Barbara Kingsolver on politics, place and her ambitious new novel
Her writing is expansive; Barbara Kingsolver has written about everything from missionary work in Africa to how to eat out of your own backyard. Her 1998 novel “The Poisonwood Bible” — a deep, ambitious book — was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, cementing her status a mainstream novelist (read: She sold a lot of books).
After nine novels, Kingsolver turned out three works of nonfiction, including the bestseller “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” met with enthusiasm by a public ready to embrace responsible eating. In any genre, the unifying themes of her work are social, political and, by and large, humanistic. Like her influences, Doris Lessing and Charles Dickens, Kingsolver approaches major, timely issues with the craft of a master storyteller.
Her new novel, “The Lacuna,” her first since 2000’s “Prodigal Summer,” is quintessential Kingsolver: heavy political subject matter with an epic plot that spans decades and includes major historical figures such as Leon Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, J. Edgar Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The novel explores the role of art in the context of political revolution, public persona versus truth, and the roots that connect us all: the past.
If American readers are eager to think about their own local food supply, are they just as compelled to think about fear in the face of social change?
Kingsolver spoke with LEO by phone.
LEO: It was fascinating how a book on local eating and direct ways in which to go about responsible eating was such a huge success. Almost everyone I knew had read it, or owned a copy.
Barbara Kingsolver: It’s encouraging, isn’t it? … I think it’s especially important in Kentucky, which could have a thriving local food economy. It’s a perfect time in history to transition all these small, family-owned tobacco farms into small, family-owned food farms. They need an eager market, they need consumers, people who care about where their food comes from and are willing to pay for it.
LEO: I am really curious about your inspiration for “The Lacuna.”
BK: I spent seven years writing this book. I spent many years before that thinking about the idea of privacy versus celebrity, questions about the way that gossip gets passed off as news by our media as a way to respond to that. The notion of being American vs. Unamerican, where that all came from. And I knew that some really important things happened in the middle of the last century, between World War II and 1970. I had a hunch that’d be a really rich time in which to set a novel, and so I did.
LEO: As (protagonist) Harrison (Shepherd) travels and moves around, he’s obviously informed and influenced by his environment, where he’s living. I’ve found that to be a recurring theme in your work. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that, on how place forms identity and character. Even in your nonfiction it is such a strong current in theme. I moved to Kentucky 10 years ago, and I had no idea how strongly people could be tied, or attached to, land and place. I really envied that. I know that I have been heavily influenced by the places where I have lived. I know you, too, have lived in several places.
BK: That’s interesting. I’m curious, did you find Kentucky kind of a hard club to join?
LEO: Oh, absolutely. (Laughter)
BK: I can see that. Yeah, it’s a place where roots run deep, and identity with the place is very strong. In my experience growing up there … when you sit down with people you’ve met for the first time, then you have a conversation that I would entitle, “Who are your people,” right? People don’t say what do you do, where did you go to school, they say who are your people. And you have this conversation that kind of circles around who you are, who is your family, and eventually in the conversation you find a point of intersection where my people know your people, you know, maybe we’re related, or maybe they had an exchange where one of my people sold one of your people a piece of land or hung tobacco in your barn. And then you’re done — you’ve established how my people and your people connected, and you can move onto other subjects.
In my life, in leaving Kentucky and living in many other places, I’ve come to understand what a treasure this is. To know how to attend to the people who made you. There are other parts of the world where people behave this way. But a lot of the United States is peopled with transplants. We’re a nation of immigrants. In a lot of places people tend to be thrown together in a new mix, and “your people” are less important than who you are in this moment, which is self-made, I guess.
LEO: This novel takes place during a time when the U.S. was dominated by fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of a political system. And we’re in a time now when the strongest political sentiments seem to be absolutely rooted in fear.
BK: What happened in our history that made us so very frightened of change? Because if you look back before this period, the beginning of our country was all about change, and really most of the 19th century was all about change. People were reinventing what it means to be an American. There were all these hopes and visions and marches forward in terms of different people’s rights and reinventing identity. The Declaration of Independence begins with a commitment to change. So I was very curious to look at the moment in history when that reversed, and what were the forces at play that trained us to think that being a good American means not changing anything, but looking at our country as a perfect, finished product? That fascinated me.
LEO: You’ve placed your protagonist in the hands of Diego Rivera, and have him working for Frida Kahlo. That’s a very bold move. So with all due respect, how could you? I mean, no, really, how could you, how did you? It was exciting to read because I had not ever thought about the human quality to these historical figures before. How do you do that?
