Transcript - Episode 86: Lydia Kiesling
Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 86. Today’s guest is Lydia Kiesling.
Hey, everyone, welcome to the show. Today I’m talking with writer Lydia Kiesling. Lydia Kiesling is the author of The Golden State and a 2018 National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree. She is a contributing editor at The Millions and her writing has appeared at outlets including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker online, The Guardian, and Slate.
So, Lydia’s debut novel The Golden State was published in September of 2018 and I read it earlier this year. It’s the story of Daphne, a young mother who is having to raise her toddler daughter, Honey, on her own, not because she’s single but because they’ve been separated from her Turkish husband due to a processing error with the immigration offices. At the beginning of the book, Daphne suddenly leaves her job and life in San Francisco, takes Honey out of day care, and goes on this road trip back to her mother’s home town, a fictional town called Altavista, California, in the far northeastern part of the state.
Now, like a lot of people I was immediately struck by the sort of stream-of-consciousness portrayal of the thoughts of a young parent with a young child. You get this really close view into exactly what Daphne is going through moment-to-moment throughout the day with her daughter, and it just felt so true to what I remember of that time in my own kids’ lives, in a way that I’ve never really seen done before. But the book also talks about place and memory and how those things interact with each other, looking at this part of my home state that tends to be pretty overlooked, both in literature and in real life. It looked at what it means to be from a place, at different ways a person can belong or be excluded. I really just loved this book.
In our conversation, Lydia and I talked about The Golden State; we also talked a bunch about her nonfiction, her essay writing, which is also something that I enjoy. I put links in the show notes to several of the essays that we discussed and I do highly recommend checking those out, and if you have time it’s even worth going and checking out her other essays, too. She’s got a whole bunch of them listed on the “Other Writing” page of her website, and I’ve put a link to that in the show notes as well.
Now, if you’re listening to this on the day it’s released, this coming weekend there’s a chance to see Lydia at the LA Times Festival of Books. On Sunday, April 14th, 2019, at 12:30 PM, Lydia will be on a panel called “Versions of California” talking with four other writers about their various fictional Californias and the characters that inhabit those settings. Tickets are required but are free with a small service fee, so do check that out, I’ve put a link in the show notes.
This week, subscribers to the KTCO Patreon campaign will be getting a new bonus reading from Lydia Kiesling, who is reading an excerpt from The Golden State, just happened that she picked one of my favorite passages from the book. That joins our growing archive of readings by writers including Shivanee Ramlochan, Nicole Chung, Franny Choi, Rachel Lyon, Ada Limón, and more. If you’ve been listening to the show for a while and you like what you’re hearing, if getting to hear these conversations has meant something to you, please do consider making a pledge by going to patreon.com/sakeriver. Your donations are the only source of revenue for the show, the only thing paying for the costs of hosting and producing this show, and a donation in any amount gets you access to each episode a day early plus access to the full archive of bonus readings. Once again that’s patreon.com/sakeriver, and there’s a link in the show notes for that.
OK, so let’s get started, shall we? As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenFiction on Twitter for your comments and questions. And now here’s my conversation with Lydia Kiesling.
Mike Sakasegawa: Okay. So how are you today?
Lydia Kiesling: I am well, thanks. How are you?
MS: I'm good. I'm... I'm a little tired, but that's about normal for when you've got kids, right?
MS: So I—first off, I just wanted to say I really enjoyed the hell out of your book and there were a lot of things I enjoyed about it, but since, you know, I mentioned the parenting thing, like that's certainly an aspect that I really appreciated how that experience is depicted in it?
MS: But actually sort of also on that topic, the first thing of yours—something I kind of like to do oftentimes is just sort of revisit what my first experience with my guest's work is. And the first thing of yours that I ever read was actually a piece that you wrote for The Cut last year, and it was called "Becoming a Woman Who Yells at Her Children." That one?
LK: [laughs] Yes.
MS: Which I... Like, prepping for this, I went back and I went and read a whole bunch of your other essays for The Cut and you've written a lot about pregnancy and parenthood. And, uh, the most recent one, "What I Want to Hand Down to My Daughters, and What I Don't," there's a way that you write about this whole experience that feels very much of a piece with the novel but also, um, different, and I kind of wanted to talk a little bit about how these two forms of writing fulfill different things or the same things for you maybe?
LK: That's a great question and I appreciate you doing the deep dive that... So it's always really nice when people read things that you write.
LK: So yeah, I mean I think clearly I... Writing about parenting and parenthood is obviously something that is compelling to me. I just keep finding myself doing it. And not only because The Cut has a wonderful parenting editor named Jen Gann, and she's always kind of interested in reading what I have to say about parenting. So I'm very fortunate in that regard. But it's funny, I guess... Sort of the main thing that I wanted to do when I sat down to write the novel is to put something on a page that I felt like I hadn't really seen before. And when I'm writing nonfiction things, I'm clearly like kind of working things out that I'm thinking about. And so the novel in some ways is doing the same thing, but there was more of a... There's kind of like a formal, kind of aesthetic consideration there that I don't feel the same way with nonfiction. Nonfiction feels more or less straightforward to me. So it's more like the content, the themes for something like an essay. Whereas, for a novel, the style also matters. And of course there are nonfiction writers who have, you know, really particular, wonderful style. So it's not like... You know, it's not like that isn't at play in nonfiction, but just for myself, in my writing, they gave me different sort of vehicles to talk about parenting, let's say.
