STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The writer Barbara Kingsolver has a story to share. She imagines a young man born to a Mexican mother and an American father. He spends a lifetime straddling two cultures and working out his own identity. Hes the main character of Kingsolvers novel The Lacuna. It explores issues that she has wrestled with again and again - in her fiction and in her life. Not long ago, Kingsolver herself, moved from one very different part of America to another. After more than 20 years in the Arizona desert, she returned to her roots in Appalachia.
NPRs Lynn Neary paid her a visit.
LYNN NEARY: Barbara Kingsolver may have spent half her life living near the arid desert, but its the dense green, and on this day, very wet woods of the Appalachians where she feels most at home.
NEARY: Is this the Appalachian Trail where...
Ms. BARBARA KINGSOLVER (Author, The Lacuna): Were near the - yeah.
Mr. STEVEN HOPP: Were near the Appalachian Trail.
Ms. KINGSOLVER: Were near the Appalachian Trail. Were just in the middle of the Southern Appalachian eco region thats kind of the heart of the place I want to be.
NEARY: Kingsolver and her husband, Steven Hopp, live in a renovated farm house in Southern Virginia, not too far from this trail. Hopp teaches at a local college, which is where they met. And for many years, they spent most of the year in Tucson and summers on the farm. Finally, they decided that this is where they belong and so moved back to Virginia for good.
NEARY: Whats this creek or river running?
Ms. KINGSOLVER: Its the Holston River.
Mr. HOPP: No, this is the
Ms. KINGSOLVER: Sorry.
Mr. HOPP: No, this is Laurel.
Ms. KINGSOLVER: Im sorry, youre right.
Mr. HOPP: Yeah, this is Laurel Creek.
Ms. KINGSOLVER: Laurel Creek.
Mr. HOPP: This would be river status in Arizona, but its a creek here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: Thats true. Did it take some time getting - I mean, this is such a different landscape from Arizona?
Ms. KINGSOLVER: Well, it really is and we - we had a very split Well, Ill speak for myself. I had a very split psyche when I lived between the two places. When we came back here in the summers, I kind of let my breath, out seeing all this water. It feels very safe to me to be surrounded by green growing things and water.
NEARY: Kingsolver grew up in Kentucky, just a few hours from here, and she has family nearby so she relishes that sense of being home. But shes also glad she got away. Those years in the Southwest changed the way Kingsolver sees the world.
Ms. KINGSOLVER: I think the most interesting parts of human experience might be the sparks that come from that sort of chipping flint of cultures rubbing against one other. And living on the border between Mexico and the U.S. for so many years gave me a lot of insight into that.
NEARY: Driven indoors by the rain, we retreat to the farm Kingsolver now calls home. A flock of guinea hens greets us as we arrive and we are met at the front door by the family dog.
(Soundbite of dog baying)
Ms. KINGSOLVER: Thank you, sweetheart.
Mr. HOPP: Thank you for watching the house.
NEARY: This is where Kingsolver lives and writes and she guards her privacy fiercely. Its only because of the bad weather that she reluctantly shares this private space with a stranger. Still, Kingsolver is a warm host, eager to make her guest feel comfortable.
Ms. KINGSOLVER: Here have a seat. Ill make us some tea.
(Soundbite of dog baying)
NEARY: Seated with a cup of tea in her book-filled study, Kingsolver talks about her new novel The Lacuna. She remembers the day she thought of that title.
Ms. KINGSOLVER: I came downstairs with great enthusiasm at the end of my writing day and announced to my family, I have a new title for this book, The Lacuna. And I got this kind of blank stares and my husband said, well, I dont think everybody knows that word. And I said, well, Im really sorry, but thats the word.
NEARY: In Kingsolvers book, a lacuna has several layers of meaning. Its a tunnel that leads from one place to another. It also refers to a missing manuscript that creates a gap in the story.
Ms. KINGSOLVER: There's always a part of the story you haven't heard that would influence your judgment if you knew it all. And when it comes to people we dont know, that part of the story gets bigger and bigger. It also applies to history. Theres always a part of your own nation's history that you haven't been told, that really has a powerful impact on what you see around you and how you yourself may behave and may believe.
NEARY: The novel, which spans a period from the 1930s to the McCarthy era, mixes fiction and history to tell the story of Harrison Shepherd. Half American and half Mexican, Shepherd gets a job working for the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. He lives in their colorful household during the time they are providing shelter for the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
Kingsolver says she wanted to explore the relationship between art and politics in two different cultures. And Harrison Shepherd, caught between two worlds and searching for his own identity, becomes the perfect vehicle for that exploration.
Ms. KINGSOLVER: He has a clear understanding that life would be much better for him if he were invisible. Hes struggling to find a place where he belongs and really to belong in his own skin.
NEARY: It also, though, does give you a way to eavesdrop on these great figures, too - to have that kind of a character at the center of the story.
Ms. KINGSOLVER: Invisibility is a great gift. He gets to go a lot of places because he has really cultivated this capacity to be unnoticed in the world, and therefore he gets to sit in on a lot of really important conversations -and as a reader, so do you.
NEARY: The intersection of art and politics, the flinty nature of disparate cultures rubbing against each other, the desire for privacy and simplicity versus the fame that comes with writing bestsellers these are the kinds of borders Barbara Kingsolver constantly crisscrosses in her life and tries to make sense of in her novels.
Lynn Neary, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: Hey, you can read a review of The Lacuna and an excerpt at our Web site which is just one of several in our new column What Were Reading. Weve created a new feature to highlight some of the books we found most compelling. Go to npr.org/books.
Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.