In the pantheon of popular fiction, Kingsolver is queen. Or close to it. Consider this: she is among the first Barbaras to pop up in a Google search, trailing only a few well-known names such as Streisand, Bush and Boxer. In the two decades since the release of her first novel, The Bean Trees—which was published the day her daughter, now a college graduate, started to walk—Kingsolver has amassed an avid following of readers. They’ve devoured both her fiction and nonfiction, including best-selling novels The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer, and 2007’s nonfiction meditation on local, sustainable eating, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
“They really are readers from every age, from middle school to 100,” Kingsolver says in a recent phone interview with BookPage from her farm in southwest Virginia. “I can’t tell you how often I hear, ‘I grew up reading you.’ I think, really? Has it been that long?”
With her new novel, The Lacuna, that following is likely to grow. It’s the epic story of Harrison William Shepherd, a young boy whose Mexican mother takes him back to her home country in the 1930s after splitting with his father, a Washington, D.C., bureaucrat.
With his mother more focused on snagging a rich husband than on raising a son (he wryly calls one of her conquests “Mr. Produce the Cash”), Harrison is left mostly to his own devices. With little formal education and even less parental supervision, he finds himself working as a cook in the home of mercurial artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, then as a secretary to the exiled Leon Trotsky. It’s a tumultuous time both politically and artistically, prompting Harrison to grapple with his own identity—his art, his sexuality and the meaning of truth. Finally, when Trotsky is assassinated, Harrison flees back to the United States, settling in North Carolina to find his own voice, only to become the target of a McCarthy-esque “un-American activities” investigation.
The novel is a brilliant mix of truth and fiction, history and imagination, presented as a compilation of Harrison’s journals, along with newspaper clippings and other notes that make for a compelling and utterly believable read.
The lacuna of the title is an underground sea cave, which links one beach to a hidden place. It’s an idea that has intrigued Kingsolver since she read a short story about lacunae years ago.
“I’m a bit claustrophobic, so the idea of sea caves is sort of horrifying and fascinating to me,” Kingsolver says. “I kept thinking about tunnels and passageways, missing pieces and things you don’t know about people.”
While living with his mother and her latest lover, a wealthy Mexican oilman, Harrison finds such a cave: “Inside the tunnel it was very cold and dark again. But a blue light showed up faintly like a fogged window, farther back. It must be the other end, no devil back there but a place to come up on the other side, a passage. But too far to swim, and too frightening.”
For Kingsolver, this book was her exploration of that “in between” space where pieces are missing and the truth is hidden. She also set out to probe the question:
Do artists have a responsibility to address social issues and express their opinions?
“For as long as I’ve been a published writer, I’ve been asked a certain kind of question—the legitimacy of addressing political content in art,” she says. “It’s always struck me as odd. Questioning authority, issues of class and gender, this is completely integral to art in other places, but here there’s something funny about that. I had this notion that art and politics had gotten a divorce in this country and never really finished the mediation. We have this ‘Don’t question what it means to be an American. Don’t draw pictures of it, don’t write about it.’ ”
So Kingsolver started digging, and found herself deep into the archives of both the New York Times and several Mexican newspapers, sifting through thousands of photographs and pieces of art and, eventually, traveling to Mexico.
“The difference between the amateur and the professional researcher is the willingness to get your hands dirty,” says Kingsolver. Reading old papers and historical accounts “is only one kind of research. It doesn’t tell you what anything smells like, and it doesn’t tell you what anything tastes like. You cannot write about a place you haven’t been.”
For that, Kingsolver visited the homes of her subjects, and walked in Mexican jungles to observe howler monkeys and to visit a medicine man. She even read the doodles Kahlo made in the margins of her household ledgers. “I learned a lot about her and how she felt that wasn’t recorded in her journal,” Kingsolver says. “It’s like taking black-and-white film and making it color.”
Such painstaking research meant a nine-year gap between novels, although Animal, Vegetable, Miracle came out during that stretch. That book on her family’s effort to eat locally attracted a whole new group of fans.
“Some readers informed me they never read me [before Animal, Vegetable, Miracle] because they can’t bother with fiction,” she says with a chuckle. “Maybe they can be convinced now to give me a try.”
Her family—which includes her husband and two daughters—still tries to adhere to the principles of the book. “We still eat as locally as we possibly can,” she says. “Every year I vow to scale back, but at least it keeps me muscular. You can’t weasel out when it’s time to shear the sheep or weed the tomatoes.”
Living locally is ingrained in Kingsolver. She becomes particularly passionate when talking about the notion of real community versus, say, the online communities created through social media tools such as Facebook.
“I love the fact that my work is meaningful to people, and I appreciate their letters. But a friend, to me, is someone I can call when I’m in trouble, who I can make a casserole for when someone dies,” she says. “I don’t need 3,000 of them. I’m invested in my local community, in being a good friend to my friends. All the rest would be fake to me.”
And authenticity is something Kingsolver is thinking a lot about these days. Despite investing years of research in her latest novel, she admits that along with the rich historical details infused throughout The Lacuna come fears about anachronisms seeping onto the pages. “The nightmare of the historical fiction writer is that you have the equivalent of the scene in Spartacus where he’s wearing a Rolex,” she laughs.
She needn’t worry. There’s nary a Rolex in sight in The Lacuna—just page after page (more than 500 in all) of lush details and probing questions about the purpose of art. The Lacuna is both deeply thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining—which is just how Kingsolver wants it.
“My rule is, as long as I give you a reason to turn every page, it doesn’t matter how long a book is.”
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.
An excerpt from The Lacuna, Chapter One:
The pale-skinned boy stood shivering in water up to his waist, thinking these were the most awful words in any language: You will be surprised. The moment when everything is about to change. When Mother was leaving Father (loudly, glasses crashing against the wall), taking the child to Mexico, and nothing to do but stand in the corridor of the cold little house, waiting to be told. The exchanges were never good: taking a train, a father and then no father. Don Enrique from the consulate in Washington, then Enrique in Mother’s bedroom. Everything changes now, while you stand shivering in the corridor waiting to slip through one world into the next.
And now, at the end of everything, this: standing waist-deep in the ocean wearing the diving goggle, with Leandro watching. A pack of village boys had come along too, their dark arms swinging, carrying the long knives they used for collecting oysters. White sand caked the sides of their feet like pale moccasins. They stopped to watch, all the swinging arms stopped, frozen in place, waiting. There was nothing left for him to do but take a breath and dive into that blue place.