MS: Hmm. I mean it's interesting because I feel like, reading your essays, that there is a very distinctive voice, I feel like, in your nonfiction writing.
MS: And in particular—like one of the ones that I was thinking about a lot was the one that you wrote for The Cut last year where you're writing about what being pregnant feels like. Which, that piece... I mean it's pretty short right?
LK: It's so short. [laughs]
MS: [laughs] But I feel like there's a lot in it and it also... Like it's really funny, it's really hilarious. Like I found myself laughing out loud when I was reading it, but also there's a sort of like lyricism to the way that you write these descriptions and like to me it wasn't just that they were funny—although they were funny—but also they were very beautiful and there was a way that... Like the kinds of metaphors or similes or descriptions that you were using, I was like, "Wow, that's like a really perfect way to describe that." And it seemed also like that style in that essay and in several of your essays wasn't terribly dissimilar from things that you were doing in the book.
LK: No, you're definitely right. That's... I mean I think there's a sensibility that I have in my sort of general writing voice and a sensibility that I have generally that is shared by Daphne, the protagonist of the book, who also narrates the book. So, it's very—I mean, and it's funny how much, especially people I know well, so, you know, friends I've had for a long time who are not writers and who read the book and they're like, "I love the part when you are doing this." [laughs]
LK: And they will say—a lot of people I know wrote and said, "It's like you were just there telling me a story." And... I mean I think I'm of two minds about that. On the one hand, you know, I've always sort of said to myself and to other people that Daphne is not me. She's kind of a version—she's how I imagined myself in sort of a different set of circumstances, but because the circumstances are fundamentally different, we can never be the same person. So, you know, with certain conditions people just are different. But, you know, that's a bit of a cop out because obviously, you know, we share kind of a way of looking at the world and a certain tendency toward like apocalyptic thinking.
LK: And... I mean, she is very close to me. So, you know, when my friends say that, I... I mean, it makes me smile, but I'm also like, "That's shitty." [laughs]
LK: "My imagination just isn't good enough." And I'm actually—I mean I think about this a lot now because I'm trying to write another book that is very, very different. And I... I mean, I like tweeted this facetiously, but it's like "Who is the third person?" Because it's really... Yeah, just thinking about voice and register apart from a first-person narrative, like there's still a person there, and a sensibility, but how to extricate some of the kind of more patented like "me" voice moves, how to remove that from writing. And sometimes I'm like, "Well, why should I try and do that? If this is the way that I sound across different forms of writing, then that's the way I sound and I should just kind of do it." But I want to continue to do that kind of writing. But I also want to like get better and become more adept in other sort of registers and styles. But it's definitely a process. [laughs]
MS: Yeah. I mean, I think it's interesting, you know, I mean, because I know you've talked about in other interviews and writing you've done about the book that there are aspects of the book that are sort of drawn from your life experience. But at the same time, like... I mean this is something that Alexander Chee, for example, has written extensively about. You know, he has a whole book that's called How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.
MS: Which I love, it's fantastic.
LK: He's wonderful.
MS: He is, and... But this sort of way that people kind of... And it's not just the people who know you, right, but it often is especially them, but how oftentimes there is this real just unwillingness to engage with a piece of art on its own terms. You know? I find that that could be a little frustrating. I mean for me, my own work is very explicitly drawn from my life, but photographs are different from literature in that way. But even so like I feel like I kind of find it a little... Not tedious, exactly, but like sometimes people will take my photographs as a way to like try to psychoanalyze me—
LK: [laughs] Oh god.
MS: —when that's like not really what I'm going for, you know?
LK: Yeah. Well, and it also... I hesitate to use the word "disrespect" because I... There are occasions when you can accept it very kind of lightheartedly and it feels fine, and occasions when it annoys you more, but it is—it kind of erases the choices that artists, whether they're photographers or writers or whatever they're doing, you know, there are a lot of very kind of intentional things that we're doing and choices that are being made. And so, yes, you know, even if there is a level of autobiography, there are also some very kind of pointed decisions that have been made to pick and choose certain parts of, you know, of your life and what to use and what not, and what circumstances to change. And so, yeah, it's sort of... It's just like, "Okay."
LK: It makes it kind of seem as though... I think it's sort of on the kind of same continuum as when you meet people, there's kind of a thing where people will say, "Oh, a writer. I always wanted to, you know, write my memoirs and just write." And it's like, well, first of all, it's really hard to write about yourself, too. It's not like you just sit down and say, "I'm going to put it all out there" and it's something, a product that anybody wants to read. Yeah, it's, kind of like a flattening of all of the work, I guess, that goes into writing anything.
MS: Yeah. So one of the things that, sort of also to go back to the first essay, but then connect it, there's a line that you put in that "Becoming a Woman Who Yells At Her Children" essay that I thought was really interesting where you were talking about Frank O'Hara. You said, "Literature is full of loners and assholes whose skills allows them, to paraphrase Frank O'Hara, to make the catastrophe of their personalities seem beautiful," which I loved and I think is very true. And I was—but when I was reading that, when I went back and read it after I'd read your book, I was kind of wondering like... [laughs] If that's something that you were kind of applying your own book as well? I don't know.
