SHE'D never been the favourite to win this year's Orange Prize. "It was a complete surprise," says Barbara Kingsolver, going on to make the obligatory remarks about how all the other shortlisted books were wonderful, and the impossibility of ranking them against each other.
Yet when the judges named Kingsolver's novel The Lacuna as the winner, it made perfect sense. The American novelist - whose best-known work, until now, was The Poisonwood Bible - is at the top of her game, and one of those rare authors who writes intelligent, dense books that are equally beloved by readers and critics.
Did winning feel like vindication for the abuse she incurred when, not long after 9/11, she published an essay calling for a re-examination of America's foreign policy, and was roundly trounced in the press?
The Lacuna is, in part, her response to these detractors, she says.
"Publishing the book felt like the happy end of a long and difficult process that began in acute pain. What I decided at the time is that I have to do something with it. I was able to put those ugly hateful letters into a box, and then get them out years later and put them directly into the text - directly! The hate mail in the novel that Harrison Shepherd gets is mine. But I don't imagine that any of the people who wrote those letters will ever read the book and go, 'Oh, that's me being hateful. That ugly person is me, and she won a prize for this!' No, I don't imagine that much of a dramatic ending."
Harrison Shepherd is The Lacuna's central character. Half American, half Mexican, he becomes enmeshed in the lives of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky. Years later, back in the US, he writes a series of bestselling historical novels chronicling Mexico's vivid and dramatic past. But Shepherd has secrets - and enemies. As McCarthyism takes hold of America, his association with Trotsky comes under suspicion, and he's brought before the House Un-American Committee, and ultimately destroyed.
Most of the trouble in our world is caused by fear, I suggest, referring to one of the book's strongest themes. "Suspicion of the other is biological," Kingsolver replies. "I think we're hardwired to make quick and firm judgments about who is in my tribe and who is an outsider. We're social animals. For millions of years (human] survival depended on being able to make accurate decisions about who's going to help me and who's not. Everything comes down to that - cliques in high school, wars in Burundi. There's something in us that makes these judgments routinely, daily, minute by minute.
"Part of the work of civilisation, as we crowd in together closer and closer, is learning to override those judgments. But it's not surprising to me that in frightening times, when people feel threatened, they fall back on earlier or more innate behaviour."
People get afraid that there's not enough to go around - whether it's enough love, money, whatever it is they value. "It's not rational; these are irrational responses to perceived scarcity. When people feel they're going to lose something, we get a little nervous and ratty and grumpy. When you see that on a civic scale, it's frightening."
What was it that McCarthy and his mob feared? After all, America was in pretty good shape after the Second World War.
"That's exactly the question that drove me to write this novel. I could say the answer is 550 pages long. I've spent decades wondering, because I always had a hunch that the artistic and political landscape that I grew up in, in the US, was stained in some way, by events that had happened in the ten years before I was born in 1955. Growing up, I heard a lot about how communists were the devil and how frightened we should be of communism. When I got a little older and began writing and thinking about the role of art in society, I noticed that if I strayed into any territory that questioned government or challenged the prevailing ideology, I would risk being called communist.
"I knew what communism was, I'd read Marx just to see, and so I knew this was nothing to do with communism. I wondered what happened that made people so willing to believe in this hysteria, and so frightened of questioning the status quo. I always wanted to see if I could find a novel there. To tell the truth, I didn't find the answer I expected. I learned a lot about the Second World War and especially what happened right afterward - the flattened European landscape, with the US standing in great shape, economically speaking, on one side and Stalin on the other side, more wrecked but still with resources. Winston Churchill was in the middle saying, 'You boys had better hate each other, otherwise I'm sunk.' I didn't know about that. I'd always thought about US culpability and had never thought about an entire interlocking ecology of a whole world that had been rearranged by war."
I tell her that from my perspective, an ocean away, my country seemed unrecognisable, and all too ready to go down that route all over again, after 9/11. Did she experience a similar sensation?
"It was scary," she acknowledges. "Roosevelt talked about having to choose between freedom and safety. I looked around and thought, 'People are going to choose safety every time, aren't they?' People were so eager to give up freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought. Take it all, they said. Yes, call them Freedom Fries. Yes, we'll give up the right to challenge and question our government in exchange for safety."
Or the myth of safety - you're never really safe. "Exactly! It's a very childish way of looking at the world."
Moving away from politics, I ask her about fame. Shepherd becomes an overnight success, but withdraws from the world. Kingsolver also had a sudden surge of fame, and I wonder if she compartmentalises her life into "before Poisonwood" and "after"?
"No. I am so lucky that my career has followed a very steady and gradual climb. My biggest challenge with success is that I never wanted to be a famous person and I don't like being the centre of attention. I am a person who wants to be invisible."
That's a trait she shares with Kahlo, though she didn't know that when she began researching the novel. "It's hard to remember what I knew beforehand. I knew her story, I knew her work and that she was a celebrated feminist icon, more in the US than in Mexico. When I went to Mexico City and started reading her letters, I liked her so much better as a person than as an icon. She was real and vulnerable and very damaged by gossip and celebrity. She was not a celebrity hound. Celebrity was done to her and she cleverly learned how to manipulate it for her survival, which was exactly what I wanted to write about.
"I saw how interesting it would be if my character, who was a man who wanted to be invisible and had a cult of unwanted celebrity, what it would be like if he met this woman who also wanted to be invisible, but chose a different route. She chose sleight of hand, wearing enough jewellery to sink a ship, hiding behind the feathers of a peacock. I thought what an interesting chemistry that would be and for the two of them to talk about this would give me a way of exploring the issue. You have to find ways of showing things to the reader, and conversations between these two would be very important. Frida became very useful to me in a way that I hadn't foreseen."
It turns out that the real watershed moment wasn't selling millions of copies, or being chosen for Oprah's book club, but getting published in the first place. "I'd been working as a freelance journalist and wrote Bean Trees at night because I was pregnant and I couldn't sleep. I sent it off to my agent, saying, 'I'm really sorry. You won't want this, but I have to get it out of my house.' I was in a cleaning frenzy.
"I had the baby, came home, and there was a message saying, 'We've had two offers for your novel, both for $25,000', which was a spectacular sum to me, more than I'd made in the three years previous. A month later it hit me: I'm a novelist now. With that chunk of money, I knew, being a frugal person, that I could live on that for a year and not go back to freelancing."
Shortly after her daughter's birth her first marriage ended, and her resolve was tested by two offers of teaching jobs that would have guaranteed a steady income. But Kingsolver held firm. "I got two more books published in the next year, both of which I had been working on for a long time, and after that went from one book to the next on my advances. So that's really the moment that changed my life, selling my first book and then taking a chance and trusting that I could do this."
I'm sure the Orange Prize judges would join me in saying: thank goodness she did!
• The Lacuna is published by Faber & Faber, priced 6.99.