The Lacuna is bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver's first novel in nine years. Set in Mexico and the United States from the 1920s to the '50s, it's both the moving story of Harrison Shepherd, a young man growing up between two cultures, and a sweeping historical tale peopled by such figures as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky, its plot shaped by World War II and the McCarthy hearings.
Kingsolver, 54, whose books include Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The Poisonwood Bible, talked about her new book by phone.
What was the spark for this book — the story, the characters, the history?
Well, this particular piece of history intrigued me big time. I always start a book with questions. I hope that writing it will, if not bring me answers, then bring me to other kinds of questions. It's a process of revelation.
There are a lot of big ideas in this book, but I was especially interested in the ideas of privacy versus celebrity, the idea of gossip and how that comes to be presented to us in the guise of news — and not just that, but how we eat it up. I was interested in the walls people construct between themselves and the famous that can lead them to treating any public person with the worst possible manners.
I was also very intrigued with what it means to be an American, and what it means to be un-American — what was the origin of that term? How did we even come up with that idea?
I had a hunch that I would find answers to all that in the period between World War II and the '50s. I thought researching that would give me insights. And boy howdy, it did.
You spent countless hours during the seven years of writing The Lacuna in research. Will readers be surprised by any of the history in the book?
I would venture to say about 99 percent of readers will find something new. I think a lot of people don't know about the sacrifices Americans made during World War II, and the cheerful goodwill with which they made them. In the book there's a letter about how the government told people how long their skirts could be, how many ruffles they could have on a blouse (to conserve fabric). The design of your sleeve was regulated by the government. Now we don't want to government to regulate insurance.
Americans then would happily give up every comfort to make the world a better place. I think that will be a revelation. That's the lacuna — those missing pieces of history.
Although you've included historical events in other books, this is the first novel in which some of your main characters were real people. What was it like to make someone like the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who is a sympathetic character in The Lacuna, come to life?
In some ways it's easier to write characters who already have those parameters. Trotsky, by all reports of people who knew him at this time of his life (in exile in Mexico City), was a great guy. His own writing at this time is very loving. He was a good writer himself, and there are a lot of firsthand accounts by other people. I read everything by and about him; he was very much alive to me.
I put very few words in his mouth. Everything he says about politics in the book is from his own writing. People may be surprised that here was this person who believed in making the Soviet revolution into a democratic movement. Hello, I didn't make this up. It's all there in the writing.
The protagonist of the book, Harrison Shepherd, becomes a novelist. Are his experiences anything like your own?
I've never written about a writer before. I always thought it would be bad manners. I was raised in a culture (in a small town in Kentucky) that is assiduously modest. The biggest sin is narcissism of any kind; next is talking about yourself for longer than 10 seconds.
But I knew the territory. It was so much fun to write book reviews (of Shepherd's epic historical romances) in the Asheville Trumpet, those inside jokes.
I also know this territory: Whatever you refuse to divulge about yourself, the press and public will make up. It's bizarre. A literary novelist is an ant on the scale of famous people, but it's happened to me. So most of the awful things done to Harrison Shepherd I have seen firsthand — short of being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, that is.
In this novel, many of the characters are attacked and misrepresented in the press. What moved you to take on the media?
I took on lazy journalism. I figured, this is a safe thing to do. Hardly anyone is going to step up to that plate to defend it. But you'd be surprised.
I read hundreds, thousands of archived newspaper and magazine articles from the '30s, '40s, '50s, you name it. The yellow journalism made my hair stand on end. In a weird way it's reassuring to know this has always been with us. Gossip is probably just about as old as the human mouth.
But I discovered that with the advent of radio news, and then World War II, it was the first time we had everybody in the country sitting around the radio waiting for the same news. That created a national mood, a national psychology. It meant that the public could be manipulated in a massive way emotionally.
Also, the advent of up-to-the-minute reports killed the sensible waiting period. What if reporters had had to wait until that balloon landed (in the recent hoax in Colorado) to find out if anyone was really in there, if the editors said, "Call me when you find out"? It might have been in the local newspaper.
That kind of non-news fills our heads and fills our media. There were all these radio reporters who had to say something whether they knew anything or not. In the book Harrison says about them, "The talkers are rising above the thinkers." Oh boy, if he could only see how far they have risen.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.