BK: Writing a novel is an audacious act anyway. You are creating this grand fabrication and asking readers to step inside it, to put aside their own lives and come in and look around. Of course Diego and Frida were not my starting point … my first task was to construct a plot that would invite the reader in to travel this path, this very surprising and interesting path with my narrator, Harrison Shepherd.
Without giving away too much plot, I knew this character had to wind up in certain kinds of hot water, so I needed to back up and give him a history that would take him where he would need to go. It’s much more scientific — the construction of a plot — than most people think. I don’t just sit down and think, “Oh, now what happens?” I begin at the end and work backwards so that I know where everyone has to end up. So you can see from that point of view why it was important to give him exposure to various situations that would later be turned against him.
What I found was that this history was shocking in so many ways, you know, what really happened in the U.S. I need to anchor it to real events. And for that reason I used real newspaper articles throughout the novel. There are articles from The New York Times that really were published on the day that they appear in this novel. I wanted the reader to understand even though this is a novel, all this stuff really happened. For that reason I chose to incorporate a lot of real people and real events. J. Edgar Hoover, even though he doesn’t exactly appear as a character, you hear his voice, he’s writing letters. The Bonus Army Riots, for example, that’s another thing that really happened.
Diego and Frida assumed a larger role than I had anticipated. Although when I understood, among many other things, about fame and gossip, how celebrity gossip distorts the lives of people and how damaging it can be, and how eager people are to believe the ugliest lies about famous people … I thought this more than serves my plot, it serves my theme. I will let you see them as actual people. The bigger-than-life sort of crazy portrait that’s been portrayed of them, slathered all over the place — I thought that rather than doing more damage to them, I would actually invite you to see some of the damage that’s been done to them.
Later in the book, when Harrison Shepherd has to say some of the same things, you’re prepared for what’s coming in this way. He of course handles it in a very different way, sort of opposite from Frida, which I thought was also useful for creating character. She’s a kind of foil. She deals with the glare of publicity by shining a mirror back in people’s eyes to blind them. Harrison Shepherd tries to become invisible. Neither strategy is perfect.
LEO: Harrison is left to raise himself earlier in the novel. How much of your own childhood informed that character’s experience, if any at all?
BK: I am happy to say not at all. I had a very conventional and loving mother. One interviewer pointed out to me that I’ve made quite a line of inadequate parents. And when I think back over my novels, that’s true. But it has nothing to do with my own life. There are certain fictional situations that create character, create plot. The important thing is that it compels you. We feel compelled by people who have great anguish, great want, great desire, and it’s his: He wants to find a home. And the most effective way to create a character like that is to make him feel homeless, even in his own home.
LEO: You highlight the importance of art in society throughout your work. You have a poetic sensibility to take something from the corner of a character’s eye and bring it to the surface for the reader. And by the end of the read, it’s almost unbelievable that you’ve tackled such huge themes. If you had to compare this book with another book of fiction, or maybe mention another author or author’s work that has influenced you, are there any?
BK: That’s an interesting question. I’m reluctant to compare my work with another person’s. I would like to be as great as the writers I admire most. I am not in a position to do that. I can tell you that this is my most ambitious work. It is the book I feel I have invested the most in, both in terms of time and craft. I feel like every book brings me to a new place, and I try harder things every time. Every time I feel like I undertake something hopelessly difficult, as in I hope I can get there and learn something. I do feel very good about that; I feel I have arrived at a new place.
The authors that have influenced me most are many, too many to list, but a great influence on me in my early life as a writer was Doris Lessing. She’s a fearless writer who never shrank from the big subjects. Even when she was a very young writer, she was writing about apartheid in South Africa, the Color Bar, as it was called, racism — she was being political and writing about gender issues. She’s a fearless writer, and that certainly informed me as a young reader in terms of what’s possible and what’s admirable in a writer.
I also am a great fan of Charles Dickens, who was fearless in terms of plot. He didn’t shrink from the great and astonishing plot. And that’s also something that I really admire because it’s important to take your readers on a journey to places they have never been, both geographically and in terms of the heart and mind. But first you have to give them a good reason to keep turning the pages.
LEO: I wish you great success with this book and look forward to you reading here in Louisville.
BK: Well, thank you. I appreciate your thoughtful reading of it.
And let me thank you for working for print media. It’s more important than most people realize, and it’s a harder world than most people realize, and I salute you and I wish you luck. I think alternative weeklies may be some of our last, best hope for print media.