Readers of The Millions know Lydia Kiesling as its current editor, corralling an eclectic group of writers and readers into a daily book blog circulated to thousands of book lovers. Lydia’s first novel, The Golden State, arrives today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s MCD imprint. An unusually accomplished debut, the book has all the elements this interviewer reads for: flow, language, ideas, surprises, humor, and a great big heart.
The Golden State’s protagonist is a young mother named Daphne, separated from her Turkish husband through an immigration screw-up, struggling to support her family in San Francisco. Overwhelmed with her situation, Daphne takes baby Honey and retreats to the family’s ancestral mobile home in rural California, the site of an enthusiastic separatist movement gunning for the new State of Jefferson. As Daphne revisits memories from her family of origin, she faces a thousand small and large obstacles in raising Honey. She follows a trail of longing through the fallout from America’s Kafkaesque immigration system so that she can create a family that coheres. I was lucky enough to catch up with Lydia via email over the summer.
Martha Anne Toll (MAT): How did you first come to writing?
Lydia Kiesling (LK): I was always a reader. I had a corresponding, mostly submerged, urge to write, but I wasn’t sure how to start or what to write about. When I was 25, I decided to set up a Wordpress blog to write…something. Books seemed like the best entry point, so I started out writing short posts about books in a semi-facetious style. C. Max Magee, who founded The Millions as his personal blog and grew it into what it is today, read the posts (via emeritus staffer Ben Dooley), and kindly invited me to make the site a home for my writing. For a long time I only wrote about books, but I was constitutionally unable to avoid bringing in personal elements—writing about my particular experience of reading—which didn’t always translate to the classic book review (there are many strong opinions about this!). I quickly started doing more writing in the category of personal essay, but I didn’t presume to give fiction a try until about six or seven years in.
MAT: Readers are always interested in process. What is the genesis of your novel and how did it unfold?
LK: I started feeling that my available venues and structures for writing were limiting. I had a full-time job, so digging into deeply reported or researched pieces was not realistic. I also found that some of what I wanted to explore didn’t fit neatly into an essay format—at least one that I knew how to write or sell. I saw that fiction was where you could range as far as you wanted with a particular theme, provided you put it into a story that made sense, and that’s where I started to focus my energies. I felt that the day-to-day experience of parenthood, and certain kinds of professional and political frustrations, were rich fodder for a novel, and that I might have the tools and material available to write about them in that format.
MAT: With your more than full time position at The Millions how do you fit your own writing in?
LK: I’m glad I give the illusion that The Millions is full-time, but it’s really extremely part-time! The reason I could write this book is that my increasingly urgent desire to try a long fiction project coincided with Max’s feeling that running every aspect of The Millions while doing his own full-time job and raising children was untenable—he had been doing it for more than a decade! He offered me a position that worked out to about two hours per weekday, with a stipend that almost covered daycare for one kid (now I have two—whoops). My husband and I figured that we could make the arrangement work for a year, at the end of which I would have to either sell a book, or have a clear indication that it would happen soon. I’m incredibly fortunate that my husband had health insurance and a salary that covered our rent, and that I could mostly cover childcare with my stipend. I was writing against the clock, at a pace I’m sure I’ll never sustain again, and I made the deadline with a couple of months to spare.
MAT: One of your book’s most unusual aspects is Daphne’s experience with the Turkish language and her commentary about its joys and challenges. Can you say more about that?
LK: I started learning Turkish in Turkey in 2005 when I was there teaching English to kindergarteners. I moved back to California after a year to be closer to my family, but I regretted not going further with Turkish, and I missed Turkey dearly. In 2009, when my now-husband and I were living in Pittsburgh while he went to graduate school, I decided that my job prospects were such that I was basically only qualified for miscellaneous admin jobs just outside what I wanted to do, so I went back to school to work on Turkish and get a Middle Eastern Studies degree. The decision made no sense since our plan was to move back to California, but I have been able to use it in different ways. Putting Turkish into the novel was both a form of domestic economy—working with what you’ve got—and also a way to live in a world where I used a language I sincerely love.
MAT: Turkish has everything to do with Daphne’s husband Engin, who is marooned in Turkey due to a green card calamity at the San Francisco airport. How do you think of their relationship? Do you see it as a metaphor?
LK: I think Turkey and America have a lot in common as relatively young countries—the way our social currents affect governance, in particular—but realistically, it’s probably only a metaphor for my own sense of…regret isn’t quite the word, but melancholy that I can’t see a future when I’m going to live in Turkey or speak Turkish. I’m losing my Turkish all the time, and I knew this as I was writing. I was anxious not to make Engin too much of a fantasy boyfriend, life-not-lived kind of thing. That said, as someone who unwittingly followed the practice of “assortative mating”—my husband and I grew up in very different regional contexts, but our demographic and class backgrounds are similar—I am interested in other kinds of couples. Many people feel social pressure, either explicit or implicit, to marry someone from a similar background, but marriages happen every day between people who didn’t grow up speaking the same language, and where neither party will assimilate into the other’s culture—they build something new. I did hesitate about trying to portray an experience that I haven’t had. Then again, since we only have Daphne’s narration, we only hear her side. One reader was really incensed about Daphne, on Engin’s behalf. “Imagine being him, helplessly watching your child’s mother melt down on the other side of the world via Skype.” She had a point!
