh how to communicate the emotional life of my characters.

And I am doing all the other things put on hold while we finished The New Age of Ageing. That’s another post in preparation! What I do when I’m not writing. Watch this space.

Related posts

This was the 6th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

And here’s a post with some excellent ideas: 10 things to do while your MS is resting from Victoria Griffin Fiction blog in July last year.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, to be published by Policy Press in September 2016.

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Filed under Books, Libraries, My novel, Publishing our book, Writing