This unfortunate thing you can’t really pinpoint - an interview with Lydia Kiesling

This unfortunate thing you can’t really pinpoint - an interview with Lydia Kiesling

Monika: First off, I just want to say I have been talking about your book a lot. At book club yesterday, it wasn’t even the topic of discussion,  but we ended up talking about THE GOLDEN STATE!! The book we were supposed to be talking about was THE LAST SAMURAI by Helen DeWitt. I also read that book this summer, after I read Lisa Halliday’s ASYMMETRY, and then moving onto your book, I started to see a pattern. I don’t know if you’ve read either of those books, but I became fascinated by the way the three of you have written strikingly international, global, books that are also so internal, and then so subtly about this eternal, universal theme: finding a place in the world.

To me, THE GOLDEN STATE has a global shadow, but the focus is on the internal. Yet, you’ve managed to make that internality read like a thriller; your book is remarkably urgent. Can you talk a bit about balancing the external forces Daphne experiences with the strength of her internal narrative?

There was just this feeling of sort of pointless, sour, general grief

Lydia: (THANK YOU!! That really means the world to me.)  To your question: the main thing I started out wanting to do with the novel was represent the experience of being with a small child for a sustained period of time. But for one, that experience is absolutely inflected by things happening in your life and in the world. When my daughter was born I was laid low all the time by thinking about things that were happening--reading news about the refugee crisis in particular.  Much of this is selfish--you are imagining your own child, yourself as a parent--going through what other people are going through, so I don’t point this out to make any claims about parents being more feeling or empathetic people (I think sometimes the reverse is true, in fact!).  But when I think about the first couple of years with my eldest daughter, the main thing I remember is the intensity of feeling, not just as it pertained to her, but about everything in the world.

There’s a lot of feeling helpless and sad and guilty--when my baby was driving me crazy, or I was desperate to get some work done but she was suddenly feverish and grumpy, I remember simultaneously feeling sorry for myself while also situating myself on the world stage and having this voice in my mind like, “THIS IS A NON-PROBLEM IN THE SCHEME OF THINGS, BABIES ARE DYING.” There was just this feeling of sort of pointless, sour, general grief (I definitely still have this, but it’s not in such technicolor as it was, maybe because the information has become so relentless--a very depressing thought). And in a less depressing/distressing way, one of the things about becoming a parent is that you are still interested in and curious about many of the things you were interested in before, and presenting that duality felt important.

 Finally, there’s also a more practical aesthetic consideration, which is, “Who cares?” Who cares that a woman is sitting watching her kid shuttle around and feeling beside herself all of the time? The external forces both dictated some of Daphne’s interactions with Honey, her co-workers, neighbors, friends, her husband--but it also made her particular mindset more...let’s say digestible for some readers, as well as giving a certain narrative coherence to what eventually became the plot of the book.

 Monika: I really admire when writers have intent for a piece of writing, when they’ve set up a goal, or an atmosphere, or a feeling they want the piece to successfully convey. And then, I admire even more when they’ve set that intent (before the writing!) and feel they have achieved it. Do you feel that your intent, to rightfully convey “the experience of being with a small child for a sustained amount of time” was achieved? If so, when did you start feeling like, “oh, I’m actually pulling this off?” If not, did you veer away from your initial intent writing the book, or do you feel the book doesn’t live up to your lived experience of sustained small child time? I’m really interested in purposeful intent that can be behind writing versus the kind of “it just poured out of me” writing. I think, on the face of it, your novel can seem like the latter! When you write, is it always with a purpose, or does it “pour out” sometimes, too?

 (For the record, I think you DID achieve your intent, and it’s one of the many reasons this book is so wonderful!)

what ends up on the page is always going to be this horrible weak simulacrum of the thing in your mind

 Lydia: Ooh...interesting question.  One thing I’ve learned about writing is that (I think) what ends up on the page is always going to be this horrible weak simulacrum of the thing in your mind--that’s just a reality of the mechanism of writing. But the bad thing that you have is always going to be more useful than the majestic thing you don’t have, is what I have to tell myself.  When I read over parts of the book in a kind of tortured artist frame of mind I think, ugh, no, this is just a very basic piece of sentimental, faux-experimental writing that is not exciting or good or anything important. But! When I am being a practical person who understands that fiction or creative nonfiction can only be a highly stylized gesture toward the thing that’s in your mind, and who is treating this as a way to (hopefully) earn a living and achieve some kind of professional fulfillment, I think I did a reasonable job of what I set out to do.