MAT: A central theme in The Golden State is new motherhood and childrearing. Daphne’s relationship with her baby daughter Honey is at times laugh-out-loud funny, at times poignant, and always heartrending. You were in the throes of new motherhood when you wrote this novel. How did that affect your writing? Was part of the challenge to protect your real-life child/ren from appearing on the pages of this book?
LK: I started sketching out vignettes when my eldest daughter was about six months old, and I started writing in earnest when she was 17 months old, about Honey’s age. The book owes everything to her; I simply wouldn’t have written it if I hadn’t had her and if she hadn’t transformed the way I experience time—both the huge anxiety of seeing her new-babyness turn into toddlerhood so quickly, and the slowness of individual moments with her. I didn’t feel any angst about representing her; obviously individual parents know their individual children’s quirks, but babies and toddlers tend to operate within a spectrum of familiar behavior, so Honey is kind of an Every-baby. I was more interested in describing a particular parent’s psyche and behavior as she interacts with a toddler, not in imbuing a lot of specificity to the toddler herself. I now have a second baby, and it’s an experience I don’t seem to urgently need to translate to fiction the same way. I suppose I could worry that my babies will grow up and read the book and worry that I was miserable, but Daphne isn’t me, and her life is much harder than mine, and she isn’t totally miserable in any case. My children don’t make me miserable—the way American society fails parents of every background is much more immiserating. I love them, and I think and hope that will supersede whatever weirdness they feel if they ever read this book.
MAT: Novels are often about memory. Daphne finds herself on that most personal of journeys—revisiting a critical place in her childhood. Can you talk about Daphne’s encounters with memory, particularly memories of her mother and grandparents who are everywhere in the house to which she escapes?
LK: I grew up moving around a lot in a Foreign Service family, as well as visiting the same places over and over without living permanently in them, so memories of place are central to the book. Along with the baby stuff, it was the nostalgia and love you can feel for particular places, both as the sites where you interacted with particular people, but also as their own, stand-alone forces—smells and sounds and sensations—that I wanted to get on the page.
MAT: Writers are admonished to be observant. Can you talk about that admonition with regard to this heart stopping sentence: “…observation is violence as any Orientalist knows.”
LK: I think about this all the time, particularly because I was in an “area studies” program both as a student and later as an employee, that has roots both in the discipline of Oriental Studies and in the Cold War-era belief that America would materially benefit from Americans learning about other languages and cultures. And my childhood in the Foreign Service was full of mythology that if you travel to a lot of places you will be more informed, more empathetic, more adaptable. There is truth to that, but the more saccharine and platitudinous version of this mythology ignores the fact that gaze is everything. Part of what has been breathtaking about adulthood, in ways good and painful, is seeing how my own gaze has been shaped by social and political forces, many of them malign. This is pertinent to area studies, but also to literature, as we see again and again in conversations that take place in the literary community. So yes, you have to be observant to be a novelist, but you also have to understand that what feels to you like objectivity or interest, or even love, can be ignorance, and can be violence. (Phrenologists considered themselves very observant!) Also, this may seem like a tangent, but women are socialized to be observant. Observation in that sense is rarely neutral—trading observations is currency in female friendships, particularly among girls and young women, and wielding observation cruelly is part of that. I’m still not sure where the line is as far as fiction goes, but I try to keep it in mind.
MAT: The personal becomes political in The Golden State. Daphne is confronted with a militant secessionist group fighting to break off from California and establish the State of Jefferson. How did you come up with that idea? How much did contemporary politics shape the plot of your novel?
LK: I started seeing the State of Jefferson signs on drives up north and east in the last few years and found them surprising, but it turns out this regional movement to create a 51st state out of part of northern California (and Oregon, in some iterations) has been around for a long time. The neo-Sagebrush Rebellion activities as characterized by the Bundys and their supporters are their own thing, but the rhetoric overlaps, and the ideological roots are similar. So I conflated a few things in this book—I took a State of Jefferson action that took place in 1941 and gave it a kind of Malheur standoff spin. I didn’t devote a lot of the book to the State of Jefferson, but I wanted to show that something that seems to have nothing to do with you can brush up against your life in a variety of ways. I didn’t really see until recently how much Daphne’s feeling that if she can be alone with her child she can be safe, can manage her life, even though all signs point to the contrary, somewhat mirrors the belief that if people can break off and form a state that matches their politics perfectly things will just work out (again, all signs point to the contrary).
MAT: The Golden State begs the question: What does this novel say about the virulent fight over immigration we are experiencing in Trump’s America?
LK: I wrote the novel during the Obama years and the immigration story is loosely based on that of people I know. One of many things that alarmed me then about our immigration system is that it often seems to come down to the individual frame of mind or set of prejudices of the border agent you come across. You have absolutely no power, regardless of whether you follow the law (such as it is) or not. Our immigration policy was exclusionary and difficult before Trump. But now everything that was previously subtext is text. It seems clear that the people in Trump’s coterie want to end birthright citizenship, and that is sickening. If they take that, they take any remaining pretense of American being the land of opportunity. The American Dream becomes Stephen Miller’s dream realized.
MAT: What’s next for you? Do you have another novel/book in the works, and if so can you tell us about it?
LK: I’m early in another book, about American efforts at soft power abroad! But there’s no way I’ll be able to finish it before my daycare money runs out. I’ll need to rearrange, again.