Three years ago, when she was 49, best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver; her husband, Steven Hopp; and their two daughters moved from Tucson, Arizona, to a small farm in southern Appalachia. There they hoped to eat only locally grown food, producing as much of it themselves as possible. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins), Kingsolver beautifully describes this experience, Hopp provides big-picture information about economic issues, and elder daughter Camille, 20, shares family recipes and how-to tips.
MORE: You made a fairly drastic life change as you neared 50.
Kingsolver: I did. It’s the big second act. Instead of waiting for grandchildren, we were going to plant fruit trees. At times I wondered if we were crazy, if we would regret it, if this would be too much work. But it was just the best thing. We’re so happy here, we love this life, and I don’t want to say it makes us younger, because there’s nothing so great about being younger — I really like being my age. But I feel very alive.
MORE: Just at the age when some of us consider a face-lift, you did a full-body-lift — on a cellular level.
Kingsolver: Oh, at the end of a long day pulling weeds, I feel 110 years old, but overall we feel so healthy. Part of it is just getting outside and gardening. My main job keeps me on my butt in a chair, which I could do around the clock when I was in my 20s; these says my body complains.
MORE: Could you have collaborated this way when you were younger?
Kingsolver: We worked up to it. Steven and I collaborated on smaller projects, which gave us confidence that this project wouldn’t threaten our marriage. We all had our niches. I like telling a story, and when I would start to get bogged down on some topic like mad cow disease or fuel consumption, I happily turned that over to Steven. And writing something with your mom when she is a best-selling author is like having an elephant for a roommate, so I stayed back and let Camille develop her style. I am impressed with it.
MORE: Why nonfiction for this book?
Kingsolver: What is important is that we really did it. Not that some make-believe people did it on the frontier a hundred years ago, but that we did it right here in 2005 and 2006.
MORE: How we eat is such an emotionally charged topic.
Kingsolver: Oh boy. Nobody wants to be told how to eat. I had to begin the story in a convenience mart, because I didn’t want to be holier than anybody. It’s not about being holy. It’s about trying to eat in a way that makes sense for our bodies. And our species.
MORE: Have you always been this interested in food?
Kingsolver: Really, only for the past five to seven years. The worst thing you can do for your species is raise helpless offspring. And our society is doing that. We’ve convinced ourselves that being able to manage a Web site is more important than knowing how to grow food or cook it.
MORE: What changes would you like to inspire?
Kingsolver: A really important step is to pay attention to the politics of our food. For example, the farm bill, which gives enormous subsidies to growers of corn and soybeans. That’s why junk food is cheap. This has been in place for so long now that we think, "Oh, that’s the way it is, vegetables are more expensive." But a hamburger from a fast-food chain took more than a dollar’s worth of gasoline to make, so how come it costs 99 cents? Because the taxpayers are paying for it. We need to tell our legislators we want the subsidies to go to organic farmers, who are trying to give us good food.
MORE: Has the way you convey a message changed as you’ve aged?
Kingsolver: Well, when I was 19, of course I knew absolutely everything, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a lot dumber.
MORE: Yes, sorry to hear about that.
Kingsolver: [Laughs] My parents, on the other hand, knew nothing when I was 19, and now they’re so smart. So that happens. But the real earthquake for me was becoming a mother. Of course, I care about other people’s children, and I think I would be an environmentalist even if I didn’t have kids. But before I was a mother, saving the world was an abstraction, and suddenly I knew exactly whom I was saving it for.
Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2007.