Getting to Know Your Neighbors

Q&A with Lydia Kiesling

Writer Lydia Kiesling moved to Sunnyside in September 2019 from the Bay Area with her husband and two young daughters. Her articles have appeared in The Atlantic, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, The Cut, The New York Times Magazine and many other publications. She’s the author of The Golden State, a 2018 novel about early motherhood, set in a fictional town in northern California with an active secessionist movement. Her new novel, Mobility, debuts on August 1st. 

Mobility begins in 1998 at the American embassy in Azerbaijan. That’s where bored teenager Bunny Glenn endures a summer with her father, who is posted there as a public information officer with the U.S. Foreign Service. Bunny, who reluctantly learns about oil and geopolitics that summer, is modeled after the character of the same name from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, one of Kiesling’s main influences for Mobility. The novel follows Bunny into adulthood; she takes back her full name, Elizabeth, and she ends up in Texas working in the oil and gas industry herself. The book is about one woman’s life and her choices when faced with climate change, her trajectory through the prism of her upbringing, the political currents of the time, her class and even her character. 

Mobility draws on Kiesling’s own experiences as the daughter of a Foreign Service official in the 1990s. No spoilers, but the Sunnyside neighborhood also makes an appearance in the book! 

Where did Bunny emerge from in your imagination? 

Lydia: I think everyone who writes a novel has one central image or idea that they are interested in conveying. Mine started out as thinking about my upbringing, which was in the Foreign Service. Then from there, I just started thinking about the larger systems and currents of that moment and when I was a teenager. As I was researching, it really seemed like oil and gas were the story of the time. It was also this pivotal moment when the Cold War was over and the War on Terror was about to begin. That was also very significant for American ideology and ideas. That really inflected my young adulthood. I wanted to write about that. 

At an early age, Bunny gains this understanding that democracy is actually capitalism. You can see that throughout the book. Was that your understanding as a young person watching the machinations of the Foreign Service?

Lydia: I was completely oblivious. One thing that I find remarkable is that I did have a lot of exposure to complex situations and adult conversations. I waskind of like, ‘I don’t care about any of that stuff.’ I remember it used to m ake my parents crazy because they would be like: ‘This is important, you have to know about these things.’ My dad is no longer in the Foreign Service; he left to protest the Iraq War. He had his own ‘What am I doing?’ moment. When I think back on that time, I’m so grateful for that upbringing and for those experiences. 

It seems to me that you really wanted to write something about climate change, too. So how did you balance that? Not wanting to come off as a polemic, but also giving people a story that is about climate change? 

Lydia: It’s sort of a backdoor entrance to the issue of climate change. What I really wanted to talk about at first was oil, because it is incredibly rich. There is this narrative excitement and glee that feels a little perverse around it. Then I just got completely overwhelmed because it is such a huge story, so I had to scale it back. I was fixated on showing how interconnected and massive the systems around fossil fuels are. That’s why Hurricane Harvey is only told in one sentence in the book, and Bunny is not even there when it happens. It’s something that she knows was awful – it’s just a horrible thing that happens that doesn’t seem to affect your life directly. So that’s how Bunny treats a lot of aspects of climate change.

That’s why I jumped the plot into the future. The book was well underway and then we had the heat dome in Portland, and I was like, ‘Well, here we go.’ The feeling of the heat dome, I definitely pressed into the book toward the end.

What attracted you to Sunnyside?

Lydia: When we knew that we were going to move to Portland, we spent a weekend and looked at a lot of different houses and a lot of different neighborhoods. In Sunnyside, it was pretty clear that a lot of the houses were out of our price range, but there was one house we saw that had been sitting on the market for a really long time and the price kept being reduced, and we couldn’t really understand why. The listing pictures did not do it justice and it needed a fair amount of cosmetic work, which must have turned people off. This was incredibly lucky for us. We are fixing it up slowly. As soon as we saw the neighborhood, we thought this was an ideal place for us to live. When we moved here, we didn’t have a car and we didn’t want to have one. And the fact that you could walk to grocery stores and businesses and preschool…. I still can’t believe that we live here. It feels really special to be able to do that.

Did you start writing Mobility when you moved to Portland?

Lydia: I had written about a quarter to a third before we moved here. It got its second wind after we moved and settled in. In the fall of 2019, I started going to Albina Press on Hawthorne and working on it again and really hit my stride. Then the pandemic happened and I took many long breaks from it. In the high Covid times I didn’t write at all. I have two little kids. So I was dealing with that and I was prioritizing freelance writing projects that were short that I knew I would get paid for. When I’m working on a book and the schools are open and I have childcare, I try to spend two hours before noon. I used to go to coffee shops, but now I go to a workspace and I try to put some time in there. But I know from the process of writing this novel that sometimes you can go six months without working on a project and you just have to come back to it when you can.

Are you a cat or a dog person?

Lydia: I’m the proud owner of two cats: Big Ed and Nadine. They are 14 years old. Big Ed has a lot of health problems. But I love my neighborhood so much because I have several people on my block who now know how to inject a cat with insulin and take care of Big Ed when I go away. I love my supportive cat community.

Hear Kiesling in conversation with fellow Portland writer Omar El Akkad at Powell’s on Burnside on August 1st at 7 p.m.

Erika Bolstad