The Lacuna

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Judy Carmichael
Office of Barbara Kingsolver
PO Box 160
Meadowview VA 24361

The historical novel is extremely popular at the moment – why do you think this is?

We live in unusually challenging times. There’s no recipe for how to fix a global economic collapse and climate crisis. Our news media don’t always help, when they flood us with superficial glimpses of disaster or lurid gossip about people we will never meet. It’s not surprising that readers may be hungry to put our experience into a more useful context.

Historical fiction can be a part of that. As a case in point, when I was researching this novel I read a lot about World War II — not the battles abroad, but domestic life. I was amazed to learn how families adapted cooperatively to rationing. Everything was in short supply, from food and clothing to wristwatches, typewriters, and bed sheets.  Access was limited equally among rich and poor. The government actually outlawed long skirts and ruffled sleeves, to save fabric, and no cars were manufactured for civilian use for many years. There was something almost cheerful about the way people accepted the necessary frugality, undertaking it as a contribution they could make to a better world. Now, that climate of unselfish cooperation is hard to fathom. Reading history suggested to me that no matter what’s happening, we have probably been here before at some time, possibly with a better attitude. Historical fiction carries that kind of useful information and can render it emotionally compelling.

The research for this book must have been massive. Was it daunting, or fun?

Both. Fortunately, I like research. I was trained as a scientist, and tend to approach tasks methodically, enjoying what I learn along the way and trying to use it resourcefully. Sometimes I did feel I was trying to move a mountain with a teaspoon. I read many books about U.S. and Mexican history just to find my starting point. Month by month, I circled in to frame the story in theoretical terms. And that was only the beginning. A novel is made of details. Every character, on every page, has to be immersed in a perfectly visualized scene: using transportation, cooking, listening to radio programs, speaking in the particular jargon of an era. Wearing clothes. (Unless they aren’t, but that can’t last long.) Each detail has to be historically exact, and in this case “the era” involved dozens of different locations in two countries, crossing nearly thirty years.

I traveled to all the settings, on both sides of the border: Washington, D.C., Asheville, North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway, on this side. On the other, I hiked through Mexican coastal jungles, hung out in villages, went to see a brujo, visited Mexico City’s archaeological and art museums, the preserved homes of Rivera and Kahlo and the Trotskys, and their personal archives. I climbed the pyramids at Teotihuacán. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico over the past thirty years, living near the border in Arizona for most of that time, so I drew on the past too, digging out old notebooks from assignments in the Yucatan and elsewhere. I only set scenes in places where I’ve been myself.  When I create a world for the reader, I want to do it right, using all my senses.

That was the fun part, the “writer’s life” they show you in the movies. Here’s what they don’t show: the writer sitting in a chair in her study, glasses on her nose, coffee cup in hand, reading. For years and years. Biographies, court transcripts, political analyses from every angle, catalogues of women’s clothing from the ‘30’s and 40’s, recipe books, you name it. Everything ever written by or about Trotsky, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, J. Edgar Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, I tried to lay eyes on. I read literally thousands of newspaper and magazine articles documenting everyday life in the U.S. during World War II, and everything leading up to the post-war political freeze-up.  Autobiographies of blacklisted artists. The internet was useful, many newspapers now have electronic archives, but mostly it served to lead me toward better things that are not online. I had to get my nose into a lot of dusty places.  I pored over old letters and photo collections. I visited an old-car museum. This is a good example of the importance of primary sources: “Googling” a 1930’s Roadster won’t tell you how it feels to shift its gears, or that the windshield wiper is hand-operated by a lever over your head. Who would have thought? I loved the surprises. I learned that contrary to popular belief, the continental U.S. was attacked during WWII.  The New York Times ran photos of the aftermath. The Japanese sent a submarine up the Columbia River and deployed a floatplane bomber, with the goal of setting the Oregon forests on fire and creating panic in the land. But the plan was rained out. History hinges on things like this, events that get forgotten — this is the soul of the story I wanted to tell. It was thrilling to immerse myself so deeply in the era.  I dreamt of cooking breakfast for Trotsky, and became a curiosity for elderly men at dinner parties who quizzed me about arcane World War II trivia. The stacks of research materials grew tall in my office, like a forest of wobbly trees. I’ve cleared it all out now, making way for the next.

How long did it take to write the book?

I began plotting out the structure of the story in February 2002, and finished exactly seven years later. I took a hiatus between 2005 and 2008 to write and release a nonfiction book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but the novel was still on my mind during that time, accumulating weight and momentum. The research and writing were simultaneous, almost to the end. I kept discovering fascinating or horrifying events buried in the historical record that pushed me forward to the conclusion.

Is Harrison Shepherd inspired by an actual 1950’s writer? Are his books modeled on real ones?

No. While the novel is chock-full of real events and people, the reader’s engagement will always hang on a well-constructed plot. This I know. For sympathy, intrigue and heart-pounding suspense, I needed protagonists who would be completely malleable to my authorial control, to give me the flexibility to turn the events exactly as I needed. So Harrison Shepherd is a pure product of my imagination, and so is the indispensable Violet Brown. They were both entirely cooperative.

