Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel ‘Golden State’ a mother-daughter road adventure
By Lou Fancher
The overwhelming love and loathsome, crushing boredom of mothering a young child arrive in profound, convincing and equal measure in San Francisco-based author Lydia Kiesling’s “The Golden State” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $26, 304 pages).
Featuring Daphne, a young mother who impulsively escapes a pressure cooker life during a 10-day road trip with Honey, her 16-month-old daughter, Kiesling’s debut novel risks being categorized — mistakenly — as chick or women’s lit. Instead, read it as a buddy adventure story—albeit, Daphne’s sidekick can’t talk yet and throws blueberries. Themes beyond the maternal emerge: avoidance of work and family responsibilities disguised as travel; class and cultural schisms evident in an Islamophobic, bigotry-laden secessionist movement, ancestry and progeny stitched into identity, aging and ideas of home. Ultimately, “Golden State” not only puts fathomless familial love on display, but also unleashes the power of fiction to provoke empathy, shame, fear, imagination, memories, despair and joy.
Kiesling, 34, is the editor of the literary website The Millions. She holds a degree in comparative literature from Hamilton College and a graduate degree in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Chicago. Born in Israel and raised in Armenia, Greece and Morocco during her father’s diplomatic career, Kiesling is married and the mother of two toddler daughters.
Giving birth to her older daughter, now 3, she says in an interview, was primary to writing her first novel. “I had been writing since I was 25 – mostly book reviews and blog posts, then personal essays. After Ladybird was born, the feeling that essays weren’t the right shape for my ideas was more urgent.” Instead of twisting complex ideas into tight, 600-word online posts, Kiesling decided a novel would allow more satisfying exploration.
“I wanted to write about someone spending a lot of time with a small child and the feeling of going somewhere familiar but not somewhere you could claim as home.” In the book, Daphne runs away to her late grandparents’ trailer home in a small Northern California town. Her Turkish husband is trapped in his homeland after his green card is erroneously confiscated; a young woman’s tragic death is related to Daphne’s work at a university; finances are strained, among other pressures. Suffering exaggerated paranoia about Honey possibly being shot, crushed, poisoned, strangled by a window blind cord or other unspeakable tragedy, Daphne sneaks cigarettes—outdoors always—cements a fondness for alcohol, avoids email and despises herself for it all.
“The book is about frustration and ickiness in your life. What conditions would cause you to stand up from your desk and leave your job?” With that idea as the fabric, Kiesling says developing the plot was like the tucks and darts a seamstress creates. “It’s problem solving. For example, the father wasn’t offsite because he’d died. Then it would be a book about overwhelming loss so huge, it would take over everything else.”
Kiesling says having a baby altered her relationship to time. Jarred by the dichotomy between wanting to be with her daughter all day and intense desire to “put her to bed and have my brain back,” she worked hard to capture parental slow-down, speed-up desire. “I tried writing in third person and past tense. Recollections worked fine, but it wasn’t right for the realtime immediacy of being with a kid.” That realization and a valued suggestion from her agent led her to use first person, present tense narration instead, resulting in a draft sold to the publisher that required only a few tweaks.
Writing “Golden State” brought to the surface submerged ideas about fiction. “I ended up feeling the weight and responsibility in depicting things. I became more leery of the instinct to capture things on the page. It’s violent to go around, make notes about people, then make judgments and use them in writing. Alice (an aging woman Daphne befriends) was based on someone I knew, but didn’t know well. The assumptions I had to make, the nerve to think I could make an approximation of her, was sobering to me. But I had an out in Daphne: Everything comes through her and her fallibility.”
Although she says “Daphne is not me” and the obsessions are “amped up” from urges she felt—the desire to flee with her baby and the belief they’d only need each other—Kiesling finds wish fulfillment and comfort in fiction. “Viewpoints presented in fiction, depending on the care of the author, can evoke feelings with precision. It can stop you in your tracks, change the ways you think,” she says.
Among the ideas germane to her novel are misconceptions that while caring for a young child, a mother may suffer brain malfunctions. “Daphne shifts from naps and diapers to debate ISIS with strangers. She’s still using her brain in ways she did before having a child.” Not romanticizing her own peripatetic upbringing, comparing it favorably to refugee migration, was another objective. “I see how limited and false it is to be congratulatory,” she notes. “It was still a bubble, like the one Daphne’s in.” And having married a person from a different culture fails to burst Daphne’s bubble when she refuses to join him in Turkey and retains her parochialism, according to Kiesling.
The final scenes of “Golden State” intentionally “have the reader on the knife’s edge,” she says. Without divulging more, it’s likely the last pages will translate into lingering consideration of the book’s major themes: Above all others, the glorious, haunting, flawed, uncontrolled, cascading love between people of all ages.