LK: [laughs] Yes, absolutely. First I want to pause and say that the—I have to do the, you know, my citation here, but the "becoming a woman who yells," that's from a line from a Lauren Groff story.
MS: Right. And that's in the essay.
LK: Yes, it's in the essay, but you know, for any, for all the listeners out there who may not have read the essay, it sort of takes this line that I found just so kind of evocative from one of her stories and then goes from there as someone who kind of identifies with this fictional creation of Lauren Groff's. But, yes. I mean, I... One thing when I was writing Daphne and sort of coming up with her voice, which is like a very heightened kind of version of my own voice... I think that she is kind of a pain in the ass—
LK: —but I also, I want... To me the book would be completely miserable and completely unsuccessful if she was not meant to be a sympathetic character. I mean a character that you can just say, "Wow, that it must be..." Whether or not her circumstances are actually difficult. And some—you know, you shouldn't read GoodReads reviews, but I do—
LK: —and someone yesterday was like, "Well, you know, she has like a good job and she like inherited this property. So it's not—you know, she doesn't have real problems." Which, that is fine. But you should still—I think the readers should take away that it is tough to be in her head, and her circumstances. And I note that for people for whom the book is not successful at all—and you know, there are obviously readers who feel like that—it's because they just... She's not... They just don't like her. And the book, like there's not enough in the book I think to carry it for a reader for 292 pages if you just find her really kind of loathsome. The other details—I think that's just asking too much of the reader because you're already asking the reader to bear with the narrative for a lot of like just kid meltdowns, and like kids falling down, and string cheese, and just a lot of repetitive actions. And so to have those, you know, and then on top of that have the person who's narrating them just be not like very compelling to you that that would be a lot. So yes, I was writing to make Daphne feel not necessarily lovable, but, you know, worthy of sympathy I guess.
MS: Well, I mean I do... I feel like that there is a sort of fundamental tenderness towards that character. Like I feel like, you know, I don't feel like you are ever really pulling any punches here. Like she seems to be fairly self-aware of, you know, how things are hard for her, but you know, like she's aware of the fact that "Well, I have a good job and blah, blah, blah," that kind of thing. But, I don't know, like there's something about that comment about like whether or not the character is likable?
MS: That's a very different question than whether or not the character is compelling, you know?
LK: Yeah, that's true. I should not conflate "compelling" and "likable." Yeah, it's funny that I have the instinct to do that, but... I mean I just, if someone is really... I was going to say, you know, when I think of like the villains, like, famously, villainous characters are always sort of more interesting. People like them. And that's like why Paradise Lost is kind of... You know, the devil's like better [laughs] to read about, I guess. So there's that. But I really... I guess I just think a lot about—this is kind of a non sequitur, but I was on the bus the other day and there was a little kid who was with, maybe a grandpa, I'm not sure who, but he was just having like an absolute meltdown and just having the worst time, and any parent has been there. Anyone who's looked after a child has been there. And it was just, it was like, "But for the grace of God it was not my"—I was bringing my daughter home from preschool and it just as easily could have been her doing that. And it was a really crowded bus and there were a couple of people who were also men. And one of them was like, said to me as though I would relate to him and he said something about how the kid was spoiled.
LK: And I was so furious and I was like—I mean, I have no idea whether the person who said this to me, whether he had children or not, he wasn't very old. But I was just like, "Well, that's how children behave and are, and every child does that sometimes." But it really—and I had never, you know, I'm just so much more indignant about remarks like that because I have been there and it just, it's hard to deal with children even if you have very like rigid parenting standards for yourself. So I, yeah, I think that's part of it, too, is like when I was writing the characters just to convey that it is very difficult, whoever you are, to have the care of a small person, have that be your sole responsibility.
MS: Yeah. I mean, and I think that... You know, to me one of the things about that I really appreciate about this book for one, like you say, I don't think I've really ever read anything, any sort of fiction that has really captured this experience in quite the same way, in a way that felt quite as authentic and immediate and sort of urgent to me. But you know, I think that to say that the character doesn't have real problems for one is just kind of insensitive, but—
LK: Yeah. I mean, [laughs] I disagree with that, but—
MS: Yeah. But I mean, I think to me it's also kind of missing the point, which is... Like, to me anyway, I've always found it very gratifying to know that other parents also have a hard time and that it's not... You know, that it is hard for just about everybody. I think that there's a sort of service to that, you know, because... I don't know, like when my first was born, like he didn't sleep more than 45 minutes at a time for the first six months of his life.
LK: [laughs] Oh god. I'm sorry.
MS: [laughs] And, you know, my wife and I were like just about at the end of our rope and you know, we had... It's like one of those things where you don't... It's not that nobody tells you it's going to be hard, because everybody tells you it's going to be hard, but it's like you don't really realize exactly what that means until you're in it. And I feel like there's a way that making... Like putting that experience so nakedly into a book like this is, you know, I think that that actually it makes—well, it certainly me feel better anyway, you know?
