A beast beautifully tamed
Review: Sue Leonard
Saturday, August 21, 2010
faber and faber; €10.99
Barbara Kingsolver talks to Sue Leonard about the struggle she had writing her prizewinner, The Lacuna
IN November 2007, Barbara Kingsolver discovered an inaccuracy on her Wikipedia page. It said that a new book by the author was due at the end of the month. Kingsolver almost had a nervous breakdown.
"I screamed and I cried and I lay on the floor," says the 55-year-old when we meet on her first visit to Dublin. "I thought, ‘now my readers are expecting a book and I can’t possibly write it’."
At the time, Kingsolver was five years into her sixth novel. But so complex was the structure, combining history and fiction, that she had no confidence of being able to complete the project.
"It was like fighting a seven-headed monster," she says. "I’d started with the idea of exploring Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunts, and where America’s fear of communism came from; but I wanted to layer in celebrities and gossip and how the written word defines the person, and I also wanted to write about Trotsky; oh, and Mexico. All these ideas kept coming in. Usually I can keep them under control and say, ‘that’s for another novel’, but in this case everything seemed to work together."
To make matters worse, Kingsolver had decided to construct the book largely through journal entries and she wanted her hero, Harrison Shepherd, to report events without ever using the first person pronoun. So he was the invisible ‘eye’ rather than ‘I.’ That proved almost impossible.
But why would the American make life so difficult for herself? Surely her publishers and her public would settle for less? After all, her fourth book, The Poisonwood Bible, became an Oprah Winfrey choice and sold four million copies.
"I wanted to write something I’d never written before," she says. "In fact, I wanted to do something no writer had done before. That’s what gets me to my desk in the morning; it’s the challenge and the risk of it. And for the character, Harrison Shepherd, doing it that way made perfect sense."
Brought up between the US and Mexico, the fictitious Harrison’s mother makes it clear that he was a mistake, and his existence a mere nuisance.
"She makes it clear that her life would be better if he wasn’t there. What would that feel like as a child? It made sense to me, that he wouldn’t feel comfortable using the first person until remarkable things start happening to him."
Harrison becomes a cook for Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo before typing up reports for the exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky. Kingsolver takes care to keep all the facts about her real characters accurate. It makes for a fascinating trawl through the past.
It wasn’t until November 2008 that the strands of this sixth novel finally gelled.
"I thought of my title, The Lacuna, and I had my eureka moment. That word brought everything together. From then on I knew the novel was going to work."
Originally from a farming community in Kentucky, Kingsolver originally decided to study the piano. She still plays, when she wants the words in her head to cease for a while; but she soon changed her mind and studied biology instead. "I’ve always written," she says. "I’ve written journals since I was a child. Writing things down has always made things real for me, but I never thought I could be a writer." Starting as a scientific writer, she turned to journalism before starting on her first novel. "And now I can’t imagine myself without a pen and a notebook."
Her plots and ideas might cause her problems, but there’s one thing Kingsolver is always in charge of – her characters.
"They are always there at my service," she says. "I begin with a theme and a plot, then I think of a character to serve my plot. I knew early on the sort of person Harrison Shepherd was. I figured he’d be a writer and would be persecuted by the anti-communist witch-hunt, then I gave him the past that he needed. You take a character and do things to them, so they will be damaged in just the right way."
So her characters never run away with the plot in the way other writers describe?
"I find that nonsense" she says with a laugh. "I am God! I remember opening The Colour Purple for the first time and Alice Walker writes ‘I thank all these characters for showing up.’ And, well, I’m glad they go to her house. I invent absolutely everything about mine."
While she’s grateful to have readers and happy for the recognition, Kingsolver never wanted to be famous. She’s happiest at home on the farm she shares with her husband, Steve Hopp, and their daughter, Lily, in the mountains of southern Appalachia. Keen on eating local food, in 2007, Barbara co-wrote a book called Animal Vegetable Miracle, with her environmentalist husband and Camille, 23, her daughter from her first marriage.
It’s no surprise that The Lacuna has been universally praised. It’s a sumptuous read, complex but enthralling, and shows the reader an unfamiliar world. It seems certain to follow The Poisonwood Bible into becoming a book club favourite. It’s literary, but eminently readable. Yet Kingsolver swears she was amazed when it beat a strong shortlist to win the Orange Prize. "I was happy to fly to London to congratulate the other five authors on the short list. I never expected to be taking the prize back home. I can remember the first word I ever read. I was three years old and my father was reading the newspaper. It had his attention in a way I was envious of... I remember looking at the page and puzzling over it. I saw a word and said the letters. O-r-a-n-g-e. I remember the word, ‘orange’ popped out. So I suppose it’s only right that 50 odd years later I should be getting a prize for that."
© Sue Leonard 2010