Frida Kahlo is an incredible icon to recreate. How much pressure did you feel to do her justice, and how did you go about reconstructing and re-imagining her life and these events?
The truth is, I imagined this novel without Frida, but she moved into it. I wanted to examine the birth of the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle. I would start with the Mexican revolutionary muralists of the 1930's, and end with the anti-communist censorship of the 1950's. Diego Rivera was such a crucial part of that history, I thought I should have my narrator live in his household for a time. I was interested in the muralists, these men with their party work and collective shenanigans. Frankly I thought of Frida as too personal and self-involved to add much to my story.
I read all the biographies of Diego and Frida, then went to Mexico City to see their art, archives, and homes, which are preserved as museums. Frida is such a potent and intriguing person, she was everywhere I looked: her doodles and drawings even cover the margins of Diego's financial ledgers. I felt her poking at my shoulder, saying, "Look, chica, you're ignoring me." She was not a frozen icon at all, but a rogue, and a complex person with aches I understood. She started to steal scenes. She was a natural for drawing out my reclusive narrator – those two had brilliant chemistry.
Fortunately for me, Frida and Diego were the most discussed and photographed people of their time, two of North America’s first artistic celebrities. This played perfectly into my theme. I didn’t have to invent much, I just opened their journals, covered my bulletin board with photos, and the scenes began to roll.
What got you so interested in that particular part of history and how long did you spend researching the period?
As long as I've been a writer, I've wondered why we have such an uneasy relationship between art and politics in the U.S. – as opposed to many other countries, where the two are considered inseparable. I suspected that if I studied the mid-20th Century when political artists were persecuted here, I might find the genesis of that fear. But it was a huge undertaking, and I was a little afraid of it myself. In the autumn 2001, I personally experienced a terrible backlash against my identity as a political artist. It was time for me to sink or swim, so I dived into that question and swam for my life.
Is Harrison Shepherd based on or inspired by an actual 1950's writer?
No, he isn't. Because this novel is about real events in history, it's full of actual people: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Lev and Natalia Trotsky, Douglas MacArthur, J. Edgar Hoover – it's a regular Madame Tussaud's, and I was fanatical about representing those people accurately from the historical record. Their every move was plotted before I began; for example, if Frida went into the hospital or Diego went to San Francisco on a particular date in 1936, that's what they had to do in my novel.
You can plainly see, then, I needed a protagonist who could be completely malleable to my authorial control, to give me the flexibility to build my own plot and carry my intended themes. So Harrison Shepherd is a pure invention. He was entirely cooperative.
How long did it take to write the book?
I began plotting out the architecture of the story in February 2002, and finished seven years later, almost to the day. I took a two-year hiatus in 2006 to write a nonfiction book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but the novel was still on my mind, accumulating weight and momentum. The research and writing were simultaneous, almost to the end. I kept discovering fascinating and horrifying events buried in the historical record that made my heart race, and pushed me on toward my final conclusions.
Do you think novelists have a duty to address political issues?
I think writing a novel is a political act, automatically, because of the way it draws the reader into a carefully constructed world-view and generates empathy for the people who inhabit that world.
I think the novelist's duty, then, is to own up to the power of the craft, and use it wisely.
The linguistic and historical detail of this book is seamlessly integrated into the various voices and locales. Was this a matter of immersing yourself completely in research until the characters came to life, or did you start with the characters and work backwards?
I always begin with theme. I knew what I wanted this book to say about art and language, freedom of expression, fame, privacy, journalism, and cultural identity. I built a plot that would carry my themes, and invented two principal characters – Harrison Shepherd and Violet Brown – who could dramatize my story. After that, I dressed the set with color and fragrance and noise, people and things. Technically, the historical figures function more as setting than characters, but I still had to make them lively and convincing. In the process they came to have their own roles to play, but always within the strict confines of truth. I feel strongly about that; their lives are not mine to appropriate. So I couldn't, for instance, put real people into bed with anyone they didn't actually have affairs with. Fortunately, this crowd gave me a wide playing field.
My research involved spending time in historical neighborhoods in both the U.S. and Mexico, in cities and jungles and sea-caves and archaeological sites, looking at artworks, visiting special archives, and studying old photographs. I read, and read: personal journals, biographies, newspaper archives, books on political theory, hundreds of popular magazines from the 30's and 40's, even recipe books. Mostly I needed to know things that cannot be found online. The difference between amateur and professional research, I'm going to tell you, is a willingness to get your hands dirty. Also your shoes.
It was thrilling to immerse myself so deeply in the era. More than ever before, I came to understand fiction-writing as a process of barely-controlled lunacy. For the last several months of writing I was so intensely engrossed, my family brought me sandwiches at my desk and hoped I'd someday return to them. I dreamt about cooking for Trotsky, and impressed elderly men at dinner parties by rattling off arcane World War II trivia. The stacks of research materials grew like a forest in my office, it's a harrowing sight. I am clearing it all out now, making way for whatever comes next.
Are Harrison Shepherd's novels based on or inspired by any real novels?
Not exactly. To my knowledge no one has really done the Pre-Columbian Potboiler, but I had in mind a category of American fiction that came to prominence in the 1930's with Dashiell Hammett at the helm: 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 fine writers who did not pretend to be anything but entertainers, yet really wrote sophisticated literature in spite of themselves. (And interestingly, despite his apolitical subject matter, Hammett was persecuted for communism.) To the Sam Spade genre, add a dash of Hemingway and a heaping portion of James Michener's epic historical sagas – Hawaii and Tales of the South Pacific – and you're in the right part of the bookstore.
I spent so much time imagining Harrison Shepherd's hard-boiled Aztec novels, their plots and themes and so forth, that they seem entirely real to me. I even designed the dust-jackets in my head. On the shelf immediately behind my desk I keep my dictionaries, the thesaurus, and the few dozen reference books I'm using most heavily during any given project, and a couple of times without really thinking I turned around to reach for Harrison Shepherd's Vassals of Majesty or Pilgrims of Chapultepec.
They aren't there. And no, they never will be.
How do you deal with your own fan mail?
It was no stretch for me to create the character of Violet Brown, the ideal amanuensis to a writer, because I'm blessed with such a perfect assistant myself.