LK: Yeah. I mean, one thing that's so funny to me about how—I mean, people will say, you know, if you work in some kind of communal setting with other people and you're expecting a baby, whether you were going to have the baby or the baby's coming to you somehow or, you know, your partner is giving birth to a baby, a baby's arriving from somewhere, it's like, "Oh, well, say goodbye to sleep." You know, there's all this, there's these kinds of scripts, social scripts that we have to acknowledge that it's tough to have a newborn, but the actual... Nobody—I mean, we don't even have like parental leave [laughs] let alone, you know, if new parents who have gone back to work and you know, show up and are like, "Oh, my child isn't—I haven't slept more than 45 minutes at a time in X months because of my child." Like, that's not something that, you know, your boss wants to hear about necessarily. I mean, if they do it's because you happen to have like a very understanding and kind boss, but it's not—there's no, like—that labor and that experience is all meant to be very much in the background. It's not... You know, someone who kind of made everyone in there—I'm thinking of the workplace, especially—just kind of narrated the experience of their parenthood at length to their coworkers that people would be like, "Shut up." Like that's... "Yeah. Like you had kids, like congratulations—"
LK: "We all suffer." But it's just, it's funny how it's certainly not like a universal experience because not everyone has children, but it is a very, very common experience. And one that, as a sort of society, we try and portray—you know, there's like the nuclear family is meant to be like very celebrated, but the things that actually like happen in it are... Yeah, they're always meant to be just kind of like they happen at night. And only the people who are suffering and not sleeping hear about them or, yes, you know, kids melting down on the bus that's like everyone's like, "I don't want to see this. That needs to happen somewhere else."
MS: Yeah. So there's this thing that you were talking about in the interview you did for Electric Literature that seems like this part of the—what you were just saying kind of reminded me of it, where you said that when you talk to women and men who have children, one thing that strikes you is "the specificity of knowledge you have about your children and how to make the day work. It's this wealth of knowledge, but it'll just go away. It's this expertise that parents have in that moment of parenthood and then it goes away." And so I think that there is something about this book, about this sort of immediateness of it, that there's something to me about—and maybe this is just because this is what my own work is often very concerned with—but the emotions that are portrayed in the sort of parenting parts of the book are so heightened and they're very authentic to that heightened feeling that you have when you're in the middle of it. But I feel like there's a way in which... That it really highlights the sort of ephemerality of the moment as well. Which I thought was kind of interesting, too, especially because for me it's, you know, my kids are... My youngest now is four and the oldest is 10. So like having a 16-month-old is in our past now and it's... It is really interesting how quickly those feelings become no longer immediate, you know?
LK: Mm-hm. Yeah, I'm thinking about that a lot right now because I—so, my older daughter is four and then my younger one is 16 months, as of a few days ago. And it's so funny to me to compare to, you know, compare how I felt having the first 16-month-old I ever had, and then having this new one and I find myself—[laughs] my poor second child. I keep kind of gazing at her and trying to—I mean I have many wonderful and heightened feelings surrounding her, but they're almost uniformly... They're much more positive generally and much more... Like less kind of stormy. Basically, when I had my older daughter—and it's funny because I actually thought she was an easy baby, I had good hormones, I found the experience like mostly extremely positive—but clearly it did something to me because I felt like certainly this book would—I hope I would have written another, a different book, but I'd never would have written this particular book without her arrival. And I think one of the things that surprised me so much about it is those kinds of heightened feelings and the just dramatic swings that you can have a in your mood within moments when you're with children. And then now I have the second one who's exactly the same age as Honey is meant to be in the book. And she's just very different. She just does different things than my older daughter did. Because my older daughter is, you know, my model for writing about a, you know, toddler. And then also just my feelings are so much less fraught, I guess. So when I'm feeling those just wonderful feelings of how you just love your kid so much or you're just just happy to be near them, I have those in a much less... I feel like with my older daughter, when I had those feelings, I would also just be like, "And you're going to die." [laughs]
LK: Or, you know, "I love you so much and someone else's baby is dying right now." And it's not, you know, it sounds like flippant, but that's how... I don't know, I felt very... Just kind of a wound in some ways and just how I would think about things and then, yeah, I feel like now I'm just like, "I've got this baby and she's really cute and I'm lucky, knock wood." And to have her and I can just sort of enjoy her more. But yeah, there's no book there. [laughs]
LK: A book inspired by my second child would be just, yeah... And it's weird. It's like trying to remember, you know, if you have like done drugs and trying to remember what that was like when you're not in it, it's just... You can't. So I'm—I mean the book already feels very kind of distant to me in sort of interesting and strange ways, but I'm glad that I, if I ever want to sit down and actually read it, which it's so hard to imagine doing at this point [laughs], but I at least will know that if I did, I did put some of those feelings down somewhere, even if I don't have them really anymore.
MS: Yeah. I mean, I think there's a way in which, you know, parenting, especially with your first kid, it makes it really hard to be in the present because everything is either... You know, I became very obsessed with both the past and the future. And you know, in talking about how like being able to remember things—I don't know if this is an awkward segue or not [laughs] but I feel like there's a lot in the book that is very concerned with memory and the past. And so like part of that is how the experience of parenthood is always immediately going into the past. And you know, as every experience happens, it's already behind you. But I feel like so much in the book is in some way related to people either being stuck in the past, reckoning with the past, being unable to reckon with the past. And it plays out in so many different ways, whether it's... Even something like the ways that like—so you have this, the whole thing with the State of Jefferson people and they seem to be very enamored with an imagined past. There's the town itself which is very old and run down and sort of focused on how things used to be, and how Daphne herself thinks about her youth in that town and her youth abroad and meeting her husband and all of these things, like to me in like a lot of ways the book is maybe about memory, but I don't know if that feels right to you.