 To arrive at the correct voice for presenting the child-rearing, I did do a little bit of that “letting it pour out” thing; but once I had poured out enough to understand the voice and the character I had to make some pruning choices for the sanity and enjoyment of the reader.  The book could have been a hundred pages longer of just pure monotonous baby stuff, but that would have been godawful. Part of the challenge of the book was showing just a small taste of the relentlessness of baby-rearing, while giving the reader the illusion that it’s a comprehensive view. Of course, some readers can’t even tolerate the taste, which I understand. But it felt important to me that I capture that very particular kind of parenting boredom, because on the one hand it is some of the most quotidian, unspecial boredom that humans can experience, and on the other hand it’s intimately connected to some of the most important work that humans can do, i.e., raising other humans, and that work is connected to some of the most foundational feelings we have about life and death and community.

 I wrote this book for women especially, because throughout human history women have been experts in their own lives and families in a way that is very rarely recognized in literature or the historical record. And many have done it so much more gracefully and uncomplainingly than Daphne, but I wanted to show, through Daphne, that it is hard work and not necessarily work that just comes naturally and painlessly to women even when they do feel called to it. And I do think I managed to do that.

 Monika: I don’t understand people who can’t “tolerate the taste.” That seems so arrogant, to me.

 This brings me to a question I’ve been wanting to ask you since before I even finished your book. When and how did you decide that Daphne would fall down the stairs? It’s such an important moment, in terms of plot, and so elegant. It’s when all of the pieces start to stitch together, and the urgency of the novel starts to kind of invert itself: we move from feeling anxious about Honey/the absence of her father/Daphne’s state of mind to a sense of suspense for what will actually happen next in consecutive time.

 Lydia: I wanted the reader to spend the novel wavering in their certainty about Daphne’s competence as a mother and Honey’s safety. My idea is that you are reading along mostly thinking she is a frazzled but loving woman doing the best she can, and then veer here and there into moments of greater concern about her abilities to cope. This mirrors her own way of thinking about her parenting, but it’s also something I think about all the time and is--or should be--normal in parenting. I’m generally less frazzled than Daphne (although in her circumstances I am fairly certain I would behave exactly the same way) but I do have these moments when I step outside myself and ask myself whether I am really as competent a mother as I mostly feel that I am (not usually in the realm of physical safety, but more having to do with things like emotional development or, um, flourishing). But ultimately, so many of the things that happen with children or with anything fall slightly outside our ability to control or plan for them--especially with physical injuries. That said, while anyone can trip and fall down the stairs, if you are already feeling a little guilty about your lack of ability to deal, as Daphne is, or if you are already anxious on her behalf, as the reader is, I think you’re more inclined to read that moment as a consequence of her decision-making.

 There are two injuries in the book--this one of Daphne’s, and one when Honey snags her finger on a carpentry nail--and they both have origins in my own life. When I was in grad school my friends took me out for a sort of bachelorette evening to celebrate my impending marriage (this was pre-kids). We went out dancing and when we were waiting to get into a cab to go home I got my heel stuck in a tree grate and fell headlong onto my face. I had of course been drinking--although a sober person’s precipitous heel could also have gotten stuck in the grate!--and my friends brought me home to my empty apartment where I felt anxious about going to sleep, since my husband wasn’t living in the same city at the time. The combination of worry and sheepishness I felt, and continued to feel for the two weeks the shiner lingered, really stuck with me. If I had a baby at home it would have been a million times worse. I thought it worked in the book because like everything in Daphne’s life it’s this unfortunate thing you can’t really pinpoint, with certainty, a source of blame for, and then it also kicks the story into gear by giving her a reason to get together with Alice.

 Re: Honey, when my firstborn was under two, she rummaged in a bag full of recycling while, I admit, I was standing right there, and got her finger stuck in an empty can whose lid was still attached--the little soft part of her finger right between the razor-edge of the lid and the rim of the can. It was ultimately a minor injury, but watching this happen, extricating the finger, and then dealing with the aftermath, was one of the most viscerally excruciating moments I can remember. Again, it was ultimately such a small injury, but the dire visualizations it ushered in about the possibility of larger injuries laid me low for a little while.

 Monika: That is so funny to me because I was never worried about Honey’s safety! I was impressed with Daphne’s strength and her capacity for empathy, and I trusted her. The moment when Honey hurts herself on a nail, that’s happened to everyone (my little brother ran into a shopping cart that had a tiny piece of upturned metal on it, and boom, emergency room for the rest of the day), and even though that scene is really well-done, it didn’t strike me the same way Daphne’s fall did. I had this knot in my stomach at her cascading anxiety in that moment from pain to worry for her daughter because it’s when we as parents run up against obstacles (be they physical or mental) that our kids really suffer. And she was feeling all of that and you expressed it so perfectly. (Sorry for that little aside response to your response…)

 I love hearing how formative that fall was for you and the chain of thought it sent you on- it seems kind of like you were turning it over in your mind for a long time. What kind of lived moments tend to do that for you? Was it the surprise and shock of the physical pain? Was it being embarrassed to fall in public? Was it analyzing the moment for fault? I’m fascinated by the way singular moments or images writers actually experience can translate themselves into a piece of writing, and how writers can spin them out into these kinds of momentous plot devices. Do you notice a pattern in the kinds of autobiographical moments that insert themselves into your writer’s psyche?

 Lydia: I’m surprised now that it made such an impression on me that it worked its way into my book.  Initially it was something I sort of stewed over, but this was back in 2012. I can remember the feeling of shame that I was (at the time) 28 years old and had managed to bang myself up while out carousing. It was so much the kind of thing I would have done in my early twenties/late teens when I was a pretty substantial mess. I had a vision of myself at age 28 as being more together and responsible, which felt contradicted whenever I had to explain to someone what happened to my face. And there was also the sense that I could have hurt myself in a way that wouldn’t just heal and go back to normal. It fit in with a general sense that I needed to take better care of myself (something I still fret over). I didn’t think much about the fall after the eye finally healed, or so I thought. But clearly it was lurking somewhere in my mind!  It came right out when I was writing about Daphne and thinking about the kinds of things that might happen to her. 

 Monika: While I was reading your book, I saw you tweet: “My most fervent wish when I was writing my book was that it would be taken seriously.” It’s such a grave sentiment, that, I think, speaks to a lot about art, motherhood, and being a woman writer, but it’s offset by the fact that your book is being taken very seriously. Can you talk a little about your mindset while you were writing THE GOLDEN STATE, wishing it would be taken seriously, and your mindset now, seeing its profound critical success?

 Lydia: I think this fear of being brushed off extends to all writing by and about women, and not only writing about motherhood. It’s complicated, but I think there’s a self-deprecating, defensive posture that many intelligent women of my generation take on--a sort of embodied Cathy comic, Liz Lemon, “I’m a mess” thing--which is both a rebellion against the expectation that women be polished and self-contained while also somehow being warm and giving as they go about their professional and personal lives, and a hedge against trying and failing to achieve that nearly impossible combination.

 I have definitely embodied this phenomenon, and there’s some of it in the book, and I think I had this fear that the book would be seen as something sheepish and “D’oh, I spilled wine on myself and adulting is hard”, as though the anxieties of the protagonist and some of the moments of levity would make it too easy for readers to shrug off what I hope the book says about the emotional extremes of parenting and the frictions of everyday life for this particular character, or dismiss the aesthetic choices it makes in its attempts to say those things.

 I feel very lucky that the atmospheric misogyny that tended to privilege a particular kind of swing-for-the-fences book by male writers--which can be wonderful, of course--has possibly dissipated to the extent that (some) publishers, reviewers, and readers are genuinely excited about books that may be swinging for the fences in a different way. I also have to recognize the advantages I had as I approached the book-selling process. I had been writing online for a while, so there was some advantage there, but more than that I, and the protagonist, fit almost exactly the demographic profile of many editors who were seeing the book--white, educated women in their 30s with very young children at home. The subject matter of the book is, I think, underrepresented in works of fiction, but I cannot make any claim that its perspective is underrepresented, particularly in publishing houses at the editorial level, and I feel certain that I benefited from that. 

 In the end, though, despite the obvious market...disadvantages of literary fiction compared to other genres, I think there is and has been a deep hunger for literary fiction that features women’s disparate voices and experiences. I’m hopeful that there will be many, many more novels about women, and mothers, of all kinds, published and treated as generously as mine has been in some quarters.



Lydia Kiesling is the author of   The Golden State   and a 2018 National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree. She is the editor of  The Millions  and her writing has appeared at outlets including  The New York Times Magazine ,  The New Yorker  online,  The Guardian , and  Slate .

Lydia Kiesling is the author of The Golden State and a 2018 National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree. She is the editor of The Millions and her writing has appeared at outlets including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker online, The Guardian, and Slate.

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