Of course, I had to imagine Shepherd as fully real in every aspect, including as a writer. No one has really done the Pre-Columbian Potboiler, as far as I know, but I had in mind a category of fiction that came of age around Dashiell Hammett’s time, in novels like The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. This was the last hurrah of the novel as an everyday, working person’s entertainment, and a golden time for some writers who considered themselves entertainers, yet really did sophisticated work. (Interestingly, despite his apolitical subject matter, Hammett was persecuted for communism.) Combine the Sam Spade genre with James Michener’s historical sagas – Hawaii and Tales of the South Pacific — and you’re in the right part of the bookstore.

I spent so much time thinking about Harrison Shepherd’s hard-boiled Aztec novels, I even designed their dust-jackets in my head. Immediately behind my desk is a shelf where I keep my dictionaries, the thesaurus, and the reference books I’m using most during a given project. A couple of times without really thinking I turned around to reach for Harrison Shepherd’s Vassals of Majesty or Pilgrims of Chapultepec. And then laughed at myself, out loud.

You included actual newspaper and magazine articles in this novel, alongside fictional ones. Why do that? If the history is that important, why set it as fiction?

The Lacuna explores some shocking things that happened in our country’s history. Some of the events are so unbelievable, I decided to use historical figures and actual news clips from the New York Times and other sources to anchor the reader’s attention to the facts. I didn’t want these uncomfortable truths to be dismissed as simply an author’s fancy. Informing the reader about facts and events is an important part of what I do. But ultimately that’s not enough: I also want you to care. A history book can educate you, but oddly, a novel is much more likely to move you to tears, because it creates empathy. That’s the amazing power of fiction.

In addition to Mexico, why did you choose Asheville, North Carolina as a main location for this story?

In the early months as I laid out the plot, I cast around for a setting for the U.S. portion of my story: a medium-sized city within a day’s drive of Washington, whose history I could research thoroughly. My character would live there throughout the 1940’s, so it would be ideal for me to find a city that had preserved a lot of architecture from that era, both public and private. I would love to find intact neighborhoods, downtown blocks, grand old resorts, preserved WPA road systems and parks, all kinds of places where I could walk around and visualize my setting down to its finest details. Asheville was perfect, just a couple of hours from where I live.

Because it’s an old resort town, its history is very well documented in words and pictures. The city’s unique story became its own contribution to the novel. I discovered, for example, that in the summer of 1948 Asheville had the worst polio epidemic in the nation, putting the whole town under quarantine. I learned this during my research and it became a key plot element, creating a perfect, claustrophobic backdrop to the suspenseful narrowing down of choices for my protagonist. I love this fantastic synergy between discovery and creation, in writing historical fiction.  It feels like magic.

Why did you choose to include Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and other real-life characters? Did you portray them accurately, or take a lot of liberties?

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.

Lacuna is a word with many meanings: an absence, a gap, a missing manuscript, a tunnel through time or substance. Why did you choose it as a central theme

The theme arrived long before the word. I worked on the novel for six years under a different title, which wasn’t a very good one. I was near the end of a first draft when one day I thought about this amazing word, lacuna, with all its intertwined meanings that unlock the inner workings of my story. I typed it, stared at it, and actually may have smacked myself on the forehead. It must have been lurking in my unconsciousness for a while, because everything came together around that word, once I committed it to the page. This novel is about all the important things you don’t know – the other side of the story, the piece of history that’s been erased. The plot is elaborately drawn around this idea in dozens of different ways.

The word “lacuna” is familiar to editors, physiologists, and certain other professionals, but I suppose it’s not a word most people hear every day. For this, I make no apologies. It’s a perfectly good, solid English word (not Spanish) that anyone can look up in the dictionary. Ours is a beautiful, rich language with words for every possible concept and shade of meaning. Why not use them all?

What was the genesis of The Lacuna? Is it a story you’ve wanted to tell for a long time?

It raises questions I’ve wondered about for nearly as long as I’ve been a writer, starting with this one: Why is the relationship between art and politics such an uneasy one in the U.S.? Most people in other places tend to view these as inseparable. Mexico, for example, has historically celebrated its political artists as national heroes, but here that combination can make people nervous, to put it mildly. We seem to have an aversion to national self-criticism in general. We began as a nation of rabble-rousers, bent on change. But now, patriotism is often severely defined as accepting our country to be a perfect finished product. As in, “Love it or leave it!”

I suspected this internal shift might date to the mid-20th Century, a time when U.S. citizens were persecuted, lost jobs, and could even be imprisoned for expressing dissident opinions. People were singled out not just for communism, but for supporting unions, women’s rights or racial desegregation. Those times seem to have put a stamp on our national psyche that has never completely washed off. I always thought someday I should go sleuthing, to see if I could turn up something interesting: the end of World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the blacklisting of artists, I knew these were probably relevant but wasn’t sure how.

In the autumn of 2001, after the September 11 attacks, I witnessed a ferocious backlash against people who raised questions about how we should respond. The mainstream media launched a lot of vitriol at any artist or public person identified as a dissident voice. It stunned me. The culture of fear is potent and terrible, something worth dissecting in order to understand. That was the push I needed. It was time to sink or swim, so I dived into that question and swam.