It was the winter of 2001 and the popular novelist Barbara Kingsolver was facing a deluge of hate mail. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks she had written a series of opinion pieces for American newspapers, urging contemplation and debate, and her ideas (the suggestion, for instance, that “in critical times our leaders need most to be influenced by the moderating force of dissent”) were proving seriously unpopular.
“I had no idea that I had stepped in a hornet’s nest,” she says, “but a significant proportion of people felt that the very notion of asking who we [as Americans] want to be suggested that we might be something other than perfect.” This was apparently a problem. “There was a monstrously angry response,” she says. “A lot of people were frightened, and when people are frightened, they want to burn witches. They want to run somebody up the flagpole … Magazines and newspapers printed horrible things, they misquoted me, made me a figure of hatred. It was so frightening. Awful. I was scared that my family might be at risk. It was really one of the worst times of my life. A dark, dark winter.”
If it was possible to be so entirely misunderstood, she thought, she should just stop writing. But by the next spring, February 2002, her outlook had changed and she began research for a new novel. “I started getting letters from people saying: ‘You gave me hope, you gave me reason to go on’, and I thought, ‘I have to make something of this’,” she says. “I even have to save all this hate mail. I have to take all this bile and hatred and make something beautiful.”
The result was The Lacuna, the sprawling, ambitious, highly detailed 500-page novel that recently won the Orange prize for fiction, beating off intense competition from, among others, Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker-prizewinning Wolf Hall and Lorrie Moore’s much-admired A Gate at the Stairs. This year’s chair of the Orange prize judges, TV producer Daisy Goodwin, paid tribute to the novel’s “breathtaking scale and shattering moments of poignancy”. (Goodwin’s enthusiasm was also obvious when, in the dying hours of the Orange prize party, she burst into the room where I was speaking to Kingsolver and announced she wanted to “cover her with love!”) Kingsolver was excited about her win, but less wildly ebullient — she flew in the day before the ceremony and was set to fly out within hours. Her mood was an unusual blend of thrilled, highly attentive exhaustion. Her champagne glass bobbed at half-mast.
The Lacuna tells the story of Harrison Shepherd, the child of a flighty, hopeful Mexican mother and a faceless American bureaucrat father, who gets caught up in great moments of world history. As a young man in Mexico he mixes plaster for the muralist Diego Rivera, soon moving into the artist’s house, where he forms a friendship with Rivera’s wife, the painter Frida Kahlo. Leon Trotsky also joins the household, and Shepherd begins working as a secretary for the exiled communist, eventually witnessing Trotsky’s assassination. Shepherd returns to the United States and forges a career writing hugely popular Aztec potboilers. Then the communist witch-hunts begin.
Shepherd is largely unpolitical. This is no matter. Given his former associates, a sense of dread ensues.
Kingsolver says she started the book with “a series of questions. I was very interested in national character and why art and politics have such an uneasy relationship in my country and why we’re so nervous about self-criticism.” The witch-hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s were a key piece of the puzzle for her. Kingsolver paints a vivid picture of an era in which an individual could be labelled a subversive — and therefore potentially see his or her whole career destroyed — whether he or she was radically left-wing or not.
Kingsolver feels the US “lost something in that era that we still haven’t got back. I think we’re still dealing with the damage.” Kingsolver was born in 1955, which means that she grew up at a time “when you literally were not allowed to say communist. I didn’t know what a communist was. I just knew that they ate children or something,” she says, laughing. “A whole generation of us grew up in the mode of: don’t talk about it, don’t think about it, it’s very, very frightening. We’re not over it.”
Kingsolver says the witch-hunts “changed the nature of how we define literature. The rules became ‘write about simple matters of the human heart and avoid matters of state’. But I also grew up reading Doris Lessing’s Rhodesian novels, and Tolstoy, and Charles Dickens, whom I think is extremely political. So I always thought: ‘Well, literature’s about important things’.”
Kingsolver isn’t alone in that conviction, but she’s one of the few writers working today who is both intently political and genuinely bestselling.
Her 1998 breakthrough novel, The Poisonwood Bible, sold more than four million copies and is regarded as one of the most popular book club novels of all time — not bad when you consider that, at heart, it’s an attack on colonialist policies in Africa. Her first book was a work of oral history, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983; the book that preceded The Lacuna was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, an account of a year spent living off the land in Appalachia. She attributes her humanitarian values to her upbringing. Her father was a doctor in the rural part of Kentucky where she grew up, treating patients who often “couldn’t pay for his services”. She came to think of her parents as “very brave”.
“They raised me with a model that I couldn’t question.”
Kingsolver was initially determined to be a musician, then a biologist.
Though she “loved books, I didn’t think that living mortals could write them. I thought they were all written by old dead guys from England. And they are, aren’t they? My odds of growing up to be one of those were slim to none. I loved writing, but I also grew up at a place and time where being an artist would have seemed very self-indulgent.” She knew she wasn’t going to be a housewife, though. “I wasn’t going to clean up. That’s hateful. But I wanted to do something useful, like my dad, so I thought I would be a scientist.” When she realised that she could make a living as a writer, “it just completely took me by surprise — and it still does. I still can’t get over it.”
Her pen portraits of Rivera, Kahlo and Trotsky are lively and involving, although she confesses she wasn’t interested in Kahlo at first: “She just pretty much took hold of me and said ‘Muchacha, you’re not paying attention to me’.” Kingsolver says that “when I understood that I was writing about the lacunae — the missing pieces — I knew that I had to write about Trotsky, because he’s an erased person. People don’t even know about him or if they know anything they think that he was a devil of some kind …
‘Things have eased up’
“The man has been persecuted viciously in written reports, so why can’t I write something good about him? He was a brilliant man, he had good ideas, he was a sweetheart and he kept chickens. So yeah, I loved him.”
Does she feel that it’s been easier for the US left-wing since Barack Obama came to power? “Certain things have eased up,” she says.
“That impending sense of claustrophobia that I felt looming during the Bush administration. The whole time I was writing this novel, the Bush administration was collecting its terrifying maturity to a point where I was truly afraid that we’d lost the democratic process for ever. I wasn’t sure we could have an election that wouldn’t be fixed, that wouldn’t be rigged, that wouldn’t be stolen by Karl Rove, as the previous one was … Then, right as I was finishing the last draft, there was this wonderful turnaround and we elected a new person. On the day of the inauguration snow fell at our house and we marched into it, rolled on the ground and said: ‘Hallelujah! Our country is spared!’ Somehow the white blanket of snow made it feel like a blank slate. I felt so happy. And then the next day I thought: ‘Oh well, now my novel’s irrelevant’.”
Her Orange triumph shows she was wrong. —