Read the opening paragraphs of Kim Barnes’ latest novel, In the Kingdom of Men, and your breath is knocked right out of you. Barnes immediately packs a punch that leaves you reeling to the end. The story, set in the 1960s, follows Gin McPhee and her husband, Mason, as they leave their Oklahoma small town to start a life in Saudi Arabia, where Mason works for Aramco, an American oil company. While Mason’s work takes him away for days at a time, Gin’s days consist of pool-side cocktails, shopping for new dresses and gossiping with the other American women who have followed their husbands to this new life. Barnes has created a world stunningly detailed, even in the mundane of life in this closed-off community. A huge geographic leap from her other two novels, Finding Caruso and A Country Called Home, which were both set in Idaho, In the Kingdom of Men is no less gritty, staying true to her strength of creating characters who have to harden themselves against their landscapes.
Barnes’ memoir In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize and winner of a 1997 PNBA Award. She teaches writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain. She took some time while on tour for In the Kingdom of Men to answer questions with Village Books’ Lindsey McGuirk. (CONTEST: Leave a comment on this post, and we’ll enter you to win a drawing for a copy of In the Kingdom of Men.)
LM: I have to first say that I was completely taken by this novel. From the opening paragraphs through to the end, I was constantly in awe at the intricacy of each detail. When you’re writing, are you aware that you’re creating such a vivid story?
KB: Thank you, Lindsey! I love it when readers say that they are taken in by the story’s details because I believe that the story is in the details. In this novel, I am writing realism, and I attempt to create what the great author John Gardner called “the uninterrupted dream,” which requires that I set a stage that is vivid in its detail so that my readers not only can visualize the setting but smell, hear, and taste it as well.
LM: I’d say you succeeded. I keep luring readers to your book by daring them to read the first two paragraphs and to try not to want to read more. The bombshell you drop right off the bat is so enticing and the richness of the story from there on out is a great ride.
LM: You’re welcome! How daunting was it to take on writing a book about such charged topics—an American oil company setting up shop in Saudi Arabia, the Arabian culture, customs and strict rules around women. You did extensive research for the book, but is it nerve-wracking to have so many details to sort out to maintain authenticity?
KB: I love discussing the book with readers from diverse backgrounds, who add their own real experiences and insights to Gin’s imaginary story. Of the five years it took me to write this book, I’d guess that four of those years were spent doing research. I read every novel, memoir, historical document, and scholarly text I could get my hands on. I combed through online journals, oral histories, and declassified CIA documents. I did interviews and read diaries. There is a point in the novel when Yash, my protagonist Gin’s houseboy, says that the events that take place add up to the “education of Mrs. Gin,” and, as Gin learned, so did I.
KB: My aunt and uncle, who was an oilfield roughneck, moved with their two young sons to Arabia in the early 1960s and lived in Abqaiq. The stories they shared with me were fascinating, and I was able to glean from them certain important details, but the story of my characters is wholly built from my imagination. My uncle passed away last year, but my aunt has read In the Kingdom of Men. She has noted, as others have, that certain events in the story would probably never have happened in “real life,” but, as she says, that’s the role of fiction. She’s very excited for me, and I’m incredibly grateful for the help and support that she, my uncle, and my cousins have offered.
LM: Absolutely. What sort of feedback have you received from your readers? Anything in particular that has stayed with you?
KB: Any number of times and in any number of ways, but one I remember specifically came after I had written my first memoir, In the Wilderness, which is about growing up in the isolated logging camps of northern Idaho and my family’s deep involvement in the Pentecostal faith. A reader from Manhattan—a gay Jewish man and life-long New Yorker—wrote to me that he felt I had written his coming-of-age story. I was so honored by his words because they told me that I had recognized some part of what I was attempting: to move my story from the personal into the universal. As my friend and former teacher William Kittredge often says: a person should come away from reading your memoir knowing more about herself than she does about you.
LM: What great advice! I would think writing books like those you write would be an emotional roller coaster. Where do you find your encouragement and motivation to continue as a writer?
KB: Certainly, the support of my family, friends, agent, editor, and readers is essential. My husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, is my first and most important reader. I also think that the impulse to write, like so many other “callings,” is innate, that it’s bred into my DNA. We once had a black Labrador retriever named Violet, who would literally run herself into the ground fetching sticks. No matter how exhausted she became, she never lost that wild-eyed look of absolute joy that came with doing what she wanted to do more than anything else in the world. That’s what I feel when I’m writing . . . and when I’m fly-fishing my favorite mountain river.
LM: You fly-fish! Where is your favorite river? Or is that a best kept secret?
KB: Let’s call it “No Name River.” And, yes, top secret. My husband has threatened to take away my flybox if I tell.
LM: Ha! Fair enough.
Lindsey McGuirk is Village Books’ Digital Marketing & Publishing Coordinator. She also handles the store’s online marketing and works with authors to get their books published on the print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine.