Your novel tells a story centered on family love and loyalty. What made you want to write Golden State?
I think every good story has a family drama somewhere inside it. The Oklahoma City bomber, the Unabomber, the American Taliban—and so on—all left families stunned by their arrests. I kept thinking about their siblings, their parents, how their normal, private lives ended in a flash, what it might feel like to have your family dreams shattered so publically. Then I happened to take a tour of the old governor’s mansion in Sacramento, last inhabited by the first Governor Brown. I thought about the optimism of the era, the sense that California was special, how so much of that has been lost. Golden State grew from those seeds.
As the title indicates, California is not only the setting of the novel but plays a major role in the story. Do you think the novel would have the same impact if were set, for example, in New Jersey and titled Garden State?
I was thinking of California both in the sense of an actual place and as a metaphor—as a container, if you will, for the American dream. Just like countries or states, families have myths and ways of viewing themselves that get tested by tragedy. The stronger the idealism, the more investment in a vision, the harder the fall can be. Both California as a state and America as country have a “city on the hill” quality. The Askedahls of my novel were thought to be a kind of golden family. As a top aid to Governor Pat Brown, the father helped create the modern University of California system based on the ideal of best-in-the-nation, tuition-free, higher education. It’s hard for me to imagine the story set anywhere else.
In terms of the plot, what motivated you to tie your characters so closely to the history and politics of California?
In my research of the political-agenda type killer, I saw the same characteristics repeat themselves: rage, alienation, black-and-white thinking and desire for identity. My interest was how this person might develop in an ordinary family. I tied Bobby’s family so closely to the California dream because I wanted it to be clear that Bobby’s violence in some ways was directed at them. Although Bobby is a domestic terrorist with a relatively coherent philosophy, his deepest rage is toward himself and his family. His violence gives him a way to escape facing his mental illness and the loss of the life he might otherwise have led. It provides him an identity, as well as what he needs to make sense of everything: outside enemies.
How did your own experiences of growing up in California shape the book?
When I was young, almost every family I knew had come from somewhere else. The dads had come through California during the war and wanted to stay, or they couldn’t stand the cold of wherever they were from, or they came for good jobs, the clean neighborhoods or the good schools. It was a given of my childhood that California was so much better than that place called Back East. I walked to public schools and went to college at Berkeley, where kids really did arrive on Greyhound buses with practically no money in their pockets to attend one of the best universities in the country. I grew up under the California dream, benefited from it, and I’ve seen it move further and further out of reach for ordinary families like mine.
Your main character Natalie is a wife and mother, but her complicated relationships with her brother and sister drive the story. What in particular intrigues you about sibling relationships as a writer?
The case of the sibling who is in some way lost to his brothers and sisters, the one you can’t mourn because he’s not dead, the one the family never mentions—the one on drugs, or in jail, or being cared for somewhere or who is simply gone. I’m drawn to the stories of the ones left behind, the so-called normal ones who still gather every year at Thanksgiving. Are they shadowed by what seems like a missing part of them? Do they fear that if their brother is a killer they could become one, too? Do they feel that their success is never quite their own, that it has come at the expense of their sibling’s failure? Do they worry about same thing happening to their own children?
Golden State poses some hard questions about the death penalty and how justice should be delivered in circumstances where domestic terrorists or ideologically-motivated killers are also mentally ill. Did writing this book bring you any clarity on the issue?
In the novel, the government prosecutors have a pretty good idea that the brother is severely mentally ill. Although he has offered to plead guilty in exchange for life without parole, the government insists on a trial for essentially political reasons: they don’t want to be accused of being soft on terrorism. It’s an understandable reaction. We expect our government to keep us safe, and what’s happening in the world is terrifying. We can’t assume that everyone who commits mass murder is crazy, but there are some who are. I don’t think we know how to deal with the insane terrorist any more than we know what to do with the crazy guy on the street or in our family.
Natalie is haunted by the question of why this happened in her family, whether they were in some way responsible for the brother’s actions, or could it have happened to any family. As the author, what’s your take on Natalie’s dilemma?
I think it can happen in any family. It’s one of the reasons these stories fascinate us when they become news—and one of the reasons we can be so judgmental about the people involved. We’re afraid it could happen to us. We tell ourselves the problem is particular to someone else so we can sleep at night. In terms of Natalie in the novel, after a lifetime of not wanting to see beyond the party line, she is compelled to face what she never wanted to look at. When she does, she has no choice other than to act and take the consequences.
Do you see parts of yourself in Natalie?
Like Natalie, I’m a mother, wife, sister and daughter. Like Natalie, I feel the competing demands of being a part of two families, even if it’s more in the mundane realm—like whose house to go to on Thanksgiving.
What would you like readers to take away from Golden State?
Of course, I’d like to leave them with something to think about in terms of their own lives. But most of all, I hope readers close the book feeling their time with it was well spent.
What are you working on now?
A novel about a woman who was caught up in a sensational news story when she was a child and the impact it has on her adult life. The novel takes places in Los Angeles during three decades, the fifties, the seventies and the present, and the newspaper business is part of the story.
In the vein of Defending Jacob or We Need to Talk About Kevin, a compelling literary drama about finding evil close to home and how far a woman will go to protect her family.
All her life, Natalie Askedahl has been the good girl, an obedient team player. Growing up as the youngest child in one of California’s most prominent political families, she worshipped her big brother, Bobby, a sensitive math prodigy who served as her protector and confidante. But after Bobby left home at sixteen on a Harvard scholarship, something changed between them as Bobby retreated deeper into his own head. Now that Natalie is a happily married, with a lawyer husband, two young daughters, and a house in the Berkeley Hills, her only real regret is losing Bobby.
Then, a bomb explodes in the middle of her ideal-seeming life. Her oldest daughter is on the Stanford campus when one person is killed and another maimed. Worse, other attacks follow across California. Frightened for her family, Natalie grows obsessed with the case of the so-called Cal Bomber, until she makes an unthinkable discovery: the bomber’s infamous manifesto reads alarmingly like the last letter she has from Bobby, whom she has seen only once in fifteen years.
Unable to face the possibility that her sweet brother could be a monster and a murderer, is confronted with a terrible choice, about who to sacrifice and who to protect. The decision she makes will send her down a rabbit hole of confusion, lies, and betrayals that threaten to destroy her relationships with everyone she holds dear. As her life splits irrevocably into before and after, what she begins to learn is that some of the most dangerous things in the world are the stories we tell ourselves.
Stephanie Kegan was born in North Dakota and raised in the much warmer Southern California. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in history, she worked at mostly numbing jobs until she could support herself as a writer. Her new novel Golden State—coming from Simon & Schuster in 2015—explores how fragile the foundation of an ordinary life can be. She is the author of a previous novel, The Baby, many magazine articles and series of guidebooks published by Chronicle Books. Stephanie lives in Los Angeles with her family.