Frida and Diego are relatively minor players who received a disproportionate amount of the review attention, probably because it made for good artwork on the Sunday Arts section of the newspaper. But that’s not why I included them. When I construct a novel, I back up from “effect” to “cause.” I wanted to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle. My protagonist would be singled out because of his suspect past, so I had to give him a past. It made sense for many reasons to start with the Mexican revolutionary muralists of the 1930’s, and end with the anti-communist censorship of the 1950’s. I would track the contrast, as Mexico’s attitudes about political art diverged from those in the U.S. I initially thought of these figures as setting rather than character, part of the novel’s grounding in historical fact.
Trotsky has fascinated me for decades, and so have the muralists, these men with their party work and shenanigans. I didn’t initially plan to write about Frida Kahlo, as I considered her too private and self-involved to add much to my story. But she grew on me. I read all the biographies, then went to Mexico City to see artworks, archives, and the Rivera and Trotsky homes, which are preserved as museums. Frida was everywhere: her doodles even cover the margins of Diego’s financial ledgers. I felt her poking at my shoulder, saying, “Muchacha, you’re ignoring me.” I began to understand her not as a martyred icon but as a roguish, complicated person. She began stealing scenes. She was a natural for drawing out my reclusive protagonist, they had excellent chemistry.
Frida and Diego were among the most discussed and photographed people of their time, two of North America’s first artistic celebrities. This novel is about, among other things, infamy and privacy, the role of the media in shaping public opinion, and its penchant for passing on gossip as news. So this couple played directly into my hand. I read their journals, covered my bulletin board with photos, and the scenes began to roll. Of course, I had to make them lively and convincing, not just stagehands, so they came to have their roles in the story. But their actions were limited to the strict confines of truth. I feel strongly about that: other people’s lives are not mine to appropriate, so I was careful about plotting their every move, their tastes, and even a lot of their words directly from the historical record. If Frida went into the hospital or Diego went to San Francisco on a certain date in 1936, that’s where they went in my novel. I did not put them into bed with anyone they didn’t actually have affairs with. Fortunately, that gave me plenty of options to choose from, as there were scandals galore.