Kathy Pories on Barbara Kingsolver & the Bellwether Prize

Barbara Kingsolver

Five years ago, I stood on the periphery of the Duke University Chapel during the North Carolina Literary Festival, straining to hear the speaker. I was on the periphery because the chapel was packed full, so that many of us had spilled outside the large cathedral doors. On the stage, about the size of my little finger (at least from my vantage point) was the bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver, talking about the literary prize she’d endowed. Ten years ago, feeling the paucity of American literature that was “socially responsible,” or that compelled readers to examine their own prejudices or the larger world around them, she’d established a $25,000 award for a novel manuscript that took on such issues. At the festival Barbara Kingsolver was describing the latest selection for the prize, a manuscript called Mudbound by Hillary Jordan. I had been able to make out that much of what she said, and strained to hear more, as I’d read about this prize before and had envied the houses that went on to publish the winners.

I had no idea that I was experiencing a serendipitous moment—that in a happy twist of fate I would end up being the editor of Mudbound, and that Algonquin would go on to publish subsequent Bellwether winners (last year was Heidi Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and next year, we’ll publish the latest winner, Naomi Benaron’s Running the Rift—and then two years from now, whomever wins the latest competition that begins this fall).

But you would think after four years, many phone conversations, detailed emails, and intense editorial discussions, that Barbara Kingsolver and I would spot each other in a crowd. After all, we knew each other in a way — via email and lengthy phone calls and letters. I knew that she was incredibly smart, the most sensitive and careful reader I’d ever encountered, and she had a memory for specifics that I envied. But still, in my mind’s eye, there existed only a miniature version of her, hazy and tiny, smiling yet frozen in time, because until two weeks ago, we’d never met face to face. So as I stood waiting to greet her in a restaurant in Durham, it was a slightly surreal moment. As I walked toward her and saw her in real size—not a postage-sized photo on the web, not a miniature figure in the far reaches of a chapel—I could see that she had her doubts about who was looking at her in the eye. “Not until I hear your voice will I know that it’s really you!” she said.

We all know that there are huge advantages to our virtual world—speed, more speed, and well, still more speed. Events are related at a lightning pace; we can learn news almost before it happens (how many seconds elapsed this week before the world knew who’d won the Pulitzer?); we can be in remote locations and still answer emails and read tweets. But here is what I learned about Barbara Kingsolver when I met her in the flesh: she is tall (especially compared to me), she is funny, she is warm, she is gracious (never once commenting on how at the lunch we were asked to change tables after we were all seated), she loves good shoes, good food, and a nice slow-paced meal. Three hours later, after the restaurant had emptied out, the five of us were still lingering, talking about elections, height and power, the Orange Prize, shrimp and grits. Call me a Luddite, but I’ll trade a life-size moment like that for all the speed in the world.

Kathy Pories, Senior Editor

2 Comments On This Post:

May 4, 2011
10:08 am
Carolyn says...

What a wonderful commentary! You have a beautiful way with words, Kathy, and so much to be proud of. I can’t wait to read the newest recipient, which will make three books edited by you, in a row, to recieve the prize. Bravo!

May 7, 2011
10:11 am
Naomi Benaron says...

This is a beautiful vignette, Kathy. Every word threads the heart. Thank you.

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