LK: Uh, no, I think that's a very good way of looking at it. And I mean the book was written out of an interest in memory and kind of perception, in a few different ways. And I think, yeah, they all kind of play out in the book. So the first, and you know, relating to what we were talking about, I know so many people who have babies who say that they find themselves like looking at pictures of the baby on their phone, like while the baby is there next to them.
LK: So just going back and especially first babies, like looking at whatever pictures you have of the very newborn or the hospital and kind of going back in time. And being very, just kind of obsessed with holding onto those things and revisiting those things. And I definitely did that. And then, yeah, so hearing from other, particularly new moms that they had also done that was really interesting to me. So there's the kind of kid angle, and then also... So, place. I'm very interested and kind of obsessed with places especially, and I really have like imprinted on places or allowed places to imprint on me. I'm not sure which direction that goes, but I guess the latter. But because I moved around a lot when I was a small child through adulthood. So the longest, I'm actually right now living in the longest span I've ever spent in one place. And so this is, we're entering the seventh year. And within those seven years we're now in our third apartment, so we are still moving around. But just in one, we've been in one neighborhood and that's the longest I've ever spent anywhere. So I have all these kinds of places that I keep returning to and thinking about, and that just evoke various kind of specific feelings for me. And one of the places, was my mom's hometown because even while we moved around a lot, that was this constant and we would go and visit—and my grandparents' house there was a constant. And so it was just a place that meant a lot to me. And then in the years since my grandparents died, we would go back more and more—or less frequently. And I would always go with my mom and, you know, there's the sadness of not having the people there anymore who made a place important for you. But then in the case of this particular town—and the town in the book is based on a town called Alturas, in northeastern California—the town just has changed. And there are fewer people living there. And I mean, there's still lots of people living there and many things happening. So I don't want to imply that, you know, people aren't like having wonderful lives there. But as far as it related to my mom's experience of the town and my own, it had changed and yeah, I don't know. I just couldn't, I kept thinking about it and kept feeling sort of lonesome for it, missing it. But there's no way. You can't go back to a place because it's not... The people aren't there and you're not the same person. So that was another thing that I was really thinking about. And then, yeah, it does align very much with the rhetoric for—I mean, and that's like our political rhetoric as a whole, horrible like Make America Great Again, that's part of the same kind of nostalgic view. And I think there are real and legitimate economic, especially, considerations in some of those nostalgic views. So, you know, I think it's okay to say like, yes, a place is different and people are not enjoying the same standard of life that they once did in the area of northeastern California where the book takes place. Like the hospital recently went bankrupt. It was a huge, huge, boondoggle that is going to the cost—it's going to be transferred basically to the residents. And it's the poorest county in California or the second poorest county in California. And so, you know, there are real things that are happening that are crappy. But yes, it's very easy to then become like romantic about the past. And it's funny because it's easy for me to say that other people are doing that, but it's like, okay, so what sort of nostalgic feelings do I have that are more complicated if I really like dug into them?
LK: Sorry, that was a very long-winded answer. [laughs]
MS: No, no, it's perfect. You know, one of the things I was thinking about with it too was like, because of this whole sort of imaginary—or you know, not to say "imaginary" because obviously like as you're saying that residents of that area and many rural areas have real problems facing them that they, you know, historically hadn't been facing. And, you know, whatever the reasons that things used to be better, obviously like—and you've talked about this before, the ways that, you know, sort of settler-colonial paradigms have enabled a better standard of life for people by oppressing other people. That's certainly a thing, but whatever the reasons are, like, people are facing real problems now. And I think it's very interesting, too, how that area of California is one that I think even Californians often forget exists. But you know, one of the things that stuck with me the most about that was how the sort of main sort of interface that Daphne has with that sort of right-wing group there is her neighbor, who is actually from San Bernardino. [laughs]
LK: [laughs] Yes. Yeah. I don't mean to slander the town of San Bernardino. Well I think, I mean, especially around like... Let's put it this way, I hear a lot about people who have conservative politics moving to places where they feel their politics will be more mainstream, I guess. But I don't really, I mean I don't hear so much about... Yeah, I don't know. Maybe the opposite phenomenon is also true, but in California there are a lot of, depending on what... If you look at certain message boards or like newsletters you can read about people like moving to Texas. That's a place where, you know, people either leave California because they can't afford it anymore or because they are mad about the politics. I'm sure there are also like more complicated factors, but conservative Californians will decide that the system of taxation here is too oppressive or burdensome. And so they've decided to go somewhere better. Or that environmental regulations are stymieing some effort that they would like to make. And so they can go somewhere else where they have a reduced burden. I don't know, in fact how many people really do that but you can definitely find people online sort of saying like, "That's why we left California, because we just couldn't take it anymore." Um, wow. I've completely lost my train of thought...
