“The Bay Area was in the midst of an autumn heat wave, hot, dry and unnatural. The air electric against my skin, I had the sense that a single match could ignite us all…”
In Golden State, Natalie Askedahl has a charmed life. A happy marriage. Two sweet daughters. A career she loves. But her perfect life shatters when a bomber targets universities across California, and the bomber’s manifesto reads like the last letter she received from her estranged brother, Bobby. Torn between family loyalty and protecting others, Natalie finds her life spiraling out of control as is accused of orchestrating the violence.
Paste caught up with Golden State author Stephanie Kegan to discuss her inspiration for the book, mental illness and capital punishment.
Paste: What sparked your imagination to write this novel?
Kegan: It was more like several sparks that ignited into one. I’ve always been interested in sibling relationships, especially when brothers and sisters who share the same childhood grow up to be radically different from each other. Over the years, I’ve found myself drawn to media stories about ordinary people who wind up in the news because of a something horrible a family member has done. I couldn’t help imagining what it might be like to be in their shoes. On another track, I was thinking about how hard it is for kids today to pay for college compared to my generation, when Californians supported tuition-free higher education. Somehow those threads worked their way together in an idea for a novel that would touch on the loss of the California dream through the shattered dreams of one California family—a family with a son who does something awful.
Paste: Why did you choose to tell the story from Natalie’s point of view?
Kegan: I was never interested in getting inside the mind of a killer. I wanted to live in his sister’s head. What would it be like to have your privacy destroyed overnight? To have the press camped out on your doorstep? To have strangers in the media analyzing your family’s supposed pathology? What would it be like to face your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors? How would you explain the situation to your children? In terms of my characters, no one else in the novel shares the relationship that Natalie has with her brother, or is as torn as she is between helping her brother and protecting her children. Although I could have written the book from Natalie’s point of view without using the first person, I wanted the immediacy and the honesty of the voice inside her head. I didn’t want to let myself off the hook from having to deal with her anguish and her isolation by placing her at even a slight remove.
Paste: Which scene in Golden State was the most challenging for you to write?
Kegan: By far, the first jailhouse visit between Natalie and her brother, Bobby. Natalie hasn’t seen him in 14 years. They’ve had almost no communication. She longs to have her old brother back, but is terrified of encountering the man he has become. Her husband has told her not to see him, that he’ll only hurt her. She senses her husband is right, but feels she has no choice. Also, Natalie is going into that visit knowing her brother is fully aware that she turned him in.
Then there is Bobby. Why would he even want to see Natalie? What feelings does he have toward her now? The biggest challenge was how to make Bobby seem both perfectly rational and scary crazy at the same time. I don’t want to think about how many drafts that scene took.
Paste: Many of the characters choose to remain ignorant or in denial regarding Bobby’s mental health. What are your thoughts on how mental illness is discussed today?
Kegan: Certainly, we are lot more open about discussing mental illness today than 20 years ago when the novel takes place. But it is one thing to watch Dr. Phil or to read about another celebrity’s battle with a mental disorder, and quite another to recognize mental illness in your own family. We want the people close to us to be all right so badly that it can blind us from seeing they might not be. I don’t think that’s changed in twenty years.
Paste: The death penalty plays a crucial role throughout the novel. Did your views on capital punishment change at all while writing Golden State?
Kegan: They have certainly evolved. In the novel, the government prosecutors have a pretty good idea that Bobby 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
Paste: Can you share any details about what you’re writing now?
Kegan: Sure. It’s a novel about a woman who was caught up in a sensational tabloid 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.