Lydia Kiesling’s Debut Novel Brings a Millennial Voice to California

In The Golden State, the author has concocted a book that’s thoughtful, funny, psychologically astute, and frequently harrowing.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

As editor of the acclaimed books website The Millions, Lydia Kiesling tracks the impact of literary fiction and nonfiction on the culture at large. For her own debut novel, published this month by MCD, she mixes memories of Modoc County with the responsibilities of first-time motherhood.

The Golden State tackles immigration, identity, bureaucracies, politics, and parenthood, in a tale narrated in a headlong millennial voice beautifully calibrated between joy and desperation. Kiesling has concocted a book that’s thoughtful, funny, psychologically astute, and frequently harrowing, as only round-the-clock, solitary child care can be.

Set in Northern California’s high desert, the novel follows university employee Daphne as she attempts to escape the turbulence of life in San Francisco. Her Turkish husband is stuck in Istanbul without his documentation, their 16-month-old daughter, Honey, is growing up without her dad, and the family coffers are close to empty. Daphne thinks an impromptu stay at the mobile home she inherited is just what she needs, not suspecting that her choices will lead her to the brink of a breakdown.

Kiesling centers the novel’s action in the fictional town of Altavista in the equally imaginary Paiute County, relying on the freedom of fiction to establish her setting. “In retrospect, it seems kind of silly that I didn’t just set it in Modoc County and the town of Alturas, where my mom grew up and my grandparents lived,” she said.

Whatever she calls it, Kiesling captures the beauty and remoteness of the landscape and the kindness and the insularity of some of its inhabitants. Rather than name the setting with factual precision, better to leave some wiggle room while creating verisimilitude.

Kiesling said that if she had chosen a real-life setting, “I would feel a huge responsibility to get [the details] exactly right."

One true-life issue depicted in the novel is the State of Jefferson secession-from-California controversy re-emerging in some rural counties. The Golden State features its own group of secessionists, including Daphne’s neighbor, who make a stand at exactly the wrong moment.

Kiesling started writing her novel while the oldest of her two children was in diapers. Rarely are pre-verbal children spotlighted as Honey is in The Golden State. Her whereabouts are accounted for in every scene, and her behavior is recounted with both tenderness and aggravation.

“The formal challenge I set myself was to describe the experience of being alone with a small child — in a way not excruciating for the reader. It seemed slightly radical to me to have a baby be fully present in a book,” Kiesling said, admitting, “I know some people do find The Golden State claustrophobic.”

Some may find the book top-heavy with infant exploits, but many others will appreciate its timeliness at a point when California and the nation seem fractured.

As editor of The Millions, Kiesling works with a far-flung group of writers from around the state and the country.

“The Millions just lives in space,” she said. “It can be wherever its writers are.”

Kiesling, who lives in San Francisco, said she still feels very new to the Bay Area literary scene. “I’ve lived here for six years, but for most of those years, I was writing freelance at night and weekends. I really wasn’t getting out and meeting people.

“In the last three years, I feel very connected to a lot of writers here,” she said, mentioning a diverse cohort that includes Caille Millner, Vanessa Hua, Ismail Muhammad, Brian Hurley, Rahawa Haile, and many more.

Kiesling said she and her family don’t get to Alturas much anymore. She still subscribes to the weekly Modoc County Record, though, and often checks who is reading and signing at Floating Island Books in Cedarville.

“There is literary culture everywhere, if you know how to look for it,” Kiesling said.

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