Kingsolver, 38, is not alone in her affection for the other West, far from the macho world of wandering cowboys and cattle drives. Pigs in Heaven (HarperCollins), her poignant novel about a custody battle over a Cherokee child, has been a bestseller for four months. Coupled with surging paperback demand for her two earlier books, The Bean Trees (1986) and Animal Dreams (1990), it has pushed her sales to the I million-copy mark. Her writing speaks best to women of a liberal bent, much like her; Kingsolver's characters routinely take stands against U.S. intervention in Central America, the poisoning of the environment and the mistreatment of women and Native Americans. While the occasional critic has slammed Kingsolver for mixing art and polities, a New York Times reviewer wrote: "She somehow maintains her political views without sacrificing the complexity of her characters' predicaments." Kingsolver herself makes no apologies. "If you've read my books," she says, "you know what I'm about."
Kingsolver grew up amid the maples and hickories and tobacco farms of eastern Kentucky, the daughter of the only doctor in Nicholas County. "It's a place where doctors don't play golf and don't gel rich, she says. It was also a place Kingsolver eventually found confining. "The options were limited—grow up to be a farmer or a farmer's wife." she says. "I didn't dale and I had no boyfriends." A scholarship student at DePauw University in Indiana, she studied Marx and Engels, discovered the feminist writings of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan ("I inhaled them") and participated in the last protests against the Vietnam War.
In 1977 Kingsolver moved to Tucson on a whim and began graduate studies in ecology and evolutionary biology. It was then, she says, that "I suddenly had a crisis of faith and realized I didn't want to be an academic." She began writing science articles for the University of Arizona, which led to freelance features for magazines like Smithsonian and The Nation. A poetry and short-story writer since high school. Kingsolver made a full-time commitment in 1982. "I wrote for the first time in my journal. "I am a writer." It felt like something dangerous and irrevocable, like cutting down a forest.
For the next several years, Kingsolver wrote fiction at night while supporting herself with her freelance work. In 1985 she married Joe Hoffman, a University of Arizona chemistry professor. By the following year—when she was pregnant with their daughter. Camille. now 6, and battling insomnia, her stories coalesced into The Bean Trees.
Admittedly obsessive, Kingsolver sometimes rewrites a sentence 50 times in search of perfection. Pigs in Heaven picks up the story of Taylor Greer, the heroine of Bean Trees, and her adopted Cherokee daughter, Turtle—who comes to the attention of a Cherokee lawyer who thinks she belongs with the tribe. As in Kingsolver's earlier books, women and their relationships are paramount. and men. though often idealized, are nearly always marginal. It's nothing personal, says Kingsolver: "My characters almost always have one parent missing too. I have no idea why I do that." Coincidentally. Kingsolver was divorced from Hoffman early this year will not discuss.
A late-afternoon breeze cools the desert, and a few tentative raindrops spatter the dust. The school bus drops oil Camille, who is greeted with a big hug from her mother. They are savoring this time together, since Camille spent much of the summer with Hoffman while Kingsolver was on a promotion tour. Now, with the tour ended. Kingsolver can relax. She plays piano and sings (sometimes with a group of fellow writers. the Rock Bottom Remainders) and is taking conga lessons. She is also pondering her next novel and spent last February in West Africa doing research, but she is not yet certain if her book will even be set there. One thing is sure, though: She'll keep trying to set the world straight. "I've always had this absolute belief in my ability to change things.' " she says. "I do what I do because that's the only moral option to me."
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Tucson