MS: No, but I think it's really... Yeah, I think it's really one of the things that definitely comes up a lot in... You know, the characters in your book do talk about this, and in ways that very much mirror the way that people from that part of the state actually talk, that there's this sort of sense that nobody else in the state really gives a shit about them or even knows that they're there. And the funny thing is that like on the one hand, that kind of rhetoric is a very common sort of rural dialogue that's happening right now. But it's actually kind of true too. Because like, like just for example, I grew up outside of Carmel, right?
LK: Oh, okay.
MS: So now I live in San Diego and everybody here would call where I grew up Northern California. But when I was growing up, Northern California was like "up there."
MS: You know, it would be like, I would think of like Humboldt county as being Northern California. And you know, this is even further north than that. And there really is a way that like even people who are from fairly far north in the state, like where you're from, you live in the Bay Area now. People do forget that the... Like, policy decisions in California aren't really taking that part of the state into consideration. So there's like a resentment that people have there that might be... Like how it gets expressed might not be great, but it's not driven by nothing.
LK: Yeah. I mean, I'm not like a public policy person, so I cannot say, you know, with any certainty how things are actually like applied. But there's not like no point to be made when I—so I'm on like a mailing list for State of Jefferson, just like I signed up for an email. So I get the newsletter when it comes out just because I'm interested in what they're saying. And I signed up when I was writing the book. And you know, the gas tax was like a big thing. And I am very pro gas tax because I don't have a car. So it's not really my problem. You know, on the one hand, I feel very strongly that like the fossil fuel economy is like, we're going to all die if we don't just change that. So there's that. But on it's more convenient for me to have that mindset because I don't... You know, the price of gas does not immediately affect me in ways that are really obvious to me. So, you know, when I—and then I opened this newsletter and it's like "The gas tax screws rural people," because if you were driving really far distances, or if you have like farm equipment that needs fuel. And so then you're like, oh, you know, that's a real... That's a concern. One thing that I thought was funny after I wrote my book is that someone who I know who is from California—she didn't say it to me, but she said it to a third party who reported to me. She was like, "Isn't it funny how Lydia made up that stuff about the state secessionists."
LK: And, the third party, who is not from the state of California or from America even, was like, "Oh no, I'm pretty sure that that's real." And the other person was like, "No. That's just sort of an amalgam of other things in politics." And she's like, "No, that's definitely a real thing." [laughs] So yeah, there's—like, the state is huge. And certainly parts of it kind of take more space, I guess, in the public imagination than others.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. Well we need to take a little break and then we can come back and do the second segment.
Mike Sakasegawa: Okay. So, for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
Lydia Kiesling: So I would like to talk about Marshall and Phyllis Hodgson. So the book is dedicated—it's in memory of Phyllis Hodgson and sometimes people ask who that is, so I just thought I'd talk about them and I will start with Marshall Hodgson. So Marshall Hodgson was a historian, and specifically a historian of the Islamic world. What he called the Islamicate. He had... Well, I'll get to that in a second. But so he was at the University of Chicago and he died in 1968. He was a very young man. He was only 46 and he died suddenly. And when he died, he was in the process of completing a massive, massive three-volume thing called The Venture of Islam. And the third volume ended up being completed by colleagues with the assistance of his widow, Phyllis, after his death. So he's not a super... I guess it's one of those things, like many aspects of academia, he's very well known within his particular discipline. And especially at the University of Chicago. But then beyond that, you know, A, he died a long time ago and, B, he wasn't like a public intellectual and that he was not like, you know, writing things for mainstream audiences and things like that. But anyway, so I did a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Chicago, and that is the only reason that I ever heard of him. But I noticed from the very beginning of that two-year program that he was spoken of just so reverently, you know, all the professors would say, "Well, you know, Marshall Hodgson was a professor here and he basically developed the first courses in Middle Eastern studies or Islamic history." All of the terms are very imprecise, which was something that really bothered him. But in America, because, you know, what's called area studies is a thing that, it's a kind of a Cold War-era thing. You know, learning about other regions, cultures, languages, and sort of dividing the world up into different parts. Okay, I'm going to get way off track here. [laughs] In any case, he was just talked about in these like very reverent terms and it really interested me. At one point a photo was shown of a bunch of like white guys in their forties in suits and it was a black-and-white photo and the person who showed the photo was like "One of these is Marshall Hodgson." [laughs] And I was like—it's just an interesting way for people to talk about someone. So then I learned that his archives were at the University of Chicago. So I started going through them and through a combination of just kind of tidbits I collected from professors and other students, and then through reading his archives, I found that he had a really sad personal life. I mean, he already was kind of imbued with this tragic aspect because he had died so young and there was very much a sense of sort of the incompleteness and that he had been this great mind and had all this stuff left that he was going to do and he wasn't able to do it. So he already had, you know, this... His legend was sad in that way. But I learned that he had had three daughters and I sort of had differing accounts, but my understanding was that two of them were twins and they had died of a terrible childhood illness. And people were sort of unclear on all of the details. But I ended up writing my thesis about him, just kind of wanting to describe what his... Basically I was intrigued by the fact that there was so little that seemed confirmed about him, even though it was the very recent past. And, you know, there were people at the university who had met him. There wasn't an official account of what exactly he had done at the university. And he had been an administrator also, and I was curious about that. So that's what I wrote my thesis about. But really what I wanted, I wanted his personal story. There's something a little bit like vampiric about it, I guess. But I wanted to know about his daughters and his wife. And so what I learned is that, yes, he had had three daughters and that they had all died at various points. And I kept asking as I was speaking with people who had known him, I'd say, "Well, you know, what happened to his wife?" And most people were like, "Well, I think she moved away and then she—I guess she died." And that's what I kept hearing, but I wasn't satisfied because I never found a death notice or anything like that for her. And I no longer now remember the various machinations through which I found her. But I talked to someone who talked to someone who gave me the name of an assisted living facility in Wisconsin, in rural Wisconsin. And so I called, or maybe I emailed, and they said that I needed to talk to the people who had her power of attorney. And then I spoke with them and, you know, I just said that I had worked on Marshall Hodgson's archives and was always interested in learning more about Phyllis and, you know, asked if I could talk with them or talk with her.
LK: And they were like, "Okay." [laughs] "You can come." And so I arranged to go to Wisconsin and meet her. And I had no... I was working on my novel at that time. I had written a piece—or I guess I also had had a pitch accepted for the New York Times magazine to write about Marshall Hodgson in a very, very short format. And I had been trying to write about him for years for some kind of more mainstream publication after I wrote my thesis because I had all of this research and I was like, I should do something with it. But it was just—I'm, A, not very good at pitching. And there was just not the quote-unquote "timely peg" that was required. But the New York Times magazine has this wonderful Letter of Recommendation feature and you just recommend something, basically, and describe it and it's very short, but it does not need the timely peg. So I finally was able to convince them that I could do Marshall Hodgson. So I was technically working on that, but I didn't really know... I just wanted to meet Phyllis Hodgson. And so I met her and she was 92. And I learned also from her caretakers who—she did not have living family that was in her life. She had like a cousin or a niece but, you know, they were not close and had never lived near one another. So her community in Wisconsin basically looked after her as she got older. And so I spoke with the couple who just kind of brought her into their family and made her part of their lives, and then looked after her once she couldn't live by herself anymore, and she went to this really, really nice place. And that's where I met her and I met them. And so she talked to me a little bit. She didn't have a super clear memory, but she just said a few things that really, really stuck with me. And I learned that they had had the twin daughters and they had an illness. I think it's—the closest thing is the illness, if you've seen the movie Lorenzo's Oil, this genetic, just always fatal, degenerative diseases. And so the twin girls, they had been diagnosed when they were about two years old, required a huge amount of care, an increasing amount of care that Phyllis basically did on her own. And then with the help of various men who had been previously incarcerated, or had mental health issues and that Marshal Hodgson would invite them to stay at their house. Because apparently he didn't believe that they should pay someone to look after their children. So it had to be more of like a cooperative thing, which to me, I was just like, I cannot believe that. [laughs]
LK: She—you know, he had very stern standards about things, as did she, but what I would have loved to talk with her about is child care stuff, but we weren't able to have that level of conversation. But, so one of the girls died in early childhood. I think she was about seven years old. And then Marshall Hodgson died. And then the second twin died a few years later and the surviving daughter then died when she was 35. So I just like, thinking about that amount of loss was very, just kind of staggering. And, I don't know, the fact that Marshall Hodgson, you know, he's not famous, but he's definitely in the halls of intellectual history, like he has his book and there was just a big conference that someone did about him in Paris with a lot of people. And then she was also there just kind of like more—just surviving him was a big thing of her life and that, I don't know, really struck me. And I just talked about this for a very long time. [laughs]
LK: And then she died about, I think, a year after... Yeah, about a year after I had visited her. And so I went back for her memorial. I love the people so much who kind of formed her community because they were never like "Explain exactly what you're doing." Because I didn't know exactly what I was doing anyway. You know, they just sort of accepted my presence there as someone who, I don't know, just cared about her. And then the, yeah, the most meaningful feedback I got after my book is that they wrote and said that they felt it was true to her spirit, because the character of Alice is modeled after her. That meant a lot to me.
MS: Yeah. You know, one of the things that, you know, hearing you talk about this and hearing about her and your interest in her, you know the writer Rachel Syme?
MS: Yeah. She just recently started a new newsletter, an email newsletter called Adventuress that is... The first one just came out I think like a week or two ago and she's writing about women writers. And I'm not sure if they're all going to be people who were overlooked at the time. The first one was about Joyce Johnson's memoir Minor Characters and how she was sort of... If she was known at all, she was sort of known as having been in the orbit of Jack Kerouac. But how her memoir is this really sort of biting, kind of cutting thing that is just brilliant, and how her story ends up being—especially over the course of her whole lifetime—ends up being much more interesting than Kerouac's was. But that still how she was kind of still overlooked. And since if she's known at all is seen as kind of a minor writer. I just can't really help thinking about how... And this also reminds me of the thing I was talking about with Brandon Taylor once when he was on the show about how, you know, so often he finds that the characters on the margins are the ones that are the most interesting. There is that way that I feel like, you know, so much of these, the truly, whether it's inspiring or just like a good story, are the ones that people aren't necessarily looking at in maybe the way that they deserve. You know what I mean?
LK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, and in this case I can't like fault people who thought of... You know, it's not like she and Marshall Hodgson had the same career and he just got really famous in the career and she didn't. You know, it's not that cut and dried. But, you know, going back to in our first half of the conversation, that sort of invisible labor of caring for children? I thought about that a lot when I was thinking about her. And then also, one thing that she did say when I met her, which I had no idea because there's nothing in his archive that is about this—and, you know, there really wouldn't need to be—but she mentioned that she had wanted to be a writer, and she wrote plays and she also wrote poems. And that—I got... I was just completely overcome when she said that. But, so she said that she always wanted to be a writer. And then that she had babies and they kind of railroaded her life. And that was her expression.
MS: Yeah. And that's in the book too, right?
LK: Yes. And I just... You know, having babies and having them railroad your life is a very common phenomenon. And hers, it was just the most—it was a very dramatic version of that because of the illness of her children. So not only did she have the just general kind of domesticity takes over, and especially at that point in time, you know, that was the woman's job basically to deal with. But then it was this kind of domesticity that also—it was so much more intense than most people's version of it. And so sad. And so, you know, doing the work of child rearing but also basically being a hospice nurse and then a grieving person, that's just so much to think about. And the way that she still spoke about these periods. I mean talk about memory and the past, but by the time I spoke with her, Marshall Hodgson had been dead for half a century and they had only been married for what amounted to, I think it was about 10 years. I used to know all the dates but now are a lot of them are escaping me, but it really wasn't that long. But he's still, you know, that was like the defining... You know, she never met anyone else who she wanted to marry. Not that he was the defining thing about her life, but the way that she still spoke about him so presently. And his photo was still right by her bed in her room in this home. And another thing she spoke about is that she had taught school for, again, what amounted to a very short amount of time. Like she probably did it for two years, I think. She did this and that. And she also had joined the Navy, so she had had a lot of experiences and they just meant so much to her even though they were brief and a long time ago. And I think especially... I mean my grandmother also was a WAVE and she talked about that time always just so fondly, and it had been such a defining moment. And so, yeah, just thinking about the things that really shape your whole life even if they don't happen for very long, I guess.
LK: Yeah. I'm trying to think of what other facts about her. She was just such an interesting person. And then through her, I...
LK: So Marshall Hodgson was a Quaker, that was a very kind of important thing about him. And she—they had both gone to Quaker schools. And while reading about... There was a time when her narrative was going to be more pronounced in the book, and then I changed tack. But I was reading about Quakers because Quakers are just interesting to me. And then I ended up reading this biography, I guess, or sort of a memoir. It's called Held in the Light. And it's by a woman who was the widow of the Quaker Norman Morrison, who self-immolated to protest the Vietnam War in front of McNamara's office. And I remember hearing about that and it was like, wow, that's just... Like, I can't believe that there are people who had that much conviction. And that was very kind of striking to me.
LK: But then I also learned, you know, he didn't tell his wife that he was going to do that and he had their baby with him. I think they had three children and one was a basically a newborn or a few months old, and he brought her to do this—
MS: Oh my god.
LK: —and accounts differ on what actually happened, whether he intended always to have her with him and set her on fire, too. I mean, he ended up sort of tossing her to the side, so she was basically unharmed. So people were kind of unclear on what his plan was, whether he always was planning to have her be spared or whether she was part of the plan. But yeah, even setting aside that completely astonishing thing, you know, he left his wife with their small children to go and do that and that just... Yeah, thinking about the other people who are in stories is always interesting.
LK: And I mean his widow, you know, wrote this book and she had a very magnanimous view toward him because she eventually went to Vietnam and met a lot of people who were very, very, very moved by what he had done. And so she took a view of it that I don't know that I would be able to take it that way. But yeah. This is more tangents, but yeah, because of Phyllis Hodgson I just sort of read about other people, and I still don't know how they all fit together in my mind, but they just are together in this place that's like important, interesting people. Yeah.
MS: Well, so there's one question that I always like to end with—you maybe kind of answered it, but we'll see—and that's just whether there's a piece of art or literature or some form of creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.
LK: Well, I'm nearing the—right before we got on the phone, I was finishing up, I'm still a few pages from the end, but I'm reading a novel that's coming out in, I guess, April and it's called The Parisian and it's by Isabella Hammad and it's just a gorgeous book. I'm really kind of blown away by how good it is. And it's a book that takes place mostly in Palestine, during the period of the British Mandate. And it starts with a man who is sent to go study medicine in France and then returns and supposed to help his father run his business in Nablus—I think that's how you pronounce the town—and gets married and it just becomes this family story. But also it's a work of history, and about what was happening in various Arab independence movements, and the French and British interference, and all of those things matter very much today and have affected the way the whole world works. And so I love it because it's both—it seems like a really deep work of historical fiction, but also just is a wonderful family story about marriage and work and relationships and it's just so good.
MS: All right. Well, thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it.
LK: I have had a wonderful time. Thank you.
Mike Sakasegawa: OK, so if you’re going to be in the Los Angeles area this weekend, do check out Lydia’s panel at the LA Times Festival of Books, that’s Sunday, April 14th, 2019, and there’s a link in the show